Of Pandas and Panderers: The Risks of Appeasing the Religious Right in the Intelligent Design Contro: Jill Marcellus

This essay was one of several which won an honorable mention” in the 2006 high school essay competition. Jill received a $100 cash scholarship on the subject of why “intelligent design” does not belong in public school science classes.

By Jill Marcellus

When we stumble upon a watch in a forest, do we not implicitly know that a watchmaker–or designer, if you will–is responsible for it?

Thus argue proponents of intelligent design (ID), who insist that our functioning and intricate planet and organisms must be the work of a greater intelligent being. Their watchmaker analogy–one ironically reminiscent of deism–lends itself to another question, however:

When we stumble upon an antievolution “revolution” in the courtrooms of America, do we not implicitly know that some greater, likely Christian, body is responsible for it?

As it turns out, the answer to the latter question is the one more conducive to scientific proof. The recent push for intelligent design is not the result of scattered, grassroots efforts by concerned Americans. Rather, it is orchestrated by an organized and intentional campaign, complete with manifesto (the “Wedge Document”) and headquarters (the Discovery Institute, a conservative think-tank), to overthrow “scientific materialism” and its effect on culture. ID is philosophy, not science, and despite the earnest public denials of its supporters, it is religiously motivated.

The Religious Right has a long history of attempts at blurring the line between church and state, particularly within public schools. Issues like school prayer have defined an American ideological divide, across which skirmishes over public allusions to God and the Ten Commandments continually rage. Many reporters have already drawn the comparison between this recent controversy and the 1925 Scopes trial, in which John Scopes was accused of teaching evolution in violation of Tennessee law. The showdown between lawyers William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow was in many ways a larger showdown between the ways of ’20s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and Clara Bow, the Jazz Age “It” girl. Although the fundamentalists won legally, they lost in the public sphere. They were lampooned as ignorant baboons, and science gained new ground over religion.

Since then, the Supreme Court has taken a stand in the matter. It struck down bans on teaching evolution in its 1968 decision, Epperson v. Arkansas, and furthermore found creationist teaching in public schools unconstitutional in the 1987 case, Edwards v. Aguillard. The 1987 decision did leave some wiggle room by allowing that “teaching a variety of scientific theories” could be permissible if there were a “clear secular intent of enhancing the effectiveness of science instruction.”

This phrasing serves as the basis of the new antievolution approach. The explicit creationist battle is lost, and evolution will remain in biology curricula. As with all of science, though, there are holes in knowledge about evolution–holes that allow room to insist that evolution is still just a theory, and that schools must “teach the controversy.” The antievolution movement can live on, but only if it takes–or appears to take–a scientific, not biblical approach.

This is where the ID debate begins to differ from the Scopes trial. Intelligent design is less explicitly Christian, though not necessarily less religious, than creationism. It abandons the young-earth theory and other literal interpretations of the bible, but its master architect of life realistically translates into God and only God. Intelligent design supporters claim that since there are gaps in knowledge about evolution, the answer must lie with the supernatural.

However, any speculation about the supernatural is, at the very least, irrelevant to science. Science, by definition, is the observation of natural phenomena. The question of whether or not an intelligent designer contributed to the creation of the world or even facilitated evolution belongs in a philosophy class–it has no bearing on scientific inquiry.

The major proponent of ID is the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based Christian “think” tank. It has, by its own admission, made ID its “No. 1 project,” and is responsible for much of the literature and momentum behind the movement. Despite the denials of ID supporters, their work is clearly religiously motivated.

This is best illustrated by the “Wedge Strategy,” a pitch, proposal, and attack plan created by the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. It makes the Institute’s purpose clear, stating that it “seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies.” If this were not plain enough, the document continues, “Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

Their message has resonated with school districts across the country. In 2004, the Dover, Penn., board of education voted to require that four paragraphs be read to students reminding them that evolution is merely a theory and that other theories, such as ID, exist. Eleven parents sued in response, their lawyers arguing that the decision of the board was based on religion. One school board member, William Buckingham, mentioned creationism as an alternative to evolution that should be taught in schools, though he later claimed he misspoke. He also admitted to telling a reporter, “this country was not founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution. This country was founded on Christianity and our students should be taught as such.” These are rather damning contradictions to his claim that religion did not influence his decision to challenge evolution in the schools. Fortunately, Judge John E. Jones III agreed, ruling against the school board and against the encroachment of the Religious Right on our public school education.

Still, some Americans don’t understand the big fuss over such a seemingly trivial issue. Why are four ID paragraphs so important when students have months of evolution education? There are a number of answers to this question, not the least of which is a recent survey by the National Science Teachers Association that showed 31% of its 50,000 members felt pressure to teach creationism or other beliefs not founded on science. This is a disturbing trend in education, and the actions of school districts like Dover make it harder for teachers to take a stand against creationism.

More to the point, though, the question of importance is precisely the question that the Religious Right wants people to ask, and is the reason for the strategy that they have adopted. The Wedge Document clearly shows why those four paragraphs mean so much to the Discovery Institute–it is a seemingly minor but crucial step toward a reversal of the trends of our present culture. In that sense, there is a culture war, but it is one that is being consciously raised by a conservative religious minority.

The solution to this attack on the separation of church and state is to take a firm stand. Giving a little ground, even if seemingly insignificant, could provide the stepping stone for the next minor battle, and then the next. Intelligent design’s goal is clearly religious and the supposed science behind it is dismissed by most experts. As such, it does not belong in the science classroom. This is a battle waged entirely by the extreme religious conservative minority, with the majority of Americans ignorant of their insidious underlying agenda.

“I graduated from Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, N.Y. I am attending Barnard College of Columbia University and I intend to major in history and English. My interests include the 1920s, writing, and Victorian literature.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation