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Refuting Intelligent Design, BioLogos Style

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One sometimes wonders what the BioLogos Foundation would do if it didn't have intelligent design (ID) as its favorite punching bag.

On its website, the group states that it "addresses the central themes of science and religion and emphasizes the compatibility of Christian faith with scientific discoveries about the origins of the universe and life"--admirable goals with which I would agree. In reality, however, those affiliated with BioLogos seem to devote an inordinate amount of time and energy to simply bashing intelligent design.

Make no mistake, the criticisms leveled by BioLogos can get pretty personal. BioLogos President Darrel Falk, for example, brands biochemist Michael Behe "highly incompetent," and declares that "BioLogos needs to show that he, bless his heart, is professionally incompetent; one of our God-given tasks (to be frank this is the way we see it) is to demonstrate this to a public which (unlucky as they are) doesn't have the biology background to know better." (emphasis added) That's right: According to Falk, BioLogos has a "God-given" mission to publicly expose Michael Behe ("bless his heart") as "professionally incompetent."

Now, I don't mind a good debate, and I certainly believe that a robust exchange of views is healthy. So I have no problem with those at BioLogos trying to offer evidence-based critiques of the work of Michael Behe or others. I do have a problem with how much of the criticism of ID by BioLogos is superficial or questions the motives or character of ID proponents.

Witness the group's new video attacking intelligent design as "bad science and weak theology."

The first thing that comes through loud and clear in the video is that it doesn't actually cite evidence to back up its claims. The video's case for intelligent design being "bad science" consists of a few soundbytes from BioLogos supporters who simply assert in various ways that intelligent design isn't up to snuff. But none of them bother to make an evidence-based argument as to why. However, viewers do get some doozey straw-man arguments, such as the narrator's ending assertion that "Intelligent Design has been embraced by many in the church because they have been led to believe that serious science leaves no room for God, and so serious Christians must turn their backs on the discoveries of modern science. But that's simply not the case." (emphasis added) What's really "simply not the case" is this preposterous rendition of intelligent design, which is precisely the opposite of what intelligent design proponents believe. Far from arguing that "serious science leaves no room for God," ID proponents argue that the discoveries of modern science are harmonious with a theistic worldview, and they challenge ideological Darwinists who claim otherwise.

I'd encourage people to compare any of the wonderful pro-intelligent design science documentaries put out by Illustra Media with this latest BioLogos video (you can view free clips from Illustra videos here). The contrast is pretty striking. The Illustra videos are content rich, with ID proponents making specific arguments based on empirical evidence from the natural world. The BioLogos video is content poor... except for the character attacks.

Which brings me to the second thing that comes through loud and clear in the video: The BioLogos crowd seems to have a hard time critiquing intelligent design without casting aspersions on the character and motives of those with whom they disagree.

Darrel Falk, after briefly granting in the video that intelligent design proponents are motivated by "wonderful reasons," turns right around and sticks in the stiletto. What's the real reason intelligent design proponents won't admit they are wrong, wrong, WRONG? Well, according to Falk, ID proponents won't admit they have been refuted because "everybody is embarrassed because they have invested so much money, they have invested so much personal ideology, reputation, even ego... It's pretty hard to say, 'I guess I was wrong.'" Sean Carroll offers a similar assessment for why ID scholars won't shut up despite being scientifically bankrupt in his view: "So for, you know, PR reasons, or political reasons, or whatever it might be, they keep talking."

There you have it: The real reasons ID proponents persist in their fallacious views are money, ideology, politics, PR, and ego, rather than an honest quest for the truth. At bottom, this kind of motive mongering by BioLogos is simply a tamer version (sans the profanity) of attacks made by Darwinian atheists. It's also unbelievably disconnected from reality. As someone who has seen first-hand the personal damage inflicted by the Darwin lobby, I can assure you that if you are interested in getting money for research or protecting your reputation, you don't want to be a proponent of intelligent design. Indeed, embracing intelligent design is one of the quickest ways to destroy any prospect for government grants and to be shunned by your colleagues.

Perhaps a defender of BioLogos might respond that it's not fair to expect a short video critique to be either accurate or fair, especially one hosted by the group's PR consultant (former ABC News journalist Loretta Cooper, who now runs her own PR firm). However, the approach taken by the BioLogos video is all-too-typical of the articles critiquing intelligent design that can be found on the BioLogos website.

Consider the review of Stephen Meyer's book Signature in the Cell that BioLogos commissioned in 2010 by eminent Darwinist Francisco Ayala. Ayala didn't even seem to know what Meyer's book was about (and it's hard to effectively critique a book you show little evidence of having read!). Or consider the multiple BioLogos critiques of Michael Behe, one of which declared that intelligence isn't really needed for the development of irreducibly complex structures because "Natural forces work 'like magic'" (no, I'm not kidding), while another repeatedly misquoted Behe and failed to actually engage Behe's real points. Some statements by BioLogos staff members, meanwhile, get intelligent design so wrong one has to wonder how much the writers have read by the intelligent design proponents they think they are refuting.

If a lack of substance is typical of BioLogos attacks on intelligent design, so are the character insinuations. Karl Giberson, one of the founders of BioLogos and until recently its Executive Vice President, has accused Michael Behe, Paul Nelson, Jonathan Wells, and other prominent ID scholars of defending a position that is "completely false, and these confident spokesmen know it" (i.e., according to Giberson, they are liars). What is this "completely false" position that Behe, et. al. are knowingly lying about according to Giberson? Their belief that they "represent a viable scientific position"! That's right, because intelligent design proponents have the temerity to disagree with BioLogos about whether intelligent design is scientifically viable, they aren't merely mistaken, they are liars.

