Theology, science and the problem of ID

Simon Barrow


This paper briefly sets out the religious, philosophical and political context of both the 2007 government guidelines on science teaching and the recent report and statement of the International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR), explaining why 'intelligent design' (ID), popular among some religious groups, is neither sound science nor good theology. It includes notes, an overview of 2005-7 Ekklesia comments on creationism and ID, and a select bibliography.

On 7 February 2008, the International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR), a network of leading practitioners and theorists based at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge [1], unveiled the conclusion of an investigation by seven specialists in science, theology, philosophy and history on the question of ‘intelligent design’ (ID), which has grasped the imagination of religious conservatives in the USA and elsewhere.

The ID movement says that the scientific understanding of evolution is incoherent, and that certain biological features of life, because they appear to be ‘irreducibly complex’, could not have evolved by natural selection and must therefore have been created by the intervention of an ‘external intelligence’. IISR, by contrast, explains why ID is “neither sound science nor good theology.”

The authors do not attempt to specify precisely how the religious believer can speak of God’s relation to the world – a question on which philosophers and theologians offer various accounts and upon which the authors may differ among themselves. Some of them are believers, some not. They are united, however, in resisting what they call “the insistence of intelligent-design advocates that their enterprise be taken as genuine science – just as we oppose the efforts of others to elevate science into a comprehensive world view (so-called scientism).”

That one of the world’s foremost scholarly organizations devoted to the dialogue between science and religion should come out with such a statement at this time is a very important and encouraging development. Ekklesia has argued for some time, going back in particular to the Kitzmiller -v- Dover Federal Judgement (Pennsylvania, 2005) in the USA, that ‘intelligent design’ is a serious category mistake and a corrosive force in both theological and scientific discourses. It brings the proper engagement of religion and science into disrepute, and it benefits those who wish to pursue dubious ideological agendas at the expense of a more complex common search for truth and wisdom.

Last year the UK government’s Department of Children, Schools, and Families responded to a series of requests from teachers, parents, science educators and concerned public bodies (including Ekklesia and the British Humanist Association, signifying both religious and non-religious perspectives) by making a categorical statement about ID and its close cousin, full-blooded ‘creationism’ (which denies scientific accounts and posits the world as a miraculous fiat).

It said that “[c]reationism and intelligent design are not part of the National Curriculum for science”, and described ‘intelligent design’ as “a creationist belief” that “is sometimes erroneously advanced as scientific theory but has no underpinning scientific principles or explanations supporting it and it is not accepted by the international scientific community.”

The move was necessitated by the lobbying activities of wealthy activists pushing an agenda that derives in significant part from a political strategy of narrow religious groups in the US – to undermine evolutionary biology and to posit instead a minority, non-scientific view based on an assumption of the incompatibility of the natural and the divine (which can actually be deeply consonant in traditional, incarnational Christianity) and on a conflictive understanding of the relation of religious thought to rational investigation.

Clarity among those responsible for education at all levels is vital in dealing with creationism and ID, not least because of other aspects of the government’s educational agenda, which involve the creation of faith schools and religious academies. These are places where the creationist lobby will undoubtedly continue to seek a foothold, in spite of formal assurances and guidelines to the contrary. This is why vigilance is necessary, and why the work of networks such as the ISSR, alongside recognised scientific bodies, is so important.

In the midst of the quest to safeguard the integrity of learning, from both scientific and theological/philosophical perspectives, the silence of senior figures in the British churches has been alarming. In the USA ‘the clergy project’ is one of a range of initiatives enabling mainstream religious leaders to make it clear that the kind of confrontation being engineered by creationists and IDers is both unnecessary and damaging – not least to the enterprise of thoughtful, engaged Christian faith.

In Britain, there are many science-religion and science-theology specialists, mostly working in tertiary educational institutions. But their voices largely go unheard, even in the regular church press, and as academics they are perhaps naturally inclined to suspect the rough-and-tumble of media and political discourse, where nuance and interpretation are rapidly compromised by a ‘war of position’ style of debate.

The result is that when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, observed that creationism was “a category mistake” in terms of its appropriation of biblical texts and doctrinal formulations, most people inside and outside the churches did not appear to know what he was talking about – because the level of general education about these issues remains so low.

