The Not So Logical Conclusion: On the Morality of Atheists and Believers

Theatheist“The logical conclusion of atheism is amorality/ nihilism/ meaninglessness.”

If you’ve been hanging around the atheism debates for long, you’ve almost certainly run into this argument. The more fleshed-out version goes like this: “If you make the assumptions I personally make about what atheism is and what it means, then the logical conclusion of atheism is amorality/ nihilism/ meaninglessness.”

Or, to perhaps be more harshly accurate: “For me personally, religious faith is at the core of my morality and joy and meaning of life. I can’t imagine losing my faith and becoming an atheist without losing morality and joy and meaning. Therefore, atheists can’t possibly have morality and joy and meaning — because I can’t personally imagine it for myself.”

Reality_bitesIt’s an annoying argument. Largely because it flatly ignores the actual reality on the ground: the fact that most atheists are moral people, aren’t nihilistic, and do find great meaning in their lives and the lives of others. It’s an argument that prioritizes the believer’s own beliefs and prejudices over the actual reality that’s sitting three feet in front of them staring them in the face.

It’s an annoying argument. But it’s not what I want to talk about today.

I want to talk about a parallel argument that I’ve seen some atheists make — an argument that I think is every bit as flawed, every bit as troubling, every bit as willing to ignore evidence in favor of one’s own prejudices.

It’s the argument that theistic morality is inferior to atheist morality.

Church_2The argument goes roughly like this: Theistic morality — and the idea that theism is necessary to morality, the idea that without a belief in God people will have no reason to be good — is a childish morality. It’s a morality that’s based on fear of punishment and the desire for reward… and therefore it’s an immature morality. The atheist morality is based on genuine feelings of compassion and empathy and fairness, a deep consciousness that other people have just as much right to live in this world as you yourself do… and therefore, it’s a more mature, more truly moral morality than the childish theistic morality that “good” is what you get rewarded for and “bad” is what you get punished for.

And there are two reasons I think this is a bad argument.

Mri_head_scanOne: There’s an increasing body of evidence supporting the theory that human morality is, to a great extent, genetically hard-wired. (No, this isn’t a tangent — stay with me.) There is, of course, tremendous variation in how that morality plays out in specific ethical systems, from person to person and from culture to culture. But there are certain core moral concepts that seem to exist cross-culturally, and which seem to be part of the human brain’s hard-wiring — a wiring that’s evolved over millions of years, just like the rest of our neurological hard-wiring has evolved. (And before you ask: Yes, there is so an evolutionary advantage to morality — or there is in a social species, anyway.)

Complete_neuron_diagram_numberedsvgThis science is in its early stages, and it may yet prove to be mistaken. But the signs are pointing very strongly in this direction. (There’s a good summary of the science in this New York Times article by Steven Pinker.) And if the current scientific thinking turns out to be correct, then morality is part of our human neurobiology, a psychological module built into our brains much like language and vision. Of course we vary considerably in how we act on these morals, and in the priority we give to certain morals over others when they conflict; but we vary considerably in what language we speak and how we speak it as well, and that doesn’t mean the basics of it aren’t hard-wired into our brains.

So here’s my point:

If this is true — if morality is largely hard-wired by our human genetics into our human brains — then that’s true for all of us, across the board.

Theists and atheists alike.

Moral_psychologyWe all have the same basis for morality. With the obvious exception of psychopaths and sociopaths and other people who clearly have faulty wiring, we all have the same basic notions of compassion and fair play, the same desire for a strong community and passion to see justice done, etc. And we have them for the same reasons — because they’re the morals that have evolved to make us a successful social and cooperative species.

Cerebral_lobesSo if we all have the same morals for the same reasons, it doesn’t make any sense to say that the atheist basis for morality is superior to the theistic basis. It’s not like atheists and believers are a different species, after all; and I haven’t seen any studies showing that the wiring of the atheist brain is radically different from the wiring of the theist brain.

In other words, atheist morality isn’t superior to theist morality — for the simple reason that it’s the same morality.

Same species; same evolution; same neurological wiring; same morality.

Of course, as I said, this science is still in its infancy, and it may eventually be shown to be wrong. So here’s my second argument against this idea:

It contradicts reality.

JusticeI know a fair number of theists and other religious/ spiritual believers. And they clearly have the same basis for their morality as I do for mine. The believers I know don’t do good because they’re afraid of Hell. Many of them don’t even believe in Hell. They do good for the exact same reasons I do: because they feel compassion and empathy for others, because they believe in justice and fairness, because they understand that other people are people just like they are, because they want to see the world be a better place for everybody.

Blake_ancient_of_days_2They may believe that these morals were planted in us by God, while I believe they were planted in us by the evolution of our genetic hard-wiring. But the basic morals, and the basic motivations for those morals, are essentially the same as mine.

And if I don’t like it when bigoted theists deny the reality of my morality, then it’s not right for me to turn around and be just as big a reality-denying bigot as they are.

God_monty_pythonNow. If you want to argue that the purported basis of theistic morality is more childish than atheist morality, then I won’t argue with you very strenuously. The punitive, afterlife- focused, hellfire- and- damnation variety of theistic morality, at any rate. I agree that, as explanations for morality go, that’s a pretty suck one.

GriftersBut if the current scientific thinking is correct, then the purported basis of theists’ morality isn’t the real basis. A theist may think that with no belief in God morality would waste away… but when you ask them whether they would steal or murder if it could be proven to them that God didn’t exist, in my experience most of them say No. The purported basis for much theistic morality may suck… but the real basis seems to be the same as mine, and the same as that of most of the atheists I know.

BiblefireI’ll acknowledge that this isn’t true across the board. There clearly are some theists whose morality really is based almost entirely on the fear of punishment and the desire for reward. On the other hand, there are also some atheists who really are moral nihilists, who really do argue that altruism is an illusion and we’re all really driven by pure self-interest, if only we’d be honest enough to admit it. (They have a decided tendency to hijack comment threads and drive the rest of us nuts.) And their existence doesn’t negate the fact that most atheists are genuinely moral and compassionate… any more than the existence of the “morality is all about punishment and reward” theists negates the fact that most theists are also genuinely moral and compassionate. There are childish dolts on both sides of the religion divide.

Holding_handsAnd for me to deny that most theists do good for the same basic reasons that I do — because they feel compassion and empathy for others, because they care about fair play and justice, etc. — would be every bit as obnoxious, every bit as bigoted, and every bit as unhinged from reality, as it is when certain theists insist that my atheism must mean that I’m amoral.

OtherI think there’s an unfortunate tendency in the religion debates — among both atheists and believers — to see the other side as almost a different species. I think there’s a tendency to see our opponents as The Enemy… and worse, as The Other. And as I’ve written before, the issue of religion and not-religion is already polarizing enough on its own, without us artificially divvying the world into Us and Them.

I don’t want to minimize our differences. I think they’re important, and I think they’re worth fighting over. But I think it’s possible for atheists to believe that atheism is correct and religion is mistaken — and to fight for that position passionately — without succumbing to the pitfall of thinking that this one correct hypothesis about the world somehow makes us morally superior.

The Meaning of Death, Part 3 of Many: Fear, Grief, and Actually Experiencing Your Emotions

GraveThe subject of death — and the fear of death — came up recently in another excellent Daylight Atheism post. Someone had written to Ebon Muse (the Daylight Atheism author) asking for advice on dealing with the feelings of dreadful fear and despair they sometimes had over the finality of death.

Ebon had some excellent philosophies and comforting thoughts about death, as did many other commenters in the discussion. (This piece was developed in that thread, in fact.) But I want to take a slightly different tack on this. I’ve been thinking about this question a lot recently, and I want to offer a somewhat different angle.

Death is natural, and we shouldn’t try to pretend that it doesn’t exist and isn’t real.

But the fear of death, the desire not to die, is also natural. (As Ebon pointed out in his post, if our species didn’t have a strong preference for living over dying, we wouldn’t have lasted very long.)

And we shouldn’t try to pretend that that doesn’t exist and isn’t real, either.

CouchI had a very good therapist once. We did a certain amount of the usual therapy stuff: talking ad nauseum to help me gain insight into my behavior and help me choose it more consciously, yada yada yada. But a lot of what we did was simply to create a safe place for me to experience emotions that I was afraid of, emotions that I kept shoving to the back burner because they felt so enormous it seemed like they were going to overwhelm and drown me. Grief and fear over death, of course, being high on the list.

Sad_faceAnd what I found was that, sometimes — often, maybe even most of the time — the best way to deal with difficult and painful emotions is to stop trying to fix them and just let myself feel them. When I let myself actually feel my emotions, they tend to pass. Sometimes they come back, of course; but then they pass again. And they’re not compounded and made worse by the meta-fear, the fear of the emotion adding to whatever emotion it is I’m afraid of.

FoundationI will caution that this only works if you have a pretty solid foundation to begin with. Which is where all this wonderful atheist and humanist philosophy about death comes in.

The idea that loss, including death, is necessary for life and change to be possible.

The idea that your life, your slice of the timeline, will always have existed even though you die — and the fact that your life has an end as well as a beginning doesn’t eradicate that.

The idea that death is necessary to focus our lives and make us treasure the people and experiences we have.

The idea that we are free to create our own meaning of life.

Rivers_and_tidesThe idea that things don’t have to be permanent to be meaningful. (Many thanks from me go to the movie “Rivers and Tides” for getting this one across so vividly.)

The idea that death is a natural, physical process that connects us intimately with nature and the universe.

The idea that each one of us was astronomically lucky to have been born at all, and that complaining that our lives aren’t infinite is like winning a million dollars in the lottery and complaining that we didn’t get a hundred billion, or indeed all the money in the world.

The idea that your genes and/or ideas will live on after you die.

The idea that we didn’t exist for billions of years before we were born, and that wasn’t a painful or bad experience; and so as frightened as we sometimes are of death, it probably won’t be any different from not having been born yet.

Etc., etc., etc.

Life_preserverNone of this gives us an escape from the deep fear or grief over death. Nothing gives us that. What it gives us is a solid place to come back to when the fear and grief have passed. It gives us a life preserver to hang on to when the fear and grief are gripping us, a bridge over the chasm. It gives us the strength to actually feel our fear and grief and despair… because we can trust that we have a safe place to return to when the feelings pass.

Holding_handsAnd I think that, for all the comforting philosophies we can offer, the most powerful and useful thing we can give each other in the face of death is companionship and witness. When I’m struggling with the fear of my own death, or the grief over the death of a loved one, what comforts me most isn’t ideas or philosophies (although those do help). It’s the presence of someone who loves me just sitting with me silently, letting me feel what I have to feel, not trying to fix it or make it go away but simply being with me while I feel it. It’s the presence of someone who loves me letting me know that I’m not alone… and by their presence, being part of the foundation that I can come back to when the feelings pass.

ButtonI think American culture has a pathological fear of painful emotions, and a freakish sense that they somehow make you a failure. And I know that people often feel helpless in the face of other people’s grief and want desperately to fix it, to find a magic button that will make it go away. I’ve sat with grieving friends and felt that way myself. But I also know that there is no magic button, and that sometimes the only way out of fear and grief and despair is to just go through it.

So here’s the final thing I want to say to Ebon’s inquisitor, and to anyone else who’s struggling with death:

GravestoneYes, I have those feelings, too. I sometimes have the despairing feeling that death eradicates and trivializes my life; the sense that, without immortality, my life is meaningless. And I also sometimes have the apparently opposite (but actually related, I think) experience: the despairing feeling that life itself is a burden, a parade of petty struggles and mundane samenesses that end only in nothingness and the void.

But I don’t feel that way most of the time. Most of the time, I love my life passionately, and accept the inevitability of death with a fair amount of peace. And the fact that despair creeps in from time to time does not, I think, make me a failure as a person, or a failure as an atheist. It just makes me human.

Other posts in this series:
Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing To Do With God
The Meaning of Death: Part One of Many
The Meaning of Death, Part 2 of Many: Motivation and Mid-Life Crises

“Things to be angry about”: Google Poetry

Computer_keyboardSaw this at An Apostate’s Chapel, and I loved it, so I’m doing my own version. The concept: Compose a poem, a more or less coherent one, using search terms that people used to arrive at your blog. It’s an entertainingly eerie exercise, and while I am generally a suck poet, I think that mine freakishly captures the essence, both of my blog and of my current mental and emotional state.

