Science and the Bible: Intelligent Design, Part 1

| By Ted Davis on Reading the Book of Nature

Old French Bible moralisée (c. 1208-15), Codex Vindobonensis 2554, fol. lv ,Österreichische Nationalbibliothek. (Source)

What’s in a name?

According to Merriam Webster, the term “intelligent design” has been used since at least 1847, in reference to “the theory that matter, the various forms of life, and the world were created by a designing intelligence.” That’s a decent definition, also consistent with those offered by today’s proponents of intelligent design (ID). For example, the leading ID think tank, The Discovery Institute (Seattle), has this:

Intelligent design refers to a scientific research program as well as a community of scientists, philosophers and other scholars who seek evidence of design in nature. The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.

And in the opening sentence of a book he edited with philosopher Michael Ruse, ID theorist William Dembski said, “Intelligent Design is the hypothesis that in order to explain life it is necessary to suppose the action of an unevolved intelligence.” (Debating Design, p. 3)

On the other hand, while a recent contest on a prominent intelligent design (ID) websiteuncovered several other early uses of the term, it is important to note that it does not always mean exactly the same thing in each reference. The term itself has an interesting history, and while ID authors obviously did not invent the term “intelligent design,” they have given it specific content in recent years. Indeed, they have even removed content in some cases: a point I will return to later is that, though it seems the only viable candidate for such an “unevolved intelligence” is God, ID proponents sometimes seem to do cartwheels to avoid saying as much. When a term has such a complicated past, there simply is no substitute for looking at specific references in their own contexts as we move to seeing how ID plays out today as one of the 5 ways of relating science and the Bible.

Interestingly, many Protestant “modernist” scientists and theologians from William Jennings Bryan’s day (see my previous column) unhesitatingly endorsed the idea that a designing intelligence lay behind nature. At least one such person, Nobel prize-winning physicist Arthur Holly Compton, even used the very term “intelligent design” in an address he gave at a Unitarian church in 1940: “The chance of a world such as ours occurring without intelligent design becomes more and more remote as we learn of its wonders.” (Quoting his pamphlet from 1940, The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge, p. 13. For more about this aspect of Compton’s views, click here.) However, Compton regarded design as a philosophical and theological inference from science, not an explanation within science to be invoked when other explanations fail. He also accepted the common ancestry of humans and other organisms. This is a significant difference from the ID movement today, which offers ID as a scientific alternative to Darwinian evolution and (at least in many cases) seeks to undermine public confidence in common ancestry (even though ID per seis not actually opposed to it).

If any ID proponents are sympathetic to the type of religious modernism that Compton and his friends embraced, I cannot tell you who they are. In a curious, ironic twist, ID is often used by conservative Christian apologists partly to defend a cluster of traditional theological and hermeneutical positions that none of the modernists would have defended. A further irony: the intellectual descendants of the modernists—those scientists and theologians who occupy the left wing of the modern “dialogue” of science and religion—exhibit a studied avoidance of the term “design,” disconnecting them on that score from the modernists of the 1920s.

Many other contemporary writers, including some evangelical TEs, are also reluctant to use the word “design,” precisely because in their view it has been co-opted by ID proponents and they do not want readers to misunderstand their position(s). They may agree with ID proponents that certain features of the universe reflect divine design, but because they do not see design as a scientific explanation they employ other language. (Likewise, the YECs have co-opted the word “creationism” to mean just one specific understanding of God’s creative activity, leading most advocates of other views either to provide their own definitions of the word or else to avoid using it altogether. Politics dogs this conversation at every turn.)

Core Tenets or Assumptions of Intelligent Design

With that bit of historical context for the term “Intelligent Design,” let’s now look at the first of the Core Tenets of this perspective in its current state, and as it is most often used by those associated with the Intelligent Design movement.

(1) The Bible is NOT to be mentioned (at least for now); ditto for “God” and “theology” as far as possible.

This is a deliberate strategy, adopted for political reasons to keep arguments at the level of philosophy and science. Here, “political” refers to the American political system, with its constitutional disestablishment of religion, not to partisan politics. Since the 1980s, federal courts have consistently ruled that “creationism” (which was specifically of the YEC variety in the relevant cases) is sectarian religion, not science, and therefore it cannot be taught in public school science classes. Anxious to avoid a similar fate, proponents of ID always want to ensure that they are not perceived as advocates of “creationism.” The less they mention God and the Bible, the reasoning goes, the less likely they are to fall afoul of those decisions.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, pertaining to the freedom of religion and the freedom of the press. (Source)


Phillip Johnson, the former law professor who effectively began the ID movement some twenty years ago, has put it bluntly: “To put things on a more rational basis, the first thing that has to be done is to get the Bible out of the discussion.” He quickly adds, “This is not to say that the biblical issues are unimportant; the point is rather that the time to address them will be after we have separated materialist prejudice from scientific fact.” (“The Wedge: Breaking the Modernist Monopoly on Science,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, July/August 1999, p. 22.)

If God and the Bible are really to be left out for the time being, then why am I discussing ID in a series on “Science and the Bible”? It’s a fair question. I simply don’t see any way meaningfully to avoid talking about ID apart from the culture wars in which it is embedded (I’ll say more about this in a subsequent column), and the Bible is never far from the surface when the battle being fought involves origins. Conservative Christians sense that ID really is about God—Dembski’s “unevolved intelligence”. As Dembski himself has said, “no intelligent agent who is strictly physical could have presided over the origin of the universe or the origin of life”, and there aren’t a lot of candidates for that job. Many Christians also identify strongly with the ways in which ID seeks to confront the secular establishment, in an explicitly-stated effort to combat what Johnson calls “the modernist scientific and intellectual world, with its materialist assumptions.” (“The Wedge,” p. 23.) They see it as a way of getting traditional theistic perspectives and Christian values back into the academy, once “design” has become an acceptable academic talking point—and it isn’t very far from there to conversations about “science and the Bible.” If this were not so, then why would so much ID literature be published by Christian presses? Indeed, when I tell church audiences with a straight face that ID purports not to be about the Bible at all, I’m usually met with considerable skepticism.

When I’m back in about two weeks, we’ll look at further Core Tenets of ID—the ones that have even less to do with the Bible, explicitly, and more to do with the way we approach the study of the natural world.


About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.


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