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Review of Chapter Fifteen

Burt Humburg points out the irony of Jonathan Wells, Unification Church sanctioned theologian, setting himself up as a defender of traditional Christianity in this review of Chapter 15.

Posted by bhumburg on August 30, 2006 01:00 AM

Jonathan Wells (2006) The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. Regnery Publishing, Inc. Washington, DC.Amazon

Read the entire series.

Chapter 15 is entitled “Darwinism’s War on Traditional Christianity”. For much of this chapter, the reader will find Wells on his soapbox about this or that aspect of, you guessed it, “Traditional Christianity”. And, like “Darwinism” in the first chapter, Wells struggles to find a definition for his term. Wells chooses a current version of the Nicene Creed as the sort of “creedal affirmations that” traditionally unite Christians. (Apparently the litmus suggested by Jesus was inadequate.) Wells almost approaches clarity when he implies that if one doesn’t adhere to the tenets of the (current?) Nicene Creed, one cannot seriously consider him or herself as a Christian. (No word yet on the apparently non-Christians who affirmed a prior version of the Nicene Creed.)

There are two important things to say about Wells’s definition of a “Traditional Christian”. First, the commitment to the tenets of the Nicene Creed is hardly a universal litmus for determining who is and who is not a Christian. A Protestant, even one who subscribes to every tenet of the Nicene Creed, who thinks that Wells is right is encouraged to try to obtain the sacramental elements from a Catholic communion and see how far he gets. (According to Catholic tradition, Protestants cannot receive Catholic communion.)

The second important thing to note is that Jonathan Wells is styling himself as a defender of “Traditional Christianity.”

Read that again: Jonathan Wells, Traditional Christianity. Not to be impolite, but to us here at the Thumb Wells defending “Traditional Christianity” reads as queer as Ann Coulter defending “traditional values”.

Jonathan Wells has testified that he is a Unificationist, a follower of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, and a member of the Grand Unification Church. According to Wikipedia, among other things, Reverend Moon published a document in 2002 that claimed all the leaders of the world’s five major religions (and several communist leaders besides) all voted Moon to be the Messiah and pledged their support to him.

Wikipedia also describes that, according to Unification Church theology, when Reverend Moon marries couples in a mass marriage ceremony, he cleanses those believers of original sin. For those not versed in “traditional Christianity”, original sin is the reason why people need to be born again; according to traditional Christian theology, absent original sin, we would have no need for a savior or forgiveness. (For those interested in more information on Reverend Moon or his Grand Unification Church, John Gorenfeld and Mark Levine’s interviews regarding Reverend Moon here and here are highly recommended.)

As I wrote in my review of Chapter 1, we here at the Thumb defend Wells’ right to say and publish anything he wants. However, words must have meanings and any definition of “Traditional Christianity” sufficiently plastic to accomodate Unificationist theology would really be expected to accomodate verified observations like evolution.

So the definition of “Traditional Christianity”, like “Darwinism”, is a word that means whatever Wells wants it to mean, but Wells doesn’t stop with just new definitions for words. When Wells writes, “Before Darwin, science and theology in Christendom generally got along quite well. Indeed, most of the time they were mutually supportive. Serious conflict erupted only after 1859, and then only because Darwinism declared war on traditional Christianity” (p. 170), he’s also inventing a new history of the interaction between religion and science.

We here at the Thumb would remark that readers should Google, at their convenience and presumably after they have replaced their irony meters, “Galileo”.

Snark aside, the onset of the science and religion war is not linked in any way with Darwin. Whether by politics (as suggested by this Wikipedia article on Science and Religion) or by an inherent immiscibility between its philosophies, science and religion have had periods during which they didn’t get along. As Scott Liell notes in a NY Times Essay entitled “Shaking the Foundation of Faith:”

At the end of the day, it was never faith per se that stood in opposition to science; Franklin was ultimately as much a believer as Thomas Prince. Many people of faith - Unitarians, Quakers and those who, like most of the founding fathers, were deists - were prominent members of the scientific community. Rather, it was (and is) a specific type of belief that consistently finds itself at odds with science, one that is not found merely in America and is not limited to Christianity. It is the specific brand of faith that devalues reason and confers the mantle of infallible, absolute authority upon a leader or a book. It is only the priests of these sects, as Jefferson said, who “dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight.”

(Excerpt from “Shaking the Foundation of Faith” from the NY Times)

Wells’s claim that science and religion were chummy up until Darwin is ahistorical nonsense, as preposterous as the idea that the South won the Civil War.

