Providing Some Clarification: Intelligent Design and Freedom of Religion

"The Creation of Adam" -- Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel (Photo: public domain)

Note: Text in brackets, “[ ],” was added after the original version was published to further clarify my thoughts.

I assumed in my last post that more people would understand what I meant when I said that Bible classes and Creationism do not belong in public schools. But, as the comments I’ve received on that post are demonstrating, people seem to misunderstanding what I meant. So, the purpose of this post is to provide some clarification and more clearly define some essential terminology.

To refresh your memory, my last post, “Bible Classes, Creationism Do Not Belong in Public Schools. Period.” concerned my belief that 1) the Bible should not be taught in public schools and 2) discussions about intelligent design/Creationism do not belong in the public school science classroom. It should be pointed out that the American judicial system has for the past several decades also held these positions to be true, most recently in the ruling for Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. Incidentally, the presiding judge in that case was appointed to the federal court circuit by former President George W. Bush, one of the darlings of the social conservative movement.


Before we go any further, let’s define some terminology that will help clarify the points I’m attempting to convey. Bear in mind, this list isn’t exhaustive and different people will likely provide different definitions, especially since beliefs on cosmogony tend to exist on a spectrum. Even so, this will suffice for my purposes here.

  1. Creationism – a label encompassing a vast number of beliefs claiming, more or less, that the physical universe and life were created by a god. As this term applies to the modern controversy over evolution in the United States, it typically refers to a belief that the Abrahamic God (YHWH) created the heavens and the Earth. Contrary to what may be a common misconception, the term Creationism by itself does not imply a belief in a particular geologic timeline or sequence of events, merely that a deity is responsible for the existence of the cosmos. Intelligent design (ID) is another term for Creationism and was invented to make it more scientifically palatable.
  2. Young Earth Creationism (YEC) – as a sub-belief of Creationism, YEC is typically a belief positing that God created the heavens and the Earth in a literal period of six days roughly 6000 years ago (the more “liberally-minded” among them might concede 60,000). It is usually informed by a faulty literal and chronological interpretation of the first and second chapters of Genesis and other passages from the Old Testament. YEC has virtually no support among serious scientists and little to no supporting evidence in the geologic record.
  3. Old Earth Creationism (OEC) – also called “theistic evolution,” this is a form of Creationism usually holding that God created the universe and, ultimately, human life in a way that doesn’t contradict the evidence in the geologic record. From a practical standpoint, it holds that evolution was a God-instituted and God-directed process that, over the more than 4 billion years the Earth has existed, eventually resulted in the modern biosphere. Unlike it’s delusional counterpart YEC, theistic evolution does have support among the modern scientific community, notably from Dr. Francis Collins, the current director of the National Institutes of Health, the mastermind of the Human Genome Project (which demonstrated that the original human population numbered around 10,000, not 2), and head of BioLogos.
  4. Evolution – a term that encompasses multiple theories collectively referring to well-supported scientific evidence that suggests life evolves via natural selection both intraspecies (i.e., within a particular species; microevolution) and–most controversially for some Christians–interspecies (i.e., from one species into another; macroevolution). It holds that human beings share a common ancestor with modern primates and are, by extension, members of the primate family themselves. Some Creationists like to point to the current existence of chimps and other primates as evidence evolution is a farce; Stephen Wise, the sponsor of a Florida law that would allow teachers to “critique” evolution, once rhetorically asked a Florida radio host, “Why do we still have apes if we came from them?” The question is a genetic fallacy: human beings didn’t come from apes; we share a common ancestor.

Assertion 1: Classes with the Bible as their sole or primary text are inappropriate for public schools.

As public institutions that cater to the American public at large, if public schools were to require students who are Hindu, Muslim, atheist, or who belong to some other religion to learn the Bible (or learn about the Bible’s impact on Western civilization independent of other literature that has had a similar impact), that would be a violation of their constitutional right to freedom of religion.

Some argue that making these courses elective negates this concern; nevertheless, that setup would still be government favoring one religion over another [by virtue of the fact that only one religion would be presented. The courts have typically held that when schools allow one religion to be represented, then they must allow all, which is the logic behind allowing school-sanctioned Christian groups to form. This logic doesn’t extend to course curricula, however. Justifying the existence of a Bible- or Christian-only class by saying one of another religion could be formed anytime doesn’t work since students can’t organize classes the way they can clubs; furthermore, classes and clubs are different constructs serving different purposes. If schools can’t afford to have specific classes for each major religion, then they can have one for all of them and remain inside constitutional bounds.]

So, in short, having the Christian Bible as a required text for a course would only be appropriate 1) in a sacred texts/world religions class where students learn about the holy books of various religions from a secular, objective point of view; or 2) in a class that examined literary influences on Western culture that included other literary works which have been similarly influential, such as Greek philosophy and Enlightenment ideology.

