Grand designs on religion and biology

13th January 2006 at 00:00
Just before Christmas, a US federal judge ruled that a school board in Pennsylvania was wrong to put "intelligent design" in its biology curriculum. The board had insisted on children being told that evolution was a theory with inexplicable gaps; though the Earth might not literally be only a few thousand years old and everything might not have been created in a week, a divine guiding hand was still a runner. Now the law has come to Darwin's rescue.

You may think this argument has no relevance here. Fundamentalist Christians in Britain have little political clout. Only a few academies give credence to the creationist view. And the controversy bubbles on in America partly because religious study is largely kept out of publicly funded schools.

But I suspect, as churches increase their role in our education system, we shall hear more of this subject. To say that intelligent design is just a repackaging of the Genesis dogma is to miss the point. The mainstream churches have long conceded that Genesis can be treated as myth. What they do not accept - and cannot accept - is that evolution is an entirely random process. Those who say schools should teach intelligent design may be misguided fundamentalists, but they are not fools. They challenge the mainstream churches to come clean. They also challenge schools to confront the intellectual incoherence of teaching both religion and biology, and trying to keep them in separate boxes.

Christianity can easily accept that the universe is billions of years old, and that everything since it began has been governed by basic molecular laws. It has never tried to interfere with physics lessons. It doesn't need to: many physicists, at a loss to explain why the laws of their subject so precisely favour the development of matter, suns, planets and ultimately life, are themselves believers. Biology is different. Christianity demands a rational being capable of moral choices. Such a being may take a long time to evolve and may share ancestry with monkeys. It need not even take a human form, though that would put "made in the image of God" into the myth category as well.

But unless something like us comes along eventually, and unless the universe is designed to allow us to emerge, the doctrine of redemption has no meaning. As the Catholic catechism (1992) puts it, the world cannot be the product of "blind fate or chance". If it were, we would be left with a God who, after setting a universe in motion, sat twiddling his thumbs through the aeons on the off-chance that intelligent beings, capable of sin and capable of appreciating His works, happened to come along. This insouciant God would be as implausible as the hyperactive God of Genesis.

Yet blind fate or chance is exactly what Darwinism teaches. Living species come and go. As Tennyson put it - nine years before The Origin of Species was published - nature is not "careful of the type ... I care for nothing, all shall go". Evolution is not a story of progress, with humanity at the pinnacle. Adaptation is not a matter of organisms gradually changing so they become more perfectly fitted to their environments. Rather, external changes force them to adapt. Sooner or later, they fail and become extinct.

We have no reason to believe it won't happen to us, perhaps quite soon.

Belief in God is supposed to make us humble. But nothing is more humbling than Darwinism, properly understood. That was why it caused the Victorians such spiritual anguish.

As an atheist, I back Darwin. Oddly, though, I think the intelligent designers have a point about schools, in Britain at least. We teach both Christianity and biology. They are in flat contradiction. No wonder children become cynical about teachers. We should be honest with them and admit that, though the evidence is overwhelmingly for Darwin, this is still heavily contested territory.

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