Peter Hess, Faith Project Director for the National Center for Science Education, argues that it is. He makes his case in this paper in the University of St. Thomas Journal of Law and Public Policy I learned of the article from this post over at Josh Rosenau’s blog. Josh writes, “I think that Peter makes a strong case for ID being blasphemous.” My reaction is considerably less charitable.
We will come to the part about ID in a moment, but first we must address the following from Hess:
The reception of On the Origin of Species was not as the “warfare myth” portrayed it, with godless evolutionary scientists ranged against biblical literalist theologians and bishops. Darwin’s theory met a mixed reception, with some theologians enthusiastically endorsing it as compatible with religious belief, and some scientists vigorously opposing it on scientific grounds.
Whether or not this is true depends on which aspect of “Darwin’s theory” you are discussing. I think it is fair to say that common descent met with a mixed reaction, though there was certainly no shortage of theologians who objected even to this. But on the subject of natural selection as the primary mechanism of evolution the hostile theological response was nearly unanimous. A typical example was Charles Hodge, who famously asked, “What is Darwinism?” and answered, “It is atheism.” It was not common descent specifically that bothered him, but rather that the explanation for that descent could be found in an entirely natural, undirected process.
Historian of science Frederick Gregory sums up the situation as follows:
Unquestionably, the attempt to reconcile evolution and Christianity depended on a rejection of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution. A few writers, for example Asa Gray and George Frederick Wright, claimed that natural selection was not incompatible with a divinely ordered creation, but after Hodge, theologians for the most part abandoned the attempt to reconcile natural selection and design.
(This is taken from the anthology, God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, edited by Ronald Numbers and David Lindberg.)
Modern evolutionary theory puts natural selection front and center, of course. It is precisely what those nineteenth century theologians most feared. On this point they were far closer in their thinking to modern creationists than they are to modern theistic evolutionists.
But that is just a warm-up. How does Hess make his case that ID is blasphemous?
What are the central theological failings of intelligent design? First, it is blasphemous. Intelligent design constrains God to work within the limits of what its adherents can understand about nature. In so doing it reduces God from the status of creator to that of mere designer, and not a very competent one at that, as suggested by George Levine…
There now follows a lengthy quote from Levine enumerating some of the poor designs in nature. After this, Hess continues:
Intelligent design cannot allow that evolution is the process chosen by God for the unfolding of the universe, entrusting to it its own integrity. ID seems incapable of recognizing the possibility that God remains hidden, indiscernible behind the veil of nature. If we accept the idea of creation, we should also accept the idea of the integrity and autonomy of what is created.
This is all straight from Mars. ID claims simply that there is evidence in nature for the action of an intelligent agent (generally presumed to be the Christian God by ID’s main adherents). How does that constrain God in the slightest? “Blasphemy” is supposed to refer to an insult or act of disrespect directed toward God. Does the suggestion that there is evidence in nature that God did something really qualify as an insult? As they see it evidence for design is a discovery they have made about nature, it is not an a priori conclusion based on myopic assumptions regarding how God must act. It is not that they cannot allow that evolution is the process of creation chosen by God, it is that they have considered evolution and find it wanting. How can it be blasphemous to reject a particular theory of natural history? Scientifically indefensible, certainly, but not blasphemous.
Second, however seductive an argument it is that intelligent design can be consonant with both religion and science, sooner or later it founders on the shoal of natural evil. The evolutionary history of life on earth implies vast eons of suffering, and theologians have spilled much ink either by attempting to justify it, explaining it away, or somehow integrating it into a theological system. Insisting on God as a cosmic designer — who intervenes periodically to propel evolution in propitious directions — inevitably lays the responsibility for the concomitant suffering squarely at the feet of the designer.
If intelligent design theory is correct, it is understandable why Richard Dawkins should describe God as being (among other things) a “sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” To a theist, of course, such a description of God constitutes blasphemy, but this is the logical descriptor of the God of “intelligent design,” who ultimately is directly responsible for all the suffering built into a universe with which God interminably tinkers.
I agree with Hess that ID has a problem with natural evil, though I do not think it is fair to say they have ignored the problem. Michael Behe discusses it in The Edge of Evolution, and William Dembski just published a book on the subject (based on a long article posted to the internet several years ago, in case Dembski’s book was too recent to be included in this article.)
In making this argument, however, Hess has forgotten Jesus’ question, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3) Theistic evolution, you see, has precisely the same problem with natural evil as does ID.
If you set in motion a process that inevitably leads to a bad outcome, you are as responsible for that outcome as if you caused it directly. If I drop an anvil from a balcony and it hits someone on the head I do not get to say, “I didn’t do anything! It was a natural process, gravity, that did that.”
