C.S. Lewis on Intelligent Design

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The Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, the major think tank of the intelligent design movement, aims to “defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies,” and to “replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God” (CSC 1999).  Intelligent design advocates have sought to accomplish these goals by attempting to prove that modern evolutionary theory is wrong because it does not explicitly account for the creative action of a “Designer.”  The intelligent design movement has achieved widespread support among fundamentalist and evangelical Christians who believe God’s special creation of Adam and Eve was physical as well as spiritual.  The vast majority of scientists and a United States federal court of law, however, have rejected intelligent design and declared it to be religiously motivated pseudoscience (Forrest and Gross 2005).

How should Christians think about intelligent design?  What of its conclusion-that evolutionary theory is wrong?  Is mainstream science too restrictive in insisting on naturalistic explanations for observed phenomena?  Because the intelligent design movement began almost 30 years after Christian writer C. S. Lewis’s death, we cannot definitively say what he would have thought about it.  Lewis did, however, write frequently about the nature of science, including evolution.  His views on this topic have been appreciated by believers and unbelievers alike.  I will suggest that Lewis would have rejected intelligent design for two reasons:  (1) its practitioners fail to recognize the established limitations of inferential science, which Lewis frequently defended, and (2) intelligent design exchanges the glory of the Christian God-which believers see so clearly in nature-for evidence of a potential but unknowable Intelligence.

In the past 150 years since Darwin first announced his theory of evolution by natural selection, the human body has become increasingly de-spiritualized.  This de-spiritualization is not only the result of evolutionary theory, but of all modern biology which seeks to uncover the structure and inner workings of our physical bodies.  The fact that, at basest level, our genes are essentially interchangeable with those of bacteria seems to reduce the Imago Dei to a groundless myth in the eyes of modern materialists.  Christians too often accept this logic and either reject the Bible or retreat to antiscience.

Lewis, in contrast, had a different response.  He felt that scientific explanations were descriptive but not meaningful in the ultimate sense; that is, a thing is more than the stuff it is made of-it may have tremendous symbolic or spiritual significance  (Ward 2008).  If we are to reflect truly the image of God, we must remember that human beings are more than the molecules that comprise our bodies.  Even as we rationally observe our genetic continuity with other forms of life, we have good reason to believe that we are indeed a special creation, set apart from the animals by our unique ability to willfully glorify and enjoy God.

Lewis on the nature of science

Though Lewis was not a scientist, he knew much about the philosophy of science.  Frequently, he wrote about the distinction between science and scientism, the latter being the belief that the methods of the natural sciences should be applied to all disciplines, including philosophy, the humanities, and the social sciences (Schaefer 1).  Lewis was decidedly for science and against scientism.  In Mere Christianity, he unpacked the ways in which we can answer the question of whether or not there is a “power” behind the universe.  He wrote, “[s]ince that power, if it exists, would be not one of the observed facts but a reality which makes them, no mere observation of the facts can find it”  (Mere 24).  Lewis believed that the natural sciences, based on empirical observation and inference, can answer certain kinds of questions but not others.

Lewis also thought there was good evidence for rejecting metaphysical naturalism-the belief that nature is all that there is.  In The Weight of Glory, he wrote, “[i]f minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees”  (“Weight” 230).  The existence of reason itself argues for a transcendent Mind.

At the same time, Lewis upheld methodological naturalism, the view that the methods of science can only arrive at naturalistic explanations.  He wrote,

Science works by experiments.  It watches how things behave.  Every scientific statement in the long run, however complicated it looks, really means something like, ‘I pointed the telescope to such and such a part of the sky at 2:20 a.m. on January 15th and saw so and-so,’ […] Do not think I am saying anything against science: I am only saying what its job is [….] But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes-something of a different kind-this is not a scientific question.  (Mere 22)

Most scientists I know do recognize the limits of scientific inquiry.  Some, like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, however, claim that science disproves the existence of God.  This is an error of logic.  As we shall see, the intelligent design community commits the same error, though in an opposite sense, by claiming that science proves the existence of God.

