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The Creationist Holy War

From their temporarily successful campaign to delete references to evolution from Kansas’s science standards, to the more current efforts in Ohio and Michigan to insert “Intelligent Design theory” into those states’ science classes, creationists are mounting an unrelenting crusade. They see their efforts as a mission to bring God and values back into the classroom, to fight what they believe is a “domination” of rationalism and naturalism which permeates our society, government, and laws, and which excludes God from consideration. Parenthetically, I would wager that psychics, tarot card readers, and faith healers would fully support the creationist war on rationalism and naturalism. Creationists have identified their fundamental enemy, the reason for our spiraling decay into naturalism, and it has a name: “Darwinism.” More appropriately, their “enemy” is modern evolutionary theory; creationists, however, prefer the outdated term “Darwinism” because it’s much easier to attack than is modern evolutionary science. Charles Darwin was completely unaware of many foundational facts, and evolutionary mechanisms, upon which modern evolutionary science is predicated. Attacking evolution indirectly by criticizing Darwinism is roughly equivalent to attacking car safety standards by criticizing the Ford Model T.

In this article I will provide a thumbnail sketch of what Intelligent Design (ID) is, and how it bears no resemblance to either a scientific theory or to any mainstream religious concept of God. Further, I will argue that pushing for the inclusion of ID in public school science curricula degrades both science and religion.

Creationists see their struggle as no less than a defense of God and morality. Phillip Johnson, a leading proponent of Intelligent Design, summarizes creationists’ concerns: “If God is actually a fantasy, then a morality based upon supposed commands of God is founded upon illusion. That is why Darwinism has such immense cultural importance.” While Johnson may be quite correct that a Godless universe would be the end to the concept of an ultimate morality which preexisted man; he ignores the possibility that man can, and does, make his own moral judgments and create his own ethical virtues and absolutes. In fact, in my estimation, humanists’ ethics have already surpassed those offered by Christianity–granted they did not set the bar very high. Johnson also overlooks the fact that most religious scholars, and a large percentage of religious Americans[1], see no contradiction between evolution and God. It is quite possible that God could simply employ evolutionary processes as his mechanism to create man. Moreover, God could guide the process to his desired ends.

Clearly, however, in the creationist mindset, widespread acceptance of evolution puts their moral agenda, and illusion of moral superiority, in serious jeopardy. This perceived loss of moral authority is key to understanding creationists’ boundless determination to undermine evolution in anyway possible, most recently by introducing what they refer to as an “alternative scientific theory.” Their specious Intelligent Design argument is the current and most highly evolved strategy the creationists have adopted, which, unfortunately, has proven to be surprisingly persuasive to many. In an effort to circumvent church/state separation issues, ID masquerades as a science and carefully avoids any specific mention of God. In reality it is nothing more than a modernized “Argument from Design,” the flawed notion supported by, and usually associated with, the 18th century English theologian William Paley. The argument from design usually takes the following form: Imagine you are walking on a beach, and come across a watch which has been deposited in the sand, so you pick it up for a careful examination. You notice the intricate construction, the watch is made from a dizzying array of parts that all come together to perform a specific task; this watch obviously has a purpose. If any part had been placed randomly, in any other location, the watch would no longer function. We, therefore, must deduce that blind natural processes could not possibly have produced an item of such purpose and specific complexity; thus, it must have had a watchmaker. Next comes the analogical leap of the argument; just as the existence of the watch has demanded the existence of a watchmaker, a careful studying of nature and man will demand the existence of a god. Complexity, of these types, it is argued, does not spring forth from blind natural processes; specified complexity, with a purpose, requires a creator.

Intelligent Design augments this basic idea by adding some new buzzwords, and attempts to provide a bit of positive evidence. Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University, offers one such buzzword, “Irreducible Complexity.” This is the claim that some biological phenomenon can’t be broken down into more simple forms and still function. Behe’s favorite analogy is a mousetrap. Each component of the mousetrap must exist for the trap to function and catch a mouse; therefore, mousetraps are irreducibly complex. Behe is fond of using the flagellum of bacteria as a biological example. Although Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller has nicely exposed Behe’s conceptual errors[2], Behe’s arguments can be initially persuasive, especially to lay audiences who may fail to see the erroneous assumptions he makes. For example, according to Behe, if any part is taken away from a mousetrap, the entire device becomes nonfunctional. However, this is clearly not true. It simply no longer functions as a mousetrap. As Miller points out, you can remove two parts of the mousetrap and have a “fully functional tie clip.” Behe’s mistake is he looks only at the final form. He assumes that all those parts exist only to perform the functions of the final form, forgetting that, especially in biology, parts (such as proteins) are often borrowed, modified, and can perform novel tasks in different situations.

