Can an atheist support intelligent design?

human-skull-0011Most of the time the opinion one has regarding ID vs. the “modern evolutionary synthesis” hinges on whether one believes in the existence of God.  There are exceptions, however, and one that stands out is Kenneth Miller, who is both a staunch defender of evolution and a Catholic Christian who believes in the God of the Bible.  What I want to do in this post, however, is to introduce Tom Nagel, who has published a paper entitled “Public Education and Intelligent Design”.  Nagel is an avowed atheist, yet he argues in favor of teaching ID.  I highly recommend reading the entire paper, but here are some annotated excerpts.  Referring to the “campaign of the scientific establishment to rule out intelligent design”, he says:

It would be unfortunate if the Establishment Clause [of the first amendment of the Constitution] made it unconstitutional to allude to these questions in a public school biology class, for that would mean that evolutionary theory cannot be taught in an intellectually responsible way.

This is an important point.  Many who assert that this or that is unconstitutional because of the ‘separation of church and state’ misunderstand or misappropriate the term.  The intent is that neither the church nor the state should ever be allowed to subsume the other.  It does not mean that religion should be kept entirely out of the public square.

In addressing evolution as science, he says:

It is not just the theory that life evolved over billions of years, and that all species are descended from a common ancestor. Its defining element is the claim that all this happened as the result of the appearance of random and purposeless mutations in the genetic material followed by natural selection due to the resulting heritable variations in reproductive fitness. It displaces design by proposing an alternative.


The contention seems to be that, although science can demonstrate the falsehood of the design hypothesis, no evidence against that demonstration can be regarded as scientific support for the hypothesis. Only the falsehood, and not the truth, of ID can count as a scientific claim. Something about the nature of the conclusion, that it involves the purposes of a supernatural being, rules it out as science.


The problem cannot be just that the idea of a designer is too vague, and that nothing is being said about how he works. When Darwin proposed the theory of natural selection, neither he nor anyone else had any idea of how heredity worked, or what could cause a mutation that was observable in the phenotype and was heritable. The proposal was simply that something purposeless was going on that had these effects, permitting natural selection to operate. This is no less vague than the hypothesis that the mutations available for selection are influenced by the actions of a designer. So it must be the element of purpose t

hat is the real offender.

Now, he gets to the crux of the matter.

What would it take to justify the claim that there are propositions  such that the discovery of evidence against them can qualify as science, but evidence in favor of them cannot? Someone who accepts this view would probably extend it to propositions about ghosts or extrasensory perception.

The denier that ID is science faces the following dilemma. Either he admits that the intervention of such a designer is possible, or he does not. If he does not, he must explain why that belief is more scientific than the belief that a designer is possible. If on the other hand he believes that a designer is possible, then he can argue that the evidence is overwhelmingly against the actions of such a designer, but he cannot say that someone who offers evidence on the other side is doing something of a fundamentally different kind. All he can say about that person is that he is scientifically mistaken.

Atheism is not science.  Yet by expunging all reference to non-naturalistic explanations for origin, we allow only atheism, which in itself is a belief system, and therefore not ‘science’.  We have succeeded in raising several generations of young people who have been told by nearly everyone that belief in God is something we have outgrown.  

My own situation is that of an atheist who, in spite of being an avid consumer of popular science, has for a long time been skeptical of the claims of traditional evolutionary theory to be the whole story about the history of life. The theory does not claim to explain the origin of life, which remains a complete scientific mystery at this point.

Sophisticated members of the contemporary culture have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they easily lose sight of the fact that evolutionary reductionism defies common sense. A theory that defies common sense can be true, but doubts about its truth should be suppressed only in the face of exceptionally strong evidence.

I applaud professor Nagel for his intellectual honesty here.  It is refreshing to find someone who can separate his view of the ultimate question of the existence of God from the question of whether teaching that challenges the naturalistic-only paradigm should be allowed.  He actually believes that we should be teaching our children to think for themselves.  Bravo!

Here’s the full paper.


9 thoughts on “Can an atheist support intelligent design?

