Friday, October 21, 2005

Intelligent Design, religious feeling, and NOMA

Originally, I was ambivalent about claims that evolution and religion do not conflict. Certainly, evolution does not prove God does not exist, but it does undermine one or the many reasons people have for believing in God, the deisgn argument. Its an argument that used to be quite convincing, even though Hume challenged it long before Darwin published the Origin of the Species. Furthermore, I just couldn't take seriously statements like this one from Stephen Jay Gould's essay Nonoverlaping Magisteria (NOMA):
lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise—science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives.
Religion in such a mold may be a good idea, but the fact is that religion as practiced by most believers involves not just ethics but claims about how things are.

Recently, I've had reason to question that view. A minor reason is an essay in my philosophy text book arguing for belief in God "Without Evidence or Argument" (as the essay was called), which noted that even philosophers tend not to rely on philosophical arguments for their belief. More important was when I decided, out of curiosity, to visit a meeting of Madison's chapter of Campus Crusade and hearing religious people talk about their experiences, how religion has gotten them through rough times and provided a good focal point for their lives. The Campus Crusade meeting in particular was an emotional atmosphere, easy to get swept up in.

All this made it abundantly clear to me that very few people's faith rests on the arguments of William Paley or Michael Behe. This means it shouldn't be too hard then to get people to drop Intelligent Design, right?. Can't it then be argued that ID is actually a distraction from the true roots of religion?

But slow down, it's not as if my encounter with religion had me ready to convert. I got into the Campus Crusade meeting only until the preacher began mentioning specific doctrines like salvation - a most surprising inference from a mere feeling of God's prescence.

Consider the response I got to this post:
I reject the notion that consciousness is an emergent property. Rather I think that consciousness stems from Brahman, who is pure consciousness, and thus we too share in that divinity...

At the juncture between my atheism and my theism, I experienced about six weeks of really transcendent bliss. I could close my eyes and feel my consciousness just rise and rise.
This from a guy who had explicitly denounced traditional theism. Similar experience, wildly different conclusions, good reason to doubt those specific conclusions. Personally, I think Sam Harris' "rational mysticism," valuing the experience but cutting away the baggage of unjustified beliefs is a better tact. Yet this still can be used in defense of evolution: if people can't be persuaded to avoid inferences about Jesus and salvation, can't they at least avoid infering that all modern biology is wrong?

Unfortunately, I don't know how many people who've had profound religious experiences could be persuaded to sit down and think what those experiences really show. Skepticism has many virtues, but the ability to support boundless enthusiasm is not one of them. Once you've admitted that a feeling doesn't prove everything you thought, you have to wonder if it meant anything at all. Even if you recover belief, you may not recover the enthusiasm. Then there is the question of whether people who infuse religion into every part of their life can be gotten to admit there is no scientific evidence for design in nature.

Now, I am more inclined to think Intelligent Design will survive in some form for a long time to come. Even after all the most exuberant religious movements have dropped Biblical inerrancy, they will embrace the vaguer ID, not because they need it to believe, but because it is so very comforting.

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