The recent anthology Darwinism, Design and Public Education, edited by John Angus Campbell and Stephen C. Meyer, is chock-full of brazen dishonesty, false science, and sloppy arguments. In the midst of all of this silliness, however, is one essay whose arguments are so absurd, so completely divorced from all semblance of rational thought, that it must be singled out for special attention. The essay is entitled “Intelligent Design Theory, Religion, and the Science Curriculum”, by Warren A. Nord. Nord is a professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
I am not going to argue that students should be required to learn about intelligent design (ID) theory because it is a better or more reasonable theory than its naturalistic counterparts. I don't know whether it is. Instead, I am going to argue that some study of ID theory should be included in the curriculum because there is substantial disagreement about whether ID is a better theory and the disagreement is of such a kind that educators are obligated to teach students about it.
Nord is building up to an argument that the obligation he refers to in the paragraph above stems from the constitutional requirement of religious neutrality in public school education. Before getting to that however, there are a few points to make about the paragraph above.
Nowhere in his essay does Nord tell us what constitutes ID theory. What, exactly, are educators required to teach their students about? The substantial disagreement to which Nord refers exists entirely at the popular level; among scientists ID has no credibility at all. Like ID, astrology is very popular among the public, but has no credibility among scientists. Does Nord believe we are obligated to teach astrology in science classes?
The statement above comes in the introductory section of the essay. The following section deals with the subject of teaching religion generally. Nord writes:
To see why this is important let me draw a distinction between teaching about subjects, on the one hand, and teaching disciplines, on the other. Approaching history as a subject, we might interpret it in a variety of ways, religious as well as secular. But schools don't teach the subject of history, they teach the discipline of history. They teach students to make sense of history as contemporary secular historians make sense of it. And so it is with other “subjects” of the curriculum. Schools don't teach students about the subject of economics, for example, a subject about which there is an extensive and rich religious literature; instead, they teach the discipline of neo-classical economic theory according to which people are self-interested utility-miximizers and the economic domain is the scene of competition by atomistic indivduals for scarce resources-a view found in no religious traditions.
There is a lot here to sink our teeth into. Economic theory no more claims that people are self-interested utility-maximizers than physical theory claims that gasses are composed of tiny billiard-balls making perfectly elastic collisions with one another. Economists are simply describing a model that is useful for understanding certain sorts of human interactions. That neo-classical theory has improved our understanding of economics in ways beneficial to people in their day-to-day lives is undeniable. If the economic insights of any particular religious tradition have similarly proved their worth then I’m all in favor of including them in the curriculum. But Nord gives no examples of such insights.
I think most historians will be shocked to learn that high school students are learning about the discipline of history. Actually, the subject is usually presented as a long sequence of facts that the student must memorize and regurgitate when called upon to do so. There is no “interpretation” going on in these classes.
Nord is using these points as the basis for his claim that schools are currently biased against religion, in violation of the principle of religious neutrality. We will return to that point momentarily, but there is one further quote we must address first:
A generation ago texts and curricula said virtually nothing about women, blacks, and members of minority subcultures. Hardly anyone would now say that this was just, a matter of benign neglect as it were. We now-most of us-realize that this was a form of discrimination, of educational disenfranchisement. And so it is with religious subcultures; religious parents are now, in effect, educationally disenfranchised; their ways of thinking and living aren't taken seriously. The curricular silencing of religous cultures is, in effect, an act of political oppression.
In the context of teaching ID in science classes, this is a poor analogy. Knowing the roles that women and minorities played in shaping our culture is essential to a proper understanidng of our history. Your understanding of history is deificient if you do not have this knowledge. By contrast, your understanding of biology is in no way compromised by not learning the false claims of ID proponents.
Note that Nord is not arguing that students should learn about evolution by seeing how it provides a better explanation for observed data than some other theory, like species fixity. He is claiming instead that the ill-defined religious ways of thinking that he identifies should be accorded equal respect in science classes.
Next we come to Nord’s main argument:
For the past fifty years the Court has been clear that public schools must be neutral in matters of religion (they can't favor Protestants over Catholics or Christians over Jews); and they must be neutral between religion and nonreligion. Schools can't promote religion; they can't proselytize; they can't conduct religious exercises. Of course, neutrality is a two-edged sword. Just as schools can't favor religion over nonreligion, neither can they favor nonreligion over religion.
He goes on to write:
An “untutored” and naive conception of neutrality has led educators to ban smoking guns, explicit hostiity to religion, when the hostility has been philosophically rather more subtle-though no less substantial for that.
There is no such thing as a neutral point of view. The only way to be neutral, when all ground is contested ground, is to be fair to the alternatives, taking everyone seriously. That is, given, the Court's long-standing interpretation of the Establishment Clause, it is mandatory for public schools to require the study of religion if they require the study of disciplines that cumulatively lead to a “pervasive devotion to the secular”-as they do.
This is Nord’s main argument. It is incorrect in every particular.
First, surely Nord realizes the sheer impracticality of doing what he recommends. There are so many religious perspectives on the issues Nord discusses that there simply isn’t time in the school year to present them all. Even if there were, you would need a teacher who is not only knowledgeable about all of them, but who also has the ability to present them all in a non-judgmental way.
Nord addresses this point as follows:
I am not arguing for a “balanced treatment” or “equal time” requirement in particular courses. Economics courses need not become courses in moral theology. In any case, given their competence, economics teachers are not likely to be prepared to deal with a variety of religious ways of approaching their subject. At most, they can provide minimal fairness.
