Insidious Design

Disguising Dogma As Science, Religious Right Activists Have Created A New Scheme To Wedge Religion Into Public Schools

Dr. Lawrence Krauss, a physics professor at Case Western Reserve University, found it hard to believe the fight was hitting so close to home.

"I never thought it would be happening in Ohio," Krauss told Church & State. "I never thought I'd be spending a fair fraction of my time trying to fight this instead of doing useful things."

Yet almost 75 years after fundamentalists challenged John Scopes' right to teach evolution in a Tennessee high school, and nearly three years after Religious Right activists in Kansas tried to drive evolution from the state science curriculum altogether, creationists have brought their religious crusade to the Buckeye State.

Krauss and others who support religiously neutral public schools, sound science education and church-state separation have found themselves at the forefront of an extraordinary national battle a battle with skirmishes occurring from local school districts across the country all the way to the halls of Congress.

Ohio almost avoided the fight. For the first time in nearly a decade, educators there were poised to join most of the nation in teaching public school students the foundation for modern biology evolution. The standards were created after over a year of work by scientists and teachers, and the Ohio Board of Education had scheduled a vote on the package by summer.

Before the standards could be approved, however, a small group on the 40-member science-writing team cried foul. Cleveland chemist Robert Lattimer had been working to oppose evolutionary biology throughout the process, but the scientists on the panel rebuffed his ideas, insisting that the committee's work be based on legitimate science.

"They were polite and listened, but they voted eight or nine to one against," Lattimer told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

To push his cause, Lattimer joined with Religious Right activists to form a group called Science Excellence for All Ohioans (SEAO). The goal of the group was simple: lobby the Ohio Board of Education to give "intelligent design" equal time with evolution in science classes.

Intelligent design, or ID, purports that life on earth is too complex to have evolved through natural selection, and therefore, must be the product of a "designer." Unlike traditional creationists who insist that the world is 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs hitched a ride on Noah's ark, ID proponents frequently have advanced degrees in scientific fields and cloak their agenda in academic language, giving their movement the veneer of respectability.

As University of Texas Professor Robert T. Pennock explained in his award-winning book, Tower of Babel, leaders of the ID movement are often "more knowledgeable, more articulate, and far more savvy" than the usual "young-earth" creationists, who base their views on a literal reading of the Book of Genesis.

Scientists flatly reject intelligent design as non-scientific and a thinly veiled attempt to bring religion into public schools. When ID supporters speak of a "designer," critics note, they're clearly talking about God. As a result, when ID advocates ask for time in science classes, they are no different than other creationists who want to preach a religious message to students.

By every objective measure, the intelligent design movement is becoming more aggressive, and expanding its base of support among wealthy right-wing donors and political allies in government. With that in mind, advocates of religious liberty, quality science education and school neutrality on religion need to recognize that the ID controversy will likely be a hotly contested church-state issue for years to come.

For the Religious Right, the fight is incredibly important. As Pennock explained, creationists "see themselves as participants in a holy war against forces that would undermine the foundations of true Christianity and they see 'evolutionism' as the godless philosophy that unites the enemy."

Intelligent design leaders have developed a carefully crafted scheme to challenge evolutionary biology. Philip E. Johnson, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the de facto godfather of the ID cause, has labeled this strategy "the wedge."

As Johnson explained to Church & State in a 2000 interview, he intends to use intelligent design to drive a wedge into the "philosophy" of evolution.

Johnson said, "Our strategy is to drive the thin edge of our wedge into the cracks in the log of naturalism, by bringing long-neglected questions to the surface and introducing them into public debate."

In interviews with the mainstream media and appearances before the general public, Johnson maintains that his concerns are limited to quality science education. Johnson, however, has given his critics plenty of reasons to see through this charade. As Johnson wrote in his book, Defeating Darwinism, his work is intended to "redefine what is at issue in the creation-evolution controversy so that Christians, and other believers in God, could find common ground in the most fundamental issue the reality of God as our true creator."

Johnson offered a similar message at a February 1999 gathering organized by TV preacher D. James Kennedy. Johnson admitted intelligent design's religious agenda and said that through use of his "wedge," people will be introduced to the truth of the Bible, then "the question of sin" and ultimately "introduced to Jesus."

But in the recent fight over science standards in Ohio, the first full-fledged battle over intelligent design at a statewide level, education officials heard very little about students being "introduced to Jesus."

