Does religious belief require creation science?

Are science and religion mortal enemies? Does evolution = atheism?

Ray Comfort seems to think so — he claims a banana is an “atheist’s nightmare” since he feels it disproves evolution. On the other side of the belief divide we have scientists like Richard Dawkins and P. Z. Myers who disagree with Comfort on practically every point — except the incompatibility of science and religion.

So are there any dissenters on this point? Is there anyone out there who understands and accepts the theory of evolution and believes in God? Let’s look at the Mormon blogs. This post on BCC is probably a joke, but it seems to hint that accepting evolution won’t get you kicked out the door of the church. On the other hand we have Mormon Matters, following the creationist party line by calling evolutionary biologists “secular darwinists.”

Personally I think science and God-belief aren’t necessarily incompatible. My evidence? I’ve met actual research biologists — the kind who do research using scientific theories including evolution — who also believe in God.

Opposing my position we have the creation science movement. These are the guys who feel that the theory of evolution is threatening to their belief in God, yet they recognize that the scientific method has a pretty dang good track record for finding accurate information. So they cover their mantle of religion with the respected mantle of science before attacking the scientific method, recently renaming their movement “Intelligent Design” to give it a sciency aura. A good example is the group who produced the movie Expelled. They’re the ones who threw the irony meter off the charts by making a whole movie to demonstrate how their views have been unfairly suppressed by the science establishment — and then showing it exclusively to religious audiences, expelling any scientists or other potentially critical voices, including one who appeared in the film.

But suppose you’re that rare bird who believes in God yet doesn’t have a problem with listening to actual biologists when it comes to questions of biology. Suppose you accept that evolution occurred, but you think God had a hand in guiding it. Fair enough. But the question of whether “Intelligent Design” is a scientific theory is a completely separate point. Let’s analyze it.

The question of what constitutes a scientific theory is fairly simple, so I’ll consult a simple source: Wikipedia. Their article offers the following basic explanation:

The defining characteristic of a scientific theory is that it makes falsifiable or testable predictions about things not yet observed. The relevance, and specificity of those predictions determine how (potentially) useful the theory is. A would-be theory which makes no predictions which can be observed is not a useful theory. Predictions which are not sufficiently specific to be tested are similarly not useful. In both cases, the term ‘theory’ is inapplicable.

The article gives quite a bit more detail, so I encourage you to click on the link and read further.

So, is “Intelligent Design” a scientific theory? Why or why not? What do you think?

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30 Comments

  1. 1
    Kullervo says:

    But suppose you’re that rare bird who believes in God yet doesn’t have a problem with listening to actual biologists when it comes to questions of biology. Suppose you accept that evolution occurred, but you think God had a hand in guiding it.

    I seriously question the assumptions here: these birds are not anywhere near so rare as you think. They’re just not interested enough in the issue to be vocal about it.

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  2. 2
    chanson says:

    p.s. If you want to believe that Big Science is unfairly suppressing Darwin-doubters, have a look at this video. It’s a rap song in which all of the big bad spokespeople for atheistic science sing about how they’ve built a machine to expell everyone who challenges their views on natural selection (and make big bucks in the process)!!! So it basically makes the same point as Expelled, but the difference is that this rap has great production quality and is effing hilarious!!! :D

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  3. 3
    chanson says:

    Kullervo — good, glad to hear it!!!

    I’d rather not think all Christians feel they need to attack science to preserve their beliefs.

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  4. 4
    Seth R. says:

    Joseph Smith was of the opinion that if science had disproven old religious dogmas, those dogmas ought to be abandoned. He made that point I believe in questioning the Christian belief in the insubstantiality of God.

    FYI, I think Joseph would have absolutely loved String Theory.

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  5. 5
    chanson says:

    Seth — coincidentally, one of my friends sent me an article about Mormon cosmology and String Theory. I haven’t read it carefully, but it looks interesting.

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  6. 6
    aerin says:

    I don’t think the beliefs are incompatible.

    I’ve mentioned this before, and I think in the past usually with different people I tend to agree to disagree on this point.

    But – I don’t think it’s been proven yet that life (a spark of life) can come from non life. Granted, that depends on your definition of life. AND – I’m perfectly willing to look at additional evidence on this – especially on other planets, etc.

