Saturday, June 11, 2005

What Is a 'Religious Point of View'?

My conversation with Public Theologian below has sparked a question for me: in matters of the public square, what compromises a “religious point of view”? This question is of amazing importance in our culture right now as a number of public evangelicals and others do their best to advocate for a Christian point of view while there are entire organizations dedicated to removing a religious point of view from the public square. Hence, the definition of what compromises a religious point of view is of pressing importance.

As a case in point, during the Terri Schaivo scenario I listened to Senators argue that we as a country cannot protect her life because that was a religious point of view and religion does not belong in legislation. I find that line of thought appallingly shallow and dangerous, but it highlights my question. As another case in point, many label the science of ID as a religious point of view, and therefore it cannot be seriously taken as science. So must the science that we are allowed to teach in public schools necessarily lead to atheistic conclusions? No matter how scientific a point of view is, if it leads to some form of Designer or Theism, must it therefore be rejected? Apparently so.

So, what compromises a “religious point of view,” and more to the point, how should they be handled in the public square? Can a certain definition of a “religious point of view” necessarily exclude it from serious consideration in the broader public? (Now that I get to thinking about this, it will take far more than a post, and far more than a series of serious posts to appropriately address this topic-but, here goes…)

Are they views that are simply in accord with views held my one major religion or another? As uselessly broad as this proposal sounds, I would argue that it is more of a reality for us politically than we might imagine. The Senators who argued that legislation should not be in favor of Terri Schaivo living were espousing this point of view, and those who reject any form of scientific endeavor that may not lead to atheism are also espousing this view.

But as a principle, this proposal simply cannot stand. Christianity, for instance, views cold-blooded murder as wrong. Our laws see it the same way. So if this proposal were to stand as is, we must reject all laws prohibiting murder out of hand. These kinds of examples are multifold; so this definition should be rejected, and thus the reasoning behind the Senatorial and scientific views above must also be rejected.

Are they views that begin with expressly religious premises? In other words, must we reject all views as inappropriate for public consumption if the reasoning for those views begins something like, “because God said…” or “because my Holy Book says…”? As a definition of what a religious point of view is, we are closer to the truth than the last proposal. At least here we are beginning on territory claimed by a certain religion, and supposedly reaching conclusions agreeable with that religion. In this way, when we assert the proposition, “this is a religious point of view,” we are meaning to say something like, “I am beginning with principles taught by a certain religion and reaching conclusions in accord with the same religion.” But, of course, it must be added that just beginning with, “because my Holy Book says…” does not guarantee conclusions that are actually amenable with that religion.

But even with views that are this expressly religious, there is no good reason to reject them out of hand in the public square. First, to do so would commit the genetic fallacy. In this context that would mean we reject an opinion about a matter simply because it comes from a certain sector of society or a certain point of view. We would not reject the truth of “the sky looks blue” just because it was uttered by a serial rapist. Second, the worth of any point of view in the public square is a function of its truth, not its adherents. So, if Intelligent Design wants to be heard in the larger scientific world, and its proponents have done their homework, it should be heard. Then and only then should its claims be considered as true or false. Instead, it is being prejudged in relation to its most typical adherents-conservative Christians. (That, in my opinion, is why it is not being given a hearing in the larger scientific world-not because it is 'unscientific'.)

So I am going to leave off here-this will get too long too quickly. I would love to hear other proposals and thoughts.


Mark Nutter said...

The problem is that ID theorists have not done their homework. There is no ID theory. You cannot give an ID version of the history of life on earth that matches the evolutionary account of what appeared when, and how it got there. The Discovery Institute is not spending the bulk of its money on research (is it spending any on research?) but is spending it on lobbying school boards and congressmen, and on developing books and films and slick mass media materials.

Sure, "irreducible complexity" and "complex specified information" are interesting ideas, but they boil down to saying "We can ask questions that evolution can't answer (yet)." So what? All areas of science have questions we don't know the answer to yet. To have a better theory than Darwin's, it's not enough to have questions, you have to have a theory that gives better answers. And in science, better answers means making specific, objective, verifiable predictions that match the available evidence better than evolution's predictions do.

ID doesn't even come close to doing that. All ID (as in Discovery Institute ID) is doing right now is trying to create a monopoly for creationism by eliminating any theory that competes with it. They're not "teaching the controversy," they're manufacturing it, by slandering the religious beliefs of evolutionists (many of whom are Christians), by spreading misinformation about evolution, by doing end-runs around scientific research and manipulating the educational and political systems. There's a lot to be upset about.

I myself do support legitimate intelligent design research, and am working on a constructive ID theory, but I'm appalled by a lot of what I see coming out of Seattle. It's hard to get real research done with this kind of monkey business going on.

Phil Steiger said...

Mark-Thanks for your thoughts. I wonder what your version of an intelligent design theory would look like-especially if it may not be concerned with irreducible or specified complexity?

As for asking questions that cannot (yet) be answered by evolutionary science, that is an interesting issue. I do not think it is the case that simply given enough time, evolutionary theory will come up with answers to the questions raised by ID. Instead, what ID is raising is the fact that there are issues that philosophically cannot be answered by evolutionary theory (at least in its current naturalistic state).

Mark Nutter said...

Sure, there are lots of questions that science can never answer. For example: is there such a thing as "random chance," or do all things happen according to the will of a Supreme Being? The question of evolution is completely independent of the question of whether "chance" is guided by the hand of God. But if "chance" is controlled by God, that has strong implications for the meaning of evolution, if evolution is true. It could well be the case that both evolution and intelligent design are true. It would, after all, be highly intelligent to equip life on earth with the ability to evolve new species. There are non-trivial engineering problems to solve, and non-trivial ecological benefits gained. Evolution itself is a powerful argument in favor of ID, an observation that some ID advocates are prevented from recognizing due to their a priori bias against evolution.

The thing is, there are scientific questions, and there are questions that exceed the scope of science. A lot of modern ID advocates are confusing the boundaries, and trying to make science answer questions that are really outside the scope of science. In the process, they're manufacturing "answers" that involve putting science in the position where it looks like it doesn't have any answers, and therefore some other alternative is assumed to have been proven. Which of course is faulty science and faulty reasoning, and also poor strategy: if you make ID dependent on science's inability to explain how IC and CSI got there, then every time science makes progress in explaining IC and CSI (as is already starting to happen), it gives people the idea that ID is being discredited. But if you point out how ingeniously designed evolution itself is, then as science moves forward it only reinforces the conclusion that evolution is a brilliant piece of work, and the better we understand it, the better we can appreciate the genius behind its underlying design.

Theistic evolutionists have been taking this approach for centuries, and have found that it greatly deepens their faith in God and their awe at His magnificent greatness and surpassing wisdom.