Conversation with John Haught on Evolution, Intelligent Design, and the Recent Dover Trial

Conversation with John Haught on Evolution, Intelligent Design, and the Recent Dover Trial

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On September 30, 2005, Professor Haught testified as an expert witness in the trial Kitzmiller et. al. v. Dover Area School District. The trial was the first to explicitly consider the presentation of intelligent design in U.S. public schools. Professor Haught was the only theologian to testify in this trial, and his testimony was cited on several occasions in the opinion for the plaintiffs rendered by Judge John E. Jones, III on December 20, 2005.

Adam Shapiro: Why were you asked to testify in the Dover trial?
John Haught: I don’t really know exactly. I was just contacted by the lawyers from Pepper Hamilton.  I think they had gotten my name from someone else who knows that I deal with issues on evolution and theology.  My assumption is they simply assumed that I would be an evolution-friendly witness based on the material that I’ve written.

AS: Have you ever testified in anything like this before?
JH: No, this is the first legal setting in which I’ve been asked to participate.

AS: So, how was that experience?
JH: It was very interesting.  The lawyers had prepared me well, though; so it was rather enjoyable, I have to say.

AS: They gave you a good sense of what to anticipate?
JH: Yes, in fact we went over the whole audition before going into the courtroom.  I basically responded from ideas that I had developed in the deposition, which the lawyers had seen many weeks ahead of time, as had Richard Thompson, the cross-examining attorney.

AS: So, you were already familiar with a lot of what was going to happen on the cross-examination as well?
JH: That’s right.  In fact I had been deposed for about seven or eight hours by Richard Thompson last June, and I was pretty much prepared for the questions.

AS: In a non-seven or eight hour version, how would you describe what you testified about?
JH: I testified first and foremost that intelligent design is not science.  And I understand that, from a legal point of view, what the plaintiffs were showing was that substantively—in spite of what scholarly distinctions I prefer to make between intelligent design and creationism—the more you can connect the two, the easier the case would be.  As far as the legalities are concerned, there is no substantive difference.  From the point of view of a scholar, a historian, there is a difference between intelligent design advocacy and creationism.  Particularly regarding the interpretation of scripture, the ID people are not, as a rule, biblical literalists, although some of them are and some of them come close.  What they share is a kind of theological confusion of science with religious ideas, and they tend together to propose that this should be wedged into the science classroom.  So, I argued that historically, motivationally, rhetorically, and finally theologically, there is no way that you could logically identify intelligent design with the kind of discourse that goes on in any good science classroom.

AS: And you were testifying as an expert in theology.
JH: Right.  I think I was the only theologian testifying.

AS: And you’re a Catholic theologian?
JH: I’m a Roman Catholic, yes.

AS: In your testimony, you’re quoting from several twentieth-century theologians.  Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Langdon Gilkey, Karl Rahner.  And some of these are Protestants and Rahner a Catholic.
JH: Today in the academic world, Christian theologians are ecumenical in their thinking.  Almost all the theology that I do is the kind of reflection on biblical faith that falls within the wide circle of Christian thinking. Karl Rahner, for example, was a Catholic, but his thought was also informed by his reading of non-Catholic theology.  So it’s a very mixed world now, and I don’t find myself, when I do theology, thinking so much from the point of view specifically of Roman Catholicism as from the point of view of my stance in the wider Christian tradition.  There are times, of course, when there are different emphases, but it doesn’t make any significant difference as far as this particular trial is concerned.

AS: Do you think that particular religions have separate issues in terms of science and religion?
JH: Oh, yes.  For example, Muslims are also interested in science and religion, but from what I’ve been able to tell, with few exceptions, they have a very difficult time reconciling Darwinian evolution with the Qu’ran.  Some of them go about trying to reconcile the two by maintaining that there are verses in the Qu’ran that anticipate evolution.  But that whole style—concordism, it’s called—which tries to reconcile contemporary scientific discoveries with specific scriptural texts is one that most people in the science and religion movement in the Christian tradition have abandoned.  The concordist approach is still literalist at heart. There have been Christians in the past who have maintained that the six days of creation as depicted in Genesis correspond to six epochs in the history of the universe, but that’s an approach which most of us have abandoned long ago.  Yet something like that is still being practiced, at times at least, in both the Christian and the Muslim worlds. Religious traditions—including Christianity—still have a long way to go in looking closely at evolution.  We’ve only begun this very adventurous and exciting enterprise.

AS: But in general, you see this as really an ecumenical enterprise?
JH: Ecumenical and interreligious. “Interreligious” refers to the conversation between, say, Christianity and Buddhism.  “Ecumenical” is usually a term reserved for discussions among different Christian denominations.

