Pat Robertson vs. the Pope
Is the intelligent designer loving or vindictive?
The intelligent design movement has a new problem. The designer, it seems, is unpredictable.
Last Tuesday, voters in Dover, Pa., ousted advocates of intelligent design from their school board. Since then, two religious leaders who purport to know the designer have come forward, ostensibly on his behalf.
In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI chided people who, "fooled by atheism, believe and try to demonstrate that it's scientific to think that everything is free of direction and order." The pope recalled that in the Bible, "The Lord awakens the reason that sleeps and tells us: In the beginning, there was the creative word. In the beginning, the creative word—this word that created everything and created this intelligent project that is the cosmos—is also love."
Meanwhile, in Virginia, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson warned residents of Dover, "If there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God. You just rejected Him from your city. And don't wonder why He hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I'm not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, don't ask for His help, because he might not be there." Later, Robertson issued a statement explaining that "our spiritual actions have consequences. ... God is tolerant and loving, but we can't keep sticking our finger in his eye forever."
Which is it? Does the designer operate by love or punishment?
A core principle of modern science is that theories have to make predictions. A belief that doesn't make testable predictions isn't a theory and can't be taught in science classes.
Proponents of ID claim that complex systems found in nature—the cell, the bacterial flagellum, the immune system—are evidence of "intelligent activity" by a designer. But what kind of intelligence? Is the designer brutal or loving, jealous or forgiving? Look at the ancient crocodilelike predator we just dug up. Its mouth is a perfect killing machine. Does the same intelligence that designed us design our murderers?
Is the designer love, as the pope suggests? Or does the designer turn on you if you stick a finger in his eye? Robertson says our spiritual actions have consequences, but he can't tell us whether problems will arise in Dover as a result of the school board ouster: "I'm not saying they will," he shrugs. Nor can he tell us what the designer will do if such problems arise: "He might not be there," says the televangelist. And even if Robertson eventually figures out what he thinks, how can we decide which version of the designer—Robertson's or the pope's—to teach in biology class?
"If they have future problems in Dover, I recommend they call on Charles Darwin. Maybe he can help them," Robertson joked the other day. Since the immediate problem in Dover is figuring out which theories are scientific, that's not bad advice. At least Darwin is predictable.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of the pope by Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images.