Creation-Science and Intelligent Design: Different Names for Religious Theory

Calling religion a science—whatever name you use—does not make it so, writes Robert T. Pennock

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Robert T. Pennock is professor of philosophy, computer science, and EEBB at Michigan State University and author of the books Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism and Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics: Philosophical, Theological and Scientific Perspectives.

When creationists need to update their "science," they reach for a thesaurus.

Creationism in the 1970s and early 1980s rode into town under the name of "Creation-science," a term coined by Henry Morris. It claimed to be free of religious commitments and to be based entirely upon science. Arkansas and Louisiana passed legislation to have students compare creation-science and evolution, but both laws were struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. Disguising a religious view as science doesn't make it one. Following the Supreme Court decision in 1987, creationists regrouped and rebranded their views as "Intelligent Design (ID) Theory."

ID claimed to be free of religious commitments and to be based entirely upon science and to have nothing to do with creationism. Its advocates promoted their new textbook, Of Pandas and People, that would let students compare "Design Theory" and "Darwinism." They eagerly awaited a chance to try again in court. I critiqued Pandas in my book Tower of Babel back in 1999, and noted how it appeared to simply substitute the term "designer" or "master intellect" for "Creator," but that the basic ideas were essentially the same. Little did I realize at the time just how literally true this was.

When ID got its own day in court in 2005 in the historic Kitzmiller case, the plaintiffs subpoenaed drafts of the book and discovered how the key terms had been switched after the 1987 Supreme Court decision against Creation-science. In draft, Pandas had been titled Creation Biology, and the concepts were familiar as well. For instance, in the published book ID was explained in this way:

Intelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency, with their distinctive features already intactfish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc. [Pandas 99-100]

But in the pre-1987 drafts, the prior creationist terminology had been used:

Creation means that various forms of life began abruptly through the agency of an intelligent Creator with their distinctive features already intactfish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks, and wings, etc. (Pandas draft pp 2-14, 2-15)

This kind of search-and-replace substitution was found throughout the book. Expert witness Barbara Forrest even unearthed a linguistic transitional form showing how the ID authors had slipped when doing a hasty cut-and-paste in the manuscripts. In trying to replace the term "creationists" at one point, they failed to select the whole word before pasting in the new term "design proponent," resulting in the hybrid "cdesign proponentists."

One finds this kind of terminological disguise at all levels in the history of creationist writings. The purportedly big new idea in ID—what one ID leader, Michael Behe, called "irreducible complexity" and what another called "specified complexity"—was previously made under the name of "functional complexity" by Henry Morris. And in both cases the substance of the argument—that no natural process like evolution could explain such a feature and so it must have been created ... er ... designed—was the same. Scientists have shown these arguments to be unsound—as Texans put it, "that dog don't hunt"—but creationists just resurrect them with a new name. (The TalkOrigins.org archive is a handy place to find rebuttals to these endlessly repeated arguments.) With massive amounts of evidence, it was easy in the Kitzmiller case for Judge Jones to conclude in his ruling that ID is just "creationism relabeled."

Since their humiliating defeat in Dover, creationists studiously avoid using the term Intelligent Design in their lobbying. Now the word from the Discovery Institute (the lead ID advocacy organization) to their political supporters in legislatures and boards of education is to call their proposals "academic freedom" bills. One now hears the revised Discovery Institute slogans and talking points: Teachers should have the right to "teach the controversy" so that students can "analyze and evaluate" the evidence themselves about the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution.