Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Don’t Stop Believing

I’m seeing more and more articles like this lately, in the wake of the Intelligent Design foofaraw. Jacob Weisberg argues, and with admirable intellectual honesty, that religion and evolution are fatally and incontrovertibly opposed, and that we should all stop trying to have it both ways and come down on one side or the other. It’s a fine, passionate piece of writing.

And it’s dead wrong.

There’s an old cliché that a man of faith can understand an agnostic but not the other way around, and there’s something to that. Unbelief, especially in a world as demonstrably cruel and random as this one, is the default state. I know what it is to be an atheist, because I wake up faithless every morning and claw my way back to belief in a benevolent God one cup of coffee at a time. But for the atheist or agnostic pundit, religious faith remains a black box—an utterly mysterious process through which identical input is translated into unexpected output, by which two people can look at the same evidence and draw different conclusions.

Weisberg breathes new life into the old warhorse when he (and other beaters-of-strawmen, particularly the appalling Richard “the most basic claims of religion are scientific” Dawkins) proceeds from an entirely false premise about what religion is, and what it’s for. They’re using “religion” and “creation myth” interchangeably, when in fact theories on the creation of the universe and origins of life are sidelines to the practice and experience of faith.

Religion is not just a thing set up to answer the question Where did we come from? How did we get here? Frankly, I—and, I would suspect, the vast majority of people who identify as “religious”—don’t devote a whole lot of time or headspace to that question; I do, however, dwell quite a bit on the question What the fuck are we supposed to do now that we are here?

And on that question, religion has a lot of practical answers—and Darwinism, very few. That distinction is (I think) the true heart of Stephen Jay Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria argument, which Weisberg misinterprets as willfully as (although differently than) the Kansan know-nothings he so excoriates in his article. Whether his reductionism is disingenuous or just ignorant, it hardly matters; the bottom line is that it really doesn’t bolster anybody’s case, and further polarizing the debate strikes me as supremely unhelpful.

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