Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Teaching Intelligent Design

President Bush created a maelstrom yesterday in an interview with several Texas journalists when he seemed to endorse the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. While lefties everywhere responded predictably, the right as is typical these days exhibited a difference of opinion both on what the President said, and its merits.

While I can understand the outrage of those on the right who see no place for the inclusion of intelligent design in public school curriculum, I find myself - somewhat surprisingly - at odds with this position. Ever since my days as a Boy Scout I have always viewed America's absolute distrust of religion with a combination of amusement, skepticism, and sadness as I think we've taken an important source of inspiration and morality, and relegated it as off limits in the public discourse. This is a shame, because I am quite certain that this was not the intention of the founding fathers:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Quoted above is the Establishment Clause. Look at it closely and you'll see that there is no statement about "separation of church and state" as is commonly believed by the religophobics in our midst. Instead the founders where quite clear that they sought to ensure the rights of all citizens to believe and practice their faith, or lack thereof, without fear of oppression.

So our founders, as is typical of their genius, gave us a sound principle by which to manage our affairs but remained intentionally vague on the implementation details so that we could apply the principle to modern day events which they were unable to foresee. This incredibly wise decision represented their requirement that future generations act reasonably to maintain the freedoms on which this country has thrived for over two centuries.

The question we must ask ourselves today is a simple one. Have we gone too far in interpreting the establishment clause to require not just freedom of religion, but freedom from religion as well? This is an important question because our current state of affairs has resulted in the sorry status quo of little or no religion being taught in our public schools.

Can anyone imagine a more ridiculous situation? When a vast majority of the world, I'd guess over 90%, believes in one deity or another as the ultimate source of truth, morality and indeed life itself, why in the world would we require that public schools be silent on a discussions of religion. When you consider that the other non-believing 10% have quite a bit to say about religion and their own beliefs this status quo seems even more bizarre. I'm aware that some schools continue to teach comparative religion classes, but for the most part these are the exceptions, and discussion is very tightly controlled so as not to offend separation absolutists.

The predictable result has been that we have built a public education system that is largely silent on morals and values. More importantly, some of our greatest thinkers have come from the religious world and are now out of bounds for public school curriculums. When was the last time Augustine, Aquinas or Anselm where mentioned out loud in a classroom? Has C.S. Lewis ever been discussed for his contributions beyond just his literary importance?

One of the most amusing, yet sad instances of this lack of education came during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings during the first Bush presidency. I remember vividly the anti-Thomas side complaining that he believed in "Natural Law" as if this was some sort of heresy. The dissenter's objections presumably were based in the foundation that Natural Law, as suggested by Locke, was handed down from the Creator. These deep thinkers believed that it should be obvious to everyone that we couldn't have a man who held such views on our Supreme Court! Obvious, apparently to everyone but our founding fathers who pinned the intellectual basis for our revolution and based the rights guaranteed in our constitution, including the freedom of religion that they so covet, on Locke's theories.

Which is all a long way to go to talk about the President's "outrageous" statement yesterday, but it does set an important foundation for the discussion. I've linked to the transcript above, but let’s pull out the salient exchange, shall we?

Q I wanted to ask you about the -- what seems to be a growing debate over evolution versus intelligent design. What are your personal views on that, and do you think both should be taught in public schools?

THE PRESIDENT: I think -- as I said, harking back to my days as my governor -- both you and Herman are doing a fine job of dragging me back to the past. (Laughter.) Then, I said that, first of all, that decision should be made to local school districts, but I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught.

Q Both sides should be properly taught?

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, people -- so people can understand what the debate is about.

Q So the answer accepts the validity of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution?

THE PRESIDENT: I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought, and I'm not suggesting -- you're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes.

On the face of it, I see little to get upset about. In the first exchange, Bush simply states that first and foremost, this is a local decision not a federal decision. Good for him. Secondly in stating his personal preference, which he notes would have been more relevant as Governor, he says he would like to see both sides taught, so kids can understand the controversy. This appears to be an endorsement, albeit a limited one, of comparative religion. In the second exchange Bush is given the opportunity to state that ID is an alternative to evolution but does not come near to making such a suggestion. Instead he goes on to endorse the policy of teaching different ideas.

This not only is not wrong, but instead is a endorsable idea. The fault here seems to be on the side of the press which should have questioned Bush further on his thoughts. If they were to have done this and were Bush to suggest that ID should be part of the science curriculum, then clearly he would have been off base. If instead, Bush were to support the teaching of ID along with other religious theories in a philosophical curriculum, then he would have been spot on.

Instead, we're left with not much more than debate fodder and a prime example why Presidents limit their exposure to the press. We certainly can fault Bush for his ineloquence, but we also must ask why the reporter, who planned the question in advance was so ill prepared to follow-up and clarify. Perhaps he was more interested in scarring than in educating. Ironically, the "scientists" accuse religious people of such an approach all the time.

Returning to Bush's comments I would simply love to see education include questions such as this in student's daily coursework. What could be wrong with debating ID, evolution, Christianity, Islam and the other great faiths that have inspired man? Indeed, if framed properly it seems to me that it becomes quite clear that the ideas of ID and evolution can be quite compatible because ID and the great religions are focused on the origins of life, while evolution is concerned with the mechanism of how life developed once here. Or not. Either way, it is a debate worth having in the classroom.

So why the controversy? It seems clear that it is due more to religious/scientific baiting hucksters competing for their time in the spotlight more than anything else. How else, in this day and age of manufactured outrage, can one be expected to raise funds and keep the foundations flush with cash, and the BMW in the garage? The rest of us ought to be above that.

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