Intelligent Design Versus "Intelligent Design"
This morning as I was driving our three older kids to school, we were listening to NPR. Just as traffic on the Interstate freed up there was a story -- sad, I thought -- about young people who have given up their religions. It's not a light subject and I wished there was more time to discuss it with my kids, but as always we were late for school.
Among those interviewed was a 27-year-old, Kyle Simpson, raised a Christian of some variety, who presented his own story as a case of science, specifically evolution, versus religion:
I don't [believe in God] but I really want to. That's the problem with questions like these is you don't have anything that clearly states, "Yes, this is fact," so I'm constantly struggling. But looking right at the facts -- evolution and science -- they're saying, no there is none. But what about love? What about the ideas of forgiveness? I like to believe they are true and they are meaningful.The interview subjects told a variety of stories. Some had experienced tragedies and suffering they couldn't make sense of in the context of their religious upbringing. Others were troubled by the conflict of tradition with modern culture. I wondered to what extent these young folks were rejecting not a genuine historical faith but a baby version they learned as kids, that no serious, reflective adult could find persuasive.
A 33-year-old ex-Muslim, Yusuf Ahmad, now an atheist, explained that it was those silly stories of Scriptural characters that doomed faith for him:
Like the story of Abraham -- his God tells him to sacrifice his son. Then he takes his son to sacrifice him, and he turns into a goat. I remember growing up, in like fifth [or] sixth grade I'd hear these stories and be like, "That's crazy! Why would this guy do this? Just because he heard a voice in his head, he went to sacrifice his son and it turned into a goat?" There's no way that this happened. I wasn't buying it.What? Abraham's son, Isaac, was turned into a goat!? Of course that doesn't happen in the Bible, nor does it -- I just checked, and unless I missed something -- in the Quran's telling. I'm no Islam expert, but it seems clear that Yusuf, just as he himself said, had rejected not a mature faith but a children's version, dimly remembered from fifth grade. I explained to my oldest son as I dropped him off that this is why we send him to a religious school, where my wife and I hope that he'll learn that there's far more to our own tradition, which has seemed ever more inexhaustible to me as I have learned about it, than the kiddie edition that many people who reject religion recall from their upbringing. Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution Is True comes to mind.
I bring this up because in the evolution debate, the toughest opponent we're up against isn't Darwinists like Coyne. It's the simplistic baby versions, often nearly unrecognizable, that go by the name "intelligent design" while having not much at all to do with the real thing. There's ID, and there is "ID" as you find it characterized in the media.
Go back and look at Casey's post on George Lucas from last week. Lucas illustrates the rule that otherwise smart people feel entitled to have a strong opinion about ID despite having no notion of what the idea entails or what ID advocates say. Lucas knows the name, "intelligent design" -- truly, nothing more than that. This is, frankly, amazing.
When Kyle Simpson, who "really wants" to believe in God, tells the NPR reporter about what "the facts -- science and evolution" say, I'd be willing to bet his understanding of the science is also at a child's level.
The whole project of ID and its close relative the scientific critique of Darwinian evolution, while certainly no proof of anybody's idea of God, lend powerful support to theistic belief. The great religious traditions prompt us to expect evidence of creative purpose in nature, and there it is. But appreciating that is dependent on a person's willingness to do the intellectual homework it takes, going behind the grossly distorted media clichés that fuel the views of Mr. Lucas and so many otherwise thoughtful individuals.
Understanding the "facts" as they really are is not child's play -- something, I'd add, that we struggle with at ENV, where our writers try to make difficult ideas, difficult science, accessible to a general readership. My colleagues do a wonderful job at this, but keeping things readily comprehensible requires vigilance.
The subject is tough, the science is challenging. If I could chat with this Kyle Simpson, I would tell him: There's no substitute for self-education.