I read a really interesting reader response (if you follow the link, scroll up, not down from where it takes you) to the Cosmic Log blog on MSNBC.com from a scientist who is a Christian and is bothered by the whole “Intelligent Design” fiasco. It came from a reader in Austin, TX, and it started thusly:

I’m both Christian by decision and a physicist and computer scientist by training. Science is nothing more than the attempt to discover how things work. Period. Religion is the attempt to understand why things work.

There you have it. There will never be a better, more succinct way of putting it, for my money. And that, ultimately, is the big problem I have with religionists trying to force their way into the science classroom to make science teachers preach on their behalf. Mr. Capps goes on to say this:

As a scientist, using the methods I have been trained in, I cannot tell whether there is a God or not. Nor does the question come up in that setting, as I am pursuing how, not why. As a Christian, I believe because I believe, I have faith because I have faith. I feel that I am correct. As Christian scientist, I am not arrogant enough to tell God how he did things. I will look and try to build honest models that tell me how. Right now evolution is the best model going, so I accept it. Since the majority of the evidence says this model works, to do otherwise would be to raise myself above God and tell God that He could not have used evolution to do His work.

I deeply admire the attitude he’s taken – a self-aware acknowledgement of the absolute and distinct difference between religion and science. Whenever I think about the ID yahoos – and that’s what they are, so for all my presupposed rational thought and diplomatic ways, that’s what I’m calling them – I am reminded of people’s frequent confusion over morals and ethics. Morals are why we do things, ethics are how we do things. They may be related for some people, but they don’t have to be. I am honest when I do my taxes in part because that’s the proper way to prepare them (ethics) and in part because I think it’s wrong to do so (morals). Some people don’t commit murder for profit because they think it’s wrong (morals), but some don’t commit murder for profit only because they’re afraid of being caught – and that, I would argue is ethics, and that this divide is fundamental to our society.

If we stop and think about it, our entire legal system – the skeleton from which hang the tissues of our secular society – is based on ethics, not morals. Sure, there are laws against things that are largely considered wrong (murder remains a fine example), but the laws do not enforce morality per se. The law does not require that we be trained from birth to regard life as valuable. Rather, the law enforces how and when it is not acceptable – or, in instances of self-defense or war, acceptable – to commit murder. The why of murder is not addressed. The how is addressed. I realize it’s possible to point back into this paragraph and say, Oh, but you just said the law addresses when it’s acceptable, such as self-defense, and isn’t that a why? Not really. Were someone to break into my house and threaten my life, and in the hair’s breadth of time I had to consider it I decided that the only way to preserve my life was to take theirs, the questions the police would ask would all have to do with circumstances: Did they threaten you? Were you in immediate danger? Were they in your house, or near it? Were they armed? Where was the gun pointed? Never once would a badged officer ask me how I felt about it, whether I had enjoyed it or felt guilty afterwards – at least, not as a legal matter. Even in our language we don’t speak of why the law is applied, we speak of how.

Morals are, after all, purely internal. They are the little voice in our head that tells us why a thing is or is not acceptable and they can never be fully explained. They are tied up with experience, philosophy and emotion so tightly that nothing purely objective can be drawn out of them. Ethics, on the other hand, are observable and testable and demonstrable, can be proven to have been followed or not followed (sometimes). They are external and definable and subject to the senses we use to measure the material world.

And you know what? I am A-OK with that. Our laws are not meant to enforce our morals. They are meant to enforce our ethics. The vast majority of the infrastructure of our society works on the same principle. Regulating agencies tell us how things are done. That there are very good why’s are secondary, and that there are often moral reasons for the how‘s our society enforces are largely, I think, happy accidents.

In the same way, science and its study and teaching are not meant to tell us why. They are meant to tell us how. The question of why will be irrelevant until someone finds a signature in one corner of the universe.

The problem, I think, is that many people in our society look to religion and spirituality as a way to find answers to big questions, questions of why and questions of how, and that is entirely their right. However, when they confuse the two, lose track of the line between why and how in their spiritual path, they start to blue that line everywhere else in their world. Over time, the questions of why does God do this and how can God do this become the same. I don’t think it’s intentional, I think it’s just the way we are, the way we talk, the things that happen in a living language.

That said, I think there are many people who use this confusion of why and how to their advantage, people who know that their followers – the folks who vote for a school board that wants to inject creationism into the science classroom and don’t understand that why the universe was made is in fact an entirely different question from how it has come to be and how its laws work and how we can observe and test its limitations – can be tricked into incorrect thinking about the questions by playing with the meanings of words and redirecting their thoughts to questions Science wasn’t meant to answer. I think these people know that they are confusing the issues, choose to confuse the issues because it advances their personal agendas.

