Intelligent Design, “Cultural Baggage” and the Eye of the Beholder

A frequent theme in BioLogos writing is that Intelligent Design (ID) theory has contaminated the notion of divine design in nature, so much so that some Christians have shied away from even using the word “design.” One can find this notion expressed in remarks of Jim Stump, who wrote a whole column on “reclaiming” the language of design from the alleged damage it had received at the hands of ID people, and in comments by people like Brad Kramer and Casper Hesp. Casper’s latest remark along this line (in a reply to a new poster, Allison) is:

“… the cultural baggage that is linked to the term “design” could be a reason to avoid the term.”

Jon Garvey has already replied adequately to Casper regarding the unwisdom of avoiding important terms merely because some people misuse them. But I want to dwell a bit on the term “baggage.”

What the BioLogos crew means by “baggage” in this case is that, while the idea that God designed nature is not in itself a problem, the idea of design in nature promoted by ID writers is a problem. That is, the ID movement, or the Discovery Institute, or the various books of Meyer, Behe, Dembski, etc. are the “baggage” that the idea of divine design would be better off without.

But what is this ID “baggage”? Simply put, it’s the argument that there is evidence of design in nature. Certain aspects of nature, ID people say, just scream out “design” when they are carefully studied. That is, God has to some extent revealed himself in “the book of nature”; his intelligence, planning, adjustment of means to ends, etc. can be seen if one understands the laws, structure, and organization of natural things — especially living things.

Now, why should this notion of inferable design be “baggage” for a Christian? In fact, the idea that God reveals something of himself in nature is very old, and can be found in the Bible, in the Fathers, in the Medieval writers, the magisterial Reformers, etc. No Christian found it problematic until very modern times. There might be debate over details — there might be skepticism over the claim that God designed the nose to be useful to set eyeglasses on, for example — but there was no doubt that some things in nature bore the hallmarks of intelligent design.

Now why it is that certain modern Christians find the idea of detectable design dubious? And why is that the leaders of this anti-design movement among Christians are so often biologists, or people who are very chummy with biologists?

I think the answer is plain, and is a six-letter word: Darwin.

Darwinian / neo-Darwinian biology is the orthodox dogma among most American TE/EC leaders. They take for granted that Darwin was, if not entirely right in all details, at least right on the major things, and that the neo-Darwinian school or Modern Synthesis of the mid-20th century was a faithful developer of Darwin’s ideas. And the essence, the very heart, of Darwinian and neo-Darwinian biological thinking (against all previous biological thinking) is that no design is necessary in order for nature to produce complex living organisms. Time and chance (in the form of random mutations) plus natural selection constitute an effective designer-substitute; they together can produce anything that a conscious designer could produce. The design of life, then, is a redundant notion; by Ockham’s Razor, we can do away with it. Give me some molecules, and give me time, the TE/EC leaders seem to be saying, and I can produce for you a world that will look well-designed, a world that will look as if some Mind was trying to design eyes, wings, etc.

But for a Christian biologist, this poses (or ought to pose) a problem: surely God is the designer of nature, of life, and so on. So if “science” (i.e., Darwinian evolutionary biology) has shown that the most exquisite and complex living systems needed no design, then God is the designer of a world that needed no designer. What then, exactly, does God do? This question has been posed time and again to TE/EC leaders, and 99% of the time they duck the question.

I wonder who it is that has supplied all the unwanted “baggage” here. The BioLogos folks claim that it is the ID people. But it seems to me that the “baggage” here is supplied by Darwin and neo-Darwinism. For a Christian, it was always (before Christianity started modifying itself in order to respond to the Enlightenment and modern science) taken for granted that God designed the natural world. It is only since some Christians have come to regard Darwinian theory as having a level of certainty to it as great as the Bible itself that they have found speaking about God as “designing” living things to be professionally and socially embarrassing.

