Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Intelligent Design, Religion, etc.

This is long and took several days for me to put together, so I apologize for the lack of posting over the last week. However, I think this is an important issue, and it deserves clear thinking, not an emotional reaction. I'm not sure how clear this ended up being, but I've already got about 20 hours into this post. And knowing me, I'll keep tweaking it forever and never get it published, so I'm just tossing this up as is. Feel free to shred it.

Fred Reed has started another minor tempest with his latest column about intolerance toward Christianity. It rambles a bit (that's not a criticism; I enjoy Fred's ability to write in a stream-of-consciousness style, yet somehow hammer it all into something coherent by the end), but as I understand, Fred's evidence consists of two primary data points: the de-Christianization of Christmas, and the origins debate. The column generated several e-mails to, and responses from, Jerry Pournelle here, here, and here.

Taking Fred's second point first, I'll repeat something that I have posted before. There is a political movement called Intelligent Design. It does no scientific work, publishes nothing in peer-reviewed journals, and in fact, prides itself on having such a flexible self-definition that it can simultaneously accommodate young-earth creationists and full-blown evolutionists-but-God-did-some-tweaking like Michael Behe. It is advocated by the Discovery Institute, among others, and consists of a stable of writers churning out popularizations of the Intelligent Design "theory," a $7 million-a-year budget spent entirely on public relations and political lobbying, and pitchmen working the religiously-inclined on local school boards and state education boards. This is a very different animal than the idea that there is a supernatural being, God if you will, "out there" giving moral guidance and/or purpose to human lives. This form of intelligent design is held by a sizable percentage of scientists, and is taught by all the mainline Protestant denominations, and the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, over 10,000 clergy have signed a statement to that effect. No one in the scientific world that I know of has any problem with this stance, including the agnostics and atheists. They may not understand that way of thinking, and may even express some level of scorn for it. But they really don't care about it enough to expend any finances or even mental effort fighting against it. What they do spend considerable time and resources fighting is the political machinations of the Intelligent Design political movement. This movement is following a written, multi-year political strategy to undermine biology instruction in our primary and secondary public schools. Biology is singled out in spite of the fact that physics, astronomy, geology, or any other branch of science does as much, if not more, to undermine a literal reading of Genesis than anything Charles Darwin wrote. The "thin edge of the wedge" takes different forms: stickers in text books, model lesson plans to "teach the controversy" in biology or encourage "critical thinking" about biology, etc. But the bottom line is always the same: undermine confidence in what is known about biology. Never physics or geology. Just biology. Obviously, this gets biologists a bit riled. It would get anyone riled. If I found the local tech school teaching crap in its computer classes, I'd be at their next board meeting raising holy hell. If one of the local trade schools was teaching improper construction methods or welding techniques, I think I'm on safe ground saying members of those trades would speak up as well. There are two simple reasons for this; one practical, one philosophical. The practical reason is to ensure the competence of those practicing a trade. The more philosophical reason is honor, for lack of a better term for it. A person works very hard to master a trade or a field of study, only to watch in horror as some no-nothing hack gets in front of an audience or a TV camera and makes a hash of things. There is a desire to correct or counter bad information, not because it necessarily affects me personally, but because I wish to defend my area of expertise from incorrect data, wrong impressions, or out-right slander. For both of these reasons, we see biologists on the witness stand in Dover, signing letters to the Ohio BoE, and blogging furiously.

Fred's first point addresses the forcible removable of Christian symbols from public places, specifically Christmas and, to a lesser extent, Easter. I'm of two minds on much of this, probably because of my history inside a fundamentalist church and my recent escape from it. In general, I find the complaints of "persecution" of the religious by the ACLU to be laughable. Yes the ACLU can be a pain in the ass at times, and I question its reading of the Constitution on many points. But equating the ACLU telling your kids they can't sing Christian-themed Christmas carols in school with, say, Nero ramming poles up Christians' asses, pouring hot tar over them, lighting them on fire, and using them as tiki torches for his garden parties, just doesn't pass the giggle test. Target stores threatening to fire any employee who wishes a customer "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays," while silly, is really not that big of a deal. If it bothers you, do what I do and just don't shop there. In fact, for my entire life, the church has been trying to divorce Christmas, the pious observance, from Christmas, the excuse to eat, drink, and be merry. It is fairly common knowledge that most symbols relating to Christmas and Easter are pagan, and reflect the true origins of those holidays prior to their Christianization. I see the current political climate as an historic opportunity for the religiously inclined to reclaim their holy days from the pagans. Move the Christ Mass and celebration of Christ's resurrection to their more-likely time of the year, and let the great unwashed masses have Saturnalia and Osterfest to sate their lust for over-indulgence.

Having said that, I do have to wonder about anyone who is so emotionally or mentally fragile that the mere sight of a manger in front of the county courthouse sends them into a swoon. Here I find myself agreeing whole-heartedly with Jerry Pournelle: a symbol only has as much meaning as I am willing to attach to it. If I am an atheist, I should be far more concerned with the corruption inside City Hall, rather than the nativity on the front lawn. If a nativity bothers the local Jews or Muslims or Hindus, they can petition city hall to either remove the nativity or add their own symbols to the display. But involving the federal courts via lawsuits filed by the ACLU on behalf of one or two families so traumatized by sheep and camels they can't leave their home is just plain batshit.

Of course, on the gripping hand, Christians, especially evangelicals and pentacostals, can be just plain obnoxious. Understand, I say this as a former insider. Many of these people just do not understand words like "No" or "Go away". Worse, even the most obnoxious are never brought to heel, and in fact are encouraged. Negative reactions are "persecution" that are taken to mean they are really giving it to the devil, because why else would people react so negatively to God's message? Preaching the gospel is used to justify any and every tactic imaginable. Lying, cheating, stealing, dishonesty; all are perfectly acceptable (and have been witnessed by yours truly, often to the literal applause of fellow-believers) as long as the message gets out. Is it any wonder non-believers strike back? How many times do I have to be accosted by some nutjob when I walk down a street before I'm justified in pushing him in front of a speeding semi? Why does their right to free speech include the right to ring my phone and bang on my door at all hours of the day and night, but I'm the bad guy because I tell them to fuck off? What level of mental illness is necessary to allow the same person that gets jacked out of shape over their kid learning a couple yoga moves in PE, to stand in a school board meeting and insist that the biology teacher must teach young earth creation?

When I was growing up, there was a guy that lived down the street from us who had been brain-damaged at a young age. Us kids, being the sensitive, caring, politically correct sort, called him Crazy Charlie. Crazy Charlie had all kinds of incredible stories; wars he had fought in, famous people he knew, a regular Forrest Gump. It was, as you would expect, utter bullshit. Charley lived with his parents for his entire life; got up at the same time every morning, walked to his job at the factory across the highway from our neighborhood, worked his shift, walked home, spent the evening watching TV, then went to bed. As far as I know, he lived his entire life inside a one-mile radius. None of us ever denied that Charlie had a right to live. None of us ever denied Charlie the right tell his bullshit stories. But on the flip side, none of us ever believed a word Charlie ever said. And, as far as I know, no one ever asked Charlie's opinion on how to run the city or what should be taught in high school. Charlie was marginalized, and rightly so. When you have nothing to offer, that's what happens. If I were to attend a symposium discussing alternative methods of plasma containment in a fusion reactor, I would be marginalized, and rightly so. I would have nothing to offer. Christians are not being marginalized due to some world-wide, satanic conspiracy. They are marginalized because they have nothing to offer to modern society. They could if they chose to (more on this in a moment), but they seem to prefer to be a pain in the ass.

But back to Fred. He goes on to conflate these two data points to conclude that there is an active campaign by elites trying to de-Christianize America against the wishes of the majority. This is definitely where we part company. The people making noises about "Merry Christmas" being offensive are a completely different group than those opposing Intelligent Design. The latter is a group of people addressing a concerted, nation-wide attempt to undermine one narrow area of education. If the Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis and Dr. Dino disappeared tomorrow, so would The Panda's Thumb. All those PhD's would happily head back to their labs to peer at little wigglies under their microscopes and forget all about politics. The former group is thought by the religious to exist mainly in the cocoon of our public universities like fragile seedlings protected from the cold in a greenhouse. I accept that characterization to an extent and offer Political Correctness as Exhibit A in the argument for its accuracy. However, the secularization of society at large is, I believe, not the result of the influence of a few Harvard professors, but of a simple out-growth of technological progress. Fred calls this growing reliance on science a religion for the irreligious, but I see it as simple pragmatism: Science works; religion, not so much. People used to pray to God and live holy lives so lightning wouldn't hit their barn and burn it to the ground. Then along came lightning rods, which did a far better job, (In other words, they worked, unlike prayer and holy living. See the Book of Job.) and people didn't need to pray for God to protect them from lightning. Religious leaders of the time denounced lightning rods as somehow defeating God's punishment of the unholy. (We will leave aside for now the theological implications of a God so weak he can be defeated by a metal rod and a couple hundred feet of large-gauge wire.) I don't pray for my daily bread because the threat of famine by natural causes has been all but eradicated. I didn't need Jesus to cast the demon out of my cousin; she just takes phenobarbital. My great-grandfather had no need of mud made with spit to cure his blindness; cataract surgery did the trick. I could go on for pages, but my point is that secularization has nothing to do with people living in cities and not seeing the stars. I've lived in cities, suburbs, and so far out in the country I have to make my own electricity, and have never gotten particularly philosophical about any of it. I abandoned most of my religious beliefs because I could see nothing that it did for me in my day-to-day life. I didn't need God or the 3,000-year-old scribblings of nomadic shepherds to give my life meaning or heal me from diseases or protect me from disaster. Meaning for my life comes from within, and the rest is technology.