If parents want their kids to learn about the Bible from a Christian perspective, that’s what Sunday school is for. Since conservatives tend to be all about limited government, it seems that would be right up their alley. In any case, I don’t understand why Christians would advocate the Bible to be taught in public schools anyway. I mean, there’s only two things that could happen as a result of that and neither of them are good. Either some Christian teachers are going to end up evangelizing (which is illegal, since their salaries are funded by tax dollars) or some non-Christian teaches will go out of their way to attempt to destroy the Bible’s credibility. Granted, some might teach it from a neutral point of view, but to believe that will be the norm is fanciful.

One more point I’d like to make: I’ve noticed some conservatives attempting to interpret the First Amendment to mean only that the U.S. Congress can’t establish a state church but that the states are free to advocate and favor Christianity all they want. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant; believing this will actually fly in modern America is nothing short of a pipe dream.

Assertion 2: Intelligent design does not belong in the public school science classroom.

It was and continues to be my belief that public school science teachers who refuse to accurately teach their discipline should not be employed by the public school system. Now, I mean something very specific by this statement: I’m referring to teachers who elect to teach Young Earth Creationism in lieu of or alongside as equitable with the theory of evolution. As I’ve said, Young Earth Creationism has been thoroughly debunked by modern scientific research and enjoys virtually no support among serious scientists. It’s like continuing to argue that the Earth is flat (which, oddly enough, some people still do).

On a separate but related note, it is also inappropriate for science classes to include discussion of ID, predicated on the fact that any discussion of intelligent design is fundamentally and inescapably religious in nature and is not related to scientific study.

In a comment on my last post, someone mentioned the concept of irreducible complexity as a weakness to macroevolution and, ergo, a reason for teaching ID in the classroom. Even so, the most that proponents of the idea can hope to prove scientifically is that some form of irreducible complexity precludes the notion that life and the cosmos formed at random and without direction. As an attempt to assign meaning to irreducible complexity, ID is a part of a completely separate discipline from science; they’re linked, but not conjoined. The additional fact that ID’s advocates cannot realistically hope to prove the identity of that Intelligence further demonstrates it does not belong in an empirically-based biology or Earth science classroom. Otherwise, the end result will be, as Cara Santa Maria suggested in her blog piece for the Huffington Post, a lot of science teachers of different religious persuasions assigning whatever identity to that Intelligence they so please and all independent of the expectations associated with scientific research.

Someone naïvely suggested in a comment on the previous post that teachers should be allowed to discuss ID, but not talk about the identity of the intelligence. I hope this isn’t a widespread belief because it’s utterly farcical. Do people honestly expect science teachers in discussing ID to say, “The universe was created, but I’m not allowed to talk about by whom”?

Final Thoughts

This whole controversy is among the most annoying things in contemporary politics. It’s something that’s been almost completely manufactured by the religious right, particularly by politicians in conservative states wanting to pander to their Christian constituencies’ fears and–in a lot of cases–ignorance. I honestly don’t understand why some people refuse to accept as legitimate the veritable mountain of well-documented empirical evidence supporting evolutionary theory. Is it a faith thing? Are they afraid their belief in God will collapse if they accept evolution as legitimate? That makes no sense to me, as I’ve long-since accepted the scientific evidence and yet continue love the Lord with all my heart.

Not to be forgotten in all of this is the only really important question: does continually fanning the flames of this controversy do anything constructive to furthering Christ’s Kingdom on Earth? No, nothing, in my opinion; it only gives people reason to view the Church as an obstructionist force. The U.S. is a great place and I’m proud to live here; what I’m not proud of though is the way some elements of the Church act like spoiled children who’ve had the playground all to themselves for a long time and are now having to learn to share.

Accepting evolution isn’t abandoning a belief in Creation; it’s acknowledging that God is capable of doing things in far more complex ways than we tend to imagine. Accepting that the Bible shouldn’t be taught independent of other religious texts in public schools isn’t admitting defeat in some mostly-contrived and ill-conceived “culture war;” it’s acknowledging the growing demographic and religious diversity of the country we live in and allowing the public school system to effectively and equally serve the American people. And that’s about all there is to it.

7 thoughts on “Providing Some Clarification: Intelligent Design and Freedom of Religion

  1. Pingback: Bible Classes, Creationism Do Not Belong in Public Schools. Period. | Roygeneable

  2. Roy-Gene,
    It is my theory (only a theory of course) that God had men write the Bible with great consideration to the simplicity of the human mind at the time it was written. It was far too much to try and explain how he formed them over millions of years to become what they are; human. Through most of Biblical times, men were still ignorant about many things, especially science. They still believed the Earth was flat and the Sun evolved around it. We now know there thinking was wrong, even some of the writers of the Bible were wrong because of their lack of knowledge of scientific facts. God knew they were wrong too but that isn’t how He communicated to them, word for word but with their own understanding.

