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Intelligent Design: Religion or Science?

by Paul Rasor, Center Director

One of the difficulties courts often face in religious freedom cases is the slipperiness of the term "religion." The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says, "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." When someone challenges a government activity as interfering with religious free exercise or as improperly promoting a religious message, a court must first determine whether the claim does in fact involve religion.

Sometimes this is easy. If a practice includes prayer or a sacred text, for example, no one is likely to argue the point. In other cases, however, the parties may disagree about whether a particular practice or belief is religious. Such a disagreement lies at the heart of the ongoing disputes over whether the theory of intelligent design (ID) should be taught in public schools.

Intelligent design's basic claim is that the universe is so complex it must have been created by an intelligent higher being. School boards in several states have adopted or seriously considered proposals requiring ID to be taught in science classes, usually as an "alternative" to Darwinian evolution. While the political struggle around this issue in Kansas, Ohio, and elsewhere has been widely publicized, the most significant federal court decision on ID came from Pennsylvania. In October 2004, the Dover Area School District adopted a resolution stating: "Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design." Ninth grade biology teachers were required to read a statement to their students that said "Darwin's Theory is a theory,… not a fact." The statement specifically named ID as an alternative, about which students were "encouraged to keep an open mind." A group of parents challenged the Dover ID policy in federal court, arguing that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In a lengthy and carefully reasoned opinion issued on December 20, 2005, in the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, federal Judge John Jones agreed, and enjoined the school district from applying the policy.

The central issue in the case was whether ID is a scientific or religious theory. Judge Jones gave several reasons for ruling that ID was a religious view. First, ID's proponents acknowledged that in their view, the "designer" was God. Second, there was a direct historical link between ID and creationism, which holds that the creation stories in the Book of Genesis (both of them) provide a historically factual account of human origins. Creationists have long sought to remove evolution from public school classrooms, and in the 1920s they persuaded several state legislatures to criminalize the teaching of evolution. The most famous of these laws was Tennessee's, under which a science teacher named John Scopes was convicted in 1925 in the famous "monkey trial." In 1968, however, in Everson v. Arkansas, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that these anti-evolution laws violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Following this case, creationists pushed for laws requiring that creationism and evolution be given equal time in public school science classes. In 1987, in Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court rejected this ploy, ruling that these so-called "balanced treatment" laws also violated the First Amendment.

The evidence in the Kitzmiller trial showed that ID was developed as a tactical response to these court decisions. The most compelling evidence was the revelation that the recommended ID textbook had used the term "creationism" in its earliest drafts. After the Supreme Court's 1987 ruling, however, this term was systematically replaced with "intelligent design," but the content was otherwise left unchanged. As Judge Jones said, this history shows that ID "is creationism relabeled."

A third factor was the testimony of Dr. John Haught, Distinguished Research Professor at Georgetown, a highly regarded theologian who has written widely on the relationship of religion and science. Dr. Haught noted that ID is not a new scientific theory, as its proponents claim, but rather a religious argument for the existence of God that can be traced at least to Thomas Aquinas. In other words, ID's central claim has been part of Western religious thought for nearly eight centuries.

Finally, it was abundantly clear that the school board's purpose in adopting the ID policy was to bring a religious perspective into the science curriculum. This is precisely the kind of official endorsement of religion the First Amendment prohibits.

Several observations about this case may be made. First, Judge Jones did not rule that intelligent design was false, just that it was religion and not science. Its basic claim that our complex universe is the work of a designer, or God, was not put on trial. By the same token, the judge also noted that the theory of evolution neither conflicts with nor denies the existence of a divine creator. The science experts who testified during the trial supported this view. The popular view, and certainly the view of creationists and intelligent design advocates, is that evolution necessarily implies atheism. But that simply isn't true.

Second, the Dover ruling does not mean that ID cannot be taught in the public schools at all. While the First Amendment prohibits public schools from promoting religion, it does not prohibit teaching about religion. Many observers, including the Supreme Court, have noted that religion is an important part of education today. Just as the Bible or other sacred texts may be included in history or literature courses, for example, ID might be taught in a course on comparative religions or the history of ideas. It just cannot be taught in biology class as a science.

This raises an interesting question. If intelligent design is a perfectly respectable religious view, and if it could be included in other parts of the public school curriculum, why do its advocates insist that it be put in the science classes? This suggests that their real goal is not to promote intelligent design for its own sake, but rather to discredit evolution.

I find an interesting irony here. For many years, religious anti-evolutionists rejected modern science, insisting that their biblical understanding of creation was the only valid view. In other words, they defended their position precisely on the ground that it was not science. But in the face of several federal court rulings rejecting this approach, they now defend their religious view by promoting it as science. Having lost the battle to reshape the law to fit their theology, they are reshaping their theology to fit the law. So far, this tactic has not succeeded in the courts.

Third, I'm worried about what all this might mean for science education in the United States. In a series of recent surveys in 34 countries – the United States, Japan, and 32 European countries – adults were asked to respond true, false, or not sure to this statement: "Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals." The United States had the second highest percentage of adults who said the statement was false, 39%, and the second lowest percentage who said it was true, 40%. Only Turkey was lower. The authors of an August 2006 article in Science magazine, where these findings were published, felt that the two largest factors contributing to this result were "widespread fundamentalism" and the politicizing of science in the United States.

Recent data from the Pew Forum show similar results. Despite the fact that there is no scientific controversy about evolution, only 50% of Americans think there is general agreement among scientists that evolution has taken place. And 42% of the American public, more than four in ten, believe that living things have existed in their present forms since the beginning of time. This suggests that the opponents of evolution are making considerable headway in their cultural battle just by keeping this issue in the public eye.

Finally, I am concerned that this entire controversy perpetuates the belief that religion and science are fundamentally incompatible, that as modern human beings, we are forced to choose between faith and knowledge. These cases are widely reported in the media, and the image of religion we see is the image of the most theologically and culturally conservative religious group in the country, precisely the group who refuses to reconcile religion and science. The result is that even when they lose the legal cases, their dualistic worldview still forms the context for the story.

But there is another view. Some of the most interesting developments in theology over the past several decades have involved the integration of science and religion. Many theologians today treat contemporary knowledge in the natural sciences, including physics and biology, not as theological hindrances, but as fertile theological resources. Those of us who think of ourselves as religious people need not be afraid of science.

Judge Jones' opinion was so thorough and so persuasive that many school boards and state legislatures across the country rejected intelligent design proposals in its wake. Yet this does not mean that the opponents of intelligent design have won and that this particular front in the culture war is now settled. The struggle over evolution has been going on for 80 years, and it seems unlikely to disappear any time soon.

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