Is intelligent design antithetical to a belief in theistic evolution?

It appears to me that many theistic evolutionists would not claim the term intelligent design describes their belief system. Why is this? What is the difference between the two schools of thought? I thought they, at the very least, overlapped.

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There are a few threads that discussed it, but will try to express my thoughts on it in a nutshell.
EC holds that all creation was designed by God, the ultimate intelligent creator, so they in effect accept intelligent design. However, they feel the method used by God was evolution. Ultimately, evolution is an explanatory framework to help understand what is observed in nature, and makes no claims as to purpose. In contrast, the Discovery Institute brand of intelligent design, which I tend to use the capitalized form to describe, is all about purpose or teleology, and not about science. It was established as such, and remains a philosophical movement. It thus masquerades as a scientific approach, which is dishonest in its roots and as presented in many aspects, though I am in agreement with it philosophically to some extent.
Others may well have a different perspective, but that is my off the cuff thoughts.


I think you’re right that there is some agreement, though how much might depend on who you talk to. Phil gave a good summary – I’d basically say that I do agree that there is an intelligent designer, and that God has created evolution just as he has created all other scientific processes. So to the extent that Intelligent Design contrasts with anti-theistic views and affirms that humans are designed by God and not accidents of the universe, I would agree with it. What I disagree with is the idea that God’s work is scientifically detectable – I think it often reduces to a “God of the gaps” argument.


“In contrast, the Discovery Institute brand of intelligent design, which I tend to use the capitalized form to describe, is all about purpose or teleology, and not about science.”

Forgive me, Phil, consider me a glutton for punishment as I did a PhD in social sciences & human beings are very complex & diverse, as I simply don’t understand the linguistic psychology in your conscious ‘selection’ above. Could you please parse the above sentence or explain what I’m missing? (Humanities scholars do this sometimes seemingly endlessly.) You wrote “I tend to use the capitalized form”, yet in the same sentence didn’t use the capitalized form. Why not?

It’s an innocent mental, non-scientific question of intent, asked in light of the recent thread precisely on this topic. No accusation intended, just curiosity and wonder at differences in purposeful repeated yet occasionally non-standardizable linguistic expression. Thanks for understanding.

The question in the title is largely semantics, after all, right? Define the following topics: “theistic evolutionists”, “intelligent design”, “belief system”, “two schools of thought”.

As the replies indicate, this is a challenge of definition. As far as I know, anyone who would identify with the label of “theistic evolution” would hold that God has designed the universe and life, while using the process of evolution. [In principle, one could believe in a deity that was not involved in those areas, but I don’t know of anyone doing so.] “Intelligent design” is problematic because it’s used to mean many things, rather than consistently having a fixed sense.

“Intelligent design” has been used as a substitute term for creation science, whether because it sounds catchy or as a ploy to dodge the U.S. legal ban on creation science. This seems to be what the Dover school board thought that ID was, and why ID got banned in the legal decision. However, the ID movement is typically distinct from the young-earth movement (though not necessarily averse to cooperating with it and getting its support). Also, some fans of a young earth who are unhappy with the extreme inaccuracy of popular creation science have found a home in ID.

The ID movement characteristically advocates specific claims about methods of implementing design and how that design can be detected. However, these vary a good deal. Much of the popular marketing of ID is antievolutionary. - Wells, Johnson, etc. But others accept quite a lot of evolution (Behe), or even accept evolution as an instance of design (Denton, currently). Often, that involves disparaging of “Darwinian” evolution or “macroevolution”, but those terms are not well-defined. (Macroevolution does have a biological definition, but in the context of ID tends to be “evolution I reject”). Also, the proposed criteria for detecting design like specified complexity or irreducible complexity don’t hold up very well, and ID rhetoric routinely falls into the error of claiming that “undesigned” = no God, rather than recognizing that the Biblical picture is of God being sovereign over things that happen by natural law or not. ID rhetoric also routinely asserts that theistic evolution is deistic, which would mean that it isn’t theistic. Although it is true that it’s not hard to find people claiming that evolution implies some sort of more deistic approach (e.g., many claims advocating process-theology related views), it is also not hard to find plenty of people advocating God being just as much at work in the process of evolution as in everything else.

