Monthly Archives: November 2005

More from the "anti-anti-torture" camp

I fully agree with John Cole: this is an outrage. Some in the “anti-anti-torture” contingent are using the fact that John McCain broke under torture when held captive by the North Vietnamese to rebut McCain’s own anti-torture argument — ostensibly as a demonstration that “torture works,” but also, I suspect, to subtly impugn the Senator’s character. Either way, it’s repulsive, and as Cole rightly points out, it’s also nonsensical: what McCain gave his captors was some totally useless information (e.g. the name of the ship he had served on) and a signed “confession” to war crimes.

As Cole says, more colorfully than I would:

People like the author of this piece, Carl Limbacher, should be put in a small room and beaten with a cane and waterboarded until they confess to being unmitigated assholes. This isn’t a defense of torture for use in extreme cases (the ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario)- this is a call for legalized sadism and brutality.

Or, as Andrew Sullivan says:

Just when you think the pro-torture right cannot sink any lower, they do.

Indeed. The torture debate is having a seriously degrading effect on the moral caliber of discourse among War on Terror supporters (of whom I count myself as one). It’s not doing much for the intellectual caliber of discourse, either. Even the eminent Thomas Sowell lapses into cliché, asking:

If a captured terrorist knows where a nuclear bomb has been planted in some American city, and when it is timed to go off, are millions of Americans to be allowed to be incinerated because we have become too squeamish to get that information out of him by whatever means are necessary? What a price to pay for moral exhibitionism or political grandstanding!

Sorry, but I think that trotting out the extremely improbable “ticking time bomb” scenario comes awfully close to “grandstanding,” too.

Charles Krauthammer, meanwhile, has a more thoughtful and nuanced article on the topic in The Weekly Standard. He agrees that “torture is a terrible and monstrous thing, as degrading and morally corrupting to those who practice it as any conceivable human activity,” but he also argues that some forms of this monstrous activity must remain permissible in extreme circumstances, and that our leaders must take this burden on their conscience in order to save lives. He outlines two exceptions: the “ticking time bomb” scenario, and the high-value, high-level terrorist who possesses a treasure trove of information about the terror network and the plots it’s gestating.

Unlike others in the anti-anti-torture camp, Krauthammer gives a specific example of a case in which torture “worked” and could have saved a life:

In 1994, 19-year-old Israeli corporal Nachshon Waxman was kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists. The Israelis captured the driver of the car used in the kidnapping and tortured him in order to find where Waxman was being held. Yitzhak Rabin, prime minister and peacemaker, admitted that they tortured him in a way that went even beyond the ’87 guidelines for “coercive interrogation” later struck down by the Israeli Supreme Court as too harsh. The driver talked. His information was accurate. The Israelis found Waxman. “If we’d been so careful to follow the [’87] Landau Commission [which allowed coercive interrogation],” explained Rabin, “we would never have found out where Waxman was being held.”

This is the kind of scenario that must be contended with when we argue about the absolute impermissibility of torture. (Though the eventual outcome — Waxman was killed by his Hamas captors during the rescue attempt, as was an Israeli officer — does, I think, raise more questions than Krauthammer allows. Could a subtler, less aggressive approach, such as using informants and surveillance, have resulted in a more effective rescue?) What would we want done in such a situation?

But Krauthammer’s argument, I think, has several weaknesses.

(1) In my opinion, he greatly overestimates the plausibility of the “ticking time bomb” scenario:

Sure, the (nuclear) scale is hypothetical, but in the age of the car- and suicide- bomber, terrorists are often captured who have just set a car bomb to go off or sent a suicide bomber out to a coffee shop, and you only have minutes to find out where the attack is to take place. This “hypothetical” is common enough that the Israelis have a term for precisely that situation: the ticking timebomb problem.

