Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

November 27, 2005

 “Intelligent Deception”

Rev. Catherine Torpey


When I look back on my days of teaching theology in a Catholic girls’ school, I am proudest of how I taught the class called “Morality.” For the last two years of teaching I began the first class of the year by writing on the chalkboard, “Opinions can be wrong.” My first activity of the year was to ask the girls to comment on what I’d written on the board. I’m sure it’s obvious what most of the girls thought of such a statement. They all were appalled by the statement. Indeed, I knew that the idea that an opinion can be wrong was in direct contradiction to everything that our culture had taught these girls. They would insist vehemently that opinions cannot be wrong. A few of the brave ones might say, “Well, maybe there are some times…” at which point they’d be shouted down for stating one of the heresies of American culture. An opinion, wrong? How dare one suggest it. My favorite part of the class, of course, was when I mischievously said, “Well it’s my opinion that opinions can be wrong.” And they would tell me that that opinion was wrong, and then—I’d watch the quizzical looks on their faces as they realized what they had just said. I had ’em! From this state of confusion, I quickly led them into a discussion of the difference between feelings and thoughts, and the difference between objective and subjective truth.

You know that song, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke”? Well, I’d like to teach the world that class. At least, I’d like to teach that morality class to America. You can cram a whole lot of information into a good human brain. If a good mind wants to learn to be an excellent physician, you can teach it. If a good mind wants to learn to be an excellent lawyer or airline pilot or astronaut, you can teach them those things. But you haven’t necessarily taught them to think. For all the busy-ness of our school students, for all the busy-work we give them, it is very, very difficult to teach people to think responsibly. My experience was that it took the entire year for the girls in my morality class to really get the difference between objective reality and subjective reality—and then it was not all of them who got it, and only a handful really got it so that maybe it stuck. Good use of reason is really difficult to teach, both because it is sophisticated and because we don’t give ourselves the time to teach it. My experience is that most adults do not really have a clear idea of what the difference is between objective reality and subjective reality. So, for the record:

objective reality = the “absolute truth” of what really exists whether we know it or not, whether we see it or not.
subjective reality = the limited reality that we experience and can know as individuals.

The metaphor that I found most helpful in teaching the girls objective from subjective reality was Forrest Church’s “cathedral of the world” metaphor.

Highly educated people of good will are capable of being quite clueless. A person can be incredibly sophisticated in many ways, extremely educated, personable and competent and yet still have trouble with some of these basic distinctions. And even those of us who feel we’ve achieved some level of competency in making distinctions between objective reality and subjective reality, even we can go far, far afield.

The so-called theory of Intelligent Design is an instance of educated adults going far afield from responsible thinking. My sermon today is called “Intelligent Deception:” that gives you a clue about my opinion about the so-called theory of Intelligent Design. “Intelligent Design,” in my opinion, should properly be called “Behe-ism” since it is largely the product of one man’s personal musings on the complexities of life at the molecular level. Like many scientists, this man, Michael Behe, looked at the incredible complexity of life and said to himself that it seemed impossible that random mutations and natural selection could possibly have brought about that complexity.

Michael Behe is a highly educated, articulate and by all accounts an amiable man. He has a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania and is a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He did post-graduate work for the National Institutes of Health. He is not a flake or a wacko. However, his idea of Intelligent Design is bad science. There is nothing wrong with the idea of Intelligent Design—what makes it bad science is that it claims to be science when in fact it is theology.

In 1996, Behe wrote a book called Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. In this book, as well as in shorter papers, he has stated that he at one time accepted the idea of natural selection in evolutionary theory, but began to question it when, over the past couple of decades, he and other scientists found that life at the biochemical level is far more complex than scientists had previously believed. Even something so simple as one flagellum on one bacterium is remarkably complex. Behe uses the flagella of bacteria as examples of something that he believes could not have developed randomly by natural selection. In Behe’s words, “[Flagella] are outboard motors that bacterial cells can use for self-propulsion. They have a long, whip-like propeller that is rotated by a molecular motor. The propeller is attached to the motor by a universal joint. The motor is held in place by proteins that act as a [stabilizer]. Other proteins … allow the driveshaft to penetrate the bacterial membrane. Dozens of different kinds of proteins are necessary for a working flagellum. In the absence of almost any of [those proteins], the flagellum does not work or cannot even be built by the cell.” Behe claims that natural selection could not make a flagellum, because half of a flagellum, or even three quarters of a flagellum would have no benefit at all to the organism. Therefore, why would some little bacterium that had a mutation of half a flagellum survive to produce offspring that happened to mutate into a bacterium with a full flagellum?
Behe is not disputing that evolution took place. He is questioning whether the very small biochemical components of life could have possibly evolved. Even at the very small level, there is enormous complexity. He contends that at that level, you get to an “irreducible complexity.” At the very beginning, down at the level of flagella, there had to be an intelligence that designed the little building blocks of life. They cannot be reduced any further.

