Thursday, August 11, 2005

Circular reasoning on Intelligent Design

Maybe something is eluding me here, but does the ordinarily brilliant Jacob Weisberg miss the boat in this piece about the Intelligent Design debate?

Evolutionary theory may not be incompatible with all forms of religious belief, but it surely does undercut the basic teachings and doctrines of the world's great religions (and most of its not-so-great ones as well). Look at this 1993 NORC survey: In the United States, 63 percent of the public believed in God and 35 percent believed in evolution. In Great Britain, by comparison, 24 percent of people believed in God and 77 percent believed in evolution. You can believe in both—but not many people do.

He goes on to recount how evolution led Darwin to doubt his Christian faith, and cites others thundering about evolution’s incompatibility with church doctrine. He concludes that we ought to stop pretending that evolution is not a threat to believers.

This is OK as far as it goes. Evolution is indeed a threat to what a lot of people believe – otherwise school boards wouldn't be arguing over it. But in trying to rise above it all, Weisberg buys back into the simplistic notion that evolution and religion offer roughly equivalent explanations for our presence here on earth. It’s the same “let’s debate it” position that Bush took - with the addendum that the debate’s already over and evolution has won and we should stop pretending otherwise.

Certainly, a backstory linking human existence to God is central to many people’s religious beliefs, and evolution chafes against this. But is the principal function of religion to offer a factual explanation of how we got here – or to help people understand why we're here and how we ought to lead our lives?

Sometimes religions demand that people believe things that don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. But the fact that religion shouldn’t be taught in science class doesn’t mean religion is invalid, or that science can’t coexist with religion. Science simply doesn’t address the core religious questions, the "why" and the "what" as opposed to the "how." If we could scientifically prove or disprove God's existence it would put an end to these stupid political debates - and to a lot of dorm room bull sessions. But it would have the downside of eliminating the essential mystery of existence. That mystery is still with us, as is the question of how to orient ourselves toward it, something that science can't get into. We need a bright line between the two.

Not to be snarky, but here's a correction to the excerpted paragraph above: Evolution is not doctrinally incompatible with Buddhism, which is non-theistic and doesn't address the origins of humanity in its canonical texts.