But Krauthammer gives no examples in which the Iraelis were able to defuse the “ticking time bomb” by using torture or “phsyical coercion.” It seems to me that if the attack is to take place withint minutes, coercive or painful methods will be particularly useless: the captured terrorist will tell the interrogators a fake story (possibly pre-planned in the event of capture), and by the time they realize they’ve been duped the bomb will have gone off.

(2) Accepting what Krauthammer calls “torture-lite” (presumably exposure to heat and cold, perhaps even waterboarding) in order to garner life-saving information raises a disturbing question: what if the “lite” version isn’t enough to break the detainee, and he still possesses highly valuable information? What then? Do we start pulling fingernails and administering electric shocks to genitals? Where on the slippery slope do we stop?

(3) Krauthammer criticizes McCain for citing Israel as an example of how one can fight terror without resorting to any degree of torture (physical coercion in interrogations was formally banned by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1999). In fact, he argues, since the start of the second Palestinian uprising in Israel, coercive tactics toward detaines have been commonly used under the radar, with widespread acceptance from the public. In this, Krauthammer relies on a June 2004 Washington Post article by Glenn Frankel. But the article demonstrates two things:

(a) While interrogations have become harsher since the start of the uprising, there has been no return to pre-1999 techniques that included physical abuse and borderline torture; today, Israeli interrogators rely primarily on psychological pressure and manipulation (including sleep deprivation).

(b) Allegations of physical abuse toward detainees in Israel in recent years — at least the ones mentioned in the article — involve abuse by soldiers, not interrogators (which, elsewhere in the article, Krauthammer himself says should never be permitted). The allegations, if true, are highly troubling, and suggest that acceptance of abuse “for a good cause” is likely to create a climate that fosters abuse with no tactical or information-gathering purposes.

4. Krauthammer opens his article by saying:

During the last few weeks in Washington the pieties about torture have lain so thick in the air that it has been impossible to have a reasoned discussion. The McCain amendment that would ban “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment of any prisoner by any agent of the United States sailed through the Senate by a vote of 90-9. The Washington establishment remains stunned that nine such retrograde, morally inert persons–let alone senators–could be found in this noble capital.

Now, John McCain has great moral authority on this issue… His position deserves respect. But that does not mean, as seems to be the assumption in Washington today, that a critical analysis of his “no torture, ever” policy is beyond the pale.

Toward the end of the article, however, Krauthammer turns around and discovers a great irony: McCain’s position is not really “no torture, ever.”

According to Newsweek, in the ticking time bomb case McCain says that the president should disobey the very law that McCain seeks to pass–under the justification that “you do what you have to do. But you take responsibility for it.” But if torturing the ticking time bomb suspect is “what you have to do,” then why has McCain been going around arguing that such things must never be done?

As for exception number two, the high-level terrorist with slow-fuse information, Stuart Taylor, the superb legal correspondent for National Journal, argues that with appropriate legal interpretation, the “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” standard, “though vague, is said by experts to codify . . . the commonsense principle that the toughness of interrogation techniques should be calibrated to the importance and urgency of the information likely to be obtained.” … Or as Evan Thomas and Michael Hirsh put it in the Newsweek report on McCain and torture, the McCain standard would “presumably allow for a sliding scale” of torture or torture-lite or other coercive techniques, thus permitting “for a very small percentage–those High Value Targets like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed–some pretty rough treatment.”

But if that is the case, then McCain embraces the same exceptions I do, but prefers to pretend he does not. If that is the case, then his much-touted and endlessly repeated absolutism on inhumane treatment is merely for show. If that is the case, then the moral preening and the phony arguments can stop now, and we can all agree that in this real world of astonishingly murderous enemies, in two very circumscribed circumstances, we must all be prepared to torture.

All right, so maybe McCain makes his position sound more absolutist than it really is. Maybe a “no torture, ever” stance makes for a better sales pitch, and for nobler rhetoric, than “no torture, ever, except for some very rough treatment in some very extreme circumstances.” I can see why a real anti-torture purist would have a problem with that, but why does Charles Krauthammer? His article is titled, “The Truth About Torture: It’s time to be honest about doing terrible things.” But what — again, from Krauthammer’s point of view — do we have to gain from being honest? (And could this insistence on absolute honesty be a form of “moral preening,” too?)

