Intelligent Design is cleverly designed.
Much of what I say here will apply to almost any other religious tradition in the modern world. I refer specifically to Christianity for three reasons. First, it’s the most dominant religion in the USA, which is where I am. Second, I’m a Christian myself. Third, a form of Christianity is the religious tradition followed by those who designed Intelligent Design. However, whenever I refer to Christians or Christianity, I am aware that it could easily apply to many other religions.
Consider the situation many people find themselves in. They are raised Christian. They go to Sunday School, and learn the Bible stories. By and large, those stories are thoughtlessly taught as history, rather than as (often) larger-than-life stories about historical figures that have been passed down orally, and then written, as part of the tradition of our faith. Many people don’t think very deeply, and assume that if they are to “believe” the Bible, they must believe it all literally. Many other people are told that to be a good Christian, they must believe that. Fortunately, that’s not as big a fraction of people as you might think given how good the young-earth creationists are at spreading their message.
However, one thing that gets drilled into you is that God created humans in God’s image, and that God created the Universe.
Now thrust yourself into the modern world. Believing the Bible to be literally true is either ignorant (i.e. you just haven’t learned much about what we know) or willfully delusional (you choose to deny much of what humanity knows). Many, probably most, of us can’t go on accepting the fairy stories of a literal reading of Genesis given how much modern science has learned, given that there’s absolutely no question that the Earth is billions of years old, given that there is absolutely no question that for most of the history of the Earth, animals other than humans (and most of the other species alive today) walked the Earth, and given that we understand beyond any shadow of a doubt that modern species developed from earlier species.
So imagine this queasy cognitive dissonance. Here are things that are directly in contradiction with what the Bible says. Well, as a modern thinking person, it’s really not very difficult to accept that a literal reading of the Bible is childish and nonsensical; heck, one only need read a couple of chapters into the Bible itself before you have to go into contortions trying to maintain that the Bible is consistent with itself. If the Bible is to be read as a central set of writings around which our faith is based, there’s a pretty strong tipoff that we’re supposed to think harder about it than accept it mindlessly from the fact that (a) the Bible is self-inconsistent, and (b) a literal reading of the Bible as “what happened” is blatantly at odds with what we know to be true through other avenues of inquiry.
How do we hold on to something? Some lose their faith. I’ve seen it happen; kids, especially kids who are raised in fundamentalist families who insist on special creation and a 6,000-year-old world, get to college. They struggle. Some figure out that there is no way to reconcile their beliefs with full participation in the modern world… and they lose their faith altogether. You hear some on the Christian Right bemoaning how “secular” colleges are destroying their children’s faith, but in reality the problem is that they didn’t do a very good job of providing a religious education to their children. They taught them a form of faith that is childish and backwards, and incompatible with modern knowledge. No wonder that the kids didn’t hold on to it when their minds were opened to other things!
But not everybody loses their faith. Many, like me, recognize that while historically one purpose of religion was to explain that which science has not explained, that is not a meaningful role for religion in the modern world. However, religion does have a role. I’ve written a few previous blog posts (here, here, and here) about this.
But what about that cognitive dissonance? What about the fact that “God created humans in his image” seems to be such a central message? How do we hold on to that?
In the past, the creationists, refusing to accept modern knowledge and adapt their faith accordingly, have tried to stop the teaching of evolution in schools. They have tried to teach something they called “creation science.” Creation science, however, is very clumsily designed. It doesn’t take much thought for almost anybody to see through it, for almost anybody to see that it’s not science at all, but the bland and blatant denial of science– that it’s just creationism with a name that’s supposed to convince people that it should be taught in science courses. That tactic failed.
So the creationists have come back with a new tactic: Intelligent Design. This tactic combines obfuscation with a softening of their position such that it looks like the “happy medium,” it looks like the reasonable and thoughtful reconciliation of modern scientific knowledge with religious faith. It is not, but it is designed to look like that. Indeed, given that “compromise” is often toted as a virtue irrespective of circumstance, the fact that it makes some concessions to evolution (e.g. an old Earth, species developing form each other), it seems like the “reasonable” solution.
But make no mistake, it is a trap. It is a trap designed specifically for Christians and other faithful, to suck them into the denial of modern science without making it immediately apparent that that is what they are doing. It is a trap that sucks those Christians in and puts them de facto on the side of the creationists, rather than leaving them to think creatively about their faith and what role it has in the modern scientific world. I’ve seen working scientists pulled into this trap, but more often I see non-scientist Christians who look at Intelligent Design, and breathe a sigh of relief. “Oh, that’s how it works! God is working behind the scenes directing evolution, so that’s why we have this whole fossil record. Sure, we have development of the species, sure, we have an old Earth, it all works! But God is still there! There’s even scientific evidence for it! Now I’m happy!” That’s the reaction that Intelligent Design has been designed to evoke, and all too often it does. It’s much more clever and deceitful than the old clumsy “creation science.”
Do not fall for the trap.
The key thing is that Intelligent Design is not science. It is presented as such, and surrounded with language to make it sound like it is. The core of intelligent design is two things. First, it is a publicity campaign to raise FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) about the Theory of Evolution and, to a lesser degree, other theories in astronomy, geology, and biology. It exaggerates and outright dissembles about flaws and lacks in those theories. Second, it is a default explanation that, for no reasons other than philosophical bias, we are supposed to use when nothing else is there.
The argument goes something like this. We can’t scientifically explain how, say, this species developed from that species; we don’t have all of the intermediate steps mapped out. Or, we can’t scientifically explain why the cosmological parameters have the values that they do, the values that are just right for a Universe that supports life. Scientifically, that’s as far as you go; we don’t know, or, more likely, we don’t know yet. But Intelligent Design says that the fact that science doesn’t have an explanation otherwise for a seeming coincidence should be taken as evidence for a Designer. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, BS. This is not to disparage anybody’s belief in God — but religion is not science, and ID’s insistence that the present lack of another explanation is evidence for a designer is not science, not at all.
In other words, ID is two things. First, the active denial that evolution is as good as it really is, and second, the insistence that the “designer hypothesis” is the appropriate explanation to fill in these lacks (whether they are real or falsely advertised by ID proponents.)
Believe it if you want, but it’s not science. And that’s why it’s falling into the trap to think that intelligent design is the way you can hold on to notions that come from your faith while accepting the knowledge of modern science. Intelligent Design is a movement designed to undermine modern science; the Wedge document (see, for example, here) even shows that it was designed to be that by its originators! And it is not science at all; by accepting it as science, you are making the same mistake as you are by rejecting science in favor of more blatant forms of creationism.
Which is not to say, as I’ve argued before, that science is incompatible with Christianity or other religions! It’s just incompatible with certain forms of those religions. If you want to bring your faith into the modern world in a way that will continue to have meaning and survive into the future, then you have to think about your faith tradition, and maintain a faith tradition that does not require you to reject the things that we know to be true– like evolution.