    For one thing, God doesn’t think of time the way we think of it. There’s also a misunderstood analogy concerning this scripture:

    “But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”2 Peter 3:8.

    What Peter was explaining here was that with God, there is no time so even a thousand years could be a day to God. There seems to be some misunderstanding even by the more open-minded side that it took God six thousand years to create this Earth and all that’s in it. Notice the “…as a thousand years” which implies a comparison to, not actually a thousand years exactly. There really isn’t a set time for a day or even a thousand years to God, He sees things through an eternal, infinite perception and time simply doesn’t exist for Him.

    I do believe when we Christians finally reach our destination as Christians; sharing in the joy of Heaven but also in the completeness of knowledge that we’ll then realize all our bickering over interpretations of His Word and the divisions that have separated denominations and caused even great wars and much death and destruction, were never part of Him in the first place. It was our clinging to our religious beliefs that everyone should see the same way I do or else they’re heathen, infidels and the devil’s own children that separated us from Him because with God, it’s always just about you and Him and no one else. Your beliefs are all about you and your God and no one else.

    He is a personal God and it never really matters what anyone else believes, only what you believe. Some people find God through Christianity and some find God through Islam. Some find God through Judaism and some through Hinduism. No one has the right to judge anyone’s spirituality or religion but their own. We worship with those who share our beliefs but we allow God to be big enough and diverse enough to show Himself differently through different people and in a way that is personal, not political or socially or even religiously, just personal. Saying that, we can be right, they can be right because as long as we hunger and thirst after righteousness, we will be filled.

  3. I consider myself an evangelical Christian (meaning that: I believe the entire Bible is true; I don’t change the definition of parts or leave out parts of the Bible to correspond to my desires and lifestyle, but instead I try to adjust my life and my desires to correspond to the Bible.) That said, after thinking about it, I think it many believers would be FAR less happy than they realize were the Bible taught as a regular subject in government schools. Why? Not all teachers at government schools are Christians. I have the highest respect for teachers and I believe they care for their students. However, if they believe the Bible is a collection of myths, they’d probably teach the subject with a good deal of resentment, and probably (although perhaps unintentionally) with a viewpoint which would undermine the faith of the children they’re teaching.

    Would there be benefits to the Bible being taught in school? Definitely. Back when kids brought the Bible to school they weren’t bringing guns. Whenever I read the Bible, I notice a significant change in myself for the better following the reading, and I’ve personally observed this effect on others. I’m not trying to make the case that taking the Bible out of schools directly led to tragedies such as the Columbine massacre. However, I do believe that if the Bible were taught in school we would at least see less bullying.

    My point is, were the Christians who want the Bible taught in government schools to get their way, they’d likely soon regret it because it wouldn’t be taught the way THEY’D want it to be. However, I think it’s teaching would benefit the children in the schools.

    • Incidentally, I have thought about doing a podcast, but I’d try to make it more interesting than me just reading my posts, which are fairly dense and don’t make for good audio.

  4. Hey Roy-Gene. I took Phil. of Science here, read a ton of books on the subject, and I also work with an Honors Research Team on Reverse Engineering with Halsmer and some of its natural, theological, and philosophical aspects. I think that some of the classifications are a little off, The way I see it, 1) Old Earth Creationism, 2) Young Earth(allows some evolution), 3)ID 4) Theistic Evolution 5) Non-Theistic Evolution(Philosophical) Each of these views interact with each other, are opposed to certain other ones specifically, and are defined in different terms. I would encourage you to talk to one of three people. Dr. Dominic Halsmer, the Dean of the College of Science and Engineering, and get his perspective on these different ones. (By the way Collins would have a huge issue with being in the OEC group, because he is a theistic evolutionist). Dr. Bill Collier, who teaches the Phil. Sci class would also be a good person to talk to. He also has pondered the question of whether ID should be in schools, as has Halsmer. Dr. Ken Weed is quite cool too. I am the student president of the American Scientific Affiliation here at ORU, which is primarily a forum for theology and science to engage and interact. I’d love to talk to you more on this subject!

    • The definitions weren’t meant to be an exhaustive classification of all the positions a person could hold. Indeed, you could probably talk to thirty different people and come up with thirty different definitions for each and then some on the side as Creationist/evolutionist beliefs tend to exist on a spectrum, with the more extreme forms of YEC on one end and the Philosophical Evolution you refer to on the other. OEC and theistic evolution aren’t equitable, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate to put them together as they’re very similar.

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