Daniel Murphy, Saint Peter’s College
Over the past several years, the intelligent design/evolutionism debate (the “ID” issue) and a collective national reckoning with Islam as both a religious confession and a political force (the “Islamophobia” issue) have both become significant issues in public discourse in the United States. Strong, hostile rhetoric and also more moderate rhetoric have substantially shaped these issues. This rhetoric directly becomes evident when one peruses and considers the many kinds of media and communications conduits with which we engage everyday – from Google searches to Ivy League library shelves, from CNN segments to formal political statements, and from conversations with colleagues to student papers and exams. The frequency with which my own work dealt with these two issues gave rise to a very simple (and hopefully not too simplistic) intuition: there is a connection between these two issues, at least in terms of the extremist rhetoric they both so often employ.
Having this intuition was one thing; determining how to understand it philosophically, without reducing philosophical explanation to primarily political explanation, was another matter. The political explanation consistently tends to generate the familiar opposition between the Christian conservative right and the liberal left, ultimately resulting in the one being demonized and the other valorized, a result which largely depends on one’s politics. While this explanation might very well express significant political views, it appeared to me that it was still lacking in philosophical insight.
The kind of philosophical explanation which seemed to me to be most promising starts by asking a very basic question: what is the rhetoric that seems to link the ID issue to the Islamophobia issue? For starters, we can begin with a straightforward, classically-oriented definition: the rhetoric which permeates and envelops both issues is language which articulates a position with conviction, mixing at least the rudiments of logical argumentation, the skills of stylistic persuasion, and sheer attitudinal force in order to convince the audience. As well, this rhetoric comes in at least two actual forms, extreme and moderate, the former of which is the focus of this paper.
Extremist Rhetoric: Islamophobia
In this section, we shall consider extremist rhetoric with respect to the Islamophobia issue, and in the next section, with respect to the ID issue.
Let us start with two recent, choice examples of Islamophobia:
(1) The Islamists smell weakness in the West and are attacking us on several fronts at once: one, through outright war; two, through immigration; three, through their propaganda disseminated through the liberal media and four, through the liberal courts. Only a devastating military blow against the hearts of Islamic terror coupled with an outright ban on Muslim immigration, laws making the dissemination of enemy propaganda illegal, and the uncoupling of the liberal ACLU can save the United States. I would also make the construction of mosques illegal in America and the speaking of English only in the streets of the United States the law.1
(2) When all elected officials take their oaths of office with their hands on the very same book, they all affirm that some unifying value system underlies American civilization. If Keith Ellison is allowed to change that, he will be doing more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9-11.2
Such examples are present throughout our media outlets; we are all familiar with them, and so there is no need to belabor the issue with further examples here. The first and most important question to ask is whether this extremist, Islamophobic rhetoric actually articulates the truth. If it does, then it seems that we would be correct to endorse it. While such truth might at first seem quite odious, if the truth really is contained in this extreme rhetoric, then why not bite the bullet, embrace the veracious beast within, and endorse the rhetoric? Why not, except for certain “moral” reasons which might get in the way? But then, what is the value of moral reasoning that has to defend itself against the truth? Philosophy typically does not willfully, seriously elect to choose falsehoods (including falsehoods expressed in elegant, non-toxic language) over truth (even truth expressed in toxic, extreme rhetoric) as the foundational support for moral reasoning.
However, it is also the case that accepting this kind of rhetoric as primarily truthful would be to accept the undermining of fundamental elements of our nation, such as freedom of religion and speech. This acceptance would cast the basic character of our nation quite differently from how we conventionally portray it to ourselves – as a nation of freedom, equality, and human rights. In fact, it would be to reject a significant aspect of the contributions of Thomas Jefferson. Some two centuries ago, speaking to the issue of religious pluralism and freedom, Thomas Jefferson (a deist) said in reference to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom:
Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author
of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.”3
If we took the extremist rhetoric to be true, it seems we would have to admit we are really fighting against this Jeffersonian impulse and the idea of religious freedom upon which it is based. To be sure, countless imperfections have marred the body and soul of the United States throughout its history, including of course slavery, the lack of cultural and institutional respect for women’s rights, and most recently, the way we have handled the rebuilding of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. But if given a choice, I think we would tend to take the more inclusive, Jeffersonian portrait as being more true to the truth of ourselves and our nation than the toxically exclusivist portrait painted in the aforementioned rhetoric examples. To put the same point in starker terms: if we accept the premise that extremist Islamophobic rhetoric is truthful, then we would have to accept ourselves as fundamentally bigoted, in a way that violates the Jeffersonian idea of religious freedom.
