Home | Editorial Opinion |     Share This Page
On Believing
Copyright © 2005, P. Lutus. All Rights reserved.

Updated 10/26/2007

Introduction | Some Statistics | Identifying_the_Conflict | The Authority of the Book
Motivation_and_Marketing | Religion's Agenda | Creationism | Intelligent Design
A Discussion of Science and the Scientific Method | Conclusion | References | Feedback

(double-click any word to see its definition)

When one samples U.S. media, it is difficult to avoid noticing the large and increasing number of public issues that have a religious angle. Creationism, intelligent design, prayer in schools, the debate over evolution, and many other similar issues basically represent a collision between religious and secular outlooks. And it is clear that this conflict is not calming down, unfortunately quite the opposite — the perception that individuals belong to one camp or the other, with no common ground, is increasing.

One goal of this article is to take a careful look at religious belief — who believes, what they believe, and with what consequences in the personal and political spheres. The results may surprise you.

A secondary goal is to discuss the apparent conflict between the religious and secular outlooks. It is the author's position that there is no real conflict, only an apparent one supported by vested interests, both inside and outside religion.

This article is part analysis and part editorial opinion. I think the reader will have no difficulty distinguishing between the parts.

Some Statistics
According to a large, ongoing U.S. study conducted by the City University of New York (named "American Religious Identification Survey," hereafter ARIS)1, in 1990 90% of surveyed adults identified themselves as belonging to a particular religious group, and in 2001 the percentage had dropped to 81%. As to those who profess to have no religious identification, their numbers increased from 8% in 1991 to 14% in 2001.

An argument can be made that some individuals possess a religious outlook but without any specific religious identification, a state identified by sociologist Thomas Luckmann as "The Invisible Religion." Therefore the true change in religiosity may not be accurately reflected in these statistics.

In the 2001 ARIS survey, this question was asked: "When it comes to your outlook, do you regard yourself as ...", with the following results:

Religious 37%
Somewhat Religious 38%
Somewhat Secular 6%
Secular 10%
Don't know, refused to answer 9%

When reviewing these statistics, coupled with the fact that there has been an apparent significant decline in religious identification, one might wonder how there could be a simultaneous and marked increase in public debate on direct religious issues and issues with a religious component. One possible cause is an increase in membership in religious groups that are active in social and political causes, but there is no clear statistical basis for this assumption.

As to beliefs about evolution, one of the more controversial current issues, a recent Gallup poll2 asked: "Do you think that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is (1) a scientific theory that has been well-supported by evidence, (2) just one of many theories and one that has not been well-supported by evidence, or (3) don't you know enough about it to say?", with these results:

Evolution is well-supported by evidence 35%
Evolution is not well-supported by evidence 35%
Don't know enough to reply 29%
No opinion 1%
The survey reports belief that "evolution is well-supported by evidence" is strongest "among those with the most education, liberals, those living in the West, those who seldom attend church, and [...] Catholics," and weakest among "those with the least education, older Americans[...], frequent church attendees, conservatives, Protestants, those living in the middle of the country, and Republicans."

The poll then asked respondents which of the following positions most closely approximated their views:

Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process 38%
Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process 13%
God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so 45%
Different or no opinion 4%

To me, the most interesting result is the 45% of the U.S. population who believe God created humans in more or less their present form within the past 10,000 years. It is fair to say this percentage of the population, this viewpoint, lies at the heart of the controversy surrounding evolution.

The next question related to literal interpretation of the Bible:

The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word 34%
The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally 48%
The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man 15%
No Opinion 3%

Let me emphasize this result. It seems that 34% of Americans think the Bible is the literal word of God, not the views of a series of human authors.

In a CBS News Poll3 that asked similar questions, interviewees responded:

God created humans in their present form 55%
Humans evolved, God guided the process 27%
Humans evolved, God did not guide the process 13%

In this survey, it seems an even higher percentage of Americans (55%) believe God created man in his present form, although it is not clear whether the 10,000-year condition was attached (the original questions were not included in the report).

In the same CBS News poll, in response to a question about what should be taught in schools:

Creationism and evolution 65%
Creationism instead of evolution 37%

According to the CBS News pollsters, among those who identified themselves as Evangelical Christians, 60% favor the complete replacement of evolution with creationism in public schools, and among those who attend church services weekly, 50% favor this change.

It is important to point out that all these surveys suffer from some kinds of systematic errors, in particular how the questions are worded (in one case the expression "creationism" was replaced with "creation science," with predictable results), how specifically they are presented to the subjects and by whom, and how the results are tabulated. Obviously if many more people refused to answer the questions in survey B than survey A, this would influence the outcome, but for the majority of surveys such information is not easy to obtain.

