Backward, Christian Soldiers!

Illustration by Nathan Fox

Will the Yankees win the pennant and the World Series? Don’t know, don’t really much care. It’s the same with religion: I just don’t get it. There may be a God or—I was raised Unitarian—an oversoul or divine oneness of creation, but I have no conviction one way or the other, nor any itch to shuck off my uncertainty in favor of either atheism or firm belief.

I realize I’m a freak, entirely out of step with the mainstream. According to the polling data, about 5 percent of Americans say they don’t believe in God, and only another 5 percent—my 5 percent—aren’t sure. But almost the whole other 90 percent subscribe to some flavor of (Christian) faith—most of those say that the Bible is literally true, and a good 30 percent believe that it was dictated by God.

And whether they are strict scriptural literalists or not, a huge supermajority of Americans believe in—what else to call it?—magic: 61 percent think the world was created in six days, 70 to 78 percent say that hell and the Devil and angels exist, 81 to 85 percent believe in Heaven. If opinion polling had existed in the Middle Ages, it’s hard to imagine that the numbers would have been much higher.

For practical reasons—reasons both of politics and civility—it ordinarily behooves our tiny minority of reality-based infidels to keep quiet about our astonishment that most of our fellow citizens are in thrall to fantastic medieval fever dreams, just as it behooves secular minorities in Islamic countries to keep their modern sentiments to themselves. In countries like ours, the Iraqs and Afghanistans and USAs, liberals need to pick their battles.

So complaining about “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance really isn’t worth the trouble. I’m pleased, of course, when judges declare the display of the Ten Commandments on public property unconstitutional, but even there I’m not quite willing to go to the mat, especially concerning the rules about stealing, killing, and filial respect. How about the giant menorah over the door of the Municipal Building on Centre Street every December? Whatever. Discretion is the better part of valor.

But not always and no matter what. Sometimes we have to make an impolitic stink in support of the Enlightenment, and of the pieces of the Constitution—like the first words of the Bill of Rights, about government making “no law respecting an establishment of religion”—that are its revolutionary political expression. Intelligent design (ID), the hot new rebranding of Christian creationism, is extremely clever, profoundly disingenuous, and, I think, dangerous. It must be beaten back and kept out of the public schools.

Why have I gotten so riled now? Because when and if, God forbid, the history of America’s theocratic transformation is written, these past few months will be seen as a turning point. When I read in June that the Discovery Institute, the Seattle think tank behind intelligent design, was premiering its new movie, The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe, at the Smithsonian, I literally moaned and shouted. In his inaugural Mass last spring, the new pope had included a sentence dissing evolution, but in July, Cardinal Schonborn, his close friend and doctrinal Kommandant, elaborated the Church’s aggressive new anti-Darwinism in a Times op-ed—an article placed, it turned out, through the offices of the Discovery Institute.

Then came August, when I discovered that Bill Gates’s foundation is a principal funder of the Discovery Institute (although not primarily its intelligent-design work). And watched the president say that the decision whether to teach evolutionary biology or faith-based pseudoscience should be made by local school districts, but that “both sides ought to be properly taught … so people can understand what the debate is about.” And watched Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the Harvard Medical School graduate, scramble onto the bandwagon. And then, depressingly, watched the hard-truth-telling maverick John McCain do the same. Finally, at the end of the month, the Times ran a friendly three-part series on intelligent design. The barbarians had breached the gate.

So now my interest in the outcome of Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District—the federal trial of a lawsuit over a Pennsylvania school system’s embrace of intelligent design—is intense. Dover is close, only two hours beyond Philadelphia. Instead of rooting for Derek Jeter this fall, every joule of my home-team passion is going to the heroic team of dissenters in Dover—not just Tammy Kitzmiller and her ten fellow parents who filed suit, but Bertha Spahr and her six fellow teachers who declined to go along with the school board’s crypto-Christian meddling in their science curriculum.

This is the anti-evolution disclaimer the Dover teachers were ordered to read to their ninth-grade classes before they could teach evolution: “Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered… . Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence… . Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.” In a letter to the school superintendent explaining their refusal, the teachers at one point became especially emphatic: “INTELLIGENT DESIGN,” they wrote, caps lock on, “IS NOT SCIENCE. INTELLIGENT DESIGN IS NOT BIOLOGY. INTELLIGENT DESIGN IS NOT AN ACCEPTED SCIENTIFIC THEORY.”

