“I must say that Mr. McVay flatters us beyond our desserts.” The spelling mistake, which is presumably owing to a transcription error by the Post’s reporter, Michael Powell, makes the irony fall a little flat, but the self-righteousness still shines through. The spokesman, Eugenie Scott, was defending her organization against charges that it had conducted a smear campaign against a Smithsonian scientist, Richard Sternberg, who had been responsible for the publication of an article making the case for “Intelligent Design” in a journal he edited called Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Though a highly regarded evolutionary biologist himself, Dr. Sternberg had effectively been driven from his post by the virulence of the reaction from “the scientific community.” Dr. Scott, denying any wrongdoing, was essentially saying that Dr. Sternberg only got his own just deserts. “If this was a corporation, and an employee did something that really embarrassed the administration, really blew it, how long do you think that person would be employed?”
About Intelligent Design—which basically acknowledges the existence of evolutionary processes in their broad outlines while questioning the Darwinian account of them and purporting to find in them evidence of divine ordering and direction—I confess that I am rather a skeptic myself. I have been an unthinking, blind-faith Darwinist since tenth-grade biology and always inclined, like other expensively educated people, to look down my nose at socially unevolved anti-Darwinists as at best monomaniac autodidacts and at worst what Al Gore once called “the extra-chromosome right.”
[C]ontrarian that I am, I don’t seem to be able to keep myself from sympathy for those who find themselves in the bull’s eye of the media culture, no matter how unsympathetic I might otherwise find them—and from growing more and more sympathetic to them the more they are hated and reviled. The Intelligent Design people are thus beginning to look to me a bit like President George W. Bush, who has been so viciously and so unfairly execrated for so long by the sort of right-thinking media-and-entertainment types who consider Maureen Dowd a wit that I now regularly have to stifle the urge to cry him up as the greatest president since Lincoln. And he, I started out thinking, was at least a decent sort of guy. Lately I have had to clasp to my bosom such relatively unlovely media-butts as Karl Rove and Tom DeLay, men of whom I might in other circumstances be inclined to be rather critical. But I tell myself that I can’t go so very wrong by continuing to love those whom the media hate and hate those whom the media love.
As we noticed in the media’s coverage of Pope John Paul II’s funeral and the election of his successor last spring (see “Marketplace Morality” in The New Criterion of May 2005), what the Church has believed for centuries—sometimes even what has been believed semper, ubique, ab omnibus—is now regularly regarded as “extremist” in the media. Thus, too, I find my rash urge to leap to the defense of the Intelligent Design people unembarrassed by the necessity to read up on evolutionary biology on account of the vitriol of the Darwinian attacks. It is quite enough, it seems, for me to say that I wish to keep an open mind on the matter in order to get myself branded as “anti-science” along with Dr. Sternberg and the author of the offending article, Stephen C. Meyer, who is director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. Funny, but almost the only thing besides veneration for Darwin that I remember from tenth-grade biology is that open-mindedness was once thought to be the quintessence of science and precisely what distinguished it from religion. Presumably the ever-onward march of progress and liberalization has rendered that notion obsolete as well. The next thing you know, they will be promulgating a Darwinian version of the Nicene Creed to be recited by young scientists every day as they don their lab coats and fire up their Bunsen burners.
In a sense, of course, they are right. Religion is anti-science insofar as its raison d’être is to answer a quite different set of questions from the scientific ones. Science looks at the world and asks: how does it work? Religion looks at the world and asks: what is it for? Confusion arises because, historically, religion has dabbled in answers to the scientific question as well as its own, just as science has occasionally dabbled in attempts to answer the religious one. Though each seems to me to be outside its own area of competence when it does so, going out of area is to some extent inevitable. On the one side, the idea of a Creator God is central to religion, and it is not always easy to keep questions of what we were created for separate from those concerning the mechanisms by which we came to be. It is almost impossible, in fact, for tool-making animals not to think of Creation without some such mental pictures as Genesis provides of the Creator at work, setting things in motion. On the other side, once religion and religious assumptions have been cast aside, what succeeds them is almost invariably some form of sentimentality—desert gives way to dessert—which finds it equally impossible not to suppose that the purpose of human life is to be nice and helpful to everybody. Or at any rate everybody who is not self-condemned to contumely and derision (or worse) by his stubborn adherence to an obsolete system of belief in a Creator God.