    This theory can actually be tested – I remember reading about an experiment where a scientist tried to develop flies from something (agar perhaps? I don’t remember). He/she left the open agar container on the window, and flies appeared the next day. Proof that life can come from non life! ;) Actually, that experiment can’t be reproduced unless the petri dish is next to an open window overnight…

    So, in conclusion – what I’m saying is, yes, I think it’s possible to believe in evolution and in God.

    That was the whole point of the renaissance (if I’m remembering correctly) – to study and test theories. Not necessarily to attribute everything to God or a higher power (or take the Roman Catholic view on things).

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that this is proof that there is or is not a God or higher power – just tha believing in one doesn’t negate appreciation for the other.

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  7. 7
    Kari says:

    C.H.,

    The answer to the question you pose in your title is “it depends on which religion you have chosen to follow.”

    Clearly, the vast majority of fundamentalist evangelicals in the US believe in a literal creation, and many of them believe in a young earth.

    In the LDS tradition, we have the advantage of being able to be free-er in our views of scripture and being allowed to believe things in a more symbolic way. Certainly, the arguments over evolution that occured in the LDS church in the first half of the 20th century is evident of that. Unfortunately, Joseph Fielding Smith outlived BH Roberts and James Talmadge and got the last word when he published Man, His Origin and Destiny.

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  8. 8
    Mormonzero says:

    Yes, ppl can believe in both. Even b4 I started having issues w/ religion I believed in evolution and science. I still believe that if there is a God then I don’t think he would purposely lay out scientific data, organized strata, orbiting planets/solar systems/ galaxies, fossils etc. that are designed to confuse us. What would be the point in that?

    I guess what I am trying to say is that we should accept science as science and not religion.

    Really, I think it is religion that overstepped her bounds b4 science ever did. Religious leaders attempted to explain their doctrine, beliefs, writings etc. in order to explain the world around us and now the problem is that some of these ideas are being shown to be wrong.

    However, I believe the two can co-exist; definitely. You’ll never truly get rid of religion.

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  9. 9
    chanson says:

    Aerin — regarding the origins of the most primitive forms of life, you’re right that somethings are known and some are not. I’m in a wikipedia sort of mood today, so I’ll just point you to the wikipedia article on the subject: abiogenesis. This article gives a basic overview of what experiments have been performed and what is the current state of research. (It’s not that wikipedia is the source of all knowledge, but they’re great for a simple intro to any subject. I was just reading a book about Ann Boleyn the other day, and Wikipedia had some great articles on the wives of Henry VIII…).

    The important thing to keep in mind, however, is that just because a given natural phenomenon has not (yet) been fully explained by scientific research, that doesn’t imply a supernatural (magical) explanation. You can keep that gap as the place for God in your cosmology if you like, but a gap in our current knowledge doesn’t logically imply the existence of God.

    MormonZero — I was interested in science even when I was a believer too. That’s why it annoys me to see believers using the deceitful tactics of the “Intelligent Design” political movement to spread ignorance about how science works. Science is fascinating whether you ultimately believe in God or not, so God-belief shouldn’t mean that you have to avoid certain branches of study or cover your ears and go “la la la” when it comes to the evidence for theories your pastor doesn’t like.

    And I agree that science won’t supplant religion, nor should it aim to as I discussed in Is religion the problem?

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  10. 10
    t.n. trap says:

    Intelligent Design is not a theory. It is supported by no experimental data. Its best argument is pointing to something we don’t understand and saying, “We don’t understand this, and therefore it must be intelligently designed.” On its very best day it might be a hypothesis, but it’s more like a guess and probably is little more than a belief (not that there is anything wrong with that).

    Scientifically, a theory is more than a guess; it is more than something testable; it is something that has been tested. The theory of evolution is supported by a lot of evidence and new discoveries and observations fit the theory surpisingly well, adding to and modifying the theory along the way.

    As mentioned in the Wiki article, people commonly think of a guess and theory as the same thing. This makes Evolution look like less than it is and Intelligent Design more than it is. I’ve found that in talking to people about evolution, it’s a good to define and explain scientific theory first.

    I second Kullervo; religious-friendly scientists are not a rare thing.

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  11. 11
    C. L. Hanson says:

    T. N. Trap — Exactly. There’s a difference between what the word theory means in the colloquial sense and what it means as a scientific term. The I.D. movement exploits the confusion over the two uses of the word, and I can only assume this deception is deliberate because it takes two seconds to understand and explain the confusion.

    The one good thing that comes of all this is that is provides the opportunity to talk with lay people (theist and atheist alike) about how science works.

