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Three Voices on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design

Steven Goldberg, Bleached Faith: The Tragic Cost When Religion is Forced into the Public Square (2008)

Edward Humes, Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion and the Battle for America’s Soul (2007)

Kenneth R. Miller, Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul (2008)

In 2009, observances of the birth of Charles Darwin (b. 1809) and the publication of his Origin of Species (© 1859) will provide occasions for public conversation and controversy about evolution, Intelligent Design (ID), and faith.

Already from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Dover, Pennsylvania, school boards have been making legal headlines in recent years. While public school science classes have for decades taught evolutionary theory, increasingly constituents have asked that ID be included in the public school science curriculum.

Three authors have recently contributed to the discussion with their respective books about faith, evolution, legal battles, and ID.

These three books were inspired, at least in part, by the December 2005 case of Kitzmiller v. Dover, which was tried before U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones III after the school board of Dover, Pennsylvania, voted to require ID in its science curriculum.1

“To preserve the separation of church and state mandated by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and Art. I, § 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution,” wrote Judge Jones, “we will enter an order permanently enjoining Defendants from maintaining the ID Policy in any school within the Dover Area School District, from requiring teachers to denigrate or disparage the scientific theory of evolution, and from requiring teachers to refer to a religious, alternative theory known as ID.”

Steven Goldberg’s Bleached Faith: The Tragic Cost When Religion is Forced into the Public Square chronicles more generally the church-state implications of posting the Ten Commandments in government buildings, teaching ID, and the promotion of private faith through public (i.e., government) means — all from the perspective of a law professor. The account of ID curriculum in Dover, Pennsylvania, is but one example of many he discusses as an illustration supporting his argument against a “bleached faith,” that is, a faith emptied of its vibrant color and thereafter merely an “empty symbolism that diminishes the power of real belief.” He acknowledges that the intent of some of its proponents may be benign, but he doubts that the consequences for religion or the public square will be beneficial.

Goldberg confesses in Bleached Faith that he came to the conclusion that religion could provide him “a sense of humility, faith, and values that science and secularism cannot.” While Bleached Faith is mainly concerned with efforts to display the Ten Commandments on government property, his remarks on the legal controversy involving ID are worth considering.

He reminds readers, for example, that creationism and ID are not necessarily identical. While there are literal seven-day-creation-week creationists promoting ID, there are also supporters of ID who do indeed believe in theistic evolution.

“In its broadest outlines,” Goldberg explains, “intelligent design does not dispute that every organism on earth, including humans, might have evolved from earlier organisms or that this might have taken place over millions of years. But supporters of the theory want to teach public school students that only an ‘intelligent designer’ can explain the gaps in current Darwinian accounts of certain features in living organisms” (p. 49).

While Goldberg is sympathetic toward faith, on the legal issue before the court, he agrees with Judge Jones that mandatory inclusion of ID in a public school science curriculum fails to pass constitutional muster:

“The court found that ‘the overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.’ Leading scientific groups had rejected the notion that ID was a science. It was not testable, nor did it lead to peer-reviewed publications. ID was based, the judge said, ‘upon a false dichotomy, namely that to the extent evolutionary theory is discredited, ID is confirmed.’ The court had no difficulty in concluding that the board members who put ID in the Dover public schools were not interested in raising the level of scientific literacy in the student body. One had openly called ‘creationism’ his number-one issue …. The judge concluded that the Dover policy had the purpose of advancing religion and that it endorsed religion in violation of the non-Establishment Clause of the Constitution, as that clause had been interpreted by the United States Supreme Court” (pp. 49-50).

The Kitzmiller v. Dover decision did not make new law but only determined that inclusion of ID in a public school science curriculum violated the Establishment Clause.

Goldberg’s contribution to the conversation consists of (1) his situating of Kitzmiller v. Dover and ID in the context of Establishment Clause doctrine and, perhaps as important, (2) his sobering indictment of what ID does to religion: “With intelligent design God is introduced to explain gaps in Darwinian explanations of organisms. Of course, there are such gaps, and scientists are always working on filling them, either with existing theories or with new ones. Until they do, God is the explanation for the bacterium’s flagellum. But he’s not called God. He is an ‘intelligent designer.’ … No one believes this. It does not represent the real religious faith that nourishes millions of Americans. That faith exists outside science, because it does not speak to questions that science can answer and it does not turn on the results of laboratory experiments. Science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God, the divinity of Christ, the nature of the soul, or any of the other teachings of actual religions. Science cannot provide the sense of humility or the guidance on how to live our lives that these religions provide” (p. 51).

Edward Humes’ Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion and the Battle for America’s Soul is the most readable of the three books and chronicles the ID controversy of Dover, Pennsylvania,as only a journalist can. Humes views Kitzmiller v. Dover as a modern-day Scopes Monkey Trial. His is an imbedded reporter’s frontline account of the culture war between impassioned devotees of religion and dispassionate practitioners of science — neither of which proves to be as impassioned or dispassionate as some would think.

Moreover, Humes points out that the combatants were not necessarily the true believers versus worldly atheists. Indeed, there were believers on both sides of the debate. A leading opponent of ID in Dover, for example, was a devout Catholic. Believing God is Creator evidently does not necessarily lead to belief that ID should be part of a public school science curriculum: “Catholics generally have no problem with evolution, and church doctrine warns against taking the Bible too literally. Catholic theologians emphasize the metaphorical nature of the Old and New Testaments, so scripture and Darwin are not on a collision course as far as the Vatican is concerned” (p. 36).

