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Intelligent Design and Faith

An interesting discussion broke out in the comments to this post on The Panda’s Thumb, regarding the nature of faith and how intelligent design relates to faith. On the one hand we have some who hold that anything that provides evidence for God works contrary to faith, i.e. the purest faith is based on no evidence whatsoever. On the other we have the claim that faith is largely trust rather than belief, and thus that the issue is irrelevant.

I’ve written a number of posts on theological problems with intelligent design (ID), and I have tried to stay general for the most part. What are the theological problems with ID that would be recognized by most theologians? What are the hidden problems, if any, that would be of concern to a variety of Christians? I recognize that there are very few things one can criticize in theology without reference to a particular theology, but I have tried to address the broadest base possible.

In this post, however, I’m speaking directly from my own theology, which is moderate to liberal Christian. To anchor the discussion, what does that mean? Well, I’m a Christian believer who accepts such central doctrines of Christianity as the incarnation and the Trinity. I can say the apostles creed without crossing my fingers, but I’m not rigid on the details of interpretation. When I say “I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth” I see myself in fellowship with a range of beliefs about how God accomplished this creation. When I say that Jesus was crucified, dead, buried, and rose the third day, I’m not extremely tense about just how one believes that accomplishes salvation.

Hidden in that short statement is the idea that I accept the possibility of divine intervention in the physical universe. While “Trinity” may be seen as language for us limited mortals to use in talking about God, a reality that would probably be shocking if we could actually come to comprehend it, “incarnation” involves intervention. God, in some way, becomes more part of his creation in this one person than at any other time or place. My observation is that in most miracle claims the issue is communication, rather than an alteration of reality. In other words, I don’t believe that God intervenes generally to do things all the way from emptying parking places for people to eliminating or preventing the results of a madman like Adolph Hitler. (I’ve addressed the issue of why this would be so briefly in my book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Confessions of a Liberal Charismatic. I’ve also discussed the notion of miracles more extensively in my series of essays on the Hand of God, part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

The key element here is that God created a universe that is functional, and that God lets that universe function according to consistent, observable rules as much as possible. I think at a minimum we can observe that God doesn’t intervene on a constant and regular basis in our daily lives. If God behaved in that way, one could get much clearer results from all these “prayer studies.” If God consistently altered the general chain of cause and effect for believers, all you would have to do would be to separate a group of believers from a group of non-believers (including those who believe differently than your target group), and watch what God does. While there may be statistical arguments about God’s intervention based on studies of prayer at a distance, unknown to those who are prayed for, those are marginal numbers. No study suggests that every Christian in the group, for example, is healed, or that everyone prayed for by a Christian is healed.

I’m not saying here that nobody is healed as a result of prayer–I’m remaining agnostic on that point for purposes of this essay. What I think the evidence demonstrates quite clearly is that there is no regular, predictable form of intervention going on. This can be a critical point. I know of quite a number of people who believe that if a believer prays for something and has faith, that thing will happen. This is especially asserted in terms of healing. The excuses, of course, are always with us. If someone is not healed, someone didn’t pray with enough faith. Some would say that if a group prays for someone’s healing and one person in the group lacks faith, then the healing won’t take place. As a result, it’s hard to present airtight counterexamples. But if you look at the general picture, there are many people praying and believing, and relatively few people getting better. The data certainly counterindicates a consistently favorable result.

Notice that I have stayed away from the word “proof.” People will quite commonly ask whether I can prove that God exists. No I can’t. I also cannot prove quite a number of things that would seem much easier to prove. The key point in dealing with such questions is to look at the evidence and try to work with the best explanation that you have available. Scientists, in general, understand this point in their own fields. Many Christians still try to attain to absolute certainties in theology. Now a theological proposition can be “proven” but only logically within its set of assumptions. In general when a non-philosopher calls something “proven” he doesn’t mean “derived from premises through valid logic.” He means “is consistent with reality, and you can show me.” (I’ll skip the philosophical terms.)

I’m taking some time to get back to ID, but I think we have to examine just what we mean by miracles and evidence, and then look at how ID fits that picture. As I go through here, hopefully you will see what my own theology consists of, and thus see why I do not regard ID as acceptable within that framework.

There are two poles in the use of the word faith in these discussions, ignoring other categories of meaning such as “a set of religious beliefs.” (I did a brief, very general rundown on this here.) On the one hand there are those who see faith as “believing what you know ain’t so.” On the other there are those who see faith solely as putting your trust in God, in whom you believe because of evidence. The first group will often see evidence for one’s faith as somehow making the faith less pure. The second group is certain that you’re supposed to follow the best evidence you can find, and believing that, and/or putting your trust in that, is “faith.”

In scripture, you will see a range of meanings for faith, again only dealing with “belief/trust related faith.” Rather than having a single point of meaning, faith has a fairly large semantic range. I’m going to skip over the various Greek and Hebrew words used. I believe what I’m saying is consistent with those words, and I can discuss that at some other time. Right now I’m simply going to list some faith instances in the Bible, and proceed from there.

