'Intelligent Design' is a flawed apologetic

By Bob Carling
December 6, 2010

Is ‘Intelligent Design’ (ID) a good way to promote belief in God? And should ID be taught in UK science lessons? Not according to Michael Reiss, who is Professor of Science Education at London University’s Institute of Education, and who debated one of the USA’s leading proponents of ID, Michael Behe, recently in London. [1]

Behe was on a tour of UK churches and schools, promoting his views on whether ID is a more cogent way of viewing the natural world than ‘Darwinism’.

ID has been ostracised by the scientific community and labelled as ‘creationism’ by another name (or its close cousin), despite denials from ID proponents. But Behe has close links with creationist organisations and is widely quoted and supported by them. Behe, who has himself been disowned by his own employer LeHigh University [2], has therefore largely been preaching to the already converted during his tour - that is, to those who are already ill disposed towards the new atheists [3] and who see in ID a useful way to defend God (an ‘apologetic’).

He has probably not convinced those who have over the last few decades developed a robust theology of the integration of science and faith. [4] ‘Theistic evolution’ (TE), as it is often called, is deeply embedded in evangelical theology and cannot be lightly dismissed as ‘liberal’ or ‘unbiblical’. To be sure, TE is not without its own theological problems, but it is unlikely to be overthrown by ID any time soon.

Behe’s central claim is that because nature ‘reeks’ of design, and that because Darwinism purports to explain the appearance of design in nature (and that, according to him, this is questionable) – and since Darwinism is taught as science, intelligent design should be so taught. A sequence of non-sequiturs? Behe’s claim that nature reeks of design is surely offset theologically by the cruelty of nature, as was struggled with by Tennyson in the 19th century:

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed

Indeed, Tennyson’s struggle, written as a requiem for a friend who died suddenly, is surely made even worse by the theological implications of ID. Did God intelligently design the natural world with all its pain? [6] This is a stumbling block to those who might feel that ID is a useful platform on which to build an apologetic.

There are also many scientists who are theists around the world who are thoroughly convinced by the cogency of Darwin’s thesis to explain the appearance of design in nature and are unconvinced that ID has any scientific mileage. [7] During the debate, Behe claimed that ID is akin to the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, i.e. controversial when first put forward but now largely accepted by the scientific fraternity. But, as pointed [out]by several at the debate, and many writers online and in print, there is a world of difference between ID and science. To compare ID theorists with big-bang cosmologists is akin to comparing alternative medicine with evidence-based medicine.

Much more could be said about the storm of controversy that Behe and others in the ID movement have caused but that need not concern us here. [8] What is interesting is the use of ID by some Christians as a way of fighting the new atheists. But does it work? Not all were convinced by Behe at the debate. [9]

Although often denied by ID proponents, ID is essentially a sophisticated way of saying ‘we don’t know’ and therefore the gaps in our knowledge have to be filled with ‘intelligent design’ or ‘irreducible complexity’. There are many problems with this approach, not least theologically: it is a classic ‘god of the gaps’ argument, where God is invoked as a causal plug in the gaps where science cannot yet explain things. In fact ID reduces belief in God rather than increases it – relegating it to only those parts where science cannot explain things. But, as pointed out by Charles Coulson many years ago, “If [God] is in nature at all, He must be there right from the start, and all the way through it”. [10,11]

So where does ID fit in the theological debates about evolution and creation, especially in the UK? There was some interesting research conducted in Australia recently about the acceptance of evolution amongst Christians, comparing different countries of the world. [12] Those surveyed in the UK came out as those that most accepted the evidence for evolution, especially as compared with the USA where Behe is based. Why might this be?

First, there is a fundamental difference in the context of science teaching. In the USA, there is a historical separation of the state and religion, where religious-based schools have a vested interest in promoting religion – hence the much more politically charged debate about ID in schools than elsewhere.

Second, in the UK there has been a higher sense of courteous debate, where, despite the animosity sometimes engendered between Christians (let alone among secular biologists [13]), there has often been polite agreement to disagree. This probably has some historical roots deep within the British psyche, as illustrated by Charles Darwin himself, who was such a likeable man. He expressed his agnosticism honourably and that was largely understood and deeply respected. He also detested the way in which his scientific theory of evolution was used by those with a political agenda or who used it to attack religion.

Third, in the UK there has been a greater influence of ‘theistic evolutionists’ – people like Oliver Barclay, Denis Alexander, Robert S. White, R.J. (Sam) Berry, Simon Conway Morris and John Polkinghorne – and, going back a little in time, those such as Donald Mackay, R.E.D. Clark and of course Charles A. Coulson.

Although there is a creationist movement here in the UK, this has largely been sidestepped by scientists and theologians; ‘theistic evolution’, that God was intimately involved in creation by evolution, has much greater purchase in the UK. Even if this causes the nagging problem of ‘theodicy’ (why did God create like that, with ‘nature red in tooth and claw’?), in many minds Darwin’s theory of the origin of species has less problems inherent in it than ID.