In sum, C. S. Lewis, every ounce a Christian, believed that science is limited to naturalistic explanations.  This limitation is not a defect; rather, it is a robust means of avoiding un-testable explanations such as, “Jane is short because a witch cast a spell on her.”  Science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of witches.  Neither can it prove or disprove the existence of a Creator God.  The explanations of science are of a different sort from those of faith and are therefore not inherently contradictory.  Therefore, since science is complementary to faith, and science affirms the reality of human evolution, why do so many Christians deny it?

Biblical inerrancy: there’s the rub

Roman Catholics and mainline Protestant denominations hold that Adam and Eve could have been physically descended from earlier life forms, but that God imparted to them a unique, rational soul.  This is a view known as theistic evolution.  Christian fundamentalists and many conservative evangelicals, in contrast, consider the special creation of Adam and Eve to be a core doctrine.  Whether they believe the days of creation in the first chapter of Genesis should be interpreted literally or otherwise, they maintain that Adam and Eve were two real individuals whom God made physically distinct from the animals.

A 2007 public opinion poll revealed that 48% of the American public believes God created the world and human beings in their present form within the last 10,000 years (Berkman 2008).  In contrast to these so-called “young earth creationists,” most intelligent design theorists believe in an old earth.  All intelligent design theorists, however, seem to reject the modern theory of evolution.  This is, understandably, why conservative Christians who believe that the special creation of Adam and Eve was physical as well as spiritual have rallied behind the intelligent design movement.  The chief concern of conservative Christians is that any departure from the traditional view of creation might undermine their commitment to biblical inerrancy.  This begs the question, though, of whether it is not possible to accept the evolutionary principle of universal common descent and simultaneously to believe the Bible is inerrant.

Inerrancy and myth in Scripture

In Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis wrote, “I have therefore no difficulty in accepting, say, the view of those scholars who tell us that the account of creation in Genesis is derived from earlier Semitic stories which were pagan and mythical”  (Reflections 110).  This statement seems unorthodox.  But to understand Lewis’s meaning, we must remember that he was a scholar in medieval literature and mythology.  In popular usage, a myth is a commonly-held belief that is not, in fact, true.  In the field of literature, however, as Lewis himself notes numerous times, a myth is a traditional story, usually involving gods or heroes, which explains some aspect of a people group’s worldview or religious belief.  The term “myth,” as used in this paper, is consistent with the latter definition.  A myth is thus an explanatory story; the word in and of itself does not convey truth or non-truth.

Most Christians today are suspicious of looking for truth in a pagan myth.  Louis Markus explains, “[o]n the one hand, we fear that our doctrines will become diluted with pagan elements […] On the other hand, we are suspicious of any language that resembles pantheism” (Markus 2001).  In his 1944 essay “Myth Became Fact,” Lewis wrote, “[t]he heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact [….] By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth:  that is the miracle.”  For Lewis, Christianity was the one true myth.

Why was Lewis not troubled by parallels between the Genesis account of creation and earlier pagan stories?  Why did he not discount Genesis like the liberal theologians of his day?  Quite simply, Lewis believed those earlier pagan stories foreshadowed the true narrative of Christianity.  This idea is familiar to those who interpret Scripture as a history of redemption, in which the narratives in the Old Testament are types or shadows that point forward to Christ.  Consider Hebrews 10:1:  “[t]he law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming-not the realities themselves.  For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.”  The whole sacrificial system and ceremonial laws pointed to, and were fulfilled by, Christ’s death on the cross.

So, did Lewis believe that the Bible was inerrant?  Not in the way most people understand the term today, as meaning “absolutely reliable and precise in matters of fact”  (Marsden 1980).  In a 1959 letter to Wheaton College professor Clyde S. Kilby, Lewis explained:

That the over-all operation of Scripture is to convey God’s Word to the reader […] I fully believe.  That it also gives true answers to all the questions (often religiously irrelevant) which he might ask, I don’t.  The very kind of truth we are often demanding was, in my opinion, not even envisaged by the ancients.  (Christensen 1979)

While it is critically important to affirm the historicity of certain events recorded in the Bible, it must be noted that the primary purpose of biblical records is not history for history’s sake.  John Calvin wrote, “[t]he whole point of Scripture is to bring us to a knowledge of Jesus Christ […] [It] does not, and was never intended to, provide us with an infallible repository of astronomical and medical information” (McGrath 1998).  Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, that Genesis does not comment on the existence of Adam and Eve’s physical forebears.

