Are all religious leaders con men?

In his comment to my earlier posting on Romney and Mormonism, Jared says “[Mormon founder Joseph] Smith wasn’t just a con man (which is basically how he started). He came to really believe the things he made up, and was probably insane.”

This is an interesting point worth exploring. The founders of religions tend to make extraordinary claims such as god talking directly to them, having the power to work miracles, and so on. If we dismiss this as impossible, the remaining options are: Did they genuinely believe the things they said (i.e., they were delusional at best and psychotic at worst)? Or were they outright charlatans, cynically using tricks and smooth talk and their personal charisma to fool the suckers?

Christopher Hitchens in one of the best passages his book God is Not Great (2007, p. 165) discusses this point:

Professor Daniel Dennett and his supporters have attracted a great deal of criticism for their “natural science” explanation of religion. Never mind the supernatural, argues Dennett, we may discard that while accepting that there have always been those for whom “belief in belief” is a good thing in itself. Phenomena can be explained in biological terms. In primitive times, is it not possible that those who believed in the shaman’s cure had a better morale as a result, and thus a slight but significantly higher chance of actually being cured? “Miracles” and similar nonsense to one side, not even modern medicine rejects this thought. And it seems possible, moving to the psychological arena, that people can be better off believing in something than in nothing, however untrue that something may be.

Some of this will always be disputed among anthropologists and other scientists, but what interests me and always has is this: Do the preachers and prophets also believe, or do they too just “believe in belief”? Do they ever think to themselves, this is too easy? And do they then rationalize the trick by saying that either (a) if these wretches weren’t listening to me they’d be in even worse shape; or (b) that if it doesn’t do them any good then it still can’t be doing them much harm? Sir James Frazer, in his famous study of religion and magic The Golden Bough, suggests that the novice witch doctor is better off if he does not share the illusions of the ignorant congregation. For one thing, if he does take the magic literally he is much more likely to make a career-ending mistake. Better by far to be a cynic, and to rehearse the conjury, and to tell himself that everybody is better off in the end. [Mormon founder Joseph] Smith obviously seems like a mere cynic, in that he was never happier than when using his “revelation” to claim supreme authority, or to justify the idea that the flock should make over their property to him, or to sleep with every available woman. There are gurus and cult leaders of that kind born every day. Smith must certainly have thought it was too easy to get innocent wretches like Martin Harris to believe everything he told them, especially when they were thirsty for just a glimpse of that mouthwatering golden trove. But was there a moment when he also believed that he did have a destiny, and was ready to die to prove it? In other words, was he a huckster all the time, or was there a pulse inside him somewhere? The study of religion suggests to me that, while it cannot possibly get along without great fraud and also minor fraud, this remains a fascinating and somewhat open question.

Hitchens also makes the point that at the time of Smith, there “were dozens of part-educated, unscrupulous, ambitious, fanatical men like Smith in the Palmyra, New York, area at that epoch, but only one of them achieved “takeoff””, partly because “Smith had great natural charm and fluency: what Max Weber called the “charismatic” part of leadership.”

I suspect that Smith’s story is fairly typical of that type of person and applies to the story of Jesus, Muhammad, and the Old Testament Jewish prophets. All of them also lived in times that were more credulous of the claims of people possessing magical powers. Remember that the arts of magic and mind-reading have been around for a long time, available to con men to use to impress people eager to believe in the existence of mystical unseen powers that could be harnessed by a chosen few. The founders of the older religions are likely cut from the same cloth as Joseph Smith except that those stories have had a much longer time to get cleaned up by their followers once they realized that the rewards promised to them (like the second coming of Jesus) were not going to occur in their own lifetimes but in some indefinite future. They had to dig in for the long haul and get their followers used to the fact that supernatural events were no longer to be expected as everyday occurrences.