The focus was supposed to be on improving public schools, not starting a contentious and divisive religious argument over human origins. The need for education reform in Ohio had become increasingly evident, highlighted by a 2000 Fordham Foundation report that described Ohio's science standards as among the worst in the nation. The report said schools there did a poor job of teaching students the basics of biology in part because the state's science curriculum was "totally useless."

Educators reached broad agreement that Ohio's public schools, which serve 1.8 million students over 612 school districts, could do far better. In December, a committee charged with rewriting the curriculum prepared new science standards. The Ohio Academy of Science, composed of some of the state's leading scientists, evaluated and approved the proposal, concluding that evolution was "well represented."

Then SEAO, the anti-evolution group, sprang into action, criticizing the standards and working to convince members of the Ohio Board of Education, who were responsible for adopting the curriculum, that evolution isn't true.

SEAO describes itself as "a network of concerned citizens who support excellent state science standards that are fair, reasonable, and unbiased." In reality, it is a project of the American Family Association of Ohio, a state affiliate of the Rev. Donald Wildmon's Tupelo, Miss.-based Religious Right outfit, which has opposed church-state separation for years. SEAO has also teamed up with other Religious Right groups such as Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, James Dobson's Focus on the Family and the Christian Home Educators of Ohio.

Other players pushing the Religious Right agenda in Ohio were representatives of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank dedicated to promoting intelligent design. The Discovery Institute, and its anti-evolution project called the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, is the nation's leading ID organization, and the group sent some of its biggest names to Ohio to promote its cause. (See The Discovery Institute)

Advocates of public education and civil liberties lined up on the other side. In a Feb. 14 letter to Jennifer L. Sheets, president of the Ohio Board of Education, Americans United for Separation of Church and State warned that the Supreme Court and lower federal courts have ruled consistently that creationism is a religious doctrine that may not be taught in science classes.

"Ohio's students deserve a first-class education appropriate for the 21st century, not Sunday School lessons masquerading as science," said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, in a press statement.

Scientists, education officials and civil liberties activists created Ohio Citizens for Science (OCS) to defend the integrity of public school science lessons.

To address the debate, the Ohio Board of Education set up a March 11 hearing to consider the concerns from intelligent design supporters. The board permitted testimony from four speakers: two scientists in support of evolutionary biology and two Discovery Institute fellows to attack it. Media reports indicated about 1,500 people attended the three-hour meeting, which Krauss jokingly refers to as "the Scopes Trial II."

Jonathan Wells, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and author of the intelligent design manifesto, Icons of Evolution, told board members that students should learn multiple ideas about life's origins.

"There is a growing controversy over how evidence for evolution is presented, and students should know that," Wells said.

Because the Discovery Institute's representatives could not point to any scholarly research to support intelligent design no peer-reviewed academic journal has ever published anything lending credence to ID concepts they tried to convince the board members that teachers should "teach the controversy." In other words, students should be told about evolution, and then they should learn why creationists don't like it.

The only problem with that approach is that there is no debate in the legitimate scientific community.

"The idea of teaching about a controversy may sound good, but it's disingenuous because there is no scientific controversy," Krauss said. "They use language that sounds sensible. 'We just want fairness,' they'll say. 'We just want an equal playing field for our ideas.' The point is they already have an equal playing field the field of science. They can submit their ideas to journals, and get peer reviewed, and if their ideas are any good they'll make it into the scientific canon, and make it down into the high schools. What they want is something completely unfair, to bypass the whole process and go directly to the high school students."

Discovery Institute representatives also told board members that students would benefit from teachers giving equal time to learning about ideas other than evolution. As their argument goes, the more young people learn about different ideas, the more educated they will be. Students can consider competing concepts, ID advocates argue, and then decide for themselves what to believe.

Kenneth Miller, a cell biologist and professor at Brown University, told the board that the appeal for equal time may sound good, but wouldn't do students any favors.

"Being open-minded does not mean that adding two plus two equals five should be taught in math class," Miller said.

ID advocates, despite constant references to a "designer," almost never publicly acknowledge religion. When Discovery Institute staffers addressed the Ohio board, they never argued, as traditional creationists would, that evolution conflicts with the Bible.

As scholar Pennock explains, this is a standard feature of the intelligent design strategy.