  1. Noah at the time of the flood (Genesis 6-8).
    Noah would have had no knowledge of rain and no idea of what could happen, according to the story. He was ordered to build a boat without seeing the flood itself. The evidence he would have would be God speaking to him, though we aren’t told how this was done, or how it was confirmed that God was, in fact, speaking to him. I put this incident on the low-evidence, high belief side. There is also clearly a high degree of trust connected with that belief.
  2. Abraham leaves Ur (Genesis 12).
    According to the story, extreme trust, similarly low evidence. God speaks, Abraham goes.
  3. Moses at the Red Sea (Exodus 14).
    I choose this particular incident of Moses because it illustrates a very different point on the scale. When Moses first moved (Exodus 3) he had much less evidence, though he had some. By this time Moses has repeatedly had his actions confirmed, and is simply going forward on the same basis that has worked for him before. I would call this extremely high evidence (though not proof; he had yet to see waters part), and yet a high degree of trust. Moses presumably knew that what he was depending on–the parting of the sea–did not normally take place. He was trusting God to continue behaving as he had in the past. In Exodus 17:8-16, the Amalekites attack, and we find that Moses can’t depend on God to solve every problem quickly and easily.
  4. Gideon and his signs (Judges 6 & 7).
    Gideon was fairly low faith, high evidence, low trust. He asked for signs all along the way. He is nonetheless commended as a hero of faith (Hebrews 11:32).
  5. Jesus going to the cross.
    Based on the story, Jesus knows what is happening, and how it will come out, so there is a great deal of evidence, from his point of view, and also a high degree of trust.
  6. The disciples after the resurrection (Luke 24 et. al.)
    The various disciples require various levels of evidence before they believe, and if we combine this with John 21, even more evidence before they trust enough to carry on with the mission of Jesus.
  7. Hebrews 11:1-”Faith gives substance to our hopes and convinces us of realities we do not see” (REB).
    This seems, at first glance, to be on the low evidence, high belief side of the equation, and to a certain extent it is. But there are at least two elements of the context that should be considered. First, the major theme of Hebrews is perseverance in the faith (different semantic range here!), in spite of obstacles. “Stick with it until you get there!” is the major message. Second, we have the very examples provided in Hebrews 11 which run the same range I have already presented, from acting with very little evidence, to acting based on quite convincing evidence, but always trusting in God.
  8. James tells us that even the demons believe, and tremble (James 2:19)
    This would be high evidence with no trust. The demons presumably know what is going on in the spiritual realm, but according to James to not have a living faith. Note here that for James a Christian faith involves belief, trust, and acting on them.

Now I need to emphasize that I’m doing my best here to look at the evidence as provided in the story. It is always possible that there was more evidence available, and as someone who does not believe in Biblical inerrancy, I have no need to assume that every story happened just so. But the theology as presented suggests that people can be said to have faith when they put their trust in God irrespective of the amount of evidence they have. Gideon is commended for acting with a great deal of evidence. Abraham is commended for acting with very little evidence as far as we can tell. You have to look at each incident to determine just what the mix is.

Let me illustrate the range again from the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” Toward the end of the movie there is a scene where Indiana is looking over a chasm, and what he has to do is put his foot down in order for a bridge to appear. He does so, and the bridge appears, so the movie doesn’t end right there. That can be used as an example of faith. No bridge (no evidence), he takes a step (leap of faith), the bridge appears. But I’m taking the incident slightly out of context. Indiana has a set of cryptic instructions and he’s made it through several traps based on those. He’s still not 100% in evidence territory. He could be incorrectly interpreting his directions, but he is not without evidence. His instructions have worked up to now. He exercises trust, because he makes the assumption that he has correctly interpreted the directions, and also that he directions are not intentionally perverse.

So just how does this relate to intelligent design? Let me state the common objection first. Intelligent design looks for places at which God must have intervened in the process of creation. How this is applied depends on who is applying it. For young earth creationists (YEC), this becomes a barrier to what they call macroevolution, in their terms variations that produce a new kind. (Generally YECs will tell you that “kind” and “species” are not the same.) Old earth creationists generally take it as evidence of God’s presence in the process of a continuing creation. Does this in itself tell me anything about their faith? In itself, no. Their dogged pursuit of it suggests to me that they do not find the things that I see in the biological history of the planet as adequate–they need more. I see some problems with that, but it’s more a problem of personal trust.

If God did intervene at various points in the process, then noticing that God intervened in a special way would hardly be a lack of faith; it would simply be an observation of the evidence. Faith and evidence coexist in a variety of measures. On the other hand, an ID advocate who feels his faith threatened if there is no evidence of divine intervention would do well to give serious consideration to the foundation of his faith. ID can become a sort of “evidentiary wish fulfillment,” in which one presumes to discover what one really needs to find. In other words, there are many attitudes toward evidence of ID or the lack of it that would indicate a weak faith, but simply “believing that ID is true” is hardly contrary to faith.

