20 January 2005

Weapons of the American Inquisition

As someone who spent most of his adult life-before-the-law dealing up close, personal, and very messily with theocracies, I advocate an extremely high, strong, and thick wall between church and state. A few exhibits for your consideration, limited only to the last half of the twentieth century so you don't have to research too hard (in alphabetical order): Afghanistan; Croatia; Iran; Ireland/Northern Ireland; Israel (take a look at parliamentary factions); Serbia. As you can probably tell, this is far from an exhaustive list! Note that this is not about questions of faith, of personal belief, of "religion" with a small "r," of local congregations of people who gather together to worship; it is not about any particular religious doctrine; it is not even about moral or "natural" foundations for law. It is instead about the inherent incompatibility of theocracy with democracy, republicanism, and individualismus.

The so-called "Design Institute" is nothing more than an attempt to convert the US to a theocracy, or at minimum the first few steps on that road. Whether each individual member of the DI demonstrates bad faith toward the Constitution is improbable; in any religious hierarchy, one will find true believers, usually trotted out for credibility's sake when the underlying beliefs are attacked as inhumane (Exhibit A: C.S. Lewis). On the other hand, the institution itself, and its top leadership, do have a bad-faith relationship with the Constitution. I suggest reading the AAUP's explanatory page on how "Inscrutable Design" is being used as a wedge for precisely that purpose. One need not delve into the tension between the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause to discern this; one need only read the Preamble, and the Religious Test Clause.

Trying to pretend that the false dilemma at the heart of Inscrutable Design is "scientific" represents at best a gross misunderstanding of what "science" is, and more probably something much darker. ID depends upon this syllogism:

  • Current evolutionary theory does not perfectly explain every aspect of life (and geology).
  • Any complete scientific theory must perfectly explain every aspect of its field to be valid.
  • Therefore, life is the result of intelligent design.

Let's take the individual items apart for the moment.

  • No, it doesn't. Neither does it pretend to. This depends upon a misuse of the term "theory." In scientific terms, a theory is a conceptual structure that (a) explains the subject material in light of known, verifiable facts and (b) has predictive power toward additional facts, whether those facts are post hoc discoveries or of future natural or laboratory events. ID and the DI instead redefine "theory" to mean an unproven conjecture based on a few observations. As Judge Cooper pointed out, this is not what "scientific theory" means.
  • The problem here is that, at least in a high-school science textbook, we aren't teaching the entire scope of evolutionary theory. Consider an analogy to mathematics. We don't start off the tenth- or eleventh-grade course in geometry with non-Euclidian geometry; we don't try to relate hyperbolic trigonometric functions to any real phenomena, such as solid-state physics and electron tunneling; we start by assuming the parallel postulate, because that material provides a foundation for understanding things when we deny the parallel postulate. Similarly, we don't throw Finnegans Wake at ESL students on the first day of their exposure to English.
  • The problem here is that the conclusion excludes intermediate cases, and denies that there exist any alternatives other than evolutionary-theory-as-now-understood (in other words, a static theory that does not itself evolve to consider more and different evidence) and "intelligent design." (The designer had to be pretty stupid if he/she/it/they/whatever included an appendix and toenails.) This is a false dilemma; there are, in fact, more than two possibilities. Evolutionary theory, by its nature, evolves. Then, too, there are small-scope microtheories; and the assertion that for purposes of understanding proximate cause, students generally don't need to comprehend first cause.

Then, too, there's an unstated pedagogical assumption that goes into the ID movement: That ID belongs as a consideration in every subject in the curriculum. Science classes are just a wedge, too; the next target will be either literature—remember all those anti-intelligent-designer books that are so commonly opposed by the same individuals who make up the membership of the DI?—or basic social sciences. The wedge isn't just into science; it is into education as a whole, and into power.

That's what this is really about: an attempt to seize power outside of the ballot box. Since the courts and schools seem to be encouraging people to question the right of the theocrats to do so, they need to be the first targets for change. If you can't get what you want in the current system, change the current system. That sounds a lot like a revolution to me; but then, there's an excellent case to be made, as Stephen Stills once remarked at a concert, that "Jesus Christ was a nonviolent revolutionary." (Hmm. Is there enough reflexiveness there?) Frankly, I have more respect for "young-Earth creationists" than for the DI; at least the YECs are honest about the source of their beliefs and the objectives of their objections. Of course, "more" doesn't mean "a statistically significant difference."

The DI needs to spend more time remembering that our constitutional evolutionary forbearers either themselves, or farther back in the political evolutionary chain, had plenty of experience with and escaping from theocracies. Unless, of course, we're going to take not just selected parts, but all, of the Old Testament as literal truth; in which case, almost none of them are of God's People in any event. But they still have sticker shock.