  1. Havok

    I’m sorry John, this isn’t quite “right” 🙂

    You’ve failed to actually show anything here. I’m not in the US, so, while the establishment clause is of some curiosity, it isn’t particularly important 🙂

    Nagel’s claims that supernatural claims rule out ID out as science reflects the fact that there is actually no method to investigate the supernatural. This isn’t some kind of prepositional bias, it’s the way things are as far as we have the ability to find out.
    How would one investigate these claims?

    I haven’t read the whole paper, but it seems you’re latching on to anything which may support your own view.

    Can you explain why any one view concerning the supernatural should be preferred over another?
    How would one choose Christianity over, for example, Islam, without recourse to the “natural”?
    (I think/hope we agree ‘methodological naturalism’ is the best/only game in town regarding the “natural”).

    Enjoy 🙂

  2. Misha

    In order for ID to be taught in any science classroom it would have to meet the criteria of a scientific theory.

    It’s not falsifiable, which is probably the most important facet of science. You can’t GO anywhere from “An all-powerful creator did it”

    You can’t prove, or disprove that. And so it’s not science. We don’t teach literature in the math class. Likewise with ID and science class.

    1. So you are arguing that what is taught in the science classrooms IS falsifiable. Certainly much of what is taught is. But there is an implicit metaphysical assumption built in to the teaching. By teaching only neo-Darwinism, and by making no reference to the existence of alternative explanations of his theories, the message is that God does not exist. The implication is that one cannot be intellectually congruent and believe in the existence of a Creator. And we all have been subjected to that brainwashing.

      To illustrate, let me ask if you can falsify this:
      The statement that science excludes things that are not falsifiable is a faith statement, not one that can be proven by scientific testing.

      The fact is that we have no choice but to assume some things, and the way we are taught makes it all but impossible to realize that. We are not taught to think. We are taught stuff we have to accept as true because we are told that it is, and that that is the end of the matter.

      I am interested in learning what is true. And I have acknowledged many times on this site that I accept that much of what is commonly accepted within the bio-sciences is true. There are things, however, that cannot be proven, tested or falsified, but yet are universally accepted as “scientific”.

      The assumption that we all have a common ancestor is one example. The assumption that life started naturalistically is another. And the assumption that God does not exist is no more falsifiable that that He does.

      Another metaphysical bias built into much of what passes for science today is the assumption that there is no difference between the brain and the mind. But the fact that spiders are equipped with all of the engineering knowledge and skill needed to make a web is written off to “instinct”, whatever that is. The third generation of Monarch butterflies wakes up in Canada and somehow knows it’s supposed to fly to a tiny area in Mexico, and somehow knows how to make the 2000 mile journey, even though they have never been there. Some species, such as the leaf-cutter ant, seem to function as if they had a mind – not the individual ants, but the colony as a whole. How does that happen? If you limit yourself to strictly materialistic means, can you really find the answer? And while I’m at it, why do certain members of the colony behave altruistically – that is, in a way that will assure their destruction, not their survival?

      We should stop chucking brickbats at each other, and admit that we don’t have a total lock on truth. Maybe then we can work together in a spirit of mutual respect for the benefit of all.

  3. Jim

    Where did you derive the idea that “atheism is not science?” Did I miss something here, like an atheist who claimed that atheism is science? Whilst I would agree that atheism is not a science nor is it science, I will put forth that “Intelligent Design is religion.”

    As for Nagel’s placing an unnecessary disclaimer on the science of evolution – it is not remarkable. Evolution does not explain the ‘origin of life” and no scientist would make such a claim. Nagel writes: “A theory that defies common sense can be true, but doubts about its truth should be suppressed only in the face of exceptionally strong evidence.”

    The microscope and telescope are two instruments that have provided much evidence against the dogma that a “god exists.” Even so, science is not in the business of “truth” as you might suppose. We find our best observations at a given moment through our understanding of science – but it is not science that is at odds with those who seek this understanding in tea leaves – it is remarkably the opposite. Religious folk want a fight with science – because the findings of science conflict with theism’s worldview – even so this is not deliberate as theists propose. Science does not have a doctrine of “subvert religions” on the mantle of it’s disciplines. However, there are those who presume that they should use their religious ideas and ideals to subvert science – this is painfully obvious; thus some religious folk find enmity with science.