Hence the odium theologicum of the scientific attacks on religious belief even where it doesn’t seek to trespass on scientific territory. When The New York Times did a surprisingly—though obviously not whole-heartedly—sympathetic series of articles on Intelligent Design in August, you couldn’t help noticing this in the comments of some of the scientists quoted. Professor Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from the University of Texas, said, “I think one of the great historical contributions of science is to weaken the hold of religion. That’s a good thing.” Another Nobel laureate and the co-discoverer of DNA, James Watson, says that “one of the greatest gifts science has brought to the world is continuing elimination of the supernatural.” Why are such scientists enthusiastic cheerleaders for the pointlessness of the natural machine that so fascinates them, and for the non-existence of anything outside it which might give it meaning? Well, it’s hard to believe, but I think it’s because, brainiacs though they obviously are in every other way, theologically they are on the level of the late John Lennon. “Imagine there’s no heaven,” wrote the ex-Beatle,
It’s easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
living for today …
Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
living life in peace …
It’s really the most basic logical mistake, um, imaginable. Because people have quite often cited religion as a reason for killing other people—and the other people for killing them—if you take religion away from them they won’t kill each other anymore. Put so baldly, the proposition could only be believed by a child, but scientists very often are child-like—as, of course, Lennon was. They are also often deficient in historical knowledge and may have missed the last century when the great atheistic faiths of Communism and Nazism killed far more people than religion had ever managed to do in a comparable period of time. It’s not religion which leads to violence but violence which leads to religion—as well as to honor and glory and hopes of a better world among other attempts to explain to ourselves why we do the brutal things we so often do. Violence and brutality are constants of the human condition, and the more violent and brutal they are the more powerfully are we driven to magnificence in the sorts of pretexts we use to justify them. But the fact that religion, or anything else, may be used to excuse violence tells us nothing at all about the validity of the religion concerned. Truly is it written that “by their fruits ye shall know them,” for throughout Christian history, at any rate, those most conspicuous for their beliefs have been not the violent ones but the holy ones.
One of the latest bits of evidence seized upon by the anti-theocratic crusaders has been the claim by a former Palestinian foreign minister, Nabil Shaath, in a BBC documentary that he heard President Bush say that God told him to attack Iraq. Though denied by Bush’s spokesmen and by the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, who was also present on the occasion when the remark was allegedly made, that didn’t prevent it from being catnip to the likes of Mark Lawson of The Guardian, who wrote:
Throughout his five years in office, Bush has sustained a simple old Sunday-school world view in which external evil threatens American interests and is then met by force which believes it has God on its side. The fact that the perceived aggressors (Bin Laden, Saddam) also feel divinely justified is no more of an obstacle to this belief system than it has been for the religious throughout history.
Hurricane Katrina, though, severely challenges this exegesis. What can a president of such simple religious faith have made of the devastation of America by what insurance policies call an act of God? Whereas even an event as terrible as 9/11 could be sustaining and confirmational for someone of Bush’s apparent Manichean convictions, a sudden drowning of the chosen invites only agonized study of the Book of Job. This affront to Bush’s relationship with God may explain his public bewilderment during the weather crisis.
Well, maybe. Maybe. But it is just worth pointing out the historical illiteracy involved in referring to Christian belief of any kind as amounting to “Manichean convictions.” Manicheanism, it will be remembered, was a heresy the discrediting of which in the early Christian centuries was one of the defining moments in the evolution—you should pardon the expression—of Christian belief, though it has never been entirely vanquished. Among its tenets, the principal and long-remembered one (half-remembered even by Mr. Lawson) divided all creation into light and dark, good and evil, a division which, in turn, pre-supposed the existence of not one but two gods, one having created the good while the other created the evil. If that’s Manicheanism, does it sound to you more like Christianity as we know it today, even in some hypothetically “theocratic” version, or the media consensus that all the world’s ills derive from George W. Bush?
Meanwhile, in the land of The Guardian, the director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding has called for the banning of the English national flag, which is the cross of St. George, on the grounds that its having been carried into battle by Crusaders in the eleventh century makes it offensive to Muslims. As our own Mark Steyn wrote in the Daily Telegraph
Why is George W. Bush’s utterly unremarkable evangelical Christianity so self-evidently risible but complaints from British Muslims hung up over the 11th century are perfectly reasonable and something we should seek to accommodate? Where is the secular Left’s “insensitivity” when you need it? No doubt the bien pensants will still be hooting at born-again Texans on the day the House of Lords gives a second reading to the Sharia Bill.