Intelligent Design and Religion

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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?


References & Credits

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.

Some resources on natural theology:

About the Author

David Opderbeck

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.

More posts by David Opderbeck