Lets slug it out over intelligent design

The daily news leads us to believe that religious conflict is our most serious domestic problem — and that religious fundamentalism is the main cause. The latest religious split in America, now boiling, is about Darwinism vs. “intelligent design” in our schools. That division presumably pits Christian and other “fundamentalists” against the religiously more “liberal” and the secularists.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that religious conflict would disappear when everyone sensibly became Unitarians. He was confident it would happen soon. But our current state is nowhere close and the Darwinism/intelligent design battle has split us down the middle.

A CBS/Newsweek survey last October found that 51 percent of Americans opposed teaching evolution in science classes, and support the “intelligent design” affirmation that “God created humans in their present form.” According to a Pew Research Center survey of last August, 48 percent of Americans said that humans had indeed evolved over time, while 42 percent believed that “living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

How in the world can we reconcile such opposing beliefs? These are deeply felt beliefs about religion, which cannot be mediated with cool logic and warm doughnuts around a conference table. Faith and science are not meant to be “reconciled” in that absolute way.

Of course, this particular issue is not about whether evolutionism or creationism is right. The question is whether “intelligent design,” a matter of faith, should be taught in a science class. But that is a dodge. The battle would kick in if the attempt were made to teach “intelligent design” in any class besides science or to eliminate evolution altogether from science classes — or to try to teach both beliefs in the same class, as the President proposed. Those “solutions” would not quell the basic conflict.

There is another avenue. About a third of those Americans who believe in evolution said that it was, however, “guided by a supreme being.” In short, a minority sector of Americans — let’s call it the “Middle Minority” — has found a practical way to reconcile faith and religion. Maybe that is the way of the future. It might have satisfied Darwin. But it will not satisfy most Americans, who apparently want to either entirely exclude the mention of God or the mention of evolution.

(When American Jews were asked this kind of question in 1990, about a third said the Torah was “the actual word of God” and another third said the Torah was just “an ancient book of history and moral precepts recorded by man.” However, another third said the Torah was the word of God but “not everything should be taken literally, word for word.”)

It would not help to put all this in a familiar — but — mistaken axiom: “Citizens are entitled to hold their religious beliefs, as long as they don’t try to turn them into public policy.” Americans are entitled to try to turn their religious beliefs into public policy. Many evolutionists were thrilled when Martin Luther King Jr. invoked religion to condemn discrimination. We applauded when the pulpits thundered with scriptural calls for laws against racial and religious inequality. And many of us were not offended by a recent Pew Center finding that a third of all American said they supported Israel because of their religious beliefs.

So it is not a matter of whether people want to turn their religious beliefs into public policy — nor whether we believe those religious beliefs are right or wrong. The question is whether we think the resultant political proposals are right or wrong.

This conflict, and others like it, will not be settled by contesting each other’s religious beliefs or by demonizing each other. We are all just expressing our opinions, whatever molded them. The issue has to be slugged out politically. In the course of that debate, and over generations, attitudes will change. Perhaps the attitude of the Middle Minority will grow — and society will be able to handle school curricula that accept both evolution and the probability that a higher “intelligence” has had a hand in it (to be further pursued in one’s own neighborhood church or synagogue).

We’re not ready for such a synthesis and it will not happen overnight. But there are no short cuts in democracy.

Earl Raab is director emeritus of Brandeis University’s Nathan Perlmutter Institute for Jewish Advocacy. He is executive director emeritus of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.