"One of the main things [intelligent design creationists] have learned is what not to say," Pennock observed in Tower of Babel. "A major element of their strategy is to advance a form of creationism that not only omits any explicit mention of Genesis but is also usually vague, if not mute, about any of the specific claims about the nature of Creation...that readily identify young-earth creationism as a thinly veiled disguised biblical literalism."

As a practical matter, federal court rulings have left the new breed of creationists little choice. First, their goal of prohibiting evolution lessons in state schools was rejected by the Supreme Court in its 1968 Epperson v. Arkansas ruling. Then, the high court ruled against the strategy of giving creationism equal time with evolution the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard decision.

Since these rulings, the creationist crusaders have split into broad camps: young-earth creationists on one side, intelligent design advocates on the other. Both continue to wage their fights against evolution as frequently, and as fiercely, as ever.

In April, for example, the school board in Cobb County, Ga., yielded to local political pressure from a Baptist minister and his allies and agreed to insert a note in all science texts warning students that evolution should not be considered "fact."

Patricia Fuller, a parent who pushed for the inclusion of creationism, told education officials, "God created Earth and man in his image. Leave this [evolution] garbage out of the textbooks. I don't want anybody taking care of me in a nursing home some day to think I came from a monkey."

Another young-earth creationist, Ken Cumming, dean of the Institute for Creation Research's (ICR) graduate school, assailed a PBS special seven-part series on evolution broadcast last fall. Writing in the ICR's magazine, Impact, he suggested that the educational series has "much in common" with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States.

"[W]hile the public now understands from President Bush that 'we're at war' with religious fanatics around the world," Cumming said, "they don't have a clue that America is being attacked from within through its public schools by a militant religious movement called Darwinists...."

TV preacher Pat Robertson even believes that the Smithsonian Institution is involved in a conspiracy to cover up proof of biblical creationism. In August, the religious broadcaster told viewers of his "700 Club" program that "somewhere in the Dakotas," a researcher found "an incredible cache of information that would have definitely proved" that creationism was true.

"He brought it back to the Smithsonian, and they hid it," Robertson said. "They hid it in drawers, they wouldn't let it come out.... [This researcher] had catalogues of tremendous discovery, but because it went against the prevailing view of evolution, it was suppressed."

Ironically, young-earth creationists sometimes take time out from their religious campaign to turn their attention to criticizing intelligent design itself. For example, ICR founder Henry Morris, believes the ID movement has the right intentions, but fails to keep the Bible at the forefront.

"[T]his [ID] approach, even if well-meaning and effectively articulated, will not work!" Morris wrote in 1999. "The reason it won't work is because it is not the Biblical method."

ID strategist Johnson is well aware of the divisions within the broader creationist effort and is frustrated by the in-fighting. He would prefer that all creationists stick to condemning evolution, not each other.

"People of differing theological views should learn who's close to them, form alliances and put aside divisive issues 'til later," Johnson told Christianity Today in 1998. "I say after we've settled the issue of a creator, we'll have a wonderful time arguing about the age of the Earth."

Though ID is just now becoming a serious movement, the idea itself is not new.

Exactly two centuries ago, in 1802, the Rev. William Paley published a book titled, Natural Theology. The text's simple premise is that the "irreducible complexity" of earth's creatures proves the "existence and attributes" of a deity. The influential treatise was later rejected as science began to understand and appreciate Charles Darwin's theory, published over a half-century later, in The Origin of Species.

Despite the progress of modern science, Paley's idea continues to influence the contemporary ID cause.

As Dr. Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and one of the nation's leading opponents of creationism, explained in Scientific American, "These creationists have taken William Paley's 18th-century 'Argument from Design' and established an entire subspecies of anti-evolutionism around it."

Ohio activist Krauss believes the basic premises of intelligent design demonstrate why it doesn't belong in science classrooms.

"Intelligent design is definitely not science," Krauss said. "First of all, it doesn't actually make any predictions. It makes a claim, but it doesn't make any predictions that are testable, or falsifiable, and if it isn't falsifiable, it isn't science."

Nevertheless, ID advocates constantly argue that their ideas are not only scientifically sound, but also free of religious inferences.

During the Ohio debate, for example, SEAO's Lattimer told the Columbus Dispatch, "We don't say who the designer is. We simply ask the questions as to whether something can form naturally or if there must have been something more, a designer."

Intelligent design enthusiasts' efforts to avoid religious references in public can sometimes become humorous. When scientists ask who the "intelligent designer" is if it isn't God, some ID advocates actually suggest life could have been designed by aliens from outer space.

