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Are Proponents of ID Religiously Motivated, and Does It Matter?

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Recently, someone asked me to comment on an article, published in 2017, by John Danaher, a lecturer in the Law School at the University of Galway, Ireland. He is widely published on legal and moral philosophy, as well as philosophy of religion. In his article, Danaher alleges that proponents of intelligent design (ID) are religiously motivated. He also asserts that the argument for ID from irreducible complexity has conceptual problems, and that systems that we deem to be irreducibly complex can be adequately explained by co-optation of components performing other roles in the cell. In two articles, I will address his concerns about our supposed religious motives, and then tackle his specific objections to irreducible complexity.

Do We Have Religious Motives?

Danaher opens his essay by reminiscing about his days as a student when he first encountered ID.

When I was a student, well over a decade ago now, intelligent design was all the rage. It was the latest religiously-inspired threat to Darwinism (though it tried to hide its religious origins). It argued that Darwinism could never account for certain forms of adaptation that we see in the natural world. 

What made intelligent design different from its forebears was its seeming scientific sophistication. Proponents of intelligent design were often well-qualified scientists and mathematicians, and they dressed up their arguments with the latest findings from microbiology and abstruse applications of probability theory. My sense is that the fad for intelligent design has faded in the intervening years, though I have no doubt that it still has its proponents.

These paragraphs betray the fact that the author is quite out of touch with the literature on ID. 

Stronger than Ever

First, ID has come a long way since the early 2000s. Far from having faded, it is now stronger than ever, having more academic proponents (and many more peer-reviewed publications) than at any time in its history. Its arguments are far more developed and sophisticated than in the early 2000s and this trend is likely to continue. 

Second, it is unclear in what sense Danaher refers to the “religious origins” of ID. It is certainly true that having a religious perspective, predisposing one towards theism, creates a plausibility structure that opens one’s mind to the possibility of there being measurable evidence of design in the universe, including in living organisms. Thus, being independently persuaded of the truth of a theistic religion (in my case, Christianity) is positively relevant to one’s assessment of the prior probability (or, intrinsic plausibility) of ID. However, even if one is not persuaded of theistic religion, the evidence of design in the natural world is, in my opinion, sufficient to overwhelm even a very low prior. Indeed, the cosmological evidence that our universe has a finite history; the fine-tuning of the laws and constants of our universe; the prior environmental fitness of nature for complex life; the optimization of the universe for scientific discovery and technology; and the biological evidence of design all point univocally and convergently in the direction of a cosmic creator. Thus, ID has attracted support from scholars who are not themselves adherents of any religion, including Michael Denton, David Berlinski, and Steve Fuller. Paleontologist and frequent Evolution News contributor Günter Bechly, though a Christian believer now, was not sympathetic to Christianity when he first came to be persuaded of ID.

Misguided on Many Levels

Later in the essay, Danaher further remarks,

The claim is not that God must have created the bacterial flagellum but, rather, that an intelligent designer did. For tactical reasons, proponents of intelligent design liked to hide their religious motivations, trying to claim that their theory was scientific, not religious in nature. This was largely done in order to get around certain legal prohibitions on the teaching of religion under US constitutional law. I’m not too interested in that here though. I view the intelligent design movement as a religious one, and hence the arguments they proffer as on a par with pretty much all design arguments.

These comments are misguided on many levels.

First, the claim that we ID proponents are not clear about our personal religious persuasions is patently false. Speaking for myself, I have been very clear that I am a Christian theist, though my grounds for being persuaded of that conclusion are wholly independent of the science of ID. And I am by no means unusual. Virtually every leading ID proponent — from Michael Behe to William Dembski to Stephen Meyer to Phillip Johnson to David Klinghoffer to Casey Luskin to Brian Miller to Ann Gauger and many others — has been totally open about his or her personal religious beliefs. In the world of intelligent design, no one is hiding anything about religious beliefs, including those who lack religious beliefs.

Second, ID is a scientific argument, and when evaluating a scientific argument, the motives of its proponents are irrelevant. As Casey Luskin writes,

[I]n science, the motives or personal religious beliefs of scientists don’t matter; only the evidence matters. For example, the great scientists Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton were inspired to their scientific work by their religious convictions that God would create an orderly, rational universe with comprehensible physical laws that governed the motion of the planets. They turned out to be right — not because of their religious beliefs — but because the scientific evidence validated their hypotheses. (At least, Newton was thought to be right until Einstein came along.) Their personal religious beliefs, motives, or affiliations did nothing to change the fact that their scientific theories had inestimable scientific merit that helped form the foundation for modern science.

To attack an idea because of the alleged religious motives of its proponents is to commit the genetic fallacy, and that is exactly what Danaher has done here.

Third, ID is not a religious argument. Though ID provides strong evidence for a broadly theistic perspective, the argument itself is grounded in the scientific method. ID does not aid in evaluating the merits of one particular religious tradition over another. ID does not even technically commit one to theism, though I would contend that God is the best candidate for the identity of the designer (as Stephen Meyer argues in his recent book, Return of the God Hypothesis). Thus, ID rightly attracts people of all religious persuasions and none (including Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and agnostics). This is important because it shows that ID is not about supporting one particular religion. We, therefore, strive to be honest about the limitations of ID while being careful not to overstate what the scientific evidence alone can tell us.

What About Evolution?

Finally, if Danaher wants to scrutinize the religious motives of ID proponents, we have to consider what such a line of attack would do to evolution. Casey Luskin has documented (see here or here) the extensive anti-religious beliefs, motives, and affiliations of many leading evolution-advocates. While I (and Luskin) would maintain that evolution is science, one must ask what would happen to evolution if the religious (or anti-religious) beliefs of its proponents suddenly became relevant to assessing its merits.

“Teach the Controversy”

Danaher’s statement that the claim that ID is scientific and not religious “was largely done in order to get around certain legal prohibitions on the teaching of religion under US constitutional law” is historically incorrect. Discovery Institute (the leading organization funding research into, and promoting the public understanding of, ID) does not support attempts to legally protect the teaching of ID in public schools. In fact, since Discovery Institute’s earliest involvement in major public education debates in the U.S. (in Ohio in 2002), it has not supported mandating the teaching of ID in public schools. This is not because we feel that ID is unconstitutional. ID, much like the Big Bang in cosmology, may be friendly to a broadly theistic perspective. However, this does not make the idea itself a religious one, just as the Big Bang theory is not a religious idea. Thus, there is nothing intrinsic to ID that would render it unconstitutional under the First Amendment (see here or here for legal discussions). However, attempts to legislatively protect the teaching of ID tend to politicize the theory, and we believe that the merits of ID ought to be debated in the scientific journals, not in the courtroom. Rather, Discovery Institute advocates a “teach the controversy” model, where the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories (including evolution) are presented and discussed. All of this is stated clearly and openly on our Science Education Policy page:

As a matter of public policy, Discovery Institute opposes any effort to require the teaching of intelligent design by school districts or state boards of education. Attempts to require teaching about intelligent design only politicize the theory and will hinder fair and open discussion of the merits of the theory among scholars and within the scientific community. Furthermore, most teachers at the present time do not know enough about intelligent design to teach about it accurately and objectively. 

Instead of recommending teaching about intelligent design in public K-12 schools, Discovery Institute seeks to increase the coverage of evolution in curriculum. It believes that evolution should be fully and completely presented to students, and they should learn more about evolutionary theory, including its unresolved issues. In other words, evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can’t be questioned.

Thus, Danaher is ill-informed about Discovery Institute’s long-standing education policy. In a second article, I shall address his specific concerns regarding the argument from irreducible complexity.