Why not teach Intelligent Design in our schools?

A passionate look at the controversy by Nick Strobel

Intelligent Design Resources

This document was written in October 2005 when my local high school board was considering requiring the teaching of Intelligent Design in the science classes as a way to get the young-earth Noah Flood geology creationism ideas into the school curriculum. Although most of the scientists and mathematicians in the ID umbrella (such as Behe and Dembski) do NOT hold the young-Earth views of the Noah Flood geology camp, many of the common lay people who want ID taught in high school clearly do such as my high school board members and the Dover, PA school board (pre-November 2005 election). Therefore, this article often lumps all of the ID folks into the young-Earth camp. Since October 2005 I added links to other documents I have written on ID and in April 2006 I critiqued the views of Behe and Dembski (who DO believe in a several billion year old Earth and even some evolutionary development of life) for a faculty seminar. Please see the PDF of the paper I gave for those critiques. Rather than continue to update this document with links to the other articles I write on this subject, I will update the index of the "Intelligent Design Resources" page.

So many letters are being written to our local newspaper about the upcoming decision of our school board on teaching Intelligent Design in our schools that the editors are forcing all of the letter writers to stick within the 250-word limit for basic letters to the editor. It is impossible to boil all of the points down to the 250-word limit and keep in the explanations for the opinions as an educated person must provide.

You need to know that I am presenting this as my personal views and not as astronomy fact like all of the rest of the material on the Astronomy Notes site. It is a valid educational piece because it describes more fully the difference between religion and science than what I have in chapter 1. However, it is not a complete exposition on the differences between religion and science and the compatibility of religion and science. I hope to write more about that in the future.

Another thing you should know is that I am in both "camps" in the science-religion debate/dialogue. I am an astronomy professor with a PhD in astrophysics from the University of Washington and I am an active, participating member of a christian church called Wesley United Methodist Church in Bakersfield, California, USA. One person described my particular faith as one town called "Methodism" in the province called "Protestantism" in one state called "Christianity" in one country called "religious-spiritual experience" in the world of human experience.

Finally, I usually use "creationism" to refer to the ideas proclaimed by the young-Earth/scripture-literalists such as Henry Morris, but the term can also include progressive creationists and intelligent design creationists, who can accept old Earth (universe) evidence but who believe that God's existence and actions can be proved from observations of nature (i.e., that the methods of science can prove that God exists and acts).

As a Christian and as a scientist, I am against the requirement of teaching of Intelligent Design in our school science classes. Intelligent Design is actually the Bible-literalist creationism idea with slick scientific-looking packaging. If one is going to teach about Intelligent Design, then one must teach about the Designer. As a Christian I do not want my children being instructed on the Designer by biology teachers who will eventually have to meet the theological criteria of literalist beliefs held by a subset of Christians in our community. As a Christian who has studied the Bible all of his life and who has experienced the presence of God through that study of the Bible, I do not agree that I must read the scriptures as literal-fact. I do not believe that the truth of the scriptures is only valid if it can be proven or verified by physical means. I do not believe that the only valid truth is factual. A literalist view of scriptures is actually an outgrowth of the philosophy and time period from which modern science arose (called the "Enlightenment") that identified truth with factuality and that truth must be verifiable as fact. The truth of the Bible is metaphorical and does not depend on historical factuality.

The requirement of the teaching of Intelligent Design in our schools is the first step in forcing our children to believe in a literalist interpretation of the Bible. It is the first step in indoctrinating our children in the God believed by the fundamentalist clergy on our school board. As a patriot who loves this country, I do not want a public representative in authority (a school teacher) giving my children the message that they should hold a particular religious viewpoint. As a Christian, I do not want that public authority teaching my children a religious belief I do not believe. This will happen if the Intelligent Design proponents and creationists have their way.

As a scientist I am against the teaching of Intelligent Design as a valid scientific theory because it is not a scientific theory. A scientific theory is not an "unproven assumption" as one columnist stated recently. A scientific theory is a logical, systematic set of principles or explanation that has been verified—has stood up against attempts to prove it false. A scientific theory must make testable predictions. Intelligent Design, like creationism, holds a particular explanation about our physical world to be true no matter what—it cannot be proven false nor can it be modified when new evidence is discovered. Intelligent Design, like creationism, starts off with the assumption that God created everything and it believes that no facts or observation can prove otherwise. This is fine as a religious belief, but this belief is not scientific. That is OKAY---it is alright to hold a non-scientific belief as long one does not confuse a religious belief with a scientific explanation and vice versa. Intelligent Design proponents believe there are some physical things and processes that cannot be understood or explained without invoking a supernatural entity, the master Designer, and no facts or observation can contradict that belief. Again, this is fine as a religious belief, but this belief is not scientific. That is OKAY. This belief is along the lines of the "God of the gaps" understanding that I discuss more fully below.

