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Designed for controversy: the religious right's new creationism.

A TRIAL IN THE NATION'S first legal challenge to "intelligent design" (ID) drew to a close in early November--the result of a lawsuit brought against the Dover, Pennsylvania, School Board by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Unfortunately, no one expects the court's ruling to be the last word in this long-running debate. No matter how it turns out, the country is destined to continue battling over Darwinism in the classroom for many years to come. The Dover skirmish is thus merely the latest in an ongoing struggle.

Advocates of church-state separation argue that ID is merely an updated form of creationism. If the court accepts this argument, it will have little choice but to declare the teaching of ID unconstitutional in public schools under existing precedent. So this is an important and closely watched case.

While a decision may have been issued by the time you read this, that eagerly anticipated ruling may, ironically, have little impact on the community of Dover itself. Voters there took matters into their own hands this past November 8, 2005, and, in a municipal school board election, ousted the pro-ID majority.

After all, the old board had made the town a laughingstock and the focus of unwanted attention. Reporters came from as far away as England and Germany to cover the trial. Fed-up residents apparently decided they'd had enough. The election was a clean sweep. Dover residents kicked out eight members who supported the pro-ID policy and replaced them with candidates who ran against it. Alan Bonsell, one of the board's most vocal ID advocates, garnered the least number of votes among all the candidates running.

This result, coming from a generally conservative area, is welcome. But by no means does it indicate that the battle over intelligent design is on the wane. To the contrary, things are just getting started. The same day that Dover residents went to the polls, the Kansas State Board of Education voted 6-4 to adopt new science standards that undermine the teaching of evolution in that state.

It isn't really fair, however, to call these new guidelines science standards. They are explicitly anti-science: they redefine science, dropping language that science is limited to natural explanations for phenomena. Nevertheless, the Discovery Institute, the nation's leading ID think tank, quickly issued a press release praising Kansas for adopting "the best science standards in the nation."

These battles reflect a shifting--dare I say evolving?--religious right strategy. Efforts to get traditional young-earth creationism taught alongside evolution in public schools have failed in the courts. Attempts to rename creationism over the years by labeling it "evidence against evolution" or "the theory of abrupt appearance" haven't persuaded any judges. Morover, the baggage carried by young-earth creationism, with its claims of a 6,000 to 10,000 year-old Earth and insistence on dinosaur-human coexistence, has made it absurd in both the scientific community and among thinking voters.

By contrast, intelligent design jettisons the more outrageous claims of old-style creationism. It is silent on the age of the planet and doesn't insist that fossils are an attempt by Satan to deceive us. Indeed, many ID proponents concede the Earth is ancient and even accept some forms of evolution, particularly among species that are the furthest removed from human beings.

What, then, is going on here? Well, some ID proponents are simply orthodox religious believers offended by the idea that science is religiously neutral. Evolution, they fear, undercuts religious belief by positing a scenario of species change that doesn't require the guiding hand of a higher power. They seem to think that evolution spurs atheism.

These ID advocates are annoying but little more than temporary gadflies whose main rhetorical device is an argument from personal ignorance. They can't figure out, for example, how bacterial flagellum got propellers and therefore assert that it must have been divine intervention. Their Achilles' heel is that eventually some real scientist somewhere will figure out how the flagellum got the propellers--some have already proposed explanations--and the ID backers will once again be left with egg on their face.

More problematic are people like Phillip Johnson, a former law professor at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law. Johnson once told attendees at a conference sponsored by TV preacher D. James Kennedy that ID should be used as a tool of Christian fundamentalist evangelism to portray Darwinism as inherently atheistic. Johnson advocated using ID to persuade people of "the truth" of the Bible and then "the question of sin." Finally, such people would be "introduced to Jesus."

Most of the people in the audience were young-earth creationists. Yet they eagerly endorsed Johnson's strategy, which he calls "The Wedge" aware that it would give them a more viable vehicle to attack evolution in public schools.

And in the end that's really what this crusade is all about--denigrating Darwin. Most ID proponents must realize they will never make a dent in the scientific community. Their ideas invoke supernatural entities and events, the existence of which cannot be subject to laboratory testing and hence lie outside the realm of science.

But public opinion polls show at least half of the general population is skeptical of evolution. And it is here that ID advocates wish to make their mark. They seek to erode acceptance of evolution by creating the impression in the public mind that there is a competing and equally valid theory. They don't care that the overwhelming majority of scientists reject ID. The battle that the ID boosters fight is political not scientific.

Therefore, although successful lawsuits and school-board campaigns are wonderful, they aren't enough. In the end only an appreciation of two important principles in the classroom--separation of church and state and good science education--will carry the day for evolutionary science.

Rob Boston is the assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State (www.au.org).
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Title Annotation:CHURCH AND STATE; intelligent design; Americans United for Separation of Church and State, School Board by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania
Author:Boston, Rob
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Words:991
Previous Article:The emergence of the religious left: an opportunity for religious liberals and Humanists to unite.
Next Article:Death in perspective.
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