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Intelligent Design and Religion

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December 24, 2009 Tags: Design

Today's entry was written by David Opderbeck. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Intelligent Design and Religion

In this post I will discuss whether Intelligent Design theory is inherently “religious.” I’ll also offer some thoughts on ID and “natural theology.”

ID advocates vehemently deny that ID is a “religious” idea. They argue that the “designer” need not be “God” or any kind of deity. What they endeavor to offer is empirical evidence, developed according to scientific methods, of “design” in nature. They suggest that while ID theory might cohere with some religious views about the identity of the “designer,” it is just as amenable to a non-religious view in which the “designer” is a non-divine intelligent being.

A significant problem for ID advocates, however, is that “design” and “intelligence” are social constructs rooted deeply in theological and philosophical speculation about ultimate meaning and purposes. The very notion of “intelligent design” requires prior philosophical commitments about agency and teleology that must eventually refer to theological categories. I agree with great Christian thinkers such as Anselm and Aquinas: when we speak in terms of agency, purpose, causality, and “design,” we must ultimately implicate the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover, the undesigned designer – in other words, “God.”

Curiously, I think many Christian advocates of ID would agree with me about the ultimate implications of “design.” Their strategy, however, is a sort of “pre-apologetic,” structured to lead the hearer in the direction of “God.” They suggest that the argument can be cut off part way down the road while it is still “religiously neutral” – and therefore Constitutionally permissible as subject matter in the public schools – before the tipping point towards “God” is reached.

Perhaps ID advocates are correct that such a “half-way” approach could, under the right circumstances, avoid improper entanglement with “religion” under the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause. Establishment clause jurisprudence is notoriously slippery. The Supreme Court has not always been clear about what test should apply under the establishment clause, and scholars and jurists differ about how the establishment clause should be interpreted. 1

But even if a plausible argument could be made for the constitutionality of teaching some version of ID in a public school, I personally find this “wedge” strategy pragmatically and theologically suspect. To be a bit crude, this reminds me of some of the ways in which young people try to engage in sexual activity without going “all the way.” It sounds good in principle, but it doesn’t really work and it isn’t very satisfying.

As a Christian theist with broadly Reformed theological presuppositions, I’m not persuaded that unaided human reason can arrive at “God.” This is the question of the nature and role of “natural theology.” One essential text for natural theology, Psalm 19, notes that all of creation declares God’s glory. The locus classicus of natural theology, Romans 1, states that human beings sinfully deny the natural knowledge of God. Christian theology thus has always recognized that in some sense God is “hidden” to unaided human reason.

God does not leave an empirical bread crumb trail in order to demonstrate His existence. Rather, the only way we can really know God is through the gracious work of the Holy Spirit, who illuminates to us what God has revealed about Himself. It is only by the Spirit that we are able truly to hear the “speech” and “knowledge” poured out by the heavens God created (Ps. 19). Only by God’s gracious self-revelation can we understand that all of “nature” is in fact creation.

In this light, our apologetic task is not primarily to identify statistical anomalies and gaps in the created order that could be filled by some amorphous “designer.” Our task is boldly and joyously to point people to the God revealed in Jesus Christ as the only possible source of all of creation. Here, we can suggest that the deep structures of creation, including many of the remarkable coincidences and convergences of life’s development, cohere with our admittedly limited understanding of the God whom we proclaim is creator of everything.

This view of natural theology admittedly differs from some other approaches in the Christian tradition in which natural theology is seen as supplying evidences that are readily ascertainable to unaided reason. Perhaps the height of this approach was reflected in William Paley’s “watchmaker” argument, which continues to inform ID literature today. I agree with theologians such as Thomas Torrance and Alister McGrath that this rationalistic approach to natural theology quickly becomes incoherent. As Torrance writes in Reality & Evangelical Theology: The Realism of Christian Revelation :

The old approach regarded natural theology as supplying a ‘preamble to faith,’ an independent conceptual system antecedent to actual knowledge of God, but that is to separate form from content and method from subject matter and cannot but have the effect of distorting our knowledge of God by forcing it into inapposite or misleading forms of thought. . . . As such [natural theology] cannot stand on its own feet as an independent conceptual or logical structure detached from the material content of our actual knowledge of God, although it is certainly open to conceptual or logical analysis.

In my view, we must do this kind of “chastened” natural theology from a self-consciously and irreducibly theological standpoint that ultimately cannot be fully appreciated without the gracious prior work of the Spirit. This is an act of proclamation that simply cannot be undertaken in the pluralistic setting of a public school classroom. Indeed, why would we want to compromise our holistic and comprehensive understanding of God as “creator” in order to accommodate the Byzantine peculiarities of 21st century American constitutional jurisprudence?

Ours is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the I Am who spoke all creation into existence, the Triune Godhead who extended His perichoretic love to create and fellowship with that which is other than Himself, who in the person of the eternal Logos was present before the foundation of the world, in whom all things hold together and by whom all things will be made new. Should we diminish this God by suggesting that what He has done might just as well have been accomplished by some human-like alien “intelligence?” Isn’t this a strategy of denying Christ to appease Caesar?

Some resources on natural theology:

1. One highly influential establishment clause test was announced by the Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman, which requires that: “First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion . . . ; finally, the statute must not foster ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion.’” In recent cases, such as Agostini v. Felton, the Court seems to have collapsed the “purpose” and “entanglement” prongs of Lemon test into the “primary effect” prong. In yet other recent cases, such as Van Orden v. Perry, at least some of the Justices have questioned whether the Lemon test applies in every circumstance. Despite this significant ambiguity in the law, it remains clear that the establishment clause does not bar all interaction between government and religion.


