Evolution & Morality III

[Last of the trio. After this, I promise, something brand new. Enjoy.]

Here is the link to the district court ruling in the Dover, PA trial about so-called Intelligent Design. It is worth reading in full. Basically, the judge threw out the claim by the defendants, that evolution is “merely a theory” and that Intelligent Design is somehow legitimate science.

This, of course, settles nothing in the long run. The true believers who pulled this stunt to begin with will not be persuaded, nor will they long shut up. That’s fine, that’s their prerogative, and it’s as should be in this country. My hope is that this will not be the last shot fired in defense of science and reason, against irrationalism and spiritual chicanery.

The critics of Judge Jones’ decision have come out screaming that he has overstepped his authority. He has written a pretty scathing and detailed decision. I can certainly see that he has hopes it will be used in other districts, as a means to settle this—at least legally—where and when it crops up. I personally see his response as fairly restrained, considering the clear frustration behind it. He has invoked the ground state complaint of the conservative—it has been a waste of tax payer money.

The profoundest irony, politically, is that Jones is a George W. Bush appointee. The right-wing Jesus faction of the Republican Party must be seized with apoplexy at this. One of their own—one anointed by their own prophet-in-power—has turned on them, delivering a rational verdict.

The point that is still lost on many people, I’m sure, is that what Jones said, and what was demonstrated in the trial, is that Intelligent Design simply is not science. I am not at all surprised at this misunderstanding, because people have such a poor understanding in general of what science is, be they fundamentalists who reject it on doctrinal grounds or just an average citizen who hated the subject in high school because it ran afoul of blithely partying one’s way through curricula. But it is at the core of the kind of civilization we have and it is at the core of the kind of philosophy by which we have dragged ourselves out of the past.

Science concerns itself with the testable. If you can’t put it on a table, dissect it, measure it, compare it physically to something else, and make both positive and negative statements about it with which to demonstrate its properties, then it is not a subject with which science is concerned. That leaves religious concerns out. Period.

Now, the one disturbing aspect of the trial, personally, was the way the witnesses for the plaintiffs took pains to say that there is no conflict between science and religion. There clearly is. Those striving to shove Intelligent Design into the classroom make it so. Their assertion—those driving the heart of this movement—is that if you believe in god, you cannot accept science.

I know, I know, they’re only talking about evolution, not all of science. But in fact, they are talking about science in general. They admitted in Dover that unless the definition of science is changed, Intelligent Design won’t hold up. But just changing the definition of science over one thing doesn’t mean you haven’t simply changed it—for everything. I doubt most of them have thought about this, but really science is their enemy, and for a very simple reason—the habit of critical analysis engendered by the disciplined application of science subverts the capacity of the bull shit artist to sway people to believe in garbage. In other words, it’s a cure for gullibility, and frankly the embrace of fundamentalist religious doctrine requires a certain level of gullibility. That fish is big, man, and swallowing it takes a lot of lubrication and a large mouth with very little discrimination behind it. For fundamentalism to succeed in its aims, people must be kept from developing critical thinking.

I disagree with those who seek to appease the religious by stating that religion and science can exist in harmony. This is not quite the same thing as saying science and religion can exist simultaneously. Harmony implies an almost symbiotic relationship and I do not see that as viable. I am one with Richard Dawkins, who stated that the problem with religion is that it makes “existence claims”—it states that such and such IS and this and that HAPPENED, very materially and very solidly, which puts it in the realm of study and scientific analysis. Religion, in other words, offers alternative explanations about how the universe works, and that puts it in conflict with science, which also offers explanations of how the universe works. And, of course, they are different explanations.

Whenever someone says to me that I must accept something on faith, without any hope of proof, I put one hand on my wallet and smile politely. That’s crap. I must, to be extreme about it, accept nothing. There are many things of which I am ignorant—that doesn’t mean I don’t believe they may exist. There are also many things I accept as real for which I have no direct evidence, but my acceptance is always provisional. If it turns out that the Taj Mahal, in spite of thousands of images and personal testimonials, were shown not to exist, my world wouldn’t stop. I would find it curious and perhaps a little disturbing because of the mass delusion and fraud that had gone on for centuries, but I would not suffer a crisis of profound spiritual estrangement because the world turned out not to be as I had always thought it was. (An extreme example, I admit, but some things require extreme examples.)

