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Intelligent Design May Speak to Young People’s Spiritual Interests

Robert F. Shedinger
Photo credit: Joshua Chua vía Unsplash.

Editor’s noteDr. Shedinger is a Professor of Religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. He is the author of a recent book critiquing Darwinian triumphalism, The Mystery of Evolutionary Mechanisms.

The considerable decline occurring in church attendance these days, especially among young people, is garnering much attention. As a professor at a college affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I am acutely aware of these trends. When I began teaching at Luther College twenty years ago, about 62 percent of students self-identified as Lutheran. Today that number is around 30 percent and falling. The prevailing explanation for this rather dramatic decline in church affiliation places the blame on the rampant spread of materialist philosophy which, many believe, is driving young people into atheism. The reality, I believe, is far more complex.

We should not be too quick to equate church affiliation with authentic religious faith. Many churches today are likely filled with functional atheists, those who profess belief in God and correct church-approved doctrines, but who nonetheless feel little connection to a supernatural reality at a deep visceral level. Even Mother Teresa would likely have fit into this category! Moreover, it is simply not true that young people who harbor little interest in traditional religion and religious institutions are all atheists, a truth I see demonstrated time and time again when I teach my Science and Religion course. 

A Spiritual Hunger

Many students come to this class with a real curiosity about how scientific and religious thought might intertwine. And this curiosity betrays a spiritual hunger just looking to be filled. These students may not be involved in church, synagogue, or mosque, but they are suspicious of materialism and become very open to the suggestion of an intelligence at work in the cosmos. Cosmological fine-tuning arguments tend to fascinate them. Trying to account for the origin of life from non-life by materialist processes flummoxes them. The evidence of intelligent design in living organisms fills them with awe. The idea of reducing mind and consciousness to chemistry and physics seems utterly ridiculous to them. The fact that they have never encountered these ideas in their science and psychology classes frustrates them to no end. And they can see the practical implications of materialist science too, thanks in part to their viewing of Human Zoos.

An Email Out of the Blue

Last fall I received an email out of the blue from a student with whom I had had no previous contact. He informed me that he was a philosophy and psychology major who had developed an interest in the work of Carl Jung. He was seeking a professor willing to supervise him in a directed reading into some of Jung’s works, but when he had approached his psychology professors about this they declined and told him to take his request to the religion department. Hence his email to me. 

I agreed to work with him (it’s not every day that an undergraduate student initiates an engagement with Jung; most have no idea who he was!). This experience prompted the student to drop his psychology major due to the psychology faculty’s obvious disdain for any approach outside of a strictly materialist psychology. And as we have read Jung together over the last seven weeks, I can see this student’s spiritual hunger being sated by his interactions with someone who himself was harshly critical of organized religion, but was also no friend of materialism or atheism. 

Our discussions over Jung have allowed me to introduce this student to intelligent design thinking, something to which he has been quite receptive (and that I think Jung would approve of), and he will almost certainly enroll in my Science and Religion class next fall to learn more. This student has little interest in traditional religion, but it would be a tragic mistake to assume he is therefore a hardened materialist. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Rapidly Changing Demographics

The rapidly changing religious demographics of American society constitutes an undoubtedly complex sociological issue that will resist easy explanation. But we should not make the mistake of assuming that declining church attendance equates directly with rising levels of atheism. Young people have many reasons for growing disenchanted with traditional religious organizations. But many nevertheless retain an abiding interest in spirituality. Ironically, in my experience, it seems to be engagement with the science of intelligent design that is speaking to their spiritual interests in ways that traditional religiosity isn’t. The more we can make ID accessible to young people, the better chance we have of preventing the complete takeover of our society by materialism. 

The obstacles to this are formidable of course. Students won’t be encountering ID in science classes anytime soon. But outside of science — in philosophy classes, religion classes like mine, or even in history classes that engage Darwin and Darwinism critically — the opportunity to introduce ID to a willing audience is certainly there if only we can seize it. This may not send young people flocking back to the church, but it can still help to create an important bulwark against the rising tide of materialism.