The sides in this controversy are talking past each other. The problem is not with who's right, it's with how language - that most basic, complex, artful and enigmatic tool - is leading the debate into a quagmire.
Good and useful words are getting trashed. Words such as "theory," used alternately to mean an extremely tenuous and suspect idea or a tried and true explanation of how things work. Or words such as "belief," either a firmly held religious conviction or a conclusion based on evidence. When each side uses these words they fail to acknowledge how the other side uses them.
Equally endangered is the term "science," somehow now pitted against religious conviction as a fundamental "belief" alternately and validly held by proponents of either side.
But the dichotomy between science and religion is false. Science is not the opposite of Christianity and visa versa.
Good and faithful Christians walk up to the wall, flip the switch and expect the lights to come on. That doesn't happen because they believe in God, that happens because science has come to understand electricity and harness it for our use. The lights come on for Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, pagans and even atheists.
Conversely, many good scientists show up in Christian churches every Sunday to gain spiritual renewal without ever thinking that their faith in God is somehow wrong.
These ideas are not mutually exclusive.
Think of it this way. If your car breaks down, you don't take it to a minister, you take it to a mechanic. That's how it is with questions of how things work, which is to say, science.
On the other hand, if you had a moral question to answer, or were deep in a spiritual crisis, you probably would not go to a mechanic. You might go to a minister because these are questions addressed by religion.
Now maybe your mechanic is a pretty spiritual person, and you value his advice on moral questions. But if he told you that knock in the engine is the will of God and he had no further explanation for it, you'd start looking for a new mechanic.
And if your minister explained that it was bad gas or a broken gasket you might believe him, but not because of his piety. You'd believe him because his explanation made sense. That's one use of the word "theory." Your minister has a theory about what causes your knock. If you tried a different brand of gas, you'd be testing that theory. And if the knock stopped, you'd be led to conclude that his "theory" was right. You could further test that theory by taking apart the head gasket or any number of other approaches. The more you test it, the more you would "believe" it to be true. That's science, not religion, even though your minister is practicing it.
That's how it is with the study of how organisms change over time in response to their environment. That's the science of evolution. And it's not a "theory" in the sense of a tenuous and suspect idea. In fact, there's a lot of science behind evolution. When National Geographic magazine asked several months ago in a lurid cover headline, "Was Darwin wrong?" it answered resoundingly "NO!" The evidence is overwhelming. Organisms do change over time in response to their environment.
What science is saying is not that God doesn't exist but that questions of God's existence should be religious questions, not scientific ones.
But I would say that in this "debate," the challenge for scientists is to not respond to intelligent design by questioning the logic of the teleological argument for the existence of God, but to answer ID's proponents in terms of natural science. What natural explanations answer the questions that lead some to conclude intelligent design?
The challenge for Christians is to acknowledge the natural science all around us and to embrace it. Science is not your enemy. Listen to what the other side is really saying.
Compounding these challenges is the status of some of their spokesmen. One who questions intelligent design is Hector Avalos, a professor of religion who is the adviser for the Iowa State University Atheist and Agnostic Society. I think that for some Christians, it really doesn't matter what Avalos says; the fact that he's speaking is a threat.
On the other side, Guillermo Gonzales, an advocate for intelligent design, is a senior fellow for the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Wash., a major national force for this "theory" of origins. And so for mainstream scientists, political suspicions arise.
My own risk in writing is not so much the obvious double-speak about the worth of words. But the risk is in somehow discouraging "debate." Nothing could be further from my intention. Keep writing. Such an engaging exchange is not enjoyed everywhere. I'm a lucky editor.
I would say, though, that the many letters to the editor on this issue are really more like testimonials, a defense of their writers' beliefs. But they present themselves as debate. And so the false opposites persist.
"Balance" in journalism and in public discourse leads us to believe that each side is equal and opposite. But they are not even of the same kind. The question of God's existence is a good question to ask. But it might not be a question that science can answer. That assertion, if you listen, is held by some on both sides of the fence. If we could start hearing that message, we could talk with each other, rather than against.