Beckwith Reviews Numbers

The personable Baylor prof Francis Beckwith has a review of Ronald Numbers new edition of “The Creationists”. Beckwith praises Numbers for something Numbers gets wrong (an arbitrary distinction between “creationism” and “intelligent design”), corrects Numbers on details of the Baylor Polanyi Center affair, and alludes to a “mistake” that supposedly is common among “ID critics”:

These subtle, though important, distinctions are sometimes lost on critics of ID, who often confuse an argument offered by an ID advocate with the ID advocate who offers the argument. Ironically, this mistake is likely the consequence of a wider Protestant culture that separates faith and reason in a way that influences ID critics to think of all theological (or theologically-friendly) claims as arising exclusively from a believerís private interpretation of the Bible rather than in tandem and symbiotically with natural theology and/or philosophical reflection. It is not surprising, therefore, that Judge John E. Jones, a devout Lutheran, in his opinion in Kitzmiller v. Dover1 should make this particular mistake the centerpiece of his judgment.

Maybe there’s a point in there somewhere, but Beckwith’s convoluted construction and vague implications don’t add up to anything particularly intelligible, I’m afraid. Do “ID critics” really mistake an argument for a person? I don’t think so. Nor is there any help within the essay in trying to figure out what Beckwith considers a “centerpiece” of the Kitzmiller decision, though I know from Beckwith’s Greer-Heard Forum presentation that he thinks any consideration of religious motives of advocates in establishment cases to be unconstitutional, so there is at least the possibility that what Beckwith is trying to say above is something along those lines. I thought the argument Beckwith made at Greer-Heard was simply bizarre, in that he advocated that the courts completely leave aside any examination of intent when it comes to religious motivation of individuals, claiming that this was something prohibited by the “religious test” language of the US Constitution, even though the context is all wrong for that.

As an IDC critic, I don’t particularly care whether a religiously-motivated antievolution argument is purely formed out of “private interpretation of the Bible” or purely derives from “philosophical reflection”. The point is that privileging a particular sectarian view with government imprimatur is wrong, both morally and constitutionally. The “two-model” thinking common to all modern religious antievolution, whether called “creationism”, “scientific creationism”, “creation science”, “intelligent design”, “strengths and weaknesses”, or “academic freedom”, means that for the antievolution advocate it all amounts to the same thing, that a diminishment of one alternative is a support for the other.

In the legal context, precedent says that one does need to examine motives of advocates in religious establishment clause cases. It would be a mistake to say that the “purpose” prong of the Lemon test, for example, is about the particular provenance of an argument at issue. (Although for most antievolution arguments, the provenance is clearly from religious considerations and supports that point directly.) It is, rather, about the intended purpose the advocate has for the argument. Even if one were to (likely erroneously) attribute some antievolution argument to a not-explicitly-religious source (the generic “philosophical thinking” thing), the purpose to which an antievolution advocate puts it is pretty plainly not just generically religious, but narrowly sectarian.

We have a record of increasingly deceptive practices being used by antievolution advocates in order to get as many arguments from the ensemble of tired, old, bogus, long-rebutted religiously-motivated antievolution argumentation into public school science classrooms. Our courts don’t need to be hobbled in getting to the truth of what is going on, which would be the upshot of Beckwith’s argument that even considering purpose should be discarded out of hand.

Francis, care to try again on expressing your argument?

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

6 thoughts on “Beckwith Reviews Numbers

  • 2008/05/31 at 8:06 am
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    I should note that the relentless miscomprehension of scientific research that now occupies so much of the output of antievolution advocates is simply the enlargement of the program begun by the then explicitly religious antievolutionists like William Jennings Bryan and George MacReady Price. The misuse and abuse of science may not wear its religiosity on its face, but any competent examiner will determine that its purpose remains the very same as under previous labelings of the religious antievolution movement.

  • 2008/05/31 at 3:30 pm
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    I suspect Beckwith thinks highly of natural theology. I can sympathize with that attempt but when he speaks of the ‘natural order’ for human relationships and marriages, I think he’s projecting revealed ‘truth’ on nature rather than the other way around.

    I’ve noticed that Beckwith also advocates not excluding religious opinions from secular discussions. The idea is that there is no ‘privileged’ position with respect to policies regarding moral opinions. That’s not unreasonable, but I agree with you, Wesley, that the Lemon test is perfectly acceptable in cases such as ID/creationism *and* the way in which proponents have tried to force it into schools. So, propositions based on mixed arguments = OK — Those with extensively (or exclusively) religious justifications = no go.

  • 2008/06/02 at 4:40 am
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    I strongly feel that the whole academic discussion is missing the point, all theories have nicely put arguments but in fact each perceives an aspect of reality and insists that he got it right, if one thinks in levels then there is no contradiction and they are all correct from their unique perspective

  • 2008/06/02 at 8:08 am
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    Unfortunately, as soon as one admits that the perspective that values empirical evidence as an indicator of the value of a concept gets things done more efficiently than most other “perspectives”, one does not have the postmodernist luxury of simply deferring any judgment on issues that *can* be decided on the basis of evidence.

    Science is a meritocracy.

  • 2008/06/06 at 2:47 pm
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    If I follow what Beckwith is saying in the quoted paragraph he is saying that since Protestants are often sola scriptura, people who grow up in a Protestant culture such as the United States are more likely to assume that a claim in an area other than theology that has theological relevance stems from theological considerations rather than from the area it started in. For example, one might assume that some philosophical argument about the nature of sin is motivated solely by some Biblical interpretation that one wants to defend.

    If I’m following Beckwith correctly here then he may have a somewhat valid point: one could have a scientist who believed in God, and motivated by that belief tried to find evidence for God’s existence. That scientist could do good science even aside from their underlying motivation. That said, there may also be a projection issue here because creationists are fond claiming that biologists and other scientists are motivated by atheism or some other sinister agenda.

    Finally, one last point: while Beckwith’s claim that religious motivation shouldn’t be relevant at all, there are clearly situations where even if there is a strong religious motivation we would likely not see the action as unconstitutional. If for example, a city counsel voted to open a new homeless shelter funded by the city and the counsel decided to do so explicitly due to belief in a religious obligation to care for the poor, I doubt almost anyone would call that a violation of the establishment clause.

  • 2008/06/06 at 3:28 pm
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    Beckwith’s argument about possibly mistaking a philosophical point for a theological one could make sense in another context, but when the context is “intelligent design” creationism advocacy, one would have to overlook or set aside loads of documentation saying that, yes, indeed, IDC advocates are making their arguments for the purpose of advancing a narrow sectarian viewpoint. Beckwith’s point, if that is indeed it, is better known as straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

    About the last point, this is already well-known. One finds that in “establishment clause” analysis, judges are already looking for secular purposes for the actions in question, and if they find them, then they rule that there is no establishment clause violation. The creation of a homeless shelter, even if explicitly pitched as being just what two-seed-in-the-faith-predestinarian-Bible-Baptist doctrine demanded, would pass muster as advancing the secular purpose of aiding the common weal, *if* there isn’t the taint of proselytizing TSitFPBB doctrine along with the meals and bed space. IDC fails in part because there is no secular purpose in teaching students old, tired, bogus, religious antievolution arguments.

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