Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Intelligent Design- Inter-religious implications & Politics

After Keelin McDonell's short blurb published in the 25 July 2005 TNR, the magazine followed up in the current (22-29 August 2005) issue (See www.tnr.com for more. You must be a subscriber to access most, but not all, of the site). The current issue features Intelligent Design on the cover (a rather striking work of art by Shawn Barber in which God is hoisting the Earth up). One of the best takes on the hub-bub created by Cardinal Schoborn's editorial is written by Leon Wieseltier, one of the United States' best public intellectuals. Wieseltier's piece is entitled "Creations."

Let me begin by writing about those issues on which I agree with Wieseltier. I agree when he writes that "It is impossible . . . not to marvel at the complexity and the beauty of the natural order; but marveling is not thinking." I also agree that Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory, but a religious philosophy. I concur that reading the entire Bible, including Genesis, literally rather than figuratively is not only wrong-headed, but deprives the Bible of its deepest meaning. Most of all I agree with his summation that "Sanctity is not an excuse for stupidity." I agree, too, that teaching Intelligent Design as part of any school's science cirricula is unjustifiable (though very popular in our nation). Teaching Intelligent Design as science is (unsurprisingly) popular with President Bush, who sees no harm in "exposing people to different schools of thought." Of course, exposing people to different schools of thought on the origins of the universe is one thing, but teaching children Philosophy as Science is quite another. People fear evolution because they fear it is a short slide down the slippery slope to atheism and bad morals. But as Wieseltier sagely writes: "The intellectual integrity of monotheism depends upon the repudiation of [literal] readings [of Biblical texts]." He continues, "once the legitimacy of figurative readings is admitted, the fabled dissonance between science and faith, the fundamentalist melodrama, evaporates."

Getting a bit more into the heart of the argument , I part ways with Cardinal Schonborn and agree with Wieseltier regarding this assertion in the Cardinal's New York Times editorial: "Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science." Here the Cardinal gets it precisely backwards, except it is not ideology, it is faith, which, though supported by scientific facts, is a synthesis of those facts into a system of belief. So, while this, too, is an act of reason, it is not scientific in the technical sense.

Now for the critique:

Leon Wieseltier engages in yet another misreading of Christoph Cardinal Schonborn’s 7 July New York Times op-ed piece regarding the Catholic Church and Darwinian evolution. Mr. Wieseltier, like Keelin McDonell before him fails to understand what Cardinal Schonborn meant when he wrote:

“Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true,
but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense- an unguided, unplanned
process of random variation and natural selection - is not.”

He commits a further error by investing the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna with authority normally reserved by Catholics for the Pope. This is made evident when he writes of “the Church’s unsophisticated new construction of God’s will.” Yet, it is Cardinal Schonborn’s construction at which he takes aim, not the Church’s.

Beyond attributing to the entire Catholic Church the views of one bishop, Mr. Wieseltier makes the same mistake made by Mr. McDonell, which is best summed up in McDonnell’s words: “it is slippery logic to assume that a science that proclaims ‘random variation’ necessarily eliminates God from the equation.” Mr. Wieseltier commits and compounds this error by writing, “An unplanned process may also be God’s plan.” First, unplanned processes being part of God’s plan, while not illogical, is problematic by what it implies. Second, logic aside, this is just a more complicated way to make a point Cardinal Schonborn makes. An honest reading of the editorial indicates that the author’s main point is that while evolution is not at odds with Catholic faith, it cannot ultimately be accepted as “an unguided, unplanned process of random variation.” Indeed, if a believer, be she Jewish or Christian, accepts evolution as an unguided and unplanned process this presents obvious problems for monotheism because, without resorting to biblical literalism, the door is opened to both deism and pantheism.

So, while monotheistic believers can accept variations in life on earth as random in the sense of being unpredictable, no variations can be considered by monotheistic believers to be ultimately unguided and unplanned. Wieseltier concedes as much by writing that any unplanned processes, to be part of God’s plan, must be an instrument of providence. There is no argument about the assertion that it is beyond the competency of theology to explain how life on earth came to be. However, such an assertion implies that science cannot tell us why there is life on Earth, even human life. In the end, let’s accept Cardinal Schonborn’s article for what it is: an attempt at clarifying Church teaching as it bears on evolution, which is the very best explanation for life on earth, by a respected Catholic theologian and bishop and not a rejection of evolutionary explanations. It is even less a suggestion to return to understanding the Bible literally.


I'll conclude with one last agreement with Wieseltier, a tenet I'm quite certain Cardinal Schonborn shares: Truth is never heresy, except for those who put their religion at odds with the truth.

More to follow- the response of Catholic scientists.

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