A Catholic’s Take on Intelligent Design

The Infinite Wonder of the Divine: How Creationist Notions of Intelligent Design Diminish God, is the title of an article that arrived in a newsletter from my Alma Mater, Boston College. It was reprinted from the December 10, 2005 issue of The Tablet, a British magazine of Catholic thought, that’s apparently been around for a long time; but then so has the Catholic Church. (NB: for the online edition, you may have to register. It’s free and all they want is a name and email address, and a few survey questions answered.)

I don’t know what even caused me to open this, or read the issue, other than serendipity. I usually toss the religious mailings in the trash, but this time I opened it and saw this article near the back of the issue, and a topic in which I was keenly interested – Intelligent Design (ID) – popped into view.

(Coincidentally, this article first appeared ten days prior to the decision of Judge Jones in the Dover School Board case. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. This decision is must reading for anyone interested in the historical basis for the Creationism movement and a concise explanation of exactly why Creationism is not science.)

George Coyne, the author of the article, is a Jesuit priest, and was the Director of the Vatican Observatory. He’s known to be an outspoken opponent of ID, insisting that it is not science. This article is one of a few he wrote for the Tablet on the subject.

The first 80% of the article is actually quite good. It has a nice explanation for the age of the universe, and how scientists have used the measurements of various celestial light sources to make the deductions that indicate that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, is expanding in all directions and doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

The most recent measurements of the velocities of recession of very distant objects in the universe, supernovae, which can serve as standard “light beacons” at distances of about 10 to 12 billion light years from us, indicate that the universe is not only still expanding but that it is accelerating in its expansion and will, unless we discover a braking mechanism, expand forever – an empirically infinite universe.

No Young Earth Creationist is he! He even uses a nice table and analogy to give the reader a sense of the time frames and distances that cosmology deals with:

To appreciate the current age of the universe and its temporal infinitude we must compare it to the times at which other events, such as the appearance of life, have occurred. To do this I suggest that the actual age of the universe, 13.7 billion years for which we have no sensation, be reduced in our imagination to one Earth year, one rotation of the Earth about the sun. The following calendar results:

1 January: The Big Bang
7 February: The Milky Way is born
14 August: The Earth is born
4 September: First life on the Earth
15 December: The Cambrian explosion
25 December: The dinosaurs appear
30 December: Extinction of the dinosaurs
31 December:
19.00.00: First human ancestors
23.58.00: First humans
23.59.30: Age of Agriculture
23.59.47: The pyramids
23.59.58: Jesus Christ is born
23.59.59: Galileo is born
24.00.00: Today

At least on a temporal basis, this really puts humans in a proper perspective relative to the universe. Humans have only been around for 2 minutes.

But then he loses me. Despite the fact that the science is there, and that there is ample explanation for the existence of the universe, and despite asking the question:

How are we to interpret this scientific picture of life’s origins in terms of religious belief? Do we need God to explain this?

He answers the question:

Very succinctly, my answer is no.

If he had stopped here, he would have written a very satisfactory article, attributable to a man of science. Instead, in a nod to his vocation, he goes on:

In fact, to need God would be a very denial of God. God is not the response to a need. One gets the impression from certain religious believers that they fondly hope for the durability of certain gaps in our scientific knowledge of evolution, so that they can fill them with God. This is the exact opposite of what human intelligence is all about. We should be seeking for the fullness of God in creation. We should not need God; we should accept him when he comes to us.

At this point, and I might add, at points similar to this throughout my Catholic upbring, I’m lost. What in the hell is he talking about? Human intelligence should be seeking “the fullness of God in Creation”? What is that? Why should we seek God, in fullness or otherwise, in Creation? What is wrong with the scientific explanations he has given us, that are satisfactory in and of themselves? Why add a level of complexity unnecessary to our understanding of the universe?

This actually underscores one of the more perplexing parts of the ongoing dialogue between theists and atheists. Theists ask why atheists attack cartoon caricatures of God, when the God they believe in is nothing like that. Father Coyne asks, and attempts to answer, a similar question:

But the personal God I have described is also God, creator of the universe. It is unfortunate that, especially in America, creationism has come to mean some fundamentalistic, literal, scientific interpretation of Genesis. Judaic-Christian faith is radically creationist, but in a totally different sense. [emphasis added] It is rooted in a belief that everything depends upon God, or better, all is a gift from God. The universe is not God and it cannot exist independently of God. Neither pantheism nor naturalism is true. God is working with the universe…. Words that give life are richer than mere commands or information. In such wise ways does God deal with the universe – the infinite, ever-expanding universe. That is why, it seems to me, that the Intelligent Design Movement, a largely American phenomenon, diminishes God, makes him a designer rather than a lover.

So who is this god he worships, what is he? I am confused. This god he worships in a “totally different sense” than the caricature of fundamentalists, the ones who see god in the gaps of scientific knowledge, the one who is “rooted in a belief that everything depends” on his god, where does he derive this belief? In what sense does his god exist?

This is where he degenerates into religious mumbo-jumbo, babble-speak, theology, call it what you will. It’s intellectually unintelligible. It’s just words. Maybe they describe a feeling, but that’s the best that can be said about it.

The universe is not God and it cannot exist independently of God.


Words that give life are richer than mere commands or information. In such wise ways does God deal with the universe – the infinite, ever-expanding universe.

Double huh?

I am amazed at the mental gymnastics he had to go through to completely discount Intelligent Design, and marvel at the science and wonder behind the beginning of the universe, while at the same time inserting his personal god into the equation.

Do they teach that at seminary?

3 thoughts on “A Catholic’s Take on Intelligent Design

  1. Apart from its obvious Roman Catholic meaning, a second meaning of “jesuit” (usually spelled with a lowercase “j”) is something like: “a sly intriguer; a person who uses overly subtle arguments to support false and/or dishonest reasoning.” The word can also be turned into an adjective: jesuitical.

    I think Coyne, like most enlightened-but-practicing Catholics, is faced with a fundamental difficulty. For a believer like him, god has to be lurking somewhere in the equations of all natural phenomena. But Coyne is too educated to dismiss any of the good science, or to claim scientific evidence where it obviously isn’t. Hence, he piles on the jesuitical gobbledygook.

  2. Sounds like someone “needs God.” He’s hanging onto his ever-changing idea of God by a thread — maybe even a minute fiber! I think science is really rocking his superstitious world.

    Is he trying to say that his god is an energy? A brain wave?

    Man, doesn’t it suck when just as someone has succeeded in making a good, solid point or argument they fuck it all up by not knowing when to close that gaping wound under their nose.

  3. Coyne’s scientific knowledge is so impressive (at least to a layman like me). It’s so frustrating, in some ways more so than the one track mindedness of the fundamentalists.

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