So I can’t use my personal knowledge of Cthulhu’s wishes to get out of a speeding ticket? Bummer.

I confess that I really don’t know much about this fellow, Steven D. Smith. He’s a lawyer, and he seems to be firmly in the Intelligent Design creationism camp, and that about exhausts my knowledge of the man.

As Steven D. Smith, Warren Distinguished Professor of Law, University of San Diego, says: “The mainstream science establishment and the courts tell us, in censorious tones that sometimes sound a bit desperate, that intelligent design is just a lot of fundamentalist cant. It’s not. We’ve heard the Darwinist story, and we owe it to ourselves to hear the other side.”

I already don’t like him. He’s inaccurate — we don’t refer to IDists as fundamentalists, for the most part; we know they’re not, and we also know that many of the fundamentalists don’t like them very much — and he uses the term “Darwinist,” which throws up another big red flag.

So when Brian Leiter suggested I might find his critique of Smith amusing, I was game … but now I must also confess that I find most of the dissection of Smith’s legal philosophy and his argument that jurisprudence is heading for extinction a bit beyond me. At least, that is, until I hit this paragraph, and discovered what was amusing.

[U]nder modern conventions, academic discussion is supposed to be carried on in secular terms, meaning, for the most part, the terms of scientific naturalism and of common sense everyday experience.  In attempting to explain some happening or phenomenon, it is perfectly permissible for modern scholars to refer to religion—or to people’s beliefs in God.  By contrast, actual appeals to God, or to anything that looks metaphysically suspicious or exotic, are out of bounds.  As a result of this drastic narrowing of the range of admissible argument or explanation, claims or positions that would once have been framed forthrightly in theological terms now must be translated into more secular terms—or else abandoned.

Oh. So Steven D. Smith believes that a sign of the decline of the significance of jurisprudence is that lawyers can no longer invoke the authority of a deity in their arguments and be taken seriously. No wonder he’s on the side of Intelligent Design creationism! Since their only argument is a claim to the inside track on what’s going on inside the mind of their divine Designer, the fact that the law doesn’t treat testimony about what God told the witness or lawyer as the literal Ultimate Word really scuttles their case.

Maybe in the next Dover case the creationists can subpoena the burning bush to get around this narrowing of admissibility.


  1. Sastra says

    I’d be curious as to how Stephen D. Smith thinks actual appeals to false Gods, or appeals to God based on wrongful interpretation, would be overruled in the courtroom — and on what basis? Bring back spectral evidence?

    Actually, “actual appeals” to an actual God are always welcome. It’s just that God has never actually shown up. I doubt they even bother keeping an empty Seat of Judgment in the courtroom anymore.

  2. says

    Below is what I believe to be a relevant link (vis a vis PZ’s post) to a YouTube video which tells us why religion has ceased to be useful as arbiter of a rational and moral system for humans to follow. The song is from Randy Newman’s Faust and is sung by James Taylor. It’s easy to lose the song in the video because of the editing & text, etc. I recommend (if you haven’t heard the song before) you close your eyes at least once when listening, and just enjoy the music and lyrics–and hey, this here fella named James Taylor ain’t half bad.

    Give a look and/or listen here.


  3. Mike says

    I’d love to see Steven D. Smith try to raise reasonable doubt in a criminal trial by suggesting God did it. I share Rumpole’s attitude to academic lawyers.

  4. Paul Lurquin says

    I disagree with PZ’s opinion that IDers are not fundamentalists. How do you define Dembski and his fiery sermons? What about Jonathan Wells the Moonie? What about P. Johnson, the monster who started it all? If these guys are not fundamentalists, then the pope is not catholic.

  5. Rey Fox says

    “I propose that from now on you and everyone else here refer to ID as Intelligent Creationism.”

    But only the second word is accurate.

  6. Peter C. says

    What does this guy Smith mean by “modern convention” – in the Anglo-Saxon legal culture, objective jurisprudence goes back at least to the 16th Century, if not to the Romans. In other western cultures it’s pretty similar. To find genuine recourse to religion in justice you have to go back to the medieval period, with trial by ordeal, for example.
    Hope the professional historians won’t allow this guy to get away with a false narrative to bolster his preposterous ideas.
    Perhaps he should convert to one of the religions which sees a big role for their creator in the legal process.
    Peter C.

  7. Albatrossity says

    “I propose that from now on you and everyone else here refer to ID as Intelligent Creationism.”

    But only the second word is accurate.

    I prefer Neo-creationism, or Born-again creationism. Neither of which were originated by me, but both of which are accurate.

  8. David Marjanović says

    From a review of Icons of Evolution: “Creationism evolves. It’s mutating and spreading”…

  9. David Marjanović says

    From a review of Icons of Evolution: “Creationism evolves. It’s mutating and spreading”…

  10. One Eyed Jack says

    Why are so many IDists Lawyers and Engineers? Is there something about those professions that makes ID an attractive idea?