There is the possibility though that at some point these “prophets” may have begun to wonder to themselves, “Can it really be this easy to fool all these people? Surely they must realize that I am a fraud?” From there, their thoughts could easily shift to “Maybe these people were meant to be fooled. Maybe god does exist and is shutting their eyes to the fact that I am using trickery in order to use me to achieve some larger purpose.” Thus, after deluding others, they become (at least partially) self-delusional, believing their own nonsense, thus making themselves even more effective as “prophets” while retaining enough of a sense of reality to avoid making a “career-ending mistake.” Like good magicians, they would restrict their displays of “supernatural” power and “revelations” to carefully controlled situations where they could set things up in advance, sometimes with the aid of accomplices, so that the gullible would be impressed, all the while persuading themselves that they were doing it all for the greater good or for god, not just for themselves.

That is the most charitable gloss that I can put on the founders of religions. The only alternative is that they were totally cynical frauds.

POST SCRIPT: Bart Simpson, prophet

“The little stupid differences [between religions] are nothing next to the big stupid similarities.”

More on Romney and Mormonism

In his speech, Mitt Romney said that faith absolutely does belong in the public sphere saying, inexplicably, that “freedom requires religion”, a statement that makes no sense whatsoever, but was just blatant pandering to religious sentiment.

Given his remarks, a close examination of his own faith is now fair game. People should ask him if any and every faith (including, but not limited to, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny) belongs and if not, what exactly he believes in and why his faith should be on his ‘approved’ list and the others not. It will not, however, strike most religious people that such questions should be asked because those kinds of questions presuppose a sense of rational inquiry about the nature of faith. Religious people tend not to think is those terms because doing so is dangerous to faith itself. As the TV character House said, “Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people.” I suspect that such questions won’t be asked by mainstream reporters either because they will open up uncomfortable questions about the rationality of the nature of the beliefs of Christians, Jews, and Muslims too.

Last Friday’s posting on Mitt Romney and Mormonism opened up a very interesting discussion in the comments, along with some useful links to more information.

Mike Pirnat provided a link to a funny South Park clip on Mormonism.

It follows pretty much what I described before except in one detail. Christopher Hitchens wrote that during the translation sessions, the scribe Harris was prevented from seeing Smith and his book and magic stones by a blanket strung across the kitchen. The cartoon gives a different version (which I have also heard) that the book and stones were hidden inside a hat and Smith buried his head in the hat in order to see the translations. Which version is true? I don’t know. Maybe both, that he put his head into a hat and also stayed behind a blanket. Who knows, this divergence may form the basis for another doctrinal schism in the Mormon Church. I am not saying that Mormons are more prone to hair-splitting doctrinaire conflicts than other religions. That basis for a split would make as much sense as the doctrinal causes of the schisms that plague all the denominations, sects, and factions within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

I heard that even the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is not immune from such divisive tendencies, with a sect called the Reformed Church of Alfredo splitting from the main body, and that further tensions exist caused by whether Parmesan or Romano should be the holy cheese used by the Pastafarians. And I won’t even get into the Marinaran heresy. I must say that I am disappointed. I had hoped that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was better than the other churches. Why can’t they all get along?

Jared provided a link to a PBS Frontline special on the Mormons. (The documentary is four hours long and split into 26 digestible chapters of about 10 minutes each. It is generally very sympathetic to the Mormons. For some reason, chapter one had only audio on my browser.) Jared adds that “It’s much more accurate than the cartoon you posted, which emphasizes elements in [M]ormon mythology that are more than obscure and don’t really work into the main stream theology as held by most members.”

But isn’t that how religion has worked? They usually start out with an enormous number of extraordinary claims mainly because the followers expect some big end-times event to be imminent. Both Jesus’s and Joseph Smith’s disciples expected the second coming in their own lifetimes. And then as time goes by and nothing happens and scientific advances and rational thought make their beliefs increasingly untenable, religious apologists slowly erase the more embarrassing elements from their history and reconstruct a narrative that is more acceptable to modern times. In the case of the Mormons, some revisions come in the form of “revelations” from god received by the church elders at convenient times. The origins of Christianity and Judaism and Islam were very likely filled with even more bizarre beliefs than the ones they currently have.

