Posted by Steve Reuland on May 20, 2005 04:34 PM

A couple of days ago (infinity in blog-time), Chris Mooney had an interesting post about a 20 year-old article on the creation/evolution debate.  As Chris writes… 

I have just been reading an interesting article: Thomas F. Gieryn; George M. Bevins; Stephen C. Zehr, “Professionalization of American Scientists: Public Science in the Creation/Evolution Trials,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 50, No. 3 (Jun. 1985), 392-409. What the article reveals is that during the 1981-1982 McLean v. Arkansas case, anti-evolutionists were using a very similar strategy to the one promulgated today: Attacking evolution for its own alleged religious (i.e., atheistic) biases.

Mooney produces some choice quotes from the article that I won’t bother to reproduce here (you should go to his blog to read them).  The article was written in 1985, but it could have been written yesterday; the motives and tactics of today’s anti-evolution movement have changed little.  At least in 1985, they were honest enough to still call themselves creationists.

John Calvert’s impending legal strategy (which seems to be the standard strategy for the ID movement) was aired during the recent Kansas kangaroo court.  As reported by Stan Cox, it tries to paint evolution as necessarily atheistic, and therefore demands that ID be brought in for balance.  Not only is this strategy not new, it’s already dead.  One thing that Mooney neglects to mention is that this strategy backfired badly the first time around.  Let’s take a look…

Here is an outline of Calvert’s strategy as reported by Cox:  (It’s not clear to me how explicit Calvert was about this, or if this is largely based on Cox’s inference; we’ll know soon enough when Calvert releases his legal brief.  Update:  Jack Krebs assures us in comments that the following does indeed represent Calvert’s arguments, explicitly.)

The final witness was Calvert himself, who announced that he planned to file “an extensive legal brief” in the coming days that would provide the basis for revising the science standards to allow ID. His legal argument, which had been implicit in all of his questioning of witnesses, goes like this:

(1) Evolution as it’s now taught in Kansas schools is based on methodological naturalism, that is, the search by science for explanations only in the natural world.

(2) Methodological naturalism always implies philosophical naturalism, the belief that there is nothing beyond the natural world. (This, say anti-ID scientists, is the fatal flaw in the argument.)

(3) Philosophical naturalism is atheistic.

(4) Atheism is a religion. (Needless to say, this is a proposition not universally accepted.)

(5) Therefore, religion is already being taught in Kansas biology classes.

(6) So religious fairness requires that evidence for intelligent design and against evolution through natural selection also be allowed in the classroom.

By arguing, implicitly, that the supernatural should be introduced into science curricula alongside “naturalistic” ideas, Calvert is relying on the federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act, which requires that teaching be “secular, neutral, and non-ideological” with respect to religion.

There are any number of problems with the above, some of which were pointed out in the thread we had on Cox’s article.  The two biggies are 1) evolution is no more based on methodological naturalism than any other science.  By arguing that methodological naturalism leads inexorably to atheism, Calvert argues that all science leads to atheism.  And 2) methodological naturalism does not necessarily imply philosophical naturalism, and hence isn’t atheistic to begin with.  But the legal argument that ID (or creationism, or supernaturalism, or whatever) must be brought in for balance is self-defeating if one’s aim is to skirt the Constitutional prohibition on teaching religion.  In fact, this was brought up in McLean v. Arkansas, the very case that the 1985 article refers to.  Here is an excerpt of the judge’s decision: 

The defendants argue in their brief that evolution is, in effect, a religion, and that by teaching a religion which is contrary to some students’ religious views, the State is infringing upon the student’s free exercise rights under the First Amendment. […] 

The defendants argue that the teaching of evolution alone presents both a free exercise problem and an establishment problem which can only be redressed by giving balanced treatment to creation science, which is admittedly consistent with some religious beliefs. … The argument has no legal merit.

If creation science is, in fact, science and not religion, as the defendants claim, it is difficult to see how the teaching of such a science could “neutralize” the religious nature of evolution.

Assuming for the purposes of argument, however, that evolution is a religion or religious tenet, the remedy is to stop the teaching of evolution, not establish another religion in opposition to it. Yet it is clearly established in the case law, and perhaps also in common sense, that evolution is not a religion and that teaching evolution does not violate the Establishment Clause, Epperson v. Arkansas, supra, Willoughby v. Stever, No. 15574-75 (D.D.C. May 18, 1973); aff’d. 504 F.2d 271 (D.C. Cir. 1974), cert. denied , 420 U.S. 924 (1975); Wright v. Houston Indep. School Dist., 366 F. Supp. 1208 (S.D. Tex 1978), aff.d. 486 F.2d 137 (5th Cir. 1973), cert. denied 417 U.S. 969 (1974).

So not only is it established law (and established common sense) that evolution is not a religious belief, the claim that we must teach some alternative in order to balance out evolution tips the creationists’ hand and exposes their own religious motivations.  How, the judge wondered, can you provide “balance” to one set of religious teachings unless the remedy is itself religious?  They’ve been saying all along that ID is a scientific theory, not a religious belief, and therefore teaching ID not in violation of the Establishment Clause.  Yet this is clearly belied by the claim that ID is needed to balance out the atheistic implications of evolution. 

The strategy that Calvert is supposedly pursuing has been tried already, and it failed.  It will almost certainly fail again.  John Calvert is obviously not a stupid man — unless he’s really thinking big, and trying to overturn all previous case law, I have no idea why he thinks this will work. 

One last side note:  It occurred to me when reading though the McLean decision (which is well worth reading in its entirety), that “objective” is the new “balanced”.  In other words, Calvert has his Objective Origins Science Policy, and the other ID hacks constantly use the word “objective”, without a hint of irony, to describe their religiously motivated attacks on evolution.  From reading the McLean decision, it seems that the creationists of yesteryear used precisely the same rhetorical device, except they called it “balanced” rather than “objective”.  As the creationist movement evolves, so too does their abuse of the English language.