This week’s ruling by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III in the so-called Intelligent Design case in Pennsylvania is a courageous, historic step toward replacing the hysteria of our culture wars with some good sense and reason.
Reason, in fact, is at the heart of the judge’s decision. In ruling that the Dover school board could not require high school biology teachers to introduce Intelligent Design as an alternative to evolution, the judge made clear that the scientific method and empirical fact are not intellectual fads but the basis of modern society. He ruled that efforts to introduce supernatural theories of human origin are aimed not at encouraging scientific inquiry but at replacing it with “theistic and Christian science.”
The case had been brought by a group of Dover Township parents who complained that their local school board was imposing its religious views on public school students when it ordered the introduction of Intelligent Design in classrooms last year. The board had ordered that biology teachers read their students a statement casting doubt on Darwin’s theory and suggesting that Intelligent Design offers an “alternative” theory.
The case quickly turned into a landmark. Lawyers for the plaintiffs sought to show that Intelligent Design was not an alternative scientific theory, but rather an attempt to replace science with religious faith. Lawyers for the school board tried to prove that Intelligent Design represented a legitimate scientific view. The six-week trial, the first legal test of Darwinism since the 1925 Scopes trial, became a showcase for the arguments and counterarguments of the nation’s culture wars.
The judge, a Republican appointed by President Bush, could have ruled narrowly on the question of whether the school board had acted properly in making its decisions. In fact, he left no doubt of his views on that. He flatly accused the board members — who have since been voted out — of “outright lies under oath” and “breathtaking inanity.”
But he went much further. In a scathing, 139-page decision that will be studied for years, he laid out the case for modern science, examined the intellectual underpinnings of evolution and dismissed Intelligent Design and similar efforts by religious conservatives as tantamount to an attack on science.
For the past 400 years, he wrote, “science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena.” Intelligent Design is an effort to change “the ground rules” of science to include untestable and, from a scientific standpoint, unknowable mysteries.
Notwithstanding the protests of religious fundamentalists of every faith, there is nothing in Jones’s ruling this week that prevents religious believers from teaching and promoting their views. What Jones did say is that religion and science are two separate categories, and that religious believers may not impose their views on the rest of us. Science and empirical inquiry are not a lifestyle choice but the underpinnings of our modern society. This week’s ruling goes a long way toward defending that basic truth.