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Jerry Coyne Admits that Intelligent Design Is Science

Casey Luskin

Actually, he doesn’t — but saying he does is about as accurate as saying, as Coyne writes in a post today, that “Casey Luskin admits that Intelligent Design is religious.” Jerry Coyne is playing more games, constantly pretending that we have “admitted” intelligent design is religious when we criticize Ball State University (BSU) for being “anti-religious.” In his post, Coyne was responding to a letter I published in the Muncie Star Press explaining the anti-religious nature of the book What’s Your Dangerous Idea?. He claims because I protest that the book is “anti-religious,” therefore I’m saying intelligent design is religious.
FreedomUnderFire.jpgOf course Jerry Coyne has been touting the book as “pro-religious” even though he admits “I don’t have a copy of the book here,” so Coyne seems to be just saying whatever he wants, regardless of the truth of the matter. He oddly labels my letter a “screed,” but the Star Press limits its letters to 250 words, which didn’t exactly give much space to explain how the book could be both anti-religious and anti-ID, and that those are separate issues. So let me elaborate here.

We’re Not Arguing, or Saying, or “Admitting” that ID Is Religion
Coyne takes issue with the last couple of sentences of my letter which state:

Indiana taxpayers and BSU donors should be asking: Why did BSU cancel Eric Hedin’s honors course that discussed evidence for intelligent design, while simultaneously defending an honors course whose sole textbook is an anti-religious polemic?

Coyne writes in response:

What’s especially telling about Luskin’s letter is his tacit admission that ID, if it’s to be criticized in any class, must be balanced with “traditional religion”. If ID isn’t religious, and is, as the Discovery Institute claims, purely science, and if its scientific conclusions point to the existence of a designer with intelligence, why on Earth would that have anything to do with “traditional religion”?

No, that’s not my argument at all — that ID “must be balanced with ‘traditional religion'” — I said no such thing in my letter. My letter simply exposes BSU’s double standards and inconsistencies, adopted for the purpose of prohibiting faculty from supporting ID (on the grounds that ID is religious), but allowing them to attack ID, and also allowing them to attack traditional religious views. Before going further, here’s my view on what “ought” to be the case in education.

ID is science. ID shouldn’t be banned. That means faculty in a public university should be freely allowed to advocate ID or attack it.

But if you’re going to ban faculty from supporting ID, that ban should be applied fairly and also prohibit faculty from attacking ID. Vigorous debates should be allowed on these scientific questions. But a public institution can’t only allow anti-ID views, thereby engaging in something like a form of viewpoint discrimination. I’ve explained this position multiple times, such as here:

Either a viewpoint is religious and thereby unconstitutional to advocate as correct or critique as false in public schools, or it is scientific and fair game for both advocacy and critique in public schools. In the present author’s view, creationism should be considered a religious viewpoint that can be neither advocated as true nor critiqued as false in public schools, and intelligent design should be considered a scientific viewpoint that is fair game for both advocacy and critique in public schools. Whatever the solution is, there is presently a gross lack of legal symmetry, and an overabundance of jurisprudential hypocrisy, if a public school teacher cannot legally say that creationism or intelligent design is scientifically correct, but can call these views scientifically incorrect, or “nonsense.”
If selective enforcement of the law is a hallmark of tyranny, then we should be exceedingly troubled by both the constitutional implications and hypocrisy of the evolution lobby — behavior that opposes advocating ID and creationism on the grounds they are religious viewpoints, but expressly endorses public schools inhibiting, opposing, and disapproving of those purported religious viewpoints.

Or here:

Now my view is that ID is indeed a scientific viewpoint, and therefore should be considered perfectly legal to either advocate or critique in public schools. This teacher, however, wants to have it both ways — he wants it to be illegal to advocate, but legal to attack, intelligent design in public schools. In a society justly governed by law, double-standards like that simply cannot be tolerated. I strongly encourage readers to see my law review article, noted above, for more background and analysis.

We see the same kind of double standard at work at Ball State. Here’s what President Gora’s anti-ID speech code states:

Intelligent design is overwhelmingly deemed by the scientific community as a religious belief and not a scientific theory. Therefore, intelligent design is not appropriate content for science courses.

