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     Response to ACLU ID FAQ: Part 2

     "How is intelligent design like and unlike traditional creationism?"

by Casey Luskin

FAQ 2: "How is intelligent design like and unlike traditional creationism?"
  • 2a. "Like creationism, intelligent design consists of both scientifically unwarranted criticisms of evolution and assertions that it is necessary to invoke the actions of a supernatural being to explain the origin and history of life."
  • 2b. "Unlike traditional creationism, intelligent design is not committed to a literal reading of the Bible, although it is intentionally non-committal about the age of the earth and other scientific issues in order not to alienate traditional creationists."

  • Response:
    FAQ 2A. "Like creationism, intelligent design consists of both scientifically unwarranted criticisms of evolution and assertions that it is necessary to invoke the actions of a supernatural being to explain the origin and history of life."

    Undoubtedly, many evolutionary biologists would agree with the ACLU's statement here that the criticisms of Darwinian evolution from intelligent design proponents and creationists are unwarranted. However, the question of whether or not scientific criticisms are "warranted" is not germane to constitutional analysis: "[T]he wisdom of an educational policy or its efficiency from an educational point of view is not germane to the constitutional issue of whether that policy violates the establishment clause.” (Smith v. Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County, 827 F.2d 684, 694 (11th Cir. 1987))

    "Whatever the academic merit of particular subjects or theories, the Establishment Clause limits the discretion of state officials to pick and choose among them for the purpose of promoting a particular religious belief." (Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. at 605 (Scalia, J. dissenting).)
    If it is really true that “[s]tates and local school boards are generally afforded considerable discretion in operating public schools” then what matters is if the school board sincerely believes that a scientific theory has merit, and relied upon that belief in good faith as a valid secular purpose for teaching intelligent design. It does not matter if some people think the criticisms are unwarranted--what matters is if the actions establish religion. Criticizing evolution does not necessarily establish religion as the Supreme Court noted that "[w]e do not imply that a legislature could never require that scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories be taught." (Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. at 593)

    Let's assume (for the sake of argument) that the ACLU is correct that ID proponents have made scientifically unwarranted criticisms of evolution (or perhaps, let's make the more reasonable assumption that many evolutionary biologists might argue in court that intelligent design has misplaced criticisms of evolution). Does this mean that a school board which teaches intelligent design is doing something unconstitutional? Suppose that a school board decided to start teaching the ridiculous notion that the Earth's orbit has a radius from the sun of about 10,000,000 miles when in reality its orbital radius is closer to 93,000,000 miles. Although the statement is simply incorrect and not warranted by astronomical data, such a statement would not establish religion. School boards are given discretion and surely should not teach science which is clearly wrong. But as far as the Establishment Clause is concerned, teaching a scientific concept which is inaccurate, or perhaps simply arguably inaccurate, does not in-and-of-itself establish religion. In a court of law, the claim that intelligent design theory has no scientific merit would merely be the opinion of the experts on one side of the case. Cases constantly have scientific experts on different sides of a case and courts are not in the business of declaring teaching something as an unconstitutional establishment of religion simply because some experts on one side state the argument is without scientific merit.

    However, the ACLU is wrong on a much larger point, for the claim that intelligent design's criticisms of Darwinian evolution are "scientifically unwarranted" is simply an incorrect assertion. If a case were to go to court, it is simple to imagine many credible scientists establishing various legitimate scientific criticisms of Darwinian evolution. The court need not decide if these criticisms are accurate for it to recognize that the criticisms of evolution are much more than mere "assertions" and have much scientific data supporting them (See Icons of Evolution, pg. 261-331 for an extensive collection of mainstream scientific references bolstering a critique of Neo-Darwinian evolution.)

