Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Josh Claybourn on the El Tejon Case

Josh Claybourn at In The Agora has written a post about the El Tejon case and I’m going to respond to it here. I used to write for In The Agora, as most of my readers surely know, and I have enormous respect for Josh. He’s a really, really smart guy who will undoubtedly show us all great things as he gets older. Still, I think his post here is wide of the mark for several reasons. He writes:

Yet John Mark Reynolds’ warning that ID will be “illegal” in all forms at a public school is in jeopardy of coming true. Parents of students at Frazier Mountain High School have filed a lawsuit in response to a philosophy class taught by a minister’s’ wife which attempts to discuss the the intelligent design theory. The Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed the suit, the same group which took part in the Dover, Penn. decision regarding the same theory.

I am far from an expert in evolution or the theories of intelligent design, but I’m a firm advocate of public schools having the freedom to explore and discuss each, or any theory for that matter, albeit not mandatory in a biology class.

There are several reasons why this is so inaccurate. First, it ignores the distinction between discussing ID and advocating ID. This particular class is not merely a place for people to “discuss” the issue; the syllabi (both of them), the course description and statements by the teacher to the press make very clear that this course was intended to advocate for this position, not merely to discuss it.

Second, and most importantly, the class actually contains very little from the ID movement. Almost all of the videos that are on the list for the class come from young earth creationist groups, and as the course description made clear, the class would be presenting “evidence” that the earth is only thousands of years old. Even the Discovery Institute admits that this course “advocates for young earth creationism.” The Supreme Court has ruled, correctly, that young earth creationism is an explicitly religious idea and it cannot be advocated in public schools. The fact that they’ve labelled this a “philosophy” course (one entirely devoid of any discussion of philosophy) does not get them around that clear ruling. You cannot get around the law here merely by moving the class from one department to the other.

There is a clear distinction between teaching about creationism and advocating it. There are elective courses where it might be appropriate to teach about, as in a comparative religion class examining the creation myths of various religions. In a history course about the interface of science and religion, perhaps. But just like the court ruled in striking down mandatory bible readings, it’s possible to teach about the bible without advocating it – and that’s the only way to avoid establishment clause problems.

When I first heard about this course from Wes Elsberry on Tuesday afternoon, I had much the same reaction many did. My first reaction, looking solely at the second syllabus for the course, was that the course might be taught legitimately with that structure. But once I looked at the first syllabus, the statements from the teacher, and the course description, it became very clear that this was a transparent ruse. They have no interest in teaching an objective course on different approaches to questions of origins, they simply wanted to find a way to teach creationist views and get around the court rulings, and they thought that by calling it a philosophy class they could do that. But they’re wrong.


  1. #1 Dr. Free-Ride
    January 12, 2006

    For those interested in a professional philosopher’s take on why this class is not a philosophy class, I’ve blogged about it here.

  2. #2 Gretchen
    January 12, 2006

    Sadly, I am afraid that even if a teacher in a public school did attempt to even-handedly discuss the issue of evolution vs. intelligent design in a philosophy course, comparative religion course (where, strictly speaking, it wouldn’t really belong– more appropriately in a philosophy of religoin course) or otherwise, that person would encounter so much scrutiny and criticism from both sides of the fence that it would be nearly impossible to actually conduct the course.

    My suggestion: teach the kids a basic course in critical thinking. And then teach them about evolution. If their mental fallacy flags go up, at least they’re experiencing an exercise in how to evaluate arguments…and that’s never a waste of time. Good luck getting a critical thinking course in there in the first place, though!

  3. #3 Matthew
    January 12, 2006

    How could you even teach about ID in a philosophy course? What philosophy? All i can think of is prime mover. That’s basically all of the philosophy they got. For a high school course that shouldn’t take longer than 1 lecture. I guess you could spend another couple of lectures talking about the “philosophy” that certain systems couldn’t function unless fully formed and why this is incorrect.

    I’m baffled by how they were planning on spending a semester on the philosophy of this one topic. Where are these high schools that teach entire courses on narrow subjects? I didn’t even have a class that narrow in college.

  4. #4 enfant terrible
    January 13, 2006

    It is (in)appropriate to teach ID in every class in which it is (in)appropriate to teach astrology. This conclusion is based on Behe’s testimony in the Dover trial, so no one can say that I didn’t go to the most ID-friendly source.

  5. #5 Moment of Science
    January 13, 2006

    Ed, have you seen the Discovery Institute’s reaction to the El Tejon class?


    I’m thinking we may have an opportunity to establish the scientific validity of the concept Karma here.

  6. #6 Ed Brayton
    January 13, 2006

    Moment of Science:

    I’ve seen all three contradictory reactions to the El Tejon case from the Discovery Institute. Have they settled on a position yet?

  7. #7 Dave S.
    January 13, 2006

    Yes, they’re settled on all three simultaneously. It’s the same rock-solid logic that allows them to say both that they want ID taught and they don’t, that it is a science and it isn’t.

    Off topic, but I noticed DaveScot is calling you a hypocrite based on your admonishment against the ‘outing’ of Mike Gene. Claims you weren’t so nice when you ‘outed’ him. He didn’t elaborate much, but I suspect he failed to read your e-mail policy.

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