David Opderbeck is Professor of Law and Director of the Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology at Seton Hall University Law School. He is also working on a Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham and is Pastoral Science Scholar with the Center for Pastoral Science.

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Dave W - #1483

December 31st 2009

Some days I think ID is science and some days I think ID is not science, especially the conclusion to design.  However, I think that we need to take what the ID people write seriously while many of us will ignore their conclusion to design. 

I find books like “No Free Lunch” unconvincing whereas “Signature in the Cell” or Behe’s books provide things to think about.  Even if Behe’s thesis ends up being failed science, IMO they are still worthwhile and probably will push scientists to study certain things that might otherwise have been ignored.  As critiques both are useful to my mind and critiques have an important role to play in relationship to science.


Naturallawyer - #1606

January 4th 2010

(1) ID science can imply a designer and still be compatible with atheism.  It is possible that life as we know it was designed by a physical being (say, aliens, as atheist Richard Dawkins has suggested is a possibility).  ID doesn’t prove that any non-physical being exists, nor could it.  All it does is question the Darwinian assumptions.  I can understand why that would be threatening to some people, but if there are two ways to interpret physical evidence, why shield students from one of the possible interpretations?  Hardly seems scientific to rule out one of the possibilities before even beginning a scientific inquiry. 

(2) Teaching ID shouldn’t be about evangelism.  If it’s a “pre-evangelism” for some religious people, that’s fine for them, but it shouldn’t be the basis for ID.  ID is more useful for simply questioning the unexamined assumptions of the current educational regime (something long overdue).  ID science is ID science no matter how people decide to use it.  Should we stop teaching physics because some people will use it to make bombs? 
con’t


Naturallawyer - #1607

January 4th 2010

(3)  A more fundamental point about natural theology is that even if people deny the existence of God, to their own destruction, nevertheless everyone knows that good is to be done and evil is to be avoided.  Take it a step further; everyone knows that simple murder is wrong.  Everyone also has knowledge that he/she has broken the rules at some point and has therefore incurred guilt.  (What the person does with this knowledge will be interesting to observe.)  It is easier to work from these natural truths back to God than it is to argue that all men inherently know all about God at the outset.  This is what C.S. Lewis sought to accomplish in Mere Christianity.


David Opderbeck - #1653

January 4th 2010

Naturallawyer—I’m not sure “everyone” knows simple murder is wrong.  There are cultures in which things we would call “murder”—e.g. tribal honor killings—are taken as morally justifiable and required.  But I agree that in general “murder” is understood by almost everyone almost everywhere to be wrong.

Here, I think the argument from moral sense is a good one so long as what we’re doing is showing that the Christian narrative is generally coherent with reality as we experience it.  What we don’t want to do, I think, is say:  “aha, the moral sense requires explanation that ‘science’ can’t provide, so there is a gap that must be filled by God!”  In fact, ‘science’ might be able to tell us quite a bit about the evolutionary origins of “moral” sensibilities.  Rather than a “problem” because now “God” is left with even less to do, this can fit into a natural theology that sees coherence between “ordinary” nature and deeper levels of the created order, such as the moral law.


Naturallawyer - #1668

January 4th 2010

David said: “There are cultures in which things we would call “murder”—e.g. tribal honor killings—are taken as morally justifiable and required.”

The idea of “things which we would call ‘murder’” is different than “simple murder.”  Even the tribal cultures would claim that murder is wrong.  They just claim that “that tribe over there, those aren’t people,” or “a killing in the name of honor or mercy is not murder.”  These actually sound suspiciously like certain justifications for killings in our own American culture.  And yet we all know murder is wrong; we just play around with “exceptions,” and every bit as much as tribal cultures do.  Disagreements about what constitutes murder does not invalidate that we all know murder is wrong. 

Two lawyers can agree with a legal principle (say, the First Amendment freedom of speech) but disagree with its application (like whether flag burning is covered by the freedom of speech).  If these two lawyers disagree about the application of the principle in a certain case, can we claim that one of them doesn’t know that freedom of speech is recognized in law?  Your conclusion from the tribal example does not follow.
con’t


Naturallawyer - #1669

January 4th 2010

(continuing)
What science cannot do, and will not ever be able to do, is build a bridge from “is” to “ought.”  No “ought” follows from an “is” (ironically, this fact is actually frequently cited by atheists as a criticism of natural law theory).  Science is about “is.”  “Ought” is a non-physical idea.  Science may provide evolutionary reasons and theories for human motivations for accepting an “ought,” but they will find no physical evidence of the idea itself. 

I don’t think the focus here need be that Christianity is consistent with our experience of morality.  We are perfectly justified in arguing that scientific naturalism is inconsistent with it, at least in terms of the reality of moral obligation.  One may abandon morality entirely to go with scientific naturalism, but I do not believe one can believe in a real, true metaphysical “ought” and retain a naturalistic worldview.  Whether that leads to or is consistent with Christianity is a completely different question.


Ron Krumpos - #5488

February 27th 2010

There are three excellent books related to this topic, written by contemporary scientists who are also deeply religious. Intelligent design need not mean creationism; evolution need not mean lack of intelligence.

“The Language of God,” by Francis S. Collins (Free Press/Simon & Schuster 2006). Dr Collins was head-Human Genome Project. He believes that faith in God and science can co-exist and be harmonious.

“Let There be Light,” by Howard Smith (New World Library 2006). Dr. Smith is a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center. He explains how modern study of the cosmos complements the Kabbalah.

“Intelligence in Nature,” by Jeremy Narby (Jeremy P. Thatcher/Penguin 2005). Dr. Narby has a doctorate in anthropology. He makes a reasoned connection between shamanistic beliefs and modern science.


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