Lewis and theistic evolution

So where did Lewis stand on the subject of evolution?  Historian of science Ronald Numbers describes Lewis as a theistic evolutionist  (Ferngren and Numbers 1996).  His view seems to agree best with a type of theistic evolution espoused by B. B. Warfield in the late 19th century, which holds that “Adam’s body was the product of evolutionary development (secondary causes working alone under divine providence), and that his special creation involved the imparting of a rational soul to a highly-developed hominid” (PCA Creation Committee Report 2000).  In The Problem of Pain, Lewis proposed a myth to explain how God could have created man.  First, Satan corrupted the world and animals began to prey on one other.  Then God made Adam’s body by evolution and gifted him with a soul.  Lewis wrote,

For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself [….] Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness […] In perfect cyclic movement, being, power and joy descended from God to man in the form of gift and returned from man to God in the form of obedient love and ecstatic adoration.   (Lewis, Problem 65)

Finally, Adam fell into sin which, according to Lewis, was not the mere eating of forbidden fruit, but Pride-“the movement whereby a creature (that is, an essentially dependent being […]) tries to set up on its own, to exist for itself”  (63).  Lewis also wrote about evolution in a series of letters to his friend Captain Bernard Acworth, a strong opponent of evolution.  In one 1944 letter, Lewis wrote,

Just as my belief in my own immortal & rational soul does not oblige or qualify me to hold a particular theory of the pre-natal history of my embryo, so my belief that Men in general have immortal & rational souls does not oblige or qualify me to hold a theory of their pre-human organic history-if they have one.  (Ferngren and Numbers, 1996)

To Lewis, whether or not humans are genetically distinguishable from other animals is entirely beside the point.  We are made in the image of God, we fell into sin, and we are being redeemed by Christ; these, Lewis indicated, are the great lessons from Genesis 1-3.

The myth of popular evolutionism

In his essay, “The Funeral of a Great Myth,” Lewis wrote:

To the biologist Evolution […] covers more of the facts than any other hypothesis at present on the market and is therefore to be accepted unless, or until, some new supposal can be shown to cover still more facts with even fewer assumptions. […] It makes no cosmic statements, no metaphysical statements, no eschatological statements.  (Christian Reflections 85)

Lewis then brilliantly expounded on what he called “popular evolutionism,” which is the idea that “small or chaotic or feeble things perpetually turn themselves into large, strong, ordered things”  (90).

Popular evolutionism tells a compelling story that competes with the true creation myth of Genesis, thus becoming a myth itself.  In this myth, against all odds, organic life springs forth from the mindless movement of matter.  The “infant hero” survives against impossible obstacles; it rises up, becoming amoeba, reptile, mammal, and finally, a “cowering biped.”  The biped takes up flint and club to become Cave Man, savage and afraid of the gods of his imagination.  Finally he becomes true Man, mastering science and putting off the superstitions of his youth.  In the last act, Man is a demi-god, judiciously employing eugenics to maintain the perfection of his race.

The myth does not end there, Lewis warned.  In the end, the sun grows cold and the universe runs down.  Life is snuffed out, and “all ends in nothingness.”  Lewis concluded that the myth is “much better than an Elizabethan tragedy, for it has a more complete finality.  It brings us not to the end of a story, but to all possible stories”  (88).

We should note that popular evolutionism feeds on, but was not begotten by, the biological theory of evolution, which simply describes how gene frequencies change over multiple generations within a given population.  Lewis wrote, “[i]n making [the Myth] Imagination runs ahead of scientific evidence.  ‘The prophetic soul of the big world’ was already pregnant with the Myth” when Darwin first published his theory.  In other words, evolution readily filled some pre-felt need in society  (84).

