Neo-Paleyism’s Assault on Reason

William Paley‘s Natural Theology, originally published in 1802, stands as one of the prime examples of the teleological, mystical, and theistic premises that underlie bourgeois thought.  Paley opened his book with an argument that if one were crossing a heath and stumbled upon a watch, one would inevitability infer that it must have had a maker who designed it for a reason, since its details are too fine, too well organized and articulated, too laden with purpose, to emerge by mere chance from the blind operation of natural forces.  Paley’s case is simple: design implies a designer, and that designer is the God of the Christian faith.  One might think that Paley’s argument represented but a quaint holdover from a less enlightened age, a piece of medieval superstition that survived into the early modern era, that was soon to be vanquished (at least in the sciences) by Darwin’s materialism and his transformative insight about how there could indeed be design without a designer.  Sadly, religious, anti-materialist nonsense did not go softly into the good night that the Enlightenment nudged it toward, and we remain in a world where the forces of anti-intellectualism too often dominate public and academic discourse.

Unlike the Lord, the right-wing never rests.  After years of effort by Christian fundamentalists and their conservative allies to impose the teaching of “creation science” on students in U.S. public schools was put to an end in 1987 by the U.S. Supreme Court, when it struck down a Louisiana law mandating the teaching of this oxymoronically named field because it was based on biblical texts, right-wing think tanks went back to work to devise another strategy for undermining science education.  The product of these efforts is the “intelligent-design” movement, which is, in effect, presenting the equivalent of Paley’s argument as if it represented a new scientific theory.  The difference between intelligent design and creation science that its supporters hope will allow it to sneak past the courts and into the classroom is that intelligent design does not make any reference to religious texts, nor is it explicitly linked to any particular religion.  Rather, it argues simply that many of the products of nature, living organisms in particular, show design so sophisticated that they could not have been produced by natural forces alone, requiring intervention by an intelligent designer.  Supporters of this movement are not deterred by the demonstrated power of natural selection to craft organisms finely attuned to their environments or by the rather obvious point that by renouncing material causes, they have created an infinite regress of explanation – i.e., surely the existence of an intelligent designer requires an even more extraordinary explanation than the existence of an object that appears to have been intelligently designed, so, if we are to follow the “logic” of intelligent design, we must invoke a designer of the designer, and so forth ad infinitum

As Geoff Brumfiel explains in an essay in the April 28th, 2005 issue of the leading scientific journal Nature, the popularity of intelligent design appears to be on the rise and may be on the verge of infiltrating the curriculum of some universities.  Intelligent design finds fertile ground in U.S. society, where the on-going dominance of the political sphere by those committed to religious obscurantism has maintained in the public a profound degree of anti-materialism.  Brumfiel reports that 81% of U.S. teenagers (aged 13-17) believe either that God created humans as they are now or guided evolution to produce humans.  In light of such widespread public ignorance, which is to a large degree fostered by the Right, materialists are faced with a substantial challenge. 

Despite this apparently bleak situation, it remains imperative that those on the Left who are committed to materialism and the light of reason fight the rising tide of religious dogma in our public institutions.  As Marx recognized, one of the ways the Right maintains its political and economic hegemony is by distorting the public’s understanding of the world.  Intelligent design is a prime example of malign bourgeois ideology in that at base it serves as a justification of the current global order.  After all, it proposes that the current state of the world is not a product of contingent history, a history that could have unfolded differently, but rather the intended outcome of a divine designer.  It is exactly this type of view that serves to undermine efforts for change.  We must never lose sight of Marx’s materialist point that we are not subject to supernatural whims.  Although not entirely in conditions of our choosing, we make our own history.

Richard York
Richard York teaches sociology at the University of Oregon. His research, which focuses primarily on human interaction with the natural environment, has been published in Ambio, American Sociological Review, Ecological Economics, Gender & Society, Human Ecology Review, Organization and Environment, and other scholarly journals.