A proposal in which “the alternatives” are all presented seriously sure sounds like a “balanced treatment” requirement to me.
Nord follows this statement up by suggesting that students should have a year-long course in religious and secular ways of understanding the world. In principle I think such a course would be very valuable. As a practical matter it would be impossible to teach such a course in a way that didn’t leave everyone offended. At any rate, the merits of such courses have nothing to do with what should be taught in science classes.
Second, Nord’s logic would require, for example, according equal respect to the worldview of the Ku Klux Klan (an organization that claims to derive its ideology from Christian principles) when teaching about Martin Luther King. The simple fact is that there are mahy dopey, harmful worldviews out there, and they are generally excluded from the curriculum. That is as it should be.
Third, as I alluded to earlier, Nord is simply wrong about schools promoting secularism over religion in the way they teach academic subjects. There is very little interpretation going on in any high school classes. When a history teacher tells his students that Abraham Lincoln was president during the Civil War, he is not favoring one worldview over another. He is simply teaching the facts. Similarly, when a science teacher presents the basic facts of biology and shows how the theory of evolution successfully accounts for all of them, there is no worldview being presented.
If there were other facts that tended to contradict evolution, as the ID’s claim, then it would be right to include those facts in the curriculum as well. The reason for including those facts would have nothing to do with fairness to any particular religious worldview. The reason would be to give students a proper understanding of the subject.
No one would argue that science education is non-neutral for showing how Newton’s principles of mechanics successfully explain numerous observations in the laboratory. So why is it non-neutral to show how Darwin’s principles do the same for biology?
It is true, of course, that many nonscientists disagree with the idea that evolution provides such a good explanation. It is equally true that the claims made in defense of this view are incorrect. For example, we should not accord any respect to the widely-held view that the second law of thermodynamics contradicts evolution because this view is simply false. Nord’s logic suggests that once you attain a certain critical mass of believers of some assertion, that assertion should, indeed must, be presented respectfully in schools. Surely the facts count for something, however.
Fourth, polls routinely show that more than 40 percent of the population accepts a young-Earth creationist view of the world. By Nord’s logic, we are required to present that view respectfully alongside evolution in science classes. But the Supreme Court has specifically ruled (in the 1987 decision Edwards v. Aguillard) that such a requirement is unconstitutional.
Nord addresses this point as follows:
The Supreme Court's Edwards v. Aguillard decision has often been read to ban teaching about religion in science courses. In Edwards, the Court struck down Louisiana's “balanced-treatment” act, which required that students be taught creation science if they were taught “evolution science”. Why was the act unconstitutional? The purpose of the act, Justice William Brennan wrote for the Court was to shore up fundamentalist Christianity, and this violated the neutrality required by the Establishment Clause-and he cited a paper trail of comments from Louisiana legislators that made it clear that their purpose was to promote conservative Christianity. Now, the Court has long held that a religious purpose need not invalidate a law so long as there is also a good secular purpose for it. Justice Brennan could find no secular purpose for the Lousiana law, but, of course, there might well be a good secular purpose in requiring students to learn something about religious ways of interpreting nature.
The trouble with this analysis is that neither ID nor creation science are presented as religious ways of interpreting nature. They are presented as alternative scientific theories. In Edwards the Court also found that the close parallels between the theory of creation-science outlined in the Lousiana law and the story in Genesis, coupled with the origin of creation science in Bible-supporting organizations, was enough to deem it unconstitutional to require that it be taught in science classes. The Court made a clear distinction between theories supported by scientific methodologies and those that are supported only by religious doctrine.
Justice Scalia based his dissent in Edwards on the same principle. He argued that creation-science was a valid scientific theory (more precisely, that there was nothing in the record to suggest that it was not) and therefore it was acceptable to require that it be presented in science classes. He did not argue that religious neutrality required that creationism be taught.
In other words, the dispute among the justices had to do not with religious neutrality, but rather with whether creationism was legitimate science or religious doctrine.
Nord’s failure to distinguish between the facts of a subject and metaphysical interpreations of those facts becomes even more clear when Nord begins to address science education specifically:
First, I note the extraordinarily lively conversation among scholars and intellectuals in our culture about the relationship of religion and science.
Well, if students are to think critically, if schools are to treat different cultural traditions with respect, if education is to be religiously neutral, then, when we disagree, as we do about the relationship of religion and science, students should learn about the nature of the disagreement; they should hear the contending voices; they should be taught the conflicts.
But the relationship between science and religion is not something that is discussed at all in science classes. The facts of biology can be taught perfectly well without any reference to religion whatsoever. It is not as if currently we are teaching only one view of the relationship between science and religion to the exclusion of others. Currently, no opinions at all are presented in high school.
Of course, if your religion holds it as essential that evolution is false, then learning about evolution will pose a threat to your religion. But that doesn’t mean, either constitutionally or morally, that schools have to present your view respectfully. There are religious people who view the flat-Earth as an essential part of their religion, but no one thinks that view should be presented respectfully in school.
Many religions take stands on questions of scientific fact. But they do so for unscientifc reasons, and therefore there is no need to accord their views respect in high schools.
I will close with one further quote from Nord:
The purpose of high school science courses should not be to train scientists but to educate students by initiating them into our ongoing cultural conversation about how to make sense of the world. Science texts do not now convey to students anything of the controversial nature of this conversation.
Of course, the purpose of high school science courses should be to teach students about the methods and findings of science. This purpose has nothing to do with any conversations Nord imagines we’re having.