Sunday, November 13, 2005

When Religion becomes Science...

A moment of silence, please, for our poor suffering brothers and sisters in Kansas.

The Kansas Board of Education has recently decreed that "Intelligent Design" is science - an event that will go down in history alongside some of their other insightful decisions of the past. I have no doubt that the "ID" promoters will see this as a tremendous boost to their point of view, given the history of this august Board (vide supra), which merely serves to underscore their appalling lack of understanding of how science works. The supporters of "Intelligent Design" have merely postponed the "day of reckoning". Let me explain.

All of the political and even legal victories of "Intelligent Design" - which is simply good ol' Biblical Creationism in a plain white wrapper - will not give that idea what it needs to survive in the scientific world. Centuries ago, the Catholic Church imprisoned and executed people in an attempt to suppress the "theory" that the earth orbited the sun - and it didn't work then. The Church authorities had the power of life and death, but they couldn't keep the earth-centered Universe alive because they had no data!

Likewise, even if the "Intelligent Design" promoters pack the school board - or even the Supreme Courts - they will still not have a shred of data to support their "hypothesis". As a result, "Intelligent Design" has no hope to survive as a "theory" - it doesn't even have enough substance to exist as a testable hypothesis. It is, in fact, stillborn.

As an aside, I find it infinitely amusing that "Intelligent Design" evolved from Biblical Creationism in a way startlingly similar to the way biological organisms evolve from their ancestors. The political enviroment changed, making Creationism less able to compete for survival. The resulting selection pressures favored development of a new "species" from Creationism - one better camouflaged from the predatory humanist/secularist movements that were prowling the modern seas of society. And while there was certainly an intelligence (of a sort) involved in the process, it did not provide either the impetus or the direction of change. Those were provided by the environment, just as in evolution.

But I digress. Let us return to examining the potential consequences of the Kansas Board of Education decision, as there will certainly be many.


The first, and most obvious, consequence will be legal challenges. This is one factor that makes the Board's decision so Quixotic. Given that this is a "controversial" (except among scientists) subject- and school boards generally shy away from controversy (see here) - taking this decision indicates a strong motivation on the part of at least six of the Board members. This is especially true given the absolute certainty of legal challenges which will expend a great deal of the Board's funds - which they claim are in short supply. So, the taxpayers of Kansas will be asked to foot the bill for the religious convictions of six of the Board members.

This wouldn't be half as bad if "Intelligent Design" had a prayer (pun most certainly intended) of success in the courts. It might win in a Kansas state court (depending on the jurisdiction), but it will almost certainly fail at some higher court. And an adverse decision at a high court level will be devastating to "Intelligent Design". Since "ID" utterly lacks scientific data, its cannot survive an adverse legal ruling. The drive by the "ID" supporters to put their pet pseudo-theory in harm's way speaks volumes about their lack of understanding of what it is that they are supporting.


In a multicultural society with an explicit (if often ignored) guarantee of religious freedom, is it ethical to teach children a religious dogma in their science class? The "Intelligent Design" supporters can argue 'til they're blue that "ID" doesn't promote religion, but who (or what) do they think this "Intelligent Designer" is supposed to be if not God? They can play semantic games all they want, but that is one point that anyone who is honest will agree on - "ID" is all about God. And what about the people whose religion doesn't include a God?

[Note: I define "atheism" as a religion in which "god" is represented by the null set - "religion" being defined as any belief system that expresses certainty about non-physical, non-observable phenomona, including the belief that there are no such phenomena. The opposite of "religion" would then be "agnosticism", which holds that such phenomona are unknowable to humans and therefore no belief - for or against - is justified by the data.]

Another part of the ethical problem is the ethics of teachers lying to children. Even if the actual classroom teachers "believe" in "Intelligent Design", there are teachers or administrators somewhere in the system who know that it is a lie to tell children that "Intelligent Design" is in any way a scientific "theory", let alone one comparable in support or predictive power to evolution.

