The Humanist Interview with Leo Behe The son of intelligent design heavyweight Michael Behe discusses his journey to atheism

Leo Behe is not your typical young humanist. He’s the son of famed intelligent design proponent, author, and biochemist Michael Behe. Since 1996 the elder Behe, a professor at Lehigh University, has earned accolades from intelligent design proponents throughout the world for his books and court testimony in support of the concept. His most famous book, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge of Evolution (1996), asserts that particular biological systems are irreducibly complex, meaning “the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.” While celebrated by sympathetic philosophers and creationist-minded Christians, the book has been panned by many in the scientific community, including Brown University biologist and fellow Catholic Kenneth Miller. Miller reviewed the book, arguing that it ignores empirical observation and that “Behe has gone two centuries into the past to find the argument from design, dusted it off, and invigorated it with the modern language of biochemistry.”

Leo Behe was born on October 30, 1990, in Easton, Pennsylvania, to Michael and Celeste Behe. He is the fourth of eight children and grew up in the Roman Catholic faith of his parents. In the following interview he discusses his journey to atheism and humanism, his current family relations, and his attitudes towards intelligent design.

The Humanist: Talk about your early life and education.

Leo Behe: I was homeschooled from preschool through high school. I still had my share of friends, but I personally feel that the means through which I selected them (networking with other local homeschoolers) significantly limited the diversity that most children experience through interaction with their peers. I therefore had a fairly sheltered childhood. My education was not very much unlike education through public school, although in retrospect I feel that I function more effectively in a public setting where a stricter daily schedule is enforced.

The Humanist: What role did religion play in your life and your family?

Behe: I was raised Roman Catholic, and I was always very comfortable with it. It was as natural to me as any other part of my education. I was always very active in my faith—I attended Mass every Sunday, sometimes more, and confessed my sins to a priest often. I was also very interested in apologetics; however, I generally focused on debating members of other faiths or denominations of Christianity. It did not occur to me until later in life to examine the reliability of the Bible, the infallibility of which my Christian opponents would always agree upon. Among my family, we would always hold to Catholic traditions such as nightly recitation of the rosary, and we always attended Mass together.

The Humanist: Your father is biochemist and intelligent design proponent Michael Behe. Did he teach you about science and how did this impact your thinking about the world?

Behe: I never considered biological science to be my forte; however, simply being around the house, I learned the basics of his views on evolution and his theory of irreducible complexity. I was already a firm believer in intelligent design given my Catholic faith, so his view of a natural process guided or aided by God made sense to me. It reinforced my belief that there was the mark of a sentient, intelligent designer in nature.

The Humanist: What separates your father from many other intelligent design proponents is that he has a PhD in biochemistry as opposed to others who studied the history of science, philosophy, law, or other disciplines. He is also unique in the intelligent design community in that that he accepts common descent. What were you taught growing up about evolution and common descent? Was it tentative or was it taught as a scientific fact?

Behe: I readily accepted my father’s views on biology and didn’t dispute the viability of scientific theories such as common descent as long as the hand of God was present in them. The only idea I did not agree with was the idea of things happening on their own without the guidance of a designer—I considered such scientists to be blind to the obvious.

The Humanist: You’ve previously written that the first critique of religion you came across was Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. From that, you realized “how questionable religion might sound to some who had not grown up around it.” Why did you originally read Dawkins and what particularly in that book made you question religion?

Behe: There was a lot of buzz about The God Delusion back in 2008 when I read it, and it seemed to be having an impact on a lot of Christians’ faith. I had recently decided to turn my interest in apologetics toward atheism, and Dawkins’ bestseller seemed to be a good place to start. The God Delusion has been criticized for its allegedly infantile treatment of metaphysics, but that aspect of the book was not what originally challenged my faith. The point that hit me hardest while reading was the fallible origin of Scripture, which I had never considered (to my own surprise). That point in particular was what originally shook my specific faith—Catholicism—and planted seeds of skepticism, which continued to grow as I expanded my knowledge through other literary works on both sides of the issue.

The Humanist: How long was this transformation, and why didn’t your father’s ideas (or others) about intelligent design demonstrate proof of a “designer” or creator?

Behe: The journey from very devout Catholic to outspoken atheist took about six months total. Once my trust in the Bible was shaken, I still believed strongly in a theistic god, but I realized that I hadn’t sufficiently examined my beliefs. Over the next several months, my certainty of a sentient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity faded steadily. I believe that the loss of a specific creed was the tipping point for me. After I lost the element of trust—be it trust in the Bible, trust in a church, or trust in the Pope—I had no choice but to vindicate my own beliefs through research, literature, and countless hours of deep thought. It was then that my belief in any sort of God faded away gradually, and to this day I continue to find more and more convincing evidence against any sort of design or supernatural interference in the universe. As for the arguments from design, such as irreducible complexity or the so-called fine-tuning of the six cosmological constants, I have many reasons for dismissing them each in particular, but one overarching reason would be the common refutation of William Paley’s classic watchmaker argument—the only reason that complex objects appear to be designed is because we as humans create complex objects, and we then assume that complexity is indisputably indicative of a designer. This is an association we make only as a result of what our “common sense” tells us.