Does that mean I worship technology as a god or a religious belief system? Hardly. I just use what works. Prayer provably does not; all the prayer in the world won't do as much for my diabetes as a vial of insulin. The prayers of millions did not divert the worst natural disaster to hit the United States. But my truck starts every single morning. Every day, the internet is there. I work at a hospital where "miraculous" cures happen hourly. Now I know there are people who claim prayer works; they or someone they care about is alive because of the prayers of their church or family. But churches and families constantly pray for people who die anyway. No one has ever been able to explain to me how prayer works. Why is only one person spared out of the tens of thousands who die? Did we say the wrong words? Did we not face east? Did we need some incense? Sacrifice a bull? A chicken? Did the KFC I grabbed on the way to prayer meeting count? The response is invariably a shrug and a mumbled "God's will." In contrast, a doctor can explain why sticking a needle full of insulin in my ass cheek every day regulates my blood sugar; why I need to artificially regulate my blood sugar in the first place; and what negative consequences will occur if I don't. I may not have the knowledge on hand to completely understand those explanations or to check his work, but I can fix that. With God, all I get are people's opinions, which vary wildly from person to person, even though they all work from the same book. I've been asking the same questions for 30 years and never got an answer other than, "Shhhh! Don't ask that! Just believe! Raise your hands in the air. Ready? LORD I LIFT YOUR NAME ON HIGH.... See? God took away all your doubts! Oh. He didn't? Sorry; looks like you're going to burn in Hell!" So I secularize; replacing "faith in God" with technology. Fred claims that makes me a "philosophically empty" thinker. I call bullshit. Nowhere else have I experienced anything close to the near-perfect philosophical vacuum that exists inside a church. No one asks the "big questions" there; they just have "faith". No one there has a purpose, Rick Warren not withstanding; just mindless ritual devoid of all brain activity. Then go here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or even here. Now remind me again who the "philosophically empty" thinkers are?

Now I'll see if I can wrap this up. Are there people hostile to religion? Certainly. I'm one of them. The organized variety, anyway. Read some of my previous posts. Am I part of some vast, nation-wide conspiracy to eradicate religion from America? Not that I know of. I will certainly share my views with anyone who asks, but I rarely interject my opinions into casual conversation (quite unlike your garden-variety evangelical), and I've never signed a petition or filed a lawsuit to replace the baby Jesus with Santa Claus. I simply find religion to be irrelevant to my daily life. I don't need God to get me through the day, nor do I see him doing much for me. If he exists, he seems to be monumentally indifferent to me and my needs, and I return the favor. That seems to be the prevalent attitude of everyone I talk to outside of a church. "God? Yea, probably. Church? Na. Prayer? Na. Read the Bible? Na. Hey, can we wrap this up, 'cause Desperate Housewives is coming on." Christians saw this attitude spread to their own children and ran to the government to fix it through public school instruction. For a century, the indifferent played nice and gave the yappers whatever they wanted just to shut them up. That is, until around the 1960's, when secularists figured out they were the majority and could safely ignore the Moral Minority. What we see now is the last-ditch attempt by the religious right to stem the flow of people out of their churches, and reverse their loss of influence. Attendance is dropping across the board. Even the impressive gains by certain sects, such as Mormonism, do not offset the losses of people like me that just stop showing up. In Europe, most churches have become government-funded museums with services being little more that historical reenactments attended by a handful of retirees and a noisy gaggle of picture-taking tourists. The lack of government funding here will make our transition to secularism even more noticeable and dramatic. You can find details here and here.

The cold, hard fact is that only around 20% of the country attends a religious service of any kind and that number looks to be cut in half by 2050. No amount of hand-waving or name-calling is going to change that. In my lifetime, I expect the opinions of Christians to be about as important as the opinions of Pastafarians. Is Jerry Pournelle right about Christian morality being the foundation of western civilization and its assumption of equality? Who knows; but it looks like we will find out. This could be the pivotal issue over the next generation, and is precisely the area that Christians could contribute something substantive that I alluded to above. If you take away the human soul, what is the basis for me having intrinsic respect for any human life other than my own? If I am simply another primate, does that leave Darwin in the driver's seat in human society? Secularists have a lot of opinions why I shouldn't act like other primates, but that is all they are: opinions. For five centuries, western civilization has had as one of its foundational principles that man was so far beneath God, the differences between humans essentially disappears. That, and the threat of burning in Hell for eternity if we don't play nice, has worked pretty well. Not perfectly as any casual reading of western history would quickly reveal, but we've had a pretty good record overall. Take away God and Hell, and what exactly is stopping us from, as an example, launching a breeding program for high IQ humans? It's clear that those with low IQ are a drain on society. Could we create Lake Woebegone? Why wouldn't we try? Of course there will always be things that need to be done that require minimal intelligence, so we wouldn't want to exterminate the mentally incompetent (which I define as anyone with IQ less than 110; go ahead, prove me wrong if you can; just show your work). Someone needs to shovel shit. Is this the world we want to live in? How long before the shit-shovelers are considered expendable? Governments have historically used expendable people as canon fodder. Given the ease with which we send our sons and daughters into foreign countries to kill and/or be killed currently, how much easier will it be to send expendables? Will India be the model for western civilization's replacement, with IQ substituting for birth family? Why not? Why would this be "wrong"? Why would this be "immoral"? Without God, the questions don't even have meaning. I would love to be convinced otherwise, but it's going to take a lot to do so.

Is it as Jerry Pournelle has repeatedly stated? Are we sowing the wind?


Post a Comment

<< Home