I did mine as a set of quasi-haikus. And yes, the title is also a search term that was used to find my blog. (No images for this one, btw; I want the images of the poem to speak for themselves, or some such poetry blather.) Enjoy — and if you’re inspired to do your own, please feel free to post the link in the comments!

things to be angry about
by Greta Christina

prayer of looking after someone
pray for someone with terminal illness
now with 40% more design

galileo nonconformist
letters of comfort in terminal sickness
slut

weird photos of naked girls
let’s see some women with nice asses that like sex
girls fuck with fruits

Harry potter porn for adults
flintstones having sex
simpsons make sex look like church

marriage no sex
sex fun
deliberately fucking with me weird shit coincidence

has barack obama voted for same sex marriage
Why does Barack Obama feel wrong to me?
if it’s different it’s wrong

perfect porn
spanking her on her bare bottom
he spanked her and then started to lick her pussy

blue eyed cats
55th Academy Awards Ceremony
keep fresh bread fresh

attempting Reason
strange and terrible earthly coincidences
you have the right to your own truth

agnostic grace
atheist rant
i just became an atheist

list of reasons why parents argue with their children
children thinking thoughts of death
the meaning of death

i have weird thoughts about death
fear of being dead forever
FEAR OF DEATH

The Scarlet Letter: Visibility and the Atheist Logo

Scarlet_aInsanely observant readers of this blog may have noted that I recently added the Scarlet Letter, the big red “A is for Atheist” A of the RichardDawkins.net Out Campaign, to my blog.

I wanted to talk briefly about why.

I’ve been resisting the Scarlet Letter for some time. Well, “resisting” is too strong a word. “Not doing it” would be more accurate. It wasn’t for any grand and lofty reason; I didn’t have a problem with it being too in-your-face or not in-your-face enough, I didn’t have a problem with it promoting a robotic conformity or being insufficiently explicit. I didn’t have a problem with it at all.

Designing_the_21st_centuryIt was pretty much an aesthetic decision. I felt that the look of my blog was already very busy, since I like to illustrate my posts so heavily, and especially since I now have ads. I didn’t want another design element glonking things up even more. And it just seemed superfluous. I figured that anyone who reads my blog for thirty seconds will figure out that I’m an atheist. The banner/ slogan at the top even says it: “Sex, atheism, politics, dreams, and whatever.”

So why did I change my mind?

FemaleI was in a discussion thread — I can’t even remember now where or which one — and the subject of female atheist bloggers came up. I wanted to offer a short list of female atheist bloggers that I liked; but it occurred to me that there were some female bloggers who I’d been assuming were atheist without actually knowing for sure. So I did a little blog-hopping, visiting some of the women bloggers I like to see if they were atheist or not…

…and I quickly realized that what I was looking for was the big red A.

The big red A meant that I could see immediately, at a glance, that a blogger was an atheist.

This was useful. It was helpful to have a conspicuous visual cue on a blog that screamed “Atheist!” in big red letters. Well, a big red letter. And it occurred to me that someone else doing the same thing I was doing wouldn’t be getting that helpful visual cue from my blog.

And then it struck me:

Oh, right.

Pink_trianglesvgVisibility.

Like pink triangles and rainbow flags and “Dyke March” T-shirts with the word “Dyke” in four-inch tall red letters.

Duh.

Yes, I have the word “atheist” all over my blog like a cheap suit. But I think visibility sometimes has to be about more than just words. I think sometimes visibility has to be about… well, the visible. The visual.

Gay_pride_2The writer in me hates to admit it, but sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words. A picture of a crowd of a million people marching in Washington, D.C. conveys the sense of a vast social movement better than the words “a million people marching in Washington, D.C.” A picture of a colorful, well-attended Gay Pride Parade conveys the sense of joyful defiance better than the words “colorful, well-attended Gay Pride Parade.”

Rasied_handsAnd the image of hundreds of bright-red “A is for Atheist” A’s popping up all over the blogosphere like hands being raised in a crowd… that’s a powerful image, one that gets across a sense of what’s happening in this movement, in a way that just saying, “Hey, there are exciting things happening in the atheist movement!” doesn’t.

I want to be part of that. I want to be one of the people with my hand raised.

Scarlet_aAnd if it makes my already crowded-looking blog look a little more crowded, I’ll just have to find a way to live with that.

On Illness, Bodies, and This Weird Free Will Thing

Caduceus_largeSo for the last week or so, I’ve been dealing with some health issues. Nothing serious, and I’m dealing with it, so don’t anybody worry. That’s not why I’m telling you this.