Sometime the TE/EC folks will say that they have nothing against the idea that God designs (small “d”) the world, but only against capital “D” design, as in “ID”. But what is the great sin of the “capital D” design? Surely, its sin is defiance of the Darwinian conception of how evolution works. Surely, its sin is not to accept that Darwin (even more than Hume) destroyed the possibility of design arguments forever. Surely, its sin is not to realize that henceforth divine design can be posited only on purely fideistic grounds — that if Christians affirm design in nature they do so purely on the basis of revelation, God having left no evidence of design at all in his Creation.

But this fideism, the rejection of natural theology, this rejection of all design arguments, is necessary only on the assumption that neo-Darwinism is undeniably true. Yet we know that neo-Darwinism is increasingly under attack, even by some secular biologists who are not ID proponents. Indeed, by-the-book neo-Darwinism seems to be much more common these days among American and Canadian evangelical evolutionary creationists (Collins, Giberson, Falk, Venema) than it is among professors of evolutionary biology at Yale and Chicago. These ECs are carrying around with them the “baggage” of mid-20th-century neo-Darwinism, with its atomistic conception of genes, its deterministic conception of DNA, its built-in antiteleology, its willingness to make up an infinite number of “just so stories” to account for opposite evolutionary outcomes, etc. And on the basis of that baggage, they are willing to oppose the clear sense of a number of Biblical statements about design in nature, and the weight of nearly 2,000 years of Christian theological tradition which regarded design inferences as perfectly reasonable and legitimate for a Christian to make.

How many modern evangelical Christians, exactly, are bothered by the alleged “baggage” in the notion of “design” as found in ID writers? As far as I can tell, no more than two or three score of active bloggers on websites like BioLogos, a few hundred of their fans and groupies who comment on such sites, and maybe a few hundred Christian biologists and other academics (e.g., Open Theist philosophers at “Wesleyan” colleges). From what I know of everyday evangelical churchgoers in the pews, i.e., folks who aren’t professional biologists (and aren’t science-and-theology-website addicts, consuming all their leisure time blogging and arguing about origins issues), they have no problem with the idea that God leaves signs of his wisdom in nature, and that among those signs are the brilliant arrangements of organic nature. It’s only those TE/EC folks who think that Darwinian theory is undeniable dogma, and that it should have veto power over what Christian theologians can say about God and how Christians can interpret the Bible, who are reticent to use the word “design” freely. And on this point, the simple folks in the pews are in line with Christian thinkers much greater than the BioLogos leaders: they are in line with Calvin, and Augustine, and Newton, and Boyle, and others.

Beyond the professional commitment of most of the biologist TE/EC leaders to some form of Darwinian thinking, I see further “baggage” in BioLogos and ASA TE/EC. Many of the most active TE/EC leaders (Kramer, Swamidass, Isaac, Venema, Falk, Giberson, etc.) used to be creationists themselves and are preoccupied (arguably inordinately so) with the refutation of their former position. For these ex-creationists, the idea of “design” is bound up with anti-evolution, a young earth, anti-science attitudes, etc. So their revolt against their own former creationist roots brings along with it a revolt against “design” language applied to God. But that conflation of questions, that confusion of the question “evolution vs. direct creation” with the question of “detectable design vs. no detectable design,” is itself an example of the “baggage” that some TE/ECs bring to origins discussions. Why does “evolutionary creation” have to deny that the results of evolution reveal design? There is nothing in the concept “evolutionary creation” that rules out either teleology in the process or human design inferences. Yet the words “God is a designer” or “there is evidence of God’s wisdom in nature” are rarely uttered by them without stammering, qualifications, apologies, etc. Again, the cause of this is “baggage” — baggage which Newton, Boyle etc. never had when they declared that nature revealed an admirable design.

What counts as “baggage” is often in the eye of the beholder. To this beholder, the leaders of TE/EC, especially at BioLogos, carry around more than their share of it.

Edward Robinson

About Edward Robinson

Edward Robinson (Eddie) started his university career on a science scholarship, but ended up as a philosopher/theologian researching the relationship between religion and natural science. He has published several books and articles on religion/science topics in both mainstream academic outlets and denominational and popular periodicals. He has also taught courses in various departments in several universities.
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11 Responses to Intelligent Design, “Cultural Baggage” and the Eye of the Beholder

  1. Jon Garvey says:

    Eddie

    It’s the sheer tediousness of the arguments against design that get to me. Suppose that Neodarwinism as science is entirely correct? It seems that a good number of TEs believe God set up the universe and its laws so carefully that what they thereby call “natural causes” would inevitably bring into being all we see, and that therein lies God’s glory.

