I have frequently commented that intelligent design (ID) is bad theology. Equally often, I am challenged by someone who will point out that ID may be bad theology from my point of view, while it might be good theology from someone else’s point of view. This is a very valid objection to what I have said, though I will defend the basic point. ID could be more correctly termed “theology done badly” than “bad theology.”
Nonetheless, since ID is being supported primarily by Christians, and evangelical Christians at that, it can be quite properly called “bad theology” as well, because it is bad theology within what is supposed to be the theological framework of most of its supporters. If you are wondering why there is a split amongst conservative Christians over ID, it is simply that many conservative Christians are saying either that this does not prove or that it is not even trying to prove anything that actually works within their theology.
In talking to Christian groups, I frequently find people who are shocked that I don’t support ID. “How can you not believe the universe is designed?” they ask. My answer is that I don’t accept ID precisely because I believe that the universe is designed. However it is disguised, however many chapters of mathematical formulas are provided, however many pious statements are made (whenever someone is not trying to pretend this is not theology), ID does not prove, and is not attempting to prove that the universe is designed. It is, in fact, attempting to prove that some elements are more designed than others, i.e. when we deal with specified complexity as a test of design, it means that we distinguish things that could happen randomly, and things that happen by design. Right or wrong, evangelical Christians are generally very uncomfortable with things that happen randomly. They are not looking for Paley’s watch on the seashore to prove that the watch is designed, but rather to prove that everything is designed.
Incidentally, that remains a failing of Paley’s proof for the existence of God. In traditional Christian theology the sea, the seashore, and each grain of sand is a design, and not just the watch, so again we’re distinguishing design from design. Theologians grab hold of such arguments largely because in a scientific age in which objective knowledge is king, they want to have just such scientific facts in hand. They want to replace faith with fact, but do so without giving up theology. The ID theorists envy the scientists their objective data, and their theories that explain major categories of evidence in an elegant way. They want that for themselves, but they don’t want to give up theology and go pursue science in order to do it.
Scientists wonder why ID proponents are so slow to get down to actual research and publication related to their material if they really want ID to be accepted as scientific. Michael Behe has even suggested research, questionable as it may be, that could be done, but nobody is doing it. Why? Because these people are essentially following the processes of theology. They are rearranging the existing ideas and historical data, and constantly wondering why it is that it doesn’t become acceptable science. They can maintain this search despite scientific training because they have become theologically convinced that theological proposals must be able to be as true as, and as demonstrably true as the results of the hard sciences.
This comes simply from a different approach. Most commonly theology, especially Christian theology, focuses on coherence rather than correspondence. (I’m bracing myself for the accusations that I am oversimplifying here. I am. I confess it. But I think that the generalization is adequately valid for my purposes and I don’t want to dig that far into epistemology.) The scientific method, on the other hand, focuses on correspondence. If a theologian finds a misbehaving fact, one that won’t fit into the system, he is first going to look for a way to tuck it into the system. A scientist in the same circumstances will try to adjust the theory, and if that fails, will hope to propose a new one and become famous. This is what the general public seems to miss about science and scientists. Discovering revolutionary new things is something scientists dream of. You don’t get famous by producing more data to support an existing theory; you have to produce something new. Theologians do try to produce something new as well, but most commonly that is a new way of arranging or looking at old data. An entirely new theology can be built without a single piece of hard data being introduced. And need I mention inventing data, something that gets scientists get caught at and get drummed out of the profession, but makes theologians founders of new religions. 🙂
A theologian doesn’t worry about new discoveries destroying his systematic theology. He is concerned instead with people who take apart the logic, or reinterpret some foundational text, and then follow some new path through the data. Rarely, however, does such a reinterpretation result in the original author recanting his view. It will probably just start a new school of theology, or a new sub-school, or perhaps a new sub-sub school. That’s because one theologian can’t tell another one that he is unable to replicate his data, and thus the theologian’s theology must be false.