AS: The legal team for the defense was the Thomas More Law Center, which is a Catholic organization, but it also uses ecumenical language, trying to frame this as a “Christian” problem as opposed to a Catholic problem.
JH: I like to tell people that Catholicism is a very pluralistic religion, and by that I mean it comes in many different stripes.  The Thomas More Center, from everything I’ve been able to tell, sponsors a very conservative brand of Catholicism.  At other Catholic law schools, such as Georgetown or Loyola, there is a different atmosphere.

AS: Is there a single Catholic position on evolution?
JH: No, there’s no single position, but there are important statements by the Vatican, especially those made recently by John Paul II, which come out in favor of evolution and in effect endorse scientific work on this area of science. In 1996 John Paul II issued a statement in which he said that evolution is more than just a hypothesis, that the research of many different sciences points toward its high degree of coherence and plausibility. He went on to say that what Catholicism rejects is materialism.  The Pope knew that there are materialistic interpretations of evolution, and he wanted to distinguish the science of evolution from the materialist spin that some thinkers put on it.  Obviously the reason why materialism is rejected is, if you hold the belief that matter is all there is, then that implies that there’s no room for God, or a soul, or anything that transcends the natural world.

AS: In your testimony you point out that intelligent design seems to be similar to “the old natural theology tradition of classical Christianity.”  How does natural theology differ from something like these other positions?
JH: Well, natural theology is a venerable part of Christian—and also Muslim and Jewish—reflection on the idea of God.  The way natural theology works is to see if we can determine by way of our studying of the Book of Nature, as distinct from the Book of Scripture, whether anything in nature points toward a creator.  In my testimony I just mentioned a couple of the high points: Thomas Aquinas and William Paley, who are only two—but two major—figures in the natural theology tradition, and Catholicism has traditionally been rather favorably disposed towards natural theology.  I don’t, in principle, have anything against natural theology—it’s just that I don’t think it’s part of science.  I mentioned in the testimony that the defendants in the case employ the reasoning characteristic of natural theology: wherever there’s complex design, there has to be an intelligent designer; the minor premise is that the world, as science has shown, exhibits an enormous degree of complexity; the conclusion is that this complexity is just too much to be naturally and accidentally put there, but had to have been the result of intelligent design.   As a theologian I have no objection to appealing at some point to an ultimate intelligence—I would prefer to say Wisdom (a wisdom that’s constantly in union with generous love)—that underlies the universe we live in.  But that’s because I believe, and I think most theologians and many philosophers in the past have believed, that there are many levels of understanding available to approach any phenomenon.

AS: It seems like there’s some similarity between natural theology and a lot of what happens in the science and religion dialogue, where people are looking at particular aspects of nature and looking to draw theological conclusions from that.
JH: Yes, that’s true of some of it, but not all.  There are two different ways of looking at it.  The one I just mentioned is natural theology, which looks at the Book of Nature to see what could be found out about the Creator, but there’s also what’s called a “theology of nature,” and that’s mostly what I practice in my own writings on evolution.  What a theology of nature does is start from within the belief system that the particular theologian belongs to—in my case that’s Christianity, and Catholicism in particular—and then ask: What would we expect nature to be like if it is really grounded in the God that we believe in? Here one theologizes from within a community, a believing community, and then tries to see if there is coherence, or “consonance” as some people call it, between the perspective of faith and scientific understanding of the world.  There is no attempt to prove the existence of God.  In my theology of evolution I ask: What might the Darwinian understanding of the life story mean when viewed from the perspective of Christian faith, and what are the implications of evolution for understanding the content of faith?  For me, what comes out of this kind of reflection is that I can’t think about God the same way after Darwin as I did before.  The conversation with science allows us to dig deeper into the meaning of our faith traditions.  What difference does it make to our understanding of God that the world’s life-story comes about by evolution rather than by instantaneous magical interventions?

AS: That seems to be quite a lot of what the science and religion dialogue does. 
JH: Very much so.

AS: And you’ve certainly been involved in quite a lot of it in organizations like Metanexus.  What do you see as your role in groups like this?
JH: As a theologian, one of my objectives is to share with others the beauty that I see in my tradition, and that means that I want to remove any unnecessary obstacles that stand in the way of intelligent people appreciating what I see as truthful, lovely, humane and salvific in my faith tradition.  I don’t proselytize, but what I want to do in most of my work is remove unnecessary obstacles, and it’s especially among scientists that these obstacles seem to show up.  Part of the reason for that is that many scientists are no better educated in scriptural interpretation than are creationists and biblical literalists. I’ve found that many scientists and scientific writers, including some of the most important writers on evolution, like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett for example, are at heart just as literalist in their understanding of scriptural texts as are their opponents from the anti-Darwinian camp.  And so I think my role is, first of all, to make sure that when we look at important scriptural texts we look at them with a level of depth that gets beneath their surface meaning. At the same time I hope to get beneath what I call a “cosmic literalism,” the assumption that a particular science, such as neo-Darwinian biology, can give us an adequate understanding of nature.  What I hope we can all do is dig beneath the texts of our religions on one hand and the scientific reading of nature on the other and find a new level of depth beneath both of those books, the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture.  In this depth my wager is that a meaningful conversation can take place in such a way that the two readings nourish each other.