The teachers are right; the school board—and Bush, Frist, and McCain—is simply wrong. Creationists, now reborn as “design theorists,” imagine that finally, instead of merely ignoring or denying evolutionary science, they are using bona fide but Genesis-friendly science to discredit it. Their crucial, we-are-not-insane concession is that the Earth really is a few billion years old, rather than only a few thousand.

“Evolution is a theory, not a fact,” say the stickers that another school system, in Cobb County, Georgia, affixed to textbooks. But all scientific knowledge “continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered,” and therefore all science is nominally theory—theory that exists along a spectrum, however, from deeply knowledgeable speculation (like superstrings in particle physics) to virtual certainties (such as evolution). In science, there is no such thing as fixed, irrefutable truth. That’s the difference between empiricism and faith.

So here’s a compromise: I’m willing to print the reasonable-sounding liberal core of the Cobb County disclaimer on every textbook in America—“This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered”—as soon as the Christians agree to put the same sticker on all of their Bibles. Disingenuous? Sure, just like the ID movement’s apparently liberal, apparently evenhanded strategy to sneak religious ideas into the classroom by saying they want to “teach the controversy.” In fact, the brilliance of the IDers (and of the new New Right generally) has been to recast all sorts of old liberal paradigms and habits for their own ends. We say intelligent design is camouflaged religion, and therefore a violation of the First Amendment? Well, says one of Discovery’s directors, the Dover case is indeed about adhering to the First Amendment—by protecting the right to “free speech” in public-school classrooms.

For several decades the philosophical ground has been softened up by the relativism and political correctness of the secular left, which succeeded in undermining the very idea of objective reality and of calling a spade a spade—so now, in the resulting marsh, fantasies like intelligent design (or Scientology or feng shui or 9/11 as a CIA plot) take root and spread like weeds. Liberals pioneered squishy-minded indulgence of their key constituencies’ unfortunate new ideas, like reparations and criminalized hate speech; now it’s the right’s turn.

The ID people, I’m afraid, remind me of Holocaust deniers. They’re not evil, but they are distorting and ignoring a century and a half of overwhelming empirical evidence to make it easier for people to believe in a historical miracle, just as Holocaust deniers distort and ignore half a century of overwhelming empirical evidence to make it easier for people to disbelieve a historical crime. Both are enemies of truth.

John E. Jones III, the judge hearing Kitzmiller v. Dover, is an active Republican whom Bush appointed. Still, so far he has ruled in favor of the teachers, and it would be shocking if he issued a verdict that the school system is behaving constitutionally—in other words, if he ruled that intelligent design has a bona fide secular purpose and is not intended to advance religion. Those are the constitutional tests that the big lie of ID was designed to end-run.

Whatever his verdict, the losing side will undoubtedly appeal the case up to the Supreme Court. The last time the court ruled on creationism, overturning a Louisiana education law in 1987, the vote was 7-2, with Justices Scalia and Rehnquist dissenting. That court didn’t include Clarence Thomas—who in last year’s “one nation under God” case made the Talibanic argument that the First Amendment’s “establishment clause” applies only to the federal government and was never meant to prohibit individual states from adopting official religions. But even in the unlikely event that both Chief Justice Roberts (an observant Catholic) and, say, Harriet Miers (a born-again Evangelical) voted with Scalia and Thomas to allow intelligent-design provisos in science classes, the court would presumably still be 5-4 in favor of keeping church and state separated.

So we are probably safe for now—as a jurisprudential matter. But politically, secularism will lose no matter what. If it’s decided correctly, Kitzmiller v. Dover can become a new Roe v. Wade, a landmark judicial bone in the craw of Christian America, a fresh means for right-wingers to depict their children as victims of godless liberals. At least on Roe v. Wade, a big majority of Americans have consistently supported the decision. As far as teaching straight science goes, however, the big majority is against us. According to a new Pew Research Center poll, 64 percent of Americans are in favor of having creationism and evolution taught in school—and it seems most of those would actually prefer to replace evolution altogether with scriptural teaching. Like I said, those of us who believe wholeheartedly in science and the First Amendment are the freaks.


Backward, Christian Soldiers!