The Humanist: In 2009 your parents learned you were an atheist. How did you tell them? What did your immediate and extended family think about this?

Behe: I told my mother, initially, who told my father. The discussion was very calm—there was no argument. I didn’t suffer any sort of restrictive backlash, however, there is a sort of social taboo on the topic with family and friends. I mostly keep it to myself, as atheism is generally frowned upon among the people I know. Basically, it’s not a problem as long as it’s not talked about.

The Humanist: Will your family see this interview?

Behe: I already told my dad about it, and he had no objections. The rest of my family will most likely see it, as I will try to get news of it out to my circle of friends. My parents and older siblings will almost definitely disagree with opinions I’m presenting, and perhaps they’ll discuss said points with me, which I’m always more than ready to do. My younger siblings will probably just find my appearance in a magazine interesting.

The Humanist: One of the philosophical arguments intelligent design proponents often use is that the public needs a belief in God for objective moral laws. How do you, as an atheist, reply?

Behe: This is one of the most common arguments I hear from theists, and I always begin by pointing out that the question doesn’t make God one bit more probable. It is, effectively, an argument from wishful thinking. However, I do not think that such a concept is even desirable. David Hume said that we cannot get an “ought” from an “is.’” The formal theistic assertion is that God’s nature is synonymous with good, and that which is in accordance with God’s nature is good (and in the same way, what goes against his nature is evil). That being said, if we say that “good” is how we ought to behave, then we can’t say that an “is” (God’s nature) can be responsible for an “ought” (good). I believe that a sound moral structure can be created by humans and for humans. The desire for happiness and the abhorrence of suffering is innate in each one of us. We need only acknowledge that our actions affect those around us and can cause happiness or suffering. Relegating such a vital section of philosophy to sacred texts (which were themselves written by men) seems, to me, extremely dangerous and detrimental to our species.

The Humanist: About your father, you previously blogged: “I believe that he does have doubts and does see conflicts between science and the Bible, and he therefore continues to reshape his faith so as to dodge those conflicts.” Why do you think he has doubts and why does he continue to reshape his faith?

Behe: I think that all scientists who hold to a particular religious creed must experience conflicts with their sacred texts and their scientific observations. I can’t speak for my father’s personal beliefs specifically, but I believe that the constant reinterpretation of sacred texts to correct conflicts between theological claims and scientific discoveries says something about the faith upon which those claims are based. For irreducible complexity particularly, the glaring inefficiencies apparent in life—along with a universe that appears more chaotic and indifferent the more we learn about it—will challenge the religious beliefs of any scientist and continue to force additional reinterpretations of sacred texts. It is my hope that eventually such texts will lose all credibility.

The Humanist: While you have been critical of intelligent design, you have defended your father as a nice and honest person. What more would you like the public to know about him?

Behe: I would like everyone to realize that he doesn’t have any sort of religious agenda and he’s not trying to denigrate science in any way. Long-held beliefs, especially beliefs developed during childhood, operate on a very deep and basic level of thought—almost subconsciously. These beliefs can exist independently in a perfectly honest and intelligent scientist who is simply doing his part to further theories or ideas that he believes are supported by the scientific data. The best way to progress is through respectful and thoughtful discussion and debate, as it has always been.

The Humanist: You want to be a writer. What are your writing interests and goals? Do they relate to religion at all?

Behe: I’m going to a university this fall to study philosophy. In the future, I hope to write on the subject of religion and why I believe it is both harmful and false. My theoretical goal is to address all arguments for religion and for God in their highest and purest forms (Aquinas, Lewis, and so forth) and refute them. My overarching priority, however, is to continue learning and to keep an open mind while I’m speaking against religion, whether through writing or debate. I’ve already started a blog along these lines at:

The Humanist: What words would you use to describe your beliefs (or lack thereof)? Do you consider yourself a humanist, for example?

Behe: I regret that the word “atheist” is necessary in our society, because it leads to misconceptions about atheism (that it is a belief, or a religion, etcetera). However, as it is necessary in America where only about 15 percent of the population claims no religious affiliation, I do call myself an atheist to make the distinction. The word describes my lack of belief. As for my beliefs, however, I would consider myself a naturalist and a humanist. I believe that humanity has much more potential than many of us realize—and much more responsibility as well. Such a field as ethics, for example, relies on us—it does not rely on God. If we can admit that nobody is guiding us or telling us what to do and we embrace our potential, as well as the fear and uncertainty that come with freedom, we’ll be capable of great things. But we must first realize that these are our decisions to make; if we don’t step out of our comfort zone, we won’t truly realize our potential.

The Humanist: Other than your atheism, what would you like the public to know about you (or your family)?

Behe: I’m a very right-brained person. I enjoy the arts immensely—I play piano and sing along every day. I would like the American public to know that I (and all other atheists) are just as human as theists—we aren’t morally bankrupt or incapable of feeling hope or happiness. I’m a young adult like any other; I have dreams and ambitions. As for my family, we have our rough spots just like everyone else, but we’re still a family. We can get along, as can all atheists and theists with a little effort.

Ryan Shaffer is a PhD candidate in history at Stony Brook University. He’s published articles in a variety of magazines, including Free Inquiry, Skeptic, and the Skeptical Inquirer.