Glenn Branch's picture

Berlatsky’s History Lesson, Part 2

The topic is still Noah Berlatsky’s “The Intelligent Design Theory That Inspired Darwin,” published at The Atlantic’s website on February 8, 2014, written with the intention of placing the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham in a broad historical context. In part 1, after acknowledging Berlatsky’s general point that it is useful to understand the Nye/Ham debate against the broad sweep of the interaction of religion and science over the last five hundred years, I registered five quibbles on points of wording or detail. (If I can’t quibble on NCSE’s own blog, where can I quibble? Would you have me roam the streets and accost innocent passersby with my quibbling? I thought not.) But I ended by hinting that Berlatsky’s understanding of Ham’s project as conducted within the tradition of natural theology, à la Paley (pictured above), was mistaken, for interesting and underappreciated reasons. And this isn’t a mere quibble.

Traditionally, natural theology is defined as the project of investigating God’s existence and attributes on the basis of reason and experience, independently of revelation (and thus of what’s called, predictably, revealed theology). As such, it is quite a venerable project. In Summa contra Gentiles (1264), for example, Aquinas distinguished between two types of truth about God, writing:

There is a twofold mode of truth in what we profess about God. Some truths about God exceed all the ability of the human reason. Such is the truth that God is triune. But there are some truths which the natural reason also is able to reach. Such are that God exists, that He is one, and the like. In fact, such truths about God have been proved demonstratively by the philosophers, guided by the light of the natural reason.

Aquinas was neither the first nor the last theologian to make such a distinction, but natural theology came into its own with the Scientific Revolution, when the influx of truths about the natural world fueled the hope of solidifying faith on their basis. Paley’s Natural Theology was not a trailblazing book; it was a competently compiled and highly readable summary of a longstanding tradition of British natural theology.

But Ham isn’t doing natural theology. He is simply not interested in the project of relying on science to arrive at knowledge about God’s existence and attributes independently of revelation. Rather, he is presupposing the accuracy and authority of revelation (as he understands it), and interpreting the scientific evidence from that perspective. Even if you haven’t been diligently studying his pronouncements from his fastness in northern Kentucky for years, it was quite clear from the advance publicity for the Nye/Ham debate. On January 28, 2014, for example, Ham wrote on his blog, “[Proponents of “intelligent design”] dismiss the Bible itself as evidence! The Bible claims to be (and I know it to be) the Word of God. ... The Bible is evidence—it is evidence that enables us to correctly connect the past to the present and understand true history.” This is not Paley’s approach, pace Berlatsky. Ham’s is a project not in natural theology but in theology of nature.

What’s the difference? A theology of nature is trying to understand nature from within a given theological position, which is presupposed, not supported by, the project. In contrast, in natural theology, the project is supposed to support (at least in part), and not to presuppose, a given theological position. That’s a huge difference! Neither natural theology nor theology of nature is necessarily opposed to evolution. In 1884, Frederick Temple (later the Archbishop of Canterbury) offered a form of evolutionary natural theology, and there are contemporary theologians impressed with evolution, like John F. Haught, who are consciously doing evolutionary theology of nature. But neither is necessarily accepting of evolution, either. Ken Ham’s theology of nature is fiercely antievolution, but so is the natural theology characteristic of “intelligent design” as in Michael J. Behe and William A. Dembski’s work—and so is Ken Ham’s old employer’s.

Ham, of course, used to work for the Institute for Creation Research. So it’s interesting to notice that the ICR hedged its bets between natural theology and theology of nature as far back as 1980, when Henry M. Morris distinguished among scientific creationism, involving “no reliance on Biblical revelation, utilizing only scientific data to support and expound the creation model,” Biblical creationism, involving “no reliance on scientific data, using only the Bible to expound and defend the creation model,” and scientific Biblical creationism, involving “full reliance on Biblical revelation but also using scientific data to support and develop the creation model” (emphasis in original). The first of these is a project in natural theology; the second is a project in revealed theology; and the third is a project in the theology of nature. It is providential, presumably, that the results of all three perfectly coincide, at least in Morris’s view.

What explains the shift from scientific creationism and natural theology at the ICR to “the creation model” and a theology of nature at Answers in Genesis? It’s tempting to think that a major factor was the legal defeats of the 1980s—McLean v. Arkansas (1982) and Edwards v. Aguillard (1987)—in which creation science was unable to make a credible showing that it was indeed a legitimate scientific endeavor “utilizing only scientific data” (in Morris’s words). In the wake of Edwards, the young-earth creationists at the ICR persevered with their research projects, which, if successful, would presumably sway the general public. (May I just mention here that the projects all have laboriously contrived acronyms? RATE, CLIMATE, FAST, COSMOS, EPIPHANY.) That was always a hope of natural theology: appealing to reason and experience alone, without invoking any data from revelation, in order to get the infidel halfway to accepting revelation.

But Ham, who left his native Australia in 1986 to work for the ICR, decided that he wanted to reach a wider audience than the ICR was actually reaching: not as wide as the general public, but a wider segment of those with shared theological commitments. By presupposing rather than arguing for those commitments, he was engaged in theology of nature. The fact that AiG, founded in 1993, quickly surpassed the ICR to become the most prominent young-earth creationist outfit in the world, suggests that it was a winning strategy, at least within the narrow radius of young-earth creationist circles. Yet the fact that Ham was not shy about acknowledging his unshakable commitment to the Bible as a source (and indeed a definitive source) of evidence during his debate with Bill Nye clearly cost him credibility with the general public, which apparently recognizes, if inchoately, that there’s a difference between theology of nature and actual science.