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Faith factors don’t negate Intelligent Design, prof says

MARIETTA, Ga. (BP)–Should religious motivations of a theory’s proponents disqualify that theory from receiving a hearing in the public square? It’s a point that has become a central issue in the Intelligent Design-evolution debate.

Francis J. Beckwith, associate director of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies and associate professor of church-state studies at Baylor University, told a New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary forum that the striking down of a policy based solely on the religious motives of its adherents is “logically fallacious and constitutionally suspect.”

Beckwith spoke on “Intelligent Design, Public Schools and the First Amendment” during the closing session of NOBTS’ 2006 Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum Feb. 4 at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga.

“Religious belief is one of the few rights absolutely protected under the Constitution,” Beckwith said. “The government may penalize actions, not beliefs.

“Beliefs that propel a citizen to embrace particular policies may not be used by the government to limit a citizen’s legitimate liberties or powers,” he said.

Beckwith’s comments followed the presentation of evolutionary biologist Wesley R. Elsberry, a representative of the National Center for Science Education.

A focal point of Beckwith’s remarks was the December 2005 decision handed down by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. Beckwith said it appeared the judge relied heavily on the religious motivations of the Dover Area (Pa.) School Board in his decision.

In that case, the judge ruled for the plaintiffs and the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, who brought suit against the school district for a policy requiring ninth-grade biology students to hear a disclaimer on the inadequacies of evolution.

The disclaimer referred to evolution as a “theory, not a fact” and presented Intelligent Design as an alternative explanation for the origin of life, referencing the book, “Of Pandas and People.”

In the question-and-answer period that followed Beckwith’s presentation, Florida State University philosophy and zoology professor Michael Ruse said that while he applauded the judge’s ruling he wondered if what the judge perceived as a lack of forthrightness by the school board contributed to his ruling. The Dover case, he said, would not represent “the final word” on the subject.

Beckwith chose to focus on Kitzmiller v. Dover because of the significant role religious motives played in the case and because, in his opinion, other cases cited in the decision do not apply to Intelligent Design.

Jones found for the plaintiffs based on two primary criteria: the endorsement test, which examines whether a casual observer considers a statement by a government-sponsored agency to be an endorsement of a religious viewpoint, and the Lemon test, derived from the 1971 case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, in which the court articulated a three-part test for constitutionality, including a test of purpose. It stated that a statue or government-sponsored message violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment if it fails to show a secular purpose.

Jones’ decision also cited the cases of Epperson v. Arkansas (1968) and Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), two cases in which laws restricting the teaching of evolution were struck down because the defendants failed to give non-sectarian reasons for the teaching of creation science, but rather, were found to be advancing a religious viewpoint.

To show why these cases should not be applied to the Intelligent Design debate, Beckwith pointed out that it appears the U.S. Supreme Court in both the Epperson and Edwards cases was not ruling out the teaching of scientific theories that are at odds with the philosophical presuppositions of naturalism. Rather, the court, was striking down the teaching that advanced a religious viewpoint.

Though the question awaits a court test, Beckwith explained, the Supreme Court ruling apparently “does not prohibit the teaching of scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories” and that other scientific theories could be taught if a “clear secular intent of enhancing science education” for children is demonstrated.

“Intelligent design is not stealth creationism,” Beckwith said.

Rather, ID is a name for a cluster of arguments that reasons the universe to be the result of intelligent agency rather than of unguided matter, Beckwith explained. The theory lacks the accompaniment of religious authority or sacred Scripture.

To focus on the religious motives of citizens involved in a legal dispute, Beckwith said, commits a logical error and may in fact be a violation of the free exercise of religion clause in the First Amendment.

“Labeling one’s motives as religious or non-religious contributes nothing to one’s assessment of the quality of the argument,” Beckwith said.

To reject an argument because of the religious convictions of its proponents is to commit the “genetic fallacy,” Beckwith explained. The error is in rejecting an idea because of its source or a flaw in its origin.

“Either the argument works or doesn’t,” Beckwith said. “Either it is plausible or implausible.”

Segregating citizens from the public debate based on motive “violates our nation’s long tradition of absolutely prohibiting government inspection of its citizens’ beliefs,” Beckwith said.

Motive is distinct from the content of the argument, he said, noting that citizens with very different motives may support the same legislative policy.

As an example, Beckwith cited the Danbury, Conn., case in which Baptists in the 1800s were burdened with a state tax designed to help the Congregationalist church. Their motives for objecting to the tax could have been construed as advancing a personal tenet of faith, that any type of coerced faith is not genuine faith.

Although religiously motivated, Beckwith pointed out, their objection would have been in line with the secular notion of resisting any forced participation in a state church.

Citing the case of Reynolds v. United States (1878) that prohibited the practice of polygamy in spite of a religious duty defense, Beckwith reiterated that government may penalize actions, but not beliefs themselves.

Many of the adherents of ID do have religious motivations, Beckwith concluded, but that is not enough to limit a “modest, fair and non-sectarian introduction to non-naturalistic views in the public school classroom.”

Judging the value of a proposal based on a proponent’s personal motives would build a political culture in which citizens would fear the rejection of their proposals regardless of the content or validity of the argument.

“This test [of religious motives] would act as an instrument of subtle coercion…” he said. “It would result in political exclusion based on belief, something the Supreme Court has held is de facto, not just prima facie, unconstitutional.”
Audio recordings of the Greer-Heard Forum are available at www.greer-heard.com.

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  • Marilyn Stewart