Here’s why I’m telling you this. I spent much of last week pretty well flattened: in serious discomfort, occasionally verging into real pain. And I was struck — as I always am when I’m sick or injured — by how fragile I am.

I don’t just mean my body. I mean my… well, me. My selfhood, my identity. What I would call my soul, if I believed in that.

409pxglassofwaterThis is what I mean. So many of the things that are central to my identity, things I pride myself on and think of as central to my self — my optimism, my cheerful disposition, my compassion, my ability to cut people slack, my energy, my libido, my hard-workingness, my consciousness of others — all of these were shot to hell last week. I was irritable, I was lethargic, I was self-absorbed, I was whiny. I was everything I don’t like.

All because of pain.

Computer_keyboardWorse — for me, at least — I got almost no writing done. Partly because I was having abdominal pain and had a hard time sitting up, but largely because I just didn’t want to. I didn’t even want to read. I simply didn’t have it in me. I didn’t have it in me to do anything except lie flat on the sofa with a hot water bottle and watch TV.

And I started thinking: What if this were chronic?

What if I felt like this all the time?

Who would I be?

FrameI have a tendency to be a bit smug and self-righteous about my optimism and cheerfulness and whatnot. I have a tendency to see having a good nature as something you can choose. Because most of the time, that’s how it is for me. I see a situation, and I see in front of me the way of looking at it that’s suspicious and gloomy and pessimistic, and I see the way of looking at it that’s generous and hopeful… and when it’s reasonable and not obviously deluded to do so, I opt for the latter. I see optimism as a choice, a conscious way of framing your life and the world that not only makes you feel better in the short run but makes actual external things in your life better in the long run. And I get truly baffled by people who can’t or won’t do it.

SeesawaaBut when I’m sick or injured, I get a lot more humble about it. I realize that a huge amount of my ability to choose optimism is balanced on some very precarious teeter-totters: good physical health and financial stability being the most obvious. (It doesn’t help that I’m reading the new Oliver Sacks book, “Musicophilia,” and thus am reading all this stuff about the freaky ways that brain injuries can radically change the things most central to a person’s self and the things that connect them with the world. Eep.)

Hot_water_bottleI just kept thinking last week, as I got up to refill the hot water bottle for the twentieth time: If the pain I’m in became chronic, would I adjust and find a way back to my native optimism and energy, sucking up and dealing with the pain the way I suck up and deal with the other things in my life that are crummy? I’d like to think so; but I really don’t know. I know some people can. I honestly don’t know if I’m one of them. (Ingrid says there’s a large body of research on chronic pain and its effect on people’s selves and lives and freedom; and not surprisingly, that effect is Not Good.)

And would I even have developed my native optimism in the first place if I hadn’t spent most of my life in pretty good physical health? Again, I’d like to think so; but I really don’t know.

HandsI think this is important stuff for atheists and humanists and naturalists. This is the thing that was really striking me when I was on the sofa with the hot water bottle. If there is no God and no soul, and everything we are is comprised of physical things and the relationships between physical things… then when you change those physical things, the self changes as well. Our selves are not in our own hands nearly as much as we like to think.

Skinner_boxI’m not saying that we don’t have any responsibility for ourselves and the choices we make. I think we do. I’m not quite sure what, if anything, this weird free will stuff is — I don’t think anyone does at this point — but I do think that we have something resembling free will and moral accountability. And unless a preponderance of evidence piles up showing that human beings really are just elaborate stimulus-response machines, I’m going to go on holding myself and others morally accountable for our choices. If I’m not responsible for how I manage my pain, then nobody is responsible for anything they do… and in the absence of a preponderance of evidence to the contrary, I’m just not willing to accept that.

Light_switch_insideWhat I am saying is this: Whatever free will is, it seems to not be a simple matter of either/or, a light switch that’s either on or off. (See the excellent On the Possibility of Perfect Humanity at Daylight Atheism for more on this.) Things happen in our lives that can limit or expand our freedom, that can broaden or diminish the choices that are available to us. Some of these are things that we can do something about; some of them really, really aren’t. And I think those of us who have a lot of choices need to remember to have compassion for people who don’t have as many.

Carnival of the Godless #85: The Dirty Version

Carnival_of_the_godlessWelcome to the 85th edition of the Carnival of the Godless! And welcome to what I believe is a first in the history of this Carnival.

