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A Professor’s Journey Away from Intelligent Design

Intelligent Design

In recent weeks Evolution News has been reviewing the book Adam and the Genome, by Dennis Venema and Scot McKnight. Professor Venema contributed the science-related portions of the book, and he has become an increasingly vociferous critic of intelligent design among Evangelical Christians. Readers may wonder who Dr. Venema is and how he came to his crusade against ID. Some background may help explain.

Dr. Venema is a professor of biology at Trinity Western University, near Vancouver, British Columbia. He came to prominence when he was interviewed for a 2011 article in Christianity Today, “The Search for the Historical Adam.” He teaches young Evangelical undergrads about, among other things, evolution. He is a theistic evolutionist, or evolutionary creationist as they call themselves at BioLogos. He has blogged extensively at the BioLogos website, explaining the theistic evolutionary view on evolution, which means he explains the standard Darwinian story. He also frequently critiques intelligent design, in more detail than most ID critics do. The ongoing coverage here of Adam and the Genome emerges from this interaction.

Venema’s own focus on ID is, in turn, part of a “personal journey” that he has described. Venema tells in his book how he rejected evolution, then accepted ID, but finally rejected it at Trinity Western while he was already a professor.

He says:

Over the course of my personal journey away from ID, I came to an uncomfortable conclusion: ID seemed strong only where there was a lack of relevant evidence. Though ID proponents strenuously deny the charge, I came to view ID as a God-of-the-gaps argument. The less one knows about the fossil record, the more compelling ID appears. The less one knows about the details of biochemical systems and how they change over time, the more compelling ID appears. The less one knows about the genetic code, the more compelling ID appears. The less one knows about the organization of genomes, the more compelling ID appears.

Regarding the “God of a gaps” charge, Stephen Meyer dispatches that briefly in a video here. Venema goes on, invoking the Bible:

Moreover, as I reflected on what Scripture says about creation, I came to view ID as counter to its witness. In Romans 1 Paul declares that observing creation bespeaks a creator. This was something that any first-century individual could observe and deduce, though they be Jew or gentile, slave or free. Importantly, Paul was not speaking to unexplained features of the created order, but rather to its functional integrity and glory. The idea that one would need a DNA sequencer or an electron microscope to discover unexplained phenomena and thereby declare the cosmos as the work of the Creator is far removed from what Paul is saying. Creation reveals the Creator, and we are without excuse.

Creation, Paul writes, reveals the Creator. Since in my view science alone cannot say who or what is responsible for the evidence of the design in nature, to speak of the “Creator” in the way Paul does reflects an additional step beyond the scientific argument for intelligent design. I for one would say that additional inference is reasonable, though again the question is a matter for theology, philosophy, and history, not science, including the field of intelligent design.

Paul’s statement is that we are “without excuse.” Notice, however, that this can have two meanings.

The two meanings: As Venema apparently understands it, believers don’t need proof beyond what we can see with our eyes. We don’t need fancy equipment to see what should be obvious (which, by the way, has never been enough for some). The other meaning is relevant to intelligent design: We see accumulating and highly persuasive evidence of design at all levels. There is no reason to deny what is increasingly obvious. Perhaps if evolution, in the broader culture of science, had not been made into a God substitute used to explain the very things Paul and Dennis cited, then we would not need to turn to arguments about irreducible complexity and functional coherence and causal circularity at the molecular level. But that’s not the world we live in. Evolution has been turned into a God substitute. Since the evidence is there, why not demonstrate it? If we choose not to do so, we are without excuse.

This is part of the background to the conversation with Venema. Ever since rejecting ID, he has been an effective spokesman for theistic evolution. Unfortunately, while many of his arguments may seem convincing to the non-specialist, when studied carefully it turns out that they do not hold up to scientific scrutiny.

Venema’s audience, from a range of backgrounds, includes readers of his book and of the BioLogos website. They also include the students at the private Evangelical college where he teaches.

Venema has written about his experience as a teacher, and it appears that he wants to help his students take the same journey to embrace evolution that he did:

Lest anyone think that this post is an attempt to present an overly-optimistic or whitewashed view of teaching evolution in an evangelical setting, let me acknowledge and affirm that the pain that many (yes, most) evangelical students go through as they learn about evolution is substantial and real. I have had too many long conversations with students caught between their faith communities and the science to deny this reality. I have seen students struggle with their faith, close their minds to the scientific evidence, and even resolutely declare that no amount of evidence would ever be enough to convince them that evolution is real. I have seen anger, hurt and fear. I have seen students willing to discard the nearly [sic] the entirety of modern science in order to maintain a particular anti-evolutionary view…

…I feel learning about evolution in a Christian liberal arts university is one of the very best places to do so, providing the institution treats the topics fairly. In this setting, resources are available for all of the questions that evolution engenders for Christians, not merely the scientific ones. Moreover, faculty are generally able to assist students with resources that address these extra-scientific issues, and provide a safe and non-judgmental environment for students to learn. The ability to learn what can be faith-shaking material in a setting surrounded by professors committed to the academic and spiritual growth of their students can make all the difference. To be sure, this environment can be one of personal turmoil for students, but with that turmoil comes a rare opportunity for intellectual and spiritual growth in a way that other areas of biology simply cannot provide.

Many of my students, regardless of whether they ultimately accept or reject the evidence for evolution, report that they have grown spiritually through their learning process. Contrary to popular opinion, in my experience most who do come to accept the evidence for evolution also report this growth. They feel closer to God, not further from Him. They feel that they have a deeper appreciation for, and understanding of, His creation. They feel that their faith is now more their own, rather than merely that of their parents. Most importantly, they feel free: that they need no longer be afraid of evolution, but celebrate it as the mechanism by which God has populated His world with “endless forms, most beautiful.” [Emphasis added.]

His students “feel free”? No doubt some do. Others have a different experience. One of his students has told me that her friend, who had taken his course, nearly lost her faith, and that others who did so had completely lost their faith.

I had this conversation on an occasion when I went up to speak on a panel at Trinity Western. Venema was in the audience though I did not know it until afterward when he introduced himself. After the panel, several students also came up and one, a woman, told me about her friend and the others.

Venema is having a significant impact as he seeks to refute  the science of ID and promote Darwinian evolution — although his impact may not be as liberating as he thinks. If his success in moving people to embrace Darwin’s theory is based on misunderstandings of the science, then that is worth pointing out. I agree with Venema that students — as well as others — have the right to have the topics related to evolution treated fairly. That’s why it is important to respond when he gets things wrong.

Photo credit: GoToVan ( [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.