O God: Darwin on the cross

A Stanford minister objects to the latest creationist tactic

Ethan Hill
  Rev. Scotty McLennan, flanked by busts of Christ and Darwin.

A sermon by the Rev. Scotty McLennan, given at Stanford Memorial Church, Jan. 8, 2006 (abridged)


We began today’s service here at Stanford University by singing these words, “Holy, holy, holy, author of creation!” We continued by hearing the very first words of the Bible, which read, “In the beginning … God created the heavens and the earth.” Yet, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania decided just before Christmas that intelligent design of the universe could not be mentioned in a high school biology class as an alternative explanation for the origin of life from Darwinian evolution.

What’s going on here in a country where 80 percent of us believe that God created the universe? The simplest explanation is separation of church and state. Keep religion out of the public high school classroom.

Yet, proponents of intelligent design claim that it is purely science and not religion at all. The foremost think tank on intelligent design, the Discovery Institute, does not deny that Earth and life on it are billions of years old and that life has evolved through adaptation, mutation and natural selection. It even accepts to some degree common ancestry among species. However, it highlights what it calls explanatory gaps in evolutionary theory, especially regarding aspects of life that it calls irreducibly complex, like flagellar motors on bacteria, the eye and the bloodclotting system. Those aspects of life were specifically designed — full-blown in all of their complexity — it’s insisted, by an intelligent designer or God, rather than having evolved. The Discovery Institute and its allies claim that intelligent design theory scientifically critiques the theory of Darwinian evolution. They call upon educational institutions to “teach the controversy.” So, what is this federal judge doing?

Judge John E. Jones III, in a far-reaching opinion, writes so compellingly, in my mind, that his perspective needs to be heard by all of us, especially here in a church. First, he does not deny that intelligent design should be studied, debated and discussed. Second, he sees limits to science, which he says cannot consider issues of “meaning” and “purpose” in the universe, and therefore cannot provide “ultimate” explanations for the existence or characteristics of the natural world. Third, he asserts that evolutionary theory in no way conflicts with, nor denies, the existence of a divine creator. Yet, evolutionary theory is science and intelligent design theory is not — it’s religion. Therefore, it has no place in a science classroom, although it might well be studied in a religious studies, culture studies or political science course. To teach intelligent design in a public school science classroom is to impose a religious view of biological origins on the science lesson, which amounts to state advancement of religion in violation of the First Amendment.

So, why is intelligent design not science, according to this court decision? Primarily because science is limited to the search for natural causes, not supernatural causes, to explain natural phenomena. In the Pennsylvania trial, all the intelligent design expert witnesses admitted that for intelligent design to be considered science, the established ground rules of science need to be changed to allow consideration of supernatural forces. Furthermore, negative arguments about explanatory gaps in current evolutionary theory do not constitute positive arguments for design. Judge Jones made the point that just because scientists cannot explain today how certain biological systems have evolved does not mean that they cannot and will not be able to explain them tomorrow.

Intelligent design proponents have not conducted scientific research or testing of their own. As a key witness for intelligent design, Michael Behe, professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, stated: “There are no peer-reviewed articles by anyone advocating for intelligent design supported by pertinent experiments or calculations which provide detailed rigorous accounts of how intelligent design of any biological system occurred.” It’s also telling that not a single expert witness over the course of the six-week trial identified any major scientific association, society or organization that endorsed intelligent design as science. Even its proponents conceded that it has received no acceptance in the scientific community as a whole. Ultimately, Judge Jones’ frustration with intelligent design’s claims began to show through: “Intelligent design’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not intelligent design itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard.”

 Let’s look at this from an explicitly religious perspective now. The new pope, Benedict XVI, signed into the debate last November, saying, “In the beginning, the creative word [of God]…created everything and created this intelligent project that is the cosmos.” Yet, within a week, the Vatican’s chief astronomer, Father George Coyne, cautioned that “intelligent design isn’t science, even though it pretends to be. … If you want to teach it in schools, intelligent design should be taught when religion or cultural history is taught, not science.”

Intelligent design has failed to find much acceptance at   evangelical Christian colleges. Although a number of conservative scholars and theologians were excited at first, they’ve found its arguments unconvincing after discussions with scientists in their own institutions who consider intelligent design insufficiently substantiated in comparison with evolution. And many are not happy that it is pretending not to be religion. For example, Derek Davis, director of the Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University in Texas, puts it this way: “I teach at the largest Baptist university in the world. I’m a religious person. And my basic perspective is that intelligent design doesn’t belong in science class.” He notes that the advocates of intelligent design continue to argue that they’re not talking about God or religion. “But they are, and everyone knows they are,” Davis says. So, now, what is the religious pedigree of intelligent design theory? Judge Jones traces it back to the religious movement then known as Fundamentalism, which began in 19th-century America in response to Darwinism, along with other intellectual and social changes and new religious thought.

I don’t share intelligent design’s fundamentalist pedigree. But I’m a Christian minister and I sang, “Holy, holy, holy, author of creation!” with you at the beginning of this service. I picked that hymn for us to sing, along with the Genesis reading (“In the beginning…God created the heavens and the earth.”). And the closing hymn is “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” and one of its verses begins: “All thy works with joy surround thee, earth and heav’n reflect thy rays.” So aren’t we together affirming an intelligent designer of the universe, at least from a religious perspective, if not a scientific one?

I have to say that personally I’m filled with awe at the natural order of the universe. The fact that there are natural laws at all, which are discoverable through the scientific method, and which are consistent and trustworthy, fills me with amazement and gratitude and confidence. Those are religious or spiritual sentiments for me. What’s not religious, or what belittles the creation and its order, for me, is the claim that every so often a supreme being breaks in and violates the natural order of the universe for this reason or that: say, suspending gravity or reversing it so that someone who’s jumped out a skyscraper window flies back in, or reversing time so that an accident that’s already occurred never happened. What’s awe-inspiring to me is the regularity and trustworthiness of the natural order, not periodic claims that it’s been interrupted and altered for my benefit or yours, for this compelling reason or that. That’s why I find the claims of the intelligent design movement actually sacrilegious or irreverent or demeaning of creation: Evolution moves along generally by natural laws of adaptation, mutation and natural selection — with life forms changing naturally over time — and then supposedly every so often the intelligent designer steps in to interrupt the process and design some kind of irreducibly complex life form or process?

Is God’s creative activity to be found not in the glory of the universe and the life process as a whole, but just here and there in the gaps of evolutionary theory? God, then, is increasingly pushed into a corner as science is able to explain more and more. What kind of demeaning and belittling idea of God is that? I prefer the poet William Wordsworth’s: “Sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean, and the living air, and the blue sky, and in the mind of man: a motion and a spirit that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought, and rolls through all things.”

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