Friday, April 1, 2011

A non-designing woman

Judgment DayBefore I get into that, I hope you’ll send positive thoughts to my dear Cousin Shane. His awesome Dad, John, passed away yesterday. You all know that I love Shane like a brother, and it pains me to see him hurting. John loved road trips, cars, and Route 66. I wish him pleasant travels. Be careful on the highway out there. (One of his favorite things to say to Shane.)

In the interest of not letting myself fall back into the abyss of sadness, I will try to keep my mind occupied by writing a few things about the documentary I watched yesterday afternoon before I got Shane’s phone call. My friend Darren recommended it to me, and I can tell you that it is well worth watching.

Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial” was a Nova episode on PBS. It deals with the Kitzmiller vs. Dover trial in 2005 in which concerned citizens brought suit against the school district for trying to insert intelligent design into the science curriculum. (The link is the Wiki article, which is pretty good and jibes with what I saw in the documentary.) I recall reading and hearing about this, but didn’t pay close attention at the time. I suppose I probably felt that it was a no-brainer, not realizing how much sway the equal-timers had upon our school districts.

To sum up: a couple of fundamentalist Christian school board members decided that teaching evolution in science class wasn’t giving the students the full picture. When their proposal of an additional textbook promoting intelligent design was rejected, they took matters into their own hands and secretly purchased the textbook from the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for the teaching of intelligent design (AKA creationism) in our high schools. A battle of wills ensued, in which the science teachers refused to add ID to the curriculum, the superintendent required that they read a statement stating that evolution was “only a theory” that had significant gaps, and that some see intelligent design as an alternative possibility; the teachers refused to read the statement, so the assistant superintendent came into their classrooms and read it to the students.

As concerned parents got wind of this from their kids, one of them called the ACLU, and we were off to the races! This was a battle that had continued to brew after the Scopes trial of 1925, with many people refusing to accept the exclusion of creationism from the science classroom. (Eight decades, America? Really? Really?!) There was no jury here; it was heard by district court Judge John E. Jones III, a conservative appointed by George W. Bush, and his decision would be the final one on the case.

The plaintiffs presented a stellar group of witnesses, several scientists explaining the basic premises behind evolution and how scientific experimentation has supported the premise. Not only did they explain the science behind it, they explained how scientific inquiry itself works. In even more devastating testimony, they demonstrated that the ID textbook that had been sent by an “anonymous donor” to the science classrooms came from the Discovery Institute, and they showed that earlier drafts of the book had used the word “creationism,” which was altered in subsequent versions to read “intelligent design.” In other words, the concept was still the same--a religious one--and all they had done was change the phrasing. In yet more devastating testimony, they provided statements from a conservative advocate saying that the problem with the intelligent design movement was that they had no theory; if they were going to promote ID as an alternative to evolution, they had to come up with one.

In the most devastating testimony of all, they showed one of the fundamentalist school board members stating on camera that “creationism” needed to be taught alongside evolution, which showed that there was clear religious promotion there. Worse, they caught both of the fundamentalist school board members perjuring themselves when they said they didn’t know who they “anonymous donors” were; they had orchestrated the entire thing, and one of the board members’ fathers had written the check.

Evolve fishThe defense countered with experts of their own, but their arguments were meticulously destroyed by the lawyers for the plaintiffs. The concept of “irreducible complexity” (which posits that there are some biological systems that are so complex that there is no function if one part is missing...the example of bacterial flagella was used, and was refuted) was discussed and proven wrong; one witness’s statements that no scientist has bothered to research or write about the complexity of our immune system was discounted in a very graphic way when he was handed numerous papers and a stack of textbooks that dealt with exactly that subject matter. The dismantling of every argument put forth about why ID is a legitimate scientific endeavor was a beautiful thing to see.

Judge Jones took some time to deliberate the case, and found that ID was not a scientific theory, and was, in fact, just another name for creationism. As a religious concept, it has no place in the science classroom. He also found that the two school board members violated the First Amendment in the Constitution by promoting a religion in the classroom. He also noted that the board members who had perpetrated this ID promotion because of their religion seemed to have no qualms about repeatedly committing perjury.

