Intelligent Design: Bad for Science and Faith

I appreciate the fine discussion that has taken place from you who are reading this. I hope to address the comments specifically, but I wanted to make a few things clear about this blog. First, I am a biology professor and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and am committed to its teachings and beliefs. I take particular delight in being raised a ‘Mormon’ who was taught that education and knowledge are among our highest ideals. Many are surprised to find that I am also an evolutionary biologist. I am also a member of the Society for the Study of Evolution the United States’ leading evolutionary science organization and have published papers in its journal Evolution. I have published numerous scientific papers on the topic of evolution believe that it is the best explanation for the diversity of life we see around us. Evolution is at the heart of the biological revolution that has transformed everything from genetics, and medicine, to drug discovery and managing antibiotic resistance. As the great 20th Century biologist Dobzhansky said, ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.’ As a biologist, I could not agree more. Few people realize that BYU, the university sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints, has a number of faithful evolutionary biologists. As a point of fact, evolutionary science is taught at Brigham Young University just as it is at any other accredited university. Intelligent Design has no place in BYU’s science curriculum. And I do not want it to be a part of my children’s science education. I would not mind it if were taught as part of a course in comparative religion, but as a science? Never. Let me be clear about something else. Intelligent Design is not about an Intelligent Designer, it is a fundamentalist Christian (largely) make to get fundamentalist beliefs taught in the schools. 

Let me be blunt. I find nothing of value in Intelligent Design for both scientific and religious reasons. First, why it is bad for religion. Intelligent Design posits that evolution cannot explain the origin of biological complexity. This is nonsense. Evolution is the best explanation for complexity. The purveyors of intelligent design argue that complex structures like the eye cannot be explained by bouts of mutation and selection, they calls this irreproducible complexity, however, the truth is the eye has been explained exactly in those terms, by many evolutionary thinkers. The argument is tantamount to saying that skyscrapers are impossible to build because there is no crane large enough to construct one. The truth is the crane was part of the building as it was raised and finally dismantled when it was no longer needed. In the evolutionary history of life, this happened again and again. We see the remnants of these ‘cranes’ all over the place. The history of life is full of things being used and retooled, then lost. A whale’s leg being turned into flippers. Or consider bird feathers from hair, first being used in thermal regulation then being co-opted for flight. So set aside the notion that evolution cannot explain complexity. It does so magnificently.

However, this is not what bothers me about the Intelligent Designers’ designer. Recall that intelligent design makes no religious claims about a God (mostly, to distance itself from young-earth creationists), it claims only that the universe has an intelligent designer. But let’s look a little more closely at the designer they are proclaiming. The designer they envision is really quite a bumbling ner-do-well—a limited dabbler who has to keep sticking is finger into the pot to get things going. The designer in Intelligent Design is more like a grand tinkerer. No grand designer here who can create a universe that unfolds, develops and grows. No, the designer in Intelligent Design cannot seem to manage that. He has to keep nudging things in the directions he needs them to go, making course corrections here and there, fixing errant processes that can’t seem to stay on task, backing up and starting over when things go astray. The designer in Intelligent design seems more reminiscent of one of Harry Potter’s classmates in a potions class, who has to keep adding a bit of this and a dab of that trying to keep the potion just so. I find this version of the designer unappealing and nothing like the God who I envision. I often ask my students which of the two computer programmers is the greatest: The one who creates many video games, but which require constant intervention and fixes, endless updates, and repeated patches, or the programmer who has created a program from which the command ‘Go’ creates spontaneously a myriad of video games of infinite variety and depth? You pick.

Am I talking about a deistic god who set things in motion and then steps back to leave it alone? Heavens no, I think God enters into the world often and directly, but mostly by influencing his children through their consciousness, inspiring and directing them to fulfill his purposes, sending messages and messengers when needed.