In another Gallup poll conducted in 1995:

Respondents Religion is
"very important in their life"
Religion can
"answer all or most of today's problems"
Attended College 53% 58%
No college 63% 65%
Income over $50,000 48% 56%
$30,000-$50,000 56% 62%
$20,000-$30,000 56% 60%
Under $20,000 66% 66%

Turning now to religious belief among scientists, according to a survey of members of the National Academy of Scientists, 72% identify themselves as atheists, 21% as agnostics, and 7% assert a personal belief in God. Among scientists in general, not those belonging to this prestigious group, about 40% express conventional religious belief, much higher than for members of the NAS but somewhat lower than the population as a whole.

A recent Pew Research Center survey found a strong inverse relationship between a country's religiosity and its economic status (see chart this page). In poorer nations, religion remains central to the lives of individuals, while secular perspectives are more common in richer nations. As the chart shows, there are some outliers in the overall statistical pattern, notably the U.S. and some Muslim countries, where religiosity is anomalously higher than for the world at large.

To summarize this section, it seems if you are better educated, with a higher income, possess more scientific knowledge, you are less likely to have strong religious beliefs. To put it another way, and to be perfectly direct, religious belief is negatively correlated with conventional measures of personal success and achievement.

It is equally true that the vast majority of Americans possess religious beliefs, attend church, or have some attachment to religiosity, while those who profess no attachment to any specific religion represent a small minority, about 14% overall.
Identifying the Conflict
It is not necessarily true that there is an inherent conflict between the religious and secular outlooks. Some commentators take the position that a conflict exists, while others reject this view, both seemingly on reasonable grounds.

Obviously if all religious people accepted that there is a God regardless of any specific proof (such as the literal truth of Biblical stories, or geological evidence, or the association of historical figures with God, or miracles), then there would not be any conflict to discuss — if someone made the claim that evolution appears strongly supported by direct evidence, the religious reply would be that evolution is part of God's plan, just like everything else.

But this approach fails to take into account the nature of most contemporary religious belief and believers. For most religious believers of most faiths, it is not enough to have a spiritual sense that life itself stands as evidence for a supreme being (or a supreme purpose, or whatever). Most people require something more concrete, perhaps a sign that distinguishes religious reality from ordinary reality.

To dramatize the distinction between outlooks I will create three characters:

  • A scientist who either has no religious belief or who shifts into an agnostic mode to do science,
  • a spiritual person who doesn't expect to see concrete evidence for ultimate truths, and
  • a religious person who requires signs and miracles.

To the scientist, when trying to sort out the nature of reality, evidence rules, the evidence must come from the natural world, by direct observation or inference from observation, everything else is suspect. This doesn't mean the scientist thinks his evidence-based outlook can answer any question or satisfy any need. Indeed, most scientists freely acknowledge the limits of their domain, and accept that there are other useful ways to perceive reality. At the same time, the scientist can use scientific methods to create a lifesaving vaccine, while others can only pray for one.

To the spiritual person, the simple fact of existence is more than enough proof that life is miraculous. There may or may not be a supreme being, but requiring proof would seem pointless and vexing, because by definition a supreme being is omnipotent and may have excellent reasons to stay hidden, or to ignore our activities, or genuinely not care what we do, or whatever. The spiritual person doesn't expect to have direct communication with anything other than the natural world, and doesn't suffer any anxiety about this, on the ground that reality is sufficiently amazing that to demand more would seem selfish and narcissistic. And a spiritual person would most likely avoid use of a term like "God," because of all the associations it triggers — the man upstairs, after His own image, heaven and hell, and so forth. This person would be more likely to use a neutral word like "nature" instead of "God."

To the religious person, a God must legitimize Himself by getting involved directly in the lives of individual people, answering prayers, smiting the wicked, basically proving that He cares about our lives and choices. If such a person were to be confronted by the prospect that there is no such God (of the kind described), or that He didn't care about us as individuals, or He was asleep or indifferent, this person would feel great anguish and possibly even change churches.

Obviously I am oversimplifying here. Not all religious people require this kind of coddling and reassurance, but I am specifically thinking about the 34% of Americans identified in the previous section as believing the Bible to be literally true, as well as the somewhat larger group (45% to 55%, depending on the poll) who believe God created humans in more or less their present form in the past 10,000 years. This is the group I want to identify as "religious" here, because this outlook is sufficiently distinct from the secular outlook to provide quite a contrast. This group also represents the primary force behind rejecting evolution, demanding changes in science education and calling for more attention to religion in the workings of government.

To distill these characters down to their essence:

  • The scientist ignores religious issues, at least temporarily, in order to be effective,
  • The spiritual person is willing to listen for God, but won't be disappointed if he doesn't hear a voice, given that the sound of wind moving through a tree may serve the same purpose,
  • The religious person tries to talk to God, tells God how to behave, expresses disappointment and frustration, and appoints human leaders who promise to
    • talk to God on behalf of the flock to which he belongs, and
    • tell the flock what God said in reply.
The default religious posture, that the world is inherently unsatisfactory and that God is expected to listen to our complaints even if He doesn't fix everything, explains the role of religion in human affairs, the endless and deadly conflicts between religions that punctuate human history. It is the "God must validate me" and "God prefers me to them" postures that explain why religious people are so offended by scientific evidence and any reasoning other than their own.

