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FACULTY CONTRIBUTION: ID ruling good for religious Americans

Published: Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Updated: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 23:05

The Dec. 20 decision by Judge John E. Jones III, in a case filed by parents against the Dover, Pa. school district, that intelligent design "is not [science], and moreover that Intelligent Design cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents" is a victory for the millions of Christians and Jews who do not use their faith to hinder the advancement of human knowledge and who do not read the Bible literally. Nothing in the biblical accounts of creation in the first chapters of Genesis suggests that they were meant to be read literally or were intended as scientific accounts of the world's origin. These chapters narrate the creation in the same manner as other creation myths; they establish values and the broad structures of the world in a metaphysical, rather than a physical, sense. Much of classical Jewish biblical interpretation does not take the chapters literally, but rather expands upon them in a wide variety of highly creative ways. The same is true of Christianity: For most of Christian history, theologians and biblical scholars saw literalism as the lowest form of biblical interpretation and instead tried to discern the deeper, spiritual and even allegorical meanings of biblical passages.

Intelligent design is the product of Protestant Fundamentalism, which did not arise until the 19th century in response to Darwinism, to the U.S. debates over slavery and to the historical study of the Bible. Thus, although Fundamentalist biblical interpretation presents itself as the only true form of Christian biblical interpretation, it is a relative latecomer on the stage of Christian history.


Numerous readers of the Bible benefit from learning how they can understand the Genesis creation narratives within their proper genre and what these narratives may have meant in their own time. Today, we can tell the difference between a poem, an article in a scientific journal and a newspaper editorial. We would never mistake the words of a poem for the results of a scientific research study-although both may say things that are true. These two types of works are of different genres and must be read differently. Some ancient scientific treatises have come down to us, which include the acute observations of Babylonian astronomers and Greek mathematicians. But the Jewish and Christian communities did not choose to include such scientific treatises in their Bibles. Instead, they included deep spiritual poetry, law, moral challenge, their understandings of the past, their struggles to understand God and stories of great tragedy and hope.

Furthermore, throughout history, Jews and Christians engaged in all branches of science, advancing our knowledge of the natural world without seeing any conflict with their faith.


When religious authorities tried to stem the advances of human knowledge of the natural world, as when the Vatican condemned Galileo Galilei in the 17th century, they seriously harmed both the Church and natural scientific research. Pope John Paul II finally sought to undo the harm by apologizing for that condemnation in 1992.


This ruling is also a victory for religious pluralism, since millions of religious people in this country not only do not support intelligent design or creationism as scientific theories, but they also do not subscribe to the Bible at all. American Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and others hold their own views on the origin of the universe and on the relationship between religion and the natural sciences.

But even the Jewish and the Christian bibles are more diverse than most people think. Both bibles are both anthologies that encompass a broad range of differing laws, understandings of history and theological views. The Pennsylvania intelligent design case makes painfully clear that we need to educate our students in the best of science, but must also create a citizenry with a deeper knowledge of religious history, including biblical studies.

Citizens who have studied comparative religion and both traditional and academic biblical interpretation will be better equipped to go beyond a surface interpretation of the Bible. The Bible, with its multiple voices, can and should serve as a key text in the life of the United States and can complement science in significant and important ways-if we can deepen our knowledge of how to read it.


Editor's note: Professor Brettler (NEJS) is the Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies and Professor Brooten (NEJS) is the Robert and Myra Kraft and Jacob Hiatt Professor of Christian Studies.

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