My next complaint about the Intelligent Design fiasco is its pretense to science. Exactly, what makes it a science is not clear. It offers no testable hypotheses. It has established no research program. The theory of evolution has offered testable hypotheses that have been confirmed again and again. The theory of evolution says that we should find certain things in the fossil record, the genetic code of our genes, the distribution of plants and animals on the earth. We find those things (Do not be detracted by supposed missing transitional forms. Fossilization is a rare process and we expect to find few transitional forms.) What is amazing is evolution’s prediction that life unfolds in a process of change and development. Consider the recent lovely fossils coming out of China detailing the evolution of flight in birds from bird-like reptiles. It follows just as evolution says it should.

My last complaint about Intelligent Design is it sets religion and science against each other. It puts forward a false dichotomy in students’ minds that suggests that evolution and faith are incompatible. It makes people of religious faith suspicious of science. When students genuinely think that science and religion are incompatible, one of two things typically happens. One is they embrace science and since it is incompatible to religion, religion is abandoned. The other is that they maintain their faith but remain suspicious of science and cast doubt upon its methods and findings, inclining themselves to superstition and pseudoscience. I have to wonder if the reason science education in the United States is falling behind other countries is because misinformed people of faith have been dissing science to the point that many students are choosing other paths. Faith and science need not be enemies. I embrace both fully and without reservation. My religious convictions are part of who I am. My science and faith reciprocate and inform one another. They are part of the way I understand my place in the universe. Intelligent Design does nothing to promote the search for understanding and cooperation between these two vital ways of knowing. It is a darkening of the mind on every level, both religiously and scientifically. Please do not let it be taught to my children as a science. It is bad for both religion and science.

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21 Responses to Intelligent Design: Bad for Science and Faith

  1. Allen says:

    Bravo, bravo, clap, clap,clap

    Thanks, Steve, for explaining it so clearly. In my blog I’m giving links to scientific articles that pertain to basic Mormon beliefs, and I have quite a few about evolution. Those interested can click on my name and then on the evolution label or category.

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  3. erich says:

    Excellent post, I will be sharing this with friends…

  4. hydralisk says:

    In comparative religion class? What on earth does Intelligent Design have to do with comparative religion? If it deserves to be anywhere it deserves a mention at the very least in the science class. That’s where the debate is gonna come up. Banishing it to a religion class only makes it look like science is trying to hide something, and THAT would be bad for science.

  5. Mike says:

    Isn’t science required to unequivocally and relentlessly search for the truth, by which I mean, ultimately, the Real? Is not religion involved in that same pursuit? If there are gaps in the explanation, doesn’t that put the explanation in jeopardy, whether religious or scientific?

  6. Jon W. says:

    Great argument,

    The whole ID argument had long ago passed me by so I did not get what they were saying. Having this explaination certainly gives me a better understanding of where both may be coming from.


  7. erich says:

    I found this interesting:

    “Dr. Ayala, a former Dominican priest, said he told his audiences not just that evolution is a well-corroborated scientific theory, but also that belief in evolution does not rule out belief in God. In fact, he said, evolution “is more consistent with belief in a personal god than intelligent design. If God has designed organisms, he has a lot to account for.”

    “Consider, he said, that at least 20 percent of pregnancies are known to end in spontaneous abortion. If that results from divinely inspired anatomy, Dr. Ayala said, “God is the greatest abortionist of them all.”

    “Or consider, he said, the “sadism” in parasites that live by devouring their hosts, or the mating habits of insects like female midges, tiny flies that fertilize their eggs by consuming their mates’ genitals, along with all their other parts.

    “For the midges, Dr. Ayala said, “it makes evolutionary sense. If you are a male and you have mated, the best thing you can do for your genes is to be eaten.” But if God or some other intelligent agent made things this way on purpose, he said, “then he is a sadist, he certainly does odd things and he is a lousy engineer.”

    “That is also the message of his latest book, “Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” (Joseph Henry Press, 2007). In it, he writes that as a theology student in Spain he had been taught that evolution “provided the ‘missing link’ in the explanation of evil in the world” — a defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence, despite the existence of evil.

