Intelligent Design Creationism: Wedging its Way into Public Education by Robert Weitzel (Jan/Feb 2004)

Vol. 21 No. 1 – Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. – January/February 2004

By Robert Weitzel

In 1925, high school science teacher John Scopes was charged with violating the Butler Anti-Evolution Act, which prohibited public school teachers from teaching any theory that denied the story of divine creation as revealed in the bible. The focus of Scopes’ trial was less on his violation and more on the constitutionally of the Butler Act. Predictably, most of the proceeding was a battle of conflicting worldviews: fundamentalist Christian creationism vs. naturalistic evolution.

Scopes’ conviction was a legal victory for fundamentalist Christians. In the process, however, the literal interpretation of Genesis as an explanation for life on earth was found wanting in the courtroom and ridiculed by the national press. The court of public opinion decided in favor of evolution.

After the Scopes trial there were few challenges to the hegemony of naturalistic evolution in the science classroom. That “era of enlightenment” ended in 1957 with the launching of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. This singular event announced the beginning of two races, one for American supremacy in space and another for creationist supremacy in the classroom.

Reacting to what they believed to be an inferior science education in American high schools, politicians began funneling tax dollars into its improvement. Fundamentalist Christians saw this as government support for a naturalistic [read: atheistic] view of life and a threat to their belief in a divine Creator.

In the early 1960s, Henry Morris’ book, The Genesis Flood, a “scientific” explanation for life on earth based on Noachian flood geology, was the impetus for the revival of fundamentalist young earth creationism. This aggressive breed of creation “scientists” challenged public schools and courts on the grounds that “scientific” creationism was on a par with the theory of evolution and should be given equal time in the classroom. Two U.S. Supreme Court decisions since 1968 have made the teaching of creationism in public schools unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

The latest incarnation of the creation story is something called intelligent design creationism. The teaching of IDC in public schools has been at the center of controversy in at least five states in the last few years. The most recent was in the fall of 2003, when the Texas state school board considered requiring all biology textbooks to discuss alternative creation “theories.” This would have been significant, since Texas is such a large textbook market. Fortunately, the board voted against the requirement.

Intelligent design creationism maintains that life on earth was designed by a supernatural intelligence. Unlike creationism past, the IDC “designer” is never identified as God nor is the Book of Genesis mentioned. This break with traditional creationism is a tactic designed to give IDC both a scientific facade and immunity from First Amendment challenges.

Another tactic of ID creationists, similar to old-school creationists, is their reliance on the negative argument. They attempt to find and exploit supposed weaknesses in the evolution theory, the logic being that if evolution, or any part of it, is wrong, then IDC is right. Tellingly, these new age creationists have produced no original research or scientific data to support their position. A survey of two hundred articles in Nature, a leading scientific journal, found no articles authored by ID creationists.

What ID creationists lack in research and peer-reviewed literature they make up for in what is known as “The Wedge Strategy.” The Wedge is the public relations brainchild of Phillip Johnson, an academic law professor at UC-Berkeley and born-again Christian, and is funded by the Discovery Institute’s Center for Renewal of Science and Culture, a fundamentalist think tank.

The Wedge is a 20-year, three-phase strategy (accessible on the Web) that exploits Americans’ lack of scientific literacy and their sense of fair play. It relies on the fact that most Americans know little about evolutionary theory and even less about neo-Darwinism.

The Wedge Strategy’s focus and funding are not on the research necessary to cause a shift in the prevailing scientific paradigm. Rather, they are aimed at convincing an uninformed public that IDC deserves equal consideration as a “scientific theory.” This is the “wedge” that ID creationists hope will split the authority of the First Amendment and allow the Christian creation story to substitute for science in our country’s public schools.

One of the governing goals of the Wedge is “to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.” More unsettling still is its 20-year goal “to see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective in science.”

But is it science? Science assumes that the universe and its constituent parts operate by natural laws. Our understanding of these laws is based on inferential and empirical evidence obtained through observation and experimentation. Scientific knowledge increases when hypotheses and theories are confirmed by scientific peer review and are found to have practical or heuristic application. So far, IDC has not met this standard.

Will the folks at the Discovery Institute be satisfied once they have insinuated their theistic influence into public schools? Not likely, if their second 20-year goal “to see design theory application in the fields of . . . psychology, ethics, politics, theology, philosophy, humanities and the fine arts” is to be believed. In short, their goal seems to be nothing less than to turn a pluralistic democracy into a fundamentalist theocracy.

With the born-again Bush administration giving billions of tax dollars to religious organizations and its touting of tuition vouchers, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that it will also gladly turn over our publicly-funded schools to fundamentalists, one subject at a time.

We owe our children a different future.

Foundation member Robert Weitzel is a school counselor who lives in Middleton, Wis., and is a regular contributor to the Lifestyle and Op-Ed sections of The Capital Times of Madison and the Middleton Times-Tribune.

Freedom From Religion Foundation