    To be truthful, that would be sheer deism, and to boot is more or less demonstrably impossible in this universe (here’s the article I linked to on BioLogos). But it would also be Big D “Design”, no more or no less – and indeed, there are ID people who hold to such a view and call it Design).

    The caveats that some hold have to do with some kind of autonomy of the “natural” world from God, usually reducible to chance, in which case God’s small d “design” is mysteriously to produce the results he designs, such as mankind, to emerge from these processes which he leaves uncaused. And to anybody with any sense of logic, that is nothing to do with design lower OR upper case, but with “playing dice” on the one hand and “incoherence” on the other.

  2. Robert Byers says:

    Good thread.
    i think, also, its a lame attempt to seize the high ground of belief in a creator BY SAYING ID/YEC is hurting this belief. its a lame trick in left wing circles, or any lame circles.
    The answer is that the majority of historic Christians always not only saw god existence in creations glory but the bible said one was to see this.
    Nature shows a thinking being and does not show its creation from chance encounters in the night.
    Its about a thinking smart being . Thats the only Christian answer.
    Biologos can not pretend they are in the flow. tHey are radical in saying creation does not show a creative program.

  3. Al-Khalil says:

    Off the top of the head, some of the Discovery Institute’s items of cultural baggage involving Intelligent Design include:

    The Wedge Document
    The Polanyi Institute and Dembski’s Waterloo triumphalism
    The vise strategy and Dembski putting a Darwin doll in a vise grip
    The Dover trial – the DI pulled out & Behe’s admission about ‘scientific’ astrology
    The Expelled film drenched in victimhood and hyping up the Nazi comparison
    The sci-fi article about ID becoming standard and widespread by 2025
    Chants of ‘Design Revolution’
    ID groups (e.g. on FB) that are explicitly Christian-only
    The president of the Discovery Institute stating that any Christian who accepts that the world was created by God is therefore automatically a supporter of their theory.
    Etc.

    I guess that baggage was enough for both Dembski and Luskin to recently retire from the DI. Of course that too can all be blamed on others taking no responsibility of their own.

    • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

      Al-Khalil:

      I have never pretended to defend all that the Discovery Institute has written or defended, still less to defend many of the writings of “fringe” ID folks who operate outside the bounds of Discovery, publishing essentially creationist material that invokes ID language, etc. I have defended only the intellectual project of design detection, as a notion that is in principle philosophically sound, as even atheists like Monton and Nagel have granted. But in any case, the Wedge Document is outdated and even by the time of the Dover Trial no longer represented the DI’s policy on ID in the schools. Further, your speculations about Dembski and Luskin’s motives are gratuitous and incorrect. I know their personal reasons for being absent from ID activity at the moment, and they are not what you say. But I’m not at liberty to reveal what was learned in private and confidential conversation.

      In any case, here at the Hump our main subject of interest is not the internal flaws of institutions such as the DI or even BioLogos, but the ideas which those institutions exist to discuss. So we are interested in questions of design, teleology, formal and final causation, boundary questions concerning science, relations between certain views of evolution and unorthodox theology, etc. To the extent that we discuss institutional problems, it is where they affect the quality of the discussion. In my personal view, the fact that so many EC proponents in both the ASA and on BioLogos are ex-creationists affects the objectivity of judgment, tone, etc. of the discussion of origins in those venues, and many of the false or misleading things said about ID by ECs have their roots in the overreaction of former creationists after adopting their commitment to evolution. In other words, many EC leaders carry much personal “baggage” in their judgments about ID, design in nature, design detectability, natural theology, Calvinism, traditional Christian notions of the Fall, etc. But that’s merely my judgment — I do not claim to speak for the Hump or other Hump authors.

