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Bad Theology and ID

Quite frequently in the debate over intelligent design someone mentions that ID is “bad theology.” That someone might even be me! The problem is that it is not all that easy to delineate just what is bad theology. My bad theology may well be someone else’s belief system. Of course, the reverse may also be true. There isn’t a common set of standards by which someone can judge just what is bad and good in theology when the term is used in a general sense.

In addition, if ID is bad theology, so what? If the primary issue is whether it belongs in the science classroom, or in peer-reviewed science journals, what difference does it make whether it is good theology or bad? The issue seems irrelevant from that point of view.

But when we recall that a large part of this battle is political, then we can perhaps understand why the accusation of bad theology is frequently heard. But the question remains of just how one can tell what is good and bad in theology.

There are two senses in which I believe “bad theology” can justly be referenced in the discussion of ID. There is one overarching point that I must make first, and that is that the simple statement that ID is theology rather than science is more relevant than the quality of the theology involved. One could also say that ID is philosophy, and it would be hard to draw the line in that case. Personally I think it is a theological construct not very cleverly disguised as science, but that is another subject.

As an aside, it is this variety in the standards, premises, and even processes of theology that differentiate it so much from science and make the teaching of particular religious beliefs so inappropriate for the public school classroom. Teaching about beliefs is another matter. One should ask whether ID behaves like science or theology in this sense.

The first sense in which ID can be described as bad theology is by showing that it is not internally coherent, i.e. that arguments made in favor of it are inconsistent with one another or are not derived from the stated (or assumed) premises. It is often hard to support such a claim, simply because it’s often hard to tell just what those premises are. It would be inconsistent, for example, to argue that the design of the first living organism requires a supernatural agent, but then claim to have resolved the issue by positing an intelligent natural designer.

ID advocates rarely do this in one and the same paragraph or speech, but this kind of inconsistency shows up in the difference between the way ID is presented to religious audiences and to secular ones. To the secular audiences the designer is presented as unknown, but potentially natural (as though that would solve anything), while to religious audiences are told (or at least permitted to think) that the designer must be God.

If ID could be satisfied by a natural designer, then it is either not theology at all or very bad theology. It really bad science, since it proposes an undefined and unbounded entity, and declines to investigate it.

This type of theological critique requires that the one giving the critique shares some standards with the one critiqued, but only in a minimal way. Both would have to accept, for example, that theology ought to be internally consistent. If that is not the case, this will blend over into my second category.

Second, one may be asserting that the theology of ID contradicts some important aspect of the theology of a specific group. A simple version of this is pointing out that teaching evolution is not anti-Christian, because there are a substantial number of Christians who accept the theory of evolution. One might point out specific groups, such as the Roman Catholic Church, or the United Methodist Church (of which I’m a member).

The creationist movement in general has been guilty of a good deal of sleight of hand in dealing with groups. When they want there to be lots of creationist, everyone who believes in God is a creationist. They then turn around and say that theistic evolutionists are not really Christians when challenged with the number of Christians who do accept evolution.

This sort of behavior is illustrated by recent comments by Michael Behe about Kenneth Miller. Miller believes that the universe is designed by God, yet does not believe in intelligent design. Behe wants to claim him on the one hand, but exclude him on the other, because he doesn’t believe quite enough. He believes in design, but not the (alleged) theory of design. (Pim van Meurs discussed this today on the Panda’s Thumb blog.)

“Bad theology” in this sense, means theology that contradicts key tenets of a particular group or fails to meet the standards of that group in terms of how theology is formed. Since it is so community based, it is clearly only of value in helping to clarify those groups that support, or are likely to support a particular view and those who will not.

It is in this second sense that theological critique of ID is most important. As I’ve mentioned, it is really irrelevant just how good of theology is contained in an idea that is trying to masquerade as science. A scientist can justifiably say, “So what?” But in the political and PR game, one of the issues is trying to treat the teaching of evolution as an attack on Christianity. It is quite critical, in that case, to be able to point out how many Christians find the theology involved in ID unacceptable.

In my own area of work, religious education in local churches, this becomes very important as well, because the ID propaganda mill is working quite well. Many churchgoers, even those who accept evolution, are convinced that the whole argument is over whether God is the ultimate designer of the universe. Stated in those terms, they are in favor of intelligent design. When they realize that ID searches for specific evidence of God’s design at the molecular level, they generally become much less attracted to it. It looks like ID is proposing that God is more the designer of some pieces of the universe than of others. Of course the idea that one can prove design of the whole by discovering instances of design in the whole is as old as Paley’s watch, at least.

The theological critique of ID is important in Christian theology, in which Christian theologians need to look carefully at the implications of ID within their own faith traditions. This is where serious questions of a “god of the gaps” argument arise, for example. Scientists do not, and need not, care whether a particular argument is a god of the gaps argument.

There are also the very interesting issues of the origin and design of damaging organisms raised by Behe in The Edge of Evolution. I have not read this yet, so I cannot critique it directly, but I will certainly be reading it carefully looking for claims of intelligent design of specific pathogens.

These sorts of issues will have a great impact on how acceptable ID will be in Christian circles, which in turn has a great impact on the success of various political goals related to such success.

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