    Please note, I said “many IDists are”, not “many Lawyers and Engineers are”. There is a difference.


  11. says

    Puccetti has some thoughts on this thinking-dysfunction called “the problem of belief”:

    On the one hand there are skeptics, like myself, who move from the world to a God-hypothesis which they feel compelled by reason to dismiss. On the other hand there are believers who move from a God-postulate to the world, prepared to endlessly explain away, or even leave admittedly unexplained, whatever the world contains that cannot be logically entailed in that postulate.

    On average, if they do a good job on you as a kid, you’re screwed.

  12. raven says

    we don’t refer to IDists as fundamentalists, for the most part; we know they’re not,

    We don’t? I do. They used to be referred to as the Lie and Violence cultists but this has been shortened to the Death cultists.

    These guys in general frequently publish lists of people they want to kill. It is not all talk either. They occasionally kill people from groups on their lists. Their goal in life is to have god come back, initiate the apocalypse, and murder every one on earth again. That way they don’t have to figure out who is gay and who is an MD or committing adultry. As an added bonus they get to end their miserable, hate filled, empty lives.

    This has as much to do with Xianity as a grizzly bear has to do with a stuffed toy bear.

  13. raven says

    The Steven Smith comments about appealing to god don’t make a bit of sense.

    The problem with godsaidit, lately there hasn’t been much in the way of proof. If a killer holding a blood dripping knife claims that god told him to kill X,Y, and Z, it is not unreasonable to demand some sort of corroborating proof. The voices in the head excuse isn’t going to be enough. Ditto for flying a jet into a NYC skyscraper and killing a few thousand people.

    The same problem goes for goddidit. Really need some proof other than someone’s opinion that god sent for example, hurricane Katrina to New Orleans because they drank a lot. In point of fact, the main force of the hurricane hit in coastal Mississippi, the bible belt heartland while not hitting the French Quarter of NoLa. My interpretation of this is that god likes Jazz and Cajun food and doesn’t like Death cult fundamentalists. LOL

  14. frog says

    The frightening thing is that in American jurisprudence, appeals to God are becoming common again. Check out Balkinization, (, a liberal academic legal blog. They have numerous guest bloggers, respected lights in academia, who are convinced that it is ontologically impossible to justify human rights without God, and such nonsense.

    Of course for starters, anyone who starts muttering about ontology in this day and age is most likely (99.99%) an intellectual masturbator who should be send to re-education camps.

  15. cureholder says

    Smith is mistaken. The trend in modern jurisprudence (and debate in general) is not to declare arguments that rely on god “out of bounds,” but simply to declare those arguments subject to the same burdens and constraints as all other arguments–namely, the burden of evidence.

    Previously, a reference to god has been accepted at face value by the majority of debaters. This unwillingness to hold religious beliefs to the same standards as secular beliefs has begun to wane (in part because of courageous writers and scholars who have pointed out how inappropriate and dangerous such misplaced deference is).

    Of course, references to BELIEF in god remains an acceptable part of argument. Smith seems to think that shoving god to the side while giving credence to belief in god is inconsistent, but of course it is not. Belief in god can be demonstrated, with evidence, to be an actual force in events, while god cannot.

  16. Chris says

    Is there something about those professions that makes ID an attractive idea?

    Yes: they both spend their whole careers dealing with designed systems. When you spend all day hammering, everything looks like a nail.

    Actually, I think it may be more the reverse: jumping to the conclusion that some complex phenomenon is the product of a mind with a plan is a common human trait (a kind of mental pareidolia). A few people lack it (attributing mind only when there is evidence to do so) and concentrate in professions where jumping to intentional-stance conclusions is a handicap.

    Many common superstitions seem to be the result of these kinds of “mind bugs”: adopting the intentional stance toward the weather/earthquakes/etc., confusing function with purpose, misidentifying the mind as an object and applying object persistence to it, latching on to spurious “signals” that appear to be present in what is really just noise…

  17. says

    Some of them are fundamentalists, and there’s no doubting that they’ve got substantial fundamentalist backing, but ID does not necessarily entail fundamentalism. It’s like arguing that because someone accepts the evidence for evolution they must be atheists.

  18. Sastra says

    Since people like Deepok Chopra apparently embrace a form of Intelligent Design in their attacks against “materialistic Darwinism,” it’s not a surefire sign of Christian Fundamentalism. ID is vague enough to let the Spiritual But Not Religious crowd in. God sticks a paranormal finger in here… and here… and here…

    You don’t need the Bible, or any established religion for that kind of magic. The “Designer” could even be Vitalistic Energy Fields of Consciousness manifesting itself through progressively higher forms of physical reality. Who knows? Their Big Tent Policy is good strategy.