      • Al-Khalil says:

        Sir, next time please don’t ask “what is this ID “baggage”?” if you don’t actually want to learn about or see any of it. Those 9 items (& quite a few more) remain “cultural baggage” for many others, even if they don’t count to you. Write however much and whatever you want in reply. I won’t be reading it. Good day.

        Of course, Intelligent Design has NO cultural baggage 😉 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKhEw7nD9C4

        • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

          The question I raised was what the TE/EC folks at BioLogos meant by “baggage.” Casper Hesp has already explained what he means by “baggage”; any of the other BioLogos moderators or columnists are welcome to post here and explain what they mean by “baggage.” If you can speak for BioLogos or as a BioLogos person, then by all means do so, as I want to know what the BioLogos people are thinking and why they think it.

          Thanks for your contribution, and a good day to you, too.

  4. Casperh says:

    Hi Eddie,

    For me, personally, the negative cultural baggage of the ID movement is mostly the bad scientific arguments they are continuously insisting on. Underlying that is (what seems to be) a negative way of arguing and a fundamentally misguided conception of what science can and cannot do.

    I think I have stated often enough that I wholeheartedly affirm the Christian belief in divine design as discernible and a “rational terminus of explanation.” However, I deeply disagree with using bad arguments / fundamentally flawed lines of reasoning to make the case for such design. Such arguments actually *weaken* that case overall. So the ID movement is being (and has been) counterproductive, in my humble opinion.

    Cheers, Casper

    • Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

      Hi, Casper. Thanks for engaging with us here, and for your polite and coherent response.

      I am glad that you agree that some design arguments are in principle permissible. In that you are in agreement with Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton, though not, I fear, with many of your BioLogos colleagues, especially those whose training is in the life sciences.

      As to bad arguments made by ID proponents, well, good and bad are in the eye of the beholder. Darrel Falk said some positive things about Meyer’s second book (though backing away a bit when bullied on the BioLogos site by junior biologist Nick Matzke), and Darrel even (courageously) opposed the BioLogos philosopher Bishop on that question. Darrel also said some nice things about Denton’s new book on Amazon (though he later pulled down his Amazon review without explanation, and one wonders why). And if you look at the dust-jacket reviews of Meyer’s second book, you will see the names of some accomplished scientists, including a Harvard geneticist — indicating that the book has some scientific value. That doesn’t mean, of course, that everything in the book is right or that all the argumentation is sound; but to listen to most of the commenters and columnists on BioLogos, Meyer’s book is utterly worthless — which is a biased and partisan reaction.

      Speaking only for myself, it’s never been my position that all ID scientific arguments are equally good, and I’m totally in favor of critical responses to ID writings. I don’t accept all ID arguments myself. For example, I would have withdrawn the argument based on the blood-clotting cascade. So I’m not against well-meant criticism. What I’m against is rancorous responses motivated by private agendas — unreflective responses, responses indicating complete close-mindedness. Nick Matzke published his 100% negative, wholly un-nuanced, Amazon.com review of Meyer’s second book just 24 hours after the book went on sale. One couldn’t possibly read (not skim), reflect upon, and do a proper, balanced review of a book that is several hundred pages long, in that time period. Clearly Matzke decided even before the book came out that it needed to be trashed and that he was going to do so at the first opportunity. A more reflective sort of individual would have chewed on the book for a week or two before writing in public about it, and, like Falk, would have given the devil his due. But many of ID’s detractors are not reflective individuals, but culture warriors.

      Indeed, as the comments section on BioLogos shows, many of ID’s detractors have not even read any recent ID writing. They rely on Wikipedia or Panda’s Thumb criticisms for their knowledge of the contents of ID, and can’t be bothered to actually read ID books. (Brooks refuses to read any books by ID theorists, and beaglelady even seem proud of the fact that she hasn’t looked at any primary ID literature since Johnson was writing back in the 1990s!)