Jared adds, “Unfortunately for Romney, he is a very good [M]ormon. This means he is very authoritarian and probably homophobic. And sexist.”

This raises an important point. If faith is so important to Romney and he firmly believes that faith belongs in the public sphere, what exactly is Romney’s status in the Mormon Church and what does that status require him to believe?

Jesus’ General is a hysterically funny satirical website but on occasion the good General writes serious posts (the products, he says, of his ‘inner Frenchman’). It turns out that the General was once a Mormon in good standing whose family were very high up in the hierarchy and so he knows a lot of things that the general public is not aware of which enables him to describe the kinds of beliefs that Romney is likely to have.

In addition to his public statements proclaiming his religiosity, Mitt holds a temple recommend. They are only issued to the faithful. As a high priest in the Melchizedek Priesthood, he holds the highest level of priesthood a Mormon may hold. He’s also served as a bishop and a stake president (leadership positions serving areas roughly equivalent to parishes and diocese). He is unquestionably a faithful Mormon.

Mitt is a member of a very dogmatic sect. Dissent is not allowed. The late N. Eldon Tanner, a councilor to the prophet, once preached “When the Prophet speaks, the debate is over.”
. . .
As a High Priest in the Melchizedek Priesthood, Romney believes he receives revelations from God. He believes God directs him to do the things he does, and he never makes an important decision without asking God for guidance and receiving a revelation first.
. . .
The lesson Mormons, including Mitt, take from [the story of god asking Nephi to cold-bloodedly murder and behead Laban, a powerful official, in order to get his “Brass Plates”] is that the greater good may require the violation of important laws, in this case, theft and murder. It’s a lesson that is stressed in Sunday classes for adults and children as well as the weekday seminary classes Mormon teens are required to attend. It’s an important scripture and doctrine.

This is why it is critical to discuss a candidate’s religious beliefs. It gives us the best insight we can get into how someone like Mitt would govern. He’s the type of leader who would believe that his actions are condoned by God and are not subject to Earthly laws like the Constitution.

Sound familiar?

So there we are. Mitt Romney should be asked a lot of questions about his faith, as should anyone who does not believe in the separation of church and state and says that faith belongs in the public sphere and that his or her faith is important to him or her.

POST SCRIPT: Mormons and Pascal’s wager

For those not familiar with it, Pascal’s wager is the desperate Hail Mary attempt by religious people to persuade skeptics that they should believe in god as a kind of insurance policy. It goes like this: If you believe in god and it turns out that there is no god, then you are no worse off than having been as an atheist. But if you do not believe in god, and there is a god, then you are doomed to everlasting hell. So isn’t it better to play safe and believe?

This argument is so ridiculous that I am sure the readers of this blog don’t need me to spell out all the reasons why. But here is a South Park clip that illustrates just one counterargument..

Mitt Romney and Mormonism

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney yesterday gave what was billed as a major speech on faith. While it seemed to be an attempt to allay unease about his Mormon religion in the face of the surging Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee, the strategy he adopted was to not go into specifics about what Mormonism is. Romney’s message was basically: Don’t worry about what “my religion” actually says (he used the word “Mormon” only once); just accept that I have faith just like you and let’s unite against those who feel that faith should not play a role in the public sphere.

He “decries the diminishment of religion in the public square” and says “in recent years, the notion of the separation of church and state has been taken by some well beyond its original meaning. They seek to remove from the public domain any acknowledgment of God. Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life.”

He then trots out the old ridiculous religious standby, that secularism is also a religion, saying, “It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America — the religion of secularism. They are wrong.” People like Romney are so unnerved by the fact that secular people are quite happy with not having to believe in religious superstitions and myths, that they try desperately to say that we are somehow religious too. Irrationality loves company, it seems.

Romney’s speech was quite different from John F. Kennedy’s speech in 1960 when he had to address concerns about his Catholicism. Kennedy was quite emphatic that religion should be a strictly private matter:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute–where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote–where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference. . . I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.”