All that said, I do not accept the flip side of the public debate, that there is no god and that we would all be better off without religion. I do think we’d be better off without extremism, of which fundamentalism in religion is a form. We’re seeing the consequence of the intractable nature of extremism now, with suicide bombers thinking they’ll go straight to paradise because they die killing people they don’t like. We see it in the willingness of self-proclaimed “christians” to subvert truth in order to win a debate, who have accepted that winning is all that counts. We see it in the intransigence of custom, the intolerance of accepted ideology, the ready brutality of genocide. But not all religion is extremist, and history shows that all too often the generosity of spirit engendered by a religious viewpoint has been the only thing standing between what is right and desolation. Too often, religion has been the only repository of moral instruction for the vast majority of humans on the planet. It must not be dismissed lightly by anyone, nor should it be mistaken for that which it is not. Therein lies the problem.

I think a lot of people, at least in the West, probably in many other places (but I don’t know, so I won’t claim with anywhere near the same conviction on their behalf), manage on an almost instinctive level to parse the difference between materialism and spiritualism, and keep them separate where they would interfere with each other. The old dictum “god helps those who help themselves” holds. You have to manage your life, make choices and decisions, act on conviction. Reliance on the lessons taught through religion helps. I am an atheist, but I admit that my basic moral education came through the Lutheran Church. There is no Church of Atheism, as such. It’s an oxymoron. The closest thing we have to something like that would be in Philosophy courses in university and college. For me, my present moral condition was reached through religion—religion as a phase through which I passed—rather than by any path outside of it. There’s nothing odd about this—we all pass through stages of maturity in which different levels of discourse hold sway. We believe in Santa Claus until a certain age, when we “know better” but recognize the utility in the fiction. We have heroes who must not be less than wonderful, until we grow up a little more and learn that they, too, are human, with faults. Thus, for me, religious teachings were “true” until the point at which I recognized the essential truths couched within the stories, and relegated the stories to the shelf along with Santa and the Tooth Fairy and the Lone Ranger.

See, I write fiction, and I understand something about it which I think most people accept intuitively without consciously recognizing it. Fiction was condemned a couple of centuries ago as somehow immoral, because it is lying. Fiction is “not true” in the way that history or science or what happened last week at Aunt Milly’s is true. Fiction is something made up. A lie.

But that confuses fact with truth, something with which even philosophers have had to contend for a long time. The two are connected, but they aren’t the same thing. Because there are two questions about any event—what happened (fact) and what does it mean (truth). You can tell the truth without there necessarily being anything “factual” to compare it to. Yeshua knew this, hence he told parables—stories. He probably made them up, tailored them to the moment. Were they lies? Of course not. They are a third category of conditional statement. The three conditions would be That Which Is, That Which Is Not, and That Which Is True. Telling the truth about something…well, good writers do it all the time. They tell the truth about the human condition. They give lessons. They make connections with the way we feel and think and how the world is. We do this thing which has nothing to do with lying, because we aren’t trying to establish what Is or Is Not in the sense of facts presented in a court.

Science concerns itself with the first two categories. Religion traditionally deals with the third.

It’s philosophy. And it’s fluid, which is what makes it so difficult for fundamentalists, because they want their truth absolute and unchanging. But they can’t really have that and have it be Truth. Because the nature of Truth is its adaptability and its capacity to interpret. Truth deals with Meaning, and Meaning is a living thing. If you nail it to a tree so it doesn’t move, you kill it, and Meaning is lost.

You can arrive at the Truth of facts, by connecting meaning to What Is. You can’t really attach meaning to What Is Not, and hence there is no truth where there is nothing. Of course, that’s provisional. And frustrating.

But Meaning itself can be a fact. How we behave and why. How we see the universe and why. To arrive at Meaning is a journey, and we must not discard tools lightly.

So while I proclaim myself an atheist, I do not dismiss religion as an encumbrance. I would actually pity the world if religion disappeared. It is all too often the only bulwark against the unrefined, brutish impulses of human beings, especially humans in large groups. Religion is a force for good in the world.

But it’s not science.

The so-called mainstream religions have reconciled—sometimes uncomfortably—with science. Even the Catholic Church has finally conceded that Galileo was right (something they knew all along, but there was a question of Authority to deal with). There’s not much problem with them. It’s these fundamentalist groups—of which we’ve never been rid, nor probably ever will be—who are causing a lot of the problem, and will continue to, because they cannot figure out the difference between Truth and Fact. I would go so far as to say it is a certain lack of sophistication. But it must not be allowed to dominate public discourse at the level of policy. We must talk about it, certainly, but it must be labeled for what it is—extremism. The most damaging aspect of extremism is its intensely distorting effect on all other discourse.

So I applaud Judge Jones’ decision and I think his decision ought to be read and used. But I caution those who think they’ve won something to be very careful about what it is they think they’ve won, and to draw back from extremist positions.