Welcome to the Carnival of the Godless: The Dirty Version. (And yes, there is a clean version, for those who prefer their atheist blogging pure and wholesome.)

When I signed up to host the Valentine’s Day edition of Carnival of the Godless, I had a grand scheme for writing an actual dirty story, incorporating concepts and quotes from all the posts in the Carnival. But I soon realized that that would have been a very large project indeed; and besides, I’m not sure how appropriate it would have been to work a porn story around the item on the Down syndrome suicide bombers.

So instead, in an attempt to be only marginally inappropriate instead of wildly inappropriate, I have taken the regular Carnival… and lovingly and painstakingly illustrated it with raunchy pulp fiction cover art. I have, in fact, made every effort to make the illustrations relevant to the posts, or at least not glaringly irrelevant. (And if you think it’s easy finding a vintage pulp fiction cover to illustrate a blog post about Tacitus, you’ve got another think coming.) Enjoy!

[Read more…]

Look, Ma, I’m On An Internet Poll!

C.L. Hanson of Letters from a Broad is doing a poll asking who the sexiest atheist blogger is… and I’m one of the seven choices.

Sexiestatheistblogger

Nifty, huh? I feel like I should change my home photo for the duration of the poll. Maybe to one of the corset photos… or maybe to my sexy, sexy Simpsons avatar.

Vote for me, don’t vote for me… but for the love of Loki, vote. It is your solemn duty as a citizen of the blogosphere. If you don’t vote for sexiest atheist blogger, the theocrats win.

The Simpsons Church Sign Generator

I ran across this when I was hunting for images to illustrate my Non-Science of Intelligent Design piece. It’s unbelievably nifty, and I thought I should share the wealth and the glory.

Simpsons_church_1It’s the Simpsons Church Sign Generator.

It’s a website/ widget that lets you put any text you want onto the sign in front of the Simpsons church. Blasphemy, obscenity, stupid jokes, football scores, total gibberish — whatever you want. As long as the text fits… and you can change the font size, so it’s fairly easy to get longer or shorter text fitting snugly into the sign.

Like this:

Simpsons_church_3

Or this, from the Duelling Billboards comment thread (thanks, Mark!):

Simpsons_church_5

Or this, inspired by my cat’s newfound worship of the Norse gods:

Simpsons_church_4

I’ve used other image generators before for this blog — most notably a gravestone generator and a newspaper headline generator. But this one totally takes the prize, and I suspect that you’ll be seeing a lot of it in the months to come.

BTW, the Simpsons Church Sign Generator site does link to some regular Church Sign Generator sites as well, using photographs of actual church signs as their templates. But somehow, that doesn’t seem right to me. I don’t like having words put in my mouth, and I don’t feel right putting my words in the mouth of actual, literal churches.

I am, however, perfectly happy to put my words in the mouth of the Reverend Lovejoy. Fictional ministers seem like fair game to me.

So go forth and spread the gospel of the Good Reverend Lovejoy. Whatever you decide that is. And if you put your own made-up Simpsons church signs on your blog, please drop me a comment and let me know.

Darwin Day, Judgment Day, and the Non-Science of Intelligent Design

Happy Darwin Day, everybody!

I’ve been meaning to blog about this for a while, and I realize I’m very late to the party. But Darwin Day seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Judgement_dayI want to talk about the PBS program “Nova”
 and their episode about the Dover trial on teaching intelligent design in the public schools, “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design On Trial.” (They have an entire web page about the episode, and the program is available to watch online (as are the transcripts.)

I could easily blog about this program for pages. It was one of the best summaries I’ve seen or read of both the science and the controversy surrounding the Dover trial, and I strongly recommend it to everyone. But in the interest of brevity, I want to focus on what jumped out at me most dramatically from the program.

It’s this: Intelligent design is not science.

CreationismI don’t even mean that it’s bad science. I mean that it’s not science at all. The theory is not a scientific theory, and its proponents do not engage in the activities of science. It is, purely and entirely, an attempt to provide a scientific cover story for getting religion taught in public schools. And when its proponents testified under oath that ID is not based on religious beliefs or convictions, they — how exactly shall I put this? — lied.

The theory isn’t a scientific theory for some fairly obvious reasons, reasons which I already knew about going into “Judgment Day.” It’s not testable; it’s not falsifiable; it doesn’t make predictions; any possible outcome can be explained by the theory. All of that, just by itself, makes it not a science.

