Beckwith and the Understanding Evolution Website

| 16 Comments

The ID crowd just continues to push this ridiculous argument that the Understanding Evolution website, by pointing out that evolution is not necessarily in conflict with religion and that many Christians and other types of theists accept evolution without giving up their faith, violates the establishment clause. The latest is from our old friend Francis Beckwith. This argument has been completely shredded by Timothy Sandefur, in a piece that Beckwith has no doubt seen. Yet he continues to push this, on his blog and in print. I'm sure he made a few bucks with the article in the American Spectator, but I still think it's kind of silly to keep pushing an argument this silly.

In fact, I think it's time for a challenge. Frank, I know you read this blog. If you really think you have an argument here, take it to court. If you really think this is a violation of the establishment clause, file a suit. John West is making the same argument and the DI has lots and lots of money to cover the legal fees. You and David Dewolf can design the legal strategy. I predict that you won't do it, because you know that this argument would be greeted with exactly the kind of response it is due, primarily laughter. I think you know how bad this argument is, but continue to push it, and ignore the criticisms that have been made of it, because it suits the DI's public relations agenda.

16 Comments

The article was published in The American Spectator. That alone should make us strongly doubt its veracity. Has anyone checked to make sure that this “Understanding Evolution” thing even exists? ;)

Steve,

Yeah, it’s kosher:

http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evosi[…]ligion.shtml

The Understanding Evolution site is promoted by the NCSE on their web page. I think it’s a very good resource for teachers.

Andy

Andy, I was just joking. The Spectator got a reputation in the 90s for pushing any and every pseudo-scandal invoving the Clintons they could find, no matter how silly. That was where “Trooper-gate” first got its start, although the writer who broke the story, David Brock, later repudiated it.

The magazine has since been bought by George Guilder (who is associated with the Discovery Institute), who has apparently turned it into a forum for technology. Couldn’t say if the magazine is still up to its old tricks or not, but Beckwith’s appearance there is somewhat fitting.

Andy, I was just joking. The Spectator got a reputation in the 90’s for pushing any and every pseudo-scandal involving the Clintons that they could dig up, no matter how absurd. That was where “Trooper-Gate” first got its start. The writer who broke the story, David Brock, later repudiated it. He has since written a book about his tenure with the Spectator and other far-right publications, highlighting a mind-numbing lack of journalistic integrity and outright viciousness.

The magazine has since been bought by George Guilder (a Discovery Institute fellow) who apparently turned it into a technology forum that’s no longer focused on politics. I couldn’t say whether or not the magazine is up to its old tricks, and I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I’m judging Beckwith’s article according to the Spectator’s abominable reputation. But it does seem rather fitting. ;)

Whoops, I thought my first attempt was lost to the ehter, so I typed a second one with more stuff.

Ed, could you delete the *first* message (and this one too if you want)?

I used to believe in guilt-by-association. But because Steve believes it, I’ve abandoned that belief. :-) Here’s another: It’s your fault I blame other people. And another: I can’t hitch a ride because all I have is a panda’s thumb.

Some levity!

Frank

Three corrections for Ed. First, I did the American Spectator piece for free. I wish I were paid. Second, having a good argument is not the same as having an argument that would win in court. Don’t forget: Scopes lost his case, even though I’m sure you thought he should have won. (I think he should have won, based on the argument Clarence Darrow gave). Remember: the NAACP lost many cases before Brown v. Board of Education, even though they had air-tight equal proteciton arguments. They had to face ignorant jurists tutored on Plessy v. Ferguson, a completely horrid decision, right up there with Buck v. Bell (Holmes’ opinion being inspired by the eugenics movement, which, as you know, was all the rage at the time). Third, oddly enough, John West and I found the NCSE/Berkeley sites independently of each other, and as you can see, our arguments are completely different. I found it as a result of trying to find some internet links for my students before we went over the creation/evolution cases in my law and religion class. Not everything’s the result of collusion. Sometimes people actually discover things independently and come to similar conclusions.

So, Ed, before you start speculating about invisible undectable “spirits” to account for my actions, email me and ask me directly. (I know it’s not as fun; but it is empirical, testable, and best of all, civil)

No more “Beckwith-of-the-Gaps”! Deal? :-)

Warmly, Frank

Re: Scopes

No, Scopes should not have won his case for two reasons:

A) The point of the trial (for the ACLU) was for Scopes to lose at Dayton so that they could appeal the case to a higher court with the ultimate end of getting the law overturned on Constitutional grounds. His conviction later being overturned due to a technicality ended that possibility and as a result the “monkey laws” in several states stayed on the books until the 1960’s.

B) He was guilty (or at least claimed that he was for the sake of the trial) of teaching evolution. The scientific merits of evolution were irrelevant to his guilt, which is why the judge in the case rightly ruled that expert scientific witnesses would not be allowed to testify.

