By The Rev. BARRY W. LYNN
WASHINGTON -- Conservative Christian activists have launched various schemes to smuggle religious doctrine into public schools in recent years.
Their latest effort is called "intelligent design," a new variation of "creationism." A school district in Dover, Pa., has adopted this idea for its biology classes and is now facing a federal lawsuit. Why all the fuss? Here's the reason: intelligent design is just religion doing a poor imitation of science. Intelligent design claims that life on Earth is so complex that it must have been designed by a higher power. Its advocates don't often name the higher power, but they've offered no serious option other than God.
At the end of the day, this is yet another effort to replace standard science instruction with a Sunday school lesson.
Phillip Johnson, a former law professor who pioneered intelligent design, told a conservative religious audience a few years ago that his goal is to use intelligent design to spread doubts about evolution and then introduce people to "the truth" of the Bible and "the question of sin." Ultimately, Johnson said, he wants people to be "introduced to Jesus."
If the end result of what you are doing is aimed at religious conversion, then it's evangelism, not science. It belongs in a house of worship, not a public school.
Intelligent design proponents say their idea is a serious challenge to Darwinism. Yet intelligent design has no mainstream scientific support. We do our children a disservice by pretending unconventional ideas are accepted in science when they are not.
As far as the mainstream scientific community is concerned, the issue is settled: Evolution is the basis for much of modern biology. Scientists readily acknowledge that debate continues on the details, as it does regarding gravity, plate tectonics and other scientific theories.
In public universities across the land, evolution is taught in science classes without controversy. Public schools in European and Asian nations teach evolution without pretending there is an equally valid view called "intelligent design" -- and their youngsters will leave ours behind in an increasingly scientific age if we do otherwise.
Conservative religious activists have been unable to ban the teaching of evolution outright or give "equal time" to creationism in public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court slammed the door on those gambits in 1968 and 1987 decisions. Intelligent design is merely the latest effort to circumvent the Constitution and the courts.
This crusade operates mainly through political channels. Religious conservatives are pressuring local school boards around the country to water down instruction about evolution. They want the political system to give them what the scientific community won't.
But no matter what proponents of creationism call their ideas, the bottom line remains the same: Fundamentalist groups want public schools to teach the Bible as science.
Discussion about religious ideas might be appropriate in a comparative religion or philosophy class. But in a diverse country that respects the separation of church and state, it is unacceptable to introduce dogma into the science curriculum.
As a Christian minister, I realize that Americans interpret the Bible in different ways. Most Christians long ago reconciled their religious beliefs with modern science. For example, Pope John Paul II has stated that evolution is a well-grounded scientific theory that need not clash with religious faith.
We must teach our children the best science possible and help them become leaders in the world of tomorrow. We must reject the intelligent design crusade. Nothing less than the future of America's public schools and our secular democracy is at stake.
X The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.