The sad thing is that it is all too easy for their followers to be thusly confused. Leaving aside how they phrase their questions, those who pursue religion in our society often do so as a way to find explicit answers to questions rather than as a way to find the right questions in the first place. Rather than look to spiritual tools as a way to test and understand spiritual ideas and ideals, they look to the spirit to explain away all the nagging questions of both spirit and flesh. This is simply lazy of them, in my opinion. It’s easier than thinking, though, so many choose it as their preferred method.

Do I believe that the universe was designed by an intelligent force? Sort of. It’s hard for me to decide whether I believe that the gods created all of this or were created with all of this – or maybe even created because of all of this. I believe absolutely in a higher intelligence that is as aware of our plight as it is alien to our existence. I believe absolutely that some things – but not all, and not even very many – happen “for a reason,” that there are purposes greater than one individual’s or group’s subjective goals which are served by the course of events from time to time. I also believe that many things – perhaps most – just happen, and that there’s no more Divinity at work in these things than in where a leaf lands on the back deck in the fall. I have had opportunity in my life to wish I could grab the gods themselves and shake them back and forth and ask why the fuck something happened the way it did, as well, and sometimes I have felt that I found an answer and sometimes I have simply been left to question. I have sometimes – but not always – come to decide that the questioning itself was more valuable than any answer I might have received.

That’s OK with me, though, because those are my questions to answer and no one else’s. Questions of why are purely internal, purely meant for me, no one else. Questions of how are ones we can all ask and find one answer that satisfies all – that car ran the red light because its brakes went out, that avalanche happened because it snowed too much, that stock trade is illegal because someone gave the buyer or the seller information to which they should not have had access. Questions of why are almost always impossible to fully comprehend, much less agree on as a society – God hated that driver? God hated that skier? That buyer or seller is inherently evil because they chose to profit rather than risk their family’s future? No one is ever going to agree on those why’s. To ask them as though they are testable, as though they have objective answers that will fully satisfy, is simply a fallacy. In fact, I would argue that in many cases where we get full disclosures of why, such as in the case of a serial killer who confesses his crimes in full, we are often left less satisfied than before, whereas in your average murder mystery the revelation of how it was done – Colonel Mustard, in the library, with the candlestick – is a moment of satisfaction rather than frustration. This is exactly the problem with trying to apply a religious explanation to a question of science. How was the universe created is not answered in a testable, satisfying way for all (or most or even many) of us by Because God felt like it anymore than How did Colonel Mustard kill Mr. Body is answered by Because he was being blackmailed. That’s simply not a legitimate way to respond.

And thus, I am not going to invite Mrs. Atkins, my 9th grade science teacher, to come to ritual anytime soon and expect her to do a lesson on how the God and Goddess relate to one another as reaper and sower of life, or why Katrina happened, or why I’ve lost people whom I loved because that is not her job. If I want answers to those questions – and I consider it entirely valid not to ask those questions, or to think those questions are silly or unnecessary, as well – I have to find the answers myself. I have to struggle with them, try to expand my own cosmology to encompass these events, try to reframe the gods as beings who can allow this to happen, or are powerless to stop it, or have a Big Reason to allow such things, and I have to do it entirely on my own time. The answers I get are going to be mine alone, after all, and looking elsewhere for those answers is just confusing the issue, perhaps even running from the questions themselves, more than anything else.

My 11th grade biology teacher was the wife of a conservative, charismatic Baptist minister. When she started the unit on evolution, she said a few words about evolution beforehand. Unlike Dover, PA, though, this is what she said. I do not remember it word for word except for a few specific phrases, so I will paraphrase. Suffice to say, she was eloquent and intelligent and commanding, and I will fail to capture that moment when she said (roughly) the following: “I am going to teach evolution in this class, and I am not going to argue with anyone about it. If you have a problem with evolution because of your religious beliefs, I suggest you take it up with your preacher. However, I am a preacher’s wife, with my own beliefs, and no one is going to tell me not to teach this. As my husband has always said of the curriculum I teach, I do not want to tell your school what to do, because when that happens I open the door to the school telling me how to run my church and there is no way in Hell I am going to let that happen. So if you don’t like this, I suggest you study it, take your test, get your grade and then talk about it in Sunday School because we are not going to talk about it here.”

Now, why is that so hard for people?