The United Methodist News Service (the official news service of the denomination) has published an article about the UMC’s ban on Discovery Institute from having an information table at its upcoming General Conference. I give a lot of credit to reporter Heather Hahn for being willing to talk with me to get Discovery Institute’s side of the story.
But there are some rather strange passages in the article. Take the following sentence:
Because intelligent design starts with belief in a designer, who as Jesus said should not be put to the test, it doesn’t offer testable hypotheses the way evolutionary biology does.
There are multiple things wrong with this statement, which Ms. Hahn later told me was “a paraphrase of multiple scientists.” First and foremost, intelligent design does not start with “belief in a designer.” It starts with the empirical data of nature, and from this data it infers the existence on an intelligent cause.
Second, intelligent design most certainly does offer testable hypotheses. Casey Luskin and William Dembski have both offered good discussions of this issue, as does Stephen Meyer in Appendix A of his book Signature in the Cell. You can read about some of the insights generated by intelligent design scientists in their peer-reviewed technical articles. Ms. Hahn did not ask me about this particular objection during our interview. If she had done so, I would have responded to it.
Finally, there is the appeal to the authority of Jesus. The reference is to a passage in the New Testament where Jesus is tempted by Satan to prove himself the Son of God and Jesus responds: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Luke 4:12). The implication seems to be that intelligent design is not only wrong, it’s a temptation straight from Satan! Wow. I guess that means Methodist founder John Wesley was Satanic for finding evidence of intelligent design throughout nature. The apostle Paul must have been Satanic for arguing that God’s invisible qualities can be ascertained from the things He has created in nature. King David in the Old Testament must have been inspired by Satan when he claimed that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” And Jesus himself must have been inspired by Satan when he referred to birds and flowers as providing evidence of God’s care over nature.
As we’ve made clear many times before, the inference to design in nature is not premised on the Bible or Christianity or Judaism (for example, you can find Greek and Roman thinkers who had the same idea). Nevertheless, many Jews and Christians throughout history have without question embraced the idea that nature supplies evidence of purposeful design. It is really over-the-top to imply that intelligent design comes from Satan.
Then there are the comments in the article by Duke University immunologist Jory Weintraub. Weintraub is quoted giving effusive praise to the UMC for its stance on intelligent design and evolution:
“In my opinion, the UMC’s stance on this topic reflects an open-minded, progressive, enlightened view that is absolutely necessary if people of faith are going to understand and embrace science without feeling alienated or marginalized,” Weintraub said by email. “This is exactly what the science community (which, itself, includes many people of faith) wants to see.”
Praising the UMC for being “open-minded” when it won’t even allow an information table about intelligent design seems rather, well, Orwellian, to me. In fairness to Dr. Weintraub, when I emailed him about this statement, he said that he was only referring to the “UMC’s view that there is no conflict between faith in God and the study of biological evolution.” Fair enough. But he wouldn’t respond to my question about whether he supported the UMC’s ban on Discovery Institute — and that is what the article is about.
Dr. Weintraub also wouldn’t disclose whether he himself is a United Methodist, or what his own religious affiliation might be. Of course, he has every right to weigh in with his opinion regardless of religious affiliation. But the article makes a point to highlight that Weintraub works for the “United Methodist-related Duke University,” as if that gave him special authority to speak for the UMC. Given the context, I thought readers might want to know what his own religious views are.
As a sidebar, the UMC article supplies a discussion of why natural selection matters to the understanding of things like malaria. I’m not sure what this sidebar has to do with the UMC banning an information table by Discovery Institute. After all, no one in the intelligent design movement doubts that natural selection is a real process. It seems to me that the sidebar simply spreads confusion. After reading it, some people might assume (wrongly) that intelligent design proponents don’t believe natural selection is a real process. I was never asked about my view of natural selection, and so I wasn’t able to respond on this point. If I had been, I would have made clear that intelligent design proponents accept the reality of natural selection.
At the same time, it is intriguing to me that the article highlights the role of natural selection in malaria. Malaria does provide good evidence for what natural selection can do. But as biochemist Michael Behe has conclusively shown in his book The Edge of Evolution, malaria also provides compelling evidence for the sharp limits of natural selection. Had Behe been interviewed for the article on this point, the sidebar would have been a lot more informative — and relevant.
A final point: When I talked with Heather Hahn, I told her I hoped she could clear up the mystery of who actually decided to reject Discovery Institute’s application for an information table. The only thing we’ve been able to discover thus far is that the decision was made by the “leadership” of a larger group called the Commission on the General Conference. But who exactly are these leaders? Are they two people on the Commission? Three people? What are their names? When we talked, Ms. Hahn was going to try to find out, but from the article, it appears that the UMC hierarchy was no more forthcoming with her than with us on this point. They also wouldn’t disclose to her the list of exhibitors who were approved for their General Conference, although Ms. Hahn tells me that this list will eventually be released.
If I were a United Methodist, even if I opposed intelligent design, I would wonder why my church officials are being so secretive that they won’t even fess up to who actually made the decision to ban Discovery Institute from having an information table. It strikes me that this sort of secrecy and lack of accountability isn’t healthy for any organization, least of all a major church.
Image: “Satan Tried To Tempt Jesus,” by James Tissot, Brooklyn Museum, via Wikiart.