If evolution absolves God from the problem of natural evil, it can only be because there was some greater good that God could only achieve via evolution. In treating the problem of human evil it is common to say that such evil is the price we pay for free will. It is very debatable whether this reply is adequate, but it does show what sort of argument is necessary here.
Hess gives no indication of what that greater good could be, beyond a vague reference to integrity and autonomy. (If the story told in Chapter One of Genesis were true the world would lack integrity and autonomy? Really?) As it happens, though, the argument Hess is making here is essentially the one made by Francisco Ayala in his book Darwin’s Gift. In a paper published in the academic journal Science and Theology, Ayala responded to this objection as follows:
Nevertheless, some would say the world was created by God, so God is ultimately responsible; God could have created a world without parasites or dysfunctionalities. Yes, others would answer, but a world of life with evolution is much more exciting; it is a creative world where new species arise, complex ecosystems come about, and humans have evolved. This account will not satisfy some people of faith, and many unbelievers will surely find it less than cogent: a Deus ex machina. But I am suggesting that it may provide the beginning of an explanation for many people of faith, as well as for theologians.
For some reason I am reminded of this Far Side cartoon:
Let me suggest that atheists have nothing to fear from such arguments. Somehow, “evolution is exciting” does not seem like an adequate response to the billions of years of suffering, death and extinction entailed by the evolutionary process. I would add that if humans, complex ecosystems, and new species are the goals, then evolution by natural selection is a horrible means of creating them. It is inefficient, unreliable and cruel. A far better way is to use your omnipotence to bring them into being without the four billion years of horror and savagery. I, for one, would find that plenty exciting.
Hess’ third point is that ID folks routinely present a distorted and dishonest picture of modern science. I agree completely. Let us move on.
Fourth, intelligent design falsely represents itself as the primary alternative to atheistic evolution or metaphysical reductionism. This is quite untrue. Intelligent design creationism is primarily associated with Protestant Christianity of an evangelical flavor, although a few notable proponents — such as Cardinal Schonborn and Michael Behe — are Roman Catholic. What ID advocates refuse to acknowledge is that mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches, along with progressive Jewish congregations, long ago came to terms with the implications of an evolutionary perspective, and are working hard to integrate it into their theologies of creation.
Hess is kidding himself if he thinks ID is a specifically evangelical Protestant phenomenon. If the public opinion polls are to be believed ID has widespread support among Catholics, Muslims and even orthodox Jews. The idea that there is scientific evidence for the existence of God is hardly a sectarian notion. On the contrary, it is an idea that is likely to appeal to anyone of a religious temperament.
That is the totality of Hess’ case that ID is blasphemous. But there is one more excerpt we must consider before calling it a day:
The mistake intelligent design makes is in asserting that this reality-greater-than-what-is-susceptible-of-empirical-investigation can in fact be discovered by empirical investigation. In fact, intelligent design forsakes both science and religion. In seeking to find in the natural objects of science, some proof of a cosmic designer who by definition transcends nature, intelligent design has abandoned the objective of science. Likewise, in seeking scientific proof of a designer, intelligent design relinquishes faith, which Saint Paul tells us is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The scientific quest for the designer behind the veil of nature ultimately fails — science can neither discover nor eliminate God.
What nonsense! Really think for a moment about how out of proportion Hess’ reaction is to the provocation. If you think there is evidence in nature for the action of an intelligent designer then you have forsaken both science and religion! You have relinquished faith!
Hess is the one who is trivializing Christianity here. There is so much more to Christian faith than just a belief in God. The Bible itself tells us that in contemplating nature people are “without excuse” for rejecting the existence of God. From the perspective of the Biblical writers, that God existed was regarded as something so obvious as to hardly be the sort of thing that needed proof. The emphasis on faith was directed towards believing that Jesus had accepted the punishment for our sins. Thinking that complex adaptations point toward God hardly leaves you with no need for faith in accepting Christianity.
I wonder how far Hess is really willing to push this. Was William Paley guilty of blasphemy? Does Natural Theology represent an abandonment of both science and religion? All of those advocates of natural theology over the years, all guilty of weak faith? What about all those modern theologians who point to the fine-tuning of the universe as strong evidence for God’s existence. Are they blasphemers? Are they abandoning faith in thinking there is scientific evidence for God’s existence?
Are these really the arguments we are going to present to religious people worried about the implications of evolution? Are we going to tell them that if they think there is scientific evidence for God they are not just mistaken, they are flirting with blasphemy and have abjured faith? Somehow I don’t think that’s a winning argument.