Friday, July 03, 2009


Duty and Country II

The Discovery Institute is repeating its history by distorting the country's history on this Fourth of July eve, as noted by The Sensuous Curmudgeon and John Lynch. Therfore, it's only fair and right that I repeat my post from last year:

Hey, kids! What better way could the Discovery Institute have to celebrate the Fourth than to discover that Thomas Jefferson was an IDer?

John West is over at the DI's Ministry of Misinformation claiming that "Jefferson not only believed in intelligent design, he insisted it was based on the plain evidence of nature, not religion." And all West had to do was to mangle the meaning of "religion" or "Intelligent Design" or both to do it. It's a given that he misrepresents the meaning of "science."

As for the first part, West quotes Jefferson, from an 1823 letter to John Adams, as follows:

The movements of the heavenly bodies, so exactly held in their course by the balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces, the structure of our earth itself, with its distribution of lands, waters and atmosphere, animal and vegetable bodies, examined in all their minutest particles, insects mere atoms of life, yet as perfectly organised as man or mammoth, the mineral substances, their generation and uses, it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is, in all this, design, cause and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a fabricator of all things from matter and motion, their preserver and regulator while permitted to exist in their present forms, and their regenerator into new and other forms.
From that, West concludes:

Jefferson believed that empirical data from nature itself proved intelligent design by showing the natural world's intricate organization from the level of plants and insects all the way up to the revolution of the planets.
Which is true enough. Jefferson did believe that the facts of the world led to the conclusion that there is a "Creator and benevolent governor of the world." The question is whether Jefferson believed, as West's version of ID claims, that it is a scientific conclusion or whether it is, instead, a religious conclusion.

West's claim as to the latter point is based on the following from the same letter:

I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition. (West's emphasis)
West alleges that Jefferson's reference to his conclusion being "without appeal to revelation," means that he "clearly was arguing that the idea had a basis other than religion." The sticking point should be immediately obvious to anyone who is not him or herself a fundamentalist Christian, who place so much emphasis on scripture. "Revelation" and "religion" are not coterminous; not every concept or proposition that is religious is derived from revelation. Indeed, it is easy enough to see from the letter itself that Jefferson considered his conclusion as to a creator to be a theological, or, at least, philosophical, proposition. Jefferson is discussing the fact that he will never be a Calvinist (and calls Calvin an atheist because he worshipped, in Jefferson's opinion, "a false god ... a daemon of malignant spirit") and then goes on to say:

Indeed I think that every Christian sect gives a great handle to Atheism by their general dogma that, without a revelation, there would not be sufficient proof of the being of a god.
Jefferson's context thus becomes clear: Christian theology should include arguments citing to the complexity and order of the world, as William Paley had in his book, Natural Theology. Jefferson's argument for a creator is put forward as a counterweight against those philosophers, such as Ocellus, Timaeus, Spinosa, Diderot and D'Holbach, who argue that:

... it is more simple to believe at once in the eternal pre-existence of the world, as it is now going on, and may for ever go on by the principle of reproduction which we see and witness, than to believe in the eternal pre-existence of an ulterior cause, or Creator of the world, a being whom we see not, and know not, of whose form substance and mode or place of existence, or of action no sense informs us, no power of the mind enables us to delineate or comprehend.
Contrary to West's assertion, then, Jefferson was clearly offering his proposition as a theological/philosophical response to arguments against the existence of a god and not as a scientific observation, as today's IDeologists claim it is. There is no reason to believe that Jefferson would support teaching his argument in a public school science class, as opposed to teaching it in a class on philosophy or religion. The latter course is permissible, within limits, under the current state of Establishment clause jurisprudence but IDers have always rejected it.

Furthermore, it is ludicrous to conclude that the author of the Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom, who stated that it was intended to include "within the mantle of it's protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination," could have had such a narrow view of "religion" as to hold that it stops with revelation, especially when Jefferson is arguing in the same letter that it is erroneous for Christian theology to hold that position. At a minimum, it is a serious misreading of the man and his life's work.

The most telling point is that West is neither stupid nor unlearned. To distort the words and thoughts of one of our greatest Founders is an interesting way to demonstrate one's patriotism on the Fourth of July.

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