For example, the claim that you were either made by God or by mindless molecular processes is bad theology. You are constantly being made by molecular processes, whether we think more about the second by second metabolic processes or the overall physical course of development. None of the molecules involved has a mind. But if we acknowledge that God can be at work in those processes (while able to miraculously work in other ways when the need arises), then He also can be at work in the history of molecular processes that trace the course of evolution.


For most in Biologos, from the tone set by its founder, the most important objection to ID is the idea that evolution does not work as a scientific theory capable of explaining the origin of the species. From there comes some diversity of thought however. As you can see above, some are not at all opposed to the idea of God as an intelligent designer. A few might be opposed to any kind of intelligent design. Others like myself are not opposed to intelligent design in the creation of the physical universe and the laws of nature, but see intelligent design as contrary to the very nature of life itself – so we are opposed to the idea of any intelligent design of living organisms. In fact, I have been pushing the idea that the whole intelligent design watchmaker conception of god is not Biblical but comes from the Deists rather than Christianity.

From AI we are learning that most of what we call intelligence is really nothing more than the ability to follow a set of rules or instructions which any elementary particle can do. Thus I think we are highly misguided in looking for God in the idea of intelligent design at all. Frankly it is like going from the observation that mathematics seems to be the language in which the universe is written to the conclusion that God must be a mathematical equation. Clearly unacceptable!

It was sort of a tongue in cheek reference to the other capitalization thread. But but basically I would capitalize it as a proper noun when used to refer to the specific program of intelligent design made popular by the Discovery Institute as opposed to the general idea where "intelligent " is simply an adjective applied to the noun “design” and a particular program. Sort of like Big Pharma vs big pharmaceutical companies, or Bible vs. bible, and Catholic Church vs catholic church. I am far from an authority, but that was my intent in usage.
Thus, I suppose I would say that I agree with intelligent design, but not Intelligent Design.


The Discovery Institute regularly publishes sensationalistic and inaccurate articles throwing shade on evolution and scientists. (Witness the 40 something? posts throwing a fit over terrible, terrible @DennisVenema’s Adam and the Genome) They promote or at least give comfort to the anti-science, conspiratorial attitudes that are prevalent in Creationist communities. So it’s not surprising scientists don’t want to be associated with the Intelligent Design that they promote.

As I understand it the DI insists that the existence of supernatural intelligence/ design can be proven through science. So that is a methodological difference, because other scientists would say that violates principles of methodological naturalism. You can’t study the supernatural using the tools of science.


Thanks for your clear and helpful response!
How would one be in alignment with ID, and not be young earth? If they are philosophically opposed to evolution, and yet not literal 6-day creationists…what else is left? :rofl:

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This was extremely helpful. Thanks!

Historically, an old-earth non-evolution view was a viable position, which is an important point against the historical myths of “Enlightenment”-inspired young earth and atheistic claims. Although today “Lamarckian” evolution is used to refer to the idea that organisms can inherit traits gained through activity within the organism’s lifespan, in the first half of the 1800’s Lamarckian evolution was seen as the idea that everything was steadily progressing through an evolutionary sequence. As such, it was perceived as representing a holdover of “enlightenment”-style imposition of a supposed constant pattern in disregard of the data, which points to a much more complex reality. Purportedly “scientific” approaches to history and social issues tend to continue in that same pseudoscientific oversimplifying (e.g., Marx, Freud, Hegel). By the late 1600’s, people were beginning to suspect that geology pointed to the existence of prehuman prehistory, but there was much uncertainty through the next several decades. By about 1770, however, enough data had accumulated that anyone aware of the results of geology knew that the earth was quite old. Evolution was less clear. Against the expectations of a constant change, no differences were noted between the anatomy of ancient Egyptian mummified animals and their modern relatives. From the patchy knowledge of the geologic record, stability and then occasional disruption with new types of life seemed to be the main pattern, though there were a few Lamarckians (which does not seem to have correlated too closely with theological positions; there were more deistically inclined folks rejecting the classic deist indefinite repetitive cycles model, and theists endorsing a more Lamarckian view). Some degree of possible variation was long acknowledged, but it was not until Charles Darwin assembled both a plausible mechanism and a lot of data that a more evolutionary model gained traction.

