Skip Navigation

2011 Winter Issue 6 (February 18, 2011)

Beyond intelligent design: Ian Barbour returns to Carleton

February 18, 2011
By Kaitlyn Gerber

Can there be a bridge between evolution and faith? Ian Barbour, a former Carleton professor and an expert on the relationship between science and religion, returned once again to the College to speak about the recent movement to promote intelligent design, and whether or not evolutionary theory is compatible with a religious worldview.

Barbour began with a brief history of the intelligent design movement. Intelligent design, he noted, is different than the notion of creationism, because although it does not interpret the Bible literally, it claims that some structures are so complex that they “must be the product of an intelligent designer.” Barbour cited Intelligent Design proponent Michael Behe, who argues that irreducibly complex systems, such as the human eye, could not have evolved on their own. Barbour disagreed, arguing that the idea of a “preconceived order of design neglects the role of mutations and the need for organisms to respond to their environment” – in other words, the ongoing process of natural selection.

Barbour also mentioned that intelligent design, like atheism, is not an idea that can be tested, meaning that both are philosophies, rather than scientific theories. After quoting noted atheist Richard Dawkins, he theorized, “Vehement atheists tend to see only the harms done by religion, but only the good by science.”
Just as religion has been used for harm and for good, Barbour said, scientific principles have likewise created important ethical issues, such as the notion of social Darwinism that pervaded the colonial age. Instead, Barbour argued that we need to remember that there is a difference between science and culture, something that many modern-day atheists and religious individuals should remember.

Although Barbour’s presentation focused mainly on Christianity, he also mentioned that many Islamic scholars, like Christian fundamentalists, also reject evolutionary theory. Despite historical differences, he explained, both Christian and Islamic fundamentalists see secularism, religious pluralism, evolution, and alternate lifestyles as threats to the “family values” that they promote. Generally, Barbour said, the media does not help the issue, because it presents science and faith as two extremes that cannot be bridged – in other words, “God and no evolution, or evolution without God.”  Those whose views are somewhere in between are “left out entirely.”
Barbour then moved to talking about evolutionary biology, and its specific relation to religion. He pointed out that the Bible has been interpreted metaphorically for centuries; widespread fundamentalism and beliefs in literal creationism are more recent developments.

He also denounced the common misconception that Darwin was an atheist, when in fact he was a deist or agnostic. Other scientists, like Stephen Hawking, have similarly vague notions about religion.If the Big Bang, for instance, had been just slightly stronger or weaker, Barbour explained, matter would not have condensed, and life never would have existed. The odds against our universe developing were “enormous” – and yet here we are, a point that Hawking equates with religious implications. Thus, Barbour concluded, people turn to religion because they cannot find another way to explain the improbability of our existence.

Barbour moved into the third and final part of his presentation by attempting to bridge the disciplines of science and faith. He asserted that there are various ways of viewing God’s relationship with nature: seeing God as a transcendent being who causes scientific forces, a communicator of all information, or a limited being who created the world but does not frequently interfere. The last view, he explained, bridges Deism with the concept of an all-powerful God, and also accounts for the creative variations that we see in nature.

“(Religion is about) order overcoming chaos,” he stated.  “The role of the spirit in nature (provides a) common framework for creation and redemption.”

Barbour concluded by stating that humans do not have to simply believe in religion or science – in a universe guided solely by God or solely by scientific laws. Instead, he argued, we can believe in a “universe of design,” in which our experiences are based on trust, hope, and faith in both the laws of science and the concept of a deity. Intelligent design is not a science, and it does not belong in a scientific classroom.

“We can still accept many biblical affirmations today,” he concluded. “Even if our cosmology is very different.”

Add a comment

Please login to comment.