Not Bishop Paley

I have a soft spot for William Paley, although his Natural Theology (1802) is regarded as helping to inspire the “intelligent design” movement. A few years ago, when NCSE was discussing the establishment of a spoof award to be conferred upon the most egregious creationist of the year, there was a suggestion that it be called the Paley, and I took strong exception. As I wrote in a review of a new edition of Paley’s Natural Theology, published in Sophia in 2008, “There is indeed a resemblance between Paley’s natural theology and today’s so-called intelligent design movement: both seek to infer the existence of a designer from the appearance of design in nature. But whereas Paley was not guilty of misrepresenting the established science of this day to extract his theological conclusions, the proponents of intelligent design are, as Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross thoroughly document in their Creationism’s Trojan Horse, not similarly operating in good faith.”

I’m not alone, either. In The Blind Watchmaker (1987)—named in homage to the analogy that Paley popularized in Natural Theology—Richard Dawkins counts himself a fan, writing that Natural Theology is “a book that I greatly admire...Paley’s argument is made with passionate sincerity and is informed by the best biological scholarship of the day,” although, of course, “it is wrong, gloriously and utterly wrong.” In his autobiography, Charles Darwin himself mentions having read Paley’s Natural Theology as well as his View of the Evidences of Christianity and Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy at Cambridge University: “The careful study of these works...was the only part of the academical course which, as I then felt and as I still believe, was of the least use to me in the education of my mind.” That ought to be adequate authority for the proposition that Paley ought to be treated with a modicum of respect.

And that modicum of respect includes, I submit, referring to him by the proper title. When Paley died in 1805, he was the Archdeacon of Carlisle, a post to which he ascended in 1782; it was the highest ecclesiastical position to which he attained. He was never elevated to the episcopate; he never had a see of his own; he never became a bishop. (I have said it thrice: What I tell you three times is true.) And yet, reputable scholars writing in books published by respectable presses continue to refer to a mysterious personage, Bishop Paley. Five recent examples:

Glenn Branch
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Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.
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