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The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything
Evolution, Intelligent Design, and a School Board in Dover, PA

Gordy Slack
ISBN 9780787987862 (0787987867)
Jossey-Bass, 2007
£15.99

Category: Science and Faith


Review, including page number references, based on an advance proof copy and subject to checking against the finished work.

When this book landed on my desk, I confess, I groaned. Does the world really need another book on the Creation/Evolution debate? Can we not get over the arguments and get on with life, however it got here? Any creative process is messy, whether it's Leonardo Da Vinci creating a masterpiece or someone like me writing a book review: canvas and keystrokes are inevitably wasted along the way. Evolution may not have the same panache as God saying, "Let there be—" or Tommy Cooper going "Just like that!" but if I'd been in charge of the universe, I doubt that I could have come up with a better way to give us the variety and abundance of life we see in the world today.

As for the idea of evolution just rolling along by itself like a riderless bicycle: that to me seems too far fetched by far; even meaninglessness becomes meaningless under that worldview.

So I guess that makes me what's known as a "theistic evolutionist" — the raving fundie Creationists think I've capitulated and the raving fundie Atheists think I'm clueless, whilst the rest of the world looks on and wonders what all the fuss is about. It's a good question, and it's the question this book addresses, very effectively: after groaning, I started reading — and I was hooked.

It's a shame that the opening chapter is presented as a prologue, because it's always tempting to skip prologues and prefaces. Please don't skip this one: in it you'll meet the author (and his father) and discover where he's coming from. It sets the scene for the rest of the book: don't start out without it. Me, I was so hooked reading it that I nearly — only nearly, please note — forgot to start out to meet my wife coming home late. You have been warned.

Gordy Slack is a journalist/science-writer who specializes in evolutionary biology, frequently exploring the relationship between science and religion. His own worldview, however, leaves no room for God: evolutionary theory offers enough explanation for everything. Reflecting briefly on the bleakness of life in an uncaring universe, he observes:

Even if God doesn't exist, I might well function better in the cool shade of religious illusion than I do under the uncaring sun of the truth. But it doesn't matter, I haven't believed for a long, long time. And I can't fake it. (p.110)

His father, on the other hand, is a fundamentalist Christian, a Creationist. So Gordy welcomes the opportunity to cover the Dover High School case as a chance to understand what his father's worldview is all about (p.xiii).

So what's the deal with Dover High School? In short, 'The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment promises that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."' (p.27). By USA law, church and state must be kept apart, but Dover's school board wanted to introduce teaching 'Intelligent Design' (ID) alongside evolution in the school's curriculum. Alarmed by the implications, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AU) leaped into the fray all guns blazing with a team of crack lawyers intent on putting the school board in its place by proving 'that those who promote intelligent design are trying to supernaturalize the foundations of modern science' (p.27). Intelligent Design, according to ACLU, was nothing more than thinly veiled Creationism and completely lacking in scientific credibility.

Rather then run for cover, Slack explains, Dover's school board returned fire with the support of the Thomas More Law Center, the Discovery Institute and their own team of experts including biology professor and notable ID proponent Michael Behe.

The story that emerges as the two opposing sides drag one another through America's legal system makes tragic reading as we see a complete failure of either side to understand the other's point of view: it's clear that in this Battle over the Meaning of Everything there can be no meeting of minds, no compromise. Saddest of all, however, for this particular reader is the attitude of the religious right, the conservative evangelicals who, in their zeal for what they regard as God's truth, lose sight of his love, driving their opponents even further away. Where, in all this, I find myself asking, is God's grace?

Slack's reporting is interspersed with his own wry, sometimes humourous, observations and snippets from conversations with fellow journalist Giulio Meotti. At one point as they discuss absolutes and relativism, Slack comments,

Religious truths are much more relative than scientific ones. They change all the time. Sometimes it's okay to stone adulterers and sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's "turn the other cheek" and sometimes it's "an eye for an eye." Sometimes polygamy is legal and encouraged, and sometimes it's one of the worst sins around. And that's all within one religion, Christianity. (p.87)

Is he being deliberately disingenuous here or has he failed — ironically — to grasp the fact that Christianity evolved from ancient Judaism: that "an eye for an eye" and the stoning of adulterers belong to Christianity and contemporary Judaism's common ancestry whilst "turn the other cheek" and forgiveness for adulterers belong to Christianity today? Or is that the point he's making as he observes attitudes and behaviour amongst so-called followers of Jesus that are more fitting for the pre-Christian era? When will Christians learn to live in the way of Jesus? Earlier, p.56, he has reported Kitzmiller, one of the plaintiffs on whose behalf ACLU acted, receiving hate mail: "One letter," she says, "said that I should watch out for a bullet."

Thankfully, the Dover school board lost the case. Whilst I myself can sympathise with the ID concept — although I'd expect the maker's mark, if there is one, to appear much further down, somewhere beneath the subatomic level — the shameful way in which those concerned evidently brought and promoted their case is such that the humiliation of losing was well deserved. If this is Christianity then I for one want nothing more to do with it. Religions and religious beliefs are, I think, as much a part of the evolutionary process as every other part of life. One can only hope that the same forces of natural selection that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs will also lead to the extinction of raging fundamentalisms like this that seem to be wracking the human race today.

Much more could be said, and it will be, but not here, not now. In short, this is a book that gets to the heart of the evolution/creation debate as it revolves around a school in Dover, PA, raising all sorts of questions about the USA, its constitution, civil liberties, religion and priorities in education. Superbly written by an author who knows where he's coming from, if not quite where he's going. One thing is clear, however: wherever the arguments go from here, the battle isn't over yet. Buy the book — and watch this space...

Phil Groom, June 2007

Phil Groom is this site's Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He's a freelance blogger, writer and web developer who spent ten years managing the bookshop at London School of Theology alongside eight years writing web reviews for Christian Marketplace magazine before he came to his senses and went independent. You can find him on facebook or follow him on twitter @notbovvered.

Publisher's Info: Table of Contents and downloadable extracts.

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