Let us now turn to the opposite possible premise – that extremist Islamophobic rhetoric is false – and overview the implications which stem from this premise. We can examine these implications through a kind of thought experiment which explores the stance of the extremist rhetorician in a couple of possible scenarios, both in which he realizes the falsity cloaked in his rhetoric.
In the first scenario, we start by assuming that it would be rash to claim that the extremist rhetorician would always be perfectly anti-Jeffersonian. We could easily imagine him finding himself accepting the Jeffersonian portrait of America in general from time to time, especially in those moments that this portrait’s commitment to the broader idea of individual freedom succeeded in both commanding his attention, and also in leading him to the at least temporary conviction that religious freedom falls under this broader idea. In this scenario, the extremist subsequently might very well come to the stronger, more lasting realization that his rhetoric is misguided and contains and expresses falsehoods rather than truth. Reflecting still further, our extremist might wholeheartedly, finally accept not only the Jeffersonian idea of freedom in the broader sense, but also the religious freedom that the Jeffersonian idea implies.
But really, would the extremist reform himself so quickly and smoothly? Would he dispose of his extremist rhetoric so easily? I think it would be quite naive simply to assume that all of this would unfold so neatly within the psychological terrain of the extremist. Is there another plausible, perhaps more pessimistic course of events that we could imagine? Indeed, it seems there is, as the following example hopefully illustrates.
Let us first consider seriously what one prominent Islamic scholar in America has strongly suggested – that a substantial number of the most active Muslims in America want to live in America but have consciously wanted to avoid assimilation into the melting pot of America.4 Now it is of course the case that further political, socio-demographic, and religion-oriented research will do much to help us decide whether to validate or invalidate this nerve-striking claim as we continue to move into the 21st century. But in any case, we must note that this strong suggestion does not amount to just any kind of claim. All other things being equal (assuming that active Muslims in America are law-abiding, economically and socially self-reliant residents and citizens who in no clearly measurable way could be considered as a “drain” on American life or a defective element of American life), the point of the claim is to say that it is quite possibly the case that the most active Muslims who live in America do not really want to be considered part of American life in any substantial qualitative sense.
Presented with this anti-assimilation point of view, what would our extremist do? In this second scenario, our extremist would simply point to the Muslim source of the claims (and the extremist needs only one such source), and would swiftly and clearly affirm how opposition to assimilation is deeply “un-American” (in and of itself, a quite arguable affirmation). In this affirmation, our extremist would have successfully manipulated the claim so as to have restored an unmistakable air of “legitimacy” to his extremist rhetoric. In other words, with such ammunition and given a clever-enough playing of the anti-assimilation card (driven by generalized statements such as “look, even the Muslims admit they have no interest in assimilating”) our previously chastened extremist would quite possibly emerge more empowered, enveloped in a bigotry that unfortunately might very well be taken to be more acceptable. Given also the current political climate both internationally and domestically, our extremist’s extremism would definitely survive. Ultimately, in this scenario it would seem that the extremist’s bigotry could easily have been strengthened, becoming more robust and gaining more momentum than we would normally like to admit.
Extremist Rhetoric: The ID Issue
Let us turn to our other topic, the ID issue, and explore extremist rhetoric as it relates to this issue. To begin, let us first note (with the requisite flash of irony) that one main ancestor of current ID theory is creationism, a much more radical, fundamentalist account of the origin of the universe. Somewhat confounding this ironical aspect is the fact that creationism still survives on the periphery of the ID debate. However, as it is a virtual tautology that creationism as a contemporary doctrine generates extremist rhetoric, it is not necessary to examine specific examples of creationist rhetoric here, and so we can narrow our focus to ID theory itself.