As I warned earlier, Romney is pursuing a risky strategy. By saying that faith must play an important role in the public sphere, he is opening himself up to questions about what exactly he means by faith, what faiths he feels belong in the public sphere, and whether his own faith meets that standard.

It would have been better to follow Kennedy’s example and to flatly assert right at the beginning that it was only a person’s public policy principles and positions that mattered, and their personal beliefs should not be a basis for elected office, as the US constitution explicitly says.

But of course he could not say such a thing because, apart from his need to pander to the religious right that forms a core constituency of his party, we live in a crazy time when it is seen as politically damaging if a candidate should say that he or she is a person of rationality and reason and science (all esteemed Enlightenment values) while saying that you have an unwavering belief in mystical unseen entities and powers, which should label you as a holdover from the Dark Ages, is seen as a positive quality in a leader.

But since Romney has said that faith is important not only to him but should play an important part in public life, let’s take a look at his faith.

I have not read much about Mormonism but Christopher Hitchens in his book God is Not Great (2007, p. 161-168) paints a rather unflattering portrait of its founder Joseph Smith as a charismatic con man. Hitchens bases his information on the book No Man Knows My History (1945) by Fawn Brodie.

Smith was born in 1805 and at the age of 21 was convicted of being “a disorderly person and an imposter” after admitting in his trial to defrauding citizens and claiming to possess dark or necromantic powers. But he reappears four years later saying that he had been visited three times by an angle named Moroni who told him where to find the “Book of Mormon” (written on gold plates) which contained the story of creation and said, among other things, that the people of North America were founded by an Israelite named Nephi, son of Lephi, who had come there after fleeing Jerusalem in 600 BC. Moroni also told Smith of the existence of two magic stones that would enable him to translate the golden book.

Smith never showed his book or magic stones to anybody. He said (conveniently) that for anyone else but him to see them would mean instant death. But like Muhammad (whom he modeled himself after) Smith was illiterate and so had to have scribes to write down his translations of the golden book into the vernacular. Smith initially got his wealthy neighbor and disciple Martin Harris to do this task. Harris sat on one side of a blanket dividing the kitchen while Smith sat on the other speaking the translated words. Harris was warned that if he tried to take a peek at the prophet or the golden book, he would be struck dead. In other words, the Mormon god is the standard-issue “compassionate and loving” god who has no scruples about killing people for transgressing arbitrary rules.

Hitchens recounts an amusing story in which Harris’s wife got fed up with her husband’s involvement with what she thought was a racket and stole the first 116 ‘translated’ pages and challenged Smith to reproduce them using again the book and stones. Of course he couldn’t. After a few weeks of unease, he came up with a story that the Lord had told him that translating the same book again was not to be done and had provided him with new, smaller plates created by Nephi which told a similar story.

Hitchens says that Smith, like Muhammad, would regularly claim to have ‘divine revelations’ at short notice that conveniently enough seemed to meet whatever immediate need he had at that moment, especially when he wanted to take another girl as a new wife. Smith died a violent death in 1844 at the hands of a mob and is now seen by his followers as a martyr.

I came across this fascinating animation (thanks to onegoodmove) that gives the history of the origins of the Mormon religion and their mythology. The cartoon seems like it is part of a documentary of some sort but I have not had time to track down the source. The header says that the cartoon was banned by the Mormon church. I have no idea if this is true or why or if the details that it presents are accurate, but the basic features are consistent with what I have read about Mormonism. (If anyone knows more about the cartoon’s origins or its accuracy, please let me know.)

There is nothing in Mormon doctrine or its creation stories that is any more bizarre than what people in other god-based religions believe. The story of Mormon origins seems so weird because it is unfamiliar. Just as Jews and Christians and Muslims and Hindus who are indoctrinated into their faith as children grow up thinking, despite all the evidence, that their religious myths make sense, so I am sure do Mormons. Since Mormonism originated just two hundred years ago, however, we know more about the actual events and people involved, since there exist contemporary newspaper records that enable us to contrast the differences between what the faithful believe and the actual events. Scientology, which was founded in 1953, presents a similar case.

