Bad science, bad theology?

A very common charge against creationism and intelligent design is that not only is this bad science, but also bad theology.

I’m not entirely comfortable with this. Yes, academic theologians are much less likely than, say, televangelists, to attack evolution. Being able to point to theologians who accept evolution is very useful in the political and cultural struggle over science education. I’d love it if larger numbers of ordinary religious people would be influenced by sophisticated theologians rather than by anti-intellectual preachers. But what business is it for defenders of evolution, especially scientists, to go around making pronouncements on what is good theology and bad theology?

One immediate problem is that if we come across as saying that “good” theology does not overtly interfere with science, that’s a pretty self-serving definition. It’s hard enough to convince people to agree with scientists about nature; it’s hardly likely that too many will listen to scientists telling them what proper religion is. In a public debate where scientists have to defend elite forms of knowledge against populist religiosity, declaring that we’re the ones who know what is good and bad theology is a bad idea. It only reinforces perceptions of high-handedness.

A deeper problem is that there’s little common ground that would allow us to come to an agreement on what is good and bad theology. Communities of faith decide what they believe among themselves, usually with little regard to what academics are concerned about. Good theology in one tradition or sect is rank heresy or a gross theological error in another. Especially in the typical situation where theological commitments come down to acts of faith, it becomes difficult to see declarations of “bad theology” as being much more than arbitrary expressions of disapproval.

I know it’s tempting to try and stamp out creationism by any rhetorical means necessary. Often I find myself trying to reassure a student that believing in evolution doesn’t mean abandoning their religious heritage. One way to get this across is to say that there are more liberal theological options. But I also feel uncomfortable with telling them what’s good or bad theology. I think I’m correct in this: it’s none of my business.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University