October 2006 Church & State | Featured

Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, and Glenn Branch, deputy director of NCSE, have edited Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools (Beacon Press). The new book is a collection of essays by leading thinkers who outline the threat presented by “intelligent design,” the latest variant of creationism.

Scott discusses the book in this Q&A with Church & State.

Q. The new book you’ve edited with Glenn Branch has a provocative title: Not In Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools. Let’s get right to the heart of the matter: Why shouldn’t intelligent design (ID) be taught in our schools?

Scott: ID should not be taught both for pedagogical and legal reasons. The few scientific claims that ID makes are not supported by the evidence, and the view of science it incorporates is greatly different than that of mainstream science.  ID is therefore pedagogically unsuitable for presentation in a science class.  And, because it is a sectarian religious dogma, it should not be advocated in the public schools in any class. In summary, intelligent design is a sectarian religious dogma masquerading as science.  

Q. You contribute a chapter in the book about the history of creationism. Over the years, we’ve seen advocates of creationism change their terminology. They have called their ideas “evidence against evolution,” the “theory of abrupt appearance” and others. What is the significance of the use of the term “intelligent design”?

Scott: The term “intelligent design” was coined by a group of creationists who were unhappy with the failure of a previous form of creationism, “creation science,” to pass legal muster. Creation science also fails to appeal to mainstream Protestants and Catholics because it relies upon biblical literalist theology. To avoid the problems of creation science, the founders of intelligent design sought a “creationism lite” that would appeal across the board to Christians, but that would also avoid sounding too religious and thus duck under the First Amendment. 

So instead of saying “God did it,” they contended that complex structures were the result of the actions of an “intelligent agent.” This was vague enough, they hoped, that all Christians could accept it – they weren’t arguing for six-day creation – and they hoped that by not mentioning God explicitly, they could avoid the First Amendment. Alas for them, they failed, as illustrated by the ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District.

Q. Not In Our Classrooms contains an essay by two theologians who debunk ID. Why are religious voices important in this debate?

Scott: Creationists have convinced a large segment of the population that one has to choose between faith and evolution. It is true that evolution is incompatible with some Christian interpretations, but it is not incompatible with all. The best-kept secret in this controversy is that mainstream Protestants and Catholics accept evolution, and mainstream theologians are the ones who have to make this point.

Q. The Discovery Institute, the nation’s leading pro-ID group, claims to be a non-religious organization and works at keeping overt religious references out of its materials and public comments. How does this group fit into the larger push for creationism?

Scott: The Discovery Institute follows in the well-worn path of creation science by claiming to be a scientific organization rather than a religious ministry, but actions belie words. Publications by its fellows that it promotes on its Web site and at Discovery Institute-sponsored conferences clearly present a sectarian Christian agenda. And of course the whole raison d’être of intelligent design is to claim that science cannot explain certain phenomena and hence they must be explained by the “intelligent agent” (God). So the Discovery Institute uses the same techniques as the proponents of creation science before them, to deliver a somewhat watered-down, but still easily recognizable, version of the same message.

Q. Traditional “young-earth” creationists insist that the earth is only 6,000 years old, basing this on their reading of the Book of Genesis. Many advocates of ID accept that the earth is ancient. How do these two camps work together despite their differences?

Traditional creationists have written that the intelligent- design arguments may lead people away from evolution, but they will not lead people to Jesus. Basically they criticize ID as being “insufficiently biblical.” This is true of the leaders of the traditional creationist organizations; the rank-and-file still appear to be embracing intelligent design as a useful way of combating evolution in the schools.

Q. What is it about Darwinian evolution that so upsets backers of intelligent design?

Scott: Because intelligent-design backers are a quite varied lot, some of them are concerned because evolution is incompatible with a literal interpretation of the Bible, but others are more concerned about the theological consequences of evolution by natural selection being among the means by which God brought the world of living things into being. Natural selection, of course, results in a great deal of waste and pain – not the sort of thing that you want to associate with a benevolent God. Their protestations that they want to keep evolution out of the schools because it is weak science are disingenuous at best. The reasons they object to evolution are religious at bottom.

Q. The polls in this area are often discouraging. They often show 45 or 50 percent of respondents backing creationist ideas. We’re winning in court, but are we losing the battle for public opinion?

Scott: We’re not losing the battle for public opinion: the poll numbers have not changed appreciably over time. But that means that we’re not winning either, despite often heroic efforts from the scientific, educational and civil liberties communities. In a recent study in which I had a small role, a finer analysis of poll data on evolution showed an increase in the category of “not sure,” with a corresponding decrease about equally in accepters and rejecters. Possibly the controversy over the teaching of evolution has moved people from the “accept” and “reject” categories.  Whatever the cause, we have a lot of work to do to persuade that 21 percent “not sure” group that evolution is sound science that their children need to learn.

Q. As you point out in the book, there is no dispute over evolution in the scientific community. The fight plays out in the political arena. Given that, what do we need to know to win?

Scott: Citizens need to pay attention to what is going on in their local communities and states regarding public school education. Know what your school board members stand for when it comes to the teaching of evolution. Support candidates who will do a good job. It’s a cliché, but you get the government you deserve. The Religious Right is not doing anything illegal about organizing in turning out the vote for their candidates. Go thou forth and do likewise.

Q. What role do Religious Right organizations and figures like James Dobson, Pat Robertson, D. James Kennedy and Jerry Falwell play in the promotion of Intelligent Design?

Scott: Most Religious Right leaders don’t take this issue on as a core concern of their ministries – they’re much more focused on abortion and homosexuality. Evolution is something they opportunistically seize upon to promote their conservative religious views, mostly through local affiliates: This was the case in Ala­bama with Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, which successfully lobbied in the mid-1990s for a warning label about evolution to be affixed to each and every biology textbook in the state. A version of that label is present even today. Kennedy is probably the most enthusiastic for ID, and he also promotes young-earth creationism, as does Jerry Falwell. Dobson rejects young-earth creationism, which is a problem for some of his supporters, but he also is an enthusiastic supporter of ID – when he needs to be. Pat Robert­son’s position is similar to Dobson’s, but it will come as no surprise that his statements on the topic have been over the top – for example, after voters in Dover, Pa., repudiated the school district’s anti-evolution policy, Robertson publicly warned the town of the possibility of divine retribution!

Q. Where do you see this debate going in the future? Do you believe ID and other forms of creationism will ever truly vanish from the American cultural landscape?

Scott: I guess the previous question leads into this one! Advocates promote the teaching of ID as a matter of fairness or balance in the classroom. This is a strategy that resonates deeply with the American public, and is difficult to counter: people have to understand that it’s not “fair” to present incorrect science to students in the classroom. But in order to make that point, it is often necessary to explain why the science is bad, and that’s where you lose people. “Let the students have all the views and let them decide” is extremely popular. I believe that as long as such a large percentage of the American population believes that they have to choose between evolution and their faith, we will have controversies about the teaching of evolution.