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What Intelligent Design Offers to Agnostics

David Klinghoffer

Could it be a trend, with critics of intelligent design and others outside the familiar world of ID’s friends and advocates at last realizing that ID isn’t merely NOT the same thing as creationism? More than that, a couple have noted lately, intelligent design isn’t necessarily even theistic.
At Panda’s Thumb, Jack Scanlan stirred up a huge number of comments for the site with the revelation that ID seems to imply not theism but dualism, the notion that there’s a separate realm of the mind and of ideas that may interact with the physical world and influence or direct it but is not reducible to material terms. Meanwhile on the Chicago Tribune website, an agnostic named James Kirk Wall endorses ID as a natural support for agnosticism!
Defying the usual ignorant equation of ID with religion, these two writers are on to something. If ID were religious in nature, then with what theology or with what faith exactly is it congruent? ID is as much a religious idea as is the cosmology of the Big Bang. Sure, it’s more readily reconciled with Judaism or Christianity than you can say of Darwinism or materialism, but that’s something different. It also has as much to offer to the unbeliever or the unorthodox searcher as to the confirmed traditional believer. It might even have more.
Does that surprise you? Well, just consider.
It’s far from the case that only orthodox religionists have perceived what Alfred Russel Wallace, evolutionary theory’s co-founder, called in 1889 the “crushing mental burden” that materialism imposes on modern man. He continued:

As contrasted with this hopeless and soul-deadening belief, we, who accept the existence of a spiritual world, can look upon the universe as a grand consistent whole adapted in all its parts to the development of spiritual being capable of indefinite life and perfectibility.

He describes beautifully that sense of optimism that I’ve identified elsewhere with “enchantment,” the hope of an invisible reality behind the fa�ade of the physical world.
Another British socialist and freethinker of a slightly later generation, George Bernard Shaw, recognized what Darwinism boils down to. Shaw, who held no particular religious beliefs and left instructions at his death that no one should try to erect a cross over his grave, wrote in 1921:

[Darwinism] seems simple, because you do not at first realize all that it involves. But when its whole significance dawns on you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you. There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration.

Yes, the heart sinks. That easily could have been written not in 1921 but today. Even in troubled economic times, we are a vastly wealthy society — yet one plagued by a hideous, gnawing, wasting sense of unease and dissatisfaction. Can I show this by reference to Gallup polls? No, I can’t. These are the kind of confessions people make to themselves late at night if they are self-aware, perhaps to a close friend if they are lucky enough to have one. You will know if you are aware of this sense of unease in yourself or not. However furtively acknowledged, it’s the underlying odor that seeps through our culture, an odor of anxiety and despair.
We have various ways of dealing with it, either distracting ourselves (through exercise, health regimens, political news, celebrity gossip, technology, various causes), numbing ourselves (alcohol, narcotics), or desperately seeking any form of meaning that can give definite shape to the confused world we experience (assorted popular conspiracy theories).
Every real solution to this problem of despair assumes a reality beyond our mundane, one-dimensional and material one. How could it not? We are in despair, or fear falling into it — whether we’re religious or otherwise — over the limitations of our own lives.
The ultimate limit is imposed by death, which we fear as no generation in memory seems to have done despite the overwhelming safety of our existence. In the meantime, while we are still alive, the lack of a sense of ultimate purpose and meaning that goes with the culture of materialism feeds the anxiety that underlies so much of that culture.
Materialism corrodes the confidence we might otherwise have that any search for meaning that we undertake is not necessarily in vain. Intelligent design offers the hope, by the refutation of materialist science, that “something is out there,” whatever it might be, capable of granting genuine purpose to our existence. An agnostic like James Kirk Wall or a — I don’t know what exactly — like Jack Scanlan should easily appreciate this.
William James, yet another unorthodox person on religious matters, wrote in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) about the association of what he called supernaturalism with optimism.
Mystical and other ecstatic states, of which he documented many that partook of no traditional religious ideas, invariably point to the existence of an invisible world. He wrote, “They tell of the supremacy of the ideal, of vastness, of union, of safety, and of rest.”
James concluded the book by noting that the hope of something more beyond the dull material world and beyond death, the mere chance of such a thing, “is enough….The existence of the chance makes the difference…between a life of which the keynote is resignation and a life of which the keynote is hope.” That hope, that chance, speaks no less to the irreligious person than to the religious one.