The recent rise in popularity of the intelligent design movement has attracted the interest and ire of laymen and scientists alike. Many of these men and women consider their criticisms to be in defense of what they consider good science, and see themselves as crusading against the forces of anti-intellectualism and ignorance. In particular, many of these figures, so zealous for the faith, misunderstand what they are fighting against. Indeed, many people writing the anti-Intelligent design literature are condemning it for being creationism in sheep’s clothing. Conversely, many anti-evolutionists are whole-heartedly embracing the ID movement as a sort of messiah for high education. While there are similarities between ID and creationism, they are significantly different and deserve to be treated as such.
There are three points on which ID and Creationism must be differentiated. The first is that they have very different theses. The second has to do with the identity of the designer. The last point is the role that natural selection plays in the development of life. The difference in these two positions will ultimately show that while Creationism is a kind of Intelligent Design theory, Intelligent Design does not automatically entail Creationism.
The first point has to do with the main theses of both theories. The main thesis of intelligent design is that there are, in the natural world, some complex systems that cannot be explained by purely naturalistic means. Inference to the best explanation suggests that some intelligent agent was responsible for the design of such complex systems and thus was designed. In short, purely naturalistic theories are useful and sufficient in most cases, but do not sufficiently explain everything.
The central thesis of Creationism is that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Genesis provides man with a literal, historical account of how life came about and developed. The evolutionary natural selection contradicts this account, and therefore, it cannot be true. The key point is that God is the creator of everything and that Genesis accurately tells us how he did it.
The difference is clear: Intelligent design is concerned with complexities in nature that cannot be explained solely on the basis of natural selection and simply posits that a designer is responsible. Creationism is advancing the position that a supernatural entity, God, created the world and the life in it according to a specific reading and interpretation of a Christian text. Clearly these are not the the same theses.
Intelligent design theorists posit no identity of the designer. As far as they are concerned, the designer could be anything from advanced extra terrestrials to time-traveling scientists. While the designer could be God, and many ID proponents, such as William Dembski, believe it is, the theory does not, at least explicitly, rest on the assumption that the designer is God. The identity of such a designer is not relevant to the ID theory and is thus either down-played or ignored by ID proponents.
Creationism clearly articulates who they believe to be behind the design of Creation. This being is God, who has revealed himself to mankind through the Judeo-Christian tradition. He is attributed omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. Further, he commands all men to believe in him and conform their will to his.
Again, the contrast between ID and Creationism is clear. ID is silent on the identity of the designer, and Creationism clearly and boldly articulates who is behind creation. As stated above, it is not impossible for the Intelligent Designer to be identical with the Judeo-Christian God, and ID proponents such as Dembski believe that to be the case. However, it is not the case that ID necessarily entails Jehovah God as the designer. ID proponents have been clear that the designer’s identity is not essential to their theory.
The last point of contrast, and the most important one, has to do with the relation of natural selection to ID and to Creationism. In Intelligent Design, natural selection accounts for almost everything in nature. They do not argue that everything was intelligently designed, but that only certain irreducibly complex systems were specifically designed. However, there is little room for natural selection in Creationism. God directly creates every kind of creature, and thus, there is nothing for nature to select. While more recent Creationists have allowed for some natural selection to take place, they insist that it can and does only happen on a micro-level, that is, within a species. So, God originally creates the dog species and through micro-evolution all of the various breeds are derived.
Creationism and Intelligent design are clearly not the same thing. Intelligent Design is concerned with proposing an intelligent designer to explain a few complex systems that they do not believe could have evolved naturally. Creationism is concerned with affirming the theological doctrine of special creation and a particular interpretation of the Genesis text. Further, ID makes no assertions about the identity of the designer, whereas Creationists firmly assert that the Judeo-Christian God is responsible. Lastly, intelligent design is not hostile to evolutionary natural selection and most proponents are comfortable with it accounting for much of the organs and organisms in nature, save for a few specific cases. Creationists have little room for natural selection, which contradicts their interpretation of Genesis, which calls for the special creation of all things, not the slow, gradual development of organisms over long spans of time.
There is one nuanced point the needs to be made: Creationism is a form of intelligent design. While this may seem to contradict the case I have just made, it does not. Intelligent design, as a theory, on its most basic level, holds that there is a designer who has a role to play in the development of life. Creationism, by virtue of the fact that it affirms that God designed the world and created life in it, meets the criteria for an intelligent design thesis. However, just as the small size of a room does not entail that the building the room is in is small, so too with Intelligent design: simply because one kind of intelligent design theory posits certain things does not entail that all intelligent design theories much posit the same things. It might be helpful to think of Intelligent Design as a meta-theory, and under this meta-theory, are several sub-theories that all meet the basic criteria of an intelligent design theory. One of these sub-theories is Creationism. Another is Intelligent Design, as the specific theory advanced by people such as Dembski and Behe. So, while Creationism and Intelligent design are taxonomically related, it is only in so far as they both posit that purely materialistic theses of life are insufficient and that there must have been an intelligent agent behind it.
Both evolutionists and creationists would do well to keep these distinctions in mind when discussing and debating the Intelligent Design issue. ID is not too different from theistic evolution, and so creationists who find such a thesis disconcerting and problematic do well to look more closely, and critically, at the specific claims of ID proponents. Finally, ID is not creationism, and for members of the scientific community to miss these important distinctions is puzzling, unless they are debating in bad faith and simply trying to poison the well of public opinion though misinformation.