Still on his soapbox, Wells moves to reject theistic evolution in a section tellingly entitled, “Surrendering on Darwin’s Terms”. After describing how philosopher Michael Ruse considers Darwinism, “so well established that Christians should accept it as fact” (p. 173), Wells quotes Ruse as saying, “‘It is still open to you to accept that God did the job. More likely, if you accept God already, it is still very much open to you to think of God as great inasmuch as He has created this really wonderful world’” (p. 174). Wells then sneeringly writes, “In other words, a Darwinian who really, really [emphasis in original] wants to be a Christian can be a Christian of sorts—just not a traditional one” (p. 174).

Or take Wells’s contempt for biologist and Kitzmiller trial expert witness Kenneth Miller. (No, not just Miller’s theology but also for him as a person; please see Mark Perakh’s review.) Wells quotes Miller as believing “in Darwin’s God”. For those who have not read Miller’s Finding Darwin’s GodAmazon, I highly recommend it. It’s the kind of easy read that just about anyone can pick up and enjoy. Take, for example, this excerpt.

“Look at the beauty of a flower,” [Father Murphy, Kenneth Miller’s priest during childhood] began. “The Bible tells us that even Solomon in all his glory was never arrayed as one of these. And do you know what? Not a single person in the world can tell us what makes a flower bloom. All those scientists in their laboratories, the ones who can split the atom and build jet planes and televisions, well, not one of them can tell you how a plant makes flowers.” And why should they be able to? “Flowers, just like you, are the work of God.”

I was impressed. No one argued, no one wisecracked. We filed out of the church like good little boys and girls, ready for our first communion the next day. And I never thought of it again, until this symposium on developmental biology. Sandwiched between two speakers working on more fashionable topics in animal development was Elliot M. Meyerowitz, a plant scientist at Caltech. A few of my colleagues, uninterested in research dealing with plants, got up to stretch their legs before the final talk, but I sat there with an ear-to-ear grin on my face. I jotted notes furiously; I sketched the diagrams he projected on the screen and wrote additional speculations of my own in the margins. Meyerowitz, you see, had explained how plants make flowers.

(Excerpt from Finding Darwin’s God, by Kenneth Miller)

Miller goes on in that chapter to talk about the biology regarding how plants evolved flowers, the theological implications of this, and in general holds forth on a view of science and religion in which they interact, not wage war. Agree or disagree with Miller’s perspectives, for Christians on just about any side of the evolution debate, it’s a fascinating read and begs discussion in coffee shops or Bible study groups.

Wells chose a different portion to quote, thereby introducing the reader to Miller’s book:

Miller argues that the inherent unpredictability of evolution was essential to God’s plan to create human beings with free will. “If events in the material world were strictly determined,” he writes, “then evolution would indeed move toward the predictable outcomes that so many people seem to want…. As material beings, our actions and even our thoughts would be preordained, and our freedom to act and choose would disappear.”

(p. 174)

Wells moves quickly to disavow Miller’s perspectives by writing in the very next sentence, “In the Christian tradition, however, human freedom is an attribute of our non-material souls rather than a product of material evolution. Darwin’s God is not the God of traditional Christianity” (p. 174). Then he moves on to Steven Jay Gould. No discussion about Father Murphy or Meyerowitz. No acknowledgement or analysis of the rich detail of Miller’s book. Instead, Miller’s patiently argued point, that putting faith in God because of scientific failures represents poorly placed faith (described a bit later in this essay), is simply lost on Wells; he’s already handwavingly dismissed it on other, highly questionable grounds.

Did You Know?

  1. Mainstream Christianity has no problem with theistic evolution.
  2. More religious scientists support evolution than “intelligent design”.
  3. Jonathan Wells, self-styled defender of “Traditional Christianity”, is a follower of Rev. Moon and not a traditional Christian.

I write “questionable” because there are serious flaws with Wells’s logic. When Wells retorts that our decisions are the exclusive ken of our spiritual bodies, does he seriously not think that coffee in the morning tends to make those decisions sharper for many people (even Christians who fully adopt the Nicene Creed)? Is Wells honestly not aware that children born with certain combinations of abnormal chromosomes or genes can predictably have problems with cognition or demonstrate maladaptive behaviors, even in mild cases? From a theological and sociological perspective, it must be an excuse to simplemindedly say, “my genes made me sin”, but genes and other physical factors do matter. No understanding of theology that completely rejects these materialistic influences is likely to be convincing to those with even a pedestrian understanding of neurobiology. Wells’s dismissal of Miller’s attempt to describe his understanding of God is just that: an anti-intellectual, handwaving, supercilious, and simpleminded dismissal.

