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Beckwith: Intelligent design not your daddy’s fundamentalism

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–If a person were to throw 1,000 bags of Scrabble letters into the air, and some landed in such a way as to form words, chances are the experiment wouldn’t prove much more than an exercise in coincidence, according to noted apologist Francis Beckwith.

If the letters landed in such a way as to spell out the first ten verses of Genesis, however, it would be safe to assume something more complex than chance had arranged them that way.

According to Beckwith, that scenario is a very simplified version of what is known as the intelligent design theory. The theory is the result of exhaustive research in which scientists, studying the irreducible complexities of various organisms, have come to the conclusion that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution cannot explain the complex nature of the most miniscule cells.

Beckwith, associate professor of philosophy at Trinity International University in Santa Ana, Calif., posed the scenario to a group of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary students, staff and faculty at an Oct. 3 chapel service as part of the annual Church-State Lectures. Beckwith presented the topic “Intelligent Design and the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States,” in which he explored the legal ramifications of teaching the intelligent design of the universe to public school students.

After a year of study at the Washington School of Law in St. Louis, Mo., where he studied specifically for this project, Beckwith says he believes that intelligent design could be legally taught in the public school classroom, even though the opposition is mounting.

“I think it would be difficult for people to strike down a statute that at least permits teachers to teach this material,” he said. “In order to do that, a court would have to say that to permit the teaching of it would establish religion, but the inverse would also be true, that is, to deny the teaching of it by default would be teaching irreligion.”

Beckwith focused his lecture on a pivotal case in the struggle between creationism and Darwinism: the 1987 Louisiana case, Edwards vs. Aguilar, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the balanced treatment act, which would have mandated that both creationism and evolution be taught in pubic schools. The Supreme Court struck down this act as unconstitutional, basing their decision on the “establishment of religion” clause of the U.S. Constitution.

There were four main reasons the court struck the act down, and Beckwith says those failures need to be examined if future attempts against Darwinism are to be made.

The first, he says, was the case’s historical continuity to the 1925 Scopes trial, which eventually led to the standardization of Darwinism being taught in public schools. The Louisiana court saw the debate between Darwinism and creation as “seeking the answers to different questions,” according to Beckwith: one being a science question, and the other being a question of religion.

“The Supreme Court typically thinks of religion and theology as not really being a real branch of knowledge,” Beckwith said. “Religion is tolerated in the same way one’s taste in food and music are tolerated.”

The second reason the court struck down the act was because it could be connected to a Genesis-inspired statute, struck down in various cases across the U.S. Proponents of such statutes would present as evidence Christian literature on creation, and simply leave out the scripture references.

“The court saw such actions as transparent attempts to put the book of Genesis into public school curriculum,” Beckwith noted.

The court also noted the religious motivation of the act’s supporters as reason for its rejection. Louisiana legislators would go on record as saying things such as, “this is godless atheism.” Beckwith says that the court saw this motivation as a weakness in the case, though he believes it was the court’s weakest argument against it.

The final reason the court rejected the act was because they saw the mandating of teaching both creationism and Darwinism as an illegitimate means to gain a state end. The State of Louisiana said it was attempting to protect academic freedom, but the court saw otherwise. Prior to the statute, there was nothing to prevent teachers from teaching anything they wanted, but with this act, they were suddenly limited, according to the Supreme Court.

Beckwith says that, based on the historical objections to other forms of creationism, he believes intelligent design could be taught in schools for two main reasons. The first is because intelligent design differs significantly from anything proposed in the Edwards vs. Aguilar case. The researchers are very diverse in their theological backgrounds, as well as the fact that they are of a different pedigree and style than former proponents. Some have been nominated for Nobel prizes for their research, and would lend more scientific weight to the argument.

The second, he says, is because the intelligent design theorists appeal to empirical and philosophical arguments rather than just theological ones. Though opponents have called the movement “creationism with a happy face,” Beckwith said intelligent design really isn’t.

“Intelligent design attempts to, with philosophical and scientific arguments, to answer the same exact question that Darwinism is trying to answer: where did the apparent specified and irreducible complexity of organisms come from?” he said. “There are really only two answers: chance and matter; or some intelligent designer intervened.”

Teaching this in a public school classroom could be a possibility, and Beckwith said the best course of action for creationists right now is to defend the rights of teachers to at least tell their students about intelligent design. Such an argument, he said, will go a long way in the public square, even for people who don’t agree with intelligent design.

“Intelligent design is changing the landscape of this debate,” he said. “It can’t be dismissed as a transparent attempt to put Genesis into public schools.”

“In short,” he added, “intelligent design is not your daddy’s fundamentalism.”

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