Popular evolutionism has some convenient features which have nothing to do with the biological theory.  For instance, consider the idea that “everything is becoming everything else: in fact everything is everything else at an earlier or later stage of development”  (91).  Accordingly, Lewis wrote, “you can regard all the nasty things (in yourself or your party or your nation) as being ‘merely’ the undeveloped forms of all the nice things:  vice is only undeveloped virtue, egoism only undeveloped altruism, a little more education will set everything right”  (92).  This materialist doctrine is alive and well today, and it will continue to thrive as long as the concept of sin seems quaint and unsophisticated in our culture.

Lewis appreciated the power of popular evolutionism, but he rejected it as a false myth.  The biological theory of evolution has emerged from thousands of inferences about observed facts, each arrived at through human reason.  According to the myth, however, reason itself is “the unforeseen and unintended byproduct of a mindless process”  (89).  If randomness and chance can account for the existence of reason, as the naturalist asserts, then we have no reason to believe that the logical inferences that produced the theory of evolution in the first place make any sense.

Intelligent Design:  science or religion?

Today, the intelligent design movement similarly rejects popular evolutionism but goes further than Lewis by also rejecting the biological theory.  The architects of the movement seek to provide a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution by suggesting evidence, independent of any particular religious ideology, of an intelligent “Designer.”

Along with theistic evolutionists like Lewis, intelligent design proponents reject metaphysical naturalism in favor of the existence of a higher, supernatural power.  Whereas most theistic evolutionists are committed to methodological naturalism, however, intelligent design theorists are not: they believe supernatural explanations are fair game in science.

Yet despite their wide base of support from the Christian right, intelligent design theorists do not consider themselves creationists.  Creationism begins with a religious text, they point out, whereas intelligent design begins by studying the complexity of life.  Ernest Richardson emphasizes that the movement is not religious:

Intelligent design says nothing about whether a person has or should have a relationship with a creator (if there is one), and says nothing about whether there are or should be any obligations or duties owed to a creator (if there is one).  Nor does intelligent design require belief in, reverence for, or worship of a supernatural power [….] Intelligent design simply says nothing of whether the intelligent cause is a supernatural or non-supernatural intelligent cause.  (Richardson 1)

While supporters insist that intelligent design is not a religious ideology, its opponents vigorously disagree.  In their 2005 book Creationism’s Trojan Horse, Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross show extensive evidence that intelligent design has clear ideological roots in the creation science movement.  Forrest notes that intelligent design proponents use methods of education that appear more evangelistic than scientific.  Rather than publishing research in peer-reviewed scientific journals, intelligent design scientists marshal “an aggressive public relations program, which includes conferences that they or their supporters organize, popular books and articles, recruitment of students through university lectures sponsored by campus ministries, and cultivation of alliances with conservative Christians and influential political figures” (Forrest 2002).

Many renowned scientific organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, and the Royal Society have declared intelligent design to be pseudoscience.  Importantly, the International Society for Science and Religion has stated that intelligent design is “neither sound science nor good theology” (ISSR 2008).  Furthermore, teaching intelligent design in science classes has been declared unconstitutional by the 2005 federal court ruling of Kitzmiller et al. vs Dover Area School District.

The myth of intelligent design

Just as British society was pregnant with the myth of popular evolutionism in Lewis’s day, so too is our culture primed to accept the myth of intelligent design.  On the one hand, our health-obsessed, techno-savvy American culture demands a scientific explanation or solution for virtually everything.  Modern Christians are no exception-hence the popular compulsion to provide a scientifically defensible understanding of Creation through intelligent design.

On the other hand, the postmodern world has a consumerist outlook on truth.  The world says we may pick and choose what we believe, even if our resultant worldview contains major logical contradictions.  If all truth is relative, logic really does not matter.  Conservative Christians have rejected this kind of relativism by defending the inerrancy of Scripture, yet they have largely succumbed to it by rejecting science:  in order to avoid an uncomfortable conclusion about their animal past, they choose to believe the inconsistent messages of intelligent design.