The whole documentary was excellent (if you have a couple of hours, and want to see more about the arguments put forth, I really recommend it), but there were a couple of things that I found of particular note. The witnesses for the plaintiff took particular pains to address the usual complaint of creationists that “evolution is just a theory.” (I’ve encountered that argument often, myself.) A quote from “The Princess Bride” is applicable here. Theory...“I do not think it means what you think it means.” A scientific theory is not an immutable fact; it is a body of thought that maintains, like all science does, that there may be modifications as more is discovered. Evolution is an ongoing investigation. Nothing has appeared to refute its claims, but more and more evidence is being found that confirms it. The scientists at the trial pointed out that the advent of molecular techniques, some of the most sophisticated tests to date that can provide incredibly detailed information, have only confirmed the theory of common ancestry. If anything were to disprove evolution, it would be looking at encoded information on a genetic level. Instead, we are finding incredible similarities between our own genetic code and that of other hominids, especially chimpanzees.

Speaking of that, another thing that creationists like to toss out is “I don’t know about you, but I didn’t descend from no ape!” Not only is that grammatically incorrect, it shows a complete ignorance about the entire concept. I shouldn’t have to say this, but I suppose I will: evolution is not a straight stick poking up out of the ground, with one-celled organisms at the base and us brilliant humans (ha) at the top. It is a tree with many branches. There have been many twists and turns along the way, with offshoots happening constantly over the millennia. Genetic mapping continues to show the similarities and where divergence took place.
After his decision, Judge Jones was accused by conservative groups of being an “activist judge.” Remember, he was appointed by GW Bush. He and his family received death threats, and one of the fundamentalist school board members said the judge is a “jackass.” Doesn’t that old-timey religion just make you feel all warm and fuzzy?
Finally, the documentary showed a local pastor who said that he was “personally offended” that the kids were being “indoctrinated” with evolution, without hearing alternative viewpoints. If you want your kids to hear alternative viewpoints, go ahead and teach them that at home. Your alternative viewpoint is not a valid scientific theory. It is based on your religious beliefs, and as such, has no place in the science classroom. As for you being “personally offended”...cry me a river, dude. The Constitution guarantees us all certain rights. The right to not be offended isn’t one of them. Get over it, and keep your religion out of my science.

Monday, March 28, 2011

There’s a vacancy in the handbasket

Welcome to hell3Did anyone catch the story over the weekend about the Methodist minister in North Carolina who lost his job? Apparently, he’d posted something on his Facebook page in support of a book coming out soon, in which author Rob Bell takes issue with the usual dogmatic view of Hell. That didn’t sit well with the higher-ups in the church, and Chad Holtz is now looking for a job.

I do realize that there may be more to the story; Holtz wrote more about his feelings on the firing, but went into no details. He wasn’t upset by the firing, just said that he wasn’t able to take the parishioners in the direction they needed to go. I looked him up on Facebook and sent a friend request. It seems that quite a few other people had the same idea, and he has hundreds of new friends, the majority offering support. (Of course, there was the usual contingent of the “You’re going to burn in hell” folks.) I left a note saying that although we don’t have the same belief system, I applaud his willingness to question.

Some of the subsequent posts I’ve seen mention his faith, his continuing studies, and his morning prayers. As I’ve said here often, I have no problem with what people want to believe, as long as they don’t get all up in my business, as long as they keep it out of my government, and as long as they don’t harm others with their words. But I can’t help but wonder....

If he took the big step of questioning one of the tenets of his faith, that of the existence of the biblical version of hell, why did he stop there? If his readings, ponderings, meditation, and prayer let him to doubt the veracity of people being cast into the Fiery Pits™, why not keep going and begin to question some of the other dogma that he subscribes to? If I were him, I would also think seriously about why his church was so unhappy with his thoughts on the matter that they saw fit to remove him rather than answer the question or discuss the topic.

I suppose I already know the answers to those questions, though. I know how very hard it is to break out of something that you’ve believed all your life. I know how questioning things that you’ve taken for granted because of blind faith can lead to a dramatic shift in how you view the world around you. I know it’s difficult to be different. And I know that if there’s one thing the church--any church--hates, it is people asking questions that aren’t easy to answer, and people who won’t toe the party line. Anyone who dares to question, or points out the contradictions, errors, and inadequate explanations in whatever holy book happens to be in question, is viewed as someone to be distrusted and silenced. That in itself makes me wonder about the legitimacy of the organization. If you’re afraid of questions, maybe your dogma isn’t all that great to begin with.

I’ve never been what you might call docile. I’m often quiet and shy (it’s true!), but if something doesn’t make sense to me, I’m going to ask questions...and I want answers. If your answers are inadequate, I’ll wave good-bye and go merrily along my way.

I am glad that Pastor Holtz dared to question, and dared to go public with it. I hope he doesn’t stop asking questions, both of his church and of himself. It might lead him to a place he’d never anticipated.