There are still many commentators, jouralists and broadcasters, for example, who refer to intelligent design as a ‘theory’, when in fact it is the absence of theory in conventional scientific terms – a specifiable and testable explanation for repeatedly observed patterns in nature supported by observations and results from many investigations.

Such misinformation sadly rewards only ideologues; that is, those with a position fixed by an emotive desire to assert themselves and their outlook at the expense of others, without much regard for other evidence-based possibilities. That might include some dogmatic atheists as well as dogmatic religious advocates. The term ‘intelligent design’ was created in such an ideological environment. Yet to many regular believers it sounds instantly credible. Surely it is standard Christian belief that the world was created by "an intelligent being"? There are two major problems with this.

First, terms like ‘design’, ‘intelligence’ and ‘being’ cannot be taken uncritically from the human realm and projected onto God, as if God was a version of our kind of purposiveness writ large. This is a caricature of God’s immanence in Christian thought, which is the presence to our world of a generative, loving reality that is divine precisely because it transcends our humanly derived definitions and capacities.

Inscribed within the discourse of theology, which seeks to ask how language can appropriately convey and evoke a divinity beyond conceptual captivity, the terms ‘design’, ‘intelligence’ and ‘being’ therefore begin to take a rather different shape, and necessarily so. Design, for example, needs to be disconnected from its associated ideas of manufacture and blueprint. Instead it becomes analogous to purpose realised through a persuasive and loving engagement with everything in the universe, rather than a prescriptive engineering of bits of it to produce specific outcomes. This is crucial to an adequate and proper theological understanding of what we mean by ‘creation’.

Second, those who talk of ID seek to show on forensic grounds that evolved aspects of the natural order (which Christian theology speaks of as gift, and to which God is committed) cannot be self-supporting and therefore need supplementing by discreet acts of extra-terrestrial supervening, posited in localised and concrete ways. In this sense they are close to the ‘special creation’ ideas of those who call themselves biblical literalists (though the texts they appeal to prove not amenable to that kind of reading), and who turn God into some sort of super-being, rather than the wholly unconditioned source, flow and destiny of all being and becoming – a very different notion, and central to the developed monotheistic traditions.

The problem with ID then, apart from the fact that it is contested by all the leading scientific analysts in the fields it touches upon, is that it is based on faulty conceptions of the relation of God to the world – ones that essentially follow from what was previously termed ‘the god of the gaps’; the proposal that divine activity occurs in spaces, limits and boundaries allegedly arising from the natural order. Ironically, this attempt to specify an interventionist ‘role’ for God ends up confining the divine to those parts of the scientific enterprise where we are presently (but not necessarily terminally) un-informed.

By contrast, the Christian philosophical designation of the world as ‘creation’ is a way of identifying the whole natural order in relation to the whole (if inscrutable) divine creative/redemptive/consummatory purpose. It has no need to find ‘problems’ or gaps’ in order to state this, in a variety of ways. Indeed, a well-construed theological account of the world as God’s good creation is instantly in conflict with proposals that seek to specify what is and is not “of God”, that require some kind of magical theory of origins, or that seeks to baptise lack of human knowledge as the presence of the divine. Such ideas are not just philosophically naïve; they are also spiritually and religiously degenerative.

Professor Michael Heller, cosmologist, priest and winner of the 2008 Templeton Prize for his work on science and religion in Poland comments, from his own perspective, in a recent New Scientist magazine interview (12 March 2008)): "The standard theory of evolution ascribes a lot of results to chance, whereas adherents of intelligent design say that instead everything should be planned by God. What is a random event? It is something which is of low probability which nevertheless happens. But in order to know whether something is of low or high probability you have to use the calculus of probability, a non-random mathematical structure. So chance events are still part of God’s mind. I don’t see any conflict between chance events and God’s planning of the universe."

This is how I would outline the broader philosophical, religious and political context in which the International Society for Science and Religion (ISSR) has made its helpful statement, the core of which is as follows [2]:

The society greatly values modern science, while deploring efforts to drive a wedge between science and religion. Science operates with a common set of methodological approaches that gives freedom to scientists from a range of religious backgrounds to unite in a common endeavour. This approach does not deny the existence of a metaphysical realm [3] but rather opens up the natural world to a range of explorations that have been incredibly productive, especially over the last 400 years or so.

