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A Triumph for Religion as Well as Science

by Brian W. Ogilvie on Dec 26, 2005

Brian W. Ogilvie

Federal Judge John E. Jones III’s December 20th verdict in Kitzmiller v. Dover that Intelligent Design is thinly-disguised creationism, and thus cannot be taught in public high schools, is a triumph for science and for the separation of church and state. But Christians should see it as a triumph for religion, too.

Supporters of Intelligent Design do not do science as it’s done today: designing experiments, collecting data, and submitting papers to peer-reviewed journals. They could try to do that. But if they’re serious about their faith, they should have second thoughts. Christians troubled by evolution should not seek solace in Intelligent Design. Why not? Because Christianity is weakened, not strengthened, when it appeals to bad science.

Design arguments once had a respected place in science, though even then, they were motivated by a religious response to the threat of materialism. Seventeenth-century scientists like Galileo Galilei and Rene Descartes argued that the universe was made of particles of matter in constant motion. The daring Descartes claimed that a primal chaos would sort itself out into the cosmos we see now, with stars, planets, plants, and animals. In short, matter was self-organizing except for the human soul, which came from God.

Descartes knew that this idea contradicted the Genesis account of creation, so he posed it as a hypothesis: God, he said, did create the world in six days. But if He had not done so, it would have created itself identically.

Descartes offered an evolutionary theory of the universe, and like biological evolution today, his theory was hotly debated. Many of his followers, like modern Christians who accept evolution, saw no conflict between their science and Christianity. But other scientists, like Robert Boyle, were not so sure: they thought that Descartes’s theory promoted atheism. These opponents of Descartes accepted that the world was made of particles in motion, but they denied that matter could organize itself. Like modern opponents of evolution, Boyle feared the moral and social consequences of such radical materialism.

Boyle and his contemporaries revived the ancient tradition of natural theology, the quest for evidence of design in the natural world. They found their evidence in anatomy. In his 1691 book “The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation,” the naturalist John Ray explained that intricate contrivances like the eye or the hand could not have arisen by chance. Instead, they were designed. And their perfection displays the wisdom and benevolence of the Designer.

Intelligent Design proponents today are coy about wisdom, benevolence, and perfection in their supposedly scientific publications. But like John Ray, they seek design that natural science cannot currently explain.

For a time, natural theology triumphed, because no scientist had found a convincing natural explanation for the fit between creatures and their world. But skeptics like the Scottish philosopher David Hume pointed out that the world’s design was far from perfect. Meanwhile, design arguments had little effect on how science was actually done. And as naturalists continued to catalogue the worlds organisms, it became evident that they were related to one another.

Evolutionary theories had been proposed for decades before Darwin published “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” in 1859. But none had explained convincingly the apparent design in the world. Darwin’s theory did just that, thereby undercutting natural theology’s best arguments and paving the way to the broad scientific acceptance of evolution.

Natural theology had identified design as the best proof for God’s existence. It had an optimistic view of design: this was the best of all possible worlds, the human eye the best of all possible eyes. This argument glossed over some obvious problems. Why do some people get cataracts? Why do our eyes have a blind spot where the optic nerve plunges through the retina? To natural theology, which argued that the Designer is perfect, just, and all-powerful, these flaws were embarrassing. Even before Darwin, they opened up natural theology, and the Christianity it supported, to skeptical attacks.

Darwin explained adaptation, apparent design, as the imperfect result of natural processes, of random genetic variation passed through the sieve of natural selection. To a Darwinian, anatomical flaws arise simply because natural selection selects merely what is good enough for survival. Indeed, many Christians find that evolution helps them reconcile their belief that God is perfect with the evidence of this messy, imperfect world.

Intelligent Design responds to Darwinian evolution the same way that natural theology responded to Descartes’s materialism: by desperately seeking evidence of immaterial processes at work in the world. Though it draws on the new sciences of molecular biology and information theory, its goal is to turn back the clock to the days of natural theology. But the clock cant be turned back.

The seventeenth-century debate between materialism and natural theology was a debate within the scientific community of the day. Within the modern scientific community, there is no debate; biologists disagree on the precise mechanisms of evolution, but virtually all of them agree that evolution has occurred.

If, by chance, Intelligent Design develops a real scientific research program and identifies biological adaptations that evolution cannot explain, scientists will not become modern-day natural theologians in droves. Instead, theyll start seeking a better natural explanation. If Intelligent Design is a real science, its proponents should welcome this possibility. If they shudder at the thought, they should stop cheapening their religious beliefs by trying to pass them off as science.

Long ago, Saint Augustine warned Christians that spouting falsehoods about science would only make their faith seem ridiculous. Intelligent Design proves him right.

Brian W. Ogilvie teaches the history of science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is a writer for the History News Service.