So Ball State officially thinks ID is religion and then officially bans ID on those grounds. That’s quite unfortunate. But what’s even more unfortunate is that BSU applies this policy in an inconsistent manner that still allows faculty to attack ID — as seen in the What’s Your Dangerous Idea? book which states “There is … no Intelligent Designer” (p. 33) and claims “the foisting of ‘Intelligent Design’ on biology students” is “ludicrous” and one of the “travesties” of contemporary society. (p. xxv) This is exactly the sort of “selective enforcement of the law [that] is a hallmark of tyranny,” prohibiting faculty from supporting ID on the grounds that it’s religion, yet still allowing faculty to attack ID — as well as traditional religious views (more on that below).

Clearing Up Coyne’s Confusion
So is it wrong for me to call the book What’s Your Dangerous Idea? “anti-religious” if I think ID is science, and not religion? It’s not wrong, for two reasons.

First, as I elaborate here, the book explicitly attacks ideas that we all agree are religious, like the existence of God, souls, or supernatural beings, and it argues that traditional religion hinders science. These issues are separate from intelligent design, and they make the book clearly anti-religious. BSU’s spokesman Tony Proudfoot was trying to spin the book as religion-friendly, and I cited many indisputably anti-religious arguments in the book to show that his spin was false.

Second, as for intelligent design, Jerry Coyne doesn’t seem to understand that the issue here isn’t what I think about ID, but rather what those who are attacking ID at BSU think about ID. It’s BSU’s official view that ID is religion, but then BSU’s sanctioned attacks on ID by using this book. That make their actions “anti-religious.”

The answer to Coyne’s confusion is thus simple — so simple that Coyne must be trying hard to not understand what we’re saying. It goes like this:

If Group A believes Idea X is religious, and Group A attacks Idea X, then Group B is allowed to call Group A “anti-religious” even if Group B does NOT believe Idea X is religious (and in fact Group B believes Idea X is science). Group A is Ball State University, Idea X is intelligent design, and Group B is Discovery Institute.

For present purposes, we’ll call this the “fairness principle” — it’s fair to hold people to their views on a topic. This principle holds especially true where Group A is a government entity, as is the case here, for there are laws that prohibit the government from exercising an anti-religious animus. If the government (e.g., BSU) believes Idea X is religious, and then the government (e.g., BSU) attacks Idea X, you’ve got a serious constitutional problem.

Elsewhere, Jerry Coyne has seemed to understand and apply this principle to himself. He believes intelligent design is religion. In his original blog post attacking Hedin, he wrote “‘Science’ course at Ball State University sneaks in religion,” and argued “It’s all pro-religious” and said ID can’t be taught because “[BSU] must abide by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which has been interpreted as disallowing religious viewpoints (or religiously based theories) in public-school science classes.” But Coyne admits ID proponents think ID is science, and therefore he claims it’s fair to attack ID on those grounds. As he wrote elsewhere:

[A]dherence to ID (which, after all, claims to be a nonreligious theory) should be absolute grounds for not hiring a science professor.

Now when Coyne says this, I don’t go around crowing “Jerry Coyne admitted ID is science!” No, that would be like what he’s doing to us. I’m being fair to Coyne. I fully acknowledge that he’s not saying that. He’s saying that because ID proponents think ID is science, he ought to be able to treat it like a science.

Whether or not Coyne’s logic is sound, here’s what he’s saying: If Group A thinks Idea X is science, then Person B has the right to treat Idea X as science, even if Person B doesn’t personally think ID is science. (Group A here being ID proponents, Idea X being intelligent design, and Person B being Jerry Coyne.) Coyne thus adopts much the same “fairness principle” to defend his own right to attack ID. (I would say that if Group A includes credible people who think ID is science, that means ID ought to be granted academic freedom, but that’s another story.) It would be unfair for me to say that Coyne is saying ID is science.

Here is Coyne’s problem. He applies the “fairness principle” when it works for his cause, but won’t apply it when it would work in our favor.

He wants to apply this “fairness principle” to grant himself license to attack ID (which he believes is religion) without being told he’s admitting ID is science, but he doesn’t want us to be allowed to use this same “fairness principle” when we protest those who believe ID is religion then go on to attack ID (even though we believe ID is science). If he were to apply the “fairness principle” fairly, he’d have to acknowledge that we have the right to criticize those who think ID is religion and attack ID as being “anti-religious,” without being told we’re “admitting ID is religious.” Coyne isn’t treating us with the same fairness that we treat him.

