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CMI’s views on the Intelligent Design Movement

by , 2002


The argument of ‘intelligent design’ (ID) has a long history going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.1 It was persuasively articulated by William Paley (1743–1805), who put forward the argument of an inferred divine Watchmaker in his book Natural Theology (1802). Modern biblical creationists have also used the design argument in their opposition to evolution.2 But the works of modern scholars such as Michael Denton (Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, 1985) and Phillip Johnson (Darwin on Trial, 1991) have led to the formation of an association of scientists and other scholars, which has become known as the ‘Intelligent Design Movement’ (IDM or ID movement).

Many of our supporters have asked us repeatedly for our position on the IDM, so this document is in response to that. It is not intended to be a hostile review by any means. Many in the creation movement, including me personally, have friendly relations with, and personally like, some of the people prominent in the IDM.

The modern concept of intelligent design has been simply formulated as the belief that certain biological lines of evidence (e.g., the ‘irreducible complexity’ of features such as the bacterial flagellum) are evidence for a designer and against blind naturalistic processes.

The modern Intelligent Design Movement (IDM)

The Intelligent Design Movement’s motivation appears to be the desire to challenge the blind acceptance of the materialistic, godless, naturalistic philosophy of Darwinian evolution. They confront many of the philosophical underpinnings of today’s evolutionary thinking. As a movement, they are unwilling to align themselves with biblical creationism.

The informal leadership of the IDM has more or less come to rest on Phillip Johnson, a distinguished retired (emeritus) Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley who is a Presbyterian. Philosophically and theologically, the leading lights of the ID movement form an eclectic group. For example, Dr Jonathan Wells is not only a scientist but also an ordained cleric in the Unification Church (the ‘Moonie’ sect) and Dr Michael Denton is a former agnostic anti-evolutionist (with respect to biological transformism), who now professes a vague form of theism. However, he now seems to have embraced evolutionary (though somehow ‘guided’) transformism. Dr Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, is a Roman Catholic who says he has no problem with the idea that all organisms, including man, descended from a common ancestor.

The IDM’s general approach

Among the IDM’s leading proponents, there are some commonly shared beliefs and stances:

  • The major focus of their attacks is not evolution as such, but ‘chance’ evolution, i.e., the naturalistic philosophy (there is no supernatural; matter is all there is) behind it.

  • Anyone opposed to naturalism could potentially qualify as an ally. This includes believers in evolution from microbe to man, so long as this belief were to involve some intelligent, planned interference sometime during the billions of years.

  • They generally believe in, or are publicly neutral on, the millions and billions of years that evolutionists teach and accept.

  • They either are comfortable with, or express no public view on, the corollary implication of long-age belief, namely that millions of years of death, disease and suffering took place before mankind appeared.

  • Though the movement incorporates some believers in Genesis, including recent creation in six days and Noah’s global Flood, its approach would preclude public expression of support or concern for the Bible’s authority in such matters.

  • They often go to great lengths to ensure that they are not seen as ‘coming at it from the Bible’.

The concept of the ID movement has attracted a number of evangelical Christians, including believers in literal Genesis, who see it as a helpful new strategy to crack the foundation of evolution, which undergirds most of the world’s cultures and schools.

Evidence of ID’s growing activism was the effort to add the Santorum amendment to the 2002 US education bill (an amendment that encouraged schools to inform students about the ‘continuing controversy’ over ‘biological evolution’). ID leaders have also been active in ongoing efforts to include ID in the educational standards of the US state of Ohio.

The IDM’s perceived and potential strengths

  • Many biblical (or Genesis) creationists (BCs, who by historically sound exegetical standards are convinced of recent creation) realize that the IDM ‘doesn’t go as far as we like’, but think that this is a reasonable price to pay for what they see as a potentially effective ‘thin edge of the wedge’ strategy. They reason, ‘Let’s just get the camel’s nose inside the tent, then we can concentrate on these other issues. Let’s win one battle at a time.’

  • IDM sympathizers among BCs, frustrated by the failed legislative attempts to force the teaching of ‘two models’, generally think that this tactic has a better chance of getting them a hearing in the social/legislative arena. (CMI has never supported compulsion to teach creation, by the way, and does not support the artificial separation into the categories of ‘scientific’ vs ‘biblical’ creationism that characterized much of the ‘two-model approach.) They probably believe that this is because:

    • They can tap into the intellectual, academic and political clout of a greater range of people than just Bible-believing Christians.

    • By having non-Christians in the movement, it will appear less parochial and ‘biased’.

    • By ‘keeping the Bible out of it’, they likely believe that this will overcome the ‘separation of church and state’ interpretations of the US Constitution that have prevailed in recent years. They would therefore be inclined to argue that this is a ‘tactical necessity’.