However, all of this may be changing in the UK, with the increasing influence of neo-creationists, particularly on evangelical Christians, for example the Oxford Mathematician John Lennox, author of God’s Undertaker [14] and the philosopher Peter Williams, author of The Case for God [15]. Despite these and others, there has been a distinctly cool reception to ID in the UK by Christians who are scientists [16], with the membership of the main scientific organisation Christians in Science [17] being largely anti-ID.

But ID has recently acquired a boost in the UK, with the recent establishment of the Centre for Intelligent Design in Scotland [18] – which was instrumental in inviting Michael Behe to tour here. [19]

Unlike the new atheists, who largely refuse to debate ID proponents and creationists, [20] there is in the UK an appetite for open debate between theistic evolutionists and supporters of ID – hence the debate between Behe and Reiss last week. But there may be an increasing reluctance for this debate to continue meaningfully if the demand from some IDists for the controversy to be taught does not take into account that many see it as pseudo-science.

The rallying cry is “teach the controversy” but if the teaching of this controversy were to include a large element of debunking of ID’s claims, I suspect ID proponents will quickly withdraw from dialogue. [21]


[1] A debate between Michael Behe and Michael Reiss, hosted by Premier Radio, Charles Darwin House, Monday 22/11/2010.
[2] LeHigh’s website says “Prof. Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of "intelligent design." While we respect Prof. Behe's right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.” Department Position on Evolution and "Intelligent Design".
[3] A term coined to denote those such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Peter Atkins, Christopher Hichens and others. See Tina Beattie (2007), The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd.
[4] This largely based on ‘critical realism’ and is best represented by the organisation Christians in Science.
[5] From In Memoriam.
[6] Darwin himself struggled with this. For example, as David Hull puts it: "What kind of God can one infer from the sort of phenomena epitomised by the species on Darwin's Galápagos Islands? The evolutionary process is rife with happenstance, contingency, incredible waste, death, pain and horror ... to quote Darwin, `I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars' ... The God of the Galápagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical. He is certainly not the sort of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray." David L. Hull (8 August 1991) "The God of the Galápagos" (review of Philip Johnson's book Darwin on Trial), Nature 352:485 6.
[7] This is also true historically – the reception of Darwin’s theory of evolution by the 19th century intelligentsia was not as ‘anti’ as myth has it: see e.g. David N. Livingstone (1987), Darwin's Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans.
[8] See more on the debate between the theistic evolutionist Denis Alexander and the ID proponent Peter Williams via Peter Williams’ blog. http://idpluspeterswilliams.blogspot.com/2009_02_01_archive.html
[9] See “The futility of Intelligent Design: Michael Behe's defence of Intelligent Design theory is no more convincing when it's made in person” on Andrew Brown’s blog (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/andrewbrown/2010/nov/23/religion...) on The Guardian website (and see Michael Behe’s brief reply (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/nov/29/religion-evol...) “Finding design in nature: Although we may not know the details of how living things are assembled, it is clear to me that they are designed”).
[10] Coulson, C. A. (1955), Science and Religion: A Changing Relationship, p.9, CUP.
[11] Coulson also said “I believe that the limits of science are only those which are presented by the following words: if a question about nature can be posed in scientific terms, then ultimately it will be susceptible of a scientific answer. Science does not lead us through its own country to the boundary of the scientifically unknown, explaining to us that this is where we have to deal with God. When we come to the scientifically unknown, our correct policy is not to rejoice because we have found God: it is to become better scientists.” Coulson, C. A. (1955), Science and Religion: A Changing Relationship, p.7, CUP.
[12] David P. Wilson (2010), European Christians are at the forefront in accepting evolution: results from an internet-based survey. Evolution & Development 12:6, 537–540.
[13] See Andrew Brown (1999) The Darwin Wars: How Stupid Genes Became Selfish Gods, Simon & Schuster.
[14] Published by Lion (2007).
[15] Published by Monarch (1999).
[16] See for example: Denis Alexander “Is Intelligent Design Biblical?” via the Christians in Science website and his review of The Design Revolution, by Michael Behe which appeared in Christianity & Renewal, October 2004, p. 70 and is reproduced on The Uncommon Descent blog with comments from another leading proponent of ID, William Dembski.
[17] http://www.cis.org.uk
[18] http://c4id.org.uk/
[19] http://www.darwinordesign.org.uk/
[20] “The reason why Dawkins and many others refuse to share a platform with IDers and Creationists, it is not, as claimed by Brierley [the host of the Premier Radio debate] and Behe any philosophical, religious or a priori decision but it is a decision, based on the available evidence, that ID is pseudo science. Behe wants the public to perceive him as a scientific heretic treated with unfair prejudice.” British Centre for Science Education, http://bcseweb.blogspot.com/
[21] As one person put it while discussing Andrew Brown’s piece about the debate: “ID has not a single 'argument' of it's own. All it does is attempt to show that science is wrong or lacking.” See ref. 9.


Also on Ekklesia: 'Theology, Science and the Problem of ID' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/6707


© Bob Carling is a zoologist/pharmacologist with 30 years' experience in science and medical publishing. He is a writer and speaker on ‘science in society’, philosophy/theology of science, and environmental ethics. Dr Carling advises Ekklesia on science-related issues (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/BobCarling). His LinkedIn page can be found here: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/bcarling

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