I am more strongly opposed to torture than Krauthammer; but I am also enough of a realist to recognize that a firm “no torture” stand is likely to be qualified with some tacit acknowledgment that, under some strictly defined circumstances, some unpleasant things will happen under the radar. I find that vastly preferable to starting with the admission that “we must all be prepared to torture.” If we start with a “thou shalt not torture” moral absolute, we are likely to be extremely vigilant about lapses from this commandment, limiting them only to absolute necessity. If we start with the idea that torture is sometimes acceptable, that slippery slope is going to take us pretty low.

And finally, two more questions.

1. Does Krauthammer support or oppose the McCain legislation?

2. If, as Krauthammer apparently concludes, the McCain legislation would generally outlaw detainee abuse without completely tying our hands with regard to “coercive interrogation” in extreme circumstances, then what excuse did nine senators have to vote against it? And why shouldn’t we regard the Pro-Torture Nine as “morally inert” — or, to use John Cole’s phrase once again, as “moral cretins”?

More: Ramesh Ponnuru makes another excellent point at The Corner. If we adopt the position that torturing a terrorist in the hope of saving a city from nuclear destruction is okay, what’s to stop us from using the same moral calculus to justify torturing an innocent person? Responding to the argument that the torture of an innocent could never conceivably be required, Ponnuru points out: “But it is not at all hard to imagine guilty parties who would not break under torture but would break under the threat of someone else’s torture. This kind of scenario is not exactly unknown to the history of torture.” Are we prepared to achieve our objectives by using “coercive” techniques on a terrorist’s child?


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Retribution and "just deserts"

In a comment on my post about retribution and morality (in response to his own earlier post), Mark Kleiman draws a distinction between “retribution” and “just deserts”:

“Just deserts” is offender-focused: What ought this person to suffer? The extreme version of this is Kant’s, who says that the offender is owed punishment and that it would be unjust to the offender to forgo it. …

Retribution, by contrast, is victim-focused. Retributive punishment is a public demonstration that what was done to the victim was wrong, and that the victim was worth avenging. …

One function of public justice is to displace private vengeance, which is by its nature capricious, likely to misfire, and capable of producing a Hatfield-and-McCoy spiral. But if public justice is to displace private vengeance, then public justice must be done. If Pinochet’s victims and their families are to be asked to refrain from hiring private thugs to smash his kneecaps, then the public owes it to them to handle Pinochet in court, no matter how old and harmless he now is.

While I am highly sympathetic to the moral claims of victims of violence, I think there are several problems with overly victim-focused justice (and it’s a problem that manifests itself in such popular practices as victim impact statements at sentencing, or prosecutorial speeches describing the victim’s wonderful qualities).

1. Focusing on the “worth” of the victim may lead to grading crimes on the victim’s social standing, popularity, etc. Should the murder of a beloved husband and father, and a valued member of his community, be punished more severely than the murder of a friendless middle-aged bachelor? Unfortunately, a lot of studies show that the “merit” of the victim has an impact on the sentence given to a hypothetical offender, but I think that the criminal’s intent still plays a key part in determining appropriate punishment. Let’s take two hypothetical situations:

(a) A serial child molester is released after serving a ridiculously short sentence. A few days later, he is accosted and shot dead by the distraught parent of one of his victims.

(b) A serial child molester is released after serving a ridiculously short sentence. A few days later, he is accosted and shot dead by a mugger.

Without condoning vigilantism, I think most of us would give the distraught parent a lower sentence than we would the mugger, even though the victim — and the end result — is the same.