And lying to children isn't just an abstract issue of ethics. Once they find out that they've been lied to (and they will find out - ask any parent), children are not as forgiving as adults. Adults expect to be lied to; children still manage to be shocked and offended by it - that's one of the things that marks them as children. Once they find out that they've been lied to about "Intelligent Design", they will doubt everything else their teachers (and parents) have taught them. This is a process that currently occurs somewhere in the latter years of college (we hope) - do we really want to see this happening in secondary school?


What are the vocational implications of teaching kids baloney for science? Well, if they're headed off to become insurance salespeople or lawyers or auto mechanics, probably not a whole lot. However, if some of these students are to become scientists, then they will have to unlearn what they have learned about "Intelligent Design". And take it from a person who has to teach undergraduates in university, it takes a lot more effort to unlearn wrong information than it takes to learn it right the first time.

Now, people going into physics or chemistry may be able to limp along with a persistent belief in "Intelligent Design", but anyone going into biology (my field) will find themselves confronted at every turn with data that supports evolution and refutes "Intelligent Design". I see this every term - a young student who was indoctrinated with "Intelligent Design" either at home or in a private school starts in biology and finds that their religious dogma is in conflict with the data.

Once the student reaches this point, they have a decision to make. Some of them drop biology and go into a field that allows them to maintain their illusions about life and evolution. This is a sad waste of talent, in many cases.

Some of them try to deal with the conflict by actively challenging the teacher. This sort of "kill the messenger" strategy ultimately fails, since it is not the instructor's personal belief that they are challenging, but over a century of accumulated data. Philosophical differences can be legitimately argued, but data can only be refuted by more (or better) data. "Intelligent Design", as noted above, has no data, so the argumentative student is doomed to eventual failure. Many of them then take the first route and "opt out" of biology. Others take the next route.

When confronted with the data - and the evidence that they have been lied to - some "ID"-supporting students have a "de-conversion" experience. Sort of like being "born again", but in reverse. Rather than "awakening to a new faith", many of them lose faith entirely, becoming cynical and distrustful. Some of the most vehement anti-"ID" students on my campus are students who entered the university with a strong belief in "ID", proving again that there is no opponent so dangerous as an apostate.

Pandora's Box:

Once the "Intelligent Design" promoters get their "camel's nose" into the tent of the public schools, they may find that they have opened a door that they would rather have kept shut. After all, if "ID" believers are allowed to preach their religious tenents in public schools, why not everybody else? Of course, the other religions would also have to "dress up" their beliefs as the "Intelligent Design" promoters have, but that shouldn't be too difficult, given the template that "ID" has provided.

Personally, I think that the obvious next candidate for inclusion would be the Atheists, who should be allowed to present their "theory" that there is no "Intelligent Designer". Their data is just as compelling as that of the "ID" people, so I see no reason why they shouldn't be allowed to have their day in school. Of course, the Atheists wouldn't say that there is no God, just that there is no "Intelligent Designer". That's different - isn't it?

Next up should be the Pantheists who could argue that there is not just one "Intelligent Designer" but many, often in mortal conflict with each other. And so on, ad infinitum until we have to send our kids to a private school just so that they can have enough time away from religious instruction to be able to learn to read, write and do sums.


Not only is teaching "Intelligent Design" in the public schools bad science, a breach of trust and probably against the law, it is a bad idea for the supporters of the "Intelligent Design" movement, most (if not all) of whom are trying to increase society's belief in their God. Any short term gains they make will be at the eventual cost of being exposed trying to manipulate children into their religious beliefs. The backlash against this manipulation will come not only from enraged parents, but also from the children that they have manipulated. It is, in short, a lose-lose proposition for "Intelligent Design".

In the short term, the "victory" of the "Intelligent Design" supporters in Kansas may make them feel more empowered and righteous. It will, however, lead to their eventual downfall. Their "theory" cannot stand prolonged scrutiny outside of the protected environment of a rigged school board - it has no data to support it and far too much data refuting it.