AS: When you were testifying in the trial, there was obviously the specific case at hand, but it appears that there was also an awareness on the part of everyone in the trial, that there was a larger audience.
JH: Yes, and as I said earlier, this was a legal context.  And what you do there, when you’re trying to make a good case, is not necessarily enter into all the ramifications and all the cultural conversations that feed into the juridical context.  For example, when I’m on the stand, I can’t go into all the ideas I have about how evolution actually helps us understand the biblical God in a richer way than an intelligent design approach does.  You can’t do all that while you’re on the stand.  There you’re trying to make a case that intelligent design is so much like creationism, which has already been legally excluded from public school classrooms.  If you can make the case that intelligent design, like creationism, illegally introduces theology into public school science classrooms, then that helps the judge make his decision; and of course I thought he made the right one.

AS: Did you agree with the way that he reached that decision, the legal reasoning that came out in his opinion?
JH: Yes, I thought it was very rationally done, and there was really nothing in it that I found objec ionable.

AS: Do you feel that the public itself has been influenced by this particular trial and the effects of people’s testimonies?
JH: Yes, but I’m not sure that my role was terribly important.  I think the judge could have arrived at his decisions on the basis of the testimony of the scientists and philosophers.  I think I had only a rather peripheral role in the event.  Maybe other people would see otherwise, but my role was to make it clear that there’s no inherent theological problem in objecting to intelligent design in schools.  I think that at least part of my function at the trial was to show that one can reject intelligent design as both a scientific and a theological idea without being a materialist Darwinian.

AS: It seems like, at least a lot of the popular conception—and I think you said this earlier in terms of the way a lot of scientists think as well—is that there’s this inevitable conflict.  Dover was described as “Scopes II” in the media.  What you’ve been testifying to is the fact that there isn’t that sort of conflict.
JH: Not at the level of science and religion.  There is a conflict, however, between a materialist interpretation of evolution and a theological vision of reality, and part of the problem with the whole intelligent design movement, is that the advocates of intelligent design have not clearly seen this difference.  One of the reasons that they don’t see it is that their opponents—I mentioned, for example, Richard Dawkins and also Stephen Jay Gould, but it’s also true of many Darwinians—have folded a materialist world-view into their popularizations of science, so when people read these they come away saying: “Well, see these evolutionists are themselves saying that you have to be an atheist if you’re really going to appreciate what Darwin said, so if that’s what the evolutionists are all about, then we’re going to have to oppose Darwinism.”  Unfortunately some evolutionists have sabotaged their own efforts at science education by insisting that somehow one has to make an ideological shift to a materialist world-view in order to appreciate Darwinian explanations.

AS: In your testimony, you described it by saying that, even though people like Dawkins or Gould, or E. O. Wilson are scientists, when they make these ideological statements, they’re not acting as scientists.
JH: No, they’re not.  They’re moving into the role of philosophers or making quasi-religious statements. When they say the ultimate explanation for life and brains and intelligence is the mindless stuff we call “matter,” that’s structurally parallel to making a religious statement that such-and-such a deity is the ultimate ground of reality.

AS: And the same thing holds for the intelligent design advocates.  They were doing biochemical work or mathematical work, in the case of Michael Behe or William Dembski, but when they then go on to talk about intelligent design they’re out of that realm.
JH: They’re conflating science with ideology.  I think that since the beginning of the modern age, tacitly at least, the great scientists decided that when we do science, we’re not going to talk about God, we’re not going to talk about purpose, value or meaning.  And most of the original scientists, such as Galileo, were deeply religious people.  But Galileo clearly understood, better than many of the churchmen of his own day, the difference between scientific information and religious belief.

AS: So when people get involved in the science and religion dialogue, do they have to step outside of those contexts? If a scientist wants to talk about the religious implications of the work that he or she does, or a theologian wants to talk about how science impacts upon it, is “science and religion” separate from either science or religion?
JH: Well, I think when you’re dealing with the so-called conversation between science and religion, you’re no longer operating at the level of scientific information, but your thought is ideally informed by it.  Your dialogue is constrained by what is scientifically acceptable, but that doesn’t mean that your dialogue is determined by it. So, to have a meaningful conversation between a theologian and a scientist today, the theologian somehow has to be willing to accept the scientific evidence for evolution.  And then the scientist might ask me: Well, how can you believe in God? But that question assumes that science should be able to answer questions about ultimate reality.  As the conversation goes on, you have to make a distinction between what scientific method can uncover and what science leaves out.  Moreover, you have to agree that any phenomenon in the universe admits of a plurality of levels of explanation or understanding. 

