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August 11, 2005

Why ID Won't Go Away

Posted to Science Policy: General

Jacob Weisberg writes at Slate, "That evolution erodes religious belief seems almost too obvious to require argument" (Thanks Chris Mooney for the link). Chris Mooney author of a forthcoming book about how the right abuses science agrees, ironically enough enaging in his own abuse of science, "I agree that evolutionary thinking will tend to eat away religious belief "in aggregate " as Weisberg writes " and then Mooney qualifies this statement with "... but that's different from saying that it's because the two views are in irreconcilable, logical conflict. That's simply not true, as evolution is silent on God's existence." Mooney should have stuck to this last point, rather than trying to have it both ways.

Lets cut to the chase, so long as supporters of teaching evolution claim that this course of action "destroys" (strong version from Weisberg) or "eats away at" (weak version from Mooney) religious belief, then it seems "almost too obvious to require argument" to say that there will be a reflexive response by ID proponents to protect their religious beliefs from being attacked. Weisberg and Mooney would be wise to take a cue from the American Astronomical Society (just substitute "evolution" for "intelligent design"):

"It doesn't help to mix in religious ideas like "intelligent design" with the job of understanding what the world is and how it works. It's hard enough to keep straight how Newton's Laws work in the Solar System or to understand the mechanisms of human heredity without adding in this confusing and non-scientific agenda. It would be a lot more helpful if you would advocate good science teaching and the importance of scientific understanding for a strong and thriving America."

The teaching of evolution should not be presented by its supporters as having implications for mainstream religion. If it does have implications it only does so because people like Weisberg and Mooney are mapping their own religious preferences onto science curriculum, which is the exact complaint that they have made against the ID movement. Evolution is without a doubt solid science. But to suggest that it compels a particular religious perspective is as bad a misuse of science as the ID supporters are committing. Until supporters of evolution get this basic point straight, then expect the ID movement to thrive and the politicization of evolution to persist.

Posted on August 11, 2005 11:54 AM


See, this post I understand. Of course, I thought Krugman was making exactly this point (evolution is without a doubt solid science. Think tanks try to trick you into thinking it's not.)

Posted by: Dylan Otto Krider at August 11, 2005 12:18 PM

I also think Weisberg misuses history to make his point. Here's why.

(In case the link doesn't work above, here's the url: ttp:// )

Posted by: Carl Zimmer at August 11, 2005 03:01 PM

Roger, you know I'm a big fan, but this argument is as facile as your attack on Krugman.

I don't think anybody argues that evolution "compels" a religious perspective. Since God is, or can be, defined in such a way as to be independent of all empirical evidence, then by definition no empirical theory can "compel" one to abandon belief therein.

But, as I argued in Mooney's comments and elsewhere, it is fatuous to say that evolution is *neutral* toward religion. Remember: we're talking real world here, real people, real psychology, not "logical possibility." It is impossible to foreclose the logical possibility of a being with no material manifestation.

But what real-world religious believers (*particularly* the religious right and the folks supporting ID) want and seek is not logical possibility. They want a God of *substance*, one that cares for them, and deems them special, and intervenes on their behalf, etc. Otherwise what's the point?

Evolution (and science more generally), if taken seriously and followed to it's logical conclusions, removes much of the space where this substance might have resided. Why do you think "God of the gaps" thinking is so common? In practice, religious believers want God *in the world*.

A person can believe in evolution and in the other widely accepted theories of science, can adopt scientific thinking and a skeptical, empirically focused way of approaching knowledge, and still believe in an abstract God floating above all creation, perhaps having set all creation into motion long ago.

But how much refuge is there in that kind of religious belief? How much comfort does it offer?

It's simply not a stable resting point. A person whose God has retreated to that level of abstraction will either reject the science that drove God up there or reject God.

So in this sense, in the realm of actual human psychology, I think evolution is in conflict with substantial religious belief. Denying this may be -- probably is -- *politically* savvy, but that doesn't make it true.

Posted by: Dave Roberts at August 11, 2005 03:17 PM

This is the problem I have: When someone brings up the distortions, dishonesty and fake research of think tanks, you call it democracy, but you seem to find fact checking out of bounds. So although you may find think tanks nothing to worry about, how are those of us who find their tactics imminently worthy of criticism to proceed without prompting a post on your website? How can we make fact checking a part of our democracy as well?

Posted by: Dylan Otto Krider at August 11, 2005 03:58 PM

Dave Roberts draws a contrast between belief in a bearded, white-guy God sitting on a cloud and messing with our everyday lives, and what he describes as an "abstract God floating above all creation, perhaps having set all creation into motion long ago." Belief in the latter kind of God, he writes, is "simply not a stable resting point. A person whose God has retreated to that level of abstraction will either reject the science that drove God up there or reject God."

Dave, if I understand this correctly, you are saying that religious belief and spiritual feeling is impossible unless one believes in the bearded white guy. To which I say: Speak for yourself.

Millions of people who believe in science and evolutionary theory reject the Bearded One in favor of a more sophisticated, non-anthropomorphic — call it "abstract" —concept of God. This is just an observable fact, and it's astonishing that you would deny it.