What Behe is saying is not nutty. He’s basically telling us his idea of where God’s hand was in the mix. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself. This is his theological speculation. What the problem is, is that having a biochemist say, “I don’t know how natural selection could make a flagellum” hardly counts as scientific theory.

I read Charles Darwin’s book The Origin of Species last year. The last time I took any kind of class on evolutionary biology was back in high school. So the ideas were not new, of course, but I also don’t remember all the intricacies of evolutionary theory that I might have learned way back when. So I remember thinking when I read Darwin, “OK, but how does this account for an eyeball? If the eyeball evolved, then there must have been a time when my ancestors had a partial eyeball. How would a portion of an eyeball have first helped one of my ancient ancestors to beat out her rival? Who needs half an eyeball? It is one of the first and most obvious questions one would have about natural selection.

The answer given by the scientists who study the question is that half an eyeball or half a flagellum in and of itself is not a biological advantage. But the various components that make up the eyeball or the flagellum are useful in and of themselves. There are numerous mutations over many thousands and millions of years, and a small fraction of those mutations result in new forms consisting of old elements that happen to be advantageous to the organism. As for the question of how flagella specifically could have evolved—those propellers that Behe says could not have evolved—, it turns out that, according to Kenneth Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University, “a small group of proteins from the flagellum does work without the rest of the machine -- it's used by many bacteria as a device for injecting poisons into other cells. Although the function performed by this small part when working alone is different, it nonetheless can be favored by natural selection.” What’s more, Miller says that scientists who are actually studying how things like flagella might have evolved have enumerated some possible ways it might have happened.

Michael Behe is asking a legitimate question: how could a flagellum have evolved? But the answer he gives is not a scientific answer and so does not belong in science classrooms. He dismisses science’s ability to answer the question, and he inserts a supernatural explanation for how the flagellum became what it is. By stating that his theology is science, he is, in fact, undermining good science.

Good science is about being compelled to believe something by the evidence before you. The best science will challenge your previously held notions and against your self-interest and against what you want to believe. The mark of great discoveries is often that they are distressing to the one who has discovered them, because the evidence has forced the discoverer to abandon notions that they previously held dear. Charles Darwin, when he set out for the Galapagos Islands, was intending to be a clergyman. Indeed, one of Darwin’s father’s objections to letting Charles go was that it would not look proper for someone studying for divinity to be bouncing off to an island to pick up beetles. At Galapagos, Darwin was compelled by what he saw with his eyes to doubt his previously held notions of the origin of humanity. In later years, he suffered greatly from physical ailments that allowed him to work only four hours a day. Some speculate that his ailments were brought on in part by the discomfort he felt from the implications of his discoveries. That is what good science is. It is difficult. It is compelled by the facts.

Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education charges that proponents of the so-called theory of Intelligent Design simply pick out unsolved scientific questions like the flagella of bacteria and say that because they’re unsolved, God did it. It's hard to find a fossil record for micro-features like the flagellum, so it’s hard to say how it evolved. It’s significant, Eugenie Scott says, that Behe didn’t choose, for instance, to say that the bones of the middle ear are “irreducibly complex.” They are incredibly complex, and there is fossil record for the evolution of the inner ear bones from jaw bones. So the focus on flagella seems to be rather convenient. Scott remarks that “The goalposts [that Intelligent Design proponents aim for] will continue to move” as science finds explanations for one structure and then they will shift their focus on a different scientific unknown.

Eugenie Scott summarizes Michael Behe’s argument for Intelligent Design this way:
a. Irreducible complexity exists; (fallacy: true by definition)
b. Irreducible complexity cannot be explained through incremental natural selection; (fallacy: has not been demonstrated to be true) and
c. Therefore, irreducible complexity cannot have evolved (this would be a false conclusion even if a and b were true)
What Intelligent Design really says, according to Scott, is that “the unknown is unknowable by definition.”

