Let's start by separating intelligent design theory from the views of many activists advocating it. ID, as it's often called, has indeed become a cause celebre for religious conservatives, some of whom would be happier actually teaching creationism--the actual claims in the Bible.
So it's not surprising that ID has been labeled "creationism lite" by critics.
But "pure" intelligent design theory does not go that far. It basically says that Darwinian evolution does not describe everything and that the complexity of biological design indicates that a "designer" helped create it, rather than a random process. This is not so far off from what Thomas Jefferson or other deists might have advocated. They believed that the Creator designed the laws of nature and let them run--but there was never any question that the scientific laws had a designer. I suspect that like modern-day intelligent design advocates, people like Jefferson--enlightenment thinkers with a scientific bent--would be irritated with the Darwinian assumption that God played no role.
Conversely, there's nothing in intelligent design that requires one to believe the world was created in six 24-hour days. In fact, it may come as a shock to some religious Christians that ID's leading advocate, William Dembski, doesn't believe in the scientific validity of key parts of the Bible.
"The evidence of cosmology and geology strongly confirms a universe that is not thousands but rather billions of years old," William Dembski writes in a new article. "Intelligent design should be understood as the evidence that God has placed in nature to show that the physical world is the product of intelligence and not simply the result of mindless material forces. This evidence is available to all apart from the special revelation of God in salvation history as recounted in Scripture."
Still, religious activists have a lot to lose by pushing intelligent design into the schools in hopes of pointing people to God--though they may not realize it.
Why? They may squander a victory they've been winning in the court of public opinion. 54% of those surveyed in June did not believe humans developed from earlier species. The poll also said 64% said we were "created directly by God," while only 10% seemed to take the intelligent design view that "human beings are so complex that they required a powerful force or intelligent being to help create them."
Conversely, having schools teach theories other than evolution may undermine their popularity, not enhance them--if the scientific community changes its attitude and strategy.
Those who believe in serious science should say to those in the religious community: OK, we will teach the most commonly held views on human origin. The most commonly held theories are evolution, ID, and the biblical view. All should be subjected to equal scientific rigor.
Yes, we should assess the complexity of the eye to see if random mutations and natural selection alone might have explained it. But we should also study the scientific evidence for and against the idea that the earth is 6,000 years old, as some creationists claim. Yes, we should study the gaps in the evolutionary chain--but we should also take a hard, scientific look at the evidence for woman springing forth from man's rib.
Some have suggested as a compromise that ID and creationism be taught in social studies courses as comparative religious theories. I disagree. If religious conservatives want religious theories in science classes, they need to be willing to have them subjected to scientific scrutiny. If they're taught in social studies classes, they will be taught as all equally valid.
One thing traditionalists will have to do, however, is agree to dispense with what has become a new conservative moral relativism. In effect, they've been arguing that, hey, they're all theories. One's just as good as another. That sounds like the relativism for which conservatives have long been (appropriately, in my view) criticizing liberals.
When science teachers assess evolution, ID, and creationism, they should absolutely weigh heavily the fact that most scientists have studied evolution and found it to be about as certain as the idea that the earth orbits around the sun, while still offering the minority viewpoints that find Darwinism lacking.
Both sides in the debate seem to assume that "teaching a subject" means propagandizing for it. I suppose bad teachers do that. But good teachers--of anything--lay out the assertion and subject it to analysis.
ID opponents are right to be concerned about how intelligent design would likely be taught--because the real agenda for many nonscientist ID proponents is to discredit evolution so much that it leaves only the biblical view standing. Instead of putting up the barricades for Darwin, the scientific community should declare defeat in terms of their educational effectiveness. Then, they should take the lead in developing a scientifically rigorous curriculum that assesses all three theories.
Of course this will force creation advocates to confront a different issue: Do you really want an intensive exploration of the scientific validity of the Bible? Or is there actually an argument that those issues are better left for discussion in Sunday schools and at home?
For those whose faith does not depend on biblical inerrancy, this approach will pose no threat. Having kids conclude that some parts of the Bible shouldn't be taken as literal fact will not undercut their faith.
But for those who do believe in the Bible as guide not only for faith and morals but also for history and science, the effort to put intelligent design in the schools--and the related idea of teaching about creationism that ought to come with it--could be a real threat.