And even if - against all odds - the "Intelligent Design" supporters carry the day, they may not like the implications that victory will have. Are they really ready to go head-to-head with every other religious interpretation of reality? Are they ready to have their children indoctrinated in religious dogmas other than their own? I doubt it.



Anonymous Skeptico said...

While I normally agree with your excellent posts I have to take exception to this:

Note: I consider atheism to be a religion in which "god" is represented by the null set - religion is any belief system that expresses certainty about non-physical, non-observable phenomona, including the belief that there are no such phenomena."

While some atheists subscribe to that view, most atheists do not “express certainty” that God does not exist, we merely have no belief in God. A lack of belief in God cannot be a religion any more than a lack of belief in a teapot orbiting the Sun can be a religion.

13 November, 2005 10:56  
Blogger Prometheus said...


Perhaps we are arguing at cross purposes. My definition of "atheist" was/is "someone who believes that god (or gods) does not exist". Conversely, in my lexicon, an "agnostic" perceives that there is no evidence (or insufficient evidence) to support a belief in god (or gods).

I have no desire to change how you describe your understanding of the existence or non-existense of supernatural beings, but there is a bit of semantic abiguity: atheism can mean either a belief that there is no god/are no gods or a lack of any belief in god(s). For that reason, I took the effort to specify which definition I was using.

As I had defined the terms, a lack of belief would be classified as agnosticism. You, of course, are free to define the terms however you like, but I was very explicit in defining them as used in this posting in order to forstall precisely the confusion that is happening now.

To use your analogy, a firm belief that there is no teapot orbiting the Sun could be considered a religion (albeit a very pathetic religion), whereas a conviction that there is no reason to suspect that a teapot is orbiting the Sun would not.

Admittedly, I am overstating the case that atheism is a religion to an extent that may well be offnsive to those who consider themselves atheists. For that, I apologize. I mean no offense to anyone - I am only trying to point out that an unsupported belief in any aspect of the non-physical, non-observable world, even if that belief is that such a world does no exist, is not scientific.

Science deals in the physical, observable world, which is precisely why "Intelligent Design" is not science.


13 November, 2005 11:27  
Blogger Prometheus said...


I have modified the posting to - I sincerely hope - be more clear that I am defining certain terms in ways that may not conform to the usage of everyone (or even a majority of people).

Please understand that I am not trying to force my definitions upon the rest of the world - or even the scientific world. Feel free to ignore them if they cannot be reconciled with your own.

The larger point - and the reason I resorted to such verbal contortions - is to point out that teaching religion, even if it is "sanitized" by removing denomination-specific names for God (e.g. calling God the "Intelligent Designer"), is not acceptable to "everybody" because there are people who just as fervently believe that there is no such thing as God (or gods).

I do this because I have run up against the following arguments:

[1] "Everybody believes in some Supreme Being, so it doesn't matter if we teach about God in public school, as long as we don't exclude any particular religion."

[2] "We have a right to religious freedom which cannot be denied to us simply because some people lack any religious convictions."

I hope that this will clarify my points rather than worsening the muddle I began with.


13 November, 2005 11:44  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All your points are excellent, and I doubt anybody could have put them better.

How you define things for yourself is your business; I may not agree, but I really don't care, i.e. it's not important to me.

13 November, 2005 13:03  
Anonymous Skeptico said...

You originally stated:

”…religion is any belief system that expresses certainty about non-physical, non-observable phenomona…”

Belief that God does not exist does not equate to “expresses certainty” that God does not exist. I have no belief in god but I would not express certainty of it. But the burden of proof is upon the believer – until I see evidence why should I believe? So I don't believe - I am an a-theist.

Saying you cannot be “certain” about god does not make you an agnostic. Most atheists just have no belief in God. If there were no “God believers” around they would not bother to define themselves as atheists – it would not occur to them to do so. Agnostics, on the other hand, will say they are not sure. They would be agnostics even if there were no theists or atheists around – they actually think about whether there is a God or not.

