Intelligent Faith and Intelligent Design

Chris Doran
May 10, 2006

This article was originally submitted to Pacific School of Religion as part of Progressive Christian Witness, a 2006 initiative of PSR designed to bring voices of progressive Christianity to churches nationwide.

“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament reveals his handiwork,” says the Psalmist (19:1). Saint Paul’s testimony in Romans 1:20 is similar: “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”

These biblical affirmations appear to be reinforced by an idea that has been much in the news lately: the concept of “intelligent design.” Advocates of this viewpoint contend that scientific claims—in particular the theory of evolution—are correct as far as they go, but are incomplete. Evolution, these advocates say, does not explain the more complex features of the created world, such as the sophistication of a bacterium’s flagellum or the delicate intricacy of blood-clot formation. These could only have developed if an intelligent agent acted to bring them about beyond the evolutionary process of natural selection.

The controversy in our public discussions and in our courts has focused on whether intelligent design should be taught in our public schools. To date the courts have concluded that this theory is philosophical or theological, not scientific. Viewed in this light, intelligent design may be taught in philosophy or religion classes, but not in science classes.

Intelligent design raises important legal and practical questions. All of us have a stake in protecting scientific research from the biases of government or religious groups. Just as important, we have a stake in maintaining an educational system that allows students to examine various religious and philosophical perspectives in appropriate classroom settings.

From a specifically Christian perspective, however, the questions about intelligent design are different. As Christians, we believe the created world is grounded in the activity of a divine intelligence: God. The intelligent design position claims to support that belief. It claims to provide scientific reasons for believing in the existence of a divine intelligence. But is it appropriate for Christians to seek to ground belief in God using arguments from science? Does Christian faith depend on science?

It is interesting to reflect back on the passages from Psalms 19 and Romans 1. Neither uses an interpretation of nature to try to demonstrate the existence of a Creator God. Both assume God’s existence rather than arguing for it. Confidence in the reality of God is grounded in faith, not science. Once we believe in God by faith, we are able to see in certain aspects of nature what we regard as reflections of the God in whom we already believe and put our trust. But belief in a loving deity who is the creative ground of all things is not dependent on a particular scientific understanding.

This biblical perspective is wise. The reason is simple: Every few generations, major shifts occur in science. Old ways of understanding the world are replaced by new ones. Design theorists may be right when they say that we are currently in the midst of one of those shifts. But they do not take into account the fact that even if their arguments for an intelligent designer were scientifically substantiated right now, which is not the case, another scientific shift might occur that could make their arguments obsolete. Psalms and Romans do not base confidence in the reality of a loving Creator on the success of a scientific argument.

Christians rightly want their faith to be seen as a reasonable point-of-view, even if it cannot be proven philosophically or scientifically. If God is the creator of the world, then belief in God, though perhaps not provable, should be consistent with the observable nature of things. But asserting that faith is a reasonable option, in light of all we know about the world, is very different from contending that faith is required by the scientific evidence.

Science has been a great gift to human life and, if used wisely in the future, its gifts will be greater still. There is no reason, from the standpoint of Christian faith, to resist the disciplined, self-critical study of nature. The conclusions of scientific study, while tentative and always subject to revision, must be taken seriously by anyone who believes that the world science studies is the creation of God. But a scientific way of knowing should never be made the judge of, or the basis for, all other forms of belief. Ironically, that is what the intelligent design argument does—it seeks to defend belief in God on the basis of a particular interpretation of the evolution of life on the planet earth.

The Psalmist did not need a scientific basis for belief in God, nor did Saint Paul. Nor does Christian faith today.

  

About the Author

Chris Doran received a bachelor's degree in biology and a Master of Divinity degree from Pepperdine University. At the time of this artice, Doran was a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Theological Union, writing a dissertation on how intelligent design might impact Christian theology. He has taught undergraduate religion classes in the summer at Pepperdine University on such issues as bioethics, the theology of personhood in light of genetics, and the debate between evolution and creationism. He also taught Sunday School class at the Walnut Creek, CA, Church of Christ.