HAVE YOU heard about Flying Spaghetti Monsterism? FSM is a four-month-old ''religion" founded on the belief that the universe was created by an invisible flying clump of spaghetti and meatballs. This blob of pasta, FSM's ''followers" say, uses its ''noodly appendage" to play an ongoing role in human affairs. For example, it tampers with carbon-dating tests to make the planet seem older than it is, so that any evidence of evolution is actually the work of the spaghetti monster.
FSM was concocted in June by Bobby Henderson, a recent college graduate with a degree in physics. When the Kansas Board of Education took up the question of teaching intelligent design as an alternative to Darwinian evolution, Henderson wrote an open letter (posted at www.venganza.org) demanding equal classroom time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism as well.
As religious spoofs go, it wasn't exactly Monty Python's ''Life of Brian," but it was good for a chuckle or two. No doubt that was all the reaction that Henderson was expecting. If so, he underestimated the eagerness of many Darwinists to paint supporters of intelligent design as either moronic Bible Belters or conniving religious fanatics. Henderson's ''religion" became a cult hit, promoted on other websites and covered with relish in the press. The
At least Henderson couched his disdain for intelligent design in humor. Other Darwinists, many steeped in ideological antipathy to religion, resort to insult and invective.
''It is absolutely safe to say," the Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins, a leading Darwinist, has written, ''that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid, or insane." Liz Craig, a member of the board of Kansas Citizens for Science, summarized her public-relations strategy in February: ''Portray them" -- intelligent design advocates -- ''in the harshest light possible, as political opportunists, evangelical activists, ignoramuses, breakers of rules, unprincipled bullies, etc."
Ironically, Charles Darwin himself acknowledged that there could be reasonable challenges to his theory of natural selection -- including challenges from religious quarters. According to the sociologist and historian Rodney Stark, when ''The Origin of Species" first appeared in 1859, the Bishop of Oxford published a review in which he acknowledged that natural selection was the source of variations within species, but rejected Darwin's claim that evolution could account for the appearance of different species in the first place. Darwin read the review with interest, acknowledging in a letter that ''the bishop makes a very telling case against me."
How things have changed. When John Scopes went on trial in Tennessee in 1925, religious fundamentalists fought to keep evolution out of the classroom because it was at odds with a literal reading of the Biblical creation story. Today, Darwinian fundamentalists fight to keep the evidence of intelligent design in the diversity of life on earth out of the classroom, because that would be at odds with a strictly materialist view of the world. Eighty years ago, the thought controllers wanted no Darwin; today's thought controllers want only Darwin. In both cases, the dominant attitude is authoritarian and closed-minded -- the opposite of the liberal spirit of inquiry on which good science depends.
As always, those who challenge the reigning orthodoxy face repercussions. In April, the science journal Nature interviewed Caroline Crocker, a molecular microbiologist at George Mason University. Because ''she mentioned intelligent design while teaching her second-year cell-biology course . . . she has been barred by her department from teaching both evolution and intelligent design." Other skeptics of Darwinism choose to keep silent. When Nature approached another researcher, he refused to speak for fear of hurting his chance to get tenure.
If intelligent design proponents were peddling Biblical creationism, the hostility aimed at them would make sense. But they aren't. Unlike creationism, which denied the earth's ancient age or that biological forms could evolve over time, intelligent design makes use of generally accepted scientific data and agrees that falsification, not revelation, is the acid test of scientific validity.
In truth, intelligent design isn't a scientific theory but a restatement of a timeless argument: that the regularity and laws of the natural world imply a higher intelligence -- God, most people would say -- responsible for its design. Intelligent design doesn't argue that evidence of design ends all questions or disproves Darwin. It doesn't make a religious claim. It does say that when such evidence appears, researchers should take it into account, and that the weaknesses in Darwinian theory should be acknowledged as forthrightly as the strengths. That isn't primitivism or Bible-thumping or flying spaghetti. It's science.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.