Evangelicals and scientists are never really through sparring over evolution, but the debate seems to be intensifying this summer. At least two major Christian periodicals have featured or are going to feature cover stories critiquing theistic evolution. Once again, the nuances which characterize the relationship between evolution and intelligent design, and the way in which these can be integrated with one another more or less harmoniously, have been overlooked. This time, it appears to be the more vehement supporters of intelligent design who have ignored or dismissed this complexity.
Recently, the issue was covered in an article published in PR Newswire which originated with the Discovery Institute, a nonprofit public policy think tank which promotes intelligent design. According to the article, Christianity Today reported in its June cover story on how pro-evolution theists are challenging traditional religious views on Adam and Eve and the creation of the human species. In addition, the article reports, the Christian newsmagazine World will be naming two books challenging theistic evolution as its “Books of the Year” in its forthcoming 2 July issue. World has also given accolades to a book supporting intelligent design called God and Evolution: Protestants, Catholics, and Jews Explore Darwin’s Challenge to Faith. (The book happens to be published directed by the Discovery Institute’s own press.)
The literature supporting the intelligent design view has many vocal proponents. One of these is Dr Jay Richards, the editor of God and Evolution, who said about the book, “[w]e wanted to clear away the fog and fuzzy-thinking on this issue”, and that the “book makes clear that to the degree theistic evolution is theistic, it will not be fully Darwinian. And to the degree that it is Darwinian, it will fail fully to preserve traditional theism.” In other words, Richards suggests, theistic evolution does not belong entirely to the tradition of evolution, or entirely to the tradition of theism, but instead accommodates aspects of both traditions. The book is a collection of essays by mostly monotheists who challenge the pro-evolution views of theists like Francis Collins. According to Dr John West, author of the first two chapters of God and Evolution, Collins has convened meetings with evangelicals which exclude scientists who might challenge the theory of Darwinian evolution.
Because the source article comes from the Discovery Institute, it is reasonable to assume it might be slightly biased in favor of intelligent design theory. Consequently, it may not tell the whole story, and it may overlook some important points. Richards’s suggestion above that theistic evolution does not belong wholly with theism or with evolution might be seen as an either-or argument. That a theory of cosmology borrows some aspects of theism, and some aspects of evolution, does not make it invalid, because theism and evolution are not necessarily incompatible. It is possible that there is a third, alternative theory which combines the two, and this is not necessarily a contradiction.
Moreover, West would have a good point in stating that Collins excluded critics of evolution from his meetings—if he is accurately reporting the facts. Knowing that the source article comes from an organization critical of evolution and supportive of intelligent design, we have reason to suspect the fairness and completeness of this accusation. We might also point out that theistic and Christian evolution arguments are stifled in churches and meetings held by intelligent design advocates (although, to be fair, they have been welcomed in the Catholic Church), so bias is found on both sides of the debate. This does not justify bias, but it does mean that evolution advocates are not necessarily any more deceptive or insidious than intelligent design advocates.
Finally, the statements quoted in the article, and the language used within these statements, do not necessarily reflect journalistic fairness.
The most obvious example is a statement by World about how the debate over evolution is one of the most important ideological battles of recent times: the article quotes the publication as calling the evolution debate “the biggest current battle both among Christians and between Christian and anti-Christian thought”. First, the use of the term “anti-Christian” prevents a sort of false dichotomy: an explanation for human origins is not anti-Christian just because it does not provide an evangelical Protestant Christian viewpoint—it may simply mean that such a viewpoint is not required. There is not necessarily any malicious or emotional opposition attached to this position. Indeed, to call such a
position “anti-Christian” seems a bit melodramatic or hyperbolic—a typical use of rhetoric to persuade the reader. Second, the selective use of quotations might be considered biased: we read about these supposed “anti-Christian” sentiments in the article, but we do not read about “anti-evolution” or “anti-science” sentiments, and yet it is common knowledge that there are some proponents of intelligent design who are demonstrably anti-evolution or anti-science. It would only be fair to remind the reader to be aware of these sentiments as well.
Zealots can be found on both sides of the evolution debate, but in this case the journalism techniques paint an ugly picture of pro-evolution theists while obscuring or ignoring the potential ugliness of intelligent design advocates in a way that seems suspiciously one-sided. For the earnest seeker, the path to truth is through fair and evenhanded dialectic, in which both sides weigh in and exchange ideas until they arrive at a common resolution. To do so requires abandoning the ego, embracing the truth, and being honest with oneself about what counts as the best evidence. This is too hard for most people to do without some degree of discomfort, but, ultimately, does it not feel refreshingly good to know you may have learned something new today by admitting your own folly and changing a previously-held, irrational belief? And is it not also a basic principle to avoid unnecessary black-and-white, either-or thinking? Supporters of traditional intelligent design and advocates of theistic evolution can perhaps learn more from one another than they realize.