2. Victim-focused justice, strictly applied, would make no allowances for intent. If someone forgets about a lit stove and starts a kitchen fire that kills six people, the victims are just as dead as they would be if the fire had been started by an arsonist (and the victims’ relatives may be just as angry). But surely no one would advocate the same punishment for the negligent cook and the arsonist. Furthermore, in some cases we decide that the offender should be given a very mild punishment or none at all because his/her mental capacity makes him/her unable to fully understand the nature of the act.

3. Victim-focused justice would make the degree of punishment contingent on how forgiving the victim is (or how forgiving his or her relatives are). If a victim chooses to forgive her rapist — because of, say, religious beliefs, or the ideoogical conviction that criminals are really oppressed victims of society — it should have no impact on the rapist’s punishment.

The shift from private vengeance to public retribution means more than simply delegating vengeance to the state because it’s more practical. It also means a shift to the concept that the crime is an offense not just against the victim, but against society, or against the moral order. Walter Berns and other advocates of retributive justice argue that a crime disrupts the moral balance of the universe, which is then restored by punishment. This may seem like an overly abstract and metaphysical concept, but I think that such a notion of crime and punishment as moral calculus underlies a lot of our thinking on the subject.

Finally, Kant’s notion that it would be unfair to the offender not to punish him may seem quaint, but I will point out that in some cases, criminals who were not apprehended have turned themselves in because they were tormented by remorse and felt that being punished would salve their conscience.


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God(dess) forbid, we should consider ourselves more enlightened when it comes to women’s rights…

Sunday’s New York Times ran a wrenching front-page story on child brides in Africa — girls as young as ten given, or rather sold, in marriage to men who are decades older (often as second wives). The main focus of the article is a story with a sort-of happy ending: 12-year-old Mwaka Simbeye, whom her father married off to a neighbor in his 70s to settle a debt of $16, eventually escaped and was taken back into her parents’ home (partly because her father had heard that he might get arrested under a new policy cracking down on forced marriages of young girls). Others are not so lucky:

Uness Nyambi, of the village of Wiliro, said she was betrothed as a child so her parents could finance her brother’s choice of a bride. Now about 17, she has two children, the oldest nearly 5, and a husband who guesses he is 70. “Just because of these two children, I can not leave him,” she said.

Beatrice Kitamula, 19, was forced to marry her wealthy neighbor, now 63, five years ago because her father owed another man a cow. “I was the sacrifice,” Ms. Kitamula said, holding back tears. She likened her husband’s comfortable compound of red brick houses in Ngana village to a penitentiary. “When you are in prison,” she said, “you have no rights.”

The article notes that in Ethiopia, about a third of the girls are married by age 15. It concludes with another look at Mwaka and her family:

Mwaka’s mother, Tighezge Simkonda, looks like an older version of her daughter and is no less shy. “I did object,” she said softly, glancing nervously at her husband chatting nearby. “I said, ‘My daughter is very young.’ “

“But the control is with the man,” she said. “The daughters belong to the man.”

But, of course, it would be most deplorable if any American women were to read that and conclude that they’re liberated while the women in those Third World countries are oppressed. After all, it would be “culturally insensitive” to suggest that the West is more enlightened when it comes to women’s rights, and besides, it’s important to understand that American women are really silenced in similar ways. Or so as a lot of women’s studies professors would tell us.

There’s also Dr. Edwin Nichols, a psychologist who has conducted “diversity” and “cultural awareness” workshops for numerous colleges, government agencies, and corporations, and who teaches in those workshops (among other things) that women in Africa are treated as equal to men.

Personally, I think the case for cultural imperialism has never been so clear.


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Hurricane Katrina and the media (old and new)

At Reason, Matt Welch spanks the media for spreading hysterical rumors about the chaos in New Orleans after the city was struck by Hurricane Katrina. Armed thugs shooting at rescue helicopters, rampant gang violence, murder and rape inside the Superdome and the Convention Center where people took refuge from the flood — respected news organization took these stories and ran with them. (All these stories turned out to be untrue; it should be added that Matt questioned them from the start.) As a result, the rescue effort was hampered, and the residents of New Orleans were unfairly maligned; one might add, too, that the reckless news coverage became fodder for America-bashing around the world. This was a Media Hall of Shame moment, no doubt about it.

However, those who like to pit “citizen journalists” against the “MSM” shouldn’t get too smug. The blogs did their share of reckless rumor-mongering. The worst instance, perhaps, was this account by Lisa C. Moore of her aunt Denise Moore’s alleged experiences at the Convention Center, posted at Daily Kos on September 6 under the headline “What Really Happened in New Orleans” (and widely picked up by other blogs). ch2, who posted it at Daily Kos, gravely noted, “The accounts rang true to me, and I’m a professional skeptic (a scientist).” Well, I don’t know what kind of science “ch2” does, but my B.S. detector went off the moment I read the Lisa’s claim that “the first day (Wednesday) 4 people died next to her [“her” being the aunt]. the second day (Thursday) 6 people died next to her.” If every person inside the Convention Center saw ten people die next to them in two days, the place would have emptied out pretty soon. (Of course, we now know that there were a total of 10 deaths inside both buildings.) The claim that “yes, a few men shot at the police, because at a certain point all the people thought the cops were coming to hurt them, to kill them all” reeked of B.S. as well, though probably not to the Daily Kos crowd.

(Interestingly, the only place where I saw the “Denise Moore” story questioned skeptically was in this thread at Reason’s Hit & Run blog, where it was posted by a reader.)

So, what’s the verdict? None of the media, old or new, covered themselves in glory during the Katrina disaster. Except my colleagues at Reason, of course.

Update: My own Reason column on the Katrina response can now be found here.


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Same-sex marriage in the Netherlands: parsing the stats

On Friday, Andrew Sullivan posted this brief item on his blog:

There’s a big jump in the number of same-sex married couples in Holland, as the reform begins to change gay culture and social expectations.

Here’s what the linked article, at the Dutch English-language website Expatica, actually says:

The number of gay couples in the Netherlands has risen sharply in recent years.

There were 53,000 gay and lesbian couples living together in the Netherlands at the beginning of 2005, according to Statistics Netherlands (CBS). Ten years ago there were less than 39,000 gay or lesbian cohabiting couples.

Almost a quarter of the gay or lesbian couples are married or in a registered partnership. Of these, 12 percent are married and 10 percent are in a registered partnership.

The CBS said there are 29,000 all-male couples and 24,000 lesbian couples. Despite the significant increase in the number of gay and lesbian couples, the group is equal to just over 1 percent of the total number of cohabiting couples in the Netherlands.

Clearly the article talks about all same-sex couples living toether, not just married ones.

It’s hard to tell what the rise in same-sex couples in the Dutch census really represents. It could be, in part, due to the fact that more same-sex couples are identifying themselves as such to the census-takers. A change in gay culture — a shift toward “settling down” — has undoubtedly taken place as well, just as it has in the United States. But it’s hard to make the case that legalized same-sex marriage has a lot to do with this, considering that only 12% of same-sex couples living together in the Netherlands are married.

As this CBS statistical table shows, same-sex marriages peaked in 2001 when they were first legalized; that year, there were 1,339 male-male marriage and 1,035 female-female ones. (Male-female marriages that year numbered 79,677.) The figures have dropped in every subsequent year, to 579 male-male marriages and 631 female-female marriages in 2004. In the same year, there were 261 civil partnerships registered between two men, and 322 between two women; these figures have held relatively steady over the past four years. (Registered partnerhips first became available in 1998.)

In 1996, Jonathan Rauch wrote that if same-sex marriage is to succeed, it must become the general norm in the gay community, not just another lifestyle option. At least so far, that does not seem to be happening in Holland.

