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December 27, 2005

ELCA scholars comment on 'intelligent design'

On Dec. 20, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III ruled against a Dover [Pa.] Area School Board policy that required intelligent design theory in biology curriculum.

One of the problems with Jones’ decision was that he based it on a negative assessment of religion, says Ted Peters, professor of systematic theology, Pacific Lutheran Seminary, Berkeley, Calif., and co-author of Evolution from Creation to New Creation (Abingdon Press).

Jones wrote: “We find that the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to a pretext for the Board’s real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom.”

“It was unnecessary to treat science as anti-religious,” Peters says. “To have simply said that intelligent design fails to meet the criterion of good science would have sufficed. It added nothing to dismiss intelligent design because it was contaminated by religion.”

Yet Peters agrees with Jones that the Darwinian evolutionary theory—not intelligent design theory—should be part of students’ biology curriculum. “If Lutherans want only the best science taught to our children, then Darwinian evolutionary theory is the best,” he says. “Lutheran schools should not cave in to alternative or inferior science.”

Peters says neither intelligent design nor scientific creationism have fertile research programs that can match Darwinian and Neo-Darwinian models of evolution. “The Darwinian models have led to progressive research and new knowledge,” he says. “They also have proven themselves fertile for predicting what we would find in the fossil record, and for predicting random variation in genes that have led indirectly to research on new medicines. The Lutheran understanding of God’s creation leads us to commit ourselves to the best science. ... Nothing less than hard-earned empirical truths about the natural world will measure up.”

Discussion on intelligent design and creationism can take place, not in the science classroom but in humanities and social science classrooms, says Roger Willer, associate director for studies, ELCA Church in Society.

While the ELCA has no official position on evolution as the reigning theory of biological science, it does have positions on matters related to the debate, including the Creed, which states God is creator of heaven and earth, Willer says. “That’s our way of affirming that whatever else we might say about creation and nature, we believe God is at work creating,” he adds.

Willer says we are free to respect the integrity and proper distinction between religion and science. “That means whenever scientists say believing in evolution means you can’t believe in God, we would say, ‘you are not speaking as a scientist,’ ” he says. “On the other hand, if someone says we have to teach the creation story or the idea that there is intelligent designer, that is not respecting the limits and integrity of science.

“There’s a notion that religious people can’t affirm science and scientists, but that is not the understanding of the ELCA."

Peters says it’s a mistake to associate the Christian faith with anti-Darwinism. “We need to cultivate throughout the Lutheran tradition a high regard for authentic science so our young people will want to become scientists,” Peters says. “Because Martin Luther celebrated secular vocations, we need to encourage young people to envision what it would be like to dedicate themselves to a career as a scientific researcher. This, too, can be a Godly vocation.”

The Dover, Pa., lawsuit is among a handful of cases that have focused on the teaching of evolution. Policymakers in at least 16 states are currently examining the controversy. To see what is happening with intelligent design, state-by-state, visit: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story/php?storyId=4630737

Comments

Nick Matzke

Nick Matzke

Posted at 2:22 pm (U.S. Eastern) 12/29/2005

Readers might be interested to know that Judge John Jones III is himself Lutheran, according to news stories.

Jones was not "treat[ing] science as anti-religious", as Ted Peters alleges.  The judge had to decide a constitutional question, specifically, did the "intelligent design" policy constitute a government attempt to establish a religious view? 

To determine whether or not the policy violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the judge had to follow the Supreme Court's "Lemon test" from Lemon v. Kurtzman, which states that a government action cannot have a predominantly religious purpose or religious effect.  So the primary question before him was "Is this ID stuff primarily religion?"  The science came into it because the defense, and the ID movement, allege that ID is good science, and that as such teaching it in public schools has a primarily secular purpose and effect. 

The judge did not find the scientific claims convincing, and did did find ample evidence of religious purpose and effect for ID, but he did not state that religion and science were necessarily opposed, indeed he took pains to rebut this view in the conclusion of his opinion.

The judge's ruling, and all of the other trial documents and transcripts, can be found online here:
www2.ncseweb.org

(Full disclosure: I work for NCSE, and I worked for the plaintiffs on this case.  I am also a Valpo grad...)

Thanks, Nick

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