In a great irony, if one thinks about how religion is ordinarily pictured (as a program for overall improvement in the human condition, a posture of compassion and understanding for our fellow humans, and a plan that can be reduced to practice), one quickly sees that the "religious" outlook described above is in fact the least "religious" in its effects of the three outlooks described, on the ground that it has the smallest prospect of improving the human condition.

The Authority of the Book
I remind the reader that I am focusing my attention on the religious outlook described above, people who take the Bible literally (34%) and as a guide to everyday life, who believe God created humans in their present form relatively recently (45%-55%), or who think evolution is bunk (35%). By reading the Bible I am forced to the conclusion that those who accept it literally haven't actually read the book, but I could easily be wrong (there are other, equally persuasive explanations, like they didn't understand what they were reading).

It is a sort of open-air I.Q. test to compare the certainty of this group that the Bible is literally true, versus the events described in the book. For example (an example most people have heard), Adam and Eve are the only people on the planet, they are expelled from the primeval garden, they bear two sons, Cain slays Abel, then Cain takes a wife. Say what? Where did this woman come from? Most religious people respond by saying the story is allegorical, it isn't a complete history, it is a recitation of particular events as part of a specific moral lesson, but it omits many events not relevant to the story being told, like where Cain's wife came from. In other words, the Bible is not a complete or accurate record.

Okay, fine. Next step. Bishop James Ussher (1581-1656), relying on the completeness and accuracy of the Bible, famously calculated the time span of the Bible back to creation, and therefore the time span of the universe, by tabulating all the named characters, their offspring and travels, and concluded that the universe began on Sunday, 23 October, 4004 B.C.. It is this famous project, plus similar efforts on the part of other literal-minded souls, when added to the literal-mindedness of contemporary religious people, that has produced the present disagreement about evidence for geology and evolution.

Here's my question. If Cain is able to take a wife on the strength of what is excluded from the Bible, how can Bishop Ussher justify specifying the time span of history — to the day — by relying so literally on what is included?

Consider that:

  • Religious people vigorously disagree with evolution and the geological record on the ground that the Bible is a literal record of all of human history, but
  • Cain can locate a marriage partner on the premise that the Bible is not a literal record of all of human history.

My point? Not to make an argument that has been made by many others (to no effect), but to point out that those who take the Bible literally do it by not thinking, or in some cases by not knowing how to think. I point this out to warn those who expect to be able to reason with religious people: reason is not the driving force behind religious belief.

Some may think this literalness is not very important in any practical sense, that taking the Bible literally is a private, benign whim, with no public consequences. But this a dangerous misconception. Take this Biblical passage (Deuteronomy 13, 6-10)4:

If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which [is] as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers;
[Namely], of the gods of the people which [are] round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the [one] end of the earth even unto the [other] end of the earth;
Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:
But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.
And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.

This passage is just an example, and is typical of many similar statements present in nearly all religious texts. The reader may take this call to murder anyone who doesn't share your beliefs as hyperbole that no one could possibly accept literally, but I have to remind my readers that 34% of Americans take the entire Bible literally, word for word, including the words above.

A person who believes the Bible is the literal word of God, on reading the above divine instruction, is necessarily faced with a profound moral dilemma — should he murder all the infidels he meets on the street, according to God's clear instructions above, or should he hang his head in shame for being a hypocrite and a coward?

According to the above surveys, 34% of Americans face this moral quandary. Based on the 2005 U.S. population of 295 million people, that would be 100 million tortured souls. No wonder this country is so violent.

If anyone still wonders how the September 11th religious terrorists could bring themselves to kill 3,000 people (and themselves) without hesitation, all he need do is read the above Biblical passage, imagine equivalent phrasing in the Qur'an (it's there), and remember how many people accept scripture as literal truth.

But, unlike the Islamic religious terrorists who brought us 9/11, American Biblical literalists don't usually bring down buildings full of people — well, not many buildings, or particularly large ones. They are more likely to burn down reproductive health clinics and murder doctors — you know, as a public service.

Motivation and Marketing
It should be clear that religious belief is not informed by a dispassionate examination of the human condition — there really is no direct evidence for the particular kind of supreme being described in most religious writings. But, notwithstanding this complete absence of evidence, the majority of people possess religious belief of one kind or another. It seems religious belief arises from desire rather than evidence — from internal, rather than external, forces.

It is also consistently shown that those most likely to possess strong religious belief are those with the least satisfactory lives, the lowest educational attainment, and the poorest grasp of science. In 1993 Washington Post reporter Michael Weisskopf described this core religious group as "largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command." By virtue of their readiness to be led, they are ideal candidates for modern religion. And make no mistake about it — contemporary religion is a consumer product: in exchange for perfect obedience and some money, you get perfect contentment. Whatever you do, you will be forgiven. You are a member of the elect, the chosen. You are — well, let's just say it — better than other people. You will go to heaven, and your unbelieving neighbors won't. This is pure marketing hype, and about 100 million Americans buy it.