The facts associated with the origins of Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and their founders are likely to be very similar to that of Mormonism and Scientology, but fortunately for those older religions, are buried deep in the sands of time, allowing the myths to seem more reasonable than they deserve to be. If anyone today came along with stories about seeing burning bushes that remain intact or having been born of a virgin or having angels dropping in for regular chats, we would consider them to be either con men or psychotic.

One positive consequence of having a Mormon candidate for president would be if it opens up a serious discussion of why some religious people think that the Mormon origin myths are bizarre and not true, while perfectly confident that their own myths are not only rational but also true. This requires some fairly tricky and self-serving intellectual contortions, like the ones Jacob Weisberg attempted. For the same reason, I think it would be a great idea to have a Scientology candidate in the race too.

Has anyone suggested to Tom Cruise that he should run for president?

POST SCRIPT: Bill Maher discusses Mormonism, religion, and politics

Reflections on writing the posts on evolution and the law

When I started out to write the series of posts on evolution and the law, I originally intended it to be about ten posts in all, divided roughly equally between the Scopes trial, the Dover trial, and the period of legal evolution in between them. As those readers who have stayed with the series are painfully aware, the subject matter carried me away and the final result is much longer.

Part of the reason is that I always intend my blog posts to have some useful and reliable information and not just be speculative rants (though those can be fun), which meant that I needed to research the subject. Fortunately, I love the subject of constitutional law because it as a spin-off of my interest in how one creates a just society. If one traces people’s constitutional protections to their source, they tend to be rooted in questions about power and control, the nature of liberty, about who gets to make decisions that govern all of us, and what constraints we impose on them.

As I started to research the subject more deeply, I became fascinated at the interplay of political, social, and religious factors surrounding the question of the role of public schools in a democratic society is and how we decide what should be taught in them. I could see that the legal history involved in the teaching of evolution in public schools was more complicated and fascinating than I had originally conceived.

I had two choices. I could close off some avenues of discussion and stick only to the main points. That would be like driving to some destination while sticking just to the highway in order for maximum speed. Or I could take some detours off the beaten track, to get a better flavor of the country I was passing through. I felt that the former option, while making for quicker reading, would result in posts that were a little too glib and not have enough supporting evidence for some of my assertions.

So I chose the latter option, feeling confident that those who read this blog tend to be those who are looking for at least some substantiation of arguments even if they disagree with my views.

The way these posts grew made me reflect on my philosophy of teaching as well. In my seminar courses, students have to write research papers on some topic. Usually a course requires two five-page papers and a final ten-page paper. Students have been through this drill of writing papers many times in many courses and they usually find that they do not have enough to say and struggle to fill what they see as a quota. They use some time-tested techniques: wide margins, large fonts and spacing, and when those things have reached their limit, unnecessary verbiage. Superfluous words and phrases are inserted, ideas are repeated, pointless examples and non sequitur arguments are brought in, and so forth.

The reason for this is that in most cases students are writing about things that they do not really care about and are just going through the motions to meet someone else’s needs, not their own. The result is painful for both the student (who has to construct all this padding without it being too obvious that that is what it is) and for the instructor (who has to cut through all the clutter to find out what the author is really trying to say). It is largely a waste of time for both, and often unpleasant to boot.

To help overcome this problem, I give my students as much freedom as possible to choose a research topic within the constraints of the overall course subject matter. I tell students that the most important thing they will do in the course is choose a topic that they care passionately about and want to learn more about. Once they do that, and start investigating and researching such a subject, it is almost inevitable that they will get drawn in deeper and deeper, like I was with evolution and the law.

Once they are on that road, the problem is not how to fill the required number of pages but how to cut it down so that you don’t exceed the page limits by too much. This has the added bonus of teaching students how to edit to tighten their prose, to use more judicious language, and to only keep those things that are essential to making their case.

The passion for the subject and the desire to know more about it is what makes genuine researchers carry out difficult and sometimes tedious tasks, because they really care about learning more.