    ““As floods and drought were a necessary consequence of the fabric of the physical world, predators and parasites, dysfunctions and diseases were a consequence of the evolution of life,” he writes. “They were not a result of a deficient or malevolent design.””

  8. I’m sorry brother Peck, I had hoped that you would have some new, creative takes on the issues, but so far it seems that you are just regurgitating anti-ID boilerplate.

    I think your severely underestimate your audience when you think that few are aware that BYU teaches and researches the theory of evolution. Just because we prefer ID doesn’t mean we are completely ignorant of the facts. Please, don’t assume that just because people disagree with you that they are simply ignorant. It feels patronizing.

    You say “Intelligent Design posits that evolution cannot explain the origin of biological complexity.” This is an oversimplification. Just like evolution, ID is not a monolithic idea. Their are different branches and approaches. The kind of intelligent design I favor posits that the fact of evolution (the succession of species, the fossil record, the genetic markers) cannot be explained by random mutation and natural selection alone. It is not the evolution it self that it necessarily in doubt (though it is for some branches of ID) it is the _mechanism_ that is questioned.

    You say “The argument is tantamount to saying that skyscrapers are impossible to build because there is no crane large enough to construct one.”

    If this is similar to what you think ID asserts, then it is no wonder you think we are morons. But this is nothing like what we believe. You have either misunderstood or mischaracterized the argument. Skyscrapers obviously exist, so it would be silly to argue that they can’t be built. The existence of the buildings is the fact. What is at question is whether the proposed mechanism is is capable of producing the buildings that we observe.

    Analogies to human designed things never work well as a support for Darwinian evolution, even though Darwinists can’t seem to resist the logical blunder. A more apt analogy would be to say that the Darwinists claim that the cranes built the skyscrapers without any blue prints through a series of accidents and unguided selection with no intelligence involved at all.

    You say “No grand designer here who can create a universe that unfolds, develops and grows. No, the designer in Intelligent Design cannot seem to manage that. He has to keep nudging things in the directions he needs them to go, making course corrections here and there, fixing errant processes that can’t seem to stay on task, backing up and starting over when things go astray.”

    Again, this is a mischaracterization. There are various parties within ID. Personally, I favor the front-loading view of ID where the Random Mutation with Natural Selection only activate or deactivate pre-existing information which was created and placed there by the designer in the beginning. The naturalistic mechanism cannot create the kind of information we see in life. This allows micro-evolutionary nudges, while still recognizing the role of the creator. It allows all things freedom within the sphere in which they have been placed (Doctrine & Covenants 93), a degree of agency, while acknowledging a necessary creator.

    You are probably right that at this point ID is not a science proper, but it certain is a proto-science that could potentially bloom into a full scientific effort if it were allowed to be investigated without reprisal and upbraiding from the establishment.

    I have not yet seen evidence that the key claim of Darwinian Evolution, the creative power of the proposed mechanism, has been proven. You can’t say “By looking at the fossil record, we observer a succession of species. We propose that it came about by random mutation and natural selection.” and then turn around and say “The thoery predicts that we should see a succession of species in the fossil record. See the succession of species in the fossil record, that proves our theory.” That is circular and confuses the facts with the theory.

    For all practical purposes, the time frames posited by Darwinists for for Random Mutation and Natural Selection to accomplish what they claim it has are so large, that no real experiment, with observable results, can be easily devised to prove it. It may be just unfalsifiable as portions of ID appear to be. Most people I know accept it on faith.

    So now I have submitted my ID boilderplate, and were are even.

    I would like to see you respond to the idea of Front-loaded Evolution with some original consideration and exposition.


  9. steve says:

    From Me

    I appreciate J. Max’s effort to defend Intelligent Design and I am delighted to find someone who has thought deeply about these things and is obviously well read on both sides of the argument. If I have appeared patronizing, it is because this level of engagement with the material is rare and usually don’t see it. Thank you for joining in the discussion.