Let me detour for a moment to comment that when a theologian deals with a field that does have objective data there will be a difference, and that theologians can make statements that can be objectively disproven. For example, a preacher approached my son when he was ill with cancer, and said that God had told him that anyone he laid hands on and prayed for would be healed of cancer. He laid hands on my son and prayed. My son later died of that cancer. Claim falsified. Fortunately, my son was smarter than the preacher, and didn’t let those words ruin such time as he had left at that point. But even in these cases, the theologian’s approach is not generally to alter the theory, but to explain the data within the prior theory. The recipient didn’t have enough faith (whether that was specificed in advance or not), the historical data that seems to contradict the inerrancy of the Bible can be explained in some other way, or will soon enough be contradicted by other data and God (or rather the theologian) will be vindicated.
If I can illustrate from something closer to my own field of Biblical studies, let’s say new evidence is discovered about the destruction of Jericho, as has happened several times. The objective archeologist takes the new data and adjusts his historical charts for the city of Jericho, looking at all available evidence. The theologian, in this case a defender of the Bible, looks at that data to see how it can be handled to support the Biblical story of the destruction of Jericho by Joshua and the Israelites. Some skeptics, taking an equally theological approach look at the same data to see how well it can be used to oppose the Biblical story. Only the view that attempts to formulate the best understanding taking into account all of the data (and that admits where data is absent) is an attitude compatible with a scientific approach. (I’m avoiding here differences between historical study and hard science. My observation is that the data comes down on the side of the defenders sometimes and of the skeptics sometimes, which suggests to me that the Bible is neither 100% historical when talking about history, nor is it totally in error. Of course, any amount of error means not inerrant.)
This takes me to the current mini-flap about an article Rumors of Angels: Using ID to Detect Malevolent Spiritual Agents. Scientists quite properly laugh this out of scientific court. But why would ID advocates avoid it? The intelligent designer is not specified. ID is not supposed to be a religious concept. So what difference does it make if the designer is an alien, and unknown intelligence from the stars, an angel, a demon, or God Almighty?
But that article has underlined the problem, because we clearly see that ID cannot distinguish between these various possibilities of a designer, because it is trying to demonstrate design in those little places where some external intelligence (rodents of unusual size, perhaps?) might tinker with life in an experimental lab. It’s precisely because they are not looking for design in the traditional sense that most Christians accept theologically, that this kind of thing cannot be excluded. Evangelical theologians would not be proposing angels and demons as agents of creation. But ID doesn’t really have a defense against it.
And please, my fellow Christians, don’t laugh just because we’re talking angels and demons. If you believe in one invisible friend, who are you to laugh at more invisible friends and and some invisible enemies. I see nothing in Christian theology that suggests that we can’t have such agents involved. But again, the fact that ID can admit this shows that it is working much more like theology than science. It reminds me of a three year old foster child my parents took in when I was a teenager. Whenever something bad happened, she’d announce, “Somebody done it, but I didn’t done it!” ID has attained just that level of explanatory power. When all current explanations have failed, ID proposes that we announce: “Somebody done it!”
Personally I don’t see much theological light in seeing demons interfering with nature. I’d have a serious practical problem if someone started suggesting exorcism as the proper response to Ebola, but then DD (demonic design) doesn’t suggest that the demons are actually in the virus, but rather that they adjusted it. I don’t tend to see “spiritual beings” as existing, but rather as more of a metaphor allowing us to use concrete language about spiritual issues. But then that’s my theology. Others will be more receptive to spiritual entities, many will be less so. That’s theology for you!
And thus I see ID as badly done theology, because it does not fit itself into any theological system, including the one purportedly held by most of its advocates, and because it presents itself as though it was theologically demonstrating something it cannot. In my own Christian view of a creator God who is sovereign over all and designed everything, however small, including many processes that produce other things in predictable ways, it is also just plain bad theology. Your mileage may differ on how good the theology is, but it remains theology, nonetheless.
But something else that shows up here is that it is also politics, because it shows a different face to different people. Many Christians right now are deceived into thinking that somehow these scientists who advocate ID have “proven” the existence of God and the presence of the creator. Because they believe this has been scientifically proven, they cannot see why it should not be taught as science in the classroom. Finally, they think, the existence of God has been made as certain as the principles that allow an airplane to fly! But ID has acomplished no such thing, and I would suggest that Christians should not rejoice if it had. The ID movement is perpetrating this deception as a political strategy. This makes it badly done theology used as a political strategy. The jury is still out on whether it’s an effective political strategy.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, NRSV). Let’s not confuse that with science. If that type of faith embarrasses you, perhaps you should reconsider your faith choice.