05 October 2005

By Brad Tytel

Intelligent Design is big news right now, and the media has made much of this latest broadside in the raging culture war between “the scientists” and “the Christians.” So it’s a pleasure to read coverage that attempts to bring other spiritual perspectives to the table, such as last week’s New York Times article, by George Johnson, concerning the evolutionary opinions of the Dalai Lama and the pope. But what’s good in theory isn’t always in practice, and Johnson’s article is hardly a cause for celebration. Flawed in both substance and intent, the article’s attempt to bring diversity to the debate is itself illustrative of many of the problems with the coverage of controversial religious issues.

It’s hard to tell what conclusion one is intended to draw from the article, which seeks to broaden the evangelical-dominated Intelligent Design debate. Its title alone, “For the Anti-Evolutionists, Hope in High Places,” is misleading, implying that Tibetan Buddhist doctrine bolsters Intelligent Design. Johnson further contends that, “the [pro-Intelligent Design] arguments may not sound so different from what one would hear if either the pope or the Dalai Lama were called to the stand.” To support this statement, he cites an excerpt from the Dalai Lama’s new book, The Universe in a Single Atom: “The Dalai Lama laments what he calls ‘radical scientific materialism,’ warning that seeing people as ‘the products of pure chance in the random combination of genes’ is an invitation to nihilism and spiritual poverty.”

This is a vast simplification of both the beliefs of the Dalai Lama — who is famous for his scientific interests — and of Buddhism itself, as an open faith that tends to accept science, including most evolutionary theory, and simply look beyond it. What the Dalai Lama objects to is an atheistic approach to science that insists that there is no higher power, while pure, objective science, which can never prove nor disprove the existence of god, must by definition leave the question open. Nor would he, a Buddhist, ever seek to impose his religious beliefs in the way that American-brand, our-way-or-the-highway fundamentalism so often attempts to. Rather than support the introduction of an inherently confrontational, unscientific and unsubstantiated credo, the Dalai Lama would surely seek further engagement, a reconciliation of natural selection, mutation, and the open question of spirit.

Johnson’s piece seems to recognize this, in a confusing contradiction. He cites a statement from the Discovery Institute, the organization largely responsible for promoting Intelligent Design theory, which objects to “‘the simplistic philosophy or world view that claims that all of reality can be reduced to, or derived from, matter and energy alone.’ The Institute says it hopes ‘to reverse the stifling dominance’ of this perspective and replace it with a ‘science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.'” Not only is the language more provocative, but the emphasis on “Christian” convictions seems slightly out of sync with the Dalai Lama.

If this seems too fine a point, Johnson himself recognizes that, “You can accept every detail of evolution through natural selection and still believe in a God who works silently behind the scenes,” a sentiment that is reconcilable with the Dalai Lama’s beliefs, but not with those expounded by the Discovery Institute. To cite their website: “The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” Johnson then further contradicts his thesis, by stating “The intelligent design movement goes farther, insisting that the existence of a purposeful creator counts as a competing scientific theory.”

To prove all these contradictions, we need look no further than Johnson himself. In his September 18 review of the Dalai Lama’s book, Johnson quotes the Dalai Lama: “‘If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims,’ he writes. No one who wants to understand the world ‘can ignore the basic insights of theories as key as evolution, relativity and quantum mechanics.'” Hardly the fighting spirit of those Discovery folks.

Beyond intent, Johnson’s piece is littered with cute flares of language that undermine his otherwise serious (if flawed) attempt at religion journalism. The lead is, to put it mildly, useless: “Except for the robes and the fact that each is addressed as ‘His Holiness,’ it would be hard to find much in common between Pope Benedict XVI and Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.” What about something as simple as spirituality? The leadership of their faith? Thousands of years of religious tradition? Not to mention that the pope, at least, would probably prefer the term “vestments.”

His conclusion is similarly pat. “So suppose there is a Great Intender, who mapped out the circuitry of living cells with the care an Intel engineer would bring to a new microchip. Where then did the creator come from? Was he created by another creator? Or did he evolve?” Admittedly, at this point I may just be quibbling. But why end a piece that, despite its problems, remains seriously grounded, with the religious equivalent of “So you believe in the big bang, huh? Well what came before it, huh?” It’s a question that goes nowhere.

Johnson’s piece is indicative of the most common problem in religion journalism: a need to simplify the inherently complex in order to draw parallels, create conflict, demonstrate balance, and to fit the constraints of the newspaper. Don’t expect me to offer an easy solution. But beyond that, if one is of the opinion that Intelligent Design is a red herring, a bogus and unconstitutional exercise that distracts from the necessary engagement of the material and faith, than such pieces do everyone a disservice. But when that engagement comes, one does hope that, like Johnson, journalists aim for doctrinal inclusiveness. So long as one religious perspective dominates the debate, you’ll never convince us critics to be anything but skeptical.

Brad Tytel is a graduate student at New York University.