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The divine irony of `intelligent design'

February 24, 2006|Garret Keizer | GARRET KEIZER is the author of "Help: The Original Human Dilemma."

ADVOCATES OF teaching "intelligent design" aren't giving up, no matter the recent setbacks in California and Pennsylvania. In Utah, Texas, New York and elsewhere, they persist in trying to make science education subservient to a religious worldview. And yet the longer the controversy continues, the more it illustrates their own subservience to science.

As its name suggests, the major premise of intelligent design is that the existence of a supreme designer can be inferred by evidence of his, her or its "intelligence." And that premise rests in turn on an even more basic assumption: that intelligence is the most important, perceivable and telling attribute of God and of the creature supposedly created in God's image.

Minus the references to deity, this comes amazingly close to the same hierarchy of value on which the scientific worldview makes its case. Sense perception and logic -- not sensuousness and emotion -- are the keys to authentic understanding. Rationality will point us to God, if there is one. I think, therefore I am. He thinks like you can't even begin to think, therefore he is God.

According to this mind-set, if we can discover a big wooden boat on Mt. Ararat and carbon date it to the sixth millennium BC, then the story of the flood in Genesis might be "true." The authoritative shift is self-evident. It's not a matter of "what the Bible says," as authenticated by generations of shared cultural experience. It's a matter of what science says -- or can be forced to say -- about the Bible, as verified by a body of data. If you're a bit lost here as to whose mind-set I'm describing, that's my point.

For the advocates of intelligent design, the loveliness of nature is a second-class road to truth. It is "merely" aesthetic. In that regard, one notices that there is no campaign afoot to teach "divine inspiration" as the basis for the sacred works of Fra Angelico and Bach. "That's next," you say, and maybe it is next. The point here is that it wasn't first, and it wasn't first for a very good reason.

Once you have made intelligence supreme, you have elevated science to the highest form of knowing. And with that move, the self-appointed champions of religious tradition paint themselves into the same corner that they would like to lead us out of. Using intelligent design as a buttress against scientific hegemony is, to borrow from a Yiddish proverb, as outrageously selfdefeating as murdering your parents and then pleading for leniency on the grounds that you're an orphan.

The irony extends from means to ends. The motivating force for many advocates of intelligent design, as for the advocates of school prayer who preceded them, is the perceived need for kids to have "some exposure" to religious ideas. If they don't get a taste of that stuff in school, they may never seek it elsewhere.

This is where the dismissal of intelligent design as "bad science" doesn't go far enough. It can also be dismissed as bad evangelism. The supporters of intelligent design betray a sadly compromised understanding of their own underlying mission. "The knowledge of the living God" is apparently not to be taught by lives of exemplary service but by fossil evidence. "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your father in heaven," Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. Is it now to be understood that by "light" he meant the kind that shines in a specimen case?

Finally, the supporters of intelligent design betray their own secularist assumptions through their insistence that Darwinian evolution be taught with the disclaimer that it is "only a theory." One would assume that, from the perspective of faith, a great deal is only a theory. To apply that label exclusively to evolution suggests otherwise. It suggests that we inhabit a world of ubiquitous certainty. No one could walk on water in such a world because the molecular density of water is (unlike evolution, apparently) beyond the theoretical. Of course, that is the view of science, and the only proper view of science. One is amazed, however, to find it promulgated in the cause of religion.

This is not to make light of a serious threat posed by the advocates of teaching intelligent design. I happen to share the fears of those who see a theocratic agenda at work in their campaign. At the same time, I can't help but be amused by the notion of the entire edifice of the Enlightenment crumbling beneath the assault of a "religious" crusade. The barbarians may be battering at the gates, but the gates are mostly their own.

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