It was a real privilege to hear Judge Jones talk yesterday along with Eric Rothschild, the lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the famous Kitzmiller v. Dover case. Perhaps the most moving moment was when Judge Jones talked about receiving death threats. Then he excoriated Ann Coulter for saying someone should put rat poison in Justice Stevens's creme brulee, after he issued some opinion she didn't like. Words like that have real consequences, he pointed out, and referred to the Chicago judge whose mother and husband were murdered a few years ago.
I got to ask the judge if issues about religion-science compatibility played any role whatever in his thinking about the Dover case--since there was testimony on that topic. He said he had personal opinions on the subject, but they played no role. Which gets me thinking...does the compatibility debate make any difference to real world cases like this?
In this particular case, that issue doesn't seem to have concerned the judge. The critical legal issue was whether Intelligent Design is science or not science, and whether the effort to get it into the science classroom had roots in religion. So the broader philosophical issue was beside the point.
But it did matter to the people on the ground. The 13 parents who filed suit against the school board, which had decided a pro-ID message was going to have to be read in high school science classes, were pilloried by their community. Some of them were interviewed for a PBS documentary on the case, and it was obviously important to them to present themselves as wanting science taught in science classes, not as rejecting religion. They were church-goers and even Sunday School teachers. They would have been horrified by the suggestion that by believing in evolution, they were rationally committed to being atheists.
Some atheists seem to mind very, very much what the National Center for Science Education says about this issue. What they say, in a nutshell, is that reasonable people will disagree. And isn't that exactly true? Plus, they offer lots of resources that are supportive for people like the Dover parents and science teachers. Given the real world struggles the organization has to respond to, I can't see how they can be faulted. An officially atheist organization would do differently, but I take it that's not the NCSE.