In short, there are clever people who try to make a plausible case against some aspects of modern science in the mistaken belief that this is necessary for the defence of their faith. Numbers’s remarkably comprehensive book provides a detailed history of how it is done, and how a small minority of determined publicists have managed to capture worldwide attention, and in some countries to gain a following which poses a serious threat to scientific orthodoxy, particularly in the field of biology.
Outside the ranks of the most extreme biblical literalists, the concept of Intelligent Design has now become the main battleground between Creationists and orthodox scientists. It feeds on a residual suspicion of evolutionary theory by employing the notion of “irreducible complexity” in some of the more awkward evolutionary transitions, not least in the origin of life itself. Objections to it have come both from scientists and theologians. To introduce a supernatural agency at certain points in what is being studied as a scientifically explicable process, is in effect to abandon science. It also presupposes a God whose creative activity is so inefficient that it requires constant readjustment. If science and theology are to live together in this contentious area, both need to be treated as comprehensive. If God is the ground and basis of all existence, this is the best possible reason for believing that even the most unlikely events can have a rational explanation.
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The Christian faith, outside its more sectarian Evangelical manifestations, claims to be rational, and therefore has as much vested interest in scientific integrity as in the historical and philosophical integrity of belief. Fundamentalism tends to discount the significance of historical development in the biblical narratives, preferring to treat each revealed word as a relevant expression of God’s truth. This encourages a concentration on supposedly infallible statements, detached from their historical context and from the intentions of those who wrote them, thus paradoxically imitating those sciences in which statements of fact can be treated as objectively precise. Conflict with science is the inevitable result. The “fact” of God’s design, for instance, has to be defended in ways that are incompatible with the “fact” of natural selection. A greater awareness that reality is often more subtle and elusive than this, and that different perspectives may need each other, might encourage fundamentalists to be less literalistic, and some scientists to be more conscious and critical of their own materialistic assumptions. If this were to happen, the issues raised by Intelligent Design might be worth some attention, even though the theory muddies the distinction between science and religion. At present, it merely reinforces the impression of inevitable conflict, which a few protagonists on both sides are only too happy to exacerbate.