    I have to agree with “Havok” in as much as your point is not well made, but more specifically – I see several fallacies in your presentation, specifically the one about atheism not being science.

    1. Where did you derive the idea that “atheism is not science?

      Well, is it? i think your argument is that is is neither ‘not science’ nor ‘science’. Is that what you are saying? (I had a bit of trouble understanding what your first paragraph meant.) If so, then what is it?

      As to your assertion that it is “not science that is at odds with those who seek this understanding in tea leaves – it is remarkably the opposite. Religious folk want a fight with science – because the findings of science conflict with theism’s worldview”. Tea leaves aside, your assertion is patently false, and your statement that “science is not in the business of “truth” is proof of that.

      When Jesus Christ presented himself to the Roman governor Pilate, He did so willingly. Pilate wanted to know why the Pharisees turned Him over to him. The exchange is enlightening:

      “Are you the king of the Jews?”

      34″Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

      35″Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

      36Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

      37″You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
      Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

      To that, Pilate replied “What’s truth!” It was a dismissive statement, not a question. His assumptions were that there was no truth, that truth was unknowable, that it was not worth the effort to find out what is true, or some such thing. But he was most definitely not interested in hearing the truth.

      Part of the reason for my posting Nagel’s piece, even though I disagree with his atheism profoundly, is that he at least is intellectually honest about the whole thing. He understands that there is a metaphysical bias built into the naturalistic evolutionist’s worldview that they themselves seem to be blind to. Many atheists cannot find ways to deal with that fundamental bit of reality, so they resort to guerilla attacks on peripheral issues.

      Seems like you are a card carrying member of that club! 🙂

  4. Jim

    Your argument was a strawman presentation – the atheist position is not science nor is it by necessity scientific.

    Yet, that is what you argued; “Atheism is not science. Yet by expunging all reference to non-naturalistic explanations for origin, we allow only atheism, which in itself is a belief system, and therefore not ’science’.”

    You are correct that atheism is not science. Science has no answers for the “origins of life” so it continues to ask questions – unlike theism, which begins with the answer.

    Science does not include Witchcraft, Taoism, nor Astrology – because these do not belong in the scientific method.

    Atheism posits only the disbelief and rejection of a god or gods – there is no statement concerning science there.

    Science does not assert “truth” it puts forward “observations.”

    If you think it is in the ‘truth’ business, you should revisit the definition and operators for the scientific method. The philosophy of science might also assist you in understanding this concept and why “truth” is not goal of science.

  5. Evolution is, at best, a philosophy. Plain and simple. Claims of scientific testing are bogus. Evolution, on the major scale, cannot, and has not, been tested. The only proof of any evolution occurs within species, not from one to another.

    People say, evolution is true, and God wouldn’t have done it that way. They then proceed to use circular logic by then saying what natural selection WOULD do and this becomes a theory that is preached as fact.

    Science isn’t interested in truth, as one of the posters here said. Right. But it’s the worship of science that leads to dogma. And atheist or not, religious or secular, all have something they worship. Whether it be God, Natural Selection and/or science. Science isn’t the issue. It’s beliefs. And evolution is dogma. Evolution is guilty of what Christians have been guilty of as well, and that’s an natural selection-of-the-gaps theory. What evolution doesn’t say. . . well, let’s just say what we think it WOULD do and give that as an answer.

    That doesn’t sound like science. Evolution is not science. It’s unobservable, unless one is talking about variations within separate species.

    1. I think you need to be a bit more precise in your terms. Evolution is clearly a valid scientific concept. As Christians, however, we do not subscribe to the notion the atheistic naturalists stake their lives on – that there is no realm beyond the natural one, and that the origin of all life will ultimately be explained by the process of evolution. They don’t seem to be able to see that assumption as being one based on faith.

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