Fightin’ Fundies, Part 2: Evolutionary Fundamentalists

Posts in the Fightin' Fundies series

  1. Fightin’ Fundies, Part 1: Narrow My God to Thee
  2. Fightin’ Fundies, Part 2: Evolutionary Fundamentalists

At the conclusion of our last exciting episode, I noted that not all fundamentalism relates to deities and the dogmas surrounding them, and that I wanted to propose for membership in the Fightin’ Fundie Club a vocal group (not the Four Seasons) that claims no religious affiliation whatsoever. My nominees are (drum roll) the implacable proponents of naturalistic evolution, true believers in the fullest sense of the word. I’m not going to offer a systematic footnoted literature review here, but rather a personal meditation on the way the (non)discussion of the origin of life has been playing out recently in the mainstream media.

By way of introduction: I am a family physician focused on the daily care of people with various health issues and not an bioscience academician, but as such I have some degree of understanding of animal (though far less of plant) biology. I would submit that even the most casual study of any type of biological system – animal, plant, microbe – at any level – macro, micro, biochemical – and from any angle – structural, functional, dissected or integrated – reveals a level of complexity that is, in a word, staggering. Pick a topic – how the eye works, how blood clots, how nutrients are absorbed, how glucose enters cells, how white cells destroy microbial invaders, how viruses hijack cell nuclei to replicate themselves, how sound is converted into electrical impulses, how nerves communicate with each other, how cells divide – whatever the subject, study it in any detail: if you don’t experience awe and wonder, administer a good enema and try again. And we’re not even addressing the intricate play of astronomy, geophysics and climate that are finely tuned to allow these events to proceed.

Call me naive, but it has repeatedly struck me that the most intuitive and rational response to this information is that it seems incredibly unlikely that these systems would assemble themselves at random, no matter how much time one might give them to do so. If you make the random-assembly-over-billions-of-years assumption, there’s a whole lot of faith involved in the process, and a lot of ‘splainin’ to do in order to address how so many features of the above-noted complexity came to be. In recent years books such as Darwin’s Black Box have raised some reasonable questions about what the naturalistic evolutionists (NEs) are willing to accept on faith as they move from point A to point ZZZ despite the gaping uncertainties in between – a process that we used to call “hand waving” in math class.

Instead of responding reasonably and thoughtfully to these questions, however, I continue to hear (in the general public media, anyway) the NEs planting their flags and defending their position with startling, numbing ferocity, including routine rants about separation of church and state, political innuendo of all sorts and lots of ad hominem attacks (i.e., characterizing people who question the NE position are all Bible-wielding, IQ-impaired sub-hominids who want to take over the government and stamp out free speech). More than once in the past few weeks I have heard, with a clear rhetorical snort, references to the fact that X number of Republican presidential nominees don’t believe the naturalistic evolution gospel, as if that meant they also believe in Santa Claus and child sacrifice.

Yet what continues to leak through all of the rhetorical smoke, in my humble opinion, is that NE remains a philosophical assumption, a bottom line that was made the starting point and now has become iron-clad dogma, with no questions to be entertained, not even for a second. If the Scopes trial were held today, it would be the NEs who would be singing “Gimme that old time religion” and prosecuting the science teacher who had the temerity to ask students to think critically about NE’s assumptions. In other words, they’re acting like good old-fashioned Fightin’ Fundies.

Over the past decade some of the more nuanced and thoughtful questioning of NE has come from what is called the “Intelligent Design” camp, including authors such as Michael Behe (author of the above noted Darwin’s Black Box) and William Dembski. NE zealots routinely vilify these guys, and have seemed bent on avoiding at all cost an intelligent public dialogue about intelligent design. When I read op-ed pieces on this subject in the LA Times or even commentaries in medical journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine, I repeatedly sense the following subtext:

Naturalistic evolutionist (NE): Life assembled itself over billions of years from primordial elements.

Inquirer (I): How do you know?

NE: It just did!!

I: But how do you explai—

NE: DON’T INJECT YOUR RELIGIOUS DOGMA INTO A SCIENTIFIC DISCUSSION!

I: But I was just wondering—

NE: “Religious fundamentalism is on the rise around the world, and our own virulent domestic version of it, under the rubric of ‘intelligent design,’ by elbowing its way into the classroom abrogates the divide between church and state that has served this country so well for so long.” [Robert Lee Hotz, “Laws of Nature,” LA Times Book Review, July 30, 2006.]

I: But could we just talk a little about the idea of “irreducible complexity”—

NE: Shut up! This has all been settled! Go back to your pews!

Okay, I’m exaggerating a little, but see if you don’t notice a little of this venom in the op-ed pages of the Times and other media outlets in the coming weeks. There will be, I’m sorry to report, a spectacular opportunity for NE pundits to vent their spleens – beginning tomorrow (May 28).

And what will be the occasion that will cause a major setback for intelligent conversation about the origin of life? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s exciting installment!

Previous in series: Fightin’ Fundies, Part 1: Narrow My God to Thee

13 thoughts on “Fightin’ Fundies, Part 2: Evolutionary Fundamentalists

  1. Chad

    So,

    While I agree with what’s been stated here (hi Dad) I’d just like to point out, for the sake of fairness, that the dogmatic nature of the NEs wasn’t made in a vacuum. We, as Christians, are still not giving that crowd an indication that we’re (as a collective) ready to have rational and reasonable conversations about much of anything. This reality is why I get to miffed at those like the recently deceased Rev. Falwell, as their style of “Evangelism” reinforces and justifies the fundamentalism of the NE crowd.

