We thought that the religious view of science called "intelligent design" was dead. Suddenly resurrected, it is sparring once again with evolutionary principles. While this theological position is rallying in the classroom, we are at war with religious fanatics in nations where there is no separation of religion and state.
We should not be surprised that this concept is back. After all, polls say that up to 48 percent of Americans are skeptical about evolutionary theory. Creationists and evolutionists have been arguing since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, in 1859. And both sides are about to square off once again with the release of two new documentaries.
We watched the demise of a theological view of creation when its being taught in a public-school classroom was ruled unconstitutional. The decision made history, and the school board promoting intelligent design was voted out of power. The judge in the case, appointed by George W. Bush, became the target of death threats.
The new PBS/NOVA documentary Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial depicts how the Dover, Pa., school board maneuvered creationism as science into the curriculum. But U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III stated that teaching intelligent design in a biology class was teaching "creationism in disguise," and therefore the school violated the separation of church and state mandated by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
In February, Ben Stein's documentary Expelled will open in theaters nationwide. Stein confronts top scientists, educators and philosophers, claiming that they are persecuting academics who support intelligent design and so denying them their First Amendment rights. He has received significant airtime on conservative television programs, such as The O'Reilly Factor and GodTube.
Despite one's religious persuasion or lack thereof, children have a right to an education based on sound, scientific fact. Biology Prof. Kenneth Miller, of Brown University, reported to be a devout Catholic, famously defends this view. He is the author of Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution.
The fundamental argument for intelligent design revolves around gaps in evolutionary theory in particular and in science in general. Basically, if the scientist says "we don't know," the advocates for intelligent design declare that God is responsible. It is obvious, they say, that the complexity of life underscores an intelligent design or "invisible hand." The logic of the argument then states that since God has a hand in science then God should be present in the science curriculum. God is science.
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Many scientists and secularists are appalled at the contrivances of those who push their creationist views. But those of us who teach and lead in the schools might see this as a way for our children to think more critically about global issues.
The Economist recently noted: "Faith will unsettle politics everywhere this century; it will do so least when it is separated from the state."
Ambassador Charles Freeman, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia (a state in which a religion, Islam, is supposed to run things), pointed out to us that "our ancestors left Europe to get away from the rule of church and state, and to reunite church and state now is inconsistent with our history." He added, "Anyone knowing anything about Rhode Island, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson should be very worried. It is not the doctrine of creationism per se that is a problem, it is giving it quasi-official status. This year creationism; next year it could be something else. We cannot afford to be installing any religious doctrine as something officially endorsed in our schools and by our government."
Some weeks ago Osama bin Laden preached that the American people should all convert to Islam. Bill O'Reilly preached First Amendment rights with regard to teaching creationism in the classroom. The Earth must be flat indeed.
How does this "separation of church and state" idea work? What does it really mean to our liberty? What does it mean for our students? School curricula must be focused on the world, how it works and does not work. Students should be practicing how to solve problems. And they must learn to debate the issues. But to do so, they require an education based on a solid foundation of facts.
If they learn the views discussed in these two films, they might think about how politics and religion can be understood together and separately. Further, they might comprehend how intelligent design and evolution touch upon bigger world issues, come to appreciate the value of science literacy, and perhaps understand how power, politics and religion tried unsuccessfully to usurp science.
J. Michael Bodi is an associate professor at Bridgewater State College, in the Department of Secondary Education and Professional Programs. Rita Watson collaborated with him on this column.
© 2007 The Providence Journal Co.