We here at the Thumb would caution Wells that Behe’s dismissal of evidence didn’t work too well at the Kitzmiller trial.

Wells then turns his hatred of theistic evolution to Father George Coyne, cosmologist and former director of the Vatican Observatory. Coyne is quoted, “‘… Science is completely neutral with respect to philosophical or theological implications …. It is difficult to believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient in the sense of many of the scholastic philosophers. For the believer, science tells of a God who must be very different from God as seen by them’” (p. 178) Again, Wells moves quickly to rebuke: “This logic-challenged priest—science is theologically neutral yet leads to a different God—has the arrogance to lecture a pope and a cardinal on Catholic doctrine” (p. 178).

To put these dismissals of theistic evolution into perspective, the reader must understand that there is a venerable history of enthusiasts of science trying to find peace with religion and vice versa. Throughout history and forever into the future, whenever the conclusions of science conflict with contemporary theological understanding, believers have struggled and will struggle to reconcile them.

Miller provided an example of that kind of conflict: Father Murphy believed in God because of scientific ignorance in a problem. In the fullness of time, that problem was solved by science, in this case by Meyerowitz. Stated in slightly different language, the elucidation of the evolution of flowers undermined the logic behind Father Murphy’s theology. As Miller writes in his book:

Like [Father Murphy, the creationists who use God of the Gaps thinking] have based their search for God on the premise that nature is not self-sufficient. By such logic, just as Father Murphy claimed that only God could make a flower, they claim that only God could have made a species. Both assertions support the existence of God only so long as they are shown to be true, but serious problems for religion emerge when the assertions are shown to be false.

If a lack of scientific explanation is proof of God’s existence, the counterlogic is unimpeachable: a successful scientific explanation is an argument against God. That’s why this reasoning, ultimately, is much more dangerous to religion than it is to science. Eliot Meyerowitz’s fine work on floral induction suddenly becomes a threat to the divine, even though common sense tells us it should be nothing of the sort.

The reason it doesn’t, of course, is because the original premise is flawed. The Western God created a material world that is home to both humans and daffodils. God’s ability to act in that world need not be predicated on its material defects. There is, therefore, no theological reason for any believer to assume that the macromolecules of the plant cell cannot fully account for the formation of a flower. Life, in all its glory, is based in the physical reality of the natural world. We are dust, and from that dust come the molecules of life to make both flowers and the dreamers who contemplate them.

The critics of evolution have made exactly the same mistake, but on a higher and more dangerous plane. They represent no serious problem for science, which meets the challenge easily. Their claims about missing intermediates and suspect mechanism can be answered directly by providing the intermediates and demonstrating the mechanisms. Religion, however, is drawn into dangerous territory by the creationist logic. By arguing, as they have repeatedly, that nature cannot be self-sufficient in the formation of new species, the creationists forge a logical link between the limits of natural process to accomplish biological change and the existence of a designer (God). In other words, they show the proponents of atheism exactly how to disprove the existence of God—show that evolution works, and it’s time to tear down the temple. As we have seen, this is an offer that the enemies of religion are all too happy to accept.

All of this logic is lost on Wells, who dismisses Miller’s theology because it accomodates the obvious influences on our decisions by physical and material things. Like Behe on the witness stand in the Kitzmiller trial, Wells waves away this inconvenient theology with which he disagrees.

Father Coyne doesn’t get much more respect. Wells tries to earn schoolyard snark points by identifying an apparent logical contradiction: how can science be neutral to theology and yet inform our understanding of God? When one reads Father Coyne’s entire essay, one almost gets the feeling that Coyne knew about the apparent contradiction beforehand and published it regardless. Look what Coyne writes in his final paragraph:

These are very weak images, but how else do we talk about God? We can only come to know God by analogy. The universe as we know it today through science is one way to derive an analogical knowledge of God. For those who believe modern science does say something to us about God, it provides a challenge, an enriching challenge, to traditional beliefs about God. God in his infinite freedom continuously creates a world that reflects that freedom at all levels of the evolutionary process to greater and greater complexity. God lets the world be what it will be in its continuous evolution. He is not continually intervening, but rather allows, participates, loves. Is such thinking adequate to preserve the special character attributed by religious thought to the emergence not only of life but also of spirit, while avoiding a crude creationism? Only a protracted dialogue will tell. But we should not close off the dialogue and darken the already murky waters by fearing that God will be abandoned if we embrace the best of modern science.

