Church of England and “Intelligent design”?

The Guardian reported on comments from the Church of England’s head of education, the Rev. Jan Ainsworth, that “intelligent design” could have a place in school curricula. Rev. Ainsworth has been criticized already for this statement, as reported in the article:

A spokesman for the Church of England said Ms Ainsworth was “simply representing the fact that some schools currently discuss intelligent design within the context of lessons exploring how our understanding of science has developed historically”.

He continued: “Ms Ainsworth was not suggesting that intelligent design should be taught as a scientifically-based theory, but merely stating that some schools do include the topic on their history of science curriculum, and that she does not propose to prevent them from doing so.

“She believes that schools should take a lead from the national curriculum, and use discretion in enhancing this with discussions about the theory of intelligent design where appropriate,” he added.

The Christian thinktank Ekklesia criticised Ms Ainsworth for flirting with intelligent design which was “creationism masquerading as science” and “appallingly bad theology”.

I like the fact that even the Church of England wants to back-peddle away from any sort of endorsement of “intelligent design”, though the back-peddler-in-residence did slip up and call it a “theory”.

But the fact is that Rev. Ainsworth has, whether by chance or design, a piece of a point. “Intelligent design” is a deliberate sham and failed conjecture about the way things are, and as such it should be mentioned in discussion of the history of science or as a component of civics. In the United Kingdom, of course, they have an official state religion represented by the Church of England, so there is no corresponding principle to our “establishment clause”. The schools can delve into church matters with approval of the Church. The Church’s position on “intelligent design”, as given in the response to Rev. Ainsworth, is that IDC is not science and should be discussed on that basis.

I’ve seen remarks from time to time about where are the theologians to dispute antievolution, and I am gratified to see the Guardian got a response in no uncertain terms from Ekklesia on what they thought of IDC.

Update: I think the Church of England spokesman clarifying Rev. Ainsworth’s statement was being a bit glib. It appears that Ainsworth was trying to describe “intelligent design” in such a way that it might be considered to have current legitimacy, which is a clear error.

Update: Another Guardian article has a statement from a spokesperson for the Royal Society:

Stephen Cox, executive secretary of the Royal Society, said: “The theory of evolution is supported by the weight of scientific evidence. The theory of intelligent design is not. The society supports questioning and debate in science lessons, as long as it is not designed to undermine young people’s confidence in the value of scientific evidence.

“Young people are poorly served by deliberate attempts to withhold, distort or misrepresent scientific knowledge to promote particular religious beliefs.”

Absolutely, Dr. Cox.

One of the other quotes in the article isn’t quite up to that standard:

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: “Intelligent design is nothing to do with science and therefore nothing to do with the history of science. We challenge the Church of England to keep religion out of science lessons and unless it does so its educational reputation will be tarnished with the stigma of fundamentalism.”

Science has changed over time, and what we now recognize as not being science may have earlier on have been considered science. This is the case for various forms of the argument from design, and as such they are legitimately subject for discussion in the history of science, if it is noted that they have no current legitimacy as science. We recognize “phlogiston” as a historical wrong direction in the history of science; “intelligent design” is similarly an example of error in the history of science.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.