The way this series of posts has grown is an example of this phenomenon at work. Because it is a blog without length restrictions, I have been able to indulge myself a bit. But if I had to restrict the length because of publication needs, then I would go back and do some serious pruning.

POST SCRIPT: The bullet trick

Penn and Teller do another of their famous tricks.

From Scopes to Dover-30: Looking at the big picture

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In this final post in this series (Yes, there really is an end!), I want to look at the big picture, to see both how the struggle to oppose the teaching of evolution evolved as a result of legal decisions centered around the establishment clause, and why religious believers have pursued with such vigor this dead-end policy to discredit evolution.

Religious people have always been uncomfortable with the theory of evolution. The extent of this discomfort varies. At one end of this religious spectrum we have those Biblical literalists who want to believe that every single extant species was created specially by god. For these people, the theory of evolution is anathema. Somewhere in the middle of the spectrum are those who willing to accept an interconnected and evolving tree of life, provided that humans are not part of the tree and were somehow miraculously created separately. Such people allow the theory in some areas but arbitrarily exclude it from any part of the origins of humans. At the other end of the religious spectrum are those who accept that humans are also part of the evolutionary tree and have common ancestors with other species but want to reserve some special property for humans (the ‘soul’ for want of a better word) that was created by god using some mysterious means beyond our ken. Such people want to believe that each human being has something special, unique, mystical whose creation and existence cannot be accounted for by the mechanisms of natural selection.
[Read more…]

From Scopes to Dover-29: What next for evolution and religion in schools?

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

As a result of the long string of judicial rulings and Supreme Court precedents that have been outlined in this series that seem to have eliminated almost all their options, what can religious people do now about the teaching of evolution?

In 2007, IDC advocate Michael Behe published yet another book The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits to Darwinism (which I have written about earlier) that tries to add a wrinkle to IDC ideas by arguing that the mutations that drive natural selection are not random but are somehow guided by their peripatetic and secretive designer to achieve a desired organism.

This is a pathetically feeble attempt that will not get anywhere legally. All the reasons given in the Dover verdict for why IDC is a religion and not science apply with equal force to this idea too. Furthermore, it is not even an original idea, having been proposed in the late 19th century by eminent scientists, also for manifestly religious reasons, a fact that is not going to help the case legally.
[Read more…]

From Scopes to Dover-28: Aftershocks of Dover

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Judge Jones’ ruling in the Dover intelligent design creationism (IDC) case, delivered on December 20, 2005, swiftly reverberated across the nation, the sweep of it knocking down one pro-IDC policy after another like a row of dominos.

On January 17, 2006, a new elective philosophy course in a school in El Tejon, CA that included intelligent design ideas was abruptly cancelled for fears that it would be ruled unconstitutional. The Discovery Institute, battered by Dover, pressured the school district to take this action, concerned, like in Dover, that this was another misguided policy by a local school board that would hurt IDC even more.

In February 2006, Ohio’s State Board of Education reversed its previous policy and ruled 11-4 to throw out the IDC-inspired science standards benchmarks that had called for ‘critical analysis’ of evolution, the majority saying that the Dover verdict meant that such a policy, if challenged, would also be ruled unconstitutional. State school board elections later that year resulted in the most vocal IDC supporter resoundingly losing her seat on the board as well, getting less than 30% of the vote.
[Read more…]

From Scopes to Dover-27: The Dover verdict

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The judge who presided in the trial Kitzmiller v. Dover seemed to have a more sophisticated idea of the nature of science than Judge Overton in the 1982 case of McLean v. Arkansas. Judge Jones’s full analysis of how he came to his conclusion that intelligent design was religion and not science (p. 64-89) is well worth reading because it gives an excellent summary of some basic ideas in the history, philosophy, and methodology of science.

