When President Bush declared his support for the teaching of intelligent design (ID) theory in public schools along with Darwinian evolution, both he and the theory itself drew a lot of criticism. Among the many lines of attack the critics launch, one theme remains strikingly constant: the notion that ID is a Trojan Horse of Christian fundamentalists whose ultimate aim is to turn the U.S. into an theocracy.
In a furious New Republic cover story, “The Case Against Intelligent Design,” Jerry Coyne joined in this hype and implied that all non-Christians, including Muslims, should be alarmed by this supposedly Christian theory of beginnings that “might offend those of other faiths.” Little does he realize that if there is any view on the origin of life that might seriously offend other faiths–including mine, Islam–it is the materialist dogma: the assumptions that God, by definition, is a superstition, and that rationality is inherently atheistic.
That offense is no minor issue. In fact, in the last two centuries, it has been the major source of the Muslim contempt for the West. And it deserves careful consideration.
An Old Wall
The conflict between Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East has a long history, marked by many crusades and jihads, all of which had both sacred and mundane motives. Yet in the last two centuries, a new kind of West, a modern one, arose, and the relationship between the two civilizations became asymmetrical. Western Europe became overwhelmingly superior to the world of Islam and its sole superpower, the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans’ realization of the West’s ascendancy led them, in the late 18th century, to initiate a process of Westernization. The process, which began by importing Western technology, broadened throughout the 19th century with the adaptation of Western educational systems and legal structures, including a system of constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. Other than marginal fanatics such as the Wahhabis of the Arabian Peninsula–who launched a revolt against Ottoman rule, asserting that “the Turks became infidels” by abolishing slavery–the Ottoman ulema (religious scholars) and Islamic intellectuals welcomed these reforms.
But it was more than just telegraphs, trains, and constitutions that started arriving from the West; philosophies came as well. And since late-19th-century European thought was predominantly atheistic and anti-religious, these philosophies alarmed Muslim thinkers. When the theories of Comte, Spencer, and Darwin became fashionable among the Westernized Ottoman elite, an intellectual war began. Istanbul, the Empire’s capital, became the stage of hot intellectual debates. While Francophile atheists such as Abdullah Cevdet and Suphi Ethem were quoting the works of Darwin and Ernst Haeckel to argue that man is an accidental animal and religion a comforting myth, Muslim scholars were writing tracts to defend the Islamic faith and refute the “theories of disbelief” pouring in from Europe.
Sadly, it was secularist Europe–and especially, theophobic France–rather than the religious United States that the Islamic world encountered as “the West.” No wonder, then, that the West eventually became synonymous with godlessness. Moreover, within Muslim societies, Europeanized elites grew in number and were seen–with a lot of justification–as soulless, skirt-and-money-chasing men drinking whiskey while looking down upon traditional believers as ignoramuses.
The Muslim reaction to this kind of Westernization was to erect a wall of separation between the West and their communities. “We will get the technology of the West,” declared Said Nursi, a leading Muslim scholar of late Ottoman and early Turkish life, “but never their culture.” That culture, according to Nursi, had a major problem: It was “plagued by materialism.”
The gap between the West and the Middle East deepened owing to the political faults of the West, such as European colonialism and the American support for Middle East tyrannies, and, more recently, the barbaric terrorism of fanatics who act and kill in the name of Islam. Yet, despite these political conflicts, the perception of the West in the minds of devout Muslims remains the greatest underlying problem. Although they admire its freedom, they detest its materialism.
In a recent Spectator piece, titled “Muslims Are Right about Britain,” Conservative British MP John Hayes pointed to the same problem. “Many moderate Muslims believe that much of Britain is decadent,” says Mr. Hayes, and adds, “They are right.” He explained that because of the prevailing culture, “Modern Britons . . . are condemned to be selfish, lonely creatures in a soulless society where little is worshipped beyond money and sex,” and asked, “Is it any wonder that the family-minded, morally upright moderate Muslims despair?”
The distaste for American culture in the Islamic world is based on similar feelings. The America that people see is one represented by Hollywood and MTV. A recent poll in Turkey revealed that 37 percent of Turks define Americans as “materialistic” while a mere 8 percent define them as “religious.” Not surprisingly, 90 percent say that they know the U.S. mainly through television.