Most religious people do not remotely grasp that religion is a consumer product. Because of their emotional attachment to religion, they would be offended by the very suggestion. But a dispassionate examination of religion shows it to be indistinguishable from a well-thought-out marketing campaign. The marketers know their audience to a fare-thee-well, they know what to say, when to say it, and how to maximize their returns.

Is this meant to ridicule the human search for meaning? No, not at all. It is meant to ridicule a shrink-wrapped one-size-fits-all substitute for that search, a perfect consumer product that never fills you up and never lets you go.

Let's compare religion to a university education. In a university, you are given practical skills to deal with reality, you are trained to depend less and less on the university experience, then you are pushed out of the university into reality, where you sink or swim as an individual. Leaving the university is an occasion for celebration, a sign that a person has become fully functional.

In religion, you are trained to depend more and more on religion, less and less on methods that lie outside religion, and you are actively discouraged from learning very much about the world. Leaving the religion is an occasion for grief, condemnation, and in some times and places, murder.

Now let's compare religion to pilot training. In early pilot training, the entire point is to prepare the student for solo flight, which means leaving the instructor on the ground. If a student doesn't learn to fly solo, if he always requires an instructor, he is regarded as a failure, just like someone who never graduates from a university. But in religion, "flying solo" is a sign of failure — failure of the individual to join the flock sincerely and without reservation, and certainly a failure of religion's marketing department (solo fliers don't put money in the plate).

Some religious people will object that this comparison isn't legitimate, that flying solo is all right for a pilot, but the religious experience is by definition a group experience. Some may argue there is no such thing as individual religious experience, that religion is all about choosing which group experience to have, and the comparison with pilots is misguided. But the prevalence of this view only proves the effectiveness of religion's marketers.

In fact, there is a rich literature that describes individual religious (well, strictly speaking, spiritual) experience. Here is an example of a solo flier who I will argue is at least as worthy of being thought "religious" as the most dedicated pew-warmer. He flew solo in every sense of the word, and he described his experience this way:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

This sonnet was written by Canadian John Gillespie Magee, a World War II Spitfire pilot who was killed at the age of 19. His church was composed of air.

My point is that church attendance doesn't remotely mean what most people think it means. Church attendance is only superficially associated with spirituality, or moral behavior, or a predisposition to think about larger issues. In an important way, church attendance simply measures the degree to which we shun, or do not value, individual experience.

It is in religion's nature to grow, therefore it must advertise, it must increase its customer base through — "marketing?" — no, that word is avoided. Instead, many religions "proselytize," sometimes door to door, and this activity is presented as a duty of all the religion's followers. No one bothers to explain how increasing the number of followers addresses ultimate spiritual questions. But in creating a religious group, in describing that group as the only true religion, and in punishing nonbelievers, people contribute to a long history of intolerance, small-mindedness and violence.

Mahatma Gandhi accomplished a lot using unconventional methods. Without resorting to violence, he almost singlehandedly drove the British colonialists out of his country, he tried to unite the newly independent India, and he tried to keep neighbors from killing each other on religious grounds. He saw some measure of success in each of these goals except the last, but I doubt anyone counts this failure against him, given the self-righteousness, intolerance and bloodthirstiness that religious belief creates in people.

Religion's Agenda
As shown in the section above this one, religion is rightly looked on as a consumer product, one supported by an organization not unlike a corporation with its own interests and goals. Religion's primary goal is self-preservation, while a secondary goal is expansion of its customer base. Modern religion is optimally situated to accomplish these goals.

Does anyone still doubt the idea that marketing is central to religion? Consider an alternative explanation based on a higher purpose. It is difficult to imagine how increasing the size of a religion's flock can improve the legitimacy of a particular religious belief. There either is a God as conceived by someone, or there isn't — divine questions are not a popularity contest, and deities don't rely on Gallup polls.

To show this more clearly, let's turn the argument around — let's say the legitimacy of a religious outlook really does depend on the number of followers. If that is true, then if everyone who believed were to die, their God would die with them, and it could then be argued that particular God lived only in the imaginations of the followers and had no independent existence.

On the strength of that argument we can say that the legitimacy of a religious belief is not, cannot be, dependent on the number of followers, without failing this crucial test of logic. Therefore it follows that religion's constant effort to increase the number of followers is based on marketing considerations — nothing more, nothing less. Religion's efforts to make itself known to more people, to insinuate itself into schools and government, is a marketing campaign, it has nothing to do with the higher purposes that religion claims for itself.

If I were approached by someone trying to get me to join his religion (presuming for the moment that I would listen to such an appeal), and if I discovered this particular version of God actually cared whether I was a member or not, I would reject the religion on that basis alone. I would rather believe in a more self-respecting supreme being, one who has more important things to do than count sheep.

