Always ethereal, always eclectic, I write as the mood strikes, when there intrigue reveals itself. Usually that means something controversial or adventure of some sort.

I've tried really hard to be unprovocative, but have as yet been unsuccessful.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

The Tragedy of Intelligent Design: Coming Out (To a Theatre Near You)

The Intelligent Design movement, lead by the Discovery Institute, has long claimed that professors and teachers lose their positions and are not published because of discrimination, because some don't accept evolution or because they support the Intelligent Design hypothesis. At times this is claimed to be religious discrimination, and at other times it is claimed that ID has nothing to do with religion. In other places it has been repeatedly shown that these accusations are baseless. Now the DI has a new movie out, Expelled, in which they repeat these claims, but add in that evolution lead to the Holocaust, and anyone who supports evolution is following in the path of the Nazis. (I'm not making this up. Or exaggerating.)

Here's the irony of it all. A few cases have recently come to light where people have lost positions, or been threatened with losing their positions, for their support for evolution. In truth, in many areas of America, high school teachers self-censor and restrict evolution in their instruction so as not to offend or risk their positions. But one of the most interesting cases related to one of my former professors.

Dr. Nancey Murphy is a professor of religion and science at Fuller Seminary, who also co-taught a course in the Theory and Practice of Non-Violence that I greatly enjoyed. At one point she published a scathing review of Phillip Johnson's book supporting Intelligent Design and attacking evolution. Phillip Johnson is a lawyer who has become the most prominent defender of Intelligent Design. In that capacity he spoke with a Fuller trustee to try to get Dr. Murphy fired, for he didn't like her theological defense of evolution.

In a letter to me Dr. Murphy stated

That I came close to being fired is an exaggeration. Philip Johnson phoned a powerful trustee and complained about me. The trustees discussed my “case” and there was so much support from the administration that the issue dropped there. So it’s not Fuller, but rather the ID people who wanted me out.

and later

Fuller has always been very supportive, even though the events caused them to lose major donations!

(Dr. Murphy gave permission to share this information.)

Now this whole controversy begins to hit home. Here is a great professor, from whom I learned a lot, who is being attacked, not for her studies of evolution, but for her theology! She advocates that God and evolution are compatible (and next year is looking forward to teaching a class on science and theology). Though the Intelligent Design advocates talk about wanting freedom of religion, when someone publishes from a purely religious perspective something against Intelligent Design, the IDists get up in arms and try to restrict the ability of their detractors to speak or share their views.

I am so glad that my alma mater didn't join in with Phillip Johnson, that they stood up for truth and solid theology and the freedom of their professors to speak and to publish. I am so sad that supporters of bad theology and bad science would have caused a significant loss of funding to such a great school. I understand that, if someone feels strongly about this issue, they have every right to direct their money as they desire. It is their money. But I am sorrowful that some would still be in such great darkness, and try to pull others into the darkness with them.

Of course, if I'm to be completely honest, this issue is even more intimate. I had a wonderful time teaching biology for three years at a great school. But it was a constant struggle, with members of the administration, fellow teachers, and numerous parents and students objecting to my teaching of evolution, even as I bent over backwards to accommodate their viewpoints. I spent a couple class periods discussing the many different philosophical approaches to evolution, while stressing that this is the core of biology and the students needed to learn and understand it- and hopefully even enjoy it. (Because it is a lot of fun!) I once was a firm believer in Literal Creationism, before God showed me the Light, and so I can relate to those who still believe in a literal creation as described in Genesis. I wanted them to not do dishonor to their integrity, but come to believe in biology honestly, while not denying the religious beliefs they might hold.

The administration supported me at times against parents, but there was constant pressure from some administration members, particularly the director, to change the way I taught, to "teach both sides" of the issue. Since I was trained in both theology and biology, I saw too much emptiness in Intelligent Design, to say nothing of it's lack of imagination, to be able to teach it with integrity. And I must stress that I was not fired, nor even encouraged to leave my position. Yet ultimately I did leave my position over this issue.

It all came to a head when the director of the school maneuvered his way into teaching classes in Intelligent Design. Unbeknownst to me, towards the end of the school year, he met with the board to set up these classes for the following year. Though at the time I was the most knowledgeable person in biology at the school, he did not consult me, and indeed, I didn't hear about these meetings till months later, as the new school year began.

Even when the director would ask my opinion on these matters, it was only lip service. I vividly remember one conversation where he asked me if there was one thing I might want taught in his ID classes. (This was after the new year had begun.) I said at the very least, he should make it clear that there is no such thing as "just a theory" in science. That a theory is as good as it gets. That the word "theory" doesn't mean "guess" in science but is rather an extensively tested formulation of our understanding of the world, like germ theory, atomic theory, and cell theory.

The director vehemently disagreed. This definition of theory in science is not admired by ID advocates, for they like to be able to say evolution is "just a theory", and therefore we are only guessing. So the director stated that my thoughts on what a theory is was not what he had learned in school, and that ended the discussion.

