Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Crazy is as crazy does

I see in the paper that Michael Novak, graduate and friend of Stonehill College, has proposed a way to "heal the rift between science and religion": Teach intelligent design in the public school science classroom.

I seem to remember the Novak when he was something of a liberal, those many years ago. He has since moved ever more firmly to the right, and has now become a ubiquitous voice for everything conservative from his pulpit at the American Enterprise Institute. Just last week he was at the college talking about his book Business As a Calling (and, yes, he means "calling" in the religious sense; the book was published in 1996, and, alas, Novak presented Ken Lay as an exemplar of the ethical, religiously-motivated businessman).

If there is tension between science and religion, please, let's not blame the scientists. Except for the occasional militant atheist such as Richard Dawkins, most scientists are content to live and let live. For every Dawkins roiling the waters, there are a dozen Paul Daviess or Ken Millers who try to bring some calm to the discussion. It's not scientists who are driving the controversy, but the religious right.

And it is not only science in the classroom that is under assault; it is the very existence of this nation as a modern secular state embracing religious freedom for all, including the freedom not to believe. The great irony is that as we try to impose secular governments on the likes of Iraq and Iran, the religious right wishes to return America to its supposed roots as a "Christian nation."

Regrettably, the present rift between science and religion cannot be healed. Approximately half of Americans believe the world is less than 10,000 years old. The same number believe God created humans more or less as we find them today within the same time period. Let's put it bluntly: The universe cannot be 14 billion years old and 6,000 years old at the same time. Only 15 percent of Americans believe humans evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years. That's a rift that cannot be bridged, and no amount of wishing will make it so.

Many well-meaning religious conservatives will say, "But of course we are not talking about biblical literalism or a 6000 year-old universe." Well, fine, but take away the fervor of evangelical literalists and the intelligent design controversy would disperse like the smoke it is. Not even the Discovery Institute and Mr. Novak could keep it alive.

So let's agree to disagree. Scientists will stay out of the churches, and creationists will stay out of the public school science classrooms.

Even if the religious right succeeds in getting creationism (in any of its forms) into the public school science curricula, it will have zero -- let me repeat that -- zero effect on how science is practiced by scientists. So we will have a curious disjuncture between what scientists do and what is taught as science. A sorry situation, indeed, and not worthy of this great nation.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the flap and fury, some of us -- theists, atheists, and agnostics alike -- believe that science is too shallow a vessel to contain the fullness of our response to the world, yet we treasure science for what it is: the most valuable way of knowing humans have yet devised for obtaining reliable public knowledge of the world.

"To have antagonism between science and religion is crazy," Novak is quoted as saying at a forum last week. He is right. The two ways of knowing are often utterly incompatible, but the world has quite enough antagonism. Which is reason enough to keep religion out of the public school science classrooms.

(More on this topic here and here.)