From all this, one can see that the much-debated cultural gap between the West and the Muslim world is actually a two-sided coin: While the latter has some extremely conservative or radical elements that turn life into joyless misery, the former has extremely hedonistic and degenerate elements that turn life into meaningless profligacy. And if we look for a rapprochement between Westerners and Muslims, we again have to see both sides of the coin: While Muslim communities need reformers of culture that will save them from bigotry, the Western societies need redeemers of culture that will save them from materialism. Of course, the manifestations of the former (such as support for terrorism) are far more dangerous and intolerable than those of the latter, but as root causes, both must be acknowledged.
Richard Dawkins & the Material Girl
Yes, but what exactly is materialism? Isn’t it more obviously represented by the extravagance of pop stars than by the sophisticated theories of atheist scientists and scholars? Isn’t the cultural materialism of, say, Madonna, quite different from the philosophical materialism of Richard Dawkins?
Well, it is self-evident that they look dissimilar, but the worldviews they represent are intertwined. Cultural materialism means living as if there were no God or moral absolutes, and all that matters is matter. Philosophical materialism means to argue that there is no God to establish any moral absolutes, and matter is all there is. The former worldview finds its justification in the latter. Actually, in the modern world, philosophical materialists act as the secular priesthood of a lifestyle based on hedonism and moral relativism. The priesthood convinces the masses that we are all accidental occurrences who are not under any Divine judgment; and the masses live, earn, spend, and have relationships according to this supposition. A popular MTV hit summarizes this presumption bluntly: “You and me baby ain’t nuthin’ but mammals; so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.”
The biological justification for promiscuity–that we are “nuthin’ but mammals”–is no accident: The idea that we are all mere animals is at the heart of cultural materialism. And that idea is, of course, based on Darwinism. That’s why Darwinism, in the words of Daniel Dennett, one of its hard-core proponents, acts as a “universal acid; it eats through just about every traditional concept and leaves in its wake a revolutionized worldview.”
That “revolutionized worldview”–in which God is denied, attacked, and ridiculed–is the grand problem we Muslims have with the West. It is true that some fanatics among us hate the West’s liberty and democracy, too. Yet for the sane and pious Muslim majority, those are welcome attributes. This majority’s only problem is the materialism that encompasses the West. And they would welcome those who would save the West–and thus the whole world–from it.
A Discovery Zone
That’s why something called the Wedge Document–although horrifying to America’s secularist intelligentsia–offers a message of hope for Muslims. The Wedge Document is a 1999 memorandum of the Discovery Institute (DI), the Seattle-based think tank that acts as the main proponent of ID. In this document, the Institute explains that its long-term goal is “to defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies.” Much of the fuss made about the Document by its opponents is absurd; it does not propose the transformation of the U.S. into a theocracy. But, as official DI documents point out, there is nothing wrong in expecting cultural impact from a scientific theory; Darwinians, after all, revel in the cultural impact of their own doctrines.
By its bold challenge to Darwinian evolution–a concept that claims it is possible to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist”–ID is indeed a wedge that can split the foundations of scientific materialism. ID presents a new perspective on science, one that is based solely on scientific evidence yet is fully compatible with faith in God. That’s why William Dembski, one of its leading theorists, defines ID as a bridge between science and theology.
As the history of the cultural conflict between the modern West and Islam shows, ID can also be a bridge between these two civilizations. The first bricks of that bridge are now being laid in the Islamic world. In Turkey, the current debate over ID has attracted much attention in the Islamic media. Islamic newspapers are publishing translations of pieces by the leading figures of the ID movement, such as Michael J. Behe and Phillip E. Johnson. The Discovery Institute is praised in their news stories and depicted as the vanguard in the case for God, and President Bush’s support for ID is gaining sympathy. For many decades the cultural debate in Turkey has been between secularists who quote modern Western sources and Muslims who quote traditional Islamic sources. Now, for the first time, Muslims are discovering that they share a common cause with the believers in the West. For the first time, the West appears to be the antidote to, not the source of, the materialist plague.
Is ID True?
Of course, ID–like any other scientific theory–stands or falls not according to its political and diplomatic utility, but according to the evidence. So: Is ID true?
There is a huge and growing body of ID literature produced by some of the world’s finest minds, and I won’t attempt even to summarize the overwhelming evidence it presents for design in nature. Yet I think an examination of the main premise behind the current opposition to ID might be helpful.
