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Teaching Intelligent Design to Revitalize Catholic Education

Image: John Henry Newman, by John Everett Millais, via Wikimedia Commons.

This past month at Duquesne University I had the privilege of speaking at the national conference of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education (ICLE), alongside Logan Gage who is the chairman of the philosophy department at Franciscan University. The ICLE’s mission is to revitalize Catholic education by equipping schools to apply historic Christian approaches to education. Logan and I presented three talks on teaching intelligent design that referenced content from the recently published book God’s Grandeur: A Catholic Case for Intelligent Design (Sophia Institute Press), edited by Ann Gauger. 

Classical Approach to Education

Many Christian schools teach the same curriculum that secular schools do with some added religious flavoring. Such a curriculum is typically developed by educators with a secular view of reality, so subjects are presented from the perspective that people are unintended accidents of nature, while God either does not exist or is uninvolved in the world. Students are essentially taught to see the world as if they were atheists or agnostics. 

After graduating, many cannot manage the cognitive dissonance of thinking like Christians on Sunday but seeing the world the rest of the week through the secular lens imparted by their education, so they eventually abandon their Christian upbringing. Even those that remain at least superficially Christian often compartmentalize their faith, so it primarily serves as comfort in times of distress. Beyond this therapeutic role, it does not significantly influence their daily lives. 

In addition, students learn to view education solely as a means to gain practical skills to obtain a desirable job. Learning is seen as having little value in itself, and critical thinking is not extensively developed. Christians never integrate their faith into their understanding of the world, so their minds are easily captured by erroneous ideas and ideologies they encounter in higher education and through the media. 

The classical approach to education reaches back to ancient times. It empowers students to think critically and speak persuasively by laying a solid foundation in grammar, logic, and rhetoric. A classical curriculum also integrates the different disciplines within a Christian understanding of the world. Cardinal John Henry Newman (pictured above) eloquently summarized the aim of this approach in his famous treatise The Idea of the University:

Philosophy must be its form; or, in other words, that its matter must not be admitted into the mind passively, as so much acquirement, but must be mastered and appropriated as a system consisting of parts, related one to the other, and interpretative of one another in the unity of a whole. 

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Students taught within this framework often become life-long learners who fully integrate their faith into the totality of their lives. Schools that the ICLE has assisted report dramatic improvement in academic outcomes and spiritual vitality. Due to such results, the influence of ICLE grows each year.   

Design and Catholic Education

In our talks, Logan and I highlighted the importance for Christian education of teaching about the evidence for design in nature. Logan began by explaining how the debate about design originated with ancient Greek philosophers who lived centuries before Jesus walked the earth. The Apostle Paul directly addressed it in his letter to the church in Rome where he described how God created the world such that his hand could be clearly seen in what he made. In the early centuries of the Church, leading Christian thinkers also rejected the scientific materialist claim that everything in nature is solely the product of chance, time, and natural processes, and they affirmed that the clear evidence for design in biology reveals God as the creator of all life. Logan’s discussion was particularly important since Christian historians and theologians have experienced increasing pressure to rewrite church history, scripture, and theology to accommodate the secular creation narratives about life’s origin and development. 

I then described how the evidence for design in nature was rejected during the Enlightenment, but discoveries in physics and biology are forcing the philosophical pendulum to swing back toward design. I expanded upon that evidence in my third talk. I described the relevance of the design debate to society by explaining how Christian theology is founded on a proper understanding of truth, goodness, and beauty. The belief that humans are unintended accidents of nature undermines each of these pillars by promoting falsehoods about human nature and human value, fostering evil, and denying the objectivity of beauty. In contrast, recognizing that humans were designed by God lays a solid foundation for Christian theology and ethics. 

Teaching Science 

In another talk, Logan and I trained participants to teach science in a way that inspires students to study nature and empowers them to critically evaluate scientific claims. Logan explained the importance of connecting science to history, so students can understand the development and overturning of scientific beliefs. This understanding empowers students to critically evaluate whether scientific claims are primarily founded on evidence or driven more by philosophical assumptions. Logan also detailed how histories of science have often misrepresented such incidents as Galileo’s interactions with the Catholic Church to falsely portray a conflict between Christianity and science when the truth is the exact opposite

I described how design serves as a golden thread that links the different scientific disciplines together. For instance, the study of light and vision demonstrates that the laws of nature, Earth’s atmosphere, and biology were designed in unison to allow for high-acuity vision (herehere). I expanded on Logan’s section by explaining how teachers can train students to identify the philosophical assumptions shaping scientific discourse on controversial topics and evaluate which claims are founded on the best evidence. I concluded by demonstrating methods for teaching about design in biology. 

The response to our talks was very encouraging. Participants complimented the presentations’ balance between academic rigor and accessibility, and they appreciated learning how science supports their faith in a manner that does not overstate or understate the case. They also requested that Discovery Institute create more resources for educators on how design can be taught within the context of classical education. I look forward to helping fulfill that request.