Establishing liberal religion?

Some intelligent design proponents have begun to object to the way the relationship between biological evolution and religion is presented, when public funds and institutions afre involved. Their argument is that when defenders of evolution argue that evolution presents no challenge to religion, they favor liberal over conservative religon. This is not religiously neutral.

Intelligent design proponents at the Discovery Institute are now objecting to how PBS is handling things:

The PBS teaching guide is a companion piece to the NOVA docudrama about the 2005 Dover intelligent design trial and claims to provide for teachers “easily digestible information to guide and support you in facing challenges to evolution.” The guide instructs teachers to introduce religion into science classes with discussion questions like
“Can you accept evolution and still believe in religion? A: Yes. The common view that evolution is inherently antireligious is simply false.”

“This statement oversimplifies the issue and encourages teachers to prefer certain religious viewpoints in the classroom, betraying Supreme Court law concerning religious neutrality,” says attorney Casey Luskin, program officer for public policy and legal affairs at Discovery Institute.

“The Supreme Court ruled in Epperson v. Arkansas that the government must maintain ‘neutrality between religion and religion’,” says Randal Wenger, a Pennsylvania attorney who filed amicus briefs in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case. “Because the Briefing Packet only promotes religious viewpoints that are friendly towards evolution, this is not neutral, and PBS is encouraging teachers to violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.”

Probably overblown, as usual. Yet I have to wonder if the ID proponents don’t also have a point. After all, public pro-evolutionary statements do tend to at least implicitly favor liberal religion. Saying that many people manage to reconcile evolution and their religious beliefs in some fashion should be no problem—that’s presumably a fact we can all agree upon. But when we say that evolution does not challenge religion, we go further: we really mean that evolution is no problem for the “good” religions. And I can see that in some contexts that lack of religious neutrality might be problematic.

It gets even more complicated if, like me, you’re not necessarily impressed with the most popular ways that people reconcile evolution and religion. Almost invariably, evolution-friendly religious views incorporate some notion of progressivity and explicit divine guidance that makes evolution a purposive process. That still invites conflict with current scientific views. There are some exceptions, where divine involvement becomes an imperceptible metaphysical gloss with no biological implications, but outside of academic theology, such views are religiously irrelevant. Furthermore, it’s politically insane to demand that religious people accept a very attenuated view of divine action that is totally decoupled from biology.

Popular acceptance of evolution in the US depends on moderate and liberal religions that superficially accept evolution. We must take sides favoring liberal religion, but if we do so too blatantly, perhaps we do run into problems with neutrality with respect to religion.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University