What’s So Intelligent about “Intelligent Design?”

Sermon delivered October 28, 2005, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

I believe in intelligent design. At prayer, in meditation, and in those quiet moments when I contemplate the universe, I find myself awe-struck by the very fact that I exist at all. Creation itself seems impossible to imagine, without the will of a Creator.

I believe that the Bible is true. When I study Torah, I find deep meaning. When I read this week’s portion, Bereishit, from the very beginning of the scroll, I learn of God’s work in creation. Though I be dust, and though my body is much like that of any other mammal, I perceive the presence within me of a human soul, God’s unique gift to humanity. When I read that God created us all in the divine image, I am inspired to affirm the equal value in every person on Earth. When I study the orderly pattern of Genesis 1, which describes the Earth’s creation in six days, I understand that everything ultimately emanates from the divine. Existence itself, so logically confounding, is the will of God.

Here at the Temple, I teach “intelligent design,” though I’ve never used the term. “Intelligent design,” of course, is a euphemism for “God’s role in creation.” The folks who employ the term, “intelligent design,” don’t utter God’s name in this context, falsely disguising a religious belief as a scientific theory. They use the secular-sounding term in their attempt advance a non-scientific teaching in public school science classes, without running afoul of the First Amendment.

In the synagogue, we do not mask our teaching about God, pretending that we are offering a secular theory. Rather, we affirm: Even if the scientists are right about the big bang, and I assume they are, the matter that “banged,” and the natural laws that caused that “bang,” represent acts of God. Even if the scientists are right about the theory of evolution, as I am persuaded they are, God set creation in motion in such a way that the magnificent life we lead could become possible.

Several years ago, our San Antonio Jewish community was privileged to hear from a guest speaker, Professor Shlomo Avineri, an Orthodox Jew who is an astrophysicist at a highly respected Israeli university. Avineri discussed the first verses of the Torah, which Josh will read tomorrow morning, the Bible’s description of God’s creation of light on day one. Avineri said that the words, “Let there be light,” represent God’s initial infusion of energy where neither matter nor energy previously existed. Using Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Avineri showed how increasing the amount of energy in the Universe from zero to greater than zero would raise the amount of matter in the universe from zero to greater than zero, creating something out of nothing. Basically, Avineri was arguing that “Let there be light” is the Bible’s way of describing the Big Bang for ancient readers. Those who stood at Sinai would not be able to grasp scientific theory that would only come to light in the twentieth century.

Persuaded by Professor Avineri’s argument about the first day of creation, I asked him about humanity. I could understand how the Bible doesn’t necessarily conflict with “Big Bang” theory, but I wasn’t sure about evolution. Avineri explained that the biblical order of creation roughly corresponds to evolution as described by Darwin and those who came after him. What Darwin does not, and can not, explain, is the uniqueness of the human being. Avineri opined that human-like mammals existed long before God intervened, to breathe a divine soul into us. Yes, as a scientist, Avineri thinks that the theory of evolution is accurate. Yes, as a Jew, he believes that God played a significant role in bringing the world to be as it is now.

Some of us will embrace Professor Avineri’s faith. Others will reject it. None of us can be wrong. Such is the nature of faith. Questions of religious belief, even of the very existence of God, stand outside the realm of rational examination. So taught Rabbi Milton Steinberg, of blessed memory, a leading thinker of twentieth century Conservative Judaism. Steinberg insisted that the nature of God, even God’s existence, could not be proven or disproven. Nevertheless, Steinberg passionately believed in God.

Science, on the other hand, is not based on faith. Science is based on hypothesis, and then on experimentation and evidence, leading to theories that with solid foundation. Unlike beliefs, not all theories are equal. The simple fact that somebody proposes a hypothesis does make that idea a credible scientific theory. The world of science has standards. Studies are carefully designed. Articles and books describing new theories are reviewed by their authors’ peers.

“Intelligent Design” is not a legitimate scientific theory. Credible scientists have not agreed that this hypothesis is based on sound evidence at all. Instead, “Intelligent Design” is a proclamation of faith, broad enough to sound acceptable to a wide range of our society. Why, even a good old-fashioned liberal like me believes in it.

Even if our entire American population believed in God’s role in creation, though, that belief should not be taught in American public schools. Thank God, the First Amendment prohibits it, for teaching “Intelligent Design” as science would be harmful to religion, as evidenced by the secularization of the belief itself, in that godless title, “Intelligent Design.” When God is removed from a religious tenet, in order to make it seem acceptable for the public realm, religion suffers even more than science does. A religious belief that we hold dear is downgraded into a pseudo-scientific theory. Science merely teaches how things work, even how the world came to be as it is. Religion teaches so much more: Religion teaches the purpose of human life.

Not many months ago, President Bush argued that “Intelligent Design” should be taught in public school, alongside the theory of evolution, so that people can choose the belief they find most convincing. Various school boards and state legislatures across the nation are forcing the insertion of warning labels into science books that teach evolution. Students, teachers and parents are cautioned that evolution is merely a theory, and that competing theories exist. These controversies have had a chilling effect, achieving much of what the fundamentalists desire: many schools and teachers are afraid to teach the sound science of cosmology and evolution. The end result, among other things, is grave danger to the future of America. As we teach our children less and less about the real world in which they live, jobs will continue to migrate to the east.

Indeed, truth itself is endangered. When President Bush asks students to choose which theory they believe, he offers a false dichotomy. Evolution is not an article of faith. Scientific theories are not subjects of belief. Faith, on the other hand, need not necessarily be rational. Real science and real religion need not be in conflict. The Bible is not a science textbook. True science texts are not religious doctrines. Calling religion science is slander. Calling science religion is a lie.

Perhaps this controversy over “Intelligent Design” offers us the very best explanation of the need for the separation of Church and State in America. Both religion and the nation itself flourish when each retains its proper place.

Let America ever be the land of the free, where every person may practice religion, or not, as he or she sees fit.

Let America ever be the land of progress, where science is taught and pursued unfettered, for the welfare of every person in this great country.

Let America ever be the land of truth, where scientific truth and a wide variety of religious truths are embraced, side by side.