  19. Molly, NYC says

    . . . ID does not necessarily entail fundamentalism.

    Okay, but the thing about IDists is that they waste zippola effort on convincing scientists that they’ve got the goods; almost everything they do is aimed at getting their shtick into public schools–including demeaning science itself.

    Possibly you can come up with another motive for this, but the only one I can think of is that, basically, these people are so hell-bent on servicing religiosity on the public dime that they’ll actually scrap science to do it. That sounds pretty fundy to me.

  20. says

    Why are so many IDists Lawyers and Engineers?

    Short version: For the same reason that you can count the legitimate-biologist IDers on the knuckles of one finger.

    Longer version: Some lawyers and engineers think that because they know a lot about lawyering and engineering, they know a lot about everything else, particularly biology.

    Even longer version:

    Some engineers think that they know biology better than actual biologists because they think in terms of machinery and engines — things that were designed/created/put together by others — and simply cannot imagine a world in which “organic machines” simply happened. (Mind you, the “simply happened” process (evolution) is a lot more complex, lengthy and involved than the most complicated human-created engineering processes, but they don’t know — and in their arrogance refuse to learn — enough about biology to understand this.)

    Creationist/ID Lawyers hold biology in contempt for the same reason the ancient Greeks put philosophy and mystical abstractions over what they scornfully called “techne”. (They also lump engineers with biologists, though they’re generally careful not to let the engineers know this.) Getting one’s hands dirty with actual field studies and experimentation, as opposed to theorizing from a distance, is devalued in this mindset.

  21. says

    I must remind all that although Cthulhu and his kin are called gods by ignorant humans they are actually honest secular extraterrestrials.

    Please don’t insult the great old ones.

  22. Robert Ashton, San Jose, California says

    Rocket says (in comment #2): “I propose that from now on you and everyone else here refer to ID as Intelligent Creationism.” I applaud the concept, but object to the oxymoron.

    I do seem to recall one occasion on which a minor deity did appear in a courtroom and was thereby proven to exist. It was a close thing, however, and required federal intervention in the form of the Postal Service (this was before the quasi-governmental USPS).

    It was all caught on film in a documentary called “Miracle on 34th Street.” Which can be seen ad naseum around the holiday season thanks to another miracle (of actual science this time) called television.

    Perhaps if we could find a way to file a tort againt the Designer (I picture Isaac Mizrahi or Donna Karan whenever I hear that term) and figure out how to serve the papers, we could see her or him similarly proven to exist.

    Until then, what little faith I can spare is more likely to be squandered on a much-beleagured belief in the possibility of human reason.

  23. says

    I think a class-action tort for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress under state law would be a good basis for suing god. Respondeat superior would make god ultimately responsible for the misdeeds of his followers. After all, people do all sorts of horrible things invoking his name. A federal court would have diversity jurisdiction as god is not a resident of earth, and the federal court would be an appropriate venue for considering the state-law-tort claim under the Erie and Klaxton Doctrines. As for service, the Bishop of Rome, i.e., the Pope, should accept it because he is god’s corporeal representative. (Otherwise, we may just have to wait until judgment day to personally serve Jesus as part of Father, Son, & Holy Spirit, L.L.P.)

    Assuming god’s representative files an answer, notice god’s deposition and issue a subpoenae duces tecum for all documents in his possession that would tend to prove or disprove his existence, which would be an essential element in proving the tort claim because if god does not exist, he would have no duty that could be breached by him in the first place. If he doesn’t show up for the depo, have the court hold him in contempt and issue a warrant for his arrest. Also, at this point, an injunction against the practice of his worship should be issued so that god cannot receive funds to further his ability to abscond and thwart justice. If he does show up to the depo, it will prove that he exists, but he will still have to account for his tortious behavior on the record.

    Of course, if god does not answer (much like prayer), then get a default against him and seize his worldly assets, which would be all of that property owned by the various churches. Split the property among the class and keep a hefty portion for yourself for your trouble. While the issue of the existence of god, vel non, remains unresolved, he is bankrupt, poor, and irrelevant, the functional equivalent of non-existent. And the church’s wealth is dismantled and redistributed.

  24. says

    We’ve heard the Darwinist story, and we owe it to ourselves to hear the other side.

    Yes, indeed. Please explain the theory of Intelligent Design Creationism, how this theory has been tested, and how it has advanced knowledge.

  25. says

    Smith is actually right to some extent on the legal issue – courts have prohibited prosecutors from using religious arguments for imposing the death penalty (specifically referring to Biblical justifications, or referring to the possibility of an execution-night conversion that can save the defendant’s soul).

    Smith might see this as bad, but I’d disagree.