(Final paragraph from God’s Chance Creation by Father Coyne, former director of Vatican Observatory)

Humility and honesty, that’s what I’m struck by when I read these words. “Apparent grammatical contradictions be damned”, Coyne might be saying to us. “We need to have an honest discussion about God and talk about what’s really going on.” Here’s a priest seeking to reconcile the science he understands and the things he wants to believe. Miller is a scientist seeking to do the same. Both of them are doing their best and both want to dialog with believers who find the answers provided and verified by science threatening.

Apparently Wells isn’t too impressed by their efforts. Indeed, he’s scornful of the fact that these scientists who are Christians are thinking and endorsing thoughts that diverge from “Traditional Christianity”, or at least Wells’s elastic version of it. And the method with which he expresses his scorn—calling Father Coyne arrogant for daring to have an opinion that is in variance with his superiors in the Church—is noteworthy because it brings up an important thing to understand about Wells’s book.

Wells’s screed certainly purports to be a subversive and revolutionary book that advocates “intelligent design” using freethinking arguments: the title is The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design, the pages are peppered with callouts like “Books You’re Not Supposed to Read” and “Websites You’re Not Supposed to Visit”, and much verbiage is spent positioning “intelligent design” as this underdog, upstart idea that just needs a fighting chance and reasonable people willing to think forbidden thoughts to support it, thereby allowing “intelligent design” creationism to get a foothold and find its success over the inferior “Darwinism”.

This book is not revolutionary. Wells is writing in a highly conservative fashion. Wells is not a freethinker. When Father Coyne put forward what he stated to be an inarticulate best effort to describe his feelings about God, feelings which were in keeping with the best available science but necessarily conflicted with Schöenborn’s anti-evolutionary position, Wells derided him as one who had “the arrogance to lecture a pope and a cardinal on Catholic doctrine”. Frankly, it is inconsistent of Wells to beg for open-minded thinking and posture as a revolutionary when it comes to “intelligent design” and turn right around and disagree with that person’s theology on the basis that the person was arrogant for disagreeing with a religious leader in the first place.

The chapter in its entirety endorses “Traditional Chrisitanity”, implicitly and explicitly belittling those who somehow fall outside of Wells’ elastic definition. Wells writes, “Although [Darwinism] may allow for the existence of a deity, it is not the God of traditional Christianity, who created human beings in his image. The contradiction couldn’t be sharper, and most attempts to blunt it end up abandoning traditional Christianity” (p. 173).

This is not revolutionary thinking. It is highly conservative thinking. Conservative here does not necessarily mean “anti-abortion” or any of its modern connotations but instead the “preserve the status quo, tradition, and the thinking of our fathers” sense of the term. Such conservatism stands diametrically opposed to revolutionary, freethinking philosophies. Because it is only these freethinking philosophies that can credibly recommend “Books You Aren’t Supposed to Read”, this makes Wells an ersatz revolutionary. His invocation of these attitudes in support of “intelligent design” is mere spin. Wells writes as though one can simply call for the teaching of something that is not generally taught—say the idea that two and two are six—and spin the deviance as a matter of political incorrectness instead of advocacy of ignorance and stupidity. Political incorrectness, at least how Wells uses it, is simply a marketing ploy.

Wells is not writing this book in isolation. When the creationists in Kansas tried to change the definition of science to allow in supernatural causation, only the naive would fail to recognize that those changes were at the behest of the Discovery Institute. The creationists who rejected the recommendations of experts, which includes the authors and contributers of this book, would have us return to a time where every earthquake and disease was a reason to fear God and science was practiced with no restrictions to testable claims—the Dark Ages.

Setting aside Wells’s thinly veiled spin of “revolutionary thinking”, what is really going on is that the writer of this chapter—hard to believe it is Wells given his beliefs—takes deep issue with theologies that are not “traditional” and with any science that contradicts those preconclusions. Pseudo-Wells, in any other language, is highly conservative; he or she should have included a callout in the margins of a page in this chapter, “Thoughts You’re Not Supposed to Think” and put “Theistic Evolution” or “Any Thoughts About God, Bourne of Personal Experience with Science that Happened to Conflict With Religious Dogma, with Which I Disagree”.

As Jack Krebs has written:

[The ID creationists’s] tactics have changed. Actually developing an alternative science of Intelligent Design has failed miserably—they haven’t really even tried. Legislating design via laws, state science standards or local school policies has failed. At this point, the new tactic seems to be escalate the divisive culture war….

On the one hand, it would be a relief if these direct attacks on science and public science education would quiet down. No one really needs to take the time any more to seriously address “complex specified information”, “irreducible complexity,” or any of the other unworkable psuedoscience concepts offered by ID.

