Yesterday in a very quick post I pointed to an inconsistency in Jerry Coyne’s New Republic article, “Seeing and Believing,” which is a critical review of two new books by the theistic evolutionists Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson. Today I must mention several things I really appreciate about what he wrote, and offer some suggestions about what it it may mean.
My first appreciation is this: far too often when Intelligent Design opponents speak of it in terms of creationism, they leave their terms vague. “Creationism” is spat out as an epithet, almost never defined. That’s just never helpful, in view of all the multiple competing denotations and connotations of the word. Coyne, bless him, tells us what he means by it:
But regardless of their views, all creationists share four traits. First, they devoutly believe in God. No surprise there, except to those who think that ID has a secular basis. Second, they claim that God miraculously intervened in the development of life, either creating every species from scratch or intruding from time to time in an otherwise Darwinian process. Third, they agree that one of these interventions was the creation of humans, who could not have evolved from apelike ancestors. This, of course, reflects the Judeo-Christian view that humans were created in God’s image. Fourth, they all adhere to a particular argument called “irreducible complexity.” This is the idea that some species, or some features of some species, are too complex to have evolved in a Darwinian manner, and must therefore have been designed by God.
There are some points to criticize in that definition, especially with respect to the relationship of creationism and Intelligent Design. I have made corrections of that sort often enough in the past, so this time I’ll leave them for others to handle if they wish. Here is what’s more interesting to me. Let’s take this as a working definition for now, for the sake of seeing what it leads to. More specifically, given Coyne’s definition of creationism, what does he consider is wrong with it? The answer, as it turns out, is not what one would expect.
My second note of appreciation is for the careful way Coyne spells out his answer to that important question. He places the entire relationship of religion and science under scrutiny, presenting some very helpful, accurate analysis along the way. For example, some liberal theologians water down religion to make it compatible with evolution, which leaves it, he says, “a hairsbreadth from pantheism,” or “leaves God out completely.” In this he is exactly right. To achieve that compatibility in truth, “a proper solution must harmonize science with theism;” and he correctly recognizes that this theism ought to be of the sort that is “actually understood and practiced by human beings,” not by ivory tower theorists.
This sets the stage for his appreciation and then his criticism of Giberson’s and Miller’s books. Neither of these authors is friendly towards Intelligent Design, much less toward any of the earlier manifestations of “scientific creationism.” Miller is one of ID’s more vocal critics, possibly the most effective of them all. His particular effectiveness comes from his not presenting much of a theological axe to grind: he is a practicing Catholic, a vocal believer in God. Giberson, too, though not as prominent in the debate as Miller is, criticizes ID from the standpoint of a believer in God.
Coyne says several positive things about their critiques of design. Then, in preparation for his criticism, he takes aim himself against not only ID but also the general category of religious truths. Religious truth, he says, is fundamentally flawed:
What, then, is the nature of “religious truth” that supposedly complements “scientific truth”? The first thing we should ask is whether, and in what sense, religious assertions are “truths.” Truth implies the possibility of falsity, so we should have a way of knowing whether religious truths are wrong. But unlike scientific truths, religious ones differ from person to person and sect to sect. And we all know of clear contradictions between the “truths” of different faiths. Christianity unambiguously claims the divinity of Jesus, and many assert that the road to salvation absolutely depends on accepting this claim, whereas the Koran states flatly that anyone accepting the divinity of Jesus will spend eternity in hell. These claims cannot both be “true,” at least in a way that does not require intellectual contortions.
Coyne’s problem with religious truth is similar to that stated by Tom Clark: we don’t have an adequate test for its truth or falsity. Coyne should realize, I hope, that just because religions disagree, that is no proof that all of them are wrong, or that a wholesale rejection of a spiritual view of life is justified. He seems not to be aware that religions are subject to rational and evidential tests, which, though they may not in all cases be conclusive, are nevertheless strongly indicative of which beliefs are worthy of being held.
Be that as it may, in making his complaint about religious truth, Coyne draws a firm line in the sand. Though on the surface they may seem to be allies among those who battle against Intelligent Design or creation science, Coyne considers Miller and Giberson to be virtually creationists themselves.
Although Giberson and Miller see themselves as opponents of creationism, in devising a compatibility between science and religion they finally converge with their opponents. In fact, they exhibit at least three of the four distinguishing traits of creationists: belief in God, the intervention of God in nature, and a special role for God in the evolution of humans. They may even show the fourth trait, a belief in irreducible complexity, by proposing that a soul could not have evolved, but was inserted by God….
Besides his “aesthetic design” argument, Giberson offers another reason for his faith–we might call it the argument from convenience….
This touching confession reveals the sad irrationality of the whole enterprise–the demoralizing conflict between a personal need to believe and a desperation to show that this primal need is perfectly compatible with science.
It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified.
And now we are ready to answer the question, what is the problem with creationism, as Coyne sees it? And what is the problem with Intelligent Design? Astonishingly, it’s not that he disagrees with ID’s scientific findings! Otherwise how could he lump staunch evolutionists like Miller and Giberson together with ID proponents or other “creationists?” On this evidence, is it too much to suppose that Coyne would reject ID even if Behe’s and Dembski’s arguments for it were widely accepted?
The question isn’t about the science at all, is it?
No, it’s not the science, it’s the worldview behind the debate. And here is my final note of at least partial appreciation for what Coyne has done here: he has succeeded in making it clear that for him (and likely for others) the ID question is a matter of worldview. I call it “partial appreciation,” because I’m not entirely sure Coyne realizes what he has done. He has drawn his line in the sand, and where he places his friends and his opponents has nothing to do with their science; it’s about their religion.
It is for him a religious battle, and his position is a religious one—not that he is religious himself, but that his position is defined by his own view of religion. This is what he has accused ID of doing, and yet he has done it himself.
I’m glad he has made that so plainly apparent, whether he sees it himself or not.
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