      I’m a highly-trained academic, Casper, with a special area of research in the area of theology and science. I’m horrified at the way the public debate on origins is carried out on the internet, on Wikipedia, on blog sites, etc. The partisanship level is high in all camps (ID camp included; I dislike much of what is written on Uncommon Descent, for example), and there is an unwillingness on the part of just about everyone to yield points, even reasonable points, put forward by the other camps. Jonathan Burke has never yielded a point to anyone about anything (scientific or theological) during the entire time he has posted on BioLogos. People like Matzke, Miller, beaglelady, Burke, etc. could never get through an academic program in history/philosophy of science, theology, religion and science, etc. The profs would flunk their papers for gross partisanship. I’d like to see the debates take on a more academic character — but since they mostly take place on the internet, that is unlikely to happen.

      As for your remark about what science can and cannot do, your words seem to imply that the ID folks haven’t thought deeply enough about the epistemological questions regarding scientific knowledge and its limitations. But are you familiar with the ID proponents’ background in this area? Paul Nelson — Ph.D. in philosophy of Biology from the University of Chicago (and many biology courses under his belt as well); Stephen Meyer — Ph.D. in philosophy of science from Cambridge. Jonathan Wells — Ph.D. in developmental biology from a big California university, Ph.D. from Yale in Religious Studies (thesis on metaphysical/religious response to Darwin). Dembski — two Ph.D.s in mathematics/probability theory, one from a philosophy department, one from a math department, plus undergrad degree in Psychology and Master’s of Divinity. Richards — Ph.D. in Philosophy/Theology from Princeton. These are people who regularly read people like Popper, Polanyi, Kuhn, etc. and have thought a *lot* about the so-called “demarcation problem” — the division between science, philosophy, theology, etc. When I look at the c.v.s of Deb Haarsma, Dennis Venema, Darrel Falk, Kathryn Applegate, Ard Louis, Francis Collins, Ken Miller, etc. I don’t see anywhere near this level of historical/philosophical training on questions such as “what science is” or on important questions such as teleology, final/formal cause in nature, etc. So when ID folks raise questions about what legitimately counts as scientific explanation, I see the field of debate as very uneven, with the ID folks well advanced on philosophical and methodological questions, and most of the EC folks simply adopting the conventional demarcations between science and philosophy, science and religion, etc., without offering any reasoned intellectual defense of those demarcations.

      And of course this makes sense; having started out in natural science on a scholarship and having spent a good deal of time talking to scientists, it is clear to me that there is no reward in the actual practice of modern science for thinking deeply about foundational questions at the borderline of science, philosophy, theology. All the professional rewards are for those whose ideal of science is grinding out 300 or 400 technical papers over the course of one’s career, all assuming without criticism that the Baconian/Cartesian/Kantian rejection of final causes and teleology from science is justified.

      In my experience, scientists are often very technically bright people, but rarely philosophically reflective people, even when it comes to the assumptions lying behind their own project. They prefer to leave questions of philosophical foundations of science to others, and to just get on with doing science as currently practiced. So naturally ID theory, which raises boundary questions, is going to rub them the wrong way. If it might be the case that formal or final causation should be readmitted into science, much that is taken for granted would have to be painfully re-thought.

      What counts as “scientific” and “non-scientific” is ultimately not a scientific judgment, but an epistemological one. Different authors, and different cultures, have set the boundaries differently. That’s why I find the battle for ownership of the word “scientific” to be largely unenlightening.

      From my point of view, it’s less important whether or not ID counts as “scientific” (by some arbitrary definition), but whether or not its arguments for design in nature (not miracles, not interventions, but design) are rationally strong arguments. And I don’t count it as a rebuttal to ID arguments that future science may one day prove that X could have occurred by pure chance. I don’t give out intellectual IOUs to people. I believe that we should go with “the best explanation” available at the moment (always allowing of course that new evidence can change which explanation is best), and at the moment, the best explanation for, say, the origin of life, is that it required design (not supernatural intervention, necessarily, but design). That may change, but it’s the best explanation at the moment, and therefore the explanation that a rational person would lean toward. Yet in both the atheist camp (understandably) and in the EC camp (far less understandably) there is among many (especially the biologists) a *will to believe* that a non-design explanation for the origin of life is just around the corner. It’s that desire to believe, that will to believe, that gives away the hidden biases of the game. Great scientists such as Boyle and Newton did not have that *will to believe* in non-design explanations. I wish that on such matters the EC leaders would take their cue from the scientific attitudes of Boyle and Newton rather than from notions of scientific explanation heavily conditioned by modern materialistic and reductionist thinking.