Biologist David Ussery, writing a featured article for the BioLogos website, takes a similar tack, accusing biochemist Michael Behe of "play[ing] on the ignorance" of his readers "as if the hope is that the readers are ignorant of the scientific literature, and either too lazy or not competent to have a look through PubMed and see what is really out there." So Michael Behe is not only wrong, he is intentionally trying to mislead his readers in the hope that they are too lazy or incompetent to discover his misrepresentation of the scientific literature. Just how is Behe supposed to have misrepresented science? According to Ussery, "Behe goes on to claim that there are "absolutely no studies' to document a molecular basis for the "coherent development of a single trait in a Darwinian arms race." The only problem is that Behe didn't actually make such a claim; Ussery based his attack on a misquote.

Given the nature of the BioLogos critiques of intelligent design, it is surprising how many Christian leaders have embraced BioLogos. Take Tim Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, one of BioLogos's most enthusiastic boosters in the evangelical Christian community. Keller has hosted two private gatherings with evangelical leaders that intentionally excluded any scientists supportive of intelligent design in biology. In other words, the gatherings only allowed evangelical leaders to hear from one side of the scientific debate. The fact that Rev. Keller would host two such one-sided events is somewhat perplexing, given that he is a member of a religious denomination that is on record for its skepticism of the claims of Neo-Darwinism (according to the Creation Study Committee report approved by its General Assembly for distribution, "No one has ever observed the accumulation of small steps (micro-evolution) sufficient to produce such a major innovation as a spinal cord.")

Even more perplexing is Rev. Keller's continuing wholehearted endorsement of BioLogos given its penchant to disparage the character and motives of the Christian scholars in the sciences who espouse a different viewpoint.

Rev. Keller is a thoughtful minister and Pastor of a terrific church, one which I have fond memories of worshiping at with my wife years ago when we visited Manhattan. But I have to wonder how much time he actually spends perusing the materials BioLogos puts out. Does he agree, for example, with Falk that BioLogos has a "God-given" mission to expose biochemist Michael Behe as "professionally incompetent"? Or does he agree with the depiction of intelligent design scholars as liars who won't admit they are wrong because they are motivated by money and ego rather than an honest difference of opinion? I suspect that Rev. Keller would not agree with such things, but his face and endorsement are prominently displayed at the BioLogos website. Whether he likes it or not, when people read such attacks, his reputation is being used to lend them credibility.

Perhaps he doesn't think the rhetoric employed against intelligent proponents by the Biologos folks matters. Having defended scientists and other scholars who have been harassed, denied tenure, denied jobs, and incessantly smeared, I can say that it does matter. The motive-mongering by BioLogos helps fuel, however unintentionally, a toxic culture in the sciences where real people's lives are destroyed simply because they have the courage to question unguided Darwinism. And on at least one occasion, BioLogos has actively spread misinformation about someone persecuted by the Darwinists. NASA Jet Propulsion Lab computer specialist David Coppedge was harassed, demoted, and ultimately fired from his job after he occasionally offered to loan free copies of intelligent design videos to some of his co-workers. After Coppedge filed a discrimination lawsuit, BioLogos ran an article uncritically re-circulating a pro-Darwin activist's inaccurate description of the case, to which the BioLogos writer added his own distortions. After Discovery Institute pointed out the misinformation being spread by the article, BioLogos, to its credit, corrected the article. But BioLogos's rush to discount the persecution of an intelligent design proponent was revealing.

I have met Darrel Falk, and I believe him to be a sincere and thoughtful man. But I think the approach BioLogos has adopted toward intelligent design is not particularly thoughtful. It certainly is not conducive to a good discussion.

I think many people embrace BioLogos because they like the idea of finding common ground between faith and science. So do I. But does the BioLogos approach to faith and science dialogue really promote common ground? It seems to me that the faith and science dialogue in the Christian community has become more acrimonious, not less in the years since BioLogos has launched its crusade against intelligent design. By turning the focus on disagreements among Christians (and by disparaging the motives of those they disagree with), the folks at BioLogos are promoting polarization, not common ground. The polarization is likely to grow as some affiliated with BioLogos have been advocating significant revisions in traditional Christian theology over the Fall, Biblical authority, and other doctrines in order to accommodate the claims of modern Darwinian theory.

It seems to me that intelligent design offers a far better model of finding common ground between faith and science. By focusing on the narrower but central question of whether nature displays evidence of purpose, intelligent design provides a meeting place where Christians (and non-Christians) of different theological persuasions can hold respectful dialogue. Intelligent design places the focus where it ought to be--on the question of whether nature is the result of purpose or chance and necessity--not on trying to change people's various beliefs about scriptural interpretation or theology. In my experience, this approach is much more conducive to bringing people together to consider new evidence than an approach that tries to convince people that their current theology must be abandoned because it is somehow "anti-science."

I also think the intelligent design approach is more focused on the primary threat to the integrity of science. From the amount of time and effort they spend criticizing intelligent design, those at BioLogos appear to think that the primary threat to science comes from their fellow Christians who fail to buy into the Darwinian paradigm of undirected evolution. By contrast, intelligent design proponents think the real threat to science comes from ideological Darwinists like Richard Dawkins (and a host of others) who try to manipulate modern science on behalf of their atheistic worldview. They are the ones who are truly discrediting the scientific enterprise by falsely claiming that science and faith are in conflict. That's why intelligent design is primarily directed at responding to their claims. Unfortunately, those at BioLogos seem more preoccupied with fighting their fellow Christians than challenging the claims of the scientific materialists. I think that approach is misguided as well as counterproductive.