Frank-

I admit that the “made a few bucks” comment was a bit snarky; please accept my apologies. I guess it demonstrates how unfair it was, even as a snide remark and not a serious argument, that when you said you wrote it for free my first response was, “Well that was dumb! Why would you do that?” LOL

On having a good vs winning argument…No, I don’t think Scopes should have won, I think he should have lost and the law should have been overturned on appeal. Regardless, I think that was both a good argument and a winning one, except that a legal technicality overturned the decision before the courts could get around to overturning the law. I guess I would say that if you think you have a good argument but not a winning one, what do you think would prevent it from being a winning one? I think Timothy is right, it would lose because the precedents are against it and the implications of such a radical redefinition of establishment would be far too much for a court to handle. And I think that’s why it SHOULD lose. Why do you think it would lose even though it’s a good argument?

And on the subject of you and John West finding the article independently, I can believe that. Your article is a lot better written than his, and lacks the polemical bits that his includes, to your credit.

Lastly, I just disagree that it’s a good argument, and I really do believe that you know better than to seriously believe that it’s either a good or a winning argument. You are essentially making one argument, that the mere fact that the website says that science and religion are different things, and some religious perspectives deny that, means that the website is endorsing a specific religious point of view. But I think this is a trivial argument that would get laughed out of court, for several reasons.

First, the statement “Science and religion are different things” is not only not a controversial one, it’s a legally correct one. The Supreme Court has ruled that they are different things legally and they’ve done so in several cases. So if the UE site said “The Supreme Court has ruled that science and religion are different things”, would THAT be an endorsement of a particular religious view?

Second, you are confusing descriptive and prescriptive statements. Nowhere in the website does it say that those Christian organizations that accept evolution are correct. The context is that the website is answering the common misconception that evolution and Christianity are intrinsically incompatible, and it answers it merely by pointing out that there are millions of Christians who do accept evolution. The answer, in essence, is “not necessarily”. That is an entirely valid statement and one need not endorse the religious views it describes in order to accept it as a valid statement.

I used to believe in guilt-by-association. But because Steve believes it, I’ve abandoned that belief. :-)

Jesus Frank, I said I was just kidding. I don’t hold you accountable for the Spectator, nor do I hold them accountable for you. But I am curious about what the magazine is up to these days. Have they accused John Kerry of being a drug dealer yet? (Just kidding again.)

Now, that’s funny Steve. Actually, I think the story is going to be that Heinz is putting small amounts of cocaine in its ketchup. :-) (That really is a joke)

Frank

Here’s my response to what I think is the core of Ed’s reply to me:

“First, the statement ‘Science and religion are different things’ is not only not a controversial one, it’s a legally correct one. The Supreme Court has ruled that they are different things legally and they’ve done so in several cases. So if the UE site said ‘The Supreme Court has ruled that science and religion are different things’, would THAT be an endorsement of a particular religious view?”

Of course they are different things. I do not deny that. (In fact, in my published work on this subject I deal precisely with the question of what is “religion” and whether ID is religion; I wouldn’t have made that extended argument if I thought that science and religion are the same). To employ an illustration: law and religion are different things, but it does not follow that they do not overlap each other or that the obligations of one may not conflict with the obligations of the other and that this may entail that one choose one or the other as being correct. In fact, one of the reasons why the Freiler court rejected the textbook disclaimer is that the disclaimer called for “critical thinking” but at the same time said that what the student learns at school should not interfere with his or her personal beliefs (those are my words). In fact, it may surprise you, but in my book I agree with the Freiler court’s opinion and holding on this matter and argue against a pro-ID scholar who wrote a piece on this case in First Things.

“Second, you are confusing descriptive and prescriptive statements. Nowhere in the website does it say that those Christian organizations that accept evolution are correct. The context is that the website is answering the common misconception that evolution and Christianity are intrinsically incompatible, and it answers it merely by pointing out that there are millions of Christians who do accept evolution. The answer, in essence, is ‘not necessarily’. That is an entirely valid statement and one need not endorse the religious views it describes in order to accept it as a valid statement.”

If the site had included the nuance you are suggesting, had said that religion and science do not necessarily conflict, and admitted the wide range of views on this matter, you would have a point and I would have no argument. But it does not say that. It says that those who believe that religion and science ever disagree, that one must ever make a choice between the two, hold a “misconception” that is “divisive.” That is not saying that they do not necessarily conflict. Rather, it is saying that they necessarily never conflict. That is a position on religious epistemology that is controversial and connected to a particular view of what counts as theological knowledge and whether it must always answer to the deliverances of “science.”

I suspect that we will never agree on this matter. But I appreciate Ed’s desire to puruse this. For it makes me think through my arguments a second time, and see whether I still find them convincing. One is always a better man for engaging in such exercises.

Now, I gotta eat breakfast. (It’s my wife’s 50th birthday, and I’m having a surprise party for her tonight; so, too much computer time will definitely get me in the dog house today!)