  5. Alan Alan says:

    May I ask for, as our American friends might say, a ‘time out’?

    Firstly, I am intrigued by Edward’s assertion that there is a ‘will to believe’ in a non-design explanation among the atheist community. I am not sure I have ever seen such a thing but perhaps he talks to more atheists than I do! In fact, the atheists I talk to are perplexed by Christians’ desire to assert that they hold a particular position in an affirmative sense. The ones to whom I speak maintain that they do not and they are, in fact, ‘passive’. In this sense, atheism is a pleasantly ‘lazy’ position. Although the Four Horsemen have come over as personally aggressive on occasion (Hitch especially), atheists would still argue that the actual position itself is completely passive, in that it is not an ‘active’ disbelief in a deity. I think this is where Christians, and perhaps all faiths, often misconstrue the atheist position.

    In effect, the atheists I know are philosophically shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘OK, prove it’. I can see nothing wrong with this from a scientific point of view. It is, after all, the equivalent of a student coming to me and asserting that changes in land use affect biodiversity. To which I say….OK, prove it. The student must develop a hypothesis based on the literature and then use evidence to demonstrate the validity of the argument i.e. disprove the null hypothesis. This is where ID currently finds itself – it has been told to go away and disprove the null. But this is where the problem now appears to lie as the longer the debate goes on and the more refined it becomes, the less clear is the outcome and the less clear my own understanding.

    It is the sheer complexity of the argument which is perhaps the greatest problem for ID. Ultimately it will not be a matter of whether it is correct but whether it can be presented to the human species as, firstly, an understandable concept and then secondly and consequently, as evidence for a creator. I am aware of no more than the basics of ID but I understand the fundamental arguments for and against and have an interest. My having such an interest however, does not preclude my complete inability to keep up with the latest writing on the subject. I am therefore left behind by academics such as Edward and as I no longer have the time to research the various positions and engage with the arguments, I am starting to lose interest in the subject. (Apologies Edward)

    Sadly, ID risks developing into such a niche interest that, assuming it could be finally proven, it would be so distant from the potential for understanding by the common man (not meant in any disparaging sense) that it will be useless as a means of convincing the human species of its own validity and consequently its usefulness in supporting an argument for the existence of God will be diminished. And for this reason and this reason alone, ID may not be the silver bullet which many Christians hope it to be.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Alan

      I’ll just add a couple of thoughts to Eddie’s reply.

      The first is that none of the writers here has a particular interest in opposing the New Atheists (who seem to be doing a good job of opposing themselves recently) – with the possible exception of Sy Garte, who was a militant atheist himself until a dozen or so years ago (it’s not all scientists who get to be cited, and thanked, in a Richard Dawkins book as Sy did in A Devil’s Chaplain!).

      My principal interest here is how science and classic creation doctrine can meld, working on the assumption of the truth of Christianity, and therefore primarily for believers. Atheism is not much concerned in that, except to the extent that its metaphysics of naturalism needs critiquing. In fact Intelligent Design is tangential too, only in that case Eddie is the one writer waving the flag.

      Secondly your point about ID maybe “shooting over the heads” of the man in the street and so defeating its own object is a reasonable one. The problem, it seems to me, is that the immediate appeal of Origin of Species to the popular reader back in 1859 was an instinctive plausibility that makes naturalism based on Epicurean chance seem self-evident.

      The devil is in the detail, so inevitably proper arguments about the matter will be at a technical level likely not to be understood beyond the professionals and the keen. The issues have to be popularised, as Huxley popularised (and in the process thoroughly secularised) the theory of natural selection.

