Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Why Theistic Evolutionists are Not a Legal Threat

Okay, here's a follow-up to yesterday's post. This one is about PZ Myer's claim that the presence of TEs somehow harms the legal case against creationism. Let me repeat in full his comments on that here:

Try to imagine the next big court case to get ID out of the schools.

The lawyer says, "Mr Matzke (you know Nick will be there, right?), you've brilliantly dissected this textbook the Discovery Institute is using, and shown that despite the absence of any overt mention of god or religion, it's antecedents are derived from the creationist movement, and its authors are all strongly religious and have made statements outside the context of this particular book that strongly imply intent to promote religion. We should not be fooled by the absence of obvious religious advocacy in the book itself, but recognize instead its duplicitous nature and the bad faith arguments of its proponents?"

Nick will humbly reply, "Yes, sir."

And the DI lawyer will then say, "But half your witnesses are "theistic" evolutionists, and proud of it. They say openly that they believe a God, the Christian God, not even an ambiguous supernatural force, was involved in the creation of human beings. They write books about DNA as the "language of God". They lecture with considerable force that science and religion are compatible, and more, that science strengthens their faith in the Christian God. Proponents of the evolution position blithely call these people who insert a god into their explanations of origins 'pro-science'. Your side ignores or even derides scientists who insist on purely natural explanations of our evolution, and promotes those who use religion to sell science to the public."

"I'm baffled. On what basis are you arguing that this case involves a violation of the separation of church and state when I can scarcely tell the two of you apart, and when it's your side that more openly embraces religious ideas—when the Intelligent Design proponents show a history of nominally moving away from their religious roots, while your side shows a history of increasing recruitment of church leaders, theologians, and lay advocates of god-involvement in science?"

And Nick will say … I have no idea how Nick would reply. I'm sure it will be clever and devastating, and I'm sure it will explain how the statement that "I believe God is intelligent and I believe he designed the creation" is pro-science while "I do not believe in the sufficiency of random mutation and natural selection to explain the history of life on earth" is anti-science. I'd like to hear an explanation for how "theistic evolution" is less religious than "intelligent design".

This belief, to me, seems based upon some serious ignorance about what the actual legal issues are concerning creationism. Here I'm going to delimit what the legal issues are really about, and part of that is going to include some examples of what they are not about:

1. ID/Creationism is not unconstitutional because its adherents are religious.

This may seem obvious, but PZ seems to think that the mere fact that TEs are religious creates the possibility that they'll be seen as indistinguishable from IDists in a court setting. But their religiosity is not an issue. After all, if being religious were enough to condemn one's ideas, 90% of the country would have to remain silent.

2. ID/Creationism is not unconstitutional because its adherents are motivated by religion.

This is not obvious to most people. But it's important to realize that religious motivation per se is not enough to violate church-state separation. Lots of legislators and public servants do things that are motivated by their religious beliefs. Opening orphanages, feeding the poor, passing anti-gay laws, etc. Some of these things are exemplary and some are not, but none of them has ever been found unconstitutional on church-state grounds. Motivation is only an issue to the extent that it provides evidence for what's really at stake...

3. ID/Creationism is unconstitutional because it has the primary effect of advancing religion and has no secular purpose.

This is why the courts have consistently ruled against creationism. Not because its adherents are religiously motivated, but because the policies they put in place have the primary effect of advancing religion. That's the distinction between someone who pushes anti-poverty laws because his religion tells him to, and someone who pushes prayer in school (to pick a random example) in order to get more believers. The former does nothing to advance religion while the latter most certainly does. The evidence that ID is intended to advance religion is quite overwhelming; one needs merely to read any of the ID movement's foundational books or documents.

That the government is not allowed to advance (or inhibit) religion is one of the three prongs of the so-called Lemon Test, which is the courts' current precedent for deciding church-state separation cases. Another prong is that the government's actions must have a legitimate secular purpose. ID/Creationism fails this prong too. The courts have ruled that since ID/Creationism isn't science, there's no secular purpose for teaching it in science class. Contrast that with anti-poverty laws, which have an obvious secular purpose. (The third prong of the Lemon Test is that there cannot be excessive entanglement between church and state -- to the best of my knowledge this has never been an issue in creationism cases, and it's not clear to me that it's a useful prong to begin with.)

So considering what church-state jurisprudence is actually based upon, what effect does the presence of TEs have in fighting creationism? It doesn't violate the effect prong because TEs are not arguing to have their religious views included in science classes -- quite the opposite in fact. Nor does it violate the purpose prong because what TEs do want taught (plain old everyday evolution) has an obvious secular purpose. And it does nothing to change how the effect and purpose prongs are applied to the IDists. Yes, the IDists will continue to get sneakier and try to make it look as if their claims aren't religion masquerading as science, but the presence or absence of TEs isn't going to have any effect on that. That's why TEs have testified in every creationism court case that we've had, and yet we've still won all of those cases.

There is however one major way in which TEs have had an effect on the courts. Creationists have long argued that evolution is the same thing as atheism, or that it at least strongly promotes atheism. Therefore, they say, in order for the government to be religiously neutral, it has to give equal time to religious ideas such as creationism. The courts have soundly rejected this argument. One reason is that the creationists contradict themselves when they say that creationism is religiously neutral yet is necessary to counterbalance an anti-religious idea. Another reason is that the plaintiffs can drag out all of these witnesses who say that evolution doesn't conflict with their religion, and that they're comfortable believing in both evolution and the existence of God. We call those people theistic evolutionists. And they destroy the creationists' case for portraying evolution as necessarily atheistic.

PZ's apparent belief that TEs need to be purged (or swept under the rug, or whatever) not only isn't going to help our case, it has the potential to severely damage it. If the courts were to rule that the primary effect of evolution was to inhibit religion -- and this ruling would be much easier for them if evolutionists automatically excluded anyone with religious beliefs -- then it would be toast. That's not to say that you have to think that evolution and religion compatible. You can personally think that they aren't, but the proper legal strategy is to acknowledge that there are people who believe that religion and evolution are compatible, and that therefore evolution is not in essence an anti-religious theory.

P.S. Wesley Elsberry has more.