AS: You described it in the testimony by saying it’s as if people are playing different games with different rules.
JH: Right.  But we distinguish in order to relate.  The reason for making distinctions is not to keep things separate, but to relate them.  Some people think that relation means fusion or conflation.  Not at all.  The philosophy that I follow is that true union, or true communion, doesn’t dissolve differences, it actually intensifies differences.  By differences, I don’t mean contradictions.  The conversation between science and religion has allowed us to be able to formulate more clearly than before just what science is all about, and just what theology is all about.  Before we did that—for example, before Galileo—“truth” was often a homogeneous mixture of common sense, theology and church authority, and natural philosophy; it was a smudge.  But after the conversation between science and religion got going, especially after Galileo, what happened eventually was that we got to see more clearly what science is about and what kind of information it gives us, what it leaves out, and so forth.  And the same with theology.  We came to realize, for example, that theology can no longer moonlight by giving us scientific information.  One of the most important developments in modern religious history—people tend to forget about this—was expressed by a rather conservative Pope, Leo XIII.  In his 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus he instructed Catholics not to look for scientific information in the Scriptures.  The biblical scholar Raymond Brown once commented that this simple instruction spared several generations of Catholics some of the anguish that non-Catholics have experienced in trying to reconcile Genesis with modern science.  Of course, Galileo himself had already said virtually the same thing.

AS: So do you think these issues involving evolution are the big issues now in science and religion?
JH: I think that evolution is still the hottest issue.  Biology is probably a more exciting field of conversation, at least for many of us, than physics.  That’s not to say that physics is not interesting; it is.  And cosmology’s been very interesting.  But the burning issue on the mind of many thoughtful people today concerns the theological implications of evolution.

AS: Is that because of the social conflict, the public conflict over evolution?
JH: Yes, at least in part, but I believe it’s all because of misunderstandings—the misunderstanding, for example, that Darwin is giving us an alternative to the biblical creation story, and that one therefore has to choose between the two.  That’s the way in which so much of the public, possibly half of Americans including many scientists, see it.  They think that we have a forced option here: We have to take the Darwinian account of creation, or the biblical, but not both.  In a sense it is a hermeneutical issue—one of how to interpret texts.  How do we interpret the text of nature and how do we interpret the text of scripture in such a way that we can come up with a synthesis in which one is not transformed into the other and in which each maintains its identity? A theology of evolution, on which I spend most of my time these days, wants to bring out how learning about evolution intensifies and adds drama and depth to our understanding of the doctrine of creation.

AS: Have you always looked at how science relates to theology in your theological work?
JH: Ever since graduate school.  The reason is that I was exposed at a very tender age, I think I was 23, to the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin.  Even though I am not uncritical of some of his writings, I still admire what he tried to do.  He was a Jesuit paleontologist, a Catholic priest, a great scientist, one of the top two or three geologists of the Asian continent.  Once he began studying geology, paleontology and evolutionary biology, he started writing essays on the implications of evolution for Christianity.  Perhaps you’ve seen the quote from Theodosius Dobzhansky, that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”  Teilhard didn’t use those exact words, but he felt that nothing in theology makes sense except in the light of evolution.  Having been exposed many years ago to Teilhard’s attempt to think about the religious and theological implications of evolution, I found it quite natural to become interested in science and religion questions in a more general way.

AS: So you’ve been working on science and religion for your entire career?
JH: Almost.  I came to Georgetown 36 years ago and started teaching a course on science and religion the second year I was there.  And I’ve taught it almost every year since.

AS: Where do you see both the science and religion dialogue and the larger social intelligent design controversies going from here?
JH: I’m not terribly optimistic that much is going to happen on a broad cultural level, but I am optimistic that both scientists and theologians will see more importance to the conversation than they have up to this point.  In a secondary way, once more people start talking about issues in science and religion, this may have an effect on education and on culture, but I don’t see this happening overnight.  I’m hopeful, but I’m not optimistic.

AS: Looking at the news recently, it seems like there may very well be another Dover trial, or some variation of it, not in Pennsylvania again.
JH: There might be, but on the other hand this judgment was so decisive that other school boards are surely keeping an eye on it.

AS: Given your experience, would you consider testifying again, if the circumstances arose?
JH: Oh, sure.  If it were necessary, I’d be happy to do it.  But in general I plan to stay involved in writing and speaking on science and religion.  One of the problems we have in our country is poor science education.  And if we blend poor science education with poor religious education it’s a pretty noxious mixture.  With Whitehead I believe that the future of civilization in many ways depends upon how well science and religion converse with one another.  This is a very important conversation.  I have a sense that more people are excited about it than they were twenty years ago.  And the Templeton Foundation and Metanexus have a great deal to do with that.