Contemporary ID theory is much more moderate in character than creationism, as ID theory’s hypothesis of a divine, intelligent designer is usually meant by pro-IDers to be a hypothesis consistent with and/or supported by contemporary science. Upon first considerations, this central ID hypothesis might seem quite acceptable, and so not so apt to be couched in extremist rhetoric.
But here there is a bit more than meets the eye, and with a bit of investigation what we find is a good deal of extremist rhetoric permeating the debate among ID disputants. Stephen Meyer, an advocate of ID theory and one of the founding fathers of the ID movement in the 1990s, said in a 2004 interview that “The Darwinists are bluffing,” adding as well that “They have the science of the steam engine era, and it’s not keeping up with the biology of the information age.”5 In response to the people of Dover, PA who in the fall of 2005 voted out the school board members who supported ID theory, pro-IDer/evangelist Pat Robertson announced that “I’d like to say to the good citizens of Dover, if there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God. You just rejected Him from your city….”6 Another founding father of contemporary ID theory, Michael Behe, declared in an interview that “if you look at biology textbooks, frankly, they act more like cheerleaders for Darwinian theory than they do as critical evaluators of it.”7
While within the scope of the present paper our focus must remain on extremist, pro-ID rhetoric, to be fair, we can also observe rather extreme versions of anti-ID rhetoric. For example, anti-IDer Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most notable defender of evolutionism, compares the idea of teaching ID theory with teaching flat earthism – perhaps fine in a history class, but not in a science class. He says, “If you give the idea that there are two schools of thought within science – one that says the earth is round and one that says the earth is flat – you are misleading children.”8 A more hostile example of anti-ID rhetoric is put forward by physicist, mathematician, and noted skeptic David Thomas: “The intelligent-design people are trying to mislead people into thinking that the reference to science as an ongoing critical inquiry permits them to teach I.D. crap in the schools.”9
To be sure, on both sides of the ID debate, the extremist, mutually inflammatory rhetoric revolves around three basic themes: science, the critical evaluation of science, and God. How then does the rhetoric permeating the ID issue relate to the question of the truth status of ID theory? We can treat the premise of falsity in rather short order. If the central hypothesis of ID is false, then pro-ID rhetoric clearly boils down to speech that defends and tries persuasively to present falsity as a kind of truth, a decidedly un-philosophic position.
But if the central hypothesis of ID is true, then it is our contention that it still must be seen as undermining ID theory, in the first place especially in terms of ID theory’s professed consistency with science. For if there really is a divine, intelligent designer of the universe, then we have to ask, what exactly is the divine intelligent designer at the origin of the universe? Or to put the question more specifically: how could we qualify this designer? Given the strong tendency of pro-IDers to present the hypothesis of an intelligent designer as a hypothesis consistent with contemporary science, it seems that the pro-IDers would have to allow that only science would be able to show anything further of this designer. And this generates two problems, both of which deal with the question of the criterion of knowledge, but which are indeed distinct problems. As we have already suggested, the first problem relates to the possibility of scientific explanation of divine revelation (as principally contained in humanity’s sacred texts), and the second problem relates to theology, the discipline which is traditionally dedicated to interpreting these sacred texts.
First, as almost all religious traditions agree that God transcends time, the universe, and human knowledge in at least some fundamentally significant way, it seems that it would be impossible for science (as a form of human knowledge, and arguably the form) to describe substantially the true identity, essence, and characteristics of the intelligent designer (such as the personality of this designer) in a way that would be significant for religion. It is a virtual commonplace that the scientific way of knowing is fundamentally different from the way revealed religion expresses divinity. That the sacred texts offer so many different accounts of how transcendent divinity also reveals itself in nature and human life and reason is not to be denied, of course, but this does not make the aforementioned impossibility possible. Again, the sacred texts which contain the various accounts of revelation typically also bear the assumption that divinity, in all its mystery, is still a transcendent divinity.