I want to say once again that none of this is meant to disparage anyone's heartfelt spiritual quest. My objection is not to the idea of God, it is against a deliberate attempt to portray Him as a used car salesman, or to exploit the notion of God in furtherance of activities that trap people, hobble their personal and spiritual growth.

To summarize, modern religion is utterly divorced from the higher goals and purposes it imagines itself to be heir to, and is engaged in a conventional political campaign to improve its apparent legitimacy, its prestige, and its income.

Creationism has a long history, beginning with acceptance of its description of the world as a stage on which God's will is acted out — a will interpreted, of course, by God's earthly representatives. The Renaissance and the observational sciences began to challenge the creationist picture, not directly or intentionally but as a side effect. Since the time of Galileo, there have been an increasing number of cases where the creationist outlook and that provided by the simple observation of nature have come into conflict. Galileo used his primitive telescope to conclude that the prevailing view of the universe was mistaken. Contrary to an earth-centered doctrine supported by the Church, Galileo asserted that the sun was the center of the local system and the earth was one of many planets that revolved around the sun.

When Galileo made this assertion, he may have realized the risk he was taking. Giordano Bruno had made a similar assertion some thirty years before and had been burned at the stake for his heresy. The Church, having lost some credibility in the interim and aware of Galileo's popularity, made Galileo publicly recant his views under threat of torture, but without actually tearing him to pieces as was the Church's normal practice when dealing with doubters and critics.

Skipping ahead a few centuries in this whirlwind tour, through field observations Charles Darwin realized that the variety of life on earth might have come about through the simple, if brutal, expedient of creating random mutations of existing species and then killing off all the mutations that didn't compete efficiently. One would have thought the Church, which had survived by killing off anyone who didn't agree with it, would have embraced this theory as self-evident based on its own history, but unfortunately evolution has the side effect of making divine intervention seem less important, perhaps even unnecessary. On that ground various religious groups have fought the idea of evolution since its first appearance.

I want to emphasize that Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin could not have been less similar in outlook. Galileo was quite rebellious and irreverent, while Darwin was quite devoted to his religious beliefs and to tradition. Terrified of the controversy he realized would result from publication of his theory, Darwin put off publishing for twenty years. Finally another scientist named Wallace stumbled on the same set of ideas and was about to publish, at which point Darwin realized there was no point in delaying any longer (this is a greatly simplified version of a complex story).

The publication and general acceptance of the theory of evolution set the stage for the present conflict between religious and scientific outlooks. The reason evolution is so controversial, as hinted above, is that it seems to offer an explanation for the variety of earthly species without requiring the direct involvement of a deity. And, in a reaction that has become a modern religious theme, instead of accepting and embracing evolution as proof of God's ingenuity and wisdom, many religious people refuse to accept it on the ground that it contradicts a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Early in the 20th Century, creationists in the U.S. South backed laws that forbade the teaching of evolution, and in 1925 one of these laws was challenged in the famous, widely reported "Scopes trial." Contrary to a common assumption, Scopes, a schoolteacher, lost the trial and had to pay a $100 fine.

Since the Scopes trial the road has become more rocky for opponents of evolution (and for creationism itself), culminating in a 1987 Supreme Court ruling (Edwards v. Aguillard, 85-1513)5 declaring unconstitutional a Louisiana law that prohibited the teaching of evolution unless creationism was given equal time. Along with rejecting the Louisiana law, primarily on the ground that it violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court very clearly rejects the argument that "creation science" is based in science at all.

This decision marked a turning point for creationism and creationists. Its advocates were forced to realize their views were out of step with contemporary life and public opinion, and if they were to continue their struggle, they would have to change tactics, if only to abandon the now-discredited notion of "creation science" and evade the consequences of the Supreme Court's ruling.

Intelligent Design
Defeated by the highest court in the land, creationists reacted by systematically reshaping themselves, disguising their identity as advocates of a religious agenda in public education. To meet the requirements implicit in the court's decision, creationists removed all references to a "supreme being" or "God" from their publications and literature, they stopped openly insisting that humans were created within the past 10,000 years by said supreme being, and they reidentified themselves as well — as advocates of the idea that life's complexity argues for an intelligent designer, a sort of biological construction site foreman.

The idea of an intelligent designer has a long history. A version of this idea was proposed in 1802 by William Paley, who argued that if one discovered a watch lying on the ground, one could reasonably infer the existence of a watchmaker, an "intelligent designer."

But creationists have come to realize they cannot use the term "intelligent designer," this treads too close to an argument for a supreme being, which would conflict with the recent Supreme Court ruling. So, frantically backpedaling away from the creationist position, they have settled on "intelligent design" — in essence, life is too complicated to have happened by chance, it therefore must result from an intelligent design, but without any reference to the identity of the intelligent designer.

Some of the internal documents that guided this reinvention process have been published on the Web. One of them is named "The Wedge Strategy,"6 and it means just what it says — an attempt to push the now-rejected creationism into public education by way of the comparatively palatable wedge of "intelligent design" (hereafter ID).