    As an afterthought… I think some of this fundamentalism is on the rise in the whole climate change debate. One crowd says we have five years to avoid total destruction, the other says there’s nothing at all happening. Both extremes ring false, and since no one other then John Mayer (check out http://www.johnmayer.com/blog, under the title “Not Waiting on the World to Change #1) seems to be proposing anything in the middle, I often find myself unable to choose a side.

    My little Acura gets 30mpg, though. I guess I’m a reluctant fundie.

  2. michael lee

    [quote comment="88699"] … the dogmatic nature of the NEs wasn’t made in a vacuum. We, as Christians, are still not giving that crowd an indication that we’re (as a collective) ready to have rational and reasonable conversations about much of anything. [/quote]

    Fundamentalist, in any form, is always a reactionary stance. It’s the response of those who feel threatened, shoring up the base.

    Chad, I don’t see how you can sit for weeks under the teaching of Dallas Willard and still believe that the church isn’t offering a credible, articulate, reasonable response to secular naturalism. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find people like J.P. Moreland, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, William Lane Craig, all of whom carry serious academic weight, all of whom are articulate and highly credible conversationalists on the subject of naturalism and theism.

    It is the obligation of those in fields of critical inquiry, which proponents of NE claim to be, to defend their propositions against the best competing arguments, not the weakest and most irrational. It’s embarrassing to watch people like Richard Dawkins arguing against Sunday School creationism, instead of taking on the real and credible arguments presented by Theistic Evolution (or Intelligent Design, if you prefer). I think that’s what Paul is saying here – let’s have a real, substantial conversation, where each side addresses the arguments presented in their strongest form, without resorting to ad hominen attacks and straw-man arguments.

  3. michael lee

    As a follow up, let me post this link to a series of papers by Alvin Plantinga. If you want to hear the case against Naturalistic Evolution presented in its most rational, developed, and articulate form, this is a good place to start:

    Plantiga on Theism

  4. leoskeo

    I can see the fundamentals of your thoughts evolving. Thanks for sharing them.

  5. Chad

    Folks like Dallas are the reason I’ve held on this long. My spirit is put to rest in the presence of wise, mature, reasonable, credible Christians. I remember reading The Jesus I Never Knew by Philip Yancey and thinking to myself… “How come I’ve never heard this sort of thinking before in the church?”

    I guess my point was that the Dallas Willards of the world don’t seem to be able to capture the ear of the larger population within the church. I was actually thinking, after I posted my comment, that one of the things that I do appreciate about Rick Warren is the fact that he’s at least attempting, in terms of mainstream public awareness, to address the perception in the world that Christians only care about unborn babies, those who are HIV negative, and the temperature of hell vs. this planet.

    And… of course… Willard and Warren are two of the chief targets of fundamentalism.

  6. michael lee

    I hear what you’re saying. I guess my point is that there are two different dialogs going on: one in the popular culture, and one in academia. It’s disingenuous and unfair to seize on the popular debate and declare it the best, most rational statement of the opposing viewpoint. Yet that’s exactly what the public proponents of naturalist evolution do; they ignore the best arguments, and attack the public discourse, and then lampoon it as evidence of how dumb their adversaries are.

    This has an effect on the popular conversation too. Those who dogmatically defend naturalism know that when they attack things like the Creation Museum, with dinosaurs being loaded onto the Ark, they force that to become the public face of their opponents. If they were to engage thinkers like Plantiga and Moreland in serious debate, they would bring public focus on a kind of theism that is much harder to counter.

    Paul, I think you’re right to identify this as a kind of fundamentalism. It is indefeasible (which is a bad thing in any kind of philosophy) , circular thinking that places a higher value on orthodoxy than critical thought.

  7. Paul

    Speaking of the Creation Museum… Check part 3.

    Mike, thanks for the kind comments. I’m looking forward to reading the Plantiga essays to which you’ve provided the link.

  8. Morphea

    Ugh – after Advanced Placement Biology in high school (a total publicity stunt, since I was new to the school and the only Junior in the class) I decided that I don’t give a shit about how it all got here and why it works. Life, I mean.

    It’s beautiful, it’s still mostly unexplainable, and I say thank you to whoever did it (god, the monkeys with typewriters, whoever) every day. That’s about as much as I care.

    Still enjoyed reading your take on it, though, Paul.

  9. Paul

    Aside from the apparent misfortunes of biology class (not my favorite either, so it’s somewhat ironic that I ended up in medicine), you raise an interesting question. Indeed, for a long time I’ve not been too much invested in this argument, except that I eventually became irritated with both the evolutionists and the 6-day creation crowd (see part 3 for more on that subject). I have some thoughts on why this debate actually matters, but I need to assemble them into some coherent state, and will probably post them in the near future. Thanks for reading!

  10. Morphea

    It’s nice, isn’t it, when you craft a well-written and -researched blog on the subject and someone comes along and says, “Wow, who gives a flying fandango, mon?” Sorry – that really wasn’t my intention, as I think you know. I meant, after having to orally recite the chemical process of photokinesis for a grade (I did OK, but am still traumatized) and having Mr. Shuitt snicker at me in front of the class when I posited that maybe Nessie does exist (a major Napoleon Dynamite moment) made me feel like I did my duty to biology and never thought on it again.

    Yes, I humbly admit that if you could help me see why it matters, it would be much appreciated. You’re a gracious man, and I share your irritation.

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