Be honest: Objections faith-based
Be honest: Objections faith-based
Atlanta Journal Constitution, 9/12/2005 - original
"Teach the controversy."

That's all that advocates of intelligent design ask. Go ahead and teach what they call the scientific evidence for and against the theory of evolution. But at the same time, why not also teach the "competing scientific theory" that only an intelligent being could have created the marvel of the world around us?

In making that argument, most advocates of intelligent design reject any suggestion that their approach is religion disguised in a white lab coat. Intelligent design is simply good science, they say, with all the rigor and honest inquiry that science requires, and it should be treated as such.

In fact, the scientific evidence in favor of a designer "can be tested or evaluated in the same manner as scientists daily test for design in other sciences," says the Intelligent Design Network, which advocates teaching the approach in public schools.

The classic example cited by ID advocates is the eye. As they see it, the eye's remarkable intricacy cannot be explained through the gradual changes implicit in evolution. And the absence of a natural explanation leaves just one other possibility: A creator must be at work.

Of course, scientists strongly dispute such claims, arguing that evolution can indeed account for the sophistication of the eye, noting such rudimentary versions as the light sensitivity of some one-celled creatures and light-sensitive patches of skin in others.

But in terms of public opinion, that argument doesn't make much headway. In a recent Harris poll, only 38 percent of Americans said they believed that human beings evolved from earlier creatures; only 12 percent believe that evolution should be the only theory of human origin taught in our schools.

President Bush takes that same approach, endorsing the teaching of both evolution and intelligent design.

Unfortunately, though, I don't believe ID advocates are sincere about wanting to teach the controversy. If they are, they simply haven't thought through the implications.

A controversy, remember, has two sides. And if alleged weaknesses in evolution theory are to be taught in our schools as science, then scientific evidence against the existence of an intelligent designer or God must be taught, too.

That's how science works. If you propose a theory, you issue an invitation to others to shoot holes in your theory.

So think about that: Do we really want science teachers exploring the evidence for but also against the existence of a designer? I don't think that's wise or useful for a number of reasons, but that's what a rigorous and intellectually honest debate would require.

To take a tiny example, the existence of an appendix which serves no purpose except to enrich surgeons certainly calls into question the intelligence if not the existence of an ultimate designer. To take a larger example, would an intelligent designer allow the birth of babies so malformed that they are doomed to live only a few hours of a painful existence?

And to change scales altogether, what kind of intelligent designer creates a world in which a massive hurricane wipes an entire city off the map?

If the complexity of the eye argues for an intelligent designer of this universe, the random deaths of large numbers of innocent people can certainly be said to argue against it.

Of course, priests, ministers, rabbis and mullahs have been dealing with such profound questions forever, and they do so largely by deferring to the unknowable mystery of God's will and God's mind.

I'm not trying to challenge that wisdom, not for a moment. I have too much respect for the power of faith.

But in an honest debate, it must be said that those answers are grounded in faith, not in science. And ultimately, that's really the problem.

When advocates of intelligent design deny that they are advancing religious faith, they aren't being honest. They're telling a lie, no matter how well-intended, and it's a lie that fools no one. Yet they want everyone to pretend to believe it.

Trying to advance the cause of faith by dishonestly disguising it as science does a profound injustice to both. But the greater harm is to religion. If you are trying to spread faith by denying its power, something's wrong.

Truth cannot be advanced through deception. Scientists may not be able to confirm that, but I bet your minister can.

Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.