Behind Intelligent Design: Christian Apologetics and the “Science” That Isn’t: Jonathan Cox

By Jonathan Cox

If either side expects the country to retain much integrity, the wall could certainly use some repair.

In 1984, chemist Charles B. Thaxon, a creationist, published The Mystery of Life’s Origin, a book which would effectively mark the beginning of modern intelligent design as a debatable and socially significant concept. Since the release of that text, and particularly in the last few years, the war over intelligent design has galvanized sundry religious and political activists. But–if one is inclined to favor the teaching of scientifically tenable theories instead of transparent religious contrivances–the pellucid truth remains that intelligent design has no valid place in the curricula of public schools.

That some of the earliest proponents of intelligent design were theologians should automatically give pause to those examining the legal side of the intelligent design debate. For instance, in his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas used a form of intelligent design in his teleological proof” for the existence of (the Christian) God. Indeed, Islamic clerics and philosophers, including Averroes, made similar arguments to support their own brand of monotheism. It is apparent, then, that intelligent design cannot easily be severed from its religious history. The fact that the concept has enjoyed support from prominent religious thinkers indicates that the First Amendment issues surrounding the teaching of intelligent design in public schools are weighty and quite consequential.

After the overt Christianization–morning prayers or bible readings, for instance–of public schools was resoundingly stymied in several mid-20th century legal battles (Engel v. Vitale and Abington Township School District v. Schempp being the landmarks), the fight metamorphosed into one focused on a much more insidious concept: intelligent design.

By casually and vaguely omitting the identity or larger nature of the “designer,” advocates of the theory were able to carefully sidestep a definite labeling of the idea as “Christian.”

Regardless of how the specifics were couched, intelligent design remains firmly rooted in the Abrahamic/monotheistic tradition (primarily Christian) that has long remained separate from the public sphere.

The two modern legal cases regarding the educational role of intelligent design/creationism were Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) and Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005). The former case, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, resulted in a ruling stating that creationism was not a permissible component of a public education. Indeed, after Edwards, the publishers of Of Pandas and People, a “science” textbook essentially supporting creationism, replaced references to “creation” with “intelligent design.”

This blatant rebadging of the same concept was part of what resulted in the Kitzmiller decision, in which federal District Court Judge John E. Jones III firmly ruled that intelligent design “cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents” and thus has no place in the public classroom.

Although Kitzmiller, as a district court case, does not have national legal application and weight, the precedent left by Jones has clearly affected the legal and social discourse on intelligent design.

But the legal and historical arguments against the inclusion of intelligent design are, per se, of little meaning; there is, of course, an underlying scientific argument against promulgation of ID which must be recognized.

The defining criterion for calling an idea “scientific,” argued Karl Popper, is that it must carry with it the ability to be disproved; that is, it must be falsifiable. Anything devoid of this feature is to be regarded as speculative and without objective merit. Indeed, just as Popper attacked Freudian psychoanalysis for its almost entirely hypothetical and untestable suppositions, the modern freethinker is obliged to view intelligent design with the same scrutiny. Clearly, the overriding standard for an educational curriculum should be objective merit, and any evidence offered for intelligent design is suspect and supportable only in the narrowest of contexts.

Even a relatively cursory comparison of the respective scientific merits of evolution and intelligent design is revealing. One has around 170 years of certifiable and empirically supportable evidence; the other relies more on guesswork, supposition, and has a firm basis only in theological apologetics. The idea that ID can fill in the “holes” in evolutionary science is preposterous; one cannot bridge scientific unknowns with religious speculation and possibly hope to have a less convoluted result.

Perhaps the most direct argument against the teaching of intelligent design is one of pragmatics–that is, the “value” of its inclusion in the public curriculum is not worth the controversy the issue creates. Granted, a belief in intelligent design may ameliorate some pangs of doubt or concern over theistic implausibility, but if so, it should be incorporated into the curricula of Sunday, not public, schools.

And by its nature, intelligent design, with its robust religious background and persistent toeing of the First Amendment line, is inherently invidious. The mandatory teaching of intelligent design necessitates a certain pedagogical tiptoeing around the issue; teachers are forced to attune their lessons more closely to sensitive legal matters than to the students whom they are expected to instruct. One of the most common arguments in favor of intelligent design is that its inclusion results in a more open and “fair” examination of biogenesis, but that very inclusion and the accompanying tediousness work against the students, who are effectively deprived of a straightforward and realistic explanation.

The courts, over the years, have certainly agreed. As laid down clearly in Lemon v. Kurtzman, a law must serve a secular purpose, neither primarily inhibit nor promote religious practice, and not result in the “excessive entanglement” of government and religion. The last point is the most salient in this case; one cannot seriously argue that the convolved, prolonged, and divisive battle (as well as the aforementioned circumspection by the teachers) caused by intelligent design does not stretch the state to its reasonable and legally permissible limits.

The debate over intelligent design, like abortion or gay rights, is one of the sociocultural issues that has been transformed by the religious right into a transcendent struggle, one that is most valuable from a symbolic standpoint. No one honestly expects that teaching intelligent design in schools would substantively effect any change in the nation’s religious fiber, but its placement in the curriculum would serve as an indication of a nascent and odious porosity of the long-established wall of separation between church and state. And if either side expects the country to retain much integrity, the wall could certainly use some repair.

“I am attending Harvard College in Cambridge, Mass. At this point, I am unsure of my intended concentration, though I am strongly considering religious studies, psychology, or social studies. Outside of possible majors, I am interested in international studies, linguistics, economics, and law (from an academic standpoint).”

Jonathan received a $100 scholarship for his 2006 essay. Other “honorables” will appear in future issues.

Freedom From Religion Foundation