As you know, the state of Kansas and the state of Pennsylvania both had school boards that voted to incorporate the anti-science ideology of Intelligent Design into science curricula in public schools. In Dover, PA, parents are suing the school board to have these changes reversed, and Pennsylvanians had the good sense to vote out all of the offending board members in their school board elections a couple of weeks ago. The state of Kansas’ new guidelines have changed the definition of science itself. The definition of science in Kansas used to be: “the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us." The new definition, distorted by the proponents of Intelligent Design, describes science as "a systematic method of continuing investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena." On its face, there isn’t anything wrong with this new definition, cumbersome as it is. But, the crucial change is in the deletion of the phrase "natural explanations," and as one professor of physics at the University of Kansas argued, "The only reason to take out 'natural explanations' is if you want to open the door to supernatural explanations." The idea of evolution can be scary for those who believe in an orthodox idea of God. I don’t want any of us here to be callous or scornful of how terrifying—deeply terrifying—it is for some people. When I was in high school, in that evolutionary biology class, I was just beginning my fundamentalist Christian phase. I remember the biology teacher, a wonderful woman, telling us that evolution does not contradict religion, and that we shouldn’t see it as a threat to our religious beliefs. But, for me, she was wrong. It absolutely did contradict what I was being taught in my Bible Study about God. It wasn’t simply that it contradicted the Genesis account. What was powerful and persuasive to me—what had attracted me to the fundamentalist message—was that God had created me exactly the way I was for a specific purpose, and that God had a plan for my life, and that, as the psalmist says, God had knit me together in my mother’s womb. That theology haad made my life worth living. In effect, to tell me that I was the product of random mutations was to tell me that no one had knit me together in my mother’s womb, no one had a plan for me, no one wanted me the way I was. This was a profound assault on beliefs that were not just important to me—they were everything to me.

I still believe, as do many good scientists, that there is an intelligence that directs this process. And I want scientists who are theistically inclined (as I am) to explore where and whether theistic ideas can fit in with good science. That is why I read the Oliver Sacks earlier. To me, Oliver Sacks is the greatest modern theologian we have. No one else calls what he does theology, and I suspect that he would object to having me do so. But he does science and I claim it as theology. The proponents of Intelligent Design do theology and try to get school boards to claim it as science.Intelligent Design is intelligent deception. It is not science. It is little more than one biochemist’s musings about where God’s finger might have hit the evolutionary switch. And his ideas do not stand up to scientific scrutiny. That doesn’t mean his ideas are nutty or not worth exploring. But it does mean that any effort to promote his ideas as science works against efforts to promote sound thinking.

As Unitarian Universalists, we embrace reason. We embrace good science. Ours is a religion where, just like in good scientific method, we must believe what we are compelled to believe by the evidence. This is what it means to use our reason. We observe and test and discuss and observe and test and discuss. To use our reason is to weigh and consider and have the humility to allow the evidence to shape our thinking, and not force our thinking to shape the evidence.

Our Unitarian Universalist tradition is not threatened by good science—it is strengthened by it. While we are free to theologize and speculate about the mysterious in life, our tradition calls us to do so while accounting for what good scientific thinking tells us must be true. We are not only not in opposition to good science, we depend upon it as a source of information for our theological understanding—as scary as that can be. And it can be scary.
We are here to offer one another encouragement in our efforts to be both rigorously academic and also deeply human—to look for scientific explanations of phenomena and to look for order and meaning in our individual lives. Our liberal religious way offers the ideal place to find a balance between the mystical impulse and the scientific one—to the end that we may be fully human, using our minds and our hearts to know the world and to help one another.

BIBLIOGRAPHY for Intelligent Design
“Intelligent Design? “ Natural History April 2002. [If you can read only one article on Intelligent Design, this is the one to read. It is available online on the Natural History magazine website.]
“Darwin Under the Microscope” by Michael J. Behe The New York Times, October 29, 1996.
“Intelligent Design or Evolution?” sermon by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore, delivered at First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany on November 13, 2005.
“College course seeks to debunk intelligent design: Proposed religion class labels creationism as 'mythology'” posted on on Tuesday, November 22, 2005 (Associated Press).
National Center for Science Education website:
Intelligent Design Network website:
“Backward Christian Soldiers!” by Kurt Andersen New York Magazine October 17, 2005.
“Charles Darwin: Evolution of a Scientist” By Jerry Adler Newsweek November 28, 2005.
“What's ‘Intelligent’ About Intelligent Design?” Eugenie C. Scott, Ph. D., National Center for Science Education, Inc. (Workshop #2011 at 2005 UUA General Assembly—notes found on the UUA website at
C-Span program: Matthew Chapman, author of "Trials of the Monkey," discusses intelligent design. 11/21/2005: WASHINGTON, DC: 30 min.
C-Span program: Michael Behe, Biochemistry Professor at Lehigh University, discusses intelligent design. 11/21/2005: WASHINGTON, DC: 30 min.
“Dover school board election becomes a fight over evolution” by Martha Raffaele, November 8, 2005 (Associated Press) downloaded from,0,1976629.story?coll=all-specialtab-hed

1Found in the Beacon Press book A Chosen Faith by Forrester Church and John Buehrens.
2“Intelligent Design? “ Natural History April 2002.
4The foregoing couple of paragraphs (beginning with “Eugenie Scott of the…”) is paraphrased from “What's ‘Intelligent’ About Intelligent Design?” Eugenie C. Scott (Workshop #2011 at 2005 UUA General Assembly—notes found on the UUA website at
5From the National Center for Science Education website: quoting from an article in the New York Times by reporter Dennis Overbye (November 15, 2005).