The "Wedge Strategy" document clearly states the purpose of ID: "To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies." and "To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and hurnan [sic] beings are created by God.", among other similar goals. In essence this means ID is creationism with a different name, and represents a strategy to evade the consequences of the Supreme Court ruling until new roots can be put in place to support the old creationism.

Unfortunately (so far), as a legal and social policy strategy, ID isn't faring any better than creationism did before it. In Cobb County, Georgia, a law was passed requiring the placement of a warning label in biology textbooks. Among other things, the warning stated that evolution is "a theory, not a fact." A court threw this law out on the usual grounds — the establishment clause of the First Amendment — and the court also argued that use of the word "theory" would mislead students, who would probably interpret the word as "hunch", rather than its formal scientific meaning as "the best explanation consistent with available evidence."

More recently, in Dover, Pennsylvania, a school board composed primarily of ID advocates and/or creationists recently required that a statement clearly favoring ID be read to biology students. In part, the statement says "[evolution] theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence." It goes on to advocate the teaching of intelligent design and recommends an alternate textbook named "Of Pandas and People" which puts forth a creationist argument.

This issue quickly wound up in court, in "Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District.," a case that attracted national attention. During the trial, advocates of the curriculum change argued they were not motivated by religious convictions but by a desire to present all competing theories to the students in an evenhanded way. But when one reads transcripts of the school board meetings, one hears remarks like this: "Two thousand years ago, someone died on a cross. Can't someone take a stand for Him?" and "This country wasn't founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution. This country was founded on Christianity, and our students should be taught as such." It seems this sort of talk failed the "nose test" among citizens of Dover, and at the next opportunity (before the court rendered its decision), eight of the school board's ID advocates were swept from office.

During the trial, expert witnesses showed that "Of Pandas and People (1987)," a textbook the school board explicitly recommended to Dover students, was in fact a rehashed version of earlier creationist textbooks named "Creation Biology (1983)" and "Biology and Creation (1986)", with many large sections unchanged; and that the present textbook puts forth an essentially creationist outlook.

In the decision in the Dover case9, the court ruled that "Intelligent design" is "a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory" and cannot be mentioned in biology classes. Here are some selected quotes from the court's decision:

  • "In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents."
  • "Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false. Their presupposition is that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general. Repeatedly in this trial, Plaintiffs' scientific experts testified that the theory of evolution represents good science, is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, and that it in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator."
  • "The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy."
  • "The breathtaking inanity of the Board's decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources."
The Dover decision in many ways resembles the 1987 Supreme Court ruling that in effect destroyed the prospects for creationism in American classrooms. But no one should think this case, or this particular ruling, will end the controversy over intelligent design. One reason is the Dover school board members who championed the ID policy had nearly all been voted out of office before the ruling, which means an appeal to higher courts is unlikely. In turn, this means the Dover decision cannot be used as a compelling precedent in other jurisdictions, places where similar "educational" policies are being considered or are in place.

At this point the reader may wonder why creationists and ID advocates are so fervent in their attempts to push their religious beliefs into our classrooms. Does this activity help demonstrate that the world is (or is not) the product of a supreme being? No, of course not — answers to these metaphysical questions do not, cannot, hinge on what individuals choose to do. Instead, the activities of the creationists represent a modern, toned-down version of the impulse to tie infidels to stakes and set fire to them. Burning people at the stake has gone out of fashion over the past 500 years, but the underlying motivation remains alive — a primitive, visceral intolerance of anyone who doesn't believe exactly what you believe.

I had intended to argue against what the Dover school board was supposed to have claimed in its formal written position — that there are "unexplainable gaps" in the theory of evolution. But on examining the available online materials, it turns out the school board's statement doesn't include these words. There are many online claims that the school board took this position, but in fact the original statement doesn't contain these words. Here is the text of the statement:

The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin's theory of evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

Because Darwin's theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book, "Of Pandas and People," is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves.

With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the origins of life to individual students and their families. As a standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on standards-based assessments.

The school board's position, as reprehensible as it is, doesn't contain the key phrase that its critics claim it does. The closest phrase is "Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence", which I would have paraphrased as "unexplained gaps," but certainly not "unexplainable gaps," as it is described in many press accounts. The distinction between "unexplained" and "unexplainable" is crucial — to assert that an evidentiary gap is "unexplainable" is to reveal an abysmal ignorance of science, and to falsely assign this viewpoint to another is to give up the moral high ground.

After some online research, I think this error crept into press accounts as a result of a statement on the ACLU Web site7 that correctly describes a general position by ID advocates including the "unexplainable gaps" argument, then I think one or more newspaper reporters mistakenly assigned this position to the Dover school board, without actually reading their statement.

