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How Intelligent Design Advocates Have Undermined Their Own Cause

by Hugh Ross

Debate over intelligent design (ID)—and specifically over whether or not to teach it in public schools—has invaded prime-time television. In a recent episode of The West Wing, titled “The Mommy Problem,” Congressman Matthew Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) makes an eloquent case for keeping evolution in and ID out of the public classroom. His main point: “One [evolution] is based on science and one [ID] is based on faith. Intelligent design is not a scientific theory; it’s a religious belief. . . .” It’s simple. It’s tidy. It’s settled, even for Santos, a church-going, ID-embracing Catholic. Or is it?

This “easy” solution came to light decades ago—touted by people on all sides of the issue, including the famous evolutionary biologist (and inventor and popularizer of punctuated equilibrium theory) Stephen Jay Gould. He called it the “separate magisteria” solution. Beliefs about origins should be divided into two separate camps: objective (science) and subjective (religion). No need to argue. And yet the argument continues just as vigorously and vociferously as ever.

Why? One obvious reason is that people intuitively recognize the nearly total overlap of the two domains when it comes to questions about the origins and development of the universe, earth, life, and humanity. A second and perhaps less obvious reason is that no one has yet presented satisfactory—from the standpoint of both facts and faith—answers to those questions. For their part, creation advocates (and ID is about creation) have effectively undermined their own cause—which is my cause, too.

Evolution Bashing

Scientists and media reporters rightfully complain that creationists and intelligent design proponents invest most of their time in “evolution bashing.” This tendency implies that our arguments for creation consist primarily of arguments against evolution. If we creation/design advocates merely point out the problems and shortcomings of evolutionary theory, rather than offering a definitive case for our own beliefs about cosmic origins and life’s history on earth, one begins to wonder whether such a case exists.

If we who believe in creation have the courage to back our convictions, we must show our hand. We must present a model that invites meaningful testing and critique. It is one thing to sit on the sidelines and take potshots at an accepted theory’s shortcomings. It is quite another to allow one’s own beliefs and interpretations to come under public scrutiny, specifically scientific scrutiny. But now is the time.

Science Bashing

First, before we can even hope for a fair hearing, we must make a significant attitude adjustment—a return to gentleness and respect toward scientists. Sadly, one apparent goal of the ID movement is to generate distrust and suspicion of the scientific community. Scientists are often falsely portrayed by ID spokespersons as the willing (or unwitting) participants in a vast and deliberate conspiracy against the truth of intelligent design. This defamatory portrait of many honest, hard-working researchers as deliberate deceivers and blind conformists represents the height of insult (not to mention hypocrisy). Discoveries about nature on both the cosmic and microcosmic scale have yielded and continue to yield increasing evidence that enhances our lives and happens to point toward an intelligent designer regardless of the personal beliefs and preferences of the researchers who make those discoveries.

Court Rulings

Sour grapes will also have to be let go. Since 1925, when John T. Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in a Tennessee public classroom, US courts have blocked every attempt to mandate the teaching of “creation science.” Outspoken Christians claim that these court cases were lost because the judges and justices were biased against Christianity. The courts, they claim, have abused the Constitution’s clause concerning separation of church and state. However, a closer look at the court records shows that neither bias nor misapplication of the law caused the losses.

In the case of Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), the US Supreme Court justices wrote that “requiring the teaching of creation science with evolution does not give schoolteachers a flexibility that they did not already possess to supplant the present science curriculum with the presentation of theories, besides evolution, about the origin of life.” The highest court in the nation clearly affirmed that if a particular creation theory is valid as science, its right to a place in the public school curriculum remains assured—no matter what its connection to religion. The sad fact is that the lower courts and subsequently the Supreme Court found no scientific merit in the material presented to them (via testimony) as “creation science.” Therefore, they had to base their ruling on its religious merit, and because that material represented so narrow a religious perspective (a young-earth view), it was rightly held to be in violation of the Constitution.

Religious Neutrality Problem

Frustrated by rulings against their view based on the “separation” clause, some creation proponents steered the cause in a new direction—that of religious neutrality. Rather than advocating for a specific Creator, they began to argue for an unspecified intelligent designer. To demonstrate that their case represents no particular church or religion, they assembled a coalition of Muslims, Jews, Christians (Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, etc.), and others, including atheists who propose that aliens seeded Earth with life.

The need to accommodate all beliefs represents a huge scientific problem, however. It precludes the possibility of constructing and presenting a detailed, comprehensive model explaining cosmic origins, solar system formation, life’s origin, descent with modification, and the origin of humanity. Without a model to explain the observed facts of nature, our views lack the hallmarks of science—they cannot be tested or falsified, nor can they generate any significant predictions of future findings. These deficiencies give rise to the ubiquitous charge that ID is not science.

In speaking to university faculty and researchers across North America and beyond, I find a willingness to admit that evolutionary theory is riddled with problems. However, these same scholars see it as the best model currently available to them. Educators will continue to teach it, regardless of how faulty it may be, until a better alternative model emerges—one with superior explanatory power and greater predictive success. It’s easy to understand why. Most of us keep our deteriorating cars until we can replace them with more reliable ones. We don’t just take to the roadways on foot (though I opt for a bicycle as often as I can) until we can find a better car.

A Testable Creation/Design Model

Everywhere I go I encounter the presumption that no credible creation/ID model exists. My own organization, Reasons To Believe (RTB), and other advocates for intelligent design have our work cut out for us. If we want to make any headway in the tug-of-war over teaching creation in the public arena, we must produce and publish testable, verifiable/falsifiable, predictive models, scenarios that surpass evolutionary theory as explainers and predictors of advances in scientific research.

With a desire to participate in this quest for a more accurate depiction of the cosmos and all it contains, RTB has been piecing together a creation model over the past two decades. We have already published parts of it, with more to come in the years ahead. Sometime next year we hope to release a book summarizing the entire model. But we have no desire to be alone in this endeavor. Our model can only benefit from the competition of other models, different perspectives on what has been and is being discovered in all scientific disciplines.

For each subdivision of the evolution/ID debate, whether it be the origin of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of humanity, the design of the Milky Way Galaxy and solar system, the history of earth and its life-forms, or whatever, we creation and design advocates must consider how well our models compare with existing models in explaining the known record of nature. We can use current gaps in understanding to test whether a “god-of-the-gaps” or a “naturalism-of-the-gaps” fallacy is in play. Here’s the test: If, from a naturalistic perspective, a gap gets wider and wider as scientists learn more and more about a phenomenon, then a miraculous explanation for the gap becomes increasingly justified. If the gap gets narrower and narrower as the database increases, then a naturalistic explanation becomes increasingly justified.

We must also be bold enough to make predictions—a crucial tool for testing the validity of a proposed scenario. If we can accurately anticipate, based on our models, what scientists will discover in the next several months or years of research, then we can demonstrate convincingly that our models have scientific merit. If we cannot anticipate new discoveries with notable accuracy, then we must return to the drawing board.

The appeal of constructing, comparing, and refining models is positive in every sense of the word. This process reinvigorates the scientific enterprise for everyone involved. It leaps over political and legal barriers. It de-escalates the wearisome “us versus them” hostilities. It puts all truth-seekers on the same side, working toward the same goal: to discover as objectively as the scientific method makes possible what’s really going on in our universe—past, present, and future. 

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