True believers, be they Atheists, Christians, Muslims, or Jews, are absolutists. They know the correctness of their belief system. They know the depth of ignorance achieved by non-believers. It is profoundly difficult to have a productive conversation with someone who is positive that you are a weak-minded religious nut, or a godless fool on the way to Hell. Absolutism does not blend well within the strictures of democracy; a fact plainly in evidence in conversations on abortion, evolution, or sexual orientation.
But how do these systems of belief relate to our democracy. How should we the people, in a fair-minded an efficient manner, reconcile the black and white of belief with the gray of functioning government? Many writers and philosophers have tangled with this particular tiger, often with bloody results. The Rational Middle will try to address this issue with respect to science and without angering everyone. This attempt will, I fear, almost certainly fail. But the all-knowing they say that fortune favors the bold; so here goes.
The Founding Fathers were, as Sarah Palin likes to remind us, overwhelmingly Christian. The system of law that we have in the United States is based largely on ethics on moral principles learned from Christianity. But the question of the beliefs of the Founding Fathers has been raised largely for the purposes of advancing a very specific political agenda, and creates a series of problems for those advocating for that agenda. I am forced to make a provocative statement here; if the Founders were Christian and intended this nation be a Christian republic, why didn’t they write it in the Constitution? God, Jesus, and the Ten Commandments are curiously absent from the Founder’s founding document. Treaties and other more personal documents of the Founders are equally lacking.
But this essay is an equal opportunity piece, and I am forced to ask others where in the Constitution it prohibits the display of religious imagery on public lands? The First Amendment expressly forbids anything that would represent a governmental establishment of religion, but it also forbids the abridgment of the free exercise of religion. I am naive enough, I suppose, to believe that we the people are mature enough deal with nativity scenes on the square and moments of silence after the pledge of allegiance. As I cannot stand the often ridiculous slippery slope arguments on other rights (see Amendments, 2nd), the notion of the Ten Commandments being displayed at a courthouse in Alabama (in a county with a population that is 95% Christian) is not immediately frightening to me.
Thomas Jefferson wrote of the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God in the Declaration of Independence. It is not immediately apparent that the democracy is endangered by the phrase, In God We Trust, existing on our currency. What is apparent, is that our democracy will not long endure in a world where other nations embrace scientific curriculum while we retreat into a self-imposed dark age. Oh how I would love to ask Jefferson about the Laws of Nature as he saw them. While fundamentalist Pakistan and Hindi India produce mathematicians and scientists by the proverbial bushel, the United States is slipping into an academic stupor.
House Republicans were able to successfully defeat a measure funding math and science programs by attaching a poison pill to the measure (basically, if the Democrats passed the bill, they would be voting for pornography)…you can read the story here. They took this step because their caucus has bought into the notion that science is an attack on God. Evolution, climate change, cosmology; all have been lumped into a basket containing atheist plots and pro-choice conspiracies. It is the notion of a culture war that has allowed religion to be taught as science throughout large tracts of this nation. The culture war must end.
The culture war is being fought over two notions that exist by and for each other. The idea, held by evangelicals, that science is a belief system that contradicts the foundation of faith is ridiculous and dangerous. But it is no less of a danger than the twin idea that any representation of religious or spiritual thought in a public place is an attack on religious freedom. I am every bit as tired of atheists protecting my rights through the filing of ridiculous lawsuits, as I am of evangelicals telling me that “intelligent design” is science. As per usual, it is the extremists on both sides that threaten to destroy our democracy in their attempts to save it in their image.
War exists to serve itself, and it has no master other than itself. This culture war is no different; it creates casualties and profits while advancing nothing of benefit to society. The fighting of this conflict has not advanced the agenda of any Christian ministry to the poor or sick, and has given no teacher the freedom to help a child discipline their God-given curiosity. Furthermore, the conflict, like many other wars, is built on a foundation of lies. Most Americans don’t have a problem with nativities in airports, and science is not an attack on God.
Ask most Christians what drives them on this issue, and you will find it is the attacks on simple symbolism that angers them. The Courts have largely ruled conservatively (a painful irony to evangelical conservatives) on issues of the separation of church and state. They have refused to take the context of the laws and the effect of those laws on regular people into account in their rulings. Their inflexibility has provided for a legal overreaction to issues of religious symbolism. I firmly believe that the political juice to push intelligent design would be lacking were it not for the plethora of ridiculous attacks by atheists on symbology.
But the question of how “intelligent design” came to be defined as a Christian issue is equally problematic. The Catholic faith represents more than half of the world’s Christians, and probably one third of those in the United States. The universal church has no problem with cosmology or evolution, mandating only that believers acknowledge God’s direction at some point in the process. Their position on evolution is even more telling:
“It allows for the possibility that man’s body developed from previous biological forms, under God’s guidance, but it insists on the special creation of his soul. Pope Pius XII declared that “the teaching authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions . . . take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—[but] the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God” (Pius XII, Humani Generis 36).”
Most of the rest of the world’s Christians fall into the same beliefs; it is the peculiar position of Evangelical Christians in the United States and international congregations that were started through their ministry that contrast with the above positions. Raised and educated in the Catholic faith as I was, I was taught physics and chemistry by Catholic priests whose faith was in no way challenged by science. They believed that the Bible is the truth, not a history book. I had a Jesuit tell me once that the Big Bang theory sounds exactly like the opening of the Book of Genesis. The same priest also reminded students that humans were the shepherds of God’s creation and, as it was necessary to know about sheep for that job, He gave us science as a tool to learn about them.
Science is not a belief system, and results are not sacred. It is a method whose results are derived from rigorous experimentation and critique. Carl Sagan wrote that; ” The most fundamental axioms and conclusions may be challenged. The prevailing hypotheses must survive confrontation with observation. Appeals to authority are impermissible. The steps in a reasoned argument must be set out for all to see. Experiments must be reproducible.”
Intelligent design is not subject to experimentation or reason, and is not science. But for the same reasons, you should never see a real scientist try to disprove the existence of God. Sagan himself was often thought of as an Atheist, but he never advocated as a scientist that God did not exist. And so it goes with the mainstream of science; it is the method that is rightly taught. Personal advocacy does not belong in a lab any more than voiced prayer belongs in a school. But that scientist is entitled to take a moment of silence prior to the experiment, and schoolchildren should be no different.
The beauty of individual religious belief or non-belief in the United States, is that you have the right to express it or keep it quiet. The best method for the government of we the people, is to allow folks the space to do as they wish. Judges should be encouraged to set the boundaries of the day, rather than ruling on their vague ideas of the intentions of yesterday. True believers are asked to respect those who disagree, and acknowledge the beliefs of others. Americans are asked simply to display that central attribute to a large number of people living in a small space…courtesy.
The Rational Middle is listening…