“Theological Baggage” and the Politics of Intelligent Design

 John C. Rankin (August 23, 2005)

In 1991 I was invited to address a meeting of the Democratic and Secularists Humanists (DASH) of Boston, meeting at the Phillips Brooks House in Harvard Yard. I was delighted to accept, having been raised in an agnostic Unitarian context, as a de facto secular humanist who assumed Darwinian evolution. I have since evolved.

The advertisement for the meeting profiled me as an evangelical minister who loved to be “raked over the coals” with tough questions. So they had a very good turnout, the setting was wonderful, and their leader greeted me as I arrived, “Welcome to the lion’s den.”

In my comments I made observation that the laws of cause and effect are universal in scientific observation, whether in microbiology or astrophysics. And too, it is also observed that a greater degree of order and complexity is necessary for a subsequent and more modest degree of order to be effected. Then, in view of a scientific postulate I like, I asked the group, “What preceded the Hot Big Bang?”

For me, unlike the late Stephen Jay Gould and other scientists, I do not wall this question off from the domain of scientific inquiry. Science, as a word in its Latin etymology and common usage, simply refers to knowledge that can be ascertained by observation of the senses. There are many good questions we can ask, and much to learn with our senses by asking such questions, until such a time that we press our limitations fully.

One man answered, “Eternal matter.” I liked the answer, not because I argue that matter is eternal, but because he was acknowledging the reality that there are domains beyond the concepts and human measuring abilities of time, space and number. We all know this. As a seven-year old I wondered where space ended, so I hitched a ride to the edge of space in Flash Gordon’s spaceship. We found a brick wall with a sign on it, “End of Universe,” but I was still unsatisfied (in truth, I was also comforted to note that the sign was written in English in the age of Sputnik). What is on the other side? An endless question.

I gave response to the man: “Good. Let me then ask you what the difference is, in intellectual terms alone, between believing in eternal matter on the one hand, and an eternal God on the other?” He paused and said, “Theological baggage.”

This I believe is the deepest root of the poisoned politics concerning intelligent design. Many thoughtful scientists who accept Darwinian evolution also believe that if God, or some definition of a Designer, is admitted into the discussion, then tacit permission is given for religionists to shove religion down their throats. This is what the man meant by the phrase “theological baggage” as we unpacked it together in the group discussion. Such theological baggage can upend scientific inquiry in the name of dogmatic conformity, and is a genuine concern with much antecedence.

Yet, on the other hand, if some Darwinian evolutionists assert that the idea of primary causes cannot be discussed without harming scientific inquiry, is that position not also vulnerable to reactionary dogmatism? After all, why in the pursuit of cause and effect do we draw an arbitrary line of inquiry, unless due to theological baggage?

As a minister of the Gospel, it is not my identity or purpose to find fault in others. There are enough faults in me to begin with, and a central goal I have is to identify the common striving for goodness in all humanity. Thus, any criticisms I may have begin with my own membership in the Christian community. Namely, am I reactionary to a Darwinian evolution in which I no longer believe, or am I proactive in celebrating the intellectual and relational freedom of skeptics to disagree with what I believe? Am I genuinely hospitable to the toughest questions which come my way from people who have been burned by various forms of religion?

There is a deep poison in our culture due to religionists who have not afforded the true freedom of dissent to their skeptics, a freedom which I argue is intrinsic to a biblical worldview. This poison colors the politics of the debate over intelligent design. The only way for biblical believers like me to make a difference is to be radical and actually heed the words of Moses and Jesus to love our neighbors as ourselves. This includes such intellectual and relational hospitality to our skeptics in the face of impassioned issues like Darwinian evolution and intelligent design. Then perhaps we can consider ideas for what preceded the Hot Big Bang, or if there was a Hot Big Bang, intelligent design or none such, and etc., with some genuine civility and intellectual cross-fertilization.

The Bible’s view of science may be somewhat surprising to those who have been burned by theological baggage. Unlike pagan religion, the Bible does not view the sun, moon and stars as deities or somehow animated, but it views them as they are, as science would – inanimate objects. And the principle of falsification, i.e., the scientific method, is deeply rooted in biblical ethics. Unlike pagan prophets, Israelite prophets could be socially falsified if but once they ever proved wrong in what they said was God’s word. And Jesus offered his opponents the opportunity to falsify him if even once they could prove him wrong.

A skeptic might not agree with me concerning this view of the Bible. But at least, such a skeptic can note the definitions of intellectual liberty and scientific inquiry I embrace, and hopefully there we have good common ground for honest communication.

More importantly – the poisoned politics over intelligent design lie at the feet of those of us Christians who claim to be both biblical and committed to free scientific inquiry. Do we believe in and model a level playing field for all ideas equally, starting with hospitality to those ideas which most concertedly oppose what we believe? Or do we merely assert theological baggage from a reactionary posture?