Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh weighed in on the Dover intelligent design trial yesterday, rightly characterizing the opinion of Judge John E. Jones III as aggressive judicial overreach. But Limbaugh also suggested that design theorists appeared disingenious in drawing a sharp distinction between creationism and intelligent design. Since newspapers routinely mangle our position on this matter, it’s little wonder.
Traditional creationism begins with the Bible and moves from there to science. Intelligent design begins and ends with science. It has larger metaphysical implications, but so does Darwinism. The theory of intelligent design is a methodology for detecting design, and scholars from a variety of backgrounds employ it–Christian, Jew, Hindu, even a former atheist like Antony Flew, who still rejects the God of the Bible.
When comparing and contrasting intelligent design and creationism, the problem for any commentator is which definition of creationism to use. Kenneth Miller, a staunch Darwinist who believes that the Biblical God designed the Big Bang and fine-tuned the physical constants of nature, admitted at the Dover trial that he is a creationist in a broad sense of the term.
The legally relevant definition of creationism comes from Edwards vs. Aguillard (1987), the Supreme Court decision that declared creationism unconstitutional for public school science. There the Court found that Louisiana’s creationism act entailed the teaching of religion by virtue of a specific religious construction, comprised of particular teachings clearly paralleling the ‘Book of Genesis. Thus, it was a specific set of teachings or doctrines from a religious source that constituted religion. Whatever you want to label intelligent design, it isn’t what the Court described in Edwards vs. Aguillard, and the fact that the leading design theorists believe in the Biblical God is beside the point. There’s nothing in the Constitution that says a scientist’s arguments should be ignored simply because of his religious beliefs.
Early design theorists like Charles Thaxton say that, as scientists, they were trying to develop a purely scientific methodology that came to grips with the evidence for design in nature. Others insist that these early design theorists boiled from their methodology any evidence based on Biblical authority simply to pass constitutional muster. The remarkable thing is this: from a legal standpoint, it shouldn’t make any difference which scenario you accept.
Imagine, for the sake of argument, that the early design theorists entered a smoke-filled room, locked the door, rolled up their sleeves and said:
Let’s develop a methodology that will pass muster with Edwards vs. Aguillard, a methodology that sticks strictly with scientific evidence, makes no appeals to Biblical authority, and doesn’t try to defend a literal reading of Genesis but, instead, is general enough that Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and even non-religious philosophers like Antony Flew could all employ our methodology. Oh wait. We’ve already done that in The Mystery of Life’s Origin (1984), which got positive responses from mainstream scientists and big wig philosophers like Darwinist and atheist Antony Flew. What else do we need to do? To distinguish it from the old creationist methodology, which moves back and forth between scientific evidence and Scripture, we’ll give it a snappy name–intelligent design.
This, of course, is a fictional caricature right out of the Barbara Forrest playbook, but even if one swallows it whole, who cares, as long as the guys in the smoke-filled room really did remove the appeals to Biblical authority from their scientific writings?
As University of Chicago Law Professor Albert Alschuler comments concerning the Dover school board: “It seems odd to characterize the desire to go far as the law allows as an unlawful motive. People who try to stay within the law although they would prefer something else are good citizens.”
To get around the substantive differences between intelligent design and biblical creationism, Judge Jones had to fixate on motive (both real and imagined); he had to assume that if he can identify one motive, he has magically ruled out the possibility of another motive playing a crucial role (in this case, the desire of ID scientists to follow the evidence wherever leads, even if it means upsetting a few Darwinists); and he had to mischaracterize ID as a religion-based theory when instead it’s a theory based on scientific evidence that, like Darwinism, has larger metaphysical implications.