Intelligent Design : a trap for Christians

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.


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The two pillars of Intelligent design boil down to the 'God of the Gaps' argument and the principle that human created designs, machines etc - the products of 'intelligence' - share similarities to biological systems, THEREFORE biological systems MUST have been the product of intelligence.
I've blogged about this second point recently (in my link below) and how it presents a conundrum for monotheistic believers.

Well said.
I'm going to add one thing. John Calvin, the great theologian (with more than a few non-redeeming features by today's standards; but hey, it was a different era) faced a similar "problem" (if you can call it that). He lived in the dawn of the modern scientific era, when the new sciences of astronomy and meteorology were making interesting discoveries about the world and universe which seemed to directly conflict with Genesis. Was there "water above the firmament", for example?
His solution: It's no problem. From his Commentary on Genesis (and bearing in mind that it was believed at the time that Genesis was written by Moses):

Moses describes the special use of this expanse, "to divide the waters from the waters" from which word arises a great difficulty. For it appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven. Hence some resort to allegory, and philosophize concerning angels; but quite beside the purpose. For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here the Spirit of God would teach all men without exception; and therefore [...] it is the book of the unlearned. The things, therefore, which he relates, serve as the garniture of that theatre which he places before our eyes. Whence I conclude, that the
waters here meant are such as the rude and unlearned may perceive. The assertion of some, that they embrace by faith what they have read concerning the waters above the heavens, notwithstanding their ignorance respecting them, is not in accordance with the design of Moses. And truly a longer inquiry into a matter open and manifest is superfluous. We see that the clouds suspended in the air, which threaten to fall upon our heads, yet leave us space to breathe. [...] We know, indeed that the rain is naturally produced.

To the IDists, I say: If it was good enough for Calvin, it's good enough for you.

By Pseudonym (not verified) on 22 May 2007 #permalink

Oh, I forgot to note: I added the emphasis.

By Pseudonym (not verified) on 22 May 2007 #permalink

I agree completely. Your essays are a refreshing contrast to the hundreds of self-proclaimed scientists on this site who condemn religion without really understanding it. I find it ironic that most of our greatest scientists were devoutly religious but open-minded, while the Bible literalists have contributed nothing to understanding God's creation.

If god created the universe, wouldn't he have left a clear message, rather than a book filtered through the limitations of men thousands of years dead? Isn't that what we see in the world around us? Isn't the universe god's message and isn't science the attempt to "understand the mind of god"? Aren't scientists doing god's work? Who are the the religious right to tell god how he should create the universe? The existence of god is an opinion, it's unprovable. Whether you believe god is a sentient old father figure or the structure of the universe showing through,what matters is how we live our lives, how we behave. I am not a Christian, but my beliefs grew out of Christian values. I would never deny a man or women their faith. The belief in "something" is as wide as humanity, but it's only one person deep. It's a personal opinion. This is why I object to the evangelicals, not because they're Christian, but because they would attempt to seize or government and force the rest of us to live by their ideas. The religious conservatives are fundamentalists, bent on the subjugation of women, and the supremacy of their own ideology, how many have to die for ideologies before we learn tolerance. The Christian conservatives are as evil as the fundamental Muslims bent of the destruction of our way of life and if they are not stopped they will get people killed. Oh wait... Iraq, I guess the killing has already started.

By Weldon MacDonald (not verified) on 23 May 2007 #permalink

I agree with you, but I would like to emphasize one thing. That cognitive dissonance goes away with a simple conclusion - that men wrote the Bible, not God. As creation myths go, Genesis is not bad, both for how the world came to be and how the twelve tribes of Israel (or 13 or 14, with the Levites and with Joseph getting a double share) came to be. Apparently much of Genesis already had gone through a roadtest as Mesopotamian myths, so it had proven its value for its time. I don't see people 3000 years ago doing better. They were bound to see something mysterious as controlling nature and to be the source of power, knowledge, love and goodness all humans crave, whether through magic or one's own craftiness, from one source or many.

But now educated people can be quite sure they know better than Genesis because of the scientific revolution. Nature is all these mindless processes we understand very well, except maybe for consciousness and whatever we don't understand at all yet. There is no God there, not in the daily workings of nature anyway. Understanding the fact of evolution isn't necessary to conclude that, but it certainly is a stake to the heart of the traditional God if He is not our Creator.

There are alternatives. It's not a God-of-the gaps one finds in a non-physical God helping us in this life or God in charge of whatever life beyond death there might be. Whatever is beyond, alongside, within or cutting across the physical universe isn't a gap. It's an entirely different reality that might be much more complicated than physical reality. There's room enough for God in His own reality for anyone who wants a God. Wedging Him into a gap is not necessary.

Yet that's not the traditional God, the God who runs nature, who sees to it that everything that happens happens for a good reason, that protects His people, and gives AIDS to His enemies. Lots of people want that God and that God alone. That God would not let the Bible be wrong, even though my God does not have that kind of power, or He would correct many books. My God is not good enough for many conservatives. It's not an accident that they fight so hard against the idea of evolution, while letting science win in other areas that show that God doesn't control nature. I don't think it's as simple as that they are defending that God made us in His image or any single belief. Conservatives are fighting for a God who they see as the only God worth having, a package deal. If they're wrong atheists might as well be right. You can hear an occasional conservative say as much.

