A Call for Improvement in Science and Faith Discussions

The discipline of science and faith integration is deeply complex and, I would argue, the most frequently muddled area within the broader project of Christian apologetics. Compounding the issue is the attitude of staunch inflexibility many Christians exhibit in their perspective on matters of origins, despite any deficiencies in their knowledge of the relevant philosophy, theology, and science. Thus, misconceptions persist, which handicaps scientific apologetics.

This is a situation that is particularly frustrating to me as an apologist, because science and faith is my ministry and academic specialty. So in this post, I’d like to illuminate two of the more prominent problems that plague science and faith discussions, even among Christian apologists: ambiguous use of terms and certain misconceptions about intelligent design theory.

Problem #1: Ambiguous Use of Terms

A few days ago, someone in an apologetics forum I occasionally read said, “Evolution is a FACT! F.A.C.T!” (This statement was preceded by an appeal to authority: “I’m a biology student.” But this post isn’t about logical fallacies.) Unfortunately, the person did not explain what, exactly, he meant by “evolution.” That word has at least six different meanings, and we must be very clear about how we’re using the term. Presumably, by “evolution,” this person meant that a common descent of all animal life occurred over vast ages of biological history. (Many Christians would agree with this idea.) I also assume that this person would say that any evolutionary processes used in the creation of all life unfolded precisely according to a pre-conceived design, with every living creature (that now exists or ever has existed) having been fully intended by the Creator.

Now, it should be noted that this idea of  God-guided, or, “teleological evolution”–evolution according to a plan–is not at all what evolutionary biologists ascribe to. By their definition, the alleged evolutionary process is unguided, it is not in any way goal-directed. According to the majority of evolutionary biologists, mutations occur by accident, and natural selection’s winnowing process adds them up over time, thereby driving evolutionary change. There is no purpose, no predetermined plan. The common term for this idea is “neo-Darwinism.” The “neo” part of the term refers to the integration of Darwinian thought with modern genetics. The “Darwinian” part indicates the philosophy of Darwin: that natural selection–the blind creator–has no need of guidance. (One only has to read Darwin’s own writings, particularly his letters and his book The Descent of Man, to see how strongly he held to this detail of his theory.) If evolution is purposeful, it is not [neo-]Darwinian. So to say, “I believe God used Darwinian evolution” is a self-contradicting statement. God can’t guide an unguided process.

Do you see what I’m getting at? If a Christian wants to endorse the theory of evolutionary common descent, they can’t simply use the word “evolution” and expect to be properly understood by one and all. Furthermore, they had better be aware of the correct meaning and implications of the terms “Darwinism” and “neo-Darwinism” before using either to describe their perspective on creation. This leads me right into problem number two—–>

Problem #2: Misconceptions about Intelligent Design 

Many people (quite a few Christians included) don’t realize that intelligent design theory does not rule out common descent. In fact, any theory of God-guided or God-planned evolutionary change falls under the umbrella of intelligent design. So, it is ambiguous or even incorrect to say something like, “I believe in evolution, not intelligent design.” The only  type of evolution that is incompatible with intelligent design is the unguided, purposeless sort (which includes all Darwinian theories).

Another egregious misconception about intelligent design, frequently propagated by young-earth creationists, is that intelligent design is an attempt to formulate a creation theory that is more palatable to those who embrace the standard dating of the earth and universe or even to the non-believing community. Intelligent design theorists are sometimes called “compromisers” for not holding to a more narrow view, one that includes interaction with Genesis 1. (I know this firsthand, as I’ve had conference attendees approach me with this very complaint against intelligent design.) This is a complete misunderstanding of what intelligent design theory actually is and how it is properly used in apologetics. It’s a minimal claim about the nature of the cosmos and living things: that they show indicators of intentional design by an intelligent agent. Period. Now, this claim has theistic implications, obviously, but it does not interact with any religious text. It is not a form of creationism, but it is indeed conducive to several different creation theories: God-guided evolution, young-earth creationism, and old-earth creationism. But to get from intelligent design to theism and then from theism to Christianity, other branches of Christian apologetics have to come into play. Finally, other scientific data and interpretation of Scripture play a part in ultimately determining one’s creation view within the bounds of orthodox Christianity. Here is an explanatory diagram I came up with that I use when lecturing on this point:

ID Diagram

My Plea to the Christian Community 

I am convinced that if Christians, including Christian apologists, made it a point to understand and employ the proper terminology and clarity in science and faith discussions, the endeavor of scientific apologetics would be significantly strengthened. And isn’t effectiveness our desire?

Let us say what we mean and mean what we say!