Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Constitutionality of the Monkey Wrench: Exploring the Case for Intelligent Design

Prof. Buckles’ lecture, "The Constitutionality of the Monkey Wrench: Exploring the Case for Intelligent Design," was based on his law review article (see 9 Okla. L. Rev. 527). Buckles opened with the following definition of intelligent design ("ID"):

"[T]he hypothesis that in order to explain life it is necessary to suppose the action of an unevolved intelligence. One simply cannot explain organisms, those living and those long gone, by reference to normal natural causes or material mechanisms, be these straightforwardly evolutionary or a consequence of evolution . . . . [I]t is not necessarily the case that a commitment to Intelligent Design implies a commitment to a personal God or indeed to any God that would be acceptable to the world's major religions. The claim is simply that there must be something more than ordinary natural causes or material mechanisms, and moreover, that something must be intelligent and capable of bringing about organisms.
He next stated that the purpose of his lecture was to explore how ID could be constitutionally taught in schools. To be fair, he emphasized that he wasn't certain it should be taught in schools because he had reservations about the validity of the science behind it. Then, rather inexplicably, he stated that intelligent design is not an inherently Christian theory and in the same breath "took us to seminary." Specifically, he spent the next twenty minutes cataloging the four creationist schools of thought and how they are compatible with ID. Little discussion was actually devoted to how ID could pass constitutional muster.

He left only enough time for two questions, one of which was from the faculty adviser to the Christian Legal Society, who wanted to know the maximum amount of time one could constitutionally get away with discussing ID in a public classroom.


The second was mine. I asked how an ID curriculum in the United States, even if not religious per se, could have a practical effect on children that was anything but religious. I believe my words were to the effect of "If ID creates a theological gap in which there must be an intelligent designer of some sort, then in our society, where 80% of the population identify with the Abrahamic religions, with what can a child fill that gap other than a Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, or other religious conception of God?"

He responded that the absence of an ID curriculum would have a practical effect that was atheistic. He then proceeded to discuss events in Charles Darwin's personal life that led to his eventual rejection of Christianity, the atheism of Richard Dawkins, and early hostility in the scientific community towards the Big Bang theory. He did not, however, answer my question.

His response was revealing on several levels:

First, it suggested that he was either unwilling to consider an opposing viewpoint or simply could not answer my question.

Second, it confirmed that he had a bias in favor of religion, if not an outright agenda, which, given his seminary training, was hardly surprising, but it cast some of his arguments in an intellectually dishonest and teleological light.

Third, it significantly reduced his credibility with regard to his repeated assertion that the motivations of ID proponents do not necessarily make ID a religious theory. Applying his same logic to proponents of evolution, Dawkins’ vocal atheism and Darwin’s private disillusionment with Christianity should not have factored into the conversation. Why did their disbelief matter to him if he truly believes that the motivations of a theory's proponents do not reflect upon the theological merits of the theory itself?

Fourth, it reflected a false dichotomy central to his thesis, specifically, that there are only two possible approaches under the Constitution: intelligent design and "atheistic evolution."

Given the well documented negative connotations the term "atheist" has in America, his word choice of "atheistic evolution" strikes me as subtly alarmist. There is not a public high school teacher in this country with such ironclad job security that he would tell his students "This is how natural selection works, and your god has no role in it whatsoever." As a former teacher, I can state with confidence that such proactive atheism would be career suicide in this country, where three-quarters of students are statistically likely to identify as Christians. The likes of Richard Dawkins are not representative of the average freshman biology teacher. Yet an educational system in which all teachers espoused atheism with the ferocity of Dawkins is precisely the portrait he painted as the sole alternative to ID.

It is not.

The principles of evolution, as Prof. Buckles admits, are not inherently atheistic. It is perfectly possible to present the theory of natural selection through the lens of creationism (hence, for example, "evolutionary creationism"), just as it is possible to do so through the lens of atheism. Obviously, neither approach has a place in public schools under the Constitution. But it is just as possible to teach the basic concepts of evolution without contemplating the ultimate origins of the universe in any way. Evolution as it is actually taught in public schools does not force children to add a theological element to their understanding of evolution as a biological process. Instead, it leaves to parents the option to teach their kids that God, or Zeus, or little gray space aliens, or no one at all was responsible for setting evolution in motion. Evolution in schools can and should be a theologically neutral theory.

Unlike evolution, ID simply cannot remain theologically neutral. It forces children to conceive of an intelligent designer that defies the laws of known physics, in effect asking them to answer a question that requires faith in an entity whose existence cannot be proven and who cannot be described in scientific terms. Such faith is indistinguishable from religious notions of deity in all but the most precisely legalistic sense. To recall the old saying, if it looks like a snake, slithers like a snake and bites like a snake, is it not a snake? Buckles repeatedly sidesteps this line of inquiry by stating that ID "does not explicitly argue that the designer is supernatural, let alone divine." But how does that change the practical effect? How else can children in our overwhelmingly Judeo-Christian culture be expected to conceive of an intelligent designer?

Neither Buckles’ lecture nor his paper provided a convincing example of how the theological question that ID raises could be answered in other than deific terms. His paper weakly offers Aristotle’s Prime Mover as one example of belief in a designer that seems to fall outside the Supreme Court’s tenuous definition of religion, the fact that Aristotle refers to the Prime Mover as "God" notwithstanding. But I cannot imagine that any statistically significant percentage of primary school students have read any Aristotle, much less understood the concept of his Prime Mover, much less distinguished it as anything other than a metaphor for the mainstream conception of God. Nor will they ever.

Buckles’ thesis is intriguing as an intellectual exercise but becomes lost in semantic and legalistic tangents and loses sight of the real-world issue, namely, the practical effect that teaching ID would have on American youth. Thus, I ask again, how could an intelligent design curriculum in the United States, even if not explicitly religious on its face, lead children to conceive of an intelligent designer that was not inherently religious in nature?