    • The movement’s apparent refusal to identify the hypothetical designer with the biblical God (some IDers have pointed out that the design work they postulate could even have been performed by aliens) is seen as a prudent necessity to keep the argument on philosophically ‘neutral’ ground, and thus avoid a lot of anti-Christian hostility.

CMI’s perception of the positives of the IDM

  • It has produced some materials and arguments which, though not necessarily designed to help the battle for biblical creation, have been very useful in this cause.

  • It has kept the anti-creationists occupied on another flank of the battle, i.e. it has drawn some of the fire which might otherwise have distracted us from allocating our full efforts to spreading our message.

  • It correctly draws attention to the fact that the teaching of Darwinism is not philosophically/religiously neutral, but is squarely based upon the presuppositions of naturalism (another word for philosophical materialism or atheism, i.e., that there is no supernatural, but that this material world is all there is).

CMI’s perception of IDM’s weaknesses

  • Despite incorporating some extremely bright thinkers, the movement as a whole seems to have a recurring philosophical blind spot. Though they often correctly point out the religious foundations of Darwinism, the fact that all scientific reasoning is ultimately based on axioms/presuppositions (which are unprovable, hence metaphysical/subjective/biased by definition) should have alerted them to the fact that there is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ scientific arena within which to interpret the evidence related to the past.

  • Since the only thing in their platform which comes close to being a commonly-shared presupposition is a negative (naturalism is wrong), they can provide no coherent philosophical framework on which to base the axioms necessary to interpret evidence relevant to the historical sciences (paleontology, historical geology, etc). So they can never offer a ‘story of the past’, which is one more reason why they must continually limit the debate to one of mechanism—and then only in broad, general terms (designed vs undesigned).

  • They generally refuse to be drawn on the sequence of events, or the exact history of life on Earth or its duration, apart from saying, in effect, that it ‘doesn’t matter’. However, this is seen by the average evolutionist as either absurd or disingenuously evasive—the arena in which they are seeking to be regarded as full players is one which directly involves historical issues. In other words, if the origins debate is not about a ‘story of the past’, what is it about?

  • Their failure to identify themselves with a story of the past (e.g. Genesis) is partly tactically-driven, but is also a necessity, because they do not agree within themselves on a story of the past. However, this failure only reinforces the perception by the establishment that they are really ‘creationists in disguise’. The attacks on the IDM have thus been virtually as ferocious as any on Genesis creationists. Thus, the belief that agreeing to ‘keep the Bible out of it’ would serve to keep anti-religious hostility out of the arena has not been confirmed in practice.

  • Some who are prominent in the IDM appear to be sympathetic to the Bible’s account of Creation. However, if the movement should ever make the strategic inroads it hopes for, then our concern would be that any of its leaders who might later identify themselves with Genesis belief would lay themselves open to charges of having been publicly deceptive.

    Ironically, despite already drawing the fire aimed at Genesis, the Bible and Christianity, many other prominent figures in the IDM reject or are hostile to biblical creation, especially the notion of the recent creation of a good world, ruined by man’s Fall into sin. For tactical reasons, they have been urged (especially by their coolest and wisest head, Phil Johnson, who does not himself share that hostility) not to publicly condemn their Genesis-believing fellow travelers, although this simmering opposition has burst forth from time to time. Were the IDM to partially succeed in its initial aims, some of the strongest opponents of literal Genesis may well arise from its recently-victorious ranks. For instance, Dr Michael Denton, though an amiable fellow, was nevertheless part of a broadcast forum in Australia which recently told a largely Christian audience that belief in literal Genesis was foolish and unscientific.

  • The IDM’s refusal to identify the Designer with the biblical God, and in particular with the history in the Bible, means that:

    • Acceptance of ID thinking en masse could just as easily lead to New-Age or Hindu-like notions of creation, as well as weird alien sci-fi notions.3 In such instances, a Christian might well see that the metaphorical exorcism of one socio-philosophical demon would have achieved merely its replacement by others, possibly worse.

    • There is no philosophical answer to their opponents’ logically-deduced charge that the Designer was monstrous and/or inept (‘look at all the horrible, cruel, even defective things in the living world’), since bringing up the Fall is deliberately, tactically excluded. (However, the Fall was a major event in history, that changed everything. The world we are looking at now is a world that has been corrupted by sin, not the original world that God designed). Thus, the movement’s success could very likely even be counterproductive, by laying the biblical God open to ridicule and contempt in new ways.

In fact, these points are not just hypothetical. Historically, the ‘intelligent design in isolation’ argument has achieved just these sorts of negative results. In other words, it’s been tried before and failed. The ‘natural theology’ approach (using design, but keeping the Bible out of it) by the deists of former centuries led to an increase in deistic belief, i.e. ‘a different god’ just as in point i) immediately above, with its attendant rejection of the Bible and the Gospel. The deists’ driving force was the rejection of God’s Word and, concomitantly, His right to exercise rule over our lives.

