How Not to Support Expelled; How Not to Attack Evolution

Media reports on Intelligent Design, with their frequent misunderstandings and distortions, can make a person cringe. Unfortunately, there are times when ID defenders and creationists can make you cringe, too. There are plenty of good ways to stand in sympathy with Intelligent Design, to support creationism (not the same topic, but closely enough related to be included in the same post), or to attack evolutionary theory. There are also some not-so-good ways.

Here are the three most serious mistakes to avoid:

1. Speaking Of What We Do Not Know
As an undergrad at Michigan State, I was for a time involved in the controversy on “scientific creationism,” which was drawing a lot of attention in Christian circles at the time. The discussion hinged around whether the fossils, rocks, and stars really pointed to an ancient earth, and whether Genesis 1 and 2 really demanded a young-earth interpretation. I came to a very freeing realization at the time: this is a very complex subject. Much of it is really for specialists. And I was a music major! Sure, I could read evolutionists’ opinions or creationists’ opinions, but could I form a knowledgeable opinion on the science? As for Genesis 1 and 2, even that was a matter of discussion among strongly principled Christian scholars. How literal is it to be taken? It has much of the characteristics of poetry–is it meant to be (at least somewhat) figurative?

I settled on this: I don’t know about the age of the earth. I am not qualified to settle the issue, even in my own mind. I’m thoroughly convinced (on other grounds) that God was intimately involved in whatever happened. I’m firmly convinced (also on independent grounds) that humans are uniquely made in God’s image, that we were created to be in fellowship with Him, that we went wrong in some way that Genesis 2 and 3 accurately portray even if some of it is figurative, and that Jesus Christ is the way back to a right relationship with God. The rest is complex and I need to study more before I decide.

I’ve done a whole lot of study since then. I know a whole lot more than I did then, and I have convictions now about some things I suspended judgment on earlier. But I’m still not a biologist or paleontologist. I could wish that I could study all the books and papers, and form my own independent conclusions on every aspect of the ID controversy, but it’s not possible. So I try to speak to topics on which I’ve done my homework.

Too often ID supporters, creationists, or Christians in general will dismiss evolution for reasons that are just wrong. Too often, it’s because all they’ve read is what ID supporters and creationists have written about it. You can’t understand ID by reading what Richard Dawkins or P.Z. Myers say about it, and you can’t understand evolution by reading what the Discovery Institute says about it. You have to read what each position’s supporters say. Otherwise you’re not ready to take a stand.

I am not saying you can’t have an opinion where you haven’t done your homework. I’m also not saying that what you know about God from other sources–revelation, apologetics, faith in general–has to be put on hold on account of this one topic. I am saying that we allought to admit what we don’t know, especially when the topic is as complex as this one.

ID skeptics aren’t asking my opinion, but the way they often misread and/or distort ID’s claims, it’s clear to me that many (not all, but many) of them have also not done their homework. (‘Nuff said.)

2. Speaking Without Respect and Courtesy
ID supporters and creationists take note: evolution is not stupid, and evolutionists are not idiots. Evolution supporters also take note: ID and creationism are not stupid, and their supporters are not idiots. Ravi Zacharias said it well: “To the extent that you can make your opponent’s position look ridiculous, to that extent you probably do not understand it.” He could have added (and knowing how he speaks, I’m sure somewhere he has), to the extent you make it your business to make your opponent ridiculous, to that extent you’re defeating any purpose you have of being persuasive.

I’ve gotten myself embroiled today in a discussion about ID and religion on Panda’s Thumb. As of this afternoon, there are several commenters who have engaged me in this discussion respectfully, on a substantive level. There’s one commenter whose tone has not been so pleasant. Guess which ones I’m more likely to listen to? In fact, I’m not responding to or even reading anything further by that commenter.

Aristotle said rhetoric–including persuasion–involves logos, ethos, and pathos. Logos is the word, the logic, the force of the argument. By itself it produces little persuasive effect, and does little good. Ethos is roughly credibility, that which causes the person to believe that the person has a right relationship to the topic, by virtue of study, experience, trustworthiness, and so on. Pathos has to do with the person’s relationship to the audience. The audience is always asking, though usually not consciously: Does this person understand me? Does his/her view of the topic have any relevance to me? Should I care about what this person cares about? All three of Aristotle’s factors are vital to effective communication.

And need I remind us of Christ’s example and command to love even our enemies, and to treat others as we would have them treat us?

3. Not Speaking of What We Do Know
I don’t want to be misunderstood as advocating a timid stance. That’s not what humility is about. We ought to speak clearly what we understand clearly, and present our convictions as convictions–things of which we are convinced. What we don’t understand clearly, for that matter, we can still feel free to discuss openly.

Tying The Three Together
For those who are Christians, Colossians 4:6 summarizes it best:

Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

It’s being gracious, and knowing, and from that stance, speaking and answering.
And Applying The Principles
There’s a movie coming out soon, Expelled, which is going to be very favorable to ID, and will certainly raise the volume of this debate. ID sympathizers, let’s not make the mistake of acting triumphalistic over it, or speaking as the whole question is settled for good–even if the movie really succeeds in making its case.
As the volume of debate raises, let’s raise the tone along with it.