A comment on The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything

Last Friday, I went to hear Gordy Slack talk about his new book: The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything (Evolution, Intelligent Design, and a School Board in Dover, PA.). He has a charming, friendly speaking style that happily carries over to the book. I have just finished the book and I highly recommend it—both for its inside (if not in depth) look at this important trial as well as for its personal touches (especially Gordy’s struggles with his father, an “Ivy League liberal intellectual” experimental psychologist who “converted” to a “neo-creationist” born-again Christian when Gordy was nineteen).

As readers of my previous blog entries on evolution and on atheism no doubt know, I have few if any kind words for proponents of Intelligent Design (or religion itself, for that matter). At its harshest level, my view is that such individuals are either ignorant, hypocritical, or in denial. That is, their absolute rejection of the evidence for evolution is either due to ignorance (they have never really fairly considered the evidence for the theory), hypocrisy (they knowingly choose to ignore the evidence because it is in conflict with their religious beliefs or because promoting ID is beneficial to some political goal) or denial (they unknowingly close the gates of their brains to any information that is contrary to their religious beliefs).

One of the values of Gordy’s book, for me personally, is the respect he shows to both sides of the debate. More specifically, it provides insights into the thinking of some of the more intellectually honest ID proponents (such as Phillip Johnson). I still believe they are completely wrong, but I can at least see that they are not ignorant and are sincere in their views (even if they continue to view ID as a means to ultimately wedge a religious God into science). Gordy’s patience with ID arguments, I might add, appears to grow less and less as the book progresses, as he details both his own objections and the flaws in the arguments exposed during the trial—as well as the deceit and lies given in defense of teaching ID in schools.

Yet, I also find a sadness in the positions of even the most sincere and honest of ID proponents. Because, from the descriptions in the book, it is clear that there is nothing I (or anyone else) could say to these individuals that would persuade them to change their views. It goes without saying that the same holds true, in spades, for the less intellectual and more dishonest of ID proponents. Given this realization, it seems almost pointless to even try. But I don’t wish to give up. I still hope that there are enough people who are not so far over to the creationist side of the fence that, over time, we can effect a shift in public opinion toward much greater support of evolution. I no longer believe, however, I will see this shift in my lifetime. It is a continuing irony that, as we move into the 21st century, there appears to be a resurgence in ideas whose origins emerged from our collective ignorance thousands of years ago.

Of course, I would be the first to admit that there is little, if anything, that ID proponents could say to me that would get me to change my views. So perhaps, one might argue, we are on different sides of the fence but otherwise no different. Perhaps. I remain convinced, however, that I would be willing to change my views in an instant if the evidence presented itself. What I resist is to make faith the basis for a shift in my views.

This point was made crystal clear to me in one passage from Gordy’s book. It relates to a point I made in a previous blog entry: It is not viable or rational to argue in favor of Intelligent Design (or more generally, a belief in God) based on the idea that a universe without God would imply a meaningless existence. Yet, that is exactly what Richard Thompson (chief counsel for the defense in the Dover trial) argues, when asked why this particular battle matters so much to him: “If you are nothing but an accident of nature, then nothing you do is dependent on objective truth. There is no life after death. There are no set moral codes…You’re just another piece of matter bouncing around…Even if a hundred million scientists say…we’re just purposeless beings,…the general public won’t buy it. And neither will I.” Thompson states all this as if it is self-evident and irrefutable evidence for why evolution cannot be true.

Of course, as I (and many many others) have argued, just because you may be dismayed at some truth, does not make it untrue. I may be sad at the prospect that I am going to die one day. But that sadness does not mean that I will, in fact, not die. Similarly, it may well be that life has no ultimate moral or spiritual meaning. However depressing such a thought might be, it has no bearing on whether or not it is true. A failure to make this distinction is one of the continuing fallacies promoted by defenders of ID, and more generally of religion.

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