In Fall of that year four mandatory half-day classes in Intelligent Design began. All high-school students were required to attend these Saturday morning classes, to learn the other side, since they were learning about evolution in biology class. If the student didn't attend, they had to show up separately to learn the information in one-on-one sessions with the director.

I refused to attend these sessions, for my presence as the biology teacher would indicate that the ideas presented were worthy of consideration, that they were a "viable alternative". I attended only the first session, which focused on a recapitulation of evolution. The director wanted the students to read the Origin of a Species. Since most of these students are ESL, and this is a very well-written book but in old-fashioned language, I suggested they read instead the more updated Darwin's Ghost, with modern language and evidence. The director turned down this request as well, perhaps because if the students read the work in a language they could understand it would be far more convincing.

The students were therefore understandably confused. But additionally, as many of the students had not yet taken biology, they had no understanding of evolution to begin with. Their first introduction to evolution was thus a complicated text in a old version of a second language. This was probably not accidental- the introduction to evolution is negative, implanting in them the idea that the entire field is unenjoyable.

Though I didn't attend the last three sessions, I heard from the other high school teachers who did. (We were all theoretically acquired to attend. I disobeyed for ethical reasons.) The teaching was simply atrocious. I could take encouragement that the director’s teaching style was all lecture-based, with little interaction, and therefore perhaps the students would see this Intelligent Design bit as just boring.

But what I found instead was that students were coming into my class, unsure of whom to believe. In a very authoritarian culture, the words of the director of the school carried weight. Should they believe what their biology teacher said all year, or what the director now said? He had already succeeded, for now “both sides” were being taught, as if a controversy existed, and both evolution and Intelligent Design carried an equal weight of evidence. All that I had worked on all year, honing in them that a theory is the best you can get in science, that a theory is a thorough explanation of reality; that evolution is the only scientific alternative; that biology was built on this edifice- all was for nought, for now they had the idea that any old belief system would do.

Students came into my class, sharing how they had been taught that the sun might be powered by gravitational collapse. The director used the idea of “might” so that it could not be said that he’d actually argued this – his goal was simply to raise doubt. It took me a while to find out about this was on about, as I’d never heard of it before. Turns out there was a minority belief in physics at the turn of the 20th century in which the sun might be powered by gravitational collapse rather than nuclear fission. The bonus is that if it’s powered by gravity, then it needs to be only a few hundreds of thousands of years old, rather than millions.

I realized that my very presence was allowing this to be taught. The director at one point said that he wouldn’t have hired me if there weren’t others on the faculty who supported Literal Creationism. He wanted balance. And he said that he felt comfortable teaching ID because I was teaching the other part.

I realized I could not be part of this. I could not facilitate and enable lies being taught to the students. I could not be in a position where what I was taught was constantly undermined by the administration. There are other reasons why I would have otherwise have stayed only another year. But I left the position for this reason- because I could no longer teach the foundations of biology unopposed. It was not an environment which encouraged the teaching of truth.

A few months later I realized I was foolish in believing the director when he said he would give me a good recommendation. Because of this issue he was telling possible employers that I was not a good hire. A year later he was telling others I was writing negative reviews on Amazon of anti-evolution books I hadn't read.

It is sad that this issue tears apart. But sadder still are those who give up the opportunity to learn of the beauty of evolution, and the wonder that it offers us. As a theistic evolutionist I think there is much that is revealed of God within evolution. And I am tired of the ID supporters crying out that they are attacked and denied employment or released from employment, when in truth it is far more the other way around. It is time for this to end. It is time that those who claim to speak for Christianity, such as those at the Discovery Institute, to actually practice the ethics of Jesus- to do unto others, to believe in truth and light, and to love their enemies. It is time for us to embrace a God who is big enough to use evolution, rather than restrict ourselves to a small god of literalism who is incapable of acting outside two short Genesis myths.


quaintance said...

Good job.

It is surprising that the director suggested they read OoS, since it is likely he himself had not. I had not read it until graduate school. The language is very very difficult. Darwin's sentences are like nested Russian dolls, and it can take quite some time to work out meaning if you are not prepared. And then there is the arguement even among scientists over which edition to read. The 1st is his purest distillation of ideas. By the third he's trying to address some of his detractors. By later editions he begins to muddy his own thoughts by trying to be too accomodating. I'd be interested to know which edition the Director wanted the kids to read.

Did I tell you I saw Darwin's house at Downe when I was in the UK this summer?

@bdul muHib said...

Thanks. I think he actually had read it, if I recall correctly. How much he understood is a different question- as you say, it's hard language, and there's a good bit there that I don't understand. I don't know which edition it was.

Cool about your pilgrimage.

quaintance said...

I was poking aroundo nthe computer last night, and finally looked at the "Expelled" trailer. Disturbing stuff. I like to think that these people lost their jobs for refusing to do what others considerd to be *repetuable, testable* science, but having not examined their questions, I can't be sure . There was speculation that perhaps faith vs science did play a role in my qual resutls at UCR. Of course I could just have been an unfocused writer, too...

@bdul muHib said...

I have no doubt about what happened to you. But from what I hear, none of those mentioned in the movie Expelled actually lost their jobs. I've heard it's implied they did, but in truth they did not.