Also in the past 10 years, the overall marriage rate has dropped, from 5.4 per 1,000 inhabitants in 1994 to 4.5 per 1,000 in 2004. More heterosexual men and women are entering into civil partnerships — which are much more easily dissolved — instead of marriage; in 2004, about 7% of new male-female legal unions were civil partnerships. This does not prove, as Stanley Kurtz has argued, that same-sex marriage undermines heterosexual marriage; the drop in marriage rates is undoubtedly due to many complex factors. However, one can plausibly argue that the changing attitudes toward marriage that make same-sex marriage possible may also be related to overall lower marriage rates. (Whether that’s a bad thing is another matter.) And the Dutch experience does seem to refute Rauch’s argument that legalizing same-sex marriage will improve the status of marriage in the larger society.

Why am I pointing this out? Because, while I fully support legal rights for same-sex partners, I think both sides in the marriage debate have been prone to unwarranted and exaggerated claims about the social impact of same-sex marriage. The legalization of same-sex marriage has not, as some have claimed, led to polygamy in the Netherlands. But at least so far, it has not created a “marriage culture” among gays and has not boosted marriage among heterosexuals. As we continue our own discussion of same-sex marriage, we need to have all the facts on the table.

(By the way, my best wishes to Andrew in his recovery from the flu.)


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Retribution, morality, and the soul

One of my favorite left-of-center bloggers, Mark Kleiman, has an excellent post on one of my favorite topics: the value of retribution as an aspect of punishment, and the fact that “retribution not be dismissed as somehow “primitive” and unworthy of serious consideration.” The occasion is the arrest of 90-year-old former dictator Augusto Pinochet on tax fraud charges. Writes Kleiman:

Note, however, that if putting Pinochet away is justified, it must be on some basis other than deterrence or incapacitation. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the place of retribution as a legitimate goal of criminal justice policy. Making what remains of Pinochet’s life as miserable as possible is something owed to his victims. It proclaims that what he did was wrong, that the victims did not deserve their victimization, and that they were important enough to be worth revenging.

Why should it be so hard to see that, and to apply it to more ordinary cases?

(Kleiman then corrects himself to note that he mant “miserable to the appropriate extent.”)

Kleiman’s co-blogger Steven Teles agrees.

One common argument against the death penalty is that it represents “state-sanctioned retribution.” I think there are other good arguments against the death penalty — most important, the danger of executing an innocent man. But retribution is present in other forms of punishment as well. As I wrote in a column earlier this year:

Former Nazi concentration camp guards and other war criminals leading ordinary lives in our midst arguably pose no threat; yet we still want them brought to justice. Conservative defenders of the death penalty, such as political scholar Walter Berns, have a point when they argue that one goal of punishment is to restore the moral balance violated by the crime.

One liberal dissenter from the standard antiretribution rhetoric is writer Susan Jacoby, whose thought-provoking 1983 book, “Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge,” remains relevant today. Jacoby argues that while the death penalty is beneath a civilized society, retribution the desire to make offenders “pay” for their crimes, to express our moral outrage at their acts is an important purpose of the justice system. The death penalty is not the only way, and perhaps not even the best way, to achieve this goal.

Jacoby treats revenge and retribution as synonymous, but there is a subtle difference. Vengeance is primarily concerned with the avenger’s grievance: It may target a wrongdoer’s loved ones, or a person who has caused an accidental death but is faultless or at worst negligent.

Retribution, on the other hand, addresses moral culpability (one reason the execution of people with diminished mental capacity is generally seen as especially barbaric).

See also this 2001 Reason column on issues of revenge, retribution, and morality.

Of course, one issue that often comes up in discussions of retribution is to what extent the person is responsible for his or her actions, particularly in light of discoveries in neuroscience. In June, the American Enterprise Institute had a fascinating conference on this topic, which I wrote up in another Reason column. One of the speakers, Princeton philosopher and neuroscientist Joshua Greene, proposed focusing on deterrence only and giving up on the idea that punishment is not only effective but morally just:

“What we’re saying,” he said, “is no one’s really guilty in their souls because, secret: No one has a soul.”

