Article by Dan Peterson in December issue of American Spectator

From: Ted Davis <>
Date: Tue Dec 06 2005 - 11:08:42 EST

The December issue of "American Spectator" magazine contains an article by
attorney Dan Peterson, "What's the Big Deal About Intelligent Design?" A
friend sent me a hard copy, prompting me to write the editors as below.



To the editor:

Although I am sympathetic with some of its main points, Dan Peterson's
article on intelligent design (Dec 2005) leaves readers with some inaccurate
and misleading impressions of important aspects of modern science. One
reason for this is his uncritical reliance on Rodney Stark's recent book,
For the Glory of God. It is true that Stark, a sociologist, usually does
provide an accurate presentation of the views that historians of science
hold concerning Christianity and science. For example, he accurately
reports that we have completely debunked the old "warfare" view of Andrew
Dickson White, and he provides some pertinent examples of how that false
view has functioned as a kind of secular mythology for more than a century.
Unfortunately Stark also gives readers the impression that historians
generally agree that Christianity caused modern science. This is simply not
so--although some historians do argue for this type of monocausal account,
most reject it as a one-legged stool that will not support the weight of the
evidence. Christianity did play some very important roles in shaping and
encouraging science in the early modern period--and this by itself is
sufficient to refute the "warfare" view--but science existed in
sophisticated forms outside of Christian Europe in the Islamic world and
even before the time of Christ in ancient Greece. By relying too closely on
Stark, Peterson pushes this point too far: contrary to what he claims, "the
Judeo-Christian worldview" is *not*, "the only belief system that actually
produced" science.

Peterson also misrepresents, or at least greatly oversimplifies, the
religious views of some historically important scientists. Because Isaac
Newton explicitly rejected the Trinity as a heresy and the divinity of
Christ as a form of idolatry, many would hesitate to identify him as "a
fervent Christian." Charles Lyell was a Unitarian, not a "thoroughgoing
Christian," to offer another example, and it is not clear that Rene
Descartes was "devout," although he was clearly a believer in God. The
problem here is not that certain figures are miscategorized, it is rather
that Peterson seems all too eager to create a sort of mythology of his own,
without regard to the actual facts.

This is most evident in Peterson's treatment of the modern controversy
about God and science. It is true that "about 40 percent of American
scientists believe in a personal God and in an afterlife," but most of the
scientists in this category (ironically) are not given an effective voice in
Peterson's article. Following Peterson, one would conclude that religious
scientists fit into one of two categories: those who are bold enough
publicly to support intelligent design and those who have "interpret[ed]
away many of the central beliefs of the Judeo-Christian tradition" and have
passively "retire[d] to a cozy warren of warm, fuzzy irrelevancy." My work
as an historian of Christianity and science has brought me into contact with
literally hundreds of religious American scientists from all major fields of
science, and most of them defy categorization in such simple-minded, even
insulting, terms. It is true that many of these scientists would endorse
the maxim Peterson states as, "Science asks how; religion asks why." What
he fails to realize is that this maxim can mean different things in practice
to various scientists. What it means to all of them is that the Bible does
not provide a scientifically reliable history of creation (contrary to the
claims of "creationists") and that science is not a source of ultimate
meaning and values (contrary to the claims of scientific materialists). I
suspect that Peterson might even agree with that himself. To many
scientists in this category, however, it does *not* mean that one cannot
find important points where science and religion intersect--including places
where science points toward transcendence, such as the fine tuning of the
cosmos or the almost incredible power of mathematics to describe nature with
great precision and subtlety. Furthermore, many scientists in this category
are far more willing to talk publicly about theology than Peterson's talk
about privatization suggests; an obvious example is biologist Francis
Collins (head of the Human Genome Project at the NIH), whose Christian
testimony was published in the New York Times and who is writing a book
about the intersection of his traditional Christian beliefs with his work as
a scientist, but it would be easy for me to name dozens more American
scientists who are no less public about their Christian commitment.

What we need on all sides, it seems to me, is more sensitivity to the
complexities and nuances that characterize the actual historical and
contemporary situation, whether or not they fit the particular perspective
that one brings to bear on them. In the politics of science, the politics
drives the science, regardless of which end of the spectrum the politics is
coming from, and the truth is often lost in the process. Readers are urged
to read more widely, and to have a larger conception of what it means to
"follow the truth wherever it leads."
Received on Tue Dec 6 11:09:15 2005

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