      But the main complaint about ID people is that they’re not doing proper science in peer-reviewed journals, but writing popular books to persuade the uninformed – which on the face of it seems to put them in a no-win situation! One approach that seems to me valid is that proposed recently by Bob Axe, who in his book urges people to treat their gut instinct in favour of design as properly basic, and adds scientific arguments only as confirmatory. That simple strategy (in a very readable book) actually has a good philosophical basis, if you listen to a philosopher like Alvin Plantinga, but like basic Darwinism itself is easily grasped by anyone.

      As for us, although we’re not an ID site, the general idea is to help move the science-faith (and origins) forward in new ways, rather than simply to popularise existing ideas. I’m aware that this affects The Hump’s accessibility to Joe Public (as my friends say when they report back that they read the blog but couldn’t understand what we were talking about).

      One hopes that those familiar with the arguments will pick up some ideas and translate them in their classrooms or pulpits. Indeed, I’m comforted by the fact that we are currently getting over 100,000 visits a year from well over thirty countries, many from real scientists and academic theolgians, so somebody must be getting the message!

  6. Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

    Hi, Alan!

    Thanks for engaging graciously and clearly with the ideas in my article.

    I would make several points in response to your comments.

    1. I grant that there exist people who do not believe in the existence of God, but who are not aggressive about that belief, and don’t go around (like Dawkins, etc.) trying to convince people there is no God. I even grant that of those people who do not believe in the existence of God, some of them would be willing to revise their belief in the light of new evidence or argument. So I am not disputing the existence of the class of atheist to whom you refer. In fact, such atheists are really, at bottom, agnostics who have merely drawn a temporary (revisable) conclusion that God does not exist, and live their lives on that basis, pending the discovery of new evidence. They aren’t doctrinaire atheists who “know” that God does not exist. And I have no problem with such non-doctrinaire atheists, either academically or personally. I even like some of them personally, and some of my best friends are “agnostic atheists” of this sort.

    However, there are in fact doctrinaire atheists who believe they know that God does not exist — who believe that God’s existence has been disproved. They offer various arguments to establish this, including alleged falsehoods in the teaching of various religions, the existence of evil and suffering in the world, and so on. They regard people who still believe in God in the face of these objections as intellectually deficient, illogical, irrational, uninformed about the facts of reality, etc. It is mostly these doctrinaire atheists who occupy the attention of the public in religion/science discussions, since they make a clear and definite claim, draw lines in the sand, and openly attack the views of religious people. I don’t think you can, and I doubt you will, deny the existence of such atheists.

    2. Why might a doctrinaire atheist (as opposed to an “agnostic atheist”) have a “will not to believe” that there is design in nature? Well, let’s take an obvious case. For a few years I was into reading Holocaust literature. I read the works of Jews who had personally been in death camps, who had relatives in death camps, etc. After the Holocaust, many Jews drew the conclusion that God did not exist. They could square a degree of Jewish trial and tribulation with the existence of their God, but they could not accept the Holocaust. To them it was unthinkable that God could allow suffering of that kind and that degree. So many abandoned belief in God, and became existentially convinced that God does not exist. Now, for such an ex-believer, there cannot be design in nature, because there is no designer. Nature can only be a thrown-together accident of blind chance and pitiless natural laws. So any apparent evidence that there is design in nature must be interpreted away. Either the conclusion of design is faulty, or it is premature. Surely science will tomorrow show that what looks like elegant design is only apparent design, an illusion of design created by chance and natural selection. Thus, a religious conviction — that there is no God — determines what is and is not an acceptable scientific conclusion. Someone who is sure there is no God (and that includes of course people other than Holocaust victims, whom I mentioned merely as an obvious example) will not allow inferences of design. The prior religious conviction governs the scientific interpretation of the data. If there is a firm, unshakable, existential conviction that God does not exist, then a person with that conviction will be wishing, hoping, praying (to speak ironically) that what appears to be good evidence of an intelligent designer of nature can somehow be explained within an atheistic framework. For if there really is design, then the world-view to which the doctrinaire atheist has committed himself falls to the ground — and many human beings lack the courage to do the follow-up self-examination required by such intellectual crises. They would rather resort to desperate means to explain away the evidence for design, than accept that their world-view might have been completely wrong.