The intelligent-design (ID) movement began in the late 1980s as a challenge to the perceived secularization of the scientific community, which leaders of the movement maintained had been coloured with the philosophy of atheistic naturalism. ID theorists have focused their critique primarily on biological evolution and the neo-Darwinian paradigm. They claim that because certain biological features appear to be "irreducibly complex" and thus incapable of evolving incrementally by natural selection, they must have been created by the intervention of an intelligent designer. Despite this focus on evolution, intelligent design should not be confused with biblical or "scientific" creationism, which relies on a particular interpretation of the Genesis account of creation.

We believe that intelligent design is neither sound science nor good theology. Although the boundaries of science are open to change, allowing supernatural explanations to count as science undercuts the very purpose of science, which is to explain the workings of nature without recourse to religious language. Attributing complexity to the interruption of natural law by a divine designer is, as some critics have claimed, a science stopper. Besides, ID has not yet opened up a new research program. In the opinion of the overwhelming majority of research biologists, it has not provided examples of "irreducible complexity" in biological evolution that could not be explained as well by normal scientifically understood processes. Students of nature once considered the vertebrate eye to be too complex to explain naturally, but subsequent research has led to the conclusion that this remarkable structure can be readily understood as a product of natural selection. This shows that what may appear to be "irreducibly complex" today may be explained naturalistically tomorrow.

Scientific explanations are always incomplete. We grant that a comprehensive account of evolutionary natural history remains open to complementary philosophical, metaphysical, and religious dimensions. Darwinian natural history does pre-empt certain accounts of creation, leading, for example, to the contemporary creationist and ID controversies. However, in most instances, biology and religion operate at different and non-competing levels. In many religious traditions, such as some found in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, the notion of intelligent design is irrelevant We recognize that natural theology may be a legitimate enterprise in its own right, but we resist the insistence of intelligent-design advocates that their enterprise be taken as genuine science - just as we oppose efforts of others to elevate science into a comprehensive world view (so-called scientism). [4]

This statement comes from a group of people who are both believers and non-believers. It includes someone writing in the area of Islam and science, and from Britain, Dr Denis Alexander, who is Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, to which he was elected a Fellow in 1998. He is also a Senior Affiliated Scientist at The Babraham Institute, Cambridge, where he supervises a research group in cancer and immunology, and where for many years he was Chair of the Molecular Immunology Programme and Head of the Laboratory of Lymphocyte Signalling and Development. Dr Alexander is from the evangelical wing of the church, and writes, lectures and broadcasts widely in the field of science and religion. Since 1992 he has been Editor of the journal Science & Christian Belief, and currently serves on the National Committee of Christians in Science.

Also among the contributors is a well-known non-believer, and contender of some of Richard Dawkins’ reductionist accounts of religion, Professor Michael Ruse, the Lucyle T.Werkheimer Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. Among his books are The Evolution-Creation Struggle, Darwin and Design: Does Evolution have a Purpose, The Evolution Wars: A Guide to the Debate, and Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? - The Relationship Between Science and Religion.

The onus now is on the churches to match the daring of specialists in science, theology, philosophy and history [5] by committing themselves to a major initiative in science and religion education. This is necessary not just to ensure that people are equipped to discern the real problems with movements like ID and creationism, but in order to negotiate the ethical, pastoral, political, economic, spiritual and theological challenges of new technologies, the bio-sciences, genomics and many other disciplines reshaping our world and our condition. The real task ahead of us is not defensive, it is profoundly creative.



[1] The International Society for Science and Religion is a scholarly society devoted to ongoing dialogue between the sciences and the community of world faiths (see www.issr.org.uk). It was established in 2002 for the purpose of promoting education through the support of interdisciplinary learning and research in the fields of science and religion, conducted where possible in an international and multi-faith context.

[2] The full ISSR Statement on the Concept of 'Intelligent Design' can be found at: http://www.issr.org.uk/id-statement.asp. The authors of this statement constitute a group set up for the purpose by the Executive Committee of the International Society for Science and Religion. Through a process involving consultation with all members of the Society, the statement has now been accepted by the Executive Committee for publication as a statement made on behalf of the Society (http://www.issr.org.uk/). The Society retains the copyright of the statement.

[3] The term 'metaphysical realm' is often unhelpfully taken to refer to some sort of Platonic division of reality, a division of the spiritual and the material, or some other kind of dualism. It need not be so. For example, process or dipolar (panentheistic) metaphysics, popular among Protestants, understands God as the pervasive but not co-terminal 'environment' within which the universe 'has its being'. Thomist metaphysics (a staple of Catholic theology) posits a unity of being in essential and subsistent forms. A general problem with many texts from theologians engaged in science and scientists interested in theology (such as Professor Paul Davies) is that they presuppose the perspective of onto-theology and the traditional schema of Western metaphysics. This constructs the arguments in a very particular way. But recent linguistic philosophy and phenomenology questions this inheritance, matched by postmodern turns in theology from both radical (e.g. Charles E. Winquist) and traditional perspectives (e.g. J. L Marion).

[4] The authors of the ISSR statement are: Dr Denis Alexander, Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, and Fellow of St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge; Dr Munawar Anees, President of KnowSys in the USA and a writer and social critic with an interest in Muslim approaches to science; Professor Martinez Hewlett, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Arizona; Professor Ronald L. Numbers (chair), Hilldale and William Coleman Professor of the History of Science and Medicine and Chair of the Department of the History of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Professor Holmes Rolston III, University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University; Professor Michael Ruse, Lucyle T.Werkheimer Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University; and Professor Jeffrey Schloss, Professor and Chair of Biology at Westmont College, Santa Barbara.

[5] Leading science and theology scholars reject 'intelligent design' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/6706



These contributions to the debate are ones that I made between late 2005 and the end of 2008 in newspapers, journals, on the BBC and in response to government and other public announcements. They are offered for research purposes. I hope to produce a fuller statement of the theological grounds for critiquing ID in the near future. These quotations, together with this article, give some indication of the main areas of contention and exploration. Because they were offered over a period of time, and to different sources, there is inevitably some overlap and repetition, but hopefully also different emphases and issues.

"It looks as if the government needs to do more to communicate its guidelines and to engage with teachers so that there is greater understanding of the difference between treating pupils with respect, which is vital, and teaching as science worldviews which have no scientific grounding and indeed reject scientific research, which is clearly inappropriate. Equally, the Royal Society might reflect further on what it can do, given the rumpus over Professor Reiss's comments, which raised important issues, even if their initial expression was less than helpful." ('Teachers still confused over creationism in science classrooms', news story - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/7926)

“Creationism and Intelligent Design are not legitimate scientific theories. They are constructs based on discredited ideas about biblical texts, a misunderstanding of the idea of creation (which is an understanding of the world process as gift, not a theory of origins in competition with evolution) and a god-of-the-gaps approach rejected by serious theologians.” 06/10/2007 – media statement

“Pupils seeking to acquire an understanding of religious and other life stances need to understand how and why fundamentalist world views emerge. But they also need to know why they are rejected by mainstream theologians and scientists. Likewise, as the government rightly says, creationism and ID have no place in school science classrooms.” 06/10/2007 – response to Department for Education & Science guidelines

“Intelligent Design and creationism are being pushed by an overtly political movement among conservative religious advocates… It is a mistake to think of them in connection with thoughtful theology or evidential science.” – 21/02/07 BBC1 TV Heaven & Earth Show

"The so-called 'intelligent designer' of ID is a caricature of God as traditionally understood by Christians. God gifts the whole world process (not allegedly 'unexplainable' bits of it) ex-nihilo rather than through manufacture. What God 'creates' ('lets-into-being' is a better term these days) is potentiality and self-generativity. It is the resulting freedom of the world in relation to the essence of the divine that allows the possibility of truth, beauty and wisdom to develop uncoerced in the direction of relationship. Love requires contigency, in other words, not manipulation from without. ID also undermines the essential message of Genesis, which is not a hypothesis about life-mechanics, but rather a powerful, figurative, multi-layered affirmation that the world is good and fruitful, despite our marring of it - a notion directed against Ancient Near Eastern myths which said otherwise.

"What ID does, as with creationism, is to create an inherent opposition between nature and the divine, so that the more you have of one, the less you have of the other (as if they were competing 'things') - exactly the kind of antithesis that the Jewish and Christian narrative is trying to overcome. It is also based on flawed metaphysics and the basic philosophical category error which takes absence of evidence to be an evidence of absence: viz "we're stuck with this limit, so an extra terrestial must have done it". This isn't science, and it's terrible god-of-the-gaps theology in spite of its (oft-refuted) claims to have found an end-point not a gap." (FaithInSociety, 21 Jan 2007.)