It goes without saying that the bible anthropomorphizes God, and many people certainly do take it all literally. But in my Jewish tradition, all such descriptions are considered mere metaphors for something that is beyond knowing in any kind of literal human terms. In fact, spiritual feeling for many people, myself included, is motivated by the realization that everything in this amazing cosmos is undergirded by simple, elegant laws stemming from a singular, ultimately ineffable source.

It wasn't science that forced God to "retreat" to what you call this level of abstraction. Countless generations of rebbes and devout Jews have been motivated in their spiritual practice by the realization that everything is a harmonious manifestation of what is described in Judaism's central prayer simply as the One. (Such an abstraction!) In its own way, the prayer anticipates modern cosmology.

Stephen Hawking once wrote that probing the most fundamental mathematical order of nature was like "glimpsing the mind of God." And it was Einstein who said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of human beings.” No bearded white guy for him. But neither did the abstraction diminish his reverence.

Einstein himself described this reverence as "cosmic religious feeling," and he said it was motivated by a “spirit manifest in the laws of the universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man.”

In fact, many scientists reveal a spiritual side and even a belief in some sort of God. One example is Joel Primack, a cosmologist who co-developed the 'cold dark matter' theory. He writes of a "sacred dimension to science." And he once described the ripples observed in the cosmic microwave background radiation – the literal afterglow of the big bang itself — as the "handwriting of God." These ripples are theorized to have given rise to all of the structure seen in today's universe (with a little help from some cold dark matter...). Primack writes, "When we interpret the ripples in the cosmic background radiation, we are reading God’s journal of the first days. What human action could be more sacred than that?"

Clearly, belief in the ability of science to reveal truths about the cosmos is not incompatible with deeply reverential, spiritual feelings and even religion. And it is also simply ridiculous to say, as Weisberg stated, that evolutionary theory inevitably "erodes religious belief." Such bunk.

Posted by: Tom Yulsman at August 11, 2005 08:49 PM

Thanks all for the thoughtful comments, a few quick responses:

1. Dylan, fact checking is very important, and very hard to do well without slipping into a pure partisan mode. A quote I read today in a completely unrelated area gets to this point:

"... it would be regrettable if the only refutation of these assertions about Roberts came from groups opposed to abortion rights."
(read the article for context)

I tried to grapple with this challenge here:

2. Dave and Tom, nice exchange. I do share Tom's perspective, which says better that I stated some of the themes I raised in the original post.

Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at August 11, 2005 11:17 PM

Carl- Great post on your site. I for one am ordering your book!

Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at August 11, 2005 11:27 PM


Maybe you are more rational than most but I can entirely see that people would see it the way Dave suggests. I think this is especially a problem in the US, of all places.

I have always viewed the US cultural relationship with religion as weird. The US is ostensibly a highly religious place (based on church attendance or professed belief in God - certainly compared with Europe). At the same time it has very vigourous efforts by people to ensure the separation of church and state. Indeed those efforts are so vigourous that they try to ensure the removal of all religion from any state activity to the extent that anything conducted by the state (i.e. education) is 'constitutionally certified 100% religion free'. Juxtapose that with the state-sponsored teaching of evolution and what is someone to presume? One doesn't need to conclude that evolution rejects religion as you point out. However, the cultural and political environment in the US is such that this is an obvious conclusion.

I think you will find the ID versus evolution debate is a primarily US-centric debate that is generated by the curious cultural/political environment in the US. Sure, it might get airplay in other countries, but it doesn't matter as much because things don't need that 'constitutionally certified 100% religion free' seal of approval in the same way.

Posted by: John S at August 12, 2005 03:56 AM

"My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety towards the universe and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image, to be servants of their human interests. " - Santayana


Posted by: Dano at August 12, 2005 09:44 AM

John S.,
I don't think it's that the government is so antagonistic to religion. I know when I went to school people read their Bibles and prayed all the time, yet they felt oppressed. Why? Because I was reading Arthur C. Clark, when I should have been sitting quietly in reverence as they prayed.

Nor is it correct to say there is no religion in the curriculum. I read many religious texts in literature class and I learned a lot about religion in history class. What those classes did, however, was teach them as literature and history, rather than endorsing them. Where I think you have a point is when people get in a huff over a plaque on a 100 year old State House that mentions God.

The problem is that the Evangelism is in opposition to a secular education because Evangelism insists on evangelizing. It is your duty to take any opportunity to play witness. Letting everyone read the book they want hampers an opportunity to bring one to God, and therefore, their ability to practice their religion.

I know many preachers, priests and theology students, and all of them recognize evolution, and do not object to its teaching. The problem is largely with the "non-denominational" churches that take a very literal view of the Bible. I agree that it behooves science steer clear of stating anything but what the data says, but if believe Genesis is free of metaphor, I think you'll still feel threatened by it.

