A BioLogos Response to William Dembski, Part 2
Note: This essay is a response to William Dembski in the Southern Baptist Voices series, a dialogue between Southern Baptist seminarians and representatives of BioLogos. For a more complete description of the project’s history and aims, please see our introduction here.
In his essay Dr. Dembski laid out a list of “non-negotiables” of both Christianity and Darwinism. He discussed the tensions between the two lists and explained his belief that Darwinism undercuts Christianity. In Part 1 of his response, Biologos president Darrel Falk addressed the topic of divine action in creation, in which both natural and supernatural processes are a result of God’s continuous activity in our world.
Here in Part 2, Darrel responds to Dembski’s lists of non-negotiables, presenting his personal perspective on how BioLogos is different from “Darwinism”.
Is Darwinism Theologically Neutral?
With the first part of my essay as background, I now respond directly to Dembski’s analysis of “Darwinism” and how BioLogos differs from the view he critiques. He begins by posing a question, “Is Darwinism theologically neutral?” He goes on to describe two contrasting views:
- Those of the agnostic philosopher, Michael Ruse, who claims Christianity and Darwinian evolution are compatible and,
- Those of individuals who hold a young earth view and claim Christianity and Darwinian evolution are incompatible.
Dembski suggests that Ruse, in order to claim compatibility (neutrality), redefines Christianity. I agree he does this. Without belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, Christianity is dead and, as Paul says, Christians are of all people most to pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:19).
Dembski also states that a belief in common descent can be consistent with Christian faith (i.e. neutral), and here I agree with Dembski again. As he points out, Christianity is not defined by the mechanism that God chose to use in accomplishing his purposes in creation.
So far we are on exactly the same page. Ruse claims Darwinism is neutral, but only by departing from Christian theology. Some young earth creationists claim Darwinism is not neutral, but they focus on common descent and this, by itself, does not depart from Christian theology. However, as Dembski quickly notes at that point in his essay, he has not yet carefully defined Darwinism and Christianity. He goes on to describe what he considers to be some non-negotiables of each.
Dembski suggests that among the core non-negotiable principle beliefs of Christianity are: (a) divine creation, (b) reflected glory, (c) human exceptionalism, and (d) bodily resurrection of Jesus. I agree that these are non-negotiables; take away any of these beliefs and you no longer have Christianity. We’re still on the same page.
What about non-negotiables of “Darwinism?” They are, he says, (a) common descent, (b) natural selection, (c) human continuity, (d) methodological naturalism. With that, he proceeds to analyze each.
Common descent, which today is at the core of the biological sciences, was a fundamental tenet for Darwin. Dembski sees no significant theological problem with common descent. “By themselves [the Christian non-negotiables described above] allow that God might have specially created living forms or brought them about via an evolutionary process,” he writes. He sees no theological conflict with this Darwinian tenet, even though he does not subscribe to it.
Dembski indicates that natural selection, as defined by Darwin, is in tension with two of the four Christian non-negotiables—divine creation and reflected glory. His primary concern is that Darwin’s view of natural selection is non-teleological. Insomuch as this is true (and Darwin’s views on teleology are complex and contested), I agree. If Darwin’s non-teleological views were correct, this would be incompatible with some of the non-negotiables in Christianity. As Dembski says, “to say that something is undetectable is not to say that it doesn’t exist....” I concur that Darwin had no scientific basis for concluding that the evolutionary process did not end up exactly the way that God intended in the beginning. If Darwin reached non-teleological conclusions on the basis of his data then he allowed his philosophical and theological commitments to influence his conclusions. Like Dembski, I believe God did call our existence into being; there is a teleological basis for our presence on earth. We are by no means an accident and to the extent that Darwin thought we are, he was wrong.
So far, I see no significant difference between BioLogos and the non-negotiables presented by Dembski. Intriguingly, however, Dembski goes on to state, “it seems odd, given C1—[divine creation], that God would create by Darwinian processes, which suggest that unguided forces can do all the work necessary for biological evolution.” Here we part company. As indicated in my introductory comments above, I believe that the natural activity of God is not less divine than the supernatural activity of God, something borne out by the Scriptures themselves. This does not mean that I think that no supernatural activity occurred in life’s history; I just don’t see why it would be “odd” if God chose to create life’s diversity through his natural activity. How would we know what is odd as it relates to the activity of God? The only reliable source of what is odd and what is not is God’s revelation through his Word. But I see no scripturally-based rationale for determining the expected ratio of natural vs. supernatural divine activity in creation. Scripture is silent on the issue and so far at least, science is as well—other than demonstrating that many biological features and mechanisms previously thought by some to be evidence of supernatural action can now be explained via God’s regular activity—that associated with his natural laws. For the present, I think it is best to withhold judgment about the extent to which God suspends his ongoing regular activity in favor of miraculous supernatural activity in the history of the creating life’s diversity.
I now come to the most fundamental point of disagreement between the Intelligent Design movement and BioLogos. Dembski states:
Given that science is widely regarded as our most reliable universal form of knowledge, the failure of science to provide evidence of God, and in particular Darwin’s exclusion of design from biological origins, undercuts C2 [reflected glory].