The simple fact is that ID is the same old creationism with fresh new pseudoscientific trappings. The criticisms of ID are voluminous and beyond the scope of this article, however, I will mention two of my favorites. First, ID relies heavily on “God of the Gaps” argumentation. Whenever an area of science in currently unclear, an ID advocate will respond with their theistic mantra, “God did that.” This is, of course, an arbitrary assertion and reflects a cynical view of scientific progress, which has been proven wrong again and again. As science progressively answers more questions about the natural world, God is relegated to a smaller and smaller creative role. However, this argument is clearly attractive to creationists. Since science can never hope to fully answer every question, there will always be gaps where God can still play a role. Teaching the “God of the Gaps,” in science classes has serious ramifications to science. This mentality, if adopted, could potentially lead to lazy science. Why work a lifetime on difficult scientific questions? Don’t worry, when you get stuck on a tough question, the answer is already there, “then the miracle happens.” Furthermore, “God of the Gaps” should clearly be offensive to theists. Giving God responsibility over only those things whose naturalistic mechanism we don’t fully understand, would trivialize God’s role. Would a theist truly be satisfied with an argument which meekly asserted “well . . . the Almighty is at least responsible for the flagellum of a bacterium?” That’s just pathetic.

Secondly, and more problematic, ID is a logically flawed philosophical argument. ID proponents argue if anything is found to be irreducibly complex, and thus couldn’t have arisen from gradual evolution, it is proof of design. Interestingly, God Himself would qualify as such a phenomenon. God would clearly be, by any religious definition, an irreducibly complex being. No religion that I am familiar with suggests that he “evolved” from more simple “deity precursor” forms. Also, much like Behe’s mousetrap, no quality or ability could be removed from God and have him remain a functional Supreme Being. Therefore, the very existence of God, in accordance with the notion of irreducible complexity, would be proof of yet another designer. Where does it end? I suppose ID proponents would want to make an exception with God, as is typically done in many theistic proof arguments. Interestingly, in real science, an exception to a theory is evidence the theory is flawed and in need of revision.

A 1991 Gallup poll demonstrated half of all Americans believe that God created man about 10,000 years ago. If we add to that percentage the number of Americans who believe that evolution occurred, under personal supervision by God, we are up to 87%. Clearly, this poll demonstrates that the vast majority of Americans believe, in one way or another, that God created man. Considering that most Americans believe in a Judeo-Christian God, it is safe to assume that not just any image of God would be “desirable” in the classroom. Most Americans would specifically want the image of the Judeo-Christian God if there were going to be a discussion of God at all. This image of God, however difficult to tweeze out of scripture, is of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God. With this in mind, let’s look at what conclusions about God ID would elicit in the minds of the nation’s youth.

As previously mentioned, Paley, in the “Argument from Design,” uses a watch as an analogy for nature and man, whereas the watchmaker is an analogy for God. Let’s run with this analogy and see where it takes us. Could, for example, studying a watch tell us anything about the watchmaker? Although we clearly cannot use the watch to make any specific claims to knowledge about the watchmaker, we can make some educated inferences.

While Paley’s watch may very well have been a Rolex, the watch I have in mind is more of the quality typically received as a gift with a paid magazine subscription. Let’s suppose, after a comprehensive examination, we learn that this watch is constructed from recycled parts from other machines, and some parts don’t seem to have a purpose at all. The watch keeps inaccurate time, and has a very short working life before it begins to seriously malfunction and finally fail completely. One could infer from this the designer was simply lazy. He could possibly have made a better watch if he had tried harder. Or, perhaps he did the best possible with the materials he had available to him; maybe he was working on a tight budget. An additional possibility is he was simply not a very good watchmaker. It’s also entirely possible, for some unknown reason, he intentionally built the watch to keep bad time and break easily and relatively quickly. In summery, we can say the watchmaker is either lazy, had a tight budget, was inept, or intentionally produced a flawed watch.