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  12. 12
    profxm says:

    I’ve actually watched most of the videos by the Intelligent Design community produced by the Discovery Institute. They are slick, but also ridiculous. One claims the earth had to have been intelligently designed because it is well-situated for viewing the universe. It’s about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Otherwise, as t.n.trap says, the arguments for intelligent design fall apart when examined as the logical fallacy – argument from ignorance. Just because we don’t know all the details doesn’t mean we have to invoke a god of the gaps.

    Finally, even though chanson already addressed this in part, I think one other thing about aerin’s assertion concerning abiogenesis needs to be pointed out: life is not a spark. When you get down to it, what makes us “alive” is that we self-replicate in a remarkably ordered fashion. In order for anything to be considered “alive” it needs to do the same thing. There is no “spirit” that does this; no “quickening” required. Life simply requires instructions for self-replication. Is it possible to find molecules that self-replicate in nature? Absolutely. Moving from non-living material to living material isn’t nearly as foreboding when you take away the whole “wow, there’s something mysterious about life, some magical life force that makes living things special.” Nope. There is just the ability to replicate. Richard Dawkins does a great job of illustrating how prevalent this is in nature in The Blind Watchmaker – silicates self-replicate and order themselves all the time and most people are completely unaware of this fact. The odds of finding self-replicating molecules after billions of years of favorable conditions are actually pretty good – no god required. This is precisely why scientists are going gaga over the water they are finding in our solar system (on Mars and moons of Saturn and Jupiter) – good chance of life.

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  13. 13
    mxracer652 says:

    My own personal opinion used to be that you have to have some serious cognitive dissonance going on to accept faith and evidence.

    But I think that is just one indication of people not being 100% rational 100% of the time.

    After all, there are scientists and atheists who are superstitious (black cats/ladders), take placebos (herbal/chinese supplements, airborne), go to a chiropractor, get into New Age/Altie woo-woo BS, acupuncture, etc. They’re just different forms of belief.

    It’s no different, except the religion thing is in the spotlight now.

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  14. 14
    Hellmut says:

    Creationism is incompatible with science. The problem is not so much that science has disproved creationism’s knowledge claims. Ultimately, creationism is incompatible with science because creationists are unwilling to question their beliefs.

    Open minded humble believers will always discover openings for faith. The arrogance of false certainty undermines the position of creationists.

    In fact, creationists are so certain that one could attribute not only the sin of pride but also that of idolatry. From a Christian perspective, after all, only God would be inerrant.

    When mortals put their opinions above the evidence, they are claiming a divine property. In my opinion, that’s sacrilegious.

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  15. 15
    aerin says:

    Thanks chanson for the abiogenesis article. VERY interesting. I hadn’t seen this before, and didn’t remember much about the subject since my 9th grade biology class. And yes, that’s true – a gap in scientific knowledge doesn’t imply the existence of God or a magical explanation.

    Profxm – the idea of self-replication is interesting to me. From the wikipedia article chanson linked to – I’m not sure that there is scientific consensus about this (that self-replication is possible). This is way out of my knowledge base here (obviously).

    As far as evolution = atheism (chanson’s original premise) – I would argue that people believe things that can’t be explained by science. I haven’t read Carl Sagan’s book about this (or Michael Shermer’s) but I think their arguments might be useful in this conversation.

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  16. 16
    Hellmut says:

    After all, there are scientists and atheists who are superstitious black cats/ladders), take placebos (herbal/chinese supplements, airborne), go to a chiropractor, get into New Age/Altie woo-woo BS, acupuncture, etc.

    Good to meet you, MX Racer.

    Did you read the National Institute of Health review on acupuncture? Their double-blind studies actually did find a salutary effect. German researchers confirm the American findings. Check it out.

    I doubt that there is a reputable scientist who believes that black cats are bad luck. There might be somebody like that in some nook or cranny of the universe but that person would be an outlier among scientists.

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  17. 17
    C. L. Hanson says:

    MXRacer — My point is that there are a lot of fairly complex questions like “is this an effective treatment or isn’t it?” and “Is X out there somewhere or isn’t it?” where one can legitimately have some doubt and it takes a lot of work to find an answer.

    However, the question “Is Intelligent Design a scientific theory?” is not such a question. It is a very simple question with a straight-forward answer and is not a “controversy.” The people of the Discovery Institute have created this lie about the “controversy” deliberately in order to pretend that religious education is science education. Self-respecting theists should be ashamed to have these people on their team.