It’s no surprise that Jerry Coyne is not interested in fairness. After all, he wants to censor ID, and such a mindset is going to lead you down a road to unfairness. Coyne is smart and he’s trying to deflect from what he’s really doing. But his position is fundamentally censorious, and thus fundamentally unfair. Here’s how it’s playing out today:

He claims that when we point out some folks who attack ID have anti-religious motives that we’re “admitting ID is religion” and trying to protect ID from criticism. Neither is true. We think ID is science, and it ought to be fair game in public universities for both advocacy and critique. We just think there’s a double-standard when someone claims ID is religion and therefore it cannot be advocated, but then tolerates critiques of ID, as well as critiques of viewpoints everyone agrees are traditionally religious.

Coyne Misrepresents the Book What’s Your Dangerous Idea?
On other matters, even though Coyne admits he doesn’t have a copy of What’s Your Dangerous Idea?, his response to my letter claims that I misrepresented it. He posts some reader comments on the letter that say the same thing. In my much longer commentary, False Spin: Ball State University Misrepresents Anti-Religious Chapters in What Is Your Dangerous Idea?, I acknowledged that some of the chapters have nothing to do with religion, but I also provide extensive quotations from the very chapters Coyne, BSU, and the commenters have been citing as supposedly religion friendly.

For example, one commenter Coyne cites, BSU librarian Amy Edmonds, claims I have broken one of the “Ten Commandments” because I tried to cast the book as anti-religious when it contains chapters with titles like “Science Will Never Silence God” and “Religion Is the Hope that is Missing in Science.” (She also cites other chapters which have nothing to do with religion, something I acknowledged the book contains.) Those are two of the same chapters BSU cited to cast the book as religion-friendly, and the commenter never quotes from any of those chapters. Who is right here? Well, consider what the book says:

The essay “Science Will Never Silence God” isn’t at all what its title prompts you to expect. It’s actually stridently anti-religious and opens by saying:

With each meticulous turn of the screw in science, with each tightening of our understanding of the natural world, we pull more taught the straps over God’s muzzle. (p. 167)

The chapter’s title doesn’t mean the author is happy that science will never be able to “silence” God. Rather, he views that as a lamentable, unavoidable reality about the future. (This is thus an example of one of those ideas the book says are “dangerous not because they are assumed to be false, but because they might turn out to be true.”) He’s upset because (in his view) the persistence of religious belief will hinder science. He explains:

But my dangerous idea, I fear, is that no matter how far our thoughts vault into the eternal sky of this progress, God will always bite through his muzzle and banish us from the starry night of humanistic ideals. (p. 167)

He further fears, “There will never be a day when God does not speak for the majority. There will never be a day when he does not whisper into the ears of most godless of scientists. This is because God is not an idea, nor a cultural invention, nor an ‘opiate of the masses,’ nor any such thing. God is a way of thinking that has been rendered permanent by natural selection.” (pp. 167-168) His chapter concludes, “As scientists, we must toil and labor and toil again to silence God.” (p. 168)

As for the chapter “Religion Is the Hope that Is Missing in Science,” it’s not quite as harsh but it’s still very much anti-religious. The author, Scott Atran, calls himself “an atheist” in the chapter, and states that rather than having been given to us by God, “Religion … is an evolutionary byproduct of various mental faculties of the human brain.” (p. 169) Now this doesn’t mean Atran thinks religion is evil, but it does mean he’s arguing it’s factually wrong. He says that religion exists not because its truth claims are correct, but rather “Religion thrives because it addresses people’s deepest emotional yearnings and society’s foundational moral needs.” (p. 170) Atran affirmatively argues that “Human beings are accidental and incidental byproducts of the material development of the universe” (p. 171), and that religion exists simply to help us cope with the harsh reality of that supposed truth.

Nonetheless, Coyne posts comments accusing me of “selective quotation” to promote a “bald-faced lie” when the commenters don’t even quote from the book, and simply assert that I misrepresented it. In one case where one of Coyne’s commenters does quote the book, it’s the essay looking forward to the day when “we will abandon the belief that we have immortal, inviolable souls,” and somehow spins that as pro-religion. Yet I’m the one misrepresenting the book?

In the end, What’s Your Dangerous Idea? contains a mix of both critiques of intelligent design, and critiques of traditional religious views. BSU’s spokesman tried to claim it was religion-friendly, and my letter responds by saying in fact the book isn’t religion-friendly at all. Quite the contrary. It also critiques intelligent design. Thus, I point out that BSU is in legal trouble if it believes ID is religion and therefore censors faculty who want to support ID, but then allows other faculty to attack traditional religion, as well as intelligent design. This doesn’t mean I “admit ID is religion.” It does mean we have the right to call BSU to account for being “anti-religious” and applying a double standard.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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