Warmly, Frank

Mr. Beckwith is also conflating (deliberately?) the distinction between a “good-but-losing” argument and a “laughable” one.

A lawsuit brought challenging the “Understanding Evolution” website would not survive a motion to dismiss. It would be laughed out of court. Perhaps Mr. Beckwith could avoid Rule 11 sanctions if he were to file such a thing – but perhaps not.

Of course they are different things. I do not deny that. (In fact, in my published work on this subject I deal precisely with the question of what is “religion” and whether ID is religion; I wouldn’t have made that extended argument if I thought that science and religion are the same). To employ an illustration: law and religion are different things, but it does not follow that they do not overlap each other or that the obligations of one may not conflict with the obligations of the other and that this may entail that one choose one or the other as being correct.

Of course there are areas where they can overlap, but I don’t see how this is terribly relevant either to the statement made on the UE website, or to the question of whether that statement is an establishment of religion or not. Here is the statement in its entirety:

“Religion and science (evolution) ARE very different things. In science (as in science class), only natural causes are used to explain natural phenomena, while religion deals with beliefs that are beyond the natural world.”

But this statement, as you agree above (“Of course they’re different things”), is entirely non-controversial. It’s also a statement that is legally correct, as I pointed out above.

But here is your conclusion from just this statement:

It says that to disagree with this notion is a misconception, which I believe means that NCSE/Berkeley is claiming its view is the exclusvely correct view: “The misconception that one has to choose between science and religion is divisive.”

This is also an entirely true statement. There is a difference between saying, “One does not have to choose between their religion and science”, which is strictly a true or false statement, and it is proven true merely by the simple fact that some religious people accept evolution. The fact that some religious people don’t accept those permutations is irrelevant to the question of whether such permutations are possible, which is the only thing the “you don’t have to” statement addresses. The question of whether one must believe only in one or the other is strictly a logical question - can one envision possible consistent permutations between religion and evolution? Of course one can. And there are many examples of different types of permutations between those ideas. The fact that some religious positions refuse to allow such permutations as a matter of their religious doctrine does not mean that pointing out that such permutations do exist and are logically possible amounts to endorsing a specific religious point of view. And for any establishment clause case, the fact that this is one single statement made in a huge amount of information with a clear secular purpose makes it doubly strong in terms of a defense of this not amounting to an establishment.

If the site had included the nuance you are suggesting, had said that religion and science do not necessarily conflict, and admitted the wide range of views on this matter, you would have a point and I would have no argument. But it does not say that. It says that those who believe that religion and science ever disagree, that one must ever make a choice between the two, hold a “misconception” that is “divisive.”

I think it is implicit in the text, as the section involves answering common misconceptions. Obviously it “admits” that there are other views, as it says that this conception is common, but it answers that conception by pointing out that there are possible permutations between religion and science that are held by millions. Which means that, as a matter of logical necessity, it is false to claim that they are inherently incompatible. They are only incompatible if one insists on not allowing any of the many logically consistent permutations between religion and science.

Here is what I think your argument is, in syllogism form:

Premise: if you make any statement that a religious group might disagree with, this equates to taking a definitive stand on a religious issue or making a religious proclamation.

Premise: if any tax money whatsoever went, even indirectly, into a project that includes a single such statement, even if it is a few lines among millions of lines of text with a clearly non-religious purpose, statements of the above type (statements that conflict with what any religious group believes) constitute an establishment of religion.

Conclusion: there is an establishment clause violation here and.…what? The funds should be paid back? The site should be forced to change the wording of this section to the slightly different, “The Supreme Court agrees that science and religion are different things, and while some believe that science and religion cannot be reconciled, others believe they can”? What’s the solution here?

The implications of this being a winning constitutional argument are far ranging. Professors at taxpayer funded institutions make statements every day that are in conflict with what some religious group believes. Does that also mean that the government is an establishment of religion even if the statements made are not inherently religious themselves? The government itself makes declarations that are against specific religious views every day, in the form of laws. A law making peyote illegal declares Native American beliefs about peyote false. Is this an establishment of religion? I’m sure you can think of hundreds of other cases that meet the standard of establishment that you are arguing for here. I really doubt that you would want to see the legal standard you are arguing for adopted by the courts; it would threaten too many things I presume you favor.

Happy Birthday to your wife. And you better stay off the boards here for the rest of the day, or you’re gonna be in big trouble. We’re not going anywhere, so we can pick this up when it’s maritally safe for you to do so. :)

Evolution is not in conflict with religion. Certainly not with Buddhism, Jainism and two of the six philosophic schools of Hinduism.

But then again, in Buddhism, Jainism and those two philosophic schools of Hincuism there is no recognition of any supreme deity (“God”)!

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This page contains a single entry by Ed Brayton published on April 7, 2004 12:01 PM.

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