Re: Creationists Running for School Board

From: Ted Davis (
Date: Mon Sep 22 2003 - 15:43:20 EDT

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    Dick Fischer asked, What do you guys think about tagging the movement:
    "intelligent design creationism"? Fair or unfair?

    My answer: both. See below, an op-ed published last year in Karl
    Giberson's Research News & Opportunities in Science and Religion.

    What's In a Name?

    A number of years ago at one of the many academic conferences on religion
    and science I have attended--I no longer remember exactly where or when--a
    leading Roman Catholic philosopher rose from his seat to make a comment
    about creationism. He used to identify himself as a creationist, he said
    somewhat wistfully, but he couldn't do that anymore without being
    misunderstood, because the scientific creationists have co-opted the word.

    I find myself in the same boat. I, too, have to explain why I am hesitant
    to call myself a "creationist," despite the fact that I happily affirm the
    actual origination and continued existence of the whole universe only by the
    will of a free and powerful God--a core "creationist" belief in any ordinary
    definition of the word.

    Owing to the remarkable growth of fundamentalist-style creationism in the
    past two generations, however, many Americans define the word "creation"
    itself simply as the opposite of evolution. This makes it very difficult to
    have the kinds of carefully nuanced conversations we need to have, if we are
    to make any progress in sorting out the significant, diverse issues that
    relate to the ongoing American controversy over origins.

    It doesn't help when critics of the "intelligent design" movement--and I
    am considered one of them, albeit a friendly one--deliberately (or so it
    appears to me) use language in a loose and careless fashion to dismiss
    substantive ideas as so much "creationist" drivel. For example, William
    Dembski's argument that scientists already accept the notion of "design"
    in certain areas and therefore have implicit criteria for recognizing it,
    clearly belongs on the table for discussion as a legitimate point. Many
    scientists appear unwilling in principle to grant the possibility of finding
    genuine evidence for "design" in the natural world, and this does seem to be
    nothing more than simple prejudice on their part. No doubt, some employ the
    term "intelligent design creationism" for similar reasons.

    And make no mistake about it: "intelligent design" theory is far more
    sophisticated than garden-variety scientific creationism. It is unfair to
    label it in a manner which suggests that it is a close relative. However,
    there is much confusion about this very point at the popular level. This
    past year in central Pennsylvania (where I live), a local school board
    controlled by scientific creationists opposed the use of a certain
    children's book in elementary school, because it mentioned the big bang
    theory. Ironically, the leader of this effort was quoted in the newspaper
    making favorable references to "irreducible complexity" and other ideas
    originating in the "intelligent design" group. She and her colleagues were
    apparently unaware of the fact that various anthropic arguments, closely
    dependent upon the validity of that theory, are routinely employed by most
    ID advocates. Typical opponents of evolution in other states are probably
    no better informed than those in Pennsylvania.

    At the same time, ID advocates do not usually jump to distinguish their own
    efforts to raise questions about evolution from those of creationist
    organizations that seek to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools,
    despite the fact that creationist organizations generally do see important
    differences. The primary reason for this, I am convinced, is political. It
    is one thing to stress this difference in a scholarly venue such as this
    magazine; it is a very different thing to make the same point through the
    conservative religious press. ID advocates understand that much of their
    support comes from people who look to the Bible for details about the early
    history of the earth, and they aren't about to antagonize them. Because
    the most widely known ID advocate is himself a politically astute person (I
    am thinking here of Phillip Johnson) whose professional training revolves
    around the art of rhetoric, don't expect this to change anytime soon.

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