Purpose and Measuring God

I have been delinquent in contributing to the Panda’s Thumb, but in my defense, I was busy finishing up a book (Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic). It was responses to this book, combined with comments by President Bush and by Cardinal Schönborn, that has led me to get busy and write something about this.

The odd thing is that in my book I spend perhaps four pages out of 128 discussing evolution and intelligent design, with only a passing reference to my objections to the latter, and yet repeatedly people have commented to me that they liked my book but don’t agree with me about evolution. I have taken an unorthodox view of many different things, and spent many pages doing so, but none of those have elicited the kind of response that four pages discussing evolution and intelligent design have.

The combined debate suggests to me that we are dealing with a combination of lack of information, and of gut-level reactions that go well beyond the actual issues presented. But what are those issues?

First, let me note that I am not arguing against design, or God’s involvement, or against God’s plan, or anything of that nature as a religious issue. In reactions to my previous postings, many people seemed to think that I was excluding God, and thus could not understand how I, with my training and vocation in theology, could be making such arguments. But that is not the issue. In my view, the issue is not whether the universe is the product of design, but rather if one can detect such design in an objective way. Oddly enough, the issue comes down to measurement.

Under normal circumstances, the issue of measuring some single characteristic of items or creatures might be debated in the scientific community, but would not become a political issue, or an issue deserving of comment from high ranking clerics in various religious movements. In those cases where such comment has occurred, by colleagues in various religious disciplines and religious movements have a rather poor track record. But even where comment has been made, it has normally been more fundamental than an issue of how we measure a single characteristic of certain systems.

There are two reasons why this issue gets extended beyond that. On the one hand we have the creationist movement, most particularly the young earth movement, who long to get a foot in the door so as to allow the teaching of their particular religious ideas in public schools. Despite the frightening number of people who seem to think that some sort of young earth is scientifically possible, these people know that there are few communities where they can honestly get a vote for their viewpoint. In religious debates, they will speak angrily against old earth creationists and even intelligent design advocates. In political debates, they tend to present everyone short of the most outspoken atheist as an ally.

As an example, in a recent discussion someone told me that in my county, creationism should be taught in schools because the vast majority of the population (he gave a percentage) were Christians. I pointed out that I would be included in the number of Christians in the county, and that I was firmly opposed to the teaching of creationism, or any form of religious education in our county’s public schools. In a very short time, he was questioning whether I should, in fact, be regarded as a Christian because of my views on evolution. Now I really don’t care how he chooses to divide the world, but it’s important to realize that the divisions shift based on the nature of the current debate.

On the other hand, we have people whose discomfort, I believe goes back to the very issue for which Galileo was tried. Looked at in isolation, the issue for Galileo, whether the earth orbitted the sun, or vice-versa, is a minor technical matter. But to the people of his time, it was a question of how important human beings are in the general scheme of things. Intelligent design brings up the same emotions. Even the statements of the Catholic church on evolution are very careful about that issue–they make sure to make it clear that humanity is, in some way, a special creation, even if the human body is the product of evolution. For some people that reservation is adequate.

But we live in a world in which the scientifically measurable has greater force, and so for many religious people the question is not so easily resolved. It is really a question of how they can be certain, absolutely certain, that they are special. They want to know absolutely that they are above and beyond the common, that their existence is not the result of chance, but rather that there is a divine design. And by the standards of our time, that can only be done by producing a scientific way to demonstrate that human beings are designed.

I’m sure someone will point out that the intelligent design movement is not arguing that human beings are designed. It is arguing that various biological systems are designed. True, on the surface. But the final issue is that God, in their view, must have a measurable place in the universe. We must be able to detect and demonstrate God’s existence, otherwise we will be cut adrift, required to see ourselves as simply the product of a random evolutionary process.

It would be quite right to point out to me at this point that the evolutionary process is not, in fact, random. But to the average person, it sounds random, because it is not necessarily designed to produce me, a supposedly reasonably intelligent person. (There are those who doubt this in my case.) Even if the process has strong non-random factors, as selection does, those factors are not obviously designed to produce people.

I don’t have a comforting answer to this. From my own faith point of view, I’m as special as I need to be. But as for purpose, that is something that I must discover for myself. As for design, I simply note that I’m here, and apparently functioning. As for my importance in the universe, I’m afraid that it is unlikely that I am terribly important, or that even my entire species is terribly important in the universal scheme of things. The universe would function in pretty much the same way as it does even if we had never existed.

That problem is one that we will find difficult to overcome. I don’t think there is some good answer that will convince people that future scientific progress is going to be safe, and that they aren’t going to learn things they really wish were not so. But it is a point that needs to be overcome. At the same time, the fact that people are so anxiously looking for a scientific answer is quite promising. It means that people are not willing to accept just any old answer. It means that in a sense the scientific approach to life on earth is gaining a great deal of ground.

Because of my belief in a creator, I regard that as a good thing. In fact, I would think that the best designed universe there could be would be one in which there were no seams, one that worked consistently and in which scientists could look as much as they wanted to, and not find any signs of tinkering, precisely because such tinkering had never occurred. Such a universe would also lack scientific proof for the existence of its designer, but perhaps a designer capable of doing so wouldn’t need the acknowledgement that he had done so.

The most common remaining question that I hear is why intelligent design should not be taught alongside evolution as a theory of origins. This puts the issue in the category of free speech. Sure, let intelligent design be debated. Let free speech prevail. Let publishers publish and people buy works that support or opposed intelligent design. But our high school classrooms are not the general market of ideas. They are places where our young people need to learn the basic skills and the knowledge that they need to succeed in the modern world. We don’t have time to teach them every idea, so why would we take the time to teach them untested ideas? But time is not the only problem, or even the major problem. High school students need to learn good scientific judgment. They do not need to be spending their time hearing about an idea that is rejected by the vast majority of the scientific community.

The good news is that the market of ideas is working, and it is free. People are hearing about intelligent design, and others are presenting the arguments against it. Those most qualified to judge are overwhelmingly opposed to the concept. Let’s leave God to me and to people like me–those who spend their time on religious issues. Let the religious discussions be financed by money paid or donated for the purpose of supporting religious discussion. Let the tax money paid to educate our children be used to educate.