The Bible commends a wide range of actions based on faith, with a wide range of evidence required, and similarly a wide range of levels of trust involved.

So what is my theological problem with ID, other than that I think it simply isn’t so? Well, that’s a fairly large objection! Since it claims to be science, but is largely used as a prop for faith, I think it will have questionable results. Since I believe it is false, and will, over time, become more evidently false, I think it is dangerous to put one’s trust in it. For me, it would be “believing what I know ain’t so,” with a bit of a quibble about the word “know.”

So where do I see faith and evidence? Once I have answered this question I will be able to give my objections to ID based on my own theology. I have always stated that I cannot prove the existence of God. I think the word “prove” is much overused. A better question would be whether I believe the balance of the evidence favors the existence of God, and whether my faith is based on this evidence.

I cannot, within a reasonable amount of space, discuss all of the reasons, but I do believe that the balance of the evidence leads to a form of deism, or perhaps very little farther. What I mean here by “a little farther” is that somewhere around Tillich’s “ground of all being” we have a point that seems quite probable to me. Is it an open and shut case? No. Beyond reasonable doubt? No. Preponderance of the evidence? Yes, I believe so. Most logical arguments for God’s existence lead to this point and no further. Aquinas’s “uncaused cause” seems fairly logical to me, though I don’t find it conclusive. Yet the uncaused cause again leads no farther than “the ground of all being.” Based on this, I would probably be a deist.

Beyond that point, I am relying largely on a combination of spiritual experience and spiritual community. I know a number of Christian apologists who would think I’m not carrying this far enough based on the evidence, but I’ll leave that position to them. My personal faith is probably based on a little more evidence than Abraham would likely have, and my personal trust is light years below his. Oh me of little faith! I suspect that if I heard what I thought was the voice of God telling me to pack up my stuff and move out of my home without knowing where I was going I’d be much more likely to check myself into a mental institution than to actually go do it. That is by way of confession of a lack of faith/trust, not by way of a boast about my own rationality.

Combining these elements, however, I see God’s interaction with the universe as having two elements: 1) The regularity of natural law, and 2) A willingness to communicate with those creatures capable of doing so. There is no evidence of regular divine intervention. Divine intervention is an irregularity, both scripturally and by observation.

ID, suggests divine intervention almost as a regularity. In the view of ID, God creates this system that is a wonderfully powerful engine to produce apparent design (see my series on the book Random Designer), and yet leaves it crippled, so that he has to show his hand at intervals in a special way just to keep it going. That contradicts both the picture in scripture, I believe, and also what we observe in nature. One of the things that impressed me in Michael Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box was they way in which Behe would portray the wonderful progress of science in discovering more and more about how things work, and then would suddenly stop and say, essentially, “We can’t go on from here.”

ID tells us to use a natural method to discover unnatural intervention. That’s why we have so many difficulties with the identity of the intelligent designer. Not only are there political problems, because ID advocates know that if they say that God is the designer, ID will be treated as religion by the courts (though that is happening in any case), but the vast majority of both scientists and theologians are going to have problems if you start trying to study God scientifically.

As I said in response to Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, God isn’t a hypothesis. If you can formulate something as a hypothesis, it isn’t God. By the same token, you cannot provide final proof of God. Unless you can get a sample of the criminal’s fingerprints, you cannot confirm or deny his presence at the crime scene based on fingerprint evidence. You could not go to court saying that we have fingerprints but we don’t know whose they are. Of course that would be silly in a courtroom since the defendant would be right there, and somebody would be bound to check. But ID is looking, in essence, for God’s fingerprint, without any basis on saying what would be God’s fingerprint and what would be someone else’s.

If, instead, they say the intelligent designer might not be God, but might be something else, then they wind up saying essentially nothing. If they really suspect intelligent aliens, they ought to start asking questions such as who, and for what purpose. If you do that, however, you will eliminate God for the possibilities. As soon as you admit him, you go beyond the bounds of science. If you make God part of an equation, either the equation has an infinite range of possible solutions, or you have put limits on God, and you are no longer using God in your equation.

It’s not that ID advocates lack faith that disturbs me. It’s that they are trying to get God into the laboratory and make him just as limited and just as certain as, say, the theory of evolution. There is one thing that is clear regarding all the people of faith I listed (except the demons). They stepped beyond the point to which the evidence would have led an ordinary person. They took at least one more step. Further, they found something in that step in which they could put their trust–a trust in a person, not a concept or the solution to a puzzle.

I see God and “design” in the way the universe works. Why do we have a universe? Why do we have elements? How does this all work? This to me is God’s large miracle, shown in regularity, not in special intervention. ID seems to look for the failure of God’s major miracle in order to prove that he is somehow capable of much smaller ones. It seems similar to someone providing the evidence that there is a large universe filled with stars out there, and someone else saying, “No, let’s look for evidence that there are any stars at all.”

It’s a reduction of God to a level that we can get hold of. And that is a threat both to faith and to trust.

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