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Religious atheism

‘Intelligent design’ in the courtroom

Legion have been the creative linguistic abuses perpetrated by those who testified at last week’s Kansas State Board of Education hearings. (No transcript is available, but the audio recordings are available at Audible; good news and analysis at Thoughts from Kansas.) The latest attack on evolutionary science shows that the creationists have at least in some respects become more cunning. For one thing, these days they call themselves Intelligent Design Theorists, and probably don’t mind that “intelligent” in that phrase can seem to apply to the theorists themselves, as well as the design. (The use of “theorists”, too, is helpful, appearing to imply that they have a theory; whereas in fact they have none.) One fascinating part of their rhetorical strategy is, rather than to fight a battle between religion and science, to claim that science itself is a religion.

On the third day (May 7), one of the guests was Dr Angus Menuge, a computer scientist who introduced himself as Professor of Philosophy at Concordia University, Wisconsin, while forgetting to mention that he is also director of the Cranach Institute, an arm of the Concordia Theological Seminary. Menuge gave some creative word definitions:

I’m appealing here in this understanding of ‘education’ to the standards that come from the National Assessment Governing Board under the auspices of the No Child Left Behind Act. They argue that education should be secular, neutral, and non-ideological, and they define all of those terms. Secular means that they don’t favour or oppose any religious perspective: they stay neutral, as between religions, so that would mean being neutral as between theistic and atheistic religions. And neutral and non-ideological means, among other things, that they will not advocate a single perspective on a matter of controversy, okay? That’s what it means, to be neutral and non-ideological, okay?

The eagle-eyed reader may have spotted the reference to “atheistic religions”, and wonder whether perhaps Dr Menuge means Buddhism. Not quite . . .

Basically here it’s very very important to emphasise that it is not the case that being religious means being theistic. That’s simply a fallacy, all right? According to the consensus of philosophers of religion, such as you have for example the people of work like Tillich, who talked about the ultimate concern that people have, great theologian and philosopher of religion, but also according to United States law, there are similarly humanistic religions, you can certainly be religious without believing in God, okay? Atheism is just as religious a position as theism, and certainly secular humanism has been ruled as being a religion for First Amendment purposes, this in 1987, it’s particularly important there.

Later, he is asked to say directly what he is insinuating. The question: “So, is neo-Darwinian evolution as most evolutionists understand it, does it have religious connotations?” The reply:

Yeah it has religious implications, because if it’s taken to be the full account of everything that we observe it implies that nothing is designed or has a purpose, that human beings in particular are just occurrences, we’re products of this random process, and that we have no pre-ordained value, meaning or significance.

Note the subtlety of the phrasing: rather than saying that evolutionary science has implications for religion, Dr Menuge says it has “religious implications”. So there is already some religion inside it. And it doesn’t matter if it mentions no god, because atheism is a religion too.

You can see the force of this: if evolutionary science is just as “religious” as fundamentalist Christianity, then the only fair thing to do is to accord both of them equal time in the classroom. In fact, according to Dr Menuge, everything is religion. On his curious definition, “secular”, which most people understand as meaning “non-religious”, actually just means “neutral as between religions”. If we no longer have access to any term meaning “non-religious”, the upshot is not merely that it is possible to do atheistic theology. It is that every field of human study and endeavour is necessarily religious. There is nothing at all outside the field of religion. It is a rather radical view: the Bible-centred version of Derrida’s “Il n’y a pas d’hors-texte”.

Our Professor of Philosophy is also getting into a strange conceptual mess. On the one hand, he defines “secular” as “neutral as between religions”; on the other hand, he says that “secular humanism” is a religion. We are therefore led to conclude that “secular humanism” is a religion that is neutral between religions. A sort of agreeable meta-religion? Surely in that case it’s the best religion possible: it trumps all other religions because it floats placidly above them, regarding all with an equally kind eye. I don’t think, however, that that is quite what Dr Menuge has in mind.

Religion is historically prior to evolutionary science. But in order to prove that evolutionary science is itself a religious position, one would need instead to show that religion is logically prior: that it is necessarily the first explanation you jump to, and any other explanation must engage with its claims, on its terms. Sadly, proselytising atheist scientists such as Richard Dawkins are thus a gift to the neo-creationists, because they are able to extrapolate from his example to claim that all science takes a view (a negative view, but a committed one) on the existence of a god.

But in fact, most science just isn’t involved in this conversation at all. The astrophysicist Lawrence M. Krauss relates how the father of Big Bang theory, Georges Lemaître, wrote: “As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside of any metaphysical or religious question.” Lemaître, as it happens, was a Catholic priest. And the Catholic church accepts the findings of evolutionary science, considering that it does not conflict with religious teaching: its god is “the cause of causes”. Science here does not step on religion’s toes; it’s just doing a different job.

But Menuge and his neocreationist chums need to argue that science is really a religion, because that is their current strategy for smuggling their untheoretical theory of “Intelligent Design” into the classroom. You might be surprised to find that such a disreputable argument is enshrined in “United States law”, as Dr Menuge claims. At the end of the testimony, he was asked to cite the 1987 case that ruled that secular humanism was a religion. Helpfully, he did so: it is Smith v Board of School Commissioners of Mobile County, Alabama 1987 (655 F.Supp. 939). In this case, a group of parents had complained to the Board that textbooks on history, social studies and home economics used in schools promoted an anti-religious ideology, and that they thus effectively established a religion called “secular humanism”. Judge Brevard Hand concluded:

For purposes of the first amendment, secular humanism is a religious belief system, entitled to the protections of, and subject to the prohibitions of, the religion clauses. It is not a mere scientific methodology that may be promoted and advanced in the public schools.

But we can leave Judge Hand behind, happily ensconced in his homogeneous religiosphere. Because what Dr Menuge omitted to point out was that the case was rapidly overturned, by the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (827 F.2d 684), which concluded:

The Supreme Court has never established a comprehensive test for determining the ?delicate question? of what constitutes a religious belief for purposes of the first amendment, and we need not attempt to do so in this case, for we find that, even assuming that secular humanism is a religion for purposes of the establishment clause, Appellees have failed to prove a violation of the establishment clause through the use in the Alabama public schools of the textbook at issue in this case.

In other words, the Court finds no grounds for agreeing with Hand’s opinion that “secular humanism” is indeed a religion for first-amendment purposes. The matter was explicitly settled in 1994, with the judgement of the Ninth Circuit in Peloza v. Capistrano Unified School District (37 F.3d 517), in which a high-school biology teacher had claimed that “evolutionism” was a religion:

Neither the Supreme Court, nor this circuit, has ever held that evolutionism or secular humanism are ‘religions’ for Establishment Clause purposes. Indeed, both the dictionary definition of religion and the clear weight of the case law are to the contrary. The Supreme Court has held unequivocally that while the belief in a divine creator of the universe is a religious belief, the scientific theory that higher forms of life evolved from lower forms is not.

Thus, the judgment that Dr Menuge cited last week to bolster his argument was definitively rejected by the courts more than a decade ago. The creationists who express such concern about providing moral guidance to children do not, it appears, mind lying about the law.

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