In one example, reporter Bill Sulon, writing for the Harrisburg, PA "Patriot-News," says "The statement calls evolution 'just a theory' with unexplainable 'gaps,' and refers students to 'Pandas' in the school library as a resource on intelligent design."8 A reader may find this sentence a bit tricky to unwind, but the word "unexplainable" belongs only to the reporter, not the school board. This confusing language has propagated across many later accounts, and the reporters bear responsibility — the claims they make are not supported by the original document.

It is likely that many of the Web links in this article will expire over time. If the reader wants to see the degree to which the phrase "unexplainable gaps" has been generally and wrongly assigned to the Dover school board, and to keep up to date on this case and its aftereffects, simply Google for "Dover," "evolution" and "unexplainable gaps."

To close this section, I want to comment on another phrase from the Dover school board statement: "A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations." To put it plainly, this description is false. This definition fails to correctly identify either a scientific theory's traits or purpose. A scientific theory is meant to provide a conceptual framework that explains observations, and perhaps predict new observations not yet made, but it is not judged as a theory by how well-tested it is. In the next section I will discuss traits that a scientific theory must possess, traits unfortunately left out of the Dover school board's definition, including one critical property shared by all scientific theories that stands as a litmus test of scientific understanding.

A Discussion of Science and the Scientific Method
While the Dover school board's statement never took the position that there are "unexplainable gaps" in the theory of evolution, it is equally clear that many advocates of ID have taken this position, and this shows a rather shallow grasp of science. To assert that there are "unexplainable gaps" in a scientific theory is to claim that no further evidence can be collected, now or in the future, which is an absurd position.

Also, ID advocates frequently take the position that evolution is "just a theory, not a fact." When I read this sort of statement, I wonder if the speaker is trying to exploit common ignorance of science, or is a victim of that ignorance himself.

There are a handful of easily absorbed principles that set science apart from ordinary thought, principles that must be understood for any reasoned debate of these issues. Here is a list:

First and very important, properly conducted scientific research cannot ever prove a theory true, it can only prove a theory false. Philosopher David Hume has said, "No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion."

Second, following from the first point above, in science there are only theories, no theory ever collapses into a fact. Some theories are very well-supported, some less so, but even the very best theories, theories about which there is little doubt, do not become fact. Fact is not science's domain.

Third, because science is composed entirely of theories, every part of science is open to further investigation, and no topics are shut off from reëvaluation and new study. If a scientific theory were to become assumed as fact, and if no one cared to investigate it any more, in that moment the theory would leave the domain of science.

For example, when Einstein proposed relativity theory in the early 20th century, he set aside an earlier theory that had stood unchallenged for about 300 years. The earlier theory had seemed perfectly satisfactory, but experiments had begun to cast doubt on it. Relativity theory explained the outcome of these experiments as well as explaining other phenomena in a more concise way, so the old theory was discarded.

If instead the old theory had been proclaimed as fact, Einstein (like Galileo before him) would not have been allowed to propose its replacement and we would have been deprived of all the benefits of relativity theory and other theories that followed from it — in essence we would not have modern technology. And please take note — Einstein's powerful theory is, and will always remain, "just a theory."

Returning to our list of scientific principles:

Fourth, if a theory does not (or cannot) propose a test of its claims that might falsify the theory, that theory is not scientific. For a theory to be called "scientific," it must be potentially falsifiable through practical tests of its claims.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of point four — a legitimate scientific theory must propose a basis for its own potential falsification. If I say that the entire universe is actually inside a grain of sand on a beach in a much larger universe, that may be an interesting theory, but because it cannot be tested and potentially falsified, it is not a scientific theory.

There is no single principle more important to understand about science. By allowing for the potential falsification of any theory based on new evidence, the falsifiability principle reveals the intellectual openness and humility that characterizes true science and scientists.

Widespread misunderstanding of this principle is also the source for most criticism of science by those outside the field. Scientists are often brutally candid about what they do not know, and what positions are not supported by evidence. People outside the field sometimes take this candor as a defect in science or scientists, especially if they aren't trained to understand and respect the central role of evidence.

Fifth, science is a process of shaping theories to fit evidence, not the other way around.
Point five means if you see someone create a theory, then search for evidence to support the theory, you are not observing a scientist, you are observing a politician or a lawyer.

Many people who are unfamiliar with science accept the idea that a person might create a theory, then look for evidence to support the theory. This seems perfectly reasonable based on ordinary human affairs, but this is not how science works. A real scientist doesn't pick and choose, throwing out any evidence that doesn't support what he already believes, and a research program with a preconception about what is to be "discovered" is appropriately suspect from the start.

Scientific research is a process of such absolute strictness and openness to alternative explanations that it would seem utterly alien to the average person. For example, in many scientific publications that rely on statistical analysis, a value will be included that looks more or less like this:

p < .001
This means the researcher has evaluated his data gathering methods and determined that his result stands a less than 1/1000 probability of coming about by chance, rather than from the relationship supposedly being measured. In essence this is a scientist saying, "Here is the numerical probability that my work means nothing."