Urged to deduce the existence of the Creator God from ‘design alone’, and thus leaving out the Fall and the real history of the world, thinkers concluded that any creator God must be cruel, wasteful, etc. Charles Darwin himself wrote in exactly that vein. He also provided another example of the negative effects of leaving the biblical history out of the discussion. When he came across obvious examples of adaptive radiation from mainland populations onto islands, the only ‘concept’ of creation he had in his mind, in association with most of his deistically-influenced scientist contemporaries, was in situ creation, which his observations spoke so strongly against. But of course if he had built into his thinking dispersal of all land vertebrates from one central point after the global Flood, the alleged problem would have vanished. So, intelligent design arguments that ‘left the Bible out of it’ actually aided and abetted, in a major way, the rising rejection of the Bible. Far from countering atheism, it actually pushed thinkers into a non-design explanation, hence further into naturalism and atheism.

This is not surprising. The Apostle Paul acknowledges the power of the design argument in Romans 1:20: God’s eternal power and divine nature can be clearly understood from the things that have been made (i.e. evidence of design in nature). Because of this, the ungodly are ‘without excuse.’ But he maintains that people willingly reject this clear evidence. Peter likewise says in 2 Peter 3:3-6 that those who reject the supernatural Creation and the global Flood are ‘willingly ignorant’ (KJV) or ‘deliberately forget[ful]’ (NIV). Evidence of design in nature is enough to condemn men, but it is not enough to save them. The Bible makes it overwhelmingly clear that the scientific aspects of creation ministry cannot, in the end, be separated from the preaching of the Gospel, to enable people to be reconciled to their Creator. Deducing the details of creation from nature alone, unguided by His revealed Word, ignores the fact that nature is fallen and cursed. The great theologian Louis Berkhof wrote: ‘ … since the entrance of sin into the world, man can gather true knowledge about God from His general revelation only if he studies it in the light of Scripture … .’4

The IDM as a whole does not come to grips with the historical background of naturalism in the sciences. biblical creationists have long argued that the millions-of-years concepts (which the majority of leading IDMers either support or say they have ‘no problem with’) in fields like astronomy/cosmology and historical geology were squarely based on, derived from, and fueled by, naturalism—i.e., the deliberate rejection of God’s Word and its authority in relation to the history of the world.5 These naturalism-underpinned conclusions of geology/astronomy were the seedbed for Darwinism. That is, naturalism was there long before Darwinism and led directly to its dominance. It is therefore ironic to observe IDers telling people that fighting ‘naturalism’ is the important issue, when at the same time they tell people that the very naturalism-based issues which were the seedbed of Darwinism are ‘unimportant.’

Interestingly, a recent book produced from within the IDM, Darwin’s God by Cornelius Hunter, argues powerfully that Darwin was really trying to distance God from natural evil, by removing Him from having anything to do with His creation. In other words, Darwin was in that sense an ultra-deist, rather than an atheist. Hunter shows how the problem is a particular view of God, of what He would or would not do. But indirectly, this would appear to argue against one aspect of the ID platform, since the only way to have a correct view of God and what He would do (and did do) would be if God revealed it to us, as indeed He has through Scripture. And Hunter’s book often refers obliquely to biblical passages.

What about public education?

We tend to blame ‘the world’ for what has happened to our educational institutions. We don’t usually stop to think of how the church itself has aided and abetted this tragedy as it has so often compromised on the authority of God’s Word in relation to real-world issues such as science and history. CMI’s major ‘strategy’ is to boldly, but humbly, call the church back to its biblical foundations in such matters, reforming the thinking of Christians, who are then to be salt and light to our culture. This is how it worked in the days of the Great Awakening in England and America, when the light of the Gospel diffused horizontally through the educational, political and social institutions, transforming positively just about everything we take for granted in our modern world.

We have always felt that teachers should at least be able to critically examine arguments for and against evolution, and we don’t think that the constitutional arguments in the USA supposedly preventing that have ever been strong, i.e., how can any Christian teacher who wants to do so be prevented from giving arguments for and against evolution? What reasonable person could logically defend the notion of shielding any scientific theory or idea from all critical analysis?

At the same time, we have never supported compulsory teaching of biblical creation (imagine any teacher being forced to teach that which they don’t believe, and which in effect points the finger at them as sinners).

As indicated earlier, we also don’t believe that one can, or should attempt to, artificially separate ‘biblical’ from ‘scientific’ creation in order to gain a hearing in the public arena. This has been attempted by biblical creationists, again for tactical reasons, with good motives. But, like the IDM’s broader but ultimately similar stratagem, it appears to us to be philosophically flawed.

