(Photo from iStock)

(Photo from iStock)

12/18/2007

High Stakes on "Judgment Day"

With anticipation and uneasiness, I followed the news coverage of the Dover trial in 2005. Eleven Pennsylvania parents had sued the Dover Area School Board over the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in science classrooms, claiming the Board had violated the separation of church and state.

Just a few weeks ago, I relived this angst all over again, even though I knew from the start that the parents had won.  “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial,” a compelling a two-hour film produced for PBS by the same people who create the science series Nova, powerfully captured the tension of the trial.

Intelligent design is a religious proposition that the natural world is so complex that life could not have arisen by the process of evolution – that an intelligent ‘designer’ must be at work. The designer, of course, is God, but proponents of intelligent design hope to avoid calling attention to this by using the more generic term ‘designer.’ In Dover and elsewhere, supporters claim that intelligent design should be taught along with evolution as a viable scientific theory.

Judgment Day,” shows, above all else, what was at stake during this trial. If the intelligent design proponents had won, it would have opened the door to the promoting of religion in public schools.

In the courtroom reenactments, the show aptly portrays the drama of the trial without belaboring the complexities, using the most telling bits of the lengthy court transcripts. The plaintiffs had to prove two positions: that intelligent design is not, in fact, a scientific theory and that the school board members were religiously motivated when they attempted to incorporate intelligent design into the curriculum.

The animation sequences in the show illuminate the scientific concepts, and illustrate the differences between the scientific theory and the religious idea. Several time-honored examples are used in the show, such as Darwin's finches, but beyond those, the show also teaches something new – one sequence smoothly explains the complex concept of chromosomal fusion.

By filming the interviews with the science teachers at their homes, rather than at school, the viewer sees them as ordinary people, standing up for their cause. The depth of their conviction is undeniably apparent when they staunchly refuse to read a statement promoting intelligent design to their classes, despite the school board’s requirement that they do so. The teachers also straightforwardly explain how they balance their faiths with their acceptance of evolutionary theory; a common creationist complaint is that two cannot coexist.

As a high school biology teacher at the time of the trial, I felt empathy for the teachers. They struggled to keep religion out of their classrooms and, at once, incurred the wrath of some community members and high praise from others.

The intelligent design proponents resorted to scare tactics on several occasions, and "Judgment Day" deftly deals with the crimes without unnecessarily dwelling on them. The intelligent design proponents sent threatening letters to the plaintiffs and to the judge, and burned student artwork that depicted evolutionary ideas. The greatest example of beautifully understated irony is that of school board member William Buckingham’s words and actions. In the film, he says that those who teach evolution and also call themselves Christians are “talking out of both sides” of their mouths. But Buckingham, after flaunting his Christian morals, was found to have lied under oath about purchasing intelligent design textbooks.

What was missing from the program was a glimpse beyond the American perspective. The intelligent design movement is a uniquely American invention and a peek at the international reaction to the trial may have made this more apparent.

The film scared me just  as much as the real Dover trial in 2005. I was nervous that a conservative senator, who supports the teaching of intelligent design, had appointed U.S. District Judge John E. Jones, who presided over the case. I was most alarmed when Michael Behe, a witness for the defense, admitted that his definition ‘science,’ which includes intelligent design, also includes astrology.

The relief I felt when I read Jones’s decision in 2005 washed over me again at the conclusion of "Judgment Day." The show renewed my appreciation for religion-free science classrooms.  I hope they stay that way.