Thursday, May 31, 2007

Sam Brownback's Intelligent Design Theory

Senator Sam Brownback has an op-ed piece in today's New York Times entitled "What I Think About Evolution." In the debate among the Republican presidential candidates earlier this month in California, he was one of the three candidates who indicated that they did not accept the theory of evolution. This article is his attempt to clarify his position.

As one could have easily predicted, he endorses what is essentially "intelligent design theory," as promoted by the Discovery Institute. He accepts the fact of "microevolution" as "small changes over time within a species." But he rejects any evolutionary explanation of the emergence of new species from ancestral species. By implication, then, he believes that God created each species separately. He does not explain when, where, or how God did this. He does suggest, however, that God did not necessarily have to do this in "six 24-hour days." This is the way that ID proponents try to separate themselves from literal biblical creationists.

As should be clear from many of my posts, I agree with Brownback that there is no necessary conflict between science and religion. But I do dispute his assertion that science cannot provide "an understanding of values, meaning and purpose," which can only come from religious faith. He thus implies that a natural understanding of the world cannot discover "values, meaning and purpose," so that skeptics or atheists must live without "values, meaning and purpose." He thereby rejects any conception of natural moral law as comprehensible both to religious believers and nonbelievers. He leaves us wondering whether there is any natural ground for "values, meaning and purpose," and thus implies a kind of religious nihilism in which nature apart from God is meaningless.

Brownback does not explain whether he believes that all religions support the proper "values, meaning and purpose," or whether only certain religious traditions do this.

By contrast to Brownback, my argument is that although healthy religious belief can be important in reinforcing morality, there is a natural morality rooted in evolved human nature that can stand on its own even without belief in revelation. To me this seems to be the fundamental precondition for any free society with religious liberty that leaves people free to express their transcendental longings for cosmic purposefulness, with the confident assumption that we can agree on the natural grounds of morality even if we cannot agree on any cosmic teleology.

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