The origins issue has never been about facts and evidence as such—we all have the same world, the same evidence, the same facts. It is the philosophical framework within which facts are interpreted which differs. And philosophical frameworks are based on axioms (presuppositions, or starting beliefs). The scientific conclusions of Darwinism are squarely based on anti-biblical (naturalistic) axioms, while those of creation are based on biblical axioms. We believe that axioms need to be openly ‘on the table’, and it should be realized that one can discuss them in a secular setting without teaching religious doctrine as such, but without hiding or running away from the implications. The evidence concerning origins can be discussed through a critical comparison of axiom-based models6 without fostering the secular myth of ‘neutrality,’ i.e., that evidence ‘speaks for itself’ in some mysterious way.

What about the constitutional barriers?

US courts have consistently ‘reinterpreted’ the Constitution, and the US public mood has become increasingly secular. Why has this societal shift occurred? Because the church en masse has had its eyes shut to the foundational philosophical/worldview shift in Western culture. For this failure to adequately defend the authority of Genesis the church bears grave responsibility. Again, we see that the pressing need and priority is to reform the church in order to ‘re-salt’ the culture; the legal/political battles will then become totally reframed. We fear that Christians who play ‘let’s pretend the Bible isn’t part of it’ risk alienating the culture still further.

Of course, in practical terms, starting with the powerful design arguments which the IDM has helped to reawaken (and has formalized in modern terms) can be a very useful tool for ‘opening discussion’, especially in circles where mentioning the Bible would instantly plug the hearer’s ears. Many of us in CMI have actually been partially using the ‘wedge’ tactic of the IDM for years individually. That is, we may, in certain settings, seek to gain a more ready hearing through initially focusing on less controversial aspects of biblical creation. However, unlike the official stance of the IDM, when that opening comes, or when questioned, we will unhesitatingly affirm that we start our thinking based squarely on the real history in the Bible. Used properly, such a tactic is almost inevitably more effective than acting as if there is a neutral ‘science’ arena for determining truth. Most people get the point when one shows them how evidence is not neutral and does not speak for itself but must be interpreted. Even unbelievers are often willing to follow an argument when asked to temporarily alter their presuppositions (i.e., to ‘put on a different pair of glasses’) to see how the evidence might fit a biblical worldview. So, while it may be useful on occasion to focus on the evidence and avoid references to the Bible and religion, it is counterproductive if one does so to an extent that reinforces the myth that it is somehow less ‘scientific’ to base one’s models on God’s revelation, the Bible.

Summary and conclusion

CMI supports the ID movement’s efforts to promote academic freedom and to question evolution. When we call into question (hopefully with humility) aspects of their strategy, we do so not to seek to undermine or oppose their efforts, but to encourage careful thinking by all concerned believers (including ourselves) concerning the ways to achieve the most good, and to give most honor and glory to God. In the end, we in CMI are concerned about the truth and authority of the Word of God, the Bible. This is an issue which ultimately transcends and overrides matters such as local school politics and the like.

God, who used even the pagan king Cyrus for His purposes, may use the IDM in spite of the concerns we have raised. We would be delighted to see it make real inroads in the areas of its interest, and are positive about many aspects of its existence, including some of the useful materials it produces. Where we can be natural allies, if this can occur without compromising our biblical stance in any way, we want to be.

Our friends in the IDM will hopefully understand that when we discuss these problems and issues, we do so not to discourage or obstruct, but simply to make it clear where we are coming from, why we do so, and why we neither count ourselves a part of this movement nor campaign against it.

References and notes

  1. Cicero, for example, used design in support of the Greek pantheon of gods. See also A brief history of design. Return to text.
  2. A.E. Wilder-Smith, The Creation of Life (Wheaton: Harold Shaw, 1970), Robert Kofahl and Kelly Segraves, The Creation Explanation (Wheaton: Harold Shaw, 1975) and Henry Morris and Gary Parker, What is Creation Science? (El Cajon: Master Books, 1982). Return to text.
  3. See the 2004 book by CMI speaker Gary Bates: Alien Intrusion: UFOs and the Evolution Connection. Return to text.
  4. Louis Berkhof, L, Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology, Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1938, p. 60. Return to text.
  5. See two relevant articles by Dr Terry Mortenson on this point: Return to text.
  6. What about the common objection, ‘Why not then teach e.g. Australian Aboriginal creation stories in science lessons?’ One could ask such objectors whether they are aware of any origins teaching outside of the Abrahamic stream which:
    • Claims to be absolute revelational truth from the Creator in documentary form
    • Has been held and believed consistently for many centuries in essentially its modern form.
    • Has been held to offer a serious historical explanation for all of reality and the origins of man and the universe.
    • Is supported by a significant group of qualified scientists and other intellectuals who are convinced that it does indeed explain the data at least as well as evolution/long ages.
    Return to text.

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