Second, let us imagine a scenario in which we ignore the first problem, and as well decide that theology can examine the effects of the intelligent designer in nature and its immanent presence in the human intellect to the extent that it can go further than negative description (further than “negative theology”). Let us include in this scenario the possibility that theology can legitimately extend itself so far as to provide a positive, rational account of the essential characteristics of the intelligent designer (including the question of the extent to which it can be considered a personal divinity), and in a way that is truly significant for religion and for believers – and so accomplishes what the first problem identified what was impossible for science.
No doubt, such a theology would have extraordinary explanatory power. But our undeniable interest in this theology is redolent of question-begging, leading us directly to the second problem: namely, which theology (in this imaginary scenario) is it that accomplishes all of this in the most clear and substantial way? Does it turn out to be the theology of Thomas Aquinas or that of Calvin? Or is it the theology of a different religion altogether, like Judaism or Islam – or perhaps even a theology that humanity has not yet been able to devise? Turning to theology inevitably generates the question, “which theology?” This is a question to which the answer is always much more complex than it might seem. Not to mention the fact that a certain point we would have to address the deeper question of the criterion of knowledge by which we would have been able to justify ignoring the first problem (the problem of scientific explanation) in the first place. Already from Descartes through Hegel and many versions of post-Hegelian thought up to the present day, philosophy has grappled with these questions, which, as mentioned above, relate to the very fundamental issue of what the criterion of knowledge is. Do we want to return to this debate? If so, to what extent?
Of course, we cannot pursue a detailed study of these last two questions here, but from studying the extremist rhetoric surrounding the ID debate, the conclusion we can draw is that whether or not the pro-ID rhetoric is true, its rhetorical element promulgates a condition of ignorance. As we observed in the beginning of this section, the ignorance is of the more unwilled variety if ID theory, which sincerely hopes to be true, simply turns out to be false. The ignorance is of the more willed variety (with the willingness embedded within an at least tacit refusal to address the two key problems we have just discussed) if it is true.
At this point, let us bring together some conclusions regarding both extremist Islamophobic rhetoric and extremist pro-ID rhetoric. To summarize what we found earlier, extremist, Islamophobic rhetoric tends to result in the proliferation of bigotry, no matter if this rhetoric reflects truth or not. As for ID theory, we can draw a conclusion which is mostly analogous, yet which is a bit more ironical: extremist pro-ID rhetoric tends to result in the proliferation of general ignorance, no matter if this brand of rhetoric reflects truth or not. Ultimately, it seems that extremist forms of rhetoric connected with both these issues is doomed to display the unsightly, vainglorious limitations of the extremist rhetorician’s intellect – even if that intellect could be said to have laid hold to the basic truth.
To be sure, perhaps this conclusion is itself nothing more than a merely pedestrian truism, wholly accessible by sound common sense. In any case, I hope that my comments so far have formed at least some kind of basic line of philosophical argumentation which is a bit more searching and clarifying than the more base forms of our common sense, the purest form of which nonetheless does remain a trustworthy guide. I hope that my remarks have shed a bit of light on what an initial philosophical reading of these two streams of rhetoric might look like.
But in the end, what really makes these two streams of rhetoric “one rhetoric,” as the title of this paper indicates? To be sure, they are distinct in real life, but from a more conceptual standpoint, we might see that they are equal in that they both work to degenerate the soul, at least as the ancient Greeks would have seen things. Now, the Greeks did not think that either the question of ignorance or the issue of bigotry directly blighted the healthy expression of the spirited part of the soul. For example, if I am fighting for victory and honor in battle, which is good, then my ability to reason abstractly in the heat of combat is not a priority, and my being bigoted against my enemy would no doubt add a bit more force to the thrust of my dagger.
Relating both extremist streams of rhetoric to the question of truth, hopefully it is clear that they most directly affect what the Greeks might have called the “rational” part of the soul. Of course, when this is swayed, unhealthy and immoral actions are more likely to follow.