Michael Behe, a biochemistry professor, author of the ID book Darwin's Black Box, and a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year that people may look to extraterrestrials for the designer.

"Although intelligent design fits comfortably with a belief in God, it doesn't require it, because the scientific theory doesn't tell you who the designer is," Behe said. "While most people including me will think the designer is God, some people might think that the designer was a space alien...."

William Dembski, a mathematician, philosopher and also a scholar at the Discovery Institute, makes a similar argument.

"It could be space aliens," Dembski told the San Francisco Chronicle in March. "There are many possibilities."

Evolution's defenders recognize that this is part of carefully crafted strategy to circumvent court rulings that prohibit public schools from promoting religion. After the Ohio board's hearing on intelligent design, NCSE's Scott told reporters that education officials should see through the ID charade.

"Look, it's God, not a little green man," Scott said. "We know that."

While intelligent design supporters are not afraid to make outlandish, and seemingly unscientific claims, they continue to earn the support of political officials who share their hostility to religiously neutral public schools and church-state separation.

In Ohio, for example, State Rep. Linda Reidelbach (R-Columbus) introduced legislation in January that would require public schools to teach multiple concepts about life's origins. State Sen. Jim Jordan (R-Urbana), another lawmaker in Ohio, followed up with a measure requiring that the science standards be voted on by the state legislature.

In 2002, officials in other states were also working to undermine evolutionary biology at the statewide level. Lawmakers in Mississippi, Washington and Georgia, and state education board members in Hawaii, have considered proposals this year to have science teachers offer anti-evolution lessons.

In Michigan, several lawmakers sponsored HB 4382, which would require the state board of education to change the science curriculum to include lessons reflecting that "life is the result of the purposeful, intelligent design of a creator."

As of yet, none of those proposals have become law. However, a seemingly inconsequential fight over part of President George W. Bush's education plan, passed by Congress last year, has given creationists valuable new rhetorical ammunition.

In June, the U.S. Senate approved a little-noticed amendment to the education bill intended to promote discussion of creationism in public schools. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) sponsored the provision, which urged public schools to expose students to "the full range of scientific views that exist" and to "help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy." ID champion Johnson later took credit for crafting the language, which was watered down and then approved in the Senate by a 91-8 vote.

Subsequently, Santorum issued a statement asserting that the amendment became law when the president signed the education reform bill in January. A letter signed by Reps. John Boehner (R) and Steve Chabot (R), and distributed by the Discovery Institute, bolstered Santorum's claim.

"The Santorum language is now part of the law," the Ohio Republicans said.

The representatives' claims aren't true, and the Santorum amendment never made it into the final law. After the Senate passed the education bill, members of the House of Representatives and Senate met in a conference committee to reconcile different versions of the legislation passed by both chambers. The Santorum language appeared in the measure's conference report, but the report is not officially part of the legislation.

Thus, despite the fact that the Santorum language is non-binding, creationists have argued that the provision gives schools a green light to change the way they teach science. In Ohio, for example, a Discovery Institute representative went so far as to tell the board of education that the measure created a legal obligation for Ohio to offer anti-evolution lessons.

Brown University's Miller exposed the dishonesty of this claim by literally going through the text of the new education law with board members, page by page, proving the Santorum amendment was not there.

"The fact that the anti-evolutionists eagerly misrepresent both the content of the education bill and the language in the new education act is at once distressing and instructive," Miller said. "It is indeed sad to see how people who claim only to be interested in the truth are willing to mislead the public, but it also sets a standard of inaccuracy by which the people of Ohio may judge the reliability of their scientific claims as well."

Opponents of creationist efforts realize that this and other tactics will be used as the debate in Ohio continues. It's certain to pop up elsewhere when states consider new science standards in the future.

Krauss believes that vigilance is the only appropriate response.

"People can't be complacent," Krauss said. "Scientists tend to think things will be okay because the best ideas win out in the end.... That's unfortunately not the case. Scientists have to become activists and to be evangelical, just as evangelical as the enemies of science. The scientists have to be prepared to go into high schools and churches and all the places where these people are distorting truth and try and fight on behalf of science.

"With creationists, there are people who are systematically and energetically distorting truth and distorting the evidence to achieve their political agenda," Krauss concluded. "Scientists have to realize that they have to get into the fray."