There is a long and ongoing tradition of old-earth but antievolution views. Young-earth was largely confined to a few odd groups from the early 1800’s until Whitcomb and Morris popularized its errors.


By your emoji, I suspect you know the answer, and David’s post above explains other explanations well, but for the sake of adding to the confusion in the hope of informing any lurkers who may be wondering, there are several commonly held views that exclude evolution but accept an old earth. Reasons to Believe holds to a form of progressive creationism and old earth, and varies a bit from ID. The “gap theory” view also holds to such, proposing an old earth and a recent creation of man. Most recently, the Genealogical Adam and Eve view, while accommodating evolution, also varies from standard evolution in allowing a special creation of Adam and Eve, though is hazy enough to pretty much allow whatever you want to believe on that point, as I understand it. ID itself is a big umbrella sort of philosophy that allows young earth, old earth, and even atheists who believe in alien intelligence as an agent to be a part of it. And I suppose also New Age adherents who think the universe has a mind and force to direct life. Not sure about that. I am sure there are a dozen other views I have not touched on. It is sort of amazing what ideas are out there. Scary too.


It’s a big tent. Some are fine with ancient earth. Some are fine with common descent, just not “Darwinian evolution.” I’ve given up trying to understand how what they endorse is not just normal evolution, but it is not. It’s designed.


This comment might help illustrate the difference:

Intelligent design expects whole systems to suddenly appear in organisms, such as the bacterial flagellum. Theistic evolution would expect a step by step gradual process that occurs through the natural processes we see operating today.

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Wait … you mean the whole thing was rigged all along? :thinking:


I think it seems to mostly depend on how involved and at what stages was God involved in.

Intelligent Design seems to believe that the life is to complex to just have occurred. Such as with eyes. Even if they believe God used evolution they tend to say it’s to controlled to be random.

EC/TE tends to believe that God was not as active in creation through a hands on approach. That natural selection , the pressures that arise naturally resulted in speciation. Many within this though believes in a fine tuned universe or that god set the laws up.

There is some overlap created by the fact they both believe in a god that was involved in creation at some point. It’s the points that create the difference.

Do you want some god of the gaps going with your biology or just your cosmology? Eh. Lol.

There is no need to go quite that far. The way you say it sounds like Deism. Say rather that evolution is far from a deterministic process and so which of many branches it can go in can be entirely a matter of chance. God can play a role in choosing which of those branches are realized by means of external conditions without interfering in the process of evolution itself. Like the asteroid wiping out the dinosaurs for example. That way the theory of evolution remains completely valid and ID invalid even though God is still involved.

It might be compared to breeding as opposed to genetic engineering. God can still favor some lines of development without actually pulling chromosomes and DNA strands apart. I would compare it to the Christian experience of God’s involvement in their lives, where God is seen as manipulating events without taking away our choices in things.

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Amongst my plethora of problems, challenges, lacks, mainly innate (I chose the wrong parents; I only have myself to blame), I see TE as an attempt to do ID by the back door. The thin end of the ID wedge. How is evolution designed? Any more than QM is? Any more than the dimensionless constants of eternal nature are fine tuned?

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To me the biggest difference between what I hear deists say verses what I believe is how god is involved with us. I believe God is very active in his creation. I believe that the Holy Spirit works to comfort all things, even the dying deer in the claws of a bear. I believe that God reached out and directed humanity many times about right and wrong, and using prophets to send his people to this or that place. So I believe he’s very active in the life of his creation , especially in developing laws. I just don’t believe that he created speciation.

Again, if He isn’t involved in physics > biology > psychology, beyond grounding, how is He generally, reciprocally involved, in ethics, morality?

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