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  18. 18
    mxracer652 says:

    Did you read the National Institute of Health review on acupuncture?

    And a hello to you also Hellmut. I stand corrected, although it bothers me that the NLM still has it listed as alternative medicine.

    I’m a practicing mechanical engineer and part time grad student in materials science, so, having first hand experience with people who are trained to be rational, is that yes, a lot of them do believe in trivial nonsense like bad luck.

    CL Hanson,
    It’s funny because the DI has two faces, one for the press in which it proclaims “controversy”. And the other is for creationists which it has plainly been caught stating ID=C. They’re just well funded cranks.

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  19. 19
    chanson says:

    It’s funny because the DI has two faces, one for the press in which it proclaims “controversy”. And the other is for creationists which it has plainly been caught stating ID=C.

    Exactly, and you don’t have to look very hard before you see both faces. The Discovery Institute, Expelled guys, et al., have approximately the same effect as the people who use religion to justify homophobia: They make people who have integrity think twice about religion.

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  20. 20
    rebecca says:

    When I was very young and very religious I did not believe in evolution because I’d heard that it contradicted religion. When I got a little older and took a little science and read a little more, evolution and science won me over, and I didn’t think that was incompatible with my religious beliefs. I figured that if there was a truly eternal, omnipotent god then it would make sense that he would create a universe with rules and order, or if he hadn’t created the universe, then he could create within the guidelines provided.

    ID isn’t a valid theory because it’s not falsifiable. It’s just not. How would you even be able to falsify that? By proving that god doesn’t exist, which is itself a falsifiable idea? Now I’m getting confused. It’s just such a backwards argument.

    I no longer believe in a god or creator but I recently read a novel by Carl Sagan (not looking for any answers or information about science or religion- I just liked the movie so I read the book) and it proposes some really interesting ideas about god/creators and how that could possibly work within and without the universe. Totally fictional, but it just got me thinking about how religion (at least the type I’m familiar with) tends to create a god in the image of man. They claim it’s the other way around, but they make him so…small, for lack of a better word. He looks like a man, has human relationships, is concerned with fashion and food, and basically behaves like a human being with a lot of power – punishments when we piss him off, rewards when we don’t, etc. We’ve made god into what we know, but that seems incompatible with the idea of him being infinite and all-powerful — something like that shouldn’t even be comprehensible to us, and yet he’s just like a really evolved dude? The book (Contact — good movie too, FYI, but the movie doesn’t really get into the mind-boggling religious stuff the book has) just made me think a little about how, through religion, we’ve made the infinite so small and ourselves so large.

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  21. 21
    chanson says:

    Rebecca — well put, I agree. And I’ve heard a lot of good things about the book Contact. If it isn’t already on the list of my favorite book club (Nonbelieving Literati), I think I’ll suggest it when I get a turn to pick the book. :D

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  22. 22
    profxm says:

    So, some conclusions:
    -Creationism is in conflict with scientific thinking; it’s an either/or situation.
    -Intelligent Design, while not a scientific theory, is not necessarily in conflict with scientific thinking.

    Also, on the whole acupuncture thing – acupuncture doesn’t work:
    http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/abstract/293/8/375
    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=43
    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2007/10/perception_and_reality_in_acupuncture.php

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  23. 23
    Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    Isn’t it curious how church leaders are (continually/constantly and increasingly) moving away from ‘literalistic’ views of things?
    what comes out of SLC/COB/GAs is sooooooooooo fluid… it’s a wonder that anyone notices the change!
    OMG, what’s next?

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  24. 24
    Craig says:

    Is “Intelligent Design” a scientific theory? No.

    Can one believe in God and evolution at the same time – and be ambivalent about “Intelligent Design”?

    Yes.

    Evidence: Me.

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  25. 25
    Elaine says:

    Intelligent Design is not science. The most generous I can be is that it is a throwing up of the hands and saying, “We [those who advocate for ID] can’t figure out how some stuctures evolved, so somebody must have designed it [created it].”

    For public consumption, some ID advocates won’t say that they believe god is the designer…which puts them in the interesting position of having people think they believe the aliens did it, and we are all just a big science experiment. However, being less generous, ID is just a way of dressing up creationism in a non-theistic costume to try to get it past judicial decisions that have left explicitly theistic creation out of the public school science classroom.