To see that premise, we first have to note how ID theorists criticize Darwin. They do this by applying his own criterion for falsification. “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications,” said Darwin, “my theory would break down.” ID theorists, such as biochemist Michael J. Behe, apply this criterion to complex biochemical systems such as the bacterial flagellum or blood clotting and explain that they could not have been “formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications”–because they don’t function at all unless they are complete.
What is the Darwinian response to this? Here’s Jerry Coyne again, in The New Republic: “In view of our progress in understanding biochemical evolution, it is simply irrational to say that because we do not completely understand how biochemical pathways evolved, we should give up trying and invoke the intelligent designer.” Note that Coyne is here denying the falsification criterion that Darwin himself acknowledged. According to Darwin, if you demonstrate “that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications,” the theory will break down. According to Coyne, you will only be pointing to a system about which “we do not completely understand how [it] evolved.”
In other words, Coyne leaves no way that the theory can break down. Whatever problem you find with the theory today will somehow be solved in the future. Actually Coyne, quite generously, does give a criterion to refute Darwinism: Should we “find human fossils co-existing with dinosaurs, or fossils of birds living alongside those of the earliest invertebrates,” that would “sink neo-Darwinism for good.” But ID proponents aren’t questioning the fact that dinosaurs predated humans and invertebrates predated birds; our question, rather, is how they came to be. Coyne sounds like someone who would silence a serious critique of the theory of plate tectonics by saying, “Hey, show me that the Earth is flat and thus sink my theory for good, or shut up forever.”
With his solid faith in Darwinism, Coyne also assures us that the gaps in the fossil record–which should have been filled by the 150-year-long desperate search for the fossilized remains of numerous, successive, slight modifications–”are certainly due to the imperfection of the fossil record.” But why can’t we consider the possibility that the gaps might be real–that forms of complex life might have appeared on Earth in the way they are, as the fossil record suggests? The standard reply to this question is the “god of the gaps” argument: that theists have imagined divine powers behind natural phenomena in the past, and science, in time, unveiled the natural processes behind those phenomena. But if we had seen a cumulative filling of gaps since Darwin, we would have agreed. What we have actually seen is the reverse: Ever since Darwin, and especially in recent decades, the problems with the theory of evolution have been deepening and widening. With the discovery of the unexpected complexity of biology, and the sudden leap forward in the history of life with the Cambrian explosion, the Darwinian theory turns out to be based on an atheism of the gaps, in which lack of knowledge about life led to the wrong assumption that it is simple enough to be explained by a non-design theory.
God & Muslims
There are many other attacks on ID in the media, and they are all useful in that they demonstrate the true intellectual force behind Darwinism: a commitment to materialism. The most common argument against ID, that it invokes God and so cannot be a part of science, is a crystal-clear expression of that commitment. Instead of asking, “What if there really were an intelligent designer active in the origin of life?” the Darwinists take it for granted that such a designer doesn’t exist and limit the definition of science according to that unproven premise. Similarly, the evidence for the existence of a pre-Sumerian civilization would not be “a part of history” if you define history as “the discipline that examines the past of human societies starting from the Sumerians and never, ever, accepting the possibility of something else before.” A saner approach would be to question the definition of the discipline that is challenged by evidence–not to ignore the evidence in order to save the definition of the discipline. The reason this saner approach is not the mainstream view in biology is the same old dogmatic belief: materialism.
Of course, Darwinians have the right to believe in whatever they wish, but it is crucial to unveil that theirs is a subjective faith, not an objective truth, as they have been claiming for more than a century. This unveiling would mark a turning point in the history of Western civilization, by reconciling science and religion and letting people become intellectually fulfilled theists. Moreover, it would mark a turning point in the history of the world, by changing the meaning of “the West” and “Westernization” in the eyes of Muslims. They have been resisting the influx of godlessness from the West for a long time; they would be much less alarmed in the face of a redeemed West.
Phillip E. Johnson once said that the ID debate is about the question whether the U.S. is a nation under God or a nation under Darwin. We Muslims see the latter as a plague; we have no problem with the former. We might have disagreements, but we agree on the most fundamental truth of all–that there really is a God out there, and He is the One to Whom we owe our very life and existence.
–Mustafa Akyol is a Muslim writer based in Istanbul, Turkey, and one of the expert witnesses who testified to the Kansas State Education Board during the hearings on evolution. His website is www.thewhitepath.com.