Wither Thou Goest…

May 3, 2006 | By | 2 Replies More

Since the trial in Dover, PA over Intelligent Design, it must be obvious hat nothing was really settled other than a specific legal question.  I think it would be a good idea for every one interested in this issue to find and read the decision handed down by the judge.  But the furor shall continue. 

Why is this such a big deal?  Recently, in conversation with a friend who is an atheist, this question was raised.  She didn’t get it.  What difference does it make?  Why is this  issue so dominant in our cultural discourse? 

Thinking about it, I realized that this in fact is the question of the 21st Century.  When Senator Rick Santorum proclaims that this issue must be settled, he’s on the right track (for a change).

Consider: we are in a battle–politically–with people who believe in the End Times, that Revelations is a literal truth, and we are entering the period when antichrist will reign, the good from the evil will be sorted out, and judgment will descend upon us.  Granted, there have always been people who believed in this scenario, even long before The Book of Revelations was penned (check out Zoroaster).  The difference today is two-fold:  first, these people, many of them, are in positions of power.  They have money and they have political influence and they have managed to put their politicians in office in this country.  This matters because, regardless how one feels about it, this country is the biggest bear in the room, with all that such considerable size and animism implies.  Secondly, this is the first time (from about 1850 till now) that it has been possible to demonstrate unequivocally that Revelations is no more than the magic mushroom fever dream of an ascetic hermit who had a jones against Rome and a vivid imagination.  Further, by extension, we can demonstrate that the Bible–and any other so-called Holy Book–is nothing more than a collection of quasi-historical stories.

There have always been skeptics who believed the Bible was less than its cheerleaders claimed, but not until the 19th Century could anybody actually prove it.  The shift began with Lyell, and his realization that geologic time contradicted biblical time.  Then along came Cuvier with his comparative anatomy and the demonstration that there had once been an entire world of creatures on the Earth that no longer exist and which were not mentioned in the creation story.  Finally, Darwin.

Evolution is contentious because it supplants special creation.  There is no reconciliation.

Why is this important?  I mean, isn’t there a compatible forum wherein religion and science may coexist?  Ever since this debate came up, there have been sincere, well-meaning people who have tried to make this case.  Unfortunately, no.  Religion only has validity as a system if its tenets can be linked to the way the universe works.  If you make the case that it is entirely internal to the human experience–utterly personal–then it has no grounding on which to extoll its requirements to those who may have a different idea about how things ought to work.

(This is not to say “spirituality” is not real–it is very much so, but it is entirely personal and subjective.  It doesn’t come from without, it is a response to the universe on the part of the individual.)

The Big Deal is that, if evolution is true, then We–human beings–are simply part of nature, an aspect, one with the whole ongoing process.

So, my friend asked, why is that such a significant thing?

Where we come from dictates where we’re going.  This is one of those little philosophical touchpoints that is as meaningless as it is all-encompassing.  Here’s the deal: Rick Santorum claims that if evolution is true, then we have no basis for morality!  Why?  Because a creator didn’t give us any.  We “emerged” from the jungle bestiality of “nature, red in tooth and claw.”

The people who back politicians like Santorum–and Tom Delay and the whole neocon, fundamentalist brigade that is such an ominous force in Washington–believe fervantly that they–and we, as in Americans–are specially blessed by God, and that it is we who must fulfill prophecy.  This belief in the End Times drives policy toward the Middle East, toward the Environment, toward social programs, toward taxation, toward…

Why have a sound environmental policy when Jesus is coming back next year or next decade and the whole show is going to be over?  Burn that coal and oil!  Clear those forests!  Dump that waste!  What difference does it make?

A lot (I do not think most, but a significant amount) of lobby support from the extreme rightwing for Israel is based on the “fact” that Israel must exist before Jesus can come back.  The attempt to form rational policies with regard to the rest of the Middle East are hampered by a constituency with deep pockets that regards any such rational approach as immaterial in light of the Second Coming.

These are people who believe in the literalness of biblical prophecy.  For them, and for all those they drag along in their wake, Evolution is absolute heresy.

Because, you see, Special Creation does not really refer to the Whole Thing.  It refers to Man.  Man was specially created.  Which makes Man distinct and separate from Everything Else.

The Great Commoner, William Jennings Bryant, nailed it in his tirade against Evolution when he stated:  “…our chief concern is in protecting man from the demoralization involved in accepting a brute ancestry…evolution in plant and animal life up to the highest form of animal might, if there were proof of it, be admitted without raising a presumption that would compel us to give a brute origin to MAN.”

That’s it in a nutshell and why this debate is so vitally significant.  Because Bryant and his ideological descendents cannot accept that Humankind is part and parcel of a total natural process.  How can we be when God made us uniquely in His Image?  We’re different. 

Which, implicitly, means the rules that apply to everything else don’t apply to us.

We’ve certainly been living that way for the past 1500 years or more.  And, paradoxically, science has emerged in our heartfelt pursuit of pushing back nature so that it doesn’t affect us like “mere animals.”  The very science that has come to realize that unless we understand and act as if we are part of that nature we’re so bent on isolating ourselves from, we cannot defend ourselves.

So there it is.  It’s a question of origins, certainly, but it becomes a question of goals as well.  Because if evolution is true, then…

Well, then, we’re not special in the larger picture of nature.  Nature could care less.  We’re just another species.

One that can be replaced.

And that, I think, terrifies the fundies more than anything else.  It means that we’re not the pinnacle of creation.  We’re not the final word.  Like the dinosaurs, we too can be swept from the stage of life and Something Else can take our place.  Maybe even something, in the dubious metrics of our solipsistic self-appraisal, better.

Which means that Revelations is pointless.  Because prophecy is false.  It doesn’t work.

And without prophecy, the underpinnings of aggressive religiosity drop away.  Religion then becomes philosophy.

Furthermore, if we are just one more species out of millions, then, shorn of special creation, the whole concept of Sin disappears.  Where would religions be without sin?

(Which is not to say we’d somehow magically become “better” moral actors; no, it only means we need a different understanding of what makes some of us “broken” and some of us not.)

If Evolution is true, then there is no external Purpose.  We have to come up with our own.  We’re actually not so bad at it, but we get confused a lot about who to help and who to oppose, who is right and who is wrong.  And we don’t  yet know how to set aside prejudice.

But most immediately, if Evolution is true, then no one is Special. 

Unless they earn it.

But that takes self knowledge.  And for that, you gotta know where you came from.  In order to know where you’re going.

Where we’re going…that’s something we better figure out.  Some people think we’re going into the future.  Others think we’re going to heaven.  The priorities attached to these points-of-view determine what we’re going to do tomorrow.

That’s why this issue is THE issue of the 21st Century.

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Category: American Culture, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Current Events, Education, Environment, Evolution, Good and Evil, Meaning of Life, Politics, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Jason:

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post. I am posting my reactions in a separate post.

    I did read the Dover opinion and found it spot on in its rigorous application of the scientific method. Also worth noting, the judge publicly scolded the creationists/ID witnesses for their dishonesty. The opinion is well worth reading as a history of the ID movement.

    Here's one place where you can find a full copy of the decision of Judge John E. Jones: http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/msnbc/sections/news/0

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