[Originally published as part one of The Worst Decision Never Appealed]
By Robert R. Edwards, B.A., B.S., J.D.
On November 19, 2004, the Dover County Area School Board in Pennsylvania passed a resolution requiring ninth grade biology teachers to read their students a disclaimer concomitant with their mandatory teaching of evolution.1
The short disclaimer made three basic assertions:
- That evolution was a theory with gaps in the evidence and, like all theories, was subject to continuous testing as new evidence was discovered;
- That the idea of Intelligent Design (ID) provided an alternative explanation for the origin of life; and
- That, with respect to any theory, the students should keep an open mind.
No questions were permitted, nor any further discussion of ID allowed. In a decision issued December 20, 2005, after a six-week non-jury trial, United States District Court Judge John E. Jones, III, declared the resolution unconstitutional, opining that it violated the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, et al., 400 F.Supp.2d 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005). Thereafter, eight of nine school board members lost reelection, and the school board president announced that the board would not appeal.
I believe Judge Jones’ ruling to be among the worst decisions never appealed. 2
The “Establishment Clause” is found in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. It states in relevant part that the United States “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”3 Judge Jones held that the School Board’s resolution requiring the disclaimer to be read to ninth-grade biology students constituted a law respecting an establishment of religion and was, therefore, unconstitutional on its face.
Although his ruling spanned 139 pages and invoked hosts of legal precedent as well as expert and lay witness testimony, the progression of his reasoning was simple:
- Intelligent Design is the same thing as Creationism;
- Creationism necessitates a Creator;
- belief in a Creator is the sine qua non of “religion”,
- and therefore anything the School Board did to introduce Intelligent Design into the public school classroom constituted governmental “establishment of religion”.
At the core of Judge Jones’ opinion is his evident misapprehension of the word “religion.” “Religion,” to Judge Jones, is limited to any belief system that includes a belief in the supernatural, a belief in God, or a belief in a creator. His definition of “religion” excludes any belief system that disavows a belief in the supernatural, God, or a creator.
Therefore, while the government can sanction atheism in any form and forum, government-sanctioned reference to anything that even implicates theism constitutes an “establishment of religion” and is therefore unconstitutional as a matter of law, even if what is being implicated is true as a matter of fact. In his own words, Judge Jones writes, “[w]hile ID arguments may be true, ID is not science”, and therefore may not even be referenced, let alone taught, in a public school. Kitzmiller, 400 F.Supp.2d at 735; 737-738, 742-743.4
Judge Jones goes on to explain that “science” is limited to the search for natural causes as a way to explain natural phenomena, thereby rendering all possible supernatural causes “unscientific” by definition, regardless of the empirical and other evidence supporting them. Id.5 at 735-736.
Thus, to the “separation of church and state”, Judge Jones added to the Constitution a “separation of church and science.”6 At the same time, Judge Jones acknowledged that there are “gaps” in evolutionary theory [id. at 743, 738], but he dismissed them, stating, “…just because [evolutionary] scientists cannot explain today how biological systems evolved does not mean that they cannot, and will not, be able to explain them tomorrow.” Id. at 738.7
His dilemma is that trying to understand the science of origins while turning a blind eye to the most elementary of its conclusions (whether we are the product of Intelligent Design or of Chance) is like trying to understand a marionette without even considering whether its strings trace to a source. By this I do not propose that public high school science teachers suggest to their students any particular source for our existence, only to acknowledge, in light of the “gaps”, that one might be there.
My Own Journey
As a young man, I rejected Christianity on emotional and philosophical grounds, not on scientific ones. When I went to college (a public university, by the way) I resolved to make “Truth”8 my “God”, and I sought Truth in almost every field of study I could fit into my schedule. I saw science as a tool to aid me in my search for Truth, and I vowed to accept the results of that search as my “religion”.9 Thus life, for me, was a search for Truth, “science”, a tool to help me in that search, and “religion”, the conclusion or series of conclusions I reached along the way.
My “fifty-cent” definition of “religion” is that religion is a “series of conclusions about responsibility derived from an inquiry into the Absolute and resulting in practical applications for everyday living.” But what religion really boils down to is simply what one believes to be true, and believes to be true in an absolute sense, whether based upon a belief in God (i.e., theism) or not (e.g., atheism and agnosticism). Whatever that may be, it formulates and informs one’s “belief system”, or “religion,” thereby dictating how he lives his life on a daily basis. The practical, day-to-day ramifications of concluding that God does not exist are as profound as the ramifications of concluding that he does.
I anticipate two immediate objections to the above:
- One might say he never engaged in any such “search for Truth” and therefore my experience and definitions are inapplicable to him; and
- One might deny the existence of anything that is absolute.
Both objections are easily dismissed.
For one to say he “never engaged in a search for Truth” is false on its face. His search for Truth simply stopped upon his conclusion that Truth did not exist (i.e., that there are no absolutes), could not be found, or was not worth finding. That does not mean, however, that he didn’t start and conclude, or that he doesn’t have a “belief system” formulated and informed by that conclusion. His belief system is simply a function of admitted ignorance, and it has ramifications for how he lives his life on a daily basis (i.e., absent any consideration of, or responsibility to, ultimate Truth).
Whether or not Truth exists, however, is not a function of his decision not to seek it, and he can’t avoid it or its consequences by living as if it’s not there. Truth exists of itself, in an absolute sense, and necessarily so.
To him who would say “there is no such thing as Truth” or “there are no absolutes,” I would simply point out that the assertion is itself absolute.
The absence of any such thing as an Absolute would mean there is at least one Absolute, that being the absence of all other absolutes. Therefore, anyone who says “there are no absolutes,” or there is no Truth, necessarily posits an Absolute himself, thereby defeating his own argument.