    Finally, the ACLU's claim that ID "consists of ... assertions that it is necessary to invoke the actions of a supernatural being to explain the origin and history of life" is again incorrect. Make no mistake here: the reason the ACLU continues to characterize intelligent design theory as invoking the action of a supernatural being is because "supernatural" is a buzz word used by the Supreme Court in calling creationism a religious viewpoint, unconstitutional for teaching in public schools, in Edwards v. Aguillard. This article has already discussed with detailed references how the intelligent design theory of both Pandas and modern-intelligent design proponents does not invoke a supernatural designer, and that the limitations of scientific inquiry do not allow one to identify the designer as supernatural, natural, or whatever. This claim on the part of the ACLU is simply wrong and does not correspond to the actual nature of intelligent design theory.

    The ACLU wants to make intelligent design look like it is creationism. But what exactly is creationism? For a moment, let's just use a definition of creationism coming from some of the harshest academic critics of intelligent design, Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross: An analysis of American creationism of all varieties reveals a number of shared characteristics: (1) belief in the creation of the universe by a supernatural designer and (usually) the designer's continuing intervention in the creation; (2) implacable anti-evolutionism, stemming from opposition to the scientific consensus on the evolution of the universe and life, such opposition being based on theological, moral, ideological, and political, but never scientific grounds; (3) criticism of all or most methodologies underpinning current scientific evidence for the evolution of life, without presenting for peer review any competing theory of origins; and (4) the most fundamental aspect of creationism: the explicit or implicit grounding of anti-evolutionism in religious scripture. And of course, there is the indefatigable political effort to influence and ultimately to rewrite school science curricula. (Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross, Creationism's Trojan Horse, pg. 283 (Oxford University Press, 2004)) Of their four labeled criteria, it is arguable that none incriminate intelligent design. As for criteria (1), intelligent design explicitly operates in such a way that the designer cannot be identified as being supernatural. As for criteria (2) and (3), intelligent design proponents have provided many scientific (and non-theologically based) objections to evolution, and it presents a competing theory of origins which has been subjected to peer review (including various instances where ID proponents presented their ideas for peer review, only to have them rejected because they were outside the orthodoxy). As for point (4), the technical literature put forth by intelligent design proponents bases their scientific arguments entirely upon empirical data, not religious scripture. It is difficult to imagine how such an explicit attempt to put forth empirically-based arguments could be implicitly based upon religious scripture. The fact that the scientific conclusion are harmonious with some religious beliefs does not mean those scientific conclusions are therefore based upon those religious beliefs. The data is what forms the basis for inferring intelligent design.

    Thus, intelligent design theory fails the definition of creationism put forth by even its harshest critics.

    FAQ 2B. "Unlike traditional creationism, intelligent design is not committed to a literal reading of the Bible, although it is intentionally non-committal about the age of the earth and other scientific issues in order not to alienate traditional creationists."

    Here the ACLU is correct to note that intelligent design has nothing to do with any particular interpretations of the Bible. However, the ACLU follows this concession with the intimation that the ID movement is intentionally courting "traditional creationists." By "traditional creationists," they probably mean young earth creationists. Trying to make connections between intelligent design theory and young earth creationism is firstly a political tactic, and secondly a legal tactic on the part of the ACLU.

    As a political tactic, the ACLU probably wants to make intelligent design appear as if it has something to do with young earth creationism because they know that many scientists, judges, and other members of the cultural elite will find any such connections unappealing. This is a rhetorical strategy which has long-been employed by Darwinists wanting to make intelligent design theory distasteful in the mouths of scientists. In reality, intelligent design theory is interested in gathering the support of any and all scientists who see evidence that life was designed. A few of these scientists may happen to believe that the earth is young, although my experience has taught that the vast majority of leading scientists in the ID movement believe the earth is old. But that is beside the point: the intelligent design movement is not interested in neither alienating nor courting anyone because of their specific views on the age of the earth. What the intelligent design movement is interested in doing is gathering the support of anyone who sees evidence for design, regardless of that scientist's views on other peripheral issues.

    However, it seems clear that the ACLU would likely back its claim from a passage out of Pandas dealing with the age of the earth: "An additional issue concerns the matter of the earth's age. While design proponents are in agreement on these [preceding] significant observations about the fossil record, they are divided on the issue of the earth's age. Some take the view that the earth's history can be compressed into a framework of thousands of years, while others adhere to the standard old earth chronology." (Pandas, pg. 92) Here the authors of Pandas state that some design proponents believe in a young earth, and others believe in an old earth. Despite this statement, Pandas itself seems to promote the standard mainstream ("old earth") geological timescale. On p. 94, it provides the standard geologic chronology for the Cambrian explosion, referring to "the remaining 500 million years or more of geologic time." On p. 158, the Big Bang is mentioned and briefly discussed (and treated as good science). Additionally, the Teacher's Note at the end writes that "the concept of design implies absolutely nothing about beliefs and normally associated with Christian fundamentalism, such as a young earth, a global flood, or even the existence of the Christian God. All it implies is that life had an intelligent source." (Pandas, pg. 161) Thus, it seems clear that Pandas is not trying to support a young earth. Indeed, this point is even conceded by the ACLU. It seems that there really are no hard connections to young earth creationism in Pandas.

    The ACLU tries to associate intelligent design with young earth creationism in order to question the scientific legitimacy of intelligent design. Young earth creationism, be it right or wrong, is taboo among mainstream scientists and association with it tends to bring down your reputation. The ACLU knows this and thus makes this statement as a rhetorical tactic: it tries to associate intelligent design with something that mainstream scientists will find is distasteful. This appears to be a tactic on the part of the ACLU to discredit intelligent design.

    Some might argue that the intelligent design research community would do itself good if it started expunging young earth creationists and start proactively attacking the young earth viewpoint. Those who want ID proponents to expunge young earth creationist design proponents are attempting to insert a wedge into the ID movement, using a political tactic to divide a community of scientists over an issue only tangentially related to the core of ID theory itself. Intelligent design theory itself does not logically need to exclude those who see that there are tell-tale signs that some aspects of life were designed but then happen to believe it was designed a short time ago. Much of intelligent design theory has nothing to do with the age of the earth, and thus a young earth creationist could contribute to elucidating intelligent design of various aspects of biology just as much someone who believes in an ancient earth. This is no different from any scientific field which has nothing to do with the age of the earth--a young earth creationist could just as equally make contributions to elucidating the DNA sequences of the human genome or investigating how photosynthesis operates today because such fields of science simply are not dependent upon the age of the earth. Young earth creationists could similarly use arguments from irreducible complexity and information theory to argue life was designed, regardless of how old they think the earth is. In other words, an investigation of ID theory reveals the design inference often follows without any necessary reference to chronology. If one finds an intelligently designed artifact, one can determine it is designed before knowing anything about its age. Why must we require all the answers to all the questions (like "how old is this object?") before we can ask more fundamental questions like, "Was this designed?"

    Those who argue that intelligent design proponents should excommunicate young earth creationists are typically Darwinists who have political aims of forcing the ID movement to choose one of two punishments: (1) to divide over a tangential issue unrelated to the theory or (2) to face public humiliation (at the hands of those calling for expungement) because a few young earth creationists have taken interest in design. That these Darwinists would request intelligent design proponents to "get political" and not let people into the ID-Movement club because of a viewpoint simply exposes the level of politicism which has infected the Darwinist community itself: they are intimately equated with excluding people because of their views. In fact the very request they make of the ID movement (to expunge young earth creationists) is analogous to the same sort of request they make of the mainstream scientific community (to expunge ID proponents). This request just becomes another symptom of the fact that the ID movement faces heavy political opposition from the scientific community. (Not that we needed any proof--consider this article highlighting the political backlash against those who dare to permit articles supporting ID to be published in mainstream scientific journals.) Thus we have a tactic on the part of Darwinists to keep "anti-evolution forces" divided and out of the mainstream scientific community.

    The interesting question is perhaps what would happen if ID proponents really did actually start expunging young earth creationists? Would the ID movement receive praise and commendation from these politically-aimed Darwinists? Hardly. These Darwinists do not care about "sanitizing" the ID movement so that it can be acceptable to the mainstream scientific community--they care most about protecting the power held by the evolutionary paradigm from any sort of attack. Otherwise they wouldn't spend so much time attacking ID theory itself for reasons completely unrelated to age-issues. To conclude this little soapbox speech, it probably is in the best interests of the ID movement to ignore requests which are (1) coming from those who generally have their worst interests in mind, (2) coming from those who seek to divide the ID movement with the request, and (3) would slightly hurt progress in intelligent design research.

    Regardless, Pandas itself seems to assume a mainstream timescale in its discussions of the evidence:
  • On pages 92 and 94, Pandas assumes a mainstream timescale for the Cambrian explosion.
  • On page 99, in table 4-1, Pandas assumes a mainstream timescale for the appearance of many differeng organisms it terms "living fossils."
  • On page 101, Pandas assumes that the first whales appeared 50 million years ago.
  • On pages 110-112, Pandas assumes a mainstream timescale for the appearance of various members of the genus Homo.
  • On page 158, the Big Bang is mentioned and treated as good science.
  • While the authors of Pandas sometimes note that their dates are from the "conventional" or "standard" timescale, they present no arguments against this scale and universally seem to assume it in discussing the data. It is tough to argue that they are going out of their way to accommodate young earth creationists.

    A final reason the ACLU is trying to make strained connections between intelligent design and young earth creationism is because young earth creationism is almost always associated with conservative Christianity, and they want to cast intelligent design as a purely religious movement. This is ironic, for if intelligent design were a movement purely rooted in conservative Christianity then it would not have attracted the interest of proponents of design such as ex-atheist and notable philosopher Anthony Flew (now a deist), David Berlinsky (a Jewish Scholar), and Jeffrey Schwartz (a Buddhist Jew). I have seen no indication that such individuals believe in the Bible as the literal truth nor that they are young earth creationists. I have serious doubts that such academics who have no personal stake in Biblical literalism would join in a movement they felt was mainly devoted to advancing conservative Christianity or young earth creationism.

    Back to the ACLU ID FAQ Response Main Navigation Menu

    Note and Update
    Original note with corrected URLs: This musing is merely a commentary on the "ACLU's 'Intelligent Design' FAQ" as found on the ACLU website. While I am a lawyer, and this response to the ACLU ID FAQ mentions the case over teaching intelligent design theory in Dover, Pennsylvania, this commentary is not intended to be legal advice for anyone. This is simply my thoughts about the claims made by the ACLU in its ID FAQ on their website. Some of their claims, and thus some of my commentary relates to case law, but much of this discussion is also completely unrelated to legal issues. A full legal discussion about whether or not it is constitutional to teach intelligent design would go into much more depth than the commentary made here. This is not intended to fully or adequately discuss the general question of whether or not it is constitutional to teach intelligent design theory. My purpose here is simply to respond to the various sorts of claims made by the ACLU in its ID FAQ. If readers have further questions about the author's opinion, they are invited to contact the author at

    Update [10-26-05]: Also, these response pages were originally posted on February 11, 2005. I just learned today that as of September 16, 2005, the ACLU had published an updated ID FAQ at the same URL where the original FAQ was located. Thus, I apologize if there has been any confusion as this response was written months before the new FAQ replaced the old one. Thus, this response here is in response to the original ACLU ID FAQ which is still available at I have tried to change links to the ACLU's ID FAQ throughout my response to reflect the change in their URLs. I would also like to thank the ACLU for making me aware of the changes in the URLs and their FAQ.

    [Addendum added 2/22/06: I realized today that this FAQ had previously stated that I was not a lawyer. That is because I wrote this before I was admitted to the California bar. I am now an attorney and have updated this page accordingly today.]