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January 05, 2006

Intelligent design?

The great debate in certain circles in the US centred on the teaching of the Theory of Evolution versus "Creationsim" or "Intelligent Design" has just been underscored - and not for the first time - in a court room battle. Happily I think, the Judge ruled that Darwin's Theory has more scientific credence than the alternatives, but equally happily, he also declined to rule on what people may or may not choose to believe.

Speaking for myself, I find it incredible that there are still a seemingly very large body of otherwise intelligent people whose "faith" in God seems to hinge on whether or not the world was created in a matter of days 6,004 years ago (A 17th Century Irish Prelate calculated this by adding up all the ages of the people in the old testament and then adding the "post Christ" number of years. I suspect though that he used the Julian and not the Gregorian dating so was probably a few more years out in that as well!) or came into being over a much longer period involving a lot of accidents, huge galactic forces and something like 5 billion years to get to where we are today! Does it really matter? Is this really what the entire Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths hang on? Of course not, the creation story in Genesis is a very poetic description - an explanation for nomads - of vast events which even now we do not fully understand! The more we learn, the less we really know, or think we know. The study of genetics is unwrapping ever more enigmas, and ever more proof that Darwin's theory - and a scientific Theory is something that is accepted only after rigourous testing, challenging and quite a lot of evidence - is probably, give or take a few deviations here and there, largely spot on. Life has evolved and is still evolving.

Look back through the fossil record - and no, I do not accept that they were put there by God to confuse us, or by the Devil to distract us - the earth has been several degrees warmer than it is now, and a whole lot colder. Polar Bears evolved during the last ice age and the warming of the oceans and melting ice caps will probably spell extinction for them and us, but God's purpose and His ongoing creation will see the evolution of new animals adapted to the new age and climate - and these will adapt and change again as the earth moves away from the sun in another 10,000 years or so and cools once more. The orbit is eratic, the heat output from the sun changes and this planet is habitable to us in our present form only as long as our climate stays within the parameters that allow us to have liquid oceans (water is actually a gas when you think about it!) and a moderately narrow temperature range. If we were to lose the moon, the earth's balance would be disturbed and we would develop a severe wobble which would give us such extremes of temperature at the poles and the equator that human and animal life would be almost impossible. Is this proof that there is no God? Of course not, but neither does it "prove" that there is one!

Those who prefer to keep their ideas on the creation of the planet and the rise of the species we belong to and are familiar with, simple, should consider carefully the evidence around them. The argument for a "Creator" using "Intelligent Design" is a blind alley, a distraction from true understanding of God and of His creation. It's major flaw is that it assumes that humans have reached their evolutionary peak and can get no better! What does it matter that He chose to throw a galactic chemistry set on the ground and stood back to see what emerged? Did he "engineer" our genes? This is stepping perilously close to the "Aliens from outer space impregnated monkeys to create humans" argument - and about as valid.

Reading the book Darwin's Watch by Terry Pratchett and a pair of scientists has been very entertaining and very enlightening, everyone should read it, because it does put the science into a language stripped of all the media hype and gives a case we can all understand quite easily. The protagonists of "Intelligent design" might also learn to their advantage to consider a little more carefully the flimsiness of the argument they advance. In fact, they might begin to look afresh at the "logic" applied by the 17th and 18th Century theologians who devised it in an attempt to stem the tide of "Enlightenment" as pure sciences began to move the discovery of how the planet actually functioned forward.

It is popular today to blame the mainstream churches for this promotion of the untenable, in fact it is not strictly true. The Catholic Church has long sponsored scientific studies - Copernicus was a priest and very highly regarded in Catholic circles, as were many more of the leading "scientists" of the Renaissance. Much of their work was suppressed in the sense that it was not widely published, because it was felt that, like the Theory of Evolution, it would serve only to alarm the general populace. Unfortunately it is also true that many of the leaders of the Church of England and other "mainstream" Christian "Reformed" churches were so prejudiced against the Catholic Church that it was a case "if they think that, we have to think the opposite!" Hence the attempts to beat science at it's own game by evolving a "theological" explanation which does not stand up to scientific scrutiny.

The problem with God, according to some writers, is that He resolutely refuses to "prove" His existence - thereby frustrating everyone, both believer and unbeliever!

Frankly, I think this is a debate which is both pointless and a distraction from the real issue, that the Church - in its widest sense - exists to provide a vehicle through which we may discover our own routes to God and begin to understand the greater meaning of the Gospels. There is, as Pratchett's Wizards remark, an absence of "Deitivium" and "Narativium" in our world - both "elements" in abundant presence in the Discworld. Because of this lack, we have science.

A much wiser head than mine once said that science is what we use to explain the explainable and to seek explanations for the bits we can explain but not fully understand. Faith is for the gaps between. I know what he meant and it does not shake my faith one bit knowing that I have evolved from a "proto-hominid" who lived in Africa some 3.5 million years ago. It doesn't worry me that that homonid may have evolved from something that crawled out of some warm ocean 20 million years before that. I know that dinosaurs walked the earth for several million years before homonids even began to evolve, I also know that asteriods have crashed into this planet and wiped out promising evolutionary strains several times - and that doesn't bother me either.

I am a man. I cannot know the mind of God and I fully accept that I may actually be simply yet another stepping stone in a vast experiment which will ultimately give rise to yet another chain of beings adapted to the conditions of a changing and evolving planet. My faith is founded in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and not in the creation stories put together for shepherds and wanderers a little over 3,000 years ago.

That faith tells me that, as a Christian, and as one of God's created sons, I can expect to be welcomed into a new and hopefully less fraught life at the end of this one. That, and that alone, is what really matters. Any arguments about whether Darwinism is "scientific" or whether "Intelligent Creationism" is more accurate, belong in the same dustbin of history as the wonderful "element" many learned gentlemen argued over in the "Age of Enlightenment" - Phlogiston.

It really is time for all men of real faith to put aside their nice comfortable "Sunday School" images and embrace the real challenge of faith - to learn to know God through prayer, deed and understanding of everything we can learn about the creation we are a part of. Let us hope that the promoters of "Intelligent Design" stop flogging their dead horse and look at how God is really working in science for the good of us all. If they really believe that God is present in everything, then prove it, by looking at how He is working through ongoing evolution in everything - including us!

Posted by The Gray Monk at January 5, 2006 03:51 PM

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