BlindfoldAnd it’s also not science in the sense that its practitioners either are not familiar with, or spectacularly ignore, the current scientific information, even in the areas they’re most focused on. (They are, for instance, obsessed with the bacterial flagellum and its supposed irreducible complexity, how it could not possibly have evolved from previous forms… without, apparently, being familiar with the current scientific thinking on how, precisely, the flagellum probably evolved.)

ManusingmicroscopeBut what really struck me was how dramatically intelligent design is not science… not just in theory, but in a practical, physical, day-to-day sense. Its proponents do not engage in science. They do not engage in experiments to test their theories.

And as a prime example of this, I’m going to quote a section from the trial transcript (as taken from the PBS Website): an interchange between ID proponent Scott A. Minnich and the lawyer for the plaintiffs, Robert Muise.

ROBERT MUISE (Dramatization): Now, Dr. Minnich, a complaint that’s often brought up — and plaintiffs’ experts have brought it up in this case — is that intelligent design is not testable. It’s not falsifiable. Would you agree with that claim?

SCOTT A. MINNICH (Dramatization): No, I don’t. I have a quote from Mike Behe: “In fact, intelligent design is open to direct experimental rebuttal. To falsify such a claim, a scientist could go into the laboratory, place a bacterial species lacking a flagellum under some selective pressure, for motility, say, grow it for 10,000 generations and see if a flagellum or any equally complex system was produced. If that happened my claims would be neatly disproven.”

ROBERT MUISE (Dramatization): Is that an experiment that you would do?

SCOTT A. MINNICH (Dramatization): You know, I think about it. I’d be intrigued to do it. I wouldn’t expect it to work. But that’s my bias.

STEPHEN HARVEY (Dramatization): Now you claim that intelligent design can be tested, correct?

SCOTT A. MINNICH (Dramatization): Correct.

STEPHEN HARVEY (Dramatization): Intelligent design, according to you, is not tested at all, because neither you nor Dr. Behe have run the test that you, yourself, advocate for testing intelligent design, right?

SCOTT A. MINNICH (Dramatization): Well, turn it around in terms of these major attributes of evolution. Have they been tested? You see what I’m saying, Steve? It’s a problem for both sides.

Science_magazineI’m not just going to point out that Minnich is flatly mistaken here, that the theory of evolution can be tested, and has been tested extensively. And I’m not going to go into detail about why I think he’s mistaken about ID, why ID isn’t actually testable or falsifiable. (Very short answer: If the flagellum developed in the experimental example he gave, they could always say, “Well, okay, the flagellum didn’t need an intelligent designer — but what about this other thing over here?”)

What I want to point out is this:

Minnich believes himself that ID is a testable theory. He’s even thought of an experiment he could do that might falsify the theory.

But has he done that experiment?

He has not.

Scientific_method_2This is what I mean by ID not being science. That’s not what scientists do. When scientists have a theory, and an idea for an experiment that could show that theory to be false, they run the experiment. The fact that the ID proponents have not done this makes it clear as day: Whatever they’re doing, it’s not science. It’s not a scientific theory, and it’s not a scientific practice.

It is, instead, a religious belief: a belief in a supernatural power that interferes with natural processes. And one of the most dramatic parts of “Judgment Day” was the way it showed the ID proponents being caught red-handed at it.

Of_pandas_and_peopleThe program reveals smoking gun after smoking gun after smoking gun. Statements by ID proponents slipping and using the word “creationism.” Drafts of an ID book that originally read “creationist” having the word replaced with “design proponent” (including places with the transitional fossil, “Cdesign proponentsists”). The publisher’s catalog of said book listing it under “Creation Science.” Documents showing that ID books had been sent to the Dover public schools by a fundraising drive in the local church. Internal documents from the ID organization The Discovery Institute stating that they want to change American culture back to a religious foundation and plan to use ID as a wedge to accomplish this goal.

Church_signI could go on an on. The evidence is overwhelming: Intelligent design is not science. Intelligent design is a way of getting around the Supreme Court decisions banning creationism from being taught in public schools. Intelligent design is a religious belief, and it differs from science in all the ways that religion differs from science. The evidence is overwhelming… just like the evidence for evolution is overwhelming.