But really, the culture war approach, while more honest, is also more dangerous. The ID advocates will continue talking to their target audiences as if design were true and evolution were false, and as if believing in design and rejecting evolution is the only position compatible with their religious beliefs—and their target audiences will be glad to uncritically accept this. By dropping the pretenses about the purely scientific aspects of ID, ID advocates will in fact be able to mobilize their target audiences much more effectively. As the Salvo quote implies, the battle here is for the “public imagination” about these worldview issues. Separating ID from the cultural issues in order to attack science and education hasn’t worked, so now it’s time to abandon that tactic and go all out in arousing people to join up for the “us against them” war of the worldviews battle.

This approach is dangerous to American society because it’s Wedgey divisiveness, its self-righteousness (“the only worldview that works”) and its vilification of all other perspectives is antithetical to the fundamental need for our society to have room for a broad spectrum of cultural and religious perspectives. The approach these ID culture warriors are taking, if successful, would likely lead to the same type of destructive fragmentation that we see in other countries where religious fundamentalism is ascendent.

Scientists who think that, ever since Kizmiller, the challenge of “intelligent design” is over are sorely mistaken. As Krebs points out, the culture war dispatches will merely change. Away goes the pretense that “intelligent design” creationism is scientific; enter the argument that the method of science itself, and its attendant exclusion to testable causes, is evil. This argument is dangerous for the reasons Krebs discussed above and PZ discusses at Pharyngula. Both scientists and mainstream theologians—indeed, anyone interested in furthering and defending the enlightenment—have an interest in fighting this culture war waged by the creationists. The Kitzmiller decision, as decisive as it was, represents only a beginning. If historians were shocked that James Kennedy just aired a program about how Darwin led to Hitler, wait till you see what they cook up next. As Donald Kennedy put it, the scientists who are the beneficiaries of the enlightenment must now be its stewards.

At the beginning of my review, I mentioned that Catholics don’t allow Protestants to take communion. I close this chapter’s review with an important point to understand about fundamentalism. Depending on how sharply you define “Traditional Christianity”, one may exclude just about anyone. “Keeping Christianity traditional” could mean anything from shunning those who think that God used evolution as His tool to shunning those who think women should be allowed to have a leadership role in the church. But if we took this argument—pseudo-Wells’s argument—to its logical conclusion, we could conceivably roll back the clock to a time when a notion of “Traditional Christianity” included the belief that sickness was not caused by agents doctors can treat today but by demons. Pseudo-Wells, for all his pained traditionalism, might likely be considered as much of a heretic as Kenneth Miller by the “Traditional Christians” of that day, if he happened to take a Tylenol for a headache.

Science marches on, relentlessly, and believers have often used science to gain a deeper understanding of scripture. Science, in this sense, provides a kind of feedback, a reminder that we shouldn’t let our theological beliefs get the better of us and that we should be humble enough to recognize and react to the fact that we don’t know everything. God might still have something to say to us, and we should not fear the discoveries of science. This attitude is exemplary for not just Christians, but believers of any stripe, including Muslims, Jews, and others.

One of the more successful (at least in terms of popular acclaim and academic and theological approval) fruits of this feedback is theistic evolution. A defense of some form of this Christian theology, or a more complete description of its tenets and controversies, is beyond the scope of this review and charter of this website. (And I’m grateful to our non-Christian readers for their forbearance during this post.) Interested parties are referred to Keith Miller’s Perspectives on an Evolving Creation, Kenneth Miller’s aforementioned Finding Darwin’s God, or the rich discussions found elsewhere on the internet.

I close this review with a message of hope. Theologians and scientists alike credit Galileo and remember him as a paragon. On the other hand, Galileo’s accusers who claimed the mantle of traditionalism have probably engendered more atheistic attitudes than anything else. Those who lashed out at Benjamin Franklin in the “Shaking the Foundations of Faith” article above similarly put all their chips on a notion of God that today is literally ridiculous. More importantly than leading people away from Christianity is the fact that those who claimed that Christianity could not survive if Galileo’s views were correct were, in the fullness of time, wrong. Those who claimed that Christianity could not survive if Ben Franklin’s views were correct were, as we know today, wrong. They were wrong about Christianity not surviving, and they were definitely wrong about the science.

Those traditionalists invoked faith because they were afraid of losing God. They should have invoked reason because they were confident in God. So it is with pseudo-Wells. In reading these considered and researched reviews, provided by those who took time to understand the material, the reader is already aware that pseudo-Wells is on the wrong side of science. From a historical standpoint, at least to this Panda’s Thumb contributor, pseudo-Wells and other “traditionalists” who invoke faith over verified science and “dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight” have been on the wrong side of Christianity as well.

And this gives me great hope for the future.