Importantly, intelligent design sets up a false dichotomy where atheistic evolution and intelligent design are the only available options.  Some intelligent design researchers-including the prominent biochemist Michael Behe-do believe humans may have had a common ancestor with other animals  (Behe 1996).  But this important point is completely ignored by the majority of conservative Christians who accept intelligent design because the movement seductively suggests to them that evolution is about atheism, whereas intelligent design is compatible with a belief in God.

Molecules are not what we are but what we are made of

Lewis recognized that the biological theory of evolution is not inherently atheistic.  It makes no metaphysical statements, despite what militant atheists and intelligent design theorists would have us believe.  Rather, any metaphysical statements that become attached to evolution are not the fruit of inferential, empirical science but are instead logical deductions from presupposed beliefs about the existence or nonexistence of God.

Aside from its scientific failings, the ultimate problem with intelligent design, as I see it, is that in trying so hard to prove the existence of God, its advocates fail to bring him worship.  In Psalm 19, David wrote, “[t]he heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”  This verse tells us far more about God and his creation than twenty years of intelligent design research, which has yielded no information about the nature or attributes of its hypothesized Designer.

Even if we could somehow achieve a complete molecular understanding of how our bodies work and how our species arose in the first place, we would still have a deficient understanding of what it means to be human.  After all, molecules are not what we are but what we are made of (see even The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).  For the Christian, the image of God is an essential part of human nature that apparently has little to do with our physical composition.  Our genetic continuity with other forms of life, therefore, need not distract us from our chief purpose in life, which is to willfully and joyfully worship God in all that we do.

Kathryn Applegate

The Scripps Research Institute

Works Cited

Behe, Michael. Darwin’s Black Box. Free Press, 1996.

Berkman, Michael, et al. “Evolution and Creationism in America’s Classrooms: A National Portrait.” PLOS Biology, 2008.

Center for Science and Culture. “The ‘Wedge Document’: ‘So what?'” Discovery Institute. <http://www.discovery.org/a/2101>. 2006.

Forrest, Barbara. “The Newest Evolution of Creationism.” Natural History Magazine, April 2002.

Forrest, Barbara and Paul R. Gross. Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. Oxford University Press, 2005.

International Society for Science and Religion. “ISSR Statement on the Concept of ‘Intelligent Design.'” <http://www.issr.org.uk/id-statement.asp>. 2008.

Lewis, C.S. “The Funeral of a Great Myth.” Christian Reflections. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967.

—–. Letter to Captain Bernard Acworth. September 23, 1944. Quoted in Gary B. Ferngren and Ronald L. Numbers. Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, March 1996.

—–.  Letter to Clyde S. Kilby. May 7, 1959. Quoted in Michael J. Christensen, C.S. Lewis on Scripture. Abingdon Press, 1979.

—–.  Mere Christianity. HarperOne, 2001.

—–.  “Myth Became Fact.” God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994.

—–.  The Problem of Pain. HarperOne, 2001.

—–.  Reflections on the Psalms. Harvest Books, 1986.

—–.  The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. HarperCollins, 2005.

—–.  “The Weight of Glory.”  A Mind Awake:  An Anthology of C. S. Lewis.  Ed. Clyde S. Kilby. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003.

Markus, Louis A. “Myth Matters.” Christianity Today, 2001.

Marsden, George M.  Fundamentalism and American Culture. Oxford University Press, 1980.

McGrath, Alister E.  The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion. Blackwell,1998.

Presbyterian Church of America. “PCA Creation Committee Report,” 2000.

Richardson, Ernest H. “Is Intelligent Design a Religion?” Intelligent Design Network. <http://www.intelligentdesignnetwork.org/publications.htm>.

Schaefer, Henry F. “C. S. Lewis: Science and Scientism.” C.S. Lewis Society of California. <http://www.lewissociety.org/scientism.php>.

Ward, Michael. “C.S. Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem.” Books & Culture, A Christian Review, January 2008.

Ward, Michael. “Narnia’s Secret: The Seven Heavens of the Chronicles Revealed.” Touchstone, December 2007.