Intelligent Design in the Classroom

part 1, 2, 3, 4

In the 1980s, more than 20 states and school districts passed laws to teach creation science in the classroom. Many used evidence from nature to try to demonstrate that the Genesis account of the Bible is literally true. Among them were the Louisiana schools whose case set an important precedent.

The Louisiana law required any school that taught evolution to "balance" the teaching with creation science. In the 1987 case Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court struck down that law. The court said the law violated the Constitution because it provided government support for a specific religious viewpoint.

Not long after, Phillip Johnson wrote his book on intelligent design, Darwin on Trial. Opponents say Johnson was simply "slopping a new coat of paint on the same old issue." Yet advocates insist there are differences between intelligent design and creation science.

At the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego, world headquarters for creation science, a docent shows off a display of Noah's ark. "Contrary to popular belief, Noah's ark was a lot bigger than the banana boat scenario that we often see depicted in cartoons and Sunday school classes for kids," he says.

"A lot of people think dinosaurs were not on the ark. We conclude that they were, because of two factors. Number one, they were wanted on the ark, and number two, they didn't have to be full grown. All dinosaurs came from eggs."

Creationists have a wide range of beliefs. Some think that the earth is flat. Others accept the Bible literally, believing God created all life in six days, that the earth is 6,000 to 10,000 years old, and that Noah's flood was an authentic happening.

"Probably 90 percent of all Americans believe in intelligent design [and/or] creation," says John Morris. "Only a very small percentage believe in strict naturalistic evolution. This is just a slice, a minority of folks. Unfortunately, that slice populates our universities. Our professors are all in that minor slice, very much out of touch with mainstream America, promoting something that the rest of America gags over."

Yet creationists are split with their allies from intelligent design over one key issue.

"The one problem that we see [is] that they just don't go far enough," says Morris. "They refuse to identify the designer. Well, obviously we feel that the designer is the God of the Bible and that his mind is the intelligence behind it all."

While creationists think intelligent design's proponents are too timid, historian Ed Larson says creationists still represent the biggest block of citizens behind the intelligent design movement.

"The polls I've seen, the people I've met, the rock foundation here is the people who believe in the Genesis account," says Larson. "And for them, intelligent design is, at best, half a loaf or maybe even a slice is better than nothing. If that's all they can get, it's better than nothing.

But those who promote intelligent design in schools have a good reason not to identify the designer.

"Clearly the First Amendment says that the classroom has to be religiously neutral," says Eugenie Scott, from the National Center for Science Education, (NCSE) an advocacy group supporting the teaching of evolution. "If you're saying God did, however cagily you're trying to present that, you're not going to get any place. A judge is going to stop you. And I think they were trying to avoid that problem."

Scott says contrary to what they contend, throughout the late 90s, Phillip Johnson and the Discovery Institute did promote the teaching of intelligent design in the classroom, but changed their tactics in 2002 to what she calls "teach the controversy" or "evidence against evolution," presenting what they call "holes" in the Darwinian theory.

"I think the reason why they changed their strategy was because they figured that they had a losing proposition from a legal standpoint," he says.

Scott is based in Oakland, California, across town from Phillip Johnson. She travels the country educating teachers and community members about the controversy.

"In the last eight to ten months or so, NCSE has been busier than any time in our history," says Scott. "And I think a lot of that has to do with the 2004 election where religious conservatives believe, and probably correctly, that they were the margin of victory for the current administration. And it happens to be the case that education is a local issue and this is where the religious right has been strongest, and school boards have been a target of the religious right for about the last 20 years or so."

Continue to part 4

©2018 American Public Media