Judge Jones based his ruling on arguments similar to those used by Judge Overton in McLean v. Arkansas, in which the latter ruled that creation science was also a religious belief and not science. This aspect of the opinion may end up being the most significant part of the verdict, with devastating consequences for the Discovery Institute’s long-term goal of slowly bringing religion and god back into the schools. The reason that IDC strategists wanted to have their theory considered a science was that then that it would have a better chance of passing the Lemon test for satisfying the establishment clause.
[Read more…]

From Scopes to Dover-26: The Discovery Institute’s dilemma

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The Dover school board policy was challenged in December 2004 as a violation of the establishment clause and so the two sides prepared to go to trial. The lawsuit for the plaintiffs led by Tammy Kitzmiller was filed by the ACLU of Pennsylvania and included experienced constitutional attorneys from the firm of Pepper Hamilton and from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The lawyers who appeared for the Dover school board were from the Thomas More Law Center based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which saw itself as a kind of Christian counterweight to the ACLU. The center was created in 1999 by Thomas Monaghan, founder of the Dominos pizza chain and financial backer of conservative Catholic causes. Their website is very direct about its mission: “Our purpose is to be the sword and shield for people of faith, providing legal representation without charge to defend and protect Christians and their religious beliefs in the public square.” They were the ones who urged the Dover school board to adopt their policy, offering to represent them in court if challenged. The fact that the Dover school board had this offer of free legal representation undoubtedly influenced board members in the decision to adopt a policy they knew would be controversial.

But as the Dover case prepared to go to the trial that began on September 26, 2005, it became clear that the More Center lawyers were going to face difficulties. While they were surely earnest in their beliefs in the rightness of their cause, dedicated to fighting for it, religiously gung-ho, and eager to do battle against evolution, they simply did not have the legal resources or expertise or even people to mount the kind of research and sophisticated arguments necessary for such an important case. In addition, they faced a highly sophisticated and well-organized team of constitutional lawyers for the plaintiffs. They seemed to be out of their league.

As we have seen, the Dover school board’s actions went contrary to the long-term strategy of the intelligent design creationism (IDC) movement advanced by the Discovery Institute. But once the die was cast and the Dover policy was adopted and challenged in the courts, the Discovery Institute was placed in a quandary. They could see that the More Center was not fully up to the task facing them but it was not clear how they could help. Should they completely disassociate themselves from the Dover school board actions and distance themselves from the case as it went down to likely defeat? Or should they throw themselves fully into the fray, provide their own expert witnesses, pour their considerable financial and legal resources into the case, and hope to secure victory? While the latter was a better tactical option since it increased the chances of winning this case, it had the considerable strategic downside in that if they still lost the case despite their full participation, then the entire IDC movement, not just the Dover school board, would be perceived as having been defeated, and this would have serious repercussions, even possibly dooming their long-term plans.

It was a difficult choice and they waffled. At first they agreed to be part of the case and to provide lawyers and expert witnesses, but that collaboration turned out to be short-lived and they later withdrew, giving as their reason that the Thomas More Law Center objected to their request to have the Discovery Institute’s own lawyers representing their clients. One serious and negative consequence of the Discovery Institute’s decision to withdraw their expert witnesses at the last minute was that it was now too late for the More Center to get alternative expert witnesses for their side. As a result, the plaintiffs were able put forward their own expert witnesses in science and philosophy and theology to provide testimony on important questions that was not rebutted in court and thus was accepted as fact, seriously weakening the defense’s case.

The whole episode caused bad feelings between the Discovery Institute and the More Center which spilled out into the open, as The Toledo Blade reported on March 20, 2006:

In fact, when Mr. Thompson [the head of the Thomas More Law Center] decided to defend the Dover intelligent design policy, he angered the group most associated with intelligent design: the Discovery Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Seattle.

“We were incredibly frustrated by arrogance and bad legal judgment of goading the [Dover] school district to keep a policy that the main organization supporting intelligent design was opposed to,” says John West, the associate director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture.

The Thomas More Center acted “in the face of opposition from the group that actually represents most of the scientists who work on intelligent design.”

. . .

The Discovery Institute has never advocated the teaching of intelligent design, and told the Dover board to drop its policy, Mr. West says. It participated in the trial only reluctantly.