Furthermore, he also writes:
If God does occlude his purposeful activity in nature, that raises a tension with (C2), which states that the world clearly reflects God’s glory (Psalm 19) and that this fact should be evident to all humanity (Romans 1).
I don’t think that God occludes or masks his activity. Thanks in no small part to science, we now recognize that there are “signposts” (C.S. Lewis’s term) all over the place directing our attention to the existence of our Creator. The question is whether those “signposts” can be developed into scientific hypotheses that can be scientifically tested in a manner that parallels how one goes about testing the hypothesis that smoking causes cancer or that DNA is the genetic material. The heavens do declare the glory of God (Psalm 19), and, “ever since the creation of the world, his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Romans 1:20). God has not occluded his activity. It is all around us. From the birth of a baby to the birth of a star; from a universe which is mathematically coherent to one which is exquisitely fine-tuned; from our sense of shame to our ability to recognize the good and the right—from all of these and so much more, we see signposts all pointing to our Creator. Individually each hints at something beyond ourselves. Together they shout out with the message of God’s glory. Still, can they be tested scientifically—in a manner that parallels whether penicillin kills bacteria or the mitochondrion is the cell’s energy factory—to determine whether God is at work in them? Can intelligent people who choose not to believe come up with feasible alternative explanations that do not include God? Sure, they do it all the time and, as Romans 1 tells us, they have been doing it from the beginning of human existence.
Given the way that God has worked through his regular natural activity, why should we expect to be able to develop a test for the activity of God? God is always active, but scientific testing of God’s activity would require a “control” where God is not active. How can we conduct an experiment which studies the “presence vs. absence of God” when God is always present as sustainer as well as creator?
Dembski quotes from Darwin’s Descent of Man:
The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind. We have seen that the senses and intuitions, the various emotions and faculties, such as love, memory, attention, curiosity, imitation, reason, etc., of which man boasts, may be found in an incipient, or even sometimes in a well-developed condition, in the lower animals.
Even if all that Darwin says here were more or less true, it would still say nothing about that which makes humans truly exceptional, because—our linguistic and cognitive abilities aside—what makes us truly exceptional has less to do with biology than with the fact that God chose to enter into a unique relationship with humankind. Dembski paraphrases an ideologically strict Darwinian view of man as "not worthy of special divine attention, and with no prerogatives above the rest of the animal world." But Christians recognize that our material ordinariness is radically transformed by the presence and promises of God. Exactly as with the people of Israel among the nations, so humans among the animals: our special identity rests in the free choice of the Creator to give us his himself and his name. If we recognize that human specialness rests on God’s fellowship with and call upon us, and that we—alone of all creatures—are enabled by God to bear his image in the world, then anything Darwin said about the physical continuity between humans and animals is irrelevant. In the way that matters most, we are not continuous with animals. For philosophical and theological reasons, Darwin did not recognize this. Darwin, I believe, was wrong. I, like Dembski and like Southern Baptists in general, am not a Darwinist.
Dembski defines methodological naturalism in the following way:
The physical world, for purposes of scientific inquiry, may be assumed to operate by unbroken natural law.
He goes on from there to write that if one assumes that miracles were performed in salvation history, then it would seem to be arbitrary to assume that God would not also perform miracles in natural history as well. Although I do not rule out the occurrence of miracles in natural history, the purpose of miracles in the biblical narrative seems to stem from God’s desire to reveal himself to humankind, reminding us of and guiding us in our relationship with him and each other. Given that, I do not see why it is arbitrary to think that God may not have used miracles to accomplish his purposes in nature before humans were around to observe them.
However, I strongly disagree with Dembski that if one believes God has worked primarily through natural processes in creation as a whole, this makes belief in the resurrection less tenable. The two ought not to be tied together in this way, especially since I have already stated that I reject the notion that the ordinary and regular processes of creation are any less God’s—than what I have called supernatural processes. One’s conclusion about the mechanism of creation has no logical extension to one’s views about the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
In conclusion, I think Dembski takes some steps that are both theologically unnecessary and scientifically unjustified in rejecting what careful study tells us about God’s marvelously ordinary processes of creation: ordinary because they follow his natural laws so faithfully, marvelous because they have resulted in a world of complex and beautiful life. On the other hand, I agree with Dembksi that Darwin’s views were not theologically neutral. Darwin’s views on teleology, human exceptionalism, and miracles were not compatible with Christianity. Quite simply, this is why I do not consider my views to be Darwinian and why I am not a Darwinist.
For further reading:
The BioLogos website offers many resources to acquaint readers with the incredibly strong scientific evidence for common descent and other facets of evolutionary biology.See Understanding Evolution: An Introduction to Population and Speciation, by Dennis Venema (note the link to other articles in this series on the right hand sidebar), and Evidences for Evolution, by David Kerk. Also, for three very fine podcasts, consider viewing these posts by Kelsey Luoma.
Darrel Falk is former president of The BioLogos Foundation. He transitioned into Christian higher education 25 years ago and has given numerous talks about the relationship between science and faith at many universities and seminaries. He is the author of Coming to Peace with Science.