[Ed note: Our point/counterpoint with David Klinghoffer and Sahotra Sarkar on Ben Stein's Expelled provoked a heated reaction from readers and some regular writers. Jay Michaelson's follows below, the first of several more likely to be posted soon.]
"All of a sudden, there was hope in my heart I'd see my father again."
Thus says one of America's most influential religious leaders, of the moment when he became religious: it was at his father's funeral, and the presiding minister had just said that death is not the end, that there is an afterlife. The boy was only ten. And he grew up to be Tim LaHaye, evangelist and co-author of the massively best-selling Left Behind series.
This is why it is so difficult to talk about religion in America today, why we fight wars about it, why we condemn and even kill one another about it: because it gets us in our guts, and stays there. Religions do offer theological doctrine, but what they really offer is solace, love, sanctity, and value — all of them inchoate, all of them dear.
Really, why should anyone care so much about the age of the Earth, the parting of the Red Sea, or the resurrection of Christ? Do we really suppose that the most ardent of religionists are committed to ontology and history?
No — these doctrines are only important because of something else, and that something is the deep desires to which religion caters. Fundamentalisms and orthodoxies may say they are about the content of theological propositions, but the reason it's impossible to argue with them is that their adherents have so much at stake in their being right that they'll say or do anything to make it all work out. What's at stake? If the Torah isn't literally true, then something in my life is wrong. If Jesus didn't die for my sins, then I am not okay.
This is how religion works. As those in the Jewish community arguing for "deep, immersion experiences" are coming to realize, religion works by grabbing us where it counts. This is why religion makes so much sense at funerals — because we need it.
The trouble is that, for many people, these intense feelings become invisibly translated into beliefs and opinions. Israel's religious right has intense religious experiences, and associates them with notions of chosenness, and holy land. America's religious right has intense religious experiences, and associates them with Biblical literalism. The Islamic world's religious right has intense religious experiences, and associates them with keeping the umma pure of corruption and decay.
This is why arguing about "Intelligent Design" is so pointless: because those who "believe in it" (notice the locution) do so for reasons totally unconnected to science, evolution, truth, and logical inquiry. They are committed because they think religion is really, really important, and it's at the core of their lives. The debate is not about bacterial flagella, evolutionary biology, or any of the other details. It's about a terrified minority, afraid that society is slipping away from all it holds dear.
Just imagine the grief of a young boy whose father has died. And imagine the hope, the consolation, when that boy is taught that at the Rapture, he'll meet his dad again. All of a sudden, Biblical inerrancy is no longer a hermeneutical proposition; it is necessary for the dearest of dreams to be true.
Closer to our own tradition, how many of us have felt, at one time or another, that if the perfect edifices of Biblical and rabbinic law were to crumble, that not only they but our very souls would lose structure and coherence? Surely, this is the great appeal of Orthodoxy, and the great lack of more liberal Jewish movements: that it all makes sense, even if it doesn't. That there is a point, a design, a truth at the core of life. Liberal rationales — that the commandments are a path toward god-consciousness, or ethical behavior, or social justice — just don't have that kind of power. And if it can't make you cry, it's not religion.
This is why otherwise intelligent people like David Klinghoffer make absurd, ridiculous claims that fly in the face of the scientific revolution — you know, the folks who brought you the airplane, the computer, and the artificial heart.
On the facts, there simply is no doubt, and no controversy, whatsoever. Evolution is among the most successful explanations of facts that has ever been propounded. And "Intelligent Design" has no alternative to it — it simply says that it's incomplete, and therefore, the incompletion means there must be some "Designer." Big surprise to no one: that Designer is probably God. (Admittedly, it could be space aliens, some ID proponents say.) This is not a new argument; it's been around for hundreds of years. And it's as false now as ever before.
As documents uncovered in the Kitzmiller case show, the Discovery Institute is a well-funded front for those seeking to re-Christianize America. Klinghoffer and folks like him are basically Jewish Uncle Toms. I'm only surprised that Jewcy gave him a platform.
Klinghoffer's argument is as vacuous as Intelligent Design itself: that because Hitler made use of Darwin, Darwinian theory is morally suspect. Last I checked, Hitler also made use of automobiles. Indeed, he based a lot of ideas on militarism and machines; does that mean technology is morally wrong? Should you turn off your computer right now?
Social Darwinism, Hitlerian and otherwise, was a misapplication of scientific rhetoric — just like Intelligent Design. Its claim was that we can derive moral truths from natural facts, and that is false. You might as well try to decide what music is good by what sounds most like birdsongs, or base your taste in food on how rabbits like to eat.
Darwinian theory simply points out that we, like every other life form on the planet, are part of the natural world. It does not imply anything about how we ought to behave; it does not create a should from an is. Indeed, one could make an entirely Darwinian case for conservative morality: precisely because we are animals, we need strict rules and codes of conduct to keep us from killing each other. This is what the right says all the time. It's the left that says we can trust people not to be awful.
Yes, the great irony is that the only Social Darwinists left today are…you guessed it, Klinghoffer's allies on the political right, who blame poor people for being poor (morally deficient, perhaps) and who advocate less of a safety net to catch them when they fall. (To be clear, I'm not accusing Klinghoffer himself of this position; I have no idea what he thinks about this issue.)
But all this is beside the point. As the Kitzmiller case conclusively showed, these ID guys aren't interested in scientific reasoning. They're using scientific language as a wedge to get Americans to be more religious. That's what this "debate" — which is not a debate, but which the ID partisans want to convince us is a debate so that we'll be fair and hear "both sides" — is really about. There are not two sides of this issue, any more than there are two sides to the question of whether the Earth is flat.
I am a religious person, in love with God, and a mystic. As my readers know, I think spiritual and contemplative practice makes us better people, and makes life worth living. But when those spiritual states become wedded to ideology, they become dangerous. Already, a third of our country believes itself to be at war, primarily with Islam, but also domestically, in what used to be called the "Culture Wars." America does not need less reason and more religious passion. The Discovery Institute's wedge strategy is exactly the wrong prescription for our nation.
Three hundred years ago, John Locke wrote his Letters Concerning Toleration inspired by the English Civil War. In the shadow of that conflict, Locke argued that because religion so stirred up the sentiments, and because its claims could never be objectively arbitrated, religion should have no role in shaping public policy. It's just too contentious, Locke said, providing what would become one of the core theories for the Enlightenment's separation of church and state. Locke, of course, was right.