    I have never seen any conflict between believing in god and accepting evolution. In fact, I was astonished when I learned (when I was in fifth or sixth grade) that there were people who took Genesis literally. Interestingly, that was when we were shown a film about evolution at school and a Mormon friend (who was the one who eventually pulled me into my Mormon adventure) went ballistic about it. Even in my Mormon days, I never bought into any of the anti-evolution rhetoric I was fed at church.

    A good book, by the way, on the whole controversy, is “Finding Darwin’s God”, by Kenneth Miller. As I understand it, he is a practicing Catholic and a biologist who has no trouble at all reconciling his faith and his science.

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  26. 26
    chanson says:

    Craig — Cool, another one. :D

    Elaine — I was pretty surprised myself whe I learned that many people believe in a literal 6-day creation, but really what I was taught as a kid wasn’t much better.

    I was taught that it was absurd to think the days in Genesis were literal days since how can you have a “day” before the creation of the Sun? I learned that in fact the creation took place over six time periods — God’s days (Kolob days?), 1000 years long each. So I was familiar with these sorts of “sciency” theories — that give a half-assed nod to rejecting the most obvious absurdities — while still being incompatible with modern scientific theories (which I learned in parallel at school).

    That book sound interesting. It’s nice to hear from theists who are capable of working within modern science. The “theory of Intelligent Design” (which did not arise from within the scientific community) is a slap in the face to God-believing scientists who understand the difference between faith and science and don’t feel their faith needs to be bolstered by lies.

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  27. 27
    Hellmut says:

    That’s what I was taught as well, Chanson. However, the next sentence was that humanity literally existed for only six thousand years.

    I am not quite sure but I think that the teachers were invoking on Joseph Fielding Smith’s ideas.

    The whole thing sounds like another attempt of Mormon leaders trying to please evangelical fundamentalists.

    There seems to be a pattern: when anti-rationalism rears its head in Mormonism, it is often about pandering to people who are wackier than we are.

    . . . some mainstreaming, isn’t it?

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  28. 28
    chanson says:

    Hellmut — To be honest, I don’t think this is a case of capitulating to please evangelicals. The idea that the Earth and all of its history is divided into a set of thousand-year-long dispensations (like the millenium) is Mormon from way back. Giving up this doctrine and de-emphasizing it is the part that’s “mainstreaming”.

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  29. 29
    chanson says:

    Look at this. Expelled is so far off the deep end of the religious right that even Fox News doesn’t buy the “controversy”:

    The gist of Stein’s involvement is: He’s outraged! He believes in God! God created the universe! How can we not avail our students of this theory? What do you mean we’re just molecules?

    What the producers of this film would love, love, love is a controversy. That’s because it’s being marketed by the same people who brought us “The Passion of the Christ.” They’re hoping someone will latch onto an anti-Semitism theme here since there’s a visit to a concentration camp and the raised idea — apparently typical of the intelligent design community — that somehow the theory of evolution is so evil that it caused the Holocaust. Alas, this is such a warped premise that no one’s biting.

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  30. 30
    C. L. Hanson says:

    Another great one, this time Ben Stein’s Expelled: No Integrity Displayed from Scientific American:

    It speaks to their anti-intellectualism and fundamental misunderstanding of science that for the makers of Expelled (and ID advocates more generally) the answer “we don’t know yet” is a badge of shame. “We don’t know yet” is what defines the fruitful frontier for science; it is what directs scientists’ curiosity and motivates them to spend years on research. Research starts where knowledge and certainty drop off. It’s one of the many ironies of Expelled that Ben Stein says he wants this movie to free people to ask questions about science, but the ID theories he defends would close off inquiry with nonanswers.

    Like the decision to call evolution Darwinism, the omission of science from Expelled was a deliberate choice. In fact, it was crucial to the film’s strategy. Because they know Americans revere freedom of speech and fairness, the producers cast the conflict between evolution and ID as purely a struggle between worldviews—a difference of opinions, a battle of ideologies—in which one side is censoring the other. They know that the public will instinctively want to defend the underdog, especially when that opinion aligns with the religious beliefs many of them already share.

    It is a terrific strategy, but with one caveat: that airy skirmish of opinions must never, ever touch the ground of solid evidence. Because if it does, if viewers are ever allowed to notice that evolution is supported by mountains of tangible, peer-reviewed evidence gathered by generations of scientists, whereas ID has little more than a smattering of vanity-press pamphlets from a handful of cranks… the bubble pops.

       0 likes

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