    That such people exist, I have no doubt. I have spent most of my adult life in academic circles in North America (overlapping with political and literary circles), and such people are numerous. Of course, very few of them will openly admit that they will reject all design inferences in principle — that they know in advance that there cannot be a designer because God does not exist. To be so bald about the matter would be to paint themselves as having dogmatic ideas which a supposedly open-minded scholar or scientist is not supposed to have. They have to pretend to be open to design inferences in principle, and they have to make out that their rejection of design is purely to do with evidence and not with any prior religious biases of their own. But from living with, dining with, drinking with, conversing with, and interacting steadily with such people, watching their political activities, their academic behavior, etc., I can assure you that their motivation is quite evident: they don’t believe in God, they don’t want to believe in God, and therefore they don’t want to believe that there is any evidence in nature that points to a God. They will fight, tooth and nail, against any attempt to demonstrate the existence of an intelligent designer in nature.

    Note: Such atheists also will, where they have power, do their best to make sure that someone who *does* believe in an intelligent designer does not get a permanent job at their academic institution. (Case in point: the lobbying of atheist religious studies professor Hector Avalos to make sure that Christian astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, with 68 peer-reviewed publications in astronomy and an expert on extra-solar planets, did not get tenure at Iowa State.)

    3. Bear in mind that while I refer to atheists in passing, my main focus in the column above is the *Christian* writers and commenters on BioLogos and in the TE/EC movement. And those Christian writers are *not* atheists, not even in the passive sense that you describe. They openly profess that God exists; they believe God’s existence to be fact, not merely conjecture; they base their entire lives on the assumption of the existence of God. Therefore, by logical implication, they *must* believe that God designed nature (that’s part and parcel of Christian belief). So any indication of a reluctance to accept design in nature on their part is most puzzling. There is no reason why a Christian scientist should be eager to go miles out of the way to show that no design is evident in biological systems, to show that design inferences are bad inferences for Christians to draw, etc. Yet that is exactly what we see among TE/EC biologists. Even in cases where the evidence looks overwhelming that at some level design was involved (which is currently the situation regarding the origin of life), TE/EC biologists seem to be looking for escape routes from that conclusion — ways of explaining the origin of life which deny any design. In other words, these Christian scientists proceed in exactly the same way we would expect the more doctrinaire kind of atheist to proceed — and that is puzzling.

    I don’t know where you are coming from, Alan, on the religious front. It may be that you are not a Christian and don’t pay much attention to intra-Christian debates. My article was written for those who are very much interested in intra-Christian issues, in particular in the conflict between those Christian scientists who see design as a very reasonable hypothesis about origins, and those Christian scientists (TE/EC) who side with the atheists in thinking that design is a very unreasonable hypothesis. I’m really less concerned about the motivations of the doctrinaire atheists, which are transparent, and more concerned about the motivations of the TE/EC Christians who attack design inferences, both in detail and in principle. The motivations of the latter group are often murky and ambiguous, and in the end, it seems to me, are connected with defects in their Christian theology as well as defects in their understanding of the notion of “explanation” in the history and philosophy of natural science.

    4. Regarding ID as a silver bullet for Christians, remember that ID proper (as opposed to the use of ID made by many creationists) is only about design detection, not about Christian apologetics. ID has nothing to say about the authority or truth of the Bible, the truth of Christian religion, the miracles of Jesus, etc. It’s merely trying to establish the fact of design in nature. If there is design in nature, then Christianity is *possibly* true. If there is design in nature, then the aggressive forms of atheism are wrong. That’s the most use ID can be for Christian religion. It can facilitate the acceptance of Christianity. But it can facilitate the acceptance of other religions as well. If Christians are hoping for more from it, if they are hoping for it to serve as the core of a Christian apologetic, then they are asking more from it than it can offer.

    5. You seem to be saying that you don’t have time to read much ID literature. I can understand that. If you have limited time, here is a suggestion: Michael Denton’s book, *Nature’s Destiny*. It argues for design in nature, but in the context of evolution and natural causes. You might like it.

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