Posted by: Dylan Otto Krider at August 12, 2005 10:42 AM

Does anyone actually disagree that a religion (fundamentalist Christianity, broadly) that requires belief in a very recent creation followed by active ongoing intervention by a deity can avoid conflicts with science generally and evolution in particular? Also, has this discussion perhaps been a bit -centric with respect to that desert-based family of religions? I'm pretty sure that Buddhism is immune to conflicts with science, and the same may be true with respect to Hinduism (less sure there).

Posted by: Steve Bloom at August 14, 2005 01:59 AM

I don't see ID as related to religion, but as a kind of product. Like the Monkees, ID could be the result of a bet by a guy that he could create a "philosophy" with nothing but good marketing.

Like the auto parts industry, ID is a product largely created by an "institute" supplying the right wing with talking points, and has the overall rightwing goal of controlling people with religion.

The inanity of the whole thing is pretty well summed up in the observation that real scientists don't try to get their theories adopted by teaching them in high school classrooms.

In some ways it's reminiscent of the long struggle to restore the Bourbons, a struggle that ironically eventually led to the second and third empires of Napolean.

Progress! Ain't it grand!

Posted by: serial catowner at August 14, 2005 12:16 PM

FYI, Chris Mooney follows up on this topic here:

Posted by: Roger Pielke Jr. at August 15, 2005 08:45 AM

Tom, I'm not sure that anybody is still reading this, so I'll be brief: I understand the "spiritual feeling" you describe, and share it. I suspect that many intelligent people sense (feel?) that empirical and rational inquiry ground out in some sort of absolute, and that absolute inspires a kind of awe and reverence. Sure.

But that describes about 1% of the religious population. For the *vast* majority, religion is a way of discerning right from wrong, explaining the origin of humans and the universe, situating groups of humans in relation to each other, providing daily consolation and comfort, etc. etc. For the vast majority, religion includes, implicitly or explicitly, substantive truth claims about the material world. Science in general, and evolution in particular, calls those claims into question.

Thus, while science in general and evolution in particular do not *compel* the absence of that kind of religion, they certainly work to corrode it. Pretending otherwise -- pretending that, for most people, religion is purely metaphorical or about how Everything is One -- serves no purpose that I can see.

The grand Enlightenment story about science breaking the pernicious hold of religion on the mind of humanity: It's out of fashion, but IMO, still accurate.

Posted by: Dave Roberts at August 15, 2005 03:06 PM

"For the *vast* majority, religion is a way of discerning right from wrong, explaining the origin of humans and the universe,..."

If "religion is a way of...explaining the origins of humans and the universe..." then the "*vast* majority" would believe that Genesis is literally true.

I doubt even 1 in 30 Christians believes that Genesis is literally true.

I agree that it's wrong to pretend that evolution (not to mention geology/archeology and astronomy/cosmology) doesn't clearly conflict with the 6000-year-old-earth and Noah's Ark view of history. But since I think hardly anyone believes the 6000-year-old-earth view of history, I don't think there's a conflict between evolution and the "vast majority" of peoples' religious views.

Posted by: Mark Bahner at August 16, 2005 10:29 AM

I think a more than a fair bit of the reason for the debate and scrap is exposed in the comments found to this point.

It is felt that two concepts are linked completely... both that "creation" must be "distant" (billions of years ago, such and so", but also, because it is distant, then God cannot by any stretch of the imagination be close, personal, or caring about humans or their actions.

That is a direct assault at aspects of all religions that go far beyond narrow questions of the timing of creation. When that point of view finds its way into education, it becomes something equally as odious as the forced teaching of ID. It becomes the state declaring, through education, that "religion is wrong."

And, it does happen. Period. I was taught in biology class in Jr. High that "there is no god." It was not in the formal curriculum, but it was taught. You can blame the individual teacher if you wish, but that doesn't solve the problem, or answer the question. Just how many teachers have been so brazen as to say that? 10%? 20%?

If the state is forbidden from formally endorsing religion, it is likewise forbidden from formally rejecting religion, or the teachings thereof. That point puts science education into a rather sticky spot, walking that tight rope, but until and unless people recognize that the formal rejection of religion in the classroom is as odious as the formal endorsement, this debate will not leave.

Posted by: Gary McClellan at August 17, 2005 07:05 PM

Gary McClellan writes, "It becomes the state declaring, through education, that 'religion is wrong.'"

But Gary, as a point of science, the Bible clearly *is* wrong:

1) When it strongly implies that the earth is only ~6000 years old,

2) When it claims that an Ark can be built to house all the animals of the world,

3) When it claims that 40 days and 40 nights of rain ~4000 years ago killed all of the animals and all of the humans on earth (sparing only those in that can kill all the animals on earth.

And a host of other stuff.

That's why Bible stuff isn't taught in science classes.


Posted by: Mark Bahner at August 23, 2005 08:50 PM

Pielke writes: "to suggest that it compels a particular religious perspective is as bad a misuse of science as the ID supporters are committing".

Evolutiuon clearly compels a particular religious perspective. i.e., all those religious perspectives that contradict evolution must be wrong.

Of course, that doesn't mean that you can't believe in god(s). The beauty of the God Hypothesis is that it is infinitely malleable.

Posted by: Tom Rees at September 6, 2005 10:25 AM

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