Intelligent Design: why the fuss, and what’s it about?


Expelled movie

The important Ben Stein movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, has certainly helped to put “intelligent design” (ID) in the spotlight.

Taking advantage of this interest in ID, CMI carried out several “design” tours in various countries in 2008. CMI’s Creation magazine has for decades included articles about design. CMI’s Dr Jonathan Sarfati is the author of the best selling creation book ever written—Refuting Evolution. His newest book is By Design, a comprehensive creationist book on the subject of design.

As Expelled shows, ID is really a subset of the broader “origins” controversy. It is limited to simply opposing the notion of an undesigned world, the evolutionary result of blind natural forces. Most Christians, though often sadly unconcerned about the how or when of creation, see design vs. non-design as a “no-brainer.” It’s obvious that this world didn’t make itself.

But there’s much more at stake in a discussion about origins. The reliability and accuracy of the Bible is crucial to the Christian faith, especially in regard to Genesis, wherein Scripture purports to give real history. Since Genesis history includes the origin of sin and death, it is crucially foundational to the logic of the gospel: a good world, ruined by sin, to be restored in the future.

Why so? All things will be restored because Jesus Christ, the obedient last Adam, shed His blood in death to ultimately overcome the curse of death and bloodshed brought in by the disobedience of the first Adam. They will be restored to a sinless, deathless state, which is how the world began. The good news about Jesus Christ makes no sense without the bad news of why things became messed up in the first place.

All of that is undermined by belief in a long evolutionary history. If true, the long-age sequence of events, even if somehow “divinely guided,” would show that the history in Genesis is simply wrong. Death and suffering would have been around for millions of years before Adam’s sin. This also destroys the logic of the Gospel. If things rose from chaos via suffering, they did not fall from perfection. If there was no Fall into sin, then what is there to be saved from? If the Bible is not accurate or reliable in its history, why should anyone trust it on matters of faith, salvation, and morality?

As the pressure in our Western culture mounts against the historical accuracy of the Bible, its authority in the moral sphere continually declines, and with it our society.

The Intelligent Design Movement

Image Wikipedia.com bible
As the pressure on the historical accuracy of the Bible increases, its authority in the moral sphere declines, and with it our society.

Many evangelicals have welcomed the ID movement (IDM) with its implied threat to the supremacy of Darwinism. The movement’s key claim is that certain biological lines of evidence (e.g., the “irreducible complexity” of features like the bacterial flagellum) are evidence for a designer (unidentified) and against blind, unguided processes. The IDM challenges the unthinking acceptance of the materialistic, godless philosophy that underpins Darwinian evolution and is in turn reinforced by it—naturalism. This is the belief that “nature is all there is—there is no supernatural.”

Anyone opposing naturalism could qualify as an ally, which would technically include any “theistic evolutionist” (TE). Surprisingly, many prominent TE’s also oppose ID—their version of theism permits “God” to operate only through strictly natural processes. This means that the world we see is in practice indistinguishable from one that has made itself.

Some biblical creationists1 would even identify themselves as part of the IDM, sharing its goal of opposing naturalistic evolution. However, many in the IDM are not biblical creationists and are at pains to distance themselves from Genesis history.

One leading IDM figure is Roman Catholic biochemist, Dr. Michael Behe, author of the groundbreaking Darwin’s Black Box. He opposes the idea that “nature made itself” but says he has no problem with the notion that one cell gave rise to all life forms, including people, over millions of years.2 This excludes any possibility of the Bible’s historicity.

All this can add to a believer’s confusion, of course. Should one avoid, or even oppose, a movement which incorporates not only full-on Bible believers, but also those who reject the Bible in various ways? Or should one wisely use and encourage whatever gains the IDM is able to make against naturalism’s grip? Biblical and tactical arguments can be made for differing conclusions. The purpose here is simply to give some clarifying detail—and mention CMI’s stance—in order to help individuals make their own assessments.

Not a new argument

The argument of “intelligent design” has a long history, going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.3 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). Biblical creationists, who first became a substantial organized movement in the early sixties, have also used the design argument.4 More recent works, e.g. Evolution: A Theory in Crisis (by the agnostic Michael Denton, 1985) and Darwin on Trial (by Presbyterian Phillip Johnson, 1991) led to today’s IDM.

IDM strengths

The IDM helpfully spotlights the fact that Darwinism is not religiously neutral but rather is based on the religion of naturalism.

Many creationists reason that while the movement “doesn’t go as far as we like,” it seems a reasonable price to pay for a potentially effective strategy of “Let’s get the camel’s nose inside the tent, and then we can concentrate on these other issues. One battle at a time.” They feel the IDM can tap into the intellectual, academic, and political clout of a greater range of people than just Bible-believers. The presence of non-Christians in the movement makes it seem less parochial and “biased.”

Some of the arguments and materials produced by proponents of ID, though not necessarily designed to help the battle for biblical creation, have been very useful, and we’ve promoted these. ID controversies generate an increasing public awareness of “doubts about Darwin” that Christians (both individuals and ministries) can make use of. They also have opened another flank of the battle, drawing some of the flak normally reserved for biblical creationists.

Some weaknesses

Photo wikipedia.com Some people are concerned that Intelligent Design thinking might lead to New Age or Hindu-like notions of creation
Some people are concerned that Intelligent Design thinking might lead to New Age or Hindu-like notions of creation

The IDM’s “stick to science only; leave the Bible out of it” position displays a frustrating philosophical blind spot that cedes unnecessary territory, and reinforces the anti-creationist caricature of “science vs. religion.” There can be no “neutral” scientific arena within which to interpret the evidence related to the past. Facts don’t speak for themselves; they have to be interpreted, based on (unprovable, hence “religious/metaphysical/subjective”) axioms (presuppositions).

IDers all agree that naturalism is a false belief system. However, with no other coherent philosophical framework on which to base the axioms necessary to interpret evidence relevant to historical sciences (paleontology, historical geology, etc.), they can never offer a “story of the past.” This weakness is often presented by them as a strength, but it forces them to limit the debate to one of mechanism—and then only in broad, general terms (designed vs. undesigned).

To most evolutionists, this comes across as either absurd or disingenuously evasive; what is the origins debate about, if not a story of the past? It can reinforce the establishment’s perception that they are really just “biblical creationists being sneaky.”5

Some may have felt that excluding the Bible from discussion would minimize anti-religious hostility. However, the ferocity of the attacks on ID has shown the opposite to be true, if anything—as seen in Expelled.

The concern that ID thinking might just as easily lead to New Age or Hindu-like notions of creation, as well as weird alien sci-fi notions, is understandable. Perhaps, though, it would be a risk worth taking, because if ID were ever to dethrone naturalism as the dominant paradigm, it would seem harder to disguise these other anti-Biblical philosophies as “science”, and easier to argue for Genesis.

I prefer to regard the IDM as natural allies overall—even though I cringe at the painful disparagements of six-day, recent (Genesis) creation by some IDers, and their obvious discomfort whenever linked with us (see Mark 8:38).

We need to be extremely careful, though, about the problem of trying to exclude the Bible.

The issue of “bad design”

Importantly, the self-imposed limitations of ID mean that it provides no real answer to its 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.”). Bringing up the Fall is deliberately, tactically excluded, and in any case, some IDers would not believe in an actual Fall resulting in a cursed world. However, the Fall was a major event in history; it changed everything.