Like me, he has a “belief system”. His belief system is a function of his having concluded that everything is relative, and it is a conclusion about which he must be absolutely certain, otherwise he is in no position to deny the existence of any other absolutes. His belief system, too, has ramifications for his life and how he lives it to the same degree that my belief system has ramifications for me and my life. His belief system simply leads to the logical conclusion that he is not ultimately responsible to anyone but himself or, perhaps, his fellow man, for anything. Mine leads to the conclusion that I am ultimately responsible to a Creator-God in everything.
Both of these objectors (the one who says he never engaged in a search for Truth and the one who says there is no such thing as Truth) can be included among the ranks of the “Secular Humanists,” or, less often, among the adherents of other “religions” (e.g., Atheism or Agnosticism) who doubt or deny the existence of God or at least live as if God doesn’t exist.10
This is not to say they cannot overlap, as would be the case with the Atheist or Agnostic who ascribes to a belief in the oxymoronic concept of a “secular morality,” thereby making him both a Secular Humanist and an Atheist or Agnostic at the same time. To the contrary, they often do overlap in that each ascribes to a belief system, a central tenet of which presupposes the absence of God. Nihilists share this central tenet as well, although they would not ascribe even to a secular “morality.”
Look up or Google “secular humanism” and you will get numerous definitions that are all pretty much the same. Wikipedia, for example, defines it to mean “Humanism, with regard in particular to the belief that humanity is capable of morality and self-fulfillment without a belief in God.” This, again, would include Atheists and Agnostics who ascribe to a so-called “secular morality.”11
“Humanism,” according to Wikipedia, is a noun meaning “an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.” Thus, “secular humanism” is a belief system attaching prime importance to human rather than supernatural matters and positing the idea that Man is capable of morality absent God or a belief in God.
“Religion,” as I have defined it, encompasses Secular Humanism (as well as Atheism, Agnosticism and Nihilism, etc.) as much as it does Christianity and Judaism (which are based on a belief in God), and Buddhism and Taoism (which are not based on a belief in God). Logically speaking, therefore, “religion” is not limited to institutionalized organizations or denominations or even to a belief in God. “Religion” is simply what one believes to be true, and believes to be true in an absolute sense, whether rooted in a belief in God or not. More importantly for our purposes, the United States Supreme Court apparently agrees with me.
1Teachers, parents and students were all given the right to “opt out”. Teachers could opt out by having a proxy read the disclaimer, and students could opt out via their own decision or that of their parents.
2In fairness to Judge Jones, he was constricted by U.S. Circuit and Supreme Court precedent; but I submit his application of that precedent to the facts of this case was wrong. Moreover, had his decision been appealed, it would have afforded the Supreme Court an opportunity to reconsider not just his faulty applications of logic and law, but some of what I believe to be errant Circuit and Supreme Court precedent as applied.
3 The first ten amendments to the United States Constitution are known as the “Bill of Rights”. Along with the Constitution, the Continental Congress passed the Bill of Rights in 1787 to protect the individual states from interference by the federal government. In a series of decisions beginning in the 1890’s, however, the United States Supreme Court turned the Bill of Rights inside out through something that became known as the “Incorporation Doctrine.”
By virtue of the Incorporation Doctrine, federal courts may now invoke the Bill of Rights to change, dictate, and otherwise “interfere with” the rights of individual states, specifically reserved to them in the Tenth Amendment. Thus the shield designed to protect states from federal intrusion was wrested from the states by the United States Supreme Court and melded into a sword to be wielded by the federal government against the now defenseless and unarmed states. It was by virtue of the Incorporation Doctrine that Judge Jones could apply to the Dover County Area School Board an amendment written to be applied only against the federal government and, specifically, against the United States Congress.
4Judge Jones concluded that ID was “not science” because science is limited to what can be observed, tested, replicated and verified. Kitzmiller, 400 F.Supp2d at 735. Apparently lost on Judge Jones is the fact that evolution cannot be observed, tested, replicated or verified.
5“Id.” is lawyer-speak [as one of my colleagues put it] for “see previous citation.” In this instance, for example, it refers the reader back to the Kitzmiller decision, at pages 735-736.
6 Judge Jones called ID an “interesting theological argument,” Kitzmiller, 400 F.Supp.2d. at 745-746, but ultimately dismissed it as “a religious alternative masquerading as scientific theory”. Id. at 728-729.
7 Note the presumption that “biological systems evolved.” Elsewhere in his decision, however, Judge Jones purports to express complete agreement with the basic assertions in the disclaimer: (1) that evolution was a theory with “gaps” in the evidence; (2) that ID “may be true” and therefore provided another possible explanation for human origins; and (3), I can only hope, that students should keep an “open mind.”
9 Christians refer to this as the study of “General Revelation”, as opposed to “Special Revelation”, which is that revealed in the Bible. It was that search in General Revelation that first led me to the God of the Judeo-Christian Bible, and not because some creation science teacher rammed it down my throat, but because everything I studied made sense only in the light of Christianity. To borrow from C.S. Lewis, “I believe in the Sun not just because I can see it, but because by it I can see everything else.”
11 Atheists and Agnostics who don’t ascribe to even a secular morality are more closely associated with Nihilists than with Secular Humanists. To distinguish between the four, Atheists believe that there is no God, Agnostics don’t know whether there is a God or not, and Secular Humanists just live as if there is no God, whether they believe in the existence of God or not. Nihilists don’t believe in anything, including a “secular morality”, and so, they too, live as if there is no God. They are, in effect, those who say “there are no Absolutes or absolutes, no Truth and no truths.” Each of the four constitutes a “religion,” as I have defined it, and both Atheism and Agnosticism overlap with Secular Humanism and Nihilism to the extent that adherents of all four live as if there is no God.