Let’s expand this watch analogy to the natural world, as Paley did. If the watchmaker becomes God, and the watch becomes man, can this analogy tell us anything about God? Man is, without a doubt, a profoundly imperfect creature. We are made of “recycled” biological material (our genome shows countless examples of reused genetic code, seemingly borrowed from lower forms, and much genetic material which is redundant or turned off completely). We have vestigial behaviors and anatomical structures (goose bumps, wisdom teeth, appendix), and many aspects of the human body are poorly designed for their function (knees, lower back, DNA replication errors). Finally, we are not built to last. All human bodies inexorably degrade and ultimately fail, often in a painful decline. So, assuming we are evidence of design, in the same manner as a watch, what judgment can we make about God?

Precisely the same conclusions apply to God as were applied to the maker of the flawed watch. God could be inept, or lazy. It is also quite logical to include the possibility he was doing the best he could with the materials at hand. Can one imagine God sorting through his genetic scrap heap looking for the best part that would do in a pinch? However, each of these conclusions is fundamentally incompatible with virtually any modern religious definition of God. One might argue this incompatibility problem would be resolved if we simply concluded that God purposefully designed us exactly as we are. Unfortunately this assertion causes God’s image more harm than good. God would then have the dubious honor of being directly responsible for cancer, Ebola, anthrax, AIDS, birth defects, and parasites (along with an almost infinite list of horrors and imperfections that exist in man and the natural world). All these nasties would have been specifically and purposefully designed into nature. Additionally, God would have intentionally designed a world in which some living things must die for other organisms to survive. It didn’t have to be that way. All life on the planet could have been designed as photosynthetic, free from pain and suffering, with the sun providing a limitless and cruelty free food supply. But no, that’s not the way God wanted it. God designed animals to hunt and kill each other, to starve if food was in short supply, and to feel pain.

The fact that the traditional image of God, prevalent in most religions, is severely harmed by ID should be plainly obvious at this point. Where is the benevolence? Mainstream religions all deal with this “problem of evil” by attempting to deflect blame away from God. Original Sin, Satan, and the “gift of free will,” are common attempts by Christians’ to redirect blame away from their Almighty. However, ID provides no such convenient mechanisms; it places the responsibility for all suffering and all design flaws squarely on the shoulders of the designer.

One of the principal reasons Americans value the separation of church and state is because they wish to be protected from government choosing what image and characteristics of God are to be propagated. However, this is exactly what government would be doing by mandating that ID be taught alongside evolution. Government would be promoting the concept of a sadistic or flawed God. Consequently, this is precisely the reason theists should be as outraged as scientists at the very thought that this may transpire.

Of course, this unflattering image of God is only one problem with teaching ID in public school classrooms. I wonder what percentage of Americans would answer “yes” to the following question: “Would you be in favor of public schools being required to teach the possibility extraterrestrial visitors created life on Earth, as a competing theory to evolution.” My instinct is that it would be a very low percentage indeed. Unfortunately, this is one of many equally valid conclusions that can be drawn from Intelligent Design theory. If we assume a “designer” was necessary for life to exist on Earth, there is no reason that the God of Christianity must be the designer. In fact, according to ID theory, it is equally possible that a group of aliens, an all powerful purple dinosaur, or the Gods of Olympus, created life on Earth. ID makes no distinction or prediction of exactly who or what the designer is. In fact, proponents of ID are adamant that they make no claim as to the nature of the designer. Maybe it was God, maybe not.

What science has to lose is equally obvious. Since Intelligent Design theory is severely lacking in positive evidence, the main strategy is to simply discredit evolution. Evolution is, therefore, presented as a “theory in crisis,” in which many scientists are beginning to have doubts. Ironically, most of the negative argumentation creationists’ use against evolution arises from within the scientific community. Evolutionary biologists are quite open about the areas within evolution that are not fully understood. As with all fields of scientific inquiry, some details are simply not yet resolved. Nevertheless, the vast majority of scientists in the field have no doubt evolution has occurred and does occur; the controversy, where it exists, centers on the specific mechanisms. Falsely representing evolution as anything resembling a “theory in crisis” would be a tremendous disservice to the nations youth. However, this represents only one way in which teaching ID damages science.

