Saturday, April 19, 2008


Conservatively Speaking

Larry Arnhart is a professor of political philosophy at Northern Illinois University and author of Darwinian Conservatism. As a conservative who has written that "conservatives need Charles Darwin," his take on Expelled has (or should have) considerable weight among conservatives who are not already married to the Religious Right and its anti-scientism.

He has a post up at his blog (also called Darwinian Conservatism) that makes an excellent point:

The folks at the Discovery Institute have made a big mistake in their production of this movie. The political rhetoric of the Discovery Institute's "wedge strategy" depends upon hiding a fundamental contradiction. But this movie makes the contradiction so evident that any viewer can see it. On the one hand, the rhetorical strategy of the Discovery Institute is to say that "intelligent design" is not a creationist religious belief but pure science, and therefore teaching "intelligent design" in public high school biology classes does not violate the First Amendment's prohibition on establishing religion. On the other hand, the popular success of the Discovery Institute's rhetoric depends on appealing to Biblical creationists who assume that "intelligent designer" is just another name for God the Biblical Creator. ...

Rather than covering up this contradiction, this movie makes it hard for any viewer to ignore the contradiction. When Bruce Chapman -- President of the Discovery Institute -- is interviewed by Stein, Chapman says that journalists distort the true position of intelligent design by saying that it's a creationist religious belief, because the "intelligent designer" is clearly God. Chapman vehemently denies this. But then for the rest of the movie, it's asserted that anyone who denies "intelligent design" is therefore an atheist who denies the existence of God!
More of the same is on display in Chapman's praise of Expelled at the DI's Ministry of Misinformation (helpfully deconstructed by Brian Larnder at Primordial Blog). Chapman continues to play up to the Religious Right by feeding into its cultural paranoia:

The over-the-top attacks of most official reviewers -- offended by the film's message, not its quality -- may turn out to help in some quarters. These are the exact same reviewers who commonly tell us not to object to offensive Hollywood products, but just to judge a film for its production quality. By now a large share of the population is wise to such hypocritical standards.
Those "quarters" are, no doubt, inhabited by the likes of Donald Wildmon and the American Family Association.

Arnhart amusingly goes on to point out that the most obvious omission from the people interviewed in Expelled -- Michael Behe -- is probably due to his most recent book being a strong attack on biblical creationism, including his concession of common descent of human beings from ancestors shared with chimpanzees, his rejection of Biblical creationism as "silly" and his support for theistic evolution. Naturally, that goes double for the likes of Ken Miller or any of the people on the list of the The Clergy Letter Project.

Finally, Arnhart reiterates his belief that "biology classes -- both at the high school level and at the college and university level -- should be open to discussion of 'intelligent design theory' as a possible alternative to Darwinian science." That's a position I have some sympathy for, if it is made clear that the discussion is at the level of the philosophy of science and theology. Given the heat on both sides, however:

This movie is an example of the rhetorical distortions that make me wonder whether I am being naive in thinking that students and scholars should be able to debate these vital questions in an open and honest manner.
It takes two to tango ...

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