Humes arrives at a position not unlike that of the late Stephen J. Gould’s NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria). That is to say, there is no clash between the scientific method and faith, because they deal with separate aspects of reality. The objects of faith (i.e., virtues, values, morals, matters of the spirit) are not readily amenable to measurement by the instruments of science. “Science doesn’t rule out the supernatural – it doesn’t rule out God as a cause – because scientists are small-minded or conspiring to cover up evidence of design, as creationism and ID often allege. Science rules out the supernatural because it is science that is limited, whereas God is not” (p. 267).

Kenneth R. Miller’s Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul is a first-hand account by a Christian biologist and expert witness who actually testified in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial. The book’s title comes from a derogatory term employed by some creationists in their critique of evolutionary theory.

Miller’s expert opinion was that ID was not science and therefore should not be required of a public school science curriculum. A Brown University biologist, Miller takes issue with those who would criticize science for focusing exclusively on material or naturalistic answers to scientific questions: “So, what of the true design of life? We live in a material world. In many ways that realization is at the very heart of science itself. By seeking material, or natural, explanations for what we see and experience, science has changed the world – or at least our view of it. We no longer look for gods to pull the sun across the sky, or evil spirits to explain our daughter’s illness” (p. 118).

Miller’s input to the narrative is not limited to the scientific issues, for he also sheds light on the heated emotions involved. “When I served as the opening witness in the September 2005 trial in federal court in Pennsylvania on the issue of teaching ‘intelligent design’ in public schools,” recounts Miller, “I was critical of the notion that ID is authentic science, and I opposed the attempts of political authorities (the local school board) to force teachers to insert it into their lessons. … What struck me about the reaction to Dover, however, was the religious character of almost every hostile comment. In addition to being told where I would likely spend eternity (no need for warm clothes, one e-mail assured me), I was repeatedly lectured about the disrespect that I and other scientists had shown for the Almighty. Evolution, according to these critics, takes God out of the picture, and therefore must be opposed by people of faith at all costs. How dare I call myself a Christian and speak on behalf of Darwin?” (pp. 158-159).

It is apparent from Miller that at least some of the heated exchanges were due not to actual friction between faith and reason but to the assumptions brought to religion and science. The Creation Narrative in the first chapters of Genesis, for example, says what it says. What the narrative leaves unsaid, however, is what the text means. The answer to that depends, like any other text, on the sort of genre of literature one assumes one is reading. If the text is a historical-scientific text, it will require arguably a fairly literal reading. If, on the other hand, it is a text concerned with matters of ultimate concern, meaning, and purpose, then perhaps a less literal (i.e., metaphorical or poetic) reading is appropriate.

“Some of this hostility,” writes Miller, “has surely been generated by those who choose to read the creation accounts of Genesis literally. … Genesis was written in a prescientific age, in the language of the day and in an attempt to communicate great truths to the people of that age. Those truths include above all the notion that we are here along with all other existence as the result of the creative power of God. They do not include an attempt to teach science” (pp. 159-160).

While these opinions are rendered perhaps outside the area of a biologist’s expertise, they nonetheless reflect patterns of thought adopted by many who seek responsibly to reconcile faith and reason, religion and science.

In conclusion, space permits three final observations regarding Intelligent Design. First, Kitzmiller v. Dover is not the last word on ID or on evolution versus religious faith. It is part of the on-going discussion whereby the public through its actions and even elections must strive to avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of either a government-enforced secularity or government-compelled religiosity. It is not just the job of judges, board of education members, or state legislators; it’s the obligation all citizens, individually and collectively, to safeguard our freedoms, including religious freedom, as we seek to educate the next generation.

While freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion, the government’s role is neither to promote nor to prohibit faith. Goldberg underscores for us that the “strength of real religion in America today is not undercut by the limits on government-supported religion in public settings. The true power of religion flows from restricting the embrace of government while protecting free exercise. We are neither France, where secularism reigns supreme, nor Iran, where one faith rules the roost. In France, students in public schools cannot wear the Muslim head scarf; in Iran, they must. In America, the American Civil Liberties Union and the religious right agree that every public school student has a right to wear religious garb if and only if he or she so desires” (p. 5).

Second, intelligent design may not yet be ready for introduction into public school curricula. But that does not mean it will never lead to scientific theories appropriate for inclusion in public school science curricula. Centuries, if not millennia, passed before scientists were able to determine the borders between alchemy and chemistry, astrology and astronomy, superstition and modern medicine. It may be that at some point the handiwork of a Designer is not otherwise explainable other than by reference to, well, a Designer. Until then, churches, mosques, and synagogues – and their religious schools – have their work cut out for them.

Third, in this age where “American Exceptionalism” is so often derided, when pride in one’s Nation is considered intellectually embarrassing, it is fitting to recall that “the unique blend of free exercise and non-establishment — our insistence on avoiding both intolerant secularism and suffocating theocracy — should be a source of pride.” (Goldberg, p. 128). School boards have of late focused on scientific literacy; perhaps an equal amount of attention to civic literacy is in order.

In the end, the Creator we seek to understand and faithfully serve is greater than any scientific theory can describe or circumscribe. And we are blessed to live today in a society where, as Humes and Miller implicitly remind us, we can pursue truth of science and Truth of Savior free of persecution by the government.

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David A. Pendleton, an administrative law judge, formerly served as an elected state legislator and a policy advisor to Hawaii’s Governor. His wife, Noemi, a Seventh-day Adventist, served as an elected member of the Hawaii State Board of Education from 1996-2000, when Hawaii addressed ID and its public school science curriculum.

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