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Isn't Intelligent Design Another Name for Scientific Creationism?

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) and other organizations have tried to portray intelligent design as another variant of scientific creationism.

For example, when high school biology teacher Roger DeHart, of Burlington, Wash., tried to teach his students about intelligent design, the ACLU of Washington state accused him of "presenting the discredited and illegal theory of creationism." Similarly, they branded intelligent design as "a smoke screen for creationists who have lost in the courts."

Although intelligent design is compatible with many "creationist" perspectives, including scientific creationism, it is a distinct theoretical position. This can be seen by comparing the basic tenets of each view.

Legally, scientific creationism is defined by the following six tenets:

Intelligent design, on the other hand, involves two basic assumptions:

"This is a very modest, minimalist position," says mathematician and philosopher William Dembski. "It doesn’t speculate about a Creator or his intentions."

In fact, there are only two general views that aren’t compatible with intelligent design: 1) a radical naturalism that denies the existence of any non-human intelligence, theistic or otherwise and 2) conventional theistic evolution.

It may seem surprising that the second view, conventional theistic evolution, is incompatible with intelligent design, since it clearly embraces the existence of God. But the view we generally associate with "theistic evolution" denies that God’s creative activity can be empirically detected. As Dembski points out:

Theistic evolution takes the Darwinian picture of the biological world and baptizes it, identifying this picture with the way God created life. When boiled down to its scientific content, however, theistic evolution is no different from atheistic evolution, treating only undirected natural processes in the origin and development of life.

Theistic evolution places theism and evolution in an odd tension. If God purposely created life through Darwinian means, then God’s purpose was ostensibly to conceal his purpose in creation. Within theistic evolution, God is a master of stealth who constantly eluded our best efforts to detect him empirically. Yes, the theistic evolutionist believes that the universe is designed. Yet insofar as there is design in the universe, it is design we recognize strictly through the eyes of faith. Accordingly the physical world in itself provides no evidence that life is designed.

Regarding the question of whether intelligent design is the same thing as scientific creationism, opponents of intelligent design have made much of a federal court case, Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Board of Education, in which the two positions were equated.

But according to David DeWolf, a law professor at the Gonzaga University School of Law, this finding came in a tangential statement in the judge’s decision.

The central issue in the case, DeWolf said, was not intelligent design, but the question of whether a disclaimer about evolution mandated by the Tangipahoa school district constituted an establishment of religion.

"The judge was simply laying out the general landscape of creation theories. In one sentence, he said intelligent design is another name by which you may know creationism."

The judge struck down the disclaimer, and his decision was upheld by a panel of the 5th circuit court of appeals. But in the appellate opinion, intelligent design was never even mentioned.

"There’s no finding in which you can say, ‘Aha! See, the courts have found that intelligent design is just the same,’" DeWolf said. "If you cited that as your authority in a lawsuit, a judge would be pretty mad at you for having misled him into thinking that this proposition had been established."

ARN Recommends: For more information on the legal issues about teaching Intelligent Design in the public school classroom see:
Intelligent Design in the Public School Science Curricula: A Legal Guidebook David K. DeWolf, Stephen C. Meyer, Mark E, DeForrest
Teaching the Origins Controversy: Science, Or Religion, Or Speech?
David K. DeWolf, Stephen C. Meyer, Mark Edward DeForrest.
Law, Darwinism & Public Education: The Establishment Clause and the Challenge of Intelligent Design Francis J. Beckwith

[1] David K. DeWolf, Stephen C. Meyer and Mark Edward DeForrest, “Teaching the Origins Controversy: Science, Or Religion, Or Speech?Utah Law Review 39(1): 94.

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