My point? Scientists are not lawyers. They remain vigilant to avoid hidden assumptions, they very candidly say what has been left out of their research, and they are more than happy to hear criticisms of their work by peers who might have a different explanation for their observations.

Normally, before a scientific paper is published in a reputable journal, it must survive a rather scathing appraisal by a panel of scientific peers, in a process called "peer review." This is yet another layer of caution to make sure what is published is likely to be — true? — no, because of the first principle listed above, scientists try to avoid using that word. The goal is to present the best evidence, and the best theories about that evidence. Truth, like fact, is not part of science's domain.

Is all this caution really necessary? Most definitely. There is a great deal at stake in science, many things can go wrong, and scientists are appropriately cautious about the entire process, from test tube to journal article.

Here is an example of what can go wrong when scientists relax their vigilance. Some time ago, a young researcher theorized that citric acid could prevent pregnancy, and he created a research program to determine if this was true. Obvious mistake number one — theory before evidence.

The researcher assembled a group of experimental subjects, all young women, to test his theory. The young women began to use citric acid instead of their existing birth control methods. The researcher tracked the womens' personal histories to see if his method worked.

A few years later the researcher, confident that he had discovered a breakthrough, was preparing to publish his findings, but he first submitted his paper for peer review. On reviewing the paper, one of the researcher's older colleagues noticed a problem, so he called the researcher. "There is something interesting about the dropout dates and birth dates in your experimental group," he said. The researcher replied, "Well, yes, some subjects decided to drop out of the study in order to have children, nothing out of the ordinary." The older man paused, said, "I suggest that you carefully examine the dropout dates and the later birth dates," and hung up the phone.

So the young researcher compared the dropout dates with the subsequent birth dates for the subjects who had "decided to become mothers." It turned out those who dropped out all gave birth less than nine months after leaving the study. On further investigation it turned out they had become pregnant during the study, but because they liked the handsome young researcher, they didn't want to hurt his feelings by revealing that his theory didn't work. The young, inexperienced researcher had completely missed the significance of the dates.

This is an example of experimental science, both with regard to what can go wrong, and how errors are detected. Because the stakes are so high, scientists tend to be brutally candid about the failings and limitations of their own work and that of their colleagues.

In most areas of human thought, what we think is influenced by how we feel, by what we might prefer to be true. But in science feelings and passions are irrelevant — evidence is all that matters.

This section shows how science differs from ordinary intellectual activities. The rules are specific and strict, evidence plays a central role, and there are safeguards to prevent sloppy reasoning and conclusions. It is said that the goal of science is, not so much knowing, as knowing that we know.

In other words, science is the opposite of religion. Not opposed, but opposite.

One side effect of a scientist's professional candor and openness is that it invites a superficial, ignorant kind of criticism from outside the field, especially if the audience consists of people equally ignorant of science.

For example, the advocates of intelligent design (and designer) feel perfectly comfortable criticizing evolution on the ground that there are "gaps" in the evidence, without acknowledging that they have no falsifiable theory or evidence for their position at all.

The reason for the criticism is to make intelligent design seem more plausible as an alternative, but these critics do all they can to avoid a direct comparison of the scientific evidence for evolution and for intelligent design (just as well, the latter has none). ID advocates also try to avoid discussions in scientific forums or publication in peer-reviewed journals, where the bankruptcy of their position is immediately apparent. They much prefer audiences of nonspecialists who are not competent to evaluate scientific arguments on their merits.

As to ID and its pretension to being based in science, it is a "research program" with a predetermined outcome, and no other outcome is possible. In other words, it is not science, it is advocacy.

As to evolution, the evidence is excellent and copious, such that people who don't care which theory prevails, who have no axe to grind, overwhelmingly prefer evolution to its alternatives.

I personally wish the ID advocates would grow up as the Vatican10 has recently done (now openly critical of ID and its advocates) and, while we're on the subject, I wish they would stop presuming to speak for God.

Readers should understand that the views expressed in this article represent widely held sentiments, even among people with religious beliefs. In the Dover, PA ruling against intelligent design, the court condemned the school board's policy and actions, saying, "To be sure, Darwin's theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions."

Here's my advice for advocates of ID (I know it won't be taken, but just for the record): Accept that evolution is consistent with the evidence, proclaim it further proof of God's ingenuity and wisdom, declare victory, and depart the field. And to paraphrase the court's Dover decision, stop trying to tell children what to think — let them learn how to think instead.

  1. American Religious Identification Survey
  2. The Latest Polls on Creationism and Evolution
  3. CBS News Poll on Evolution and Science Education
  4. Deuteronomy 13 (KJV)
  5. Supreme Court, Edwards v. Aguillard (No. 85-1513)
  6. The Wedge Strategy
  7. ACLU on "Intelligent Design"
  8. Harrisburg, PA Patriot-News item
  9. Dover, PA court decision
  10. Vatican: ID not science


Home | Editorial Opinion |     Share This Page