Graeme Finlay: Theory an assault on faith

Intelligent Design Theory (IDT) is bursting out everywhere. It has become part of the creed of many Christian churches.

United States President George W. Bush has given his blessing to it. A Dutch politician has suggested that IDT be aired in Europe. Time magazine is full of it. Science journals such as Nature and Science lament its influence. And it has landed in New Zealand.

IDT argues that complex biological structures could not have been assembled stepwise by an evolutionary mechanism.

Take out or alter just one component, so the argument goes, and the rest of the machinery falls apart. Therefore the structure must have been designed by some (non-specified) super-intelligence.

As a student of biology and a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am concerned that IDT is hostile to both science and biblical faith.

IDT is an assault on science because it is a cover-up for the rejection of evolution. This is stated explicitly by at least some IDT leaders, such as the lawyer Philip Johnson.

IDT thus has the same basic purpose as old style "Creationism".

IDT claims that evolution is "only a theory".

This confuses the sense in which "theory" is used.

Evolution is indeed a theory. This does not mean that it is a speculative hypothesis, but that it provides a theoretical framework for biology.

We are told that evolution is a religion and that it cannot be falsified.

This is untrue. Evolution is a scientific paradigm. Like all scientific paradigms, it contains a mass of established facts, working hypotheses, and creative speculations.

People engage in the universal methods of scientific research independently of their religious faiths. Science cannot be categorised into "atheistic", "Christian", "feminist" or particular ethnic varieties.

Someone of an atheistic religious perspective looks at the world that science discloses, accepts the exquisite order of nature as a brute fact, and believes that the evolutionary saga is a colossal accident.

Someone of a theistic perspective looks at the same world, accepts that its order comes from God, and believes that evolution reflects God's creative purpose.

Science can be enveloped in different metaphysical (religious) world views.

We must respect the difference between physics (and other branches of science) and metaphysics (such as atheism or theism).

IDT claims that there is no evidence for large-scale evolution. This is nonsense. Genomic science has provided conclusive evidence for human evolution. We share common ancestors with chimps, all other primates and other mammals. IDT denies evidence-based science.

IDT demands freedom to "teach the controversy". Promoters of IDT want to place stickers, indicating that evolution is controversial, in biology textbooks.

Just as the IDT lobby pleads that evolution is controversial, so the tobacco lobby claims that the smoking-cancer link is controversial, and the fossil fuel lobby denies anthropogenic global warming. But the overall evolutionary paradigm is overwhelmingly accepted by scholars.

Within all scientific fields, there is ongoing debate over the details of particular issues. The "teach the controversy" slogan fails to recognise that all human knowledge is provisional.

Indeed, the one place where the "controversy" is not taught seems to be among groups where "creationism' and IDT are accepted dogma.

IDT claims that complex structures (such as the bacterial flagellum) could not have been assembled stepwise by an evolutionary process.

In other words, the development of complex physical structures cannot in principle be described in terms of known (or as yet unknown) mechanistic principles.

IDT sets huge areas of biology off-limits to science. Biologists can pack up and go home. Science becomes impossible.

IDT is an assault also on biblical faith. It is a classic statement of the "god-of-the-gaps".

This is a god whose existence is postulated on the basis that there are natural phenomena that "science cannot explain". Our ignorance of the origin of the genetic code or of the bacterial flagellum is taken to mean that "God must have done it".

Such "faith" in God rests on an underlying faith that we will be ignorant in perpetuity about the genetic code and the flagellum (and implies that God is not responsible for phenomena that we can describe scientifically).

But science always advances and the stop-gap god always shrinks. An authentic faith in God must be based on a foundation other than our (current) ignorance of flagellar assembly.

IDT drives a wedge between design and evolution. IDT assumes that "evolution" stands for "non-design".

But it is a false antithesis to demand a choice between "design" and "evolution". Christian scientists perceive exquisite design in the process of evolution that has produced the wonder of humanity as the image of God.

IDT protagonists refuse to discuss the nature of the intelligence that they claim to have unearthed. IDT can point to only a remote impersonal deistic god.

Darwin (as a conservative English gentleman) believed in precisely this god. This god is a distant abstraction that is not personal, communicating, holy, loving, redeeming.

The deist god of 19th-century Europe is a stark alternative to the passionate God of the Bible who is revealed in Jesus. It is ironic that IDT rejects Darwin's science even as it settles for Darwin's god.

The faceless god of IDT can morph into to any number of idols. In the 18th century natural theology ("Enlightenment") sought a god who could be known by human intellect.

Human "reason" became the arbiter of what could be known of god. A god who was first sought by reason, then became limited and eventually defined by reason.

People believed of the deity only that which was common sense.

The IDT god is an Enlightenment god, a tidy flagellar draughtsman, an uncomplicated 21st-century technologist, devoid of biblical mystery. IDT is becoming dogma, the mark of true orthodoxy, for some Christians.

The triune God, revealed in Jesus of Nazareth who was resurrected from the dead, is not reducible to neat formulae.

IDT hoopla is making people forget the imperative that those who follow Jesus must proclaim his liberating work in the compassionate, sacrificial spirit of service demonstrated by their Master.

* Graeme Finlay, MSc PhD BTh, is a senior lecturer in general (scientific) pathology at the University of Auckland.

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