Greene also wryly noted that Americans aren’t ready for this idea yet. No kidding. In fact, both Greene and keynote speaker Stephen Pinker acknowledged that the idea of punishment as “just deserts” and a restoration of moral balance may be inherent in human nature — which means that a legal system that does not satisfy this need may never command enough respect to be effective. Greene noted that in a host of studies, people evaluating hypothetical crimes assess punishment based on their notions of just deserts, not deterrence.

Greene was strongly challenged by Stephen Morse, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Even while declaring himself a thoroughgoing materialist, Morse insisted that “responsibility is about persons, not brains” (precisely the kind of distinction Greene had earlier mocked as dualistic) and defended the old-fashioned approach to justice. “We give people what they deserve,” he said, “not because it produces good consequences, but because it’s right.” … That there is no immaterial soul, he argued, doesn’t mean that “we are not the kind of creatures we think we are—conscious, rational, intentional beings”; science or no science, the physicalist model must be resisted for the sake of human dignity and “the good life we can live together.”

I’m with Morse (and with Kleiman). Far from being primitive, barbaric, or degrading, the belief in retribution is, in fact, inextricably linked to our belief in human dignity and agency.


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Darwin and religion

Ever since I wrote in my Boston Globe column, “Fact and Fiction on Evolution,” that (contrary to assertions that Darwinism is a vehicle for atheism and materialism) Charles Darwin himself was a Christian, a number of people have written to me to point out that while Darwin started out as a Christian and even trained to be a clergyman, his faith eventually waned and he was an agnostic by the end of his life. One correspondent wrote to me:

On Darwin being a Christian, see the PBS site where James Moore (Darwin’s biographer) talks about the slow death of Darwin’s faith. Darwin clearly had “issues” with the Christian God and worked them out via his theory.

What the page says is that in his later years, Darwin struggled with issues of religious faith. To some extent, this had to with the fact that his theory of natural selection refuted the view, popular among the Christian naturalists of his time, that the complex and sophisticated structure of creation showed that “divine design” had to be at work. But in fact, when Darwin set out on his famous voyage aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, he was himself a believer in “divine design”; he had even studied with one of that theory’s leading proponents, the Rev. Adam Sedgwick (a geologist), in preparation for his trip. His observations on the trip caused him to question and ultimately reject “divine design,” but he remained a strong proponent of Orthodox Christian morality. The real crisis of faith that turned Darwin away from Christianity was caused by the death of his 10-year-old daughter Annie in 1851. (This article in Newsweek also offers some interesting information on Darwin’s scientific and religious beliefs.)

My statement that “Darwin was a Christian” oversimplified the complex reality of Darwin’s views, and should have been more nuanced. However, the notion that Darwin developed his ‘theory of natural selection as a way to “work out his issues with God” is preposterous, if only because he developed his theory more than a decade before he developed his “issues.” It also says a great deal about the mindset of ID proponents, who treats scientific inquiry as essentially driven by ideology.

Incidentally, that is what makes ID a fundamentally non-scientific enterprise: not that it is driven by religion, but that it is driven by ideology. That is, its proponents question evolutionary theory not because they are dissatisfied with the scientific/factual evidence for it, but because they don’t like its conclusions. To be sure, they look for and claim to find scientific and factual holes in the theory, but the main (or only) reason they start looking is that they don’t want it to be true. It makes no difference whether a critique of Darwinian theory is motivated by defense of religion or, say, by concern that biological Darwinism easily lends itself to apologetics for social inequality. In both cases, the motivation is ideological, not scientific.

Are there people who champion Darwinian evolution because they dislike Christianity and religion in general? Yes, I’m sure there are. But there is simply no evidence that most scientists or most supproters of science are so motivated, and there are plenty who consider themselves religious.

More: See also this post for a funny, yet insightful, 1872 poem (originally in Russian, translated into English by yours truly) on the conflict — or lack thereof — between Darwinian theory and religion.


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