The realm of science is the physical, natural universe. As a Christian, I do not use the methods of science to prove God exists or to prove my faith is valid. Science was never meant to do that. Creationists, Intelligent Design advocates, and scientists who try to prove the existence of God or to disprove God exists are mis-applying the methods of science to something outside the realm of science. That is NOT okay. As a scientist, I cannot say whether God exists or not; whether God does or does not act. As a Christian, I can say that.

The fact that I cannot use science to prove God exists and acts does NOT make my faith weaker, less valid, or less real than those who believe in a literal-factual interpretation of the Bible. Literally tens of millions of Christians in the United States alone will agree with that statement. They are not as vocal as the literalist Christian group, nor do the journalists focus their attention on them because they are not as interesting. Newspapers, magazines, radio and television shows thrives on controversy because it attracts more viewers/listeners. The media magnifies controversy. The literalist Christians and the subset of scientists who are atheists welcome media attention and will oblige by shouting at each other. The two opposing extremist groups think that whoever shouts the loudest and longest will win the argument. This is what my elementary school children do, but mature adults do not do that.

As a scientist I am against the teaching of Intelligent Design as a valid scientific theory because it has not gone through the standard peer review and correction of the scientific process. Things like biological evolution, atomic theory, and gravity theory are taught in our high schools because they have been verified and refined by many people using the scientific method. Any scientist would love to prove those theories wrong or incomplete because they would get a lot of fame for making that breakthrough. Scientists spend years testing scientific theories in that pursuit of a radical break from what was previously thought. Creationism and Intelligent Design advocates seek to do an "end-run" around the tried-and-true process of science and curriculum development by legislating their beliefs into our schools.

Creationism and Intelligent Design advocates argue from the position of authority rather than from the evidence of the physical universe. Because they have people with PhDs in the sciences working in their organizations, anything they say must be scientific. This is like my second-grader arguing she is right and her sister is not because she is in the second grade and her sister is just in kindergarten. Children argue this way, but mature adults do not. PhD scientists are not the judges of scientific truth; careful observations of nature are the sole judge. I cannot say I am correct just because I have a PhD in astrophysics from a prestigious institution. I have to give you the evidence.

Many of criticisms of evolution, Big Bang theory, etc. by the creationists and Intelligent Design advocates center on gaps in our understanding. Unfortunately for them, people using the scientific method have filled in many of those gaps. (It would take many more pages to list answers to all of the critiques by the creationists/ID people.) No scientist will say that science knows everything. If there is a gap in our understanding, the person acting as a scientist will say we don’t know the reason for something yet and work to find the reason from physical, non-spiritual means. That is the power and the limit of science.

My brother, Brett Strobel, is a minister in a United Methodist Church in Oregon, USA. In one piece about science and religion he gave another criticism of this "God in the gaps" idea held by the creationists/ID people. Intelligent Design "makes God a 'natural fact' which is poor theology. Nature is God's 'handiwork,' but God is far more, far above that—transcendent mystery. (Read Psalm 139:1-18 as a refresher.) When God becomes another factor in nature, an explanation that fills in the gaps of our knowledge, then what happens when our new discoveries start shrinking those gaps? As Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out, God becomes less and less relevant. Such a reductionist view of God, no matter how well intended, is idolatry or even sacrilege of a sinister sort." Father George Coyne, the director of the Vatican Observatory noted a similar objection to Intelligent Design in a January 31, 2006 talk at Palm Beach University: "...the Intelligent Design movement, while evoking a God of power and might, a designer God, actually belittles God, makes her/him too small and paltry."

