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In this article, Church of Scotland minister Rev Dr Russel Moffat explains why he feels Intelligent Design Theory is problematic in the public debate on God and Science.
On the GTN Forum, Allan Fraser and Anthony Latham are having a debate about Intelligent Design Theory and Theistic Evolution which is fascinating to observe. Like two tennis pros they are serving and returning very expertly indeed ably umpired as always, by Iain Morris. For me to interject on the Forum at this stage of the proceedings would upset the symmetry of the discussion and muddy the waters regarding the specific issues they are addressing one to the other. However, I feel a compelling need to contribute something as I have serious concerns about this whole subject. I might add at this point that what follows is a very personal view and I do not presume to speak for anyone else but myself here.
It has been said that when Christians disagree the Angels weep! At one level of course this is true, and given the fractured history of the Christian Church and the damage that disunity has created it is salutary for all of us to be mindful of this. However, there are times when disagreements are over very important issues and engaging is better than silence. I have serious concerns about Intelligent Design Theory and indeed the movement espousing it.
IDT – A Flawed Theological Project?
There is no doubt in my mind that Creationism in all its manifestations since the time of Darwin has done untold damage to the cause of Christ down through the years and still does. Now, it is persistently claimed that IDT is not Creationism but I believe such claims are disingenuous.
First, there is a clear association between IDT in particular and Creationism in general. It is extremely doubtful that the former would ever have originated without the general matrix and environment of the latter.
Second, the “large tent” metaphor for IDT membership or association accommodates both Young Earth Creationists and Old Earth Creationists. An example of the former is Paul Nelson who along with Meyer, Dembski and Wells constitutes the original “gang of four” (to appropriate a phrase from another context). This fact explains the reluctance of IDT’s to criticise “Creationists” in print or in interviews. So whilst they do not (publically at least) overtly espouse Creationism they do not do enough to distance themselves or dissociate themselves from it. This is not surprising since many of the people who buy the popular merchandise such as books and DVD’s by proponents of IDT come from within the Creationist camp. A point made by members of the scientific community regarding works by Michael Behe (without the Creationist public would these books be the best sellers they are?). Creationist support can also be seen in attendance at talks and conferences featuring IDT proponents.
Third, IDT proponents like to maintain that unlike Creationists they do not arrive at their conclusions from Biblical Interpretation but purely from the scientific data. However, consider the book the “Creation Hypothesis” (Published by IVP 1994) which features articles from nine scholars from very different fields who represent differing positions within the Creationist Community (for example Kurt Wise is a Young Earth Creationist). The foreword is written by Phillip E Johnson an influential figure in the founding of the modern Intelligent Design movement and contributions are made by both William Dembski and Stephen Meyer. In the Introduction to the book Philosopher J.P. Moreland writes:
First, many Christian intellectuals including Old Testament Scholars, do not believe
that Genesis is consistent with theistic evolution as it is usually presented. Instead
they opt for some form of special creationism. We side with these scholars, and in
our view neither we nor they are guilty of a simplistic “folk” exegesis of the biblical
text. (p 14)
Does that not raise serious questions and concerns for us?
Fourth, the Eastern orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart has pointed out, rightly in my opinion, that the focus on God as an engineer or intelligent designer only gets us a far as the demiurge of Gnosticism. The God of Classical Christian Theism is much more profound than that. Further, it also invites the critical response of alleged unintelligent design in nature which leads us into the perennial problems of theodicy. Once again the resources of Classical Theology can deal with this on a different level but the emphasis of IDT is not helpful in this regard. Finally, if the aim of all this is to counter and defeat philosophical materialism, then the Christian faith has the theological and historical means to combat this without resorting to IDT. In fact, following IDT may lead us up a blind alley.
IDT – A Failed Scientific Project?
Instead of engaging the Christian church or the general public or intellectuals in wider society outside or on the fringes of the world of science, IDT has to win the argument within the scientific community itself. This it has singularly failed to do: I might add disastrously, and in some cases embarrassingly so. From the lofty rhetoric of the 1990’s and the giddy claims found in the posts of the Discovery Institute over the decades, the “citadel” they are assaulting is still intact with even its outer walls unscaled. Or changing the metaphor, the “battleship” has not been sunk it has not even been holed! I see no change in this situation coming anytime soon. Paul Nelson admitted in a famous quote a few years ago that IDT had no “theory of biological design” only a “bag of powerful intuitions” and a “handful of notions”. One of these notions is “irreducible complexity” which has been robustly critiqued within the scientific community. This is devastating to the whole enterprise.
I notice that there is no literature that I’m aware of complaining from a Christian point of view about Plate Tectonics. I know of no suggestion that Christians should be sceptical of the claims of science being made here. After all I’m not aware of “God” being mentioned in the literature only natural processes and mechanisms. Is there no concern about that as there is regarding biology? The fact is most scientific theories pass by the Christian world except Darwinian Evolution. Why? Well historically some Christians have always had a problem with evolution in general and Darwinian evolution in particular, because of what they see as a clash with biblical texts and with theological understandings. Therefore, whatever the presentation of IDT as only a modest programme for detecting design in nature, the unspoken agenda is the overturning of Darwinian evolution in its entirety. In this, IDT has, in the light of the comments in the previous paragraph above, really got its work cut out, and I for one cannot see how scientifically speaking, this will be achievable in the foreseeable future.
It seems to me that the task of every generation of the faith is to engage and relate the best of theology with the best of secular thought. In our day there is no ignoring Darwinian Evolution. it appears to be a robust and exciting theory well supported by the convergence of diverse form of evidence and despite the claims made in some circles, it shows no sign of being overturned in the near future. So in the meantime we best get on with it.
Lastly, IDT is a red rag to atheists/secularists/humanists and in my opinion understandably so. It has negative connotations and is often detrimental to the mission of the Church. That is unfortunate. Of course, in so many ways this is a Protestant problem as Creationism in all its forms was largely germinated within the right wing of that branch of Christianity (so even within Protestantism itself it is a minority viewpoint). GTN needs to be a broad movement if our task is to succeed.
Rev Dr Russel Moffat