Equally damaging would be allowing a nonscience to be taught alongside real science as though there were no difference between them. Too many Americans already have an inadequate understanding of what science and is not. If ID were to become commonplace in science classes throughout the country, the line of distinction between science and pseudoscience would be obliterated. This is a particularly dangerous scenario in a democratic society whose citizenry is expected to vote on issues from an informed perspective. Scientific literacy is an essential prerequisite to an informed participatory electorate.

A fundamental precept of science is that hypotheses must have the potential of being proven wrong. How would one even attempt to falsify the hypothesis that an unknown “designer” created the bacterial flagellum? Even if science were to provide a clear and well understood mechanism for every step in the evolution of the flagellum, this would still not disprove the possibility that an unknown agent designed it. In contrast, any hominid fossil, verified by reliable means, found in a Triassic period sedimentary layer would deal a devastating blow to evolutionary theory.

ID also utterly fails at any attempts to predict and explain natural phenomenon. If the Earth and it’s creatures were designed purposefully, why have most animal species gone extinct? Why do whales have hipbones? Why do humans get goose bumps when they are cold? Why is DNA replication error prone? Why do blind mole rats develop embryonic eyes? Why are geographically isolated species so divergent from other species (consider Australian marsupials as an example)? Evolutionary theory can easily explain all these observations, whereas ID answers each question in exactly the same way, “the designer works in mysterious ways.” Would an understanding of ID lead to the prediction of antibiotic resistant bacteria arising from overuse of antibiotics? No, but an understanding of evolution and natural selection certainly would. The plain fact is Intelligent Design theory is not a science. ID is a theory only in the colloquial sense of the word, as an idea or guess. A scientific theory is something very different. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that, as part of their war on evolution, creationists’ also wish to replace naturalism with their own so-called “theistic science.” They also recognize that only by redefining science, to allow for supernatural causes, is it possible to define ID as scientific.

Clearly, theists, nontheists, teachers, and scientists should all be aware of and concerned with the ramifications of adding ID to the nation’s educational curriculum. One such implication would be the necessity of teaching ID in colleges and universities. If we were to require public schools to teach ID, then it would follow that public school teachers would need to know how to teach it. College students who intend to pursue a secondary teaching certificate would need to be trained in Intelligent Design. This would necessitate the introduction of ID textbooks as course requirements, thus further legitimizing ID.

Although ID advocates would, no doubt, vehemently deny their current efforts are a first strike in an attempt to bring old fashion creationism into the classroom–complete with their own specific version of God–it is clear from much of their rhetoric this is only the first step in their assault. In fact, the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (CRSC), a group promoting ID, calls their approach “the wedge.” A leaked document from the CRSC details their strategy[3], “If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is to function as a ‘wedge’ that . . . can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points.” The document also provides a glimpse at the goals of the wedge strategy: “To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies . . . to see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life.” Obviously these creationists have more ambitious plans than to simply have ID offered as an “alternative theory” to evolution in public schools.

Assuming ID were to be added to the public school science curriculum, creationists would no doubt begin to demand equal time with evolution. Once this became established it is not difficult to envision creationists then calling for a more specific mention of God, rather than the vague extraterrestrial, or assorted God-like possibilities, current ID theory allows as potential designers. This slippery slope scenario could end with full-blown creationism in the classroom, with all the inherent separation of church and state issues that follow. As I write this article, the Ohio school board is considering the addition of ID to that state’s science curriculum.

Scientists, and the general public, regardless of their religious beliefs, should all be aware of what is at stake. If intelligent design theory becomes a standard part of our country’s educational curriculum, we all lose.


[1] Gallup poll, by the Gallup Organization 1991
[2] Natural History Magazine. April, 2002
[3] The Wedge Strategy

Personal favorites from the author’s suggested reading list:

Copyright 2002, John Bice. This electronic version copyright 2002, Internet Infidels, Inc.