“The roots of creationism, whether in its ‘hard’ form, or in attenuated ID ideas, lie not in science but in misinterpretations of the Bible. Claims that such notions can be justified from a ‘literal’ reading of Genesis are nonsensensical. This book has not one, but two ‘creation stories’. They differ widely in detail, are highly figurative, and were written to combat fatalistic Ancient Near East cosmogonies by stressing the underlying goodness of the world as a gift of God, not to comment on modern scientific matters.” – response to Truth in Science, 25/09/2006

“There are very particular problems stemming from fundamentalism which churches and Christian organisations need to address much more directly than they are at the moment. One of these is ‘creationism’ and its cousin Intelligent Design, which posits a conflict between natural science and divine wisdom, and rejects the traditional Christian view that God creates ex nihilo (i.e. donates rather than manufactures) and upholds the whole world process rather than a part of it where ‘gaps’ can be identified. The problem of creationism stems in part from a blinkered reading of Genesis which ignores its varied and figurative expression and imposes instead the refutation of a modern theory of origins (evolution) – which it mistakenly thinks of as a threat.” – Research paper: Facing up to fundamentalism, 01/07 http://ekklesia.co.uk/research/070201

“Creationism and Intelligent Design (ID) are bad theology as well as non-science, and not fit for the school classroom.” - 06/11/2007, interview in Movement, journal of the Student Christian Movement

“Nick Cohen is on the side of the angels in opposing creationism and 'intelligent design', but if he wants to succeed, he may need to let go of his contempt for anything to do with religion. He could have noted, for example, that last week the British Humanist Association teamed up with Christian think-tank Ekklesia to stress to Education Secretary Alan Johnson that creationism has no place in science classrooms. This is because it isn't science but an ideology that misuses ancient, figurative texts in a way that insults the intelligence of all thinking people, religious or not.” – Observer newspaper, 08/10/2006

"Reputable scientists and reputable theologians are clear that the anti-evolutionary ideas propagated by groups like this are in no way comparable to scientific theories of origins. The government and its inspectorate should have no truck with superstition in the modern science classroom." – BBC Online, Education, 29/09/2006

“Intelligent Design is basically a variant of creationism in pseudo-scientific clothing. As such it is an embarrassment to thoughtful Christianity and a threat to good theology as well as scientific integrity. It is extremely important, in the interests of truth, to ensure that [it] do not gain an educational foothold in Britain. Creationism and ID should no more be taught in science classrooms than astrology and numerology.” – response to the Kitzmiller -v- Dover federal court judgement in Pennsylvania against the teaching of ID, 22/12/2005

"Creationism [and ID] is now a substantially growing movement within the evangelical sector. I was from a solidly evangelical household in the 1960s and it never would have occurred to me to be a creationist - I went to conservative theological college in the late 1970s and encountered hardly anyone who believed in the supposed literal truth of Genesis… A mistake many people make is to think that all creationists are somehow stupid. But the problem is that creationism seems plausible within certain narrow boundaries of rationality." – talking to journalist Rob Blackhurst in the Financial Times, 14/10/2006

“This is an issue church leaders should also be taking far more seriously at an educational level within their own communities. Creationist-style ideas misrepresent the Christian doctrine of creation - which is about the ongoing goodness and giftedness of all life in the purposes of God, not a specific theory of origins… By seeking to unravel 150 years of scientific endeavour and the evolutionary cornerstone of modern biological investigation, creationists and IDers both harm the proper search for truth and discredit the faith they wrongly claim to speak for.” - Response to PM, 07/11/2006

“A recent Mori poll for the BBC found that only 48 per cent of the British population accept evolutionary theory; 39 per cent of people surveyed apparently preferring to put their faith in creationism or its cousin, ‘Intelligent Design’. The poll seems to indicate a worrying level of confusion, and the churches are among those who have a clear responsibility to explain why creationist ideology is false, and how nature as understood by science is fruitfully related to the divine as understood from the experience of a historical religious community. The situation is not helped by the general media’s failure to report that Christian scholarship is overwhelmingly opposed to creationism, to seek comment from experts in the theology-science interface, or to understand the use and misuse of biblical texts from an interpretative standpoint.” – response to BBC Mori opinion poll, 22/05/2006



On the recent US creationist propaganda film 'Expelled', see: http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/7039

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Last updated 10 November 2008.