Saturday, July 26, 2008

Intelligent Design: Religion or Science?

Several people wrote in challenging my column titled “Intelligent Design and Intelligent Faith.” One asked, why it is important to keep the findings of research separate from the teachings of revelation? Another wondered how I could be so sure a man like Jefferson wouldn’t endorse Intelligent Design today.

The phrase “intelligent design” originated in a book by Percival Davis and Dean Kenyon, Of Pandas and People. They wrote the volume in 1989, two years after the Supreme Court outlawed teaching so-called “creation science” in public schools. Up to that point, both Davis and Kenyon were wholehearted advocates of creationism, arguing the historicity of Noah’s flood and the book of Genesis as an accurate guide to the science of life. One of them had already written a book titled Case for Creation, published by the Moody Bible Institute. But after the Court’s ruling, the two men realized they needed a subtler approach and popularized the phrase “intelligent design” through their Pandas book, which asserts that life “owes its origin to a master intellect” and that “new organisms arise from a blueprint, a plan, a pattern, devised by an intelligent agent.” Though the intelligent agent is never precisely identified (and might be God, Krishna, or a space alien), the volume is published by an organization that describes its mission as “proclaiming, publishing, preaching and teaching the Christian Gospel.”

Teaching and preaching the gospel is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. But it is not science. Revelation claims to convey truths from supernatural sources, while science looks to the natural world to develop its theories. One belongs in the church or synagogue; the other belongs in biology class.

At its root, science is really a systematic way of asking questions about the world, along with an agreement about the kinds of data that will count toward the answers. The data have to be in the public domain of shared sense experience—facts that can be seen or weighed or otherwise commonly observed. Information that is derived from mystical states, that draws its authority from being written in old books, or that comes from private visions just isn’t relevant.

America’s founders shared this scientific temper. Men like Franklin, Washington, Adams, Paine, Jefferson and Madison were all members of the American Philosophical Society, the New World’s counterpart to Britain’s Royal Society, whose guiding motto was “Nullius in verba,” roughly translated as “don’t take anyone’s word for it … find out for yourself!” To determine how life began and evolved, their commitment was not to any pre-conceived set of answers, but to a disciplined system of inquiry, experiment and observation. This is why, despite being men of deep principle and the highest moral character, they were often deviant in their theological perspectives. They rejected a literal interpretation of the Bible and viewed the tale of Noah’s ark as a fable.

In their own day, they were aware of cutting edge discoveries and carried out their own investigations in homemade labs. So men like Jefferson would hardly be likely to endorse Intelligent Design today—a theory that can lawfully be taught in Sunday School, but that has no place in a biology classroom. And the founders were be dismayed that the state of Louisiana is trying to sneak religious teaching into its public school curriculum.

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