To be sure, each side of both the Islamophobia issue and the ID issue would claim to represent what our nation stands for most truthfully, and by implication thus represent what is best of modernity. But as I indicated at the beginning, I think political orientation is more likely to be the most decisive voice in adjudicating these multiple claims. So, especially in considering the “rational” part of the soul, from a philosophic point of view we would more accurately cast both streams of extremist rhetoric as an affront particularly to Socrates. Of all things, intellectual bigotry and ignorance amounted to the greatest evil in Socrates’ eyes, while knowledge itself was virtue. Of all philosophers in history, he most dearly and convincingly held to this concept, which famously drove him both toward a grasping of the good itself and against his fellow Athenians, resulting in his death sentence and execution.
Of course, there is a good deal more to say on this, but as I come to conclusion here, I would just like to make a few remarks about the moderate rhetoric in which both the Islamophobia issue and the ID-issue are often cloaked. In examining many examples of the more moderate rhetoric of both of these issues, I find that they both strongly tend toward the attitude and language of tolerance. Thus while the extremist rhetoric might be characterized as being more directly and deeply offensive to Socrates, we might say that the moderate rhetoric would be quite acceptable to Locke, Jefferson, Kant, and other great thinkers of modernity. Of course, the question then turns to the limitations of tolerance, but this introduces another issue, to be grappled with at another time.
Behe, Michael. Interview with Alice Chasan. Beliefnet. 11 Jan. 2007. http://www .beliefnet.com/story/181/story_18157_2.html.
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston and New York: Mariner Books, 2008.
Ford, Paul Leicester, ed. The Works of Thomas Jefferson. 12 vols. New York and London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-5.
Khan, M. A. Muqtedar. “American Muslims and the Rediscovery of America’s Sacred Ground.” Taking Religious Pluralism Seriously: Spiritual Politics on America’s Sacred Ground. Ed. Barbara A. McGraw and Joe Renee Formicola. Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2005. 127-147.
Prager, Dennis. “America, Not Keith Ellison, Decides What Book A Congressman Takes His Oath On.” http://www.townhall.com/columnists. 28 Nov. 2006. Accessed 4 Dec. 2006.
Ratliff, Evan. “The Crusade Against Evolution.” Wired 12.10 (2004). 1 Oct. 2004. Accessed 12 Aug. 2005. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/evolution_pr.html.
Savage, Michael. The Savage Nation. Talk Radio Network. 27 Nov. 2006. Accessed 15 Dec. 2006. http://mediamatters.org/items/200611290005.
Wallis, Claudia. “The Evolution Wars.” Time (2005). 7 Aug. 2005. Accessed 2 Sept. 2006. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1090909.html.
- Michael Savage, The Savage Nation, Talk Radio Network, 27 Nov. 2006, accessed 15 Dec. 2006, http://mediamatters.org/items/200611290005.
- Dennis Prager, “America, Not Keith Ellison, Decides What Network, 27 Nov. 2006, accessed 15 Dec. 2006, http://mediamatters.org/items/200611290005. Book A Congressman Takes His Oath On,” http://www.townhall.com/columnists, 28 Nov. 2006, accessed 4 Dec. 2006. In this quotation, Dennis Prager comments on Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison’s choice to use the Quran, rather than the Bible, during his ceremonial oath re-enactment. Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress.
- Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 1 (New York and London: G.P Putnam’s Sons, 1904-5), 71.
- M. A. Muqtedar Khan, “American Muslims and the Rediscovery of America’s Sacred Ground,” Taking Religious Pluralism Seriously: Spiritual Politics on America’s Sacred Ground, ed. Barbara A. McGraw and Jo Renee Formicola (Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2005), 127-147.
- Evan Ratliff, “The Crusade Against Evolution,” Wired, 1 Oct. 2004, accessed 12 Aug. 2005, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.10/evolution_pr.html.
- Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston and New York: Mariner Books, 2008), 271.
- Michael Behe, Interview with Alice Chasan, Beliefnet, 11 Jan. 2007 http://www .beliefnet.com/story/181/story_18157_2.html.
- Claudia Wallis, “The Evolution Wars,” Time, 7 Aug. 2005, accessed 2 Sept. 2006, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1090909-5,00.html.
- Wallis, “The Evolution Wars.”