“We were in a bind,” Mr. West says. “Our ideals were on trial even though it was a policy we didn’t support.”

The More Center’s head Richard Thompson countercharged that all these were just excuses to hide the real reason, which was that the Discovery Institute people were essentially cowards, people who talk a tough game but don’t put their beliefs on the line when it counts:

Mr. Thompson says the Discovery Institute’s strategy is to dodge a fight as soon as one appears imminent.

“The moment there’s a conflict they will back away . . .they come up with some sort of compromise.” But in Dover “they got some school board members that didn’t want compromise.”

This intramural battle between two groups supposedly on the same pro-IDC side did not augur well for the trial.

While the Dover trial did not involve larger-than-life, nationally known and flamboyant personalities like the Scopes trial, or dramatic moments like the questioning of Bryan by Darrow, it did have its comedic moments, such as when IDC theorist Michael Behe, who had advocated broadening the definition of science so that IDC would be included under it, conceded under cross-examination that such a broadened definition would result in astrology too being considered a science. Observers considered that moment a pivotal one in dooming the IDC case.

As almost everyone interested in this subject knows by now, on December 20, 2005 federal US District Court Judge John E. Jones III ruled resoundingly in favor of the plaintiffs and against the Dover school board. Not only did he rule that the Dover school board action was unconstitutional, he was also harsh and unsparing in his criticism of the school board’s actions, saying: “The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.” (p. 138)

The judge said that both the Lemon test, and the reconceptualization of its purpose and effect prongs as an endorsement test by Justice O’Connor, would be applied to determine the constitutionality of the Dover policy.

The history and actions of the Dover school board clearly showed that it had religious motivations in implementing their policy and thus made it easy for the judge to rule against the school board on the grounds that they had failed to meet the purpose prong of the Lemon test and was thus unconstitutional by virtue of that fact alone. In addition, he found that the policy also violated that effect prong and failed the endorsement test.

The judge went further and also ruled on whether IDC was science. The IDC strategists had desperately wanted to avoid having a judicial determination on whether intelligent design was a science and in fact the Discovery Institute had filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief explicitly asking him not to rule on the question of the scientific validity of IDC.

But the judge felt that such a determination was proper, justifying this action by saying that the lengthy discussion on this very question in the trial meant that the issue had received a thorough airing and making such a determination was both useful and even essential. He said: “[W]e will offer our conclusion on whether ID is science not just because it is essential to our holding that an Establishment Clause violation has occurred in this case, but also in the hope that it may prevent the obvious waste of judicial and other resources which would be occasioned by a subsequent trial involving the precise question which is before us.” (p. 63)

The judge ruled that IDC was not a science but a religion.

It is this aspect of the judge’s ruling that is likely to be most damaging to IDC’s future prospects. Because the topic had received such an exhaustive examination during the trial, and because Judge Jones in his opinion had analyzed this question in such detail extending to 25 pages (p. 64-89), it seems likely that any future case involving intelligent design will depend heavily on his opinion and thus have a strong presumption that IDC is a religion. This is what happened with the Supreme Court in the 1987 case of Edwards v. Aguillard, where they depended heavily on the analysis of the nature of creation science that was written by US District Judge Overton in the 1982 case of McLean v. Arkansas.
It is worthwhile examining Judge Jones’s reasoning in his opinion in some detail because although, like the Scopes trial, this case will not reach the Supreme Court, it seems likely to cast a similarly long shadow. This will be done in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Roy Zimmerman explains Creation Science 101

From Scopes to Dover-25: The Dover policy on teaching evolution

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

I previously showed how that the intelligent design creationism (IDC) strategists had laid out a careful long-term stealth strategy aimed at discrediting the teaching of evolution and breaking through the restrictions placed on religion in the schools because of the establishment clause in the First Amendment. They should have paid heed to Scottish poet Robert Burns who in his poem To a Mouse cautioned those who place too much faith in detailed plans for the future:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, 

Gang aft agley.

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