The world we are looking at now is a world that has been corrupted because of sin; it is not the original world that God designed. If one argues “design without Genesis” (thus sans Fall) it lays the Designer open to ridicule and contempt in new ways.6

Romans 1:20 indicates that there is clear evidence of design in nature, making people “without excuse.” The chapter also shows that people willingly reject this clear evidence, which is enough to condemn, but not save, them. Science itself suffers without the proper axioms from which to work. 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 … ”7

The historical background

Photo stock.xchng ‘Non-Christian advocates of Intelligent Design have no real answer to opponents taunting ‘Look at all the horrible, cruel, even defective things in the living world.’ But Christians do—see, e.g., Skeptics challenge: A ‘God of Love’ created a killer jellyfish?’
Non-Christian advocates of Intelligent Design have no real answer to opponents taunting “Look at all the horrible, cruel, even defective things in the living world.” But Christians do—see, e.g., Skeptics challenge: A ‘God of Love’ created a killer jellyfish?

Biblical creationists have long pointed out that the “millions of years” concepts in fields such as astronomy/cosmology and historical geology were squarely based on, derived from, and fueled by, naturalism. They were not neutral deductions from the facts of nature but rather resulted from presuppositions based on the deliberate rejection of God’s Word and its authority regarding the world’s history.8 Such naturalism-underpinned conclusions of geology/astronomy were the seedbed for Darwinism. It is therefore ironic to see IDers, who often claim that traditional geology’s vast ages are “unimportant” or present no problem, identifying “naturalism” as the main issue in opposing Darwinism!

Starting with the powerful design arguments that 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 at CMI have been intermittently applying a “wedge” tactic for years prior to the Intelligence Design Movement, seeking a more ready hearing in some circles by initially focusing on less controversial aspects of biblical creation. However, unlike the IDM’s official stance, when given further opening or questioned, we think it’s important to unhesitatingly affirm our thinking as squarely based on the Bible’s real history.

Our main approach is to arm and equip believers (vide the c. 1,000 congregations CMI has addressed globally during the last twelve months) with information, which then diffuses into the culture via one-on-one contacts using the resources. This is almost always 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 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 (“put on a different pair of glasses”) to see how the evidence might fit a Biblical worldview.

In conclusion

It is occasionally sensible to focus solely on evidence, avoiding religious references. But it is counterproductive to do so to an extent that reinforces the myth that it is less “scientific” to base one’s models on God’s revelation, the Bible.

All efforts—not just those of overt biblical creation organizations like our own—to promote academic freedom and question evolution are immensely important and worthwhile. At the same time, careful thinking by all Christians in this battle about how to achieve the most good while giving due honor and glory to God is vital.

In the end, the ultimate issue, which transcends and overrides all else in this debate, is the truth and authority of the Word of God, the Bible.

This article has been adapted by permission from the author’s article in the Summer 2008 issue of The Old Schoolhouse Magazine.

Published: 9 April 2009


  1. I prefer this term over “young-earth creationist” (YEC) which makes it sound as if the young earth is some sort of variant (or option) within biblical creation, rather than being an intrinsic part of Genesis history. See the popular booklet 15 Reasons to Take Genesis as History. Return to text.
  2. See interview at creation.com/Behe Return to text.
  3. Cicero, for example, used design in support of the Greek pantheon of gods. Return to text.
  4. 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). Duane Gish, for many years before ID was heard of, was using similar arguments in his debates. Return to text.
  5. When some (likely well-intentioned) IDers kept their involvement in Christian things and ID matters separate, it allowed the judge in the recent Dover ID case to describe them as deceptive. Return to text.
  6. In fact, that is what the “design without the Bible”, (natural theology) argument, tried by the deists of former centuries, led to historically. There is a good case for arguing that Darwin, who was heavily exposed to such “design arguments”, was therefore subliminally seeking to undermine such a “cruel God” as revealed by nature alone (i.e. without understanding the Fall and the awfulness of sin). Today’s naturalism is thus in some part an offspring of such attempts to leave the Bible out of understanding the world around us. Return to text.
  7. Louis Berkhof, L, Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology, Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1938, p. 60. Return to text.
  8. See Dr Terry Mortenson’s paper Philosophical naturalism and the age of the earth: are they related? Return to text.