Brett Strobel also notes that while the teleological argument such as William Paley's "Natural Theology" can invoke a sense of awe, it is a response of faith—intellectual faith. While he can agree with the statement that the balance, complexity, and interdependence of the natural world cannot be adequately explained without the presence of a Creator, "it is a statement that doesn’t derive itself from scientific method, but springs out of faith and belief which is at home in the language of philosophy, theology and poetry. The problem that arises out of the teleological argument is that it doesn’t prove the existence of the montheistic creator of our faith. At its best it might prove a henotheistic creator, but it begs the question of why a single creator vs. a committee. It takes quantum leaps in reasoning to arrive at the God of our faith." For more of his discussion on the history and theological problems with Intelligent Design, please see his "Diplomatic Medium" article.

Under the guise of "fair play" ("fair and balanced reporting"), the Intelligent Design advocates and creationists want to be included in the science curriculum, even up to getting equal time with scientifically-verified theories such as evolution. This is the American way, right? Teach the controversy, they say. Well, our science teachers already do teach about the scientific controversies: what is being researched now. They already teach our children what is known and what we don’t know, what we are still trying to figure out. If the Intelligent Design advocates circumvent the educational process, then in the interest of fair play, I want my religious viewpoint of science-religion to get equal time too. Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, should get their equal time too. In the interest of fair play, astrologers should get equal time in my astronomy class. Clearly, this is a mistaken notion of fairness.

Another problem with the arguments of the Intelligent Design advocates and creationists is that in their quest to knock down biology, geology, astronomy, physics, and any other science that points to long timescales and changes of organisms and the environment over those long timescales, they hope that negating the science will logically lead to people accepting their particular view of origins and development. This is the "two models" idea: either one believes in modern science's explanation of our origins and development or one believes in the literal-factual interpretation of the Jewish-Christian scriptures with a personal God creating all types of life in their present form (and usually with a very young Earth and universe). This ignores the fact that there is a continuum of beliefs among the Christian religious community and scientists from the flat earthers to the philosophical materialists (the continuum includes the geocentrists, young earth creationists, progressive creationists, gap creationists, day-age creationists, Intelligent Design advocates, theistic evolutionists, and methodological materialists—I have probably missed a group or two). It also ignores the fact that there are other stories of our origins and relationship to the creation held by other religious faiths in our communities now. Knocking down modern science will not necessarily lead one to the interpretation of the literal-factual view of the Jewish-Christian scriptures. As my brother noted above, at best the Intelligent Design arguments might prove a henotheistic creator, but why not a committee instead of a single creator? Furthermore, the "debate" is usually one where holes are poked in one part of science's explanation (too often with a poor understanding of the science or taking a scientist's comments out of context) without offering a verifiable alternative explanation. This fits the "two models" idea: if we get rid of science's explanation, all that is left is the single alternative of the literalist, (usually young-earth) creationists.

Evidence for Old Earth–Old Universe

Here are some resources explaining how we know the Earth and the Universe are far older than what a literalist interpretation of the Hebrew Bible (what Christians refer to as the "Old Testament"). Since I am not a biologist, I will refer you to Jerry Coyne's article "The Faith That Dare Not Speak Its Name" in the New Republic, August 22 & 29, 2005 p. 21-33 for a detailed critique of the biological claims made by creationists/ID people. He responds to popular anti-biological evolution books such as "Of Pandas and People" and "Darwin's Black Box".

  1. How we know Radioactive Dating is valid? (My brief explanation.)
  2. Evidence for the Big Bang Theory. (My brief explanation.)
  3. The time it takes light to travel the great distances of the stars in our Galaxy and in other galaxies is very long—far longer in most cases than the 6,000 to 10,000 years quoted by the young-Earth creationists. The light travel time = (distance of the object) / (speed of light). There is no evidence in the spectra for the speed of light changing throughout time. See my Star Properties chapter and Galaxies chapter for how we measure the great distances of stars and galaxies. The already quite-good distance measurements will improve greatly with the Space Interferometry Mission and GAIA mission that will be launched in the next few years. (Selecting the mission links will bring them up in another window.)
  4. An Ancient Universe: How Astronomers Know the Vast Scale of Cosmic Time. (PDF document: 800 kb in size!) This guide for Teachers, Students and the Public was written by a subcommittee of the American Astronomical Society's Astronomy Education Board and is joint publication of the AAS and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. It is beautifully illustrated. This is a local copy from the AAS Education Board.

Intelligent Design Resources (now includes material on the theological roots and problems with ID and critiques of Behe/Dembski specifically)

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last updated: July 8, 2006

Author of original content: Nick Strobel