That’s not to say there aren’t some atheists who think they “know” there is no God, and this position could be described as intellectually dishonest. But even then, I don’t agree that disbelief in something can be called religion. It would be a firm disbelief without proof, but how can mere disbelief be a religion?

This is to some extent semantic, but calling atheism a religion plays right into the hands of the believers who want to pretend their religion is science.

13 November, 2005 16:11  
Blogger The Deity said...

This is what happens when I get drunk and stop paying attention to humanity for a few thousand years...those drinking sessions with Bacchus will really kick a Deity in the ass...

in any case, I hereby do officially in my capacity as deity render this issue moot. This is just the tip of the iceberg of all of the repairs I will have to effect. Once humanity starts "winging it" religion just goes all over the place and before too long religions start claiming that we ought to reject science...

trust me guys, leave religion to the experts...that's what we Deities are around for. Stick to science!

13 November, 2005 22:22  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe in a God, who, for the most part appears to follow his (gender not implied) version of the "prime directive". Most of the time he chooses not to interfere with the natural order of things as this would cloud the concept of free will, which he highly values. When he does interfere, I would suspect that he would do so in a way that would not be scientifically reproducible. Now this isn't science, and I would never assert that it is. Likewise, I perceive that we don't yet have all the gaps covered in our understanding of natural selection and its application to humans evolving from primordial goo. So, as a scientist, what would prevent me from, in good conscience, saying that we scientists don't have all the answers and postulating that an intelligent designer might be at work? True, this isn't a "scientific" theory, in that it can't be tested or falsified, among other things. It isn't even very helpful. But I would posit that there are a class of statements one can make that may be true, but not scientifically verifiable. The fact that they aren't scientifically verifiable doesn't mean that they aren't true, just not interesting from a scientific viewpoint. Put another way, for the theory of evolution to remain a theory, it must be tentative. One must admit that one doesn't have all of the answers.

13 November, 2005 23:09  
Blogger Nigel (VK4EEE) said...

I wonder if you might find useful a book written by Ninian Smart called the Worlds Religions, (Seven Dimensions), when answering comments on what defines a religion, and what does not. I am a teacher who specialises in comparitive studies of world religions to a wide range of students from various ethic and religious backgrounds.

13 November, 2005 23:42  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hate to be a pedant, but of course there are millions of teapots orbiting the sun - I have one in my kitchen cupboard at home.

I suspect that there are rather fewer orbiting the Moon, though.

15 November, 2005 09:33  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And, of coarse, you have evidence to back up your claim?

15 November, 2005 12:46  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah yes, but do you believe in your teapot?

15 November, 2005 15:08  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not unless you give me a compelling reason to do so. Seriously, I hope that you weren't comparing the amount of evidence I have to support my belief system vs. your posited belief in celestial teapots. Religion isn't about science as much as it is about evidence and reason. To be sure, some approach it more logically than others...

15 November, 2005 17:56  
Anonymous Doug Sharp, Head IDiot said...

November 8th, 2005
I write with joy and thanks in my heart for your bold decision to teach Kansas schoolchildren of The Intelligent Design GOD IDio. Finally, The Church of The Intelligent Designer needs no longer cower behind a façade of science.

Now that your establishment of IDio has rendered the Constitution's first amendment inoperative, we can proudly proclaim in every Kansas classroom, "There is but one Intelligent Designer and His Name is IDio!" Thanks be to the taxpayers of Kansas for donating their money to proselytize for His church. May IDio mutate you all intelligently.

Finally, we see an end to the dark decades of awkward debates, of tedious aping of scientific method, of endless self-publication to mesmerize the faithful. No more need we pay our devout 'scientists' to appear in court, only to be insulted by the IDioless forces of logic. Never again must we shrug uneasily and mumble, "Umdon'tknowbutit'snotagod," when Darwinists ask the identity of the Intelligent Designer.

Spread IDio's Word:

15 November, 2005 20:23  

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