So they can overlook that ID is such obvious propaganda. They have a more important agenda than science. They're fighting for the life or death of their loved one, the traditional God. It's hopeless, but families often keep going when all reasonable hope is gone. ID is just like that cancer cure in Mexico, one last false hope.

ID is propaganda to give a cult a reason to stick to its slave-like rhetoric. I don't think IDers have any interest in liberal Christians. I wonder if they deep down believe they have any chance of winning in the courts or if they know deep down that their dreams for ID are pure fantasy. All this fighting against science can only be a temporary denial of the scientific revolution by a lifestyle that revolution has made obsolete. It worries people who know better, but I think the Bible has good advice on this in Acts 5: 38-39. Traditionalists always read that as if God must be with them, but it's good advice either way. The only God I know has no problem with scientific revolution. He might even have been its author, though I can see God wishing we had waited about 500 years more, too.

Regardless, ID is such junk. It's such a desperate response to science that the game must be almost over. Science has won. Everyone will figure that out eventually, however many generations have to die off before everyone gets a fresh look at the clearer story of science the future will tell.

Its unfortunate that people like to throw this word "Science" around without considering its proper definition. There are 2 that are used and only 1 that is correct. the first is science as methodology, careful ways to answer questions about natural phenomena, wherever those answers lead. the second is science as naturalistic philosophy, which limits the first definition by only accepting naturalistic or materialistic explanations for these phenomena. It should be apparent to most clear thinking individuals that you can not define something coherently as that which by its own definition excludes itself. This is a category error. This definition of science as naturalism is not itself the product of a materialistic explanation, unless of course one you found it spelled out as such by some peculiar pebble formation in your driveway one morning. Barring that possibility, "scientists" need to do some work to patch up this leaky definition before it sinks itself, it is incoherent. However, the implications of the former definition "allows a divine foot in the door" (as Richard Lewontin states), making it unsavory to the tender atheistic psyche.

By joshua caleb (not verified) on 28 May 2007 #permalink

I've been plowing through Karen Armstrong's A History of God (which would be more accurately titled A Condensed History of Judeo-Christo-Islamic Theology), and note that those thinkers whom Armstrong seems to respect most - and those least open to reality-based contradiction - are those who consider their god to be some great ineffable transcendence, beyond all comprehension, description, or imagining.

Iow, here's another way out of this "trap" - dump the humans-as-image-of-God notion. The remaining concepts hang together just as well without it (which doesn't say much, but that's another comment).

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 06 Jun 2007 #permalink

Rob, I realize this doesn't have too much to do with this post, but have you ever discussed the concept of fine tuning on your blog? I've been told by a physicist that the majority of physicists believe that fine-tuning is something that requires an explanation, but to me it sure looks a lot like a combination of an argument from ignorance and the sharp-shooter fallacy. My understanding of the concept is that if the values of a number of certain constants in the universe were just slightly different, life would be impossible. I've even seen it stated more generally, essentially that the universe easily could have been unable to support the formation of structures (I'm assuming atoms) of any kind making any life impossible.

The most obvious objection I had to this is that I question what we know of the probabilities of the values of the constants, and how we know what kind of universe would be the result of differing values than our own. I'm assuming that we know very little if anything about the answers to those questions, so I'm not seeing how this universe is so remarkable or how we can say how easy a configuration of the universe is or isn't.

I'm aware of the use of fine-tuning as support for theism, but I'm just interested in how it is treated from a scientific standpoint. I've looked on the web and seen my objections above stated by other scientists but can't find a refutation of them. On the other hand I see a lot of quotes from physicists about fine tuning, again mainly on theistic sites. In your experience, is fine tuning truly something that requires an explanation and is something that is an area of physics research or study? Is it a scientific question?

Rob, I realize this doesn't have too much to do with this post, but have you ever discussed the concept of fine tuning on your blog?

I haven't, entirely, although I have written about the weak anthropic principle. (My take: "just a selection effect.")

There are people who worry about these things. Indeed, I was at a talk three days ago about a guy who claimed to have solved the coincidence problem in cosmology (i.e. why are the Dark Energy and Dark Matter so similar), but I believe all he did was move the coincidence into another column.

It's a scientific question -- and there are those who think about the answers. But we don't have an answer yet.

Fifteen or twenty years ago, I think a lot of physicists were hoping that String Theory would produce a Theory of Everything that showed that all the fundamental constants had to have the values they do. Nowadays, it doesn't look like that will happen -- that a Theory of Everything will allow for quite a range of fundamental constants.

Most of the as-close-as-you-can-get scientific explanations of fine tuning involve invoking multiple Universes, and the selection effect that observers will only be in one that supports observers. Many find this whole line of reasoning bunkum.

By and large, it's an unanswered question out there that really requires us to know a lot more about the most basic Physics (i.e. quantum gravity) before we can really know the scientific answer.


The advocates of 'Intelligent Design' don't believe in it because there is no evidence. They believe in spite of that.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 13 Jul 2007 #permalink