    First, the kind of ID I’m attacking is the Behe/Demski version in which irreducible complexity is used to argue that their must be direct involvement of a designer to get past hurdles for which evolution can not do an end run to get around. Evolution is stopped and the designer has to come in and so some manipulation to get past this irreducible complexity. In their view evolution is stopped because (as their favourite example, the mouse trap supposedly exemplifies) all the pieces must be in place to do whatever it is the structure has to do.

    The trouble is that in every one of their examples of this kind of complexity—the eye, bacterial flagellum, etc. it has been exhaustively shown how it in fact likely evolved. In fact, all this work was done long before Behe’s book on ID. See for example,

    Anyway, as the Dover Judge pointed out, the ID folks have ignored vast swaths of the scientific literature, offer no alternative explanations, and are largely disingenuous in their claims that they are not a religious motivated group–and not just religious, religious of a certain type.

    I’m not sure what you mean by front loaded evolution. If you mean the design structure of the universe is such that life and people can evolve, then I agree. In fact, I developed this further in my attack on Dawkins and Dennett which was published in Zygon: Journal of Science and Religion (posted on this blog), who claim evolution is evidence for their atheism

    Evolution is complex and the more we study it the more it is clear that there is a lot that goes into it. Evolution is a much more refined view than selection and random mutation, there are new understandings of complexity and emergent behaviour, as you pointed out, there are new insights into the role of embryological development and epigenetics (inherence of extra-DNA material and cultural things), in fact, one of the most exciting areas is coming from the work of William Wimsatt (book listed on my blog) on how structure builds on present structure and how that becomes necessary for advancements and elaboration on structure. But the heart of all these efforts relies on and is informed by Darwinian evolution. It is the heart of all these. And notice all these new directions are coming out of science. Science really is engaging with the problems that the ID people so quickly jump on and wave before the world, but they offer no insight, guidance of help. And most of what the IDers point out comes right out of the literature from scientists actually working on those problems from an evolutionary perspective.

    But these are questions that I believe Science will sort out. My biggest qualm with ID though is the assumption that a fully realized faith is incompatible with a fully realized scientific evolution. This is its main harm. It creates division where none should exist. We can as Mormons embrace evolutionary science fully and without reservation. We can embrace our faith fully and without reservation. The suspicions of science that ID introduces to people of Faith are its most pernicious effect.

  10. Thanks for your friendly response, Steve. I appreciate it. I don’t necessarily see that Dembski’s Specified Complexity or that Behe’s Irreducible Complexity mean that there ” must be direct involvement of a designer to get past hurdles for which evolution can not do an end run to get around. Evolution is stopped and the designer has to come in and so some manipulation to get past this irreducible complexity.” Yes, they do argue that natural selection and random mutation alone are incapable of overcoming those hurdles. But that claim doesn’t require that God step in and personally tweak the process at every critical moment.

    Front-Loaded Evolution is “the idea that the designer made the first organisms with the future in mind, and that the original design influenced the course of evolution.” ( In other words, Dembski and Behe may be right when they say that the Darwinian mechanism is incapable of overcoming the hurdles of specified and irreducible complexity, but that if we accept the possibility that living things were designed with enough information built in from the outset to overcome that barrier, then evolution can proceed because it was designed to do so and God doesn’t have to step in to personally oversee every hurdle. It is intelligently designed evolution.

    That is an idea worth investigating.

    You say “The suspicions of science that ID introduces to people of Faith are its most pernicious effect” And that we Mormons can “embrace evolutionary science fully and without reservation.”

    I’m not convinced. There are too many like Richard Dawkins who assert, and not without reason, that Darwinian evolution is a cornerstone of their faith in Atheism.

    I think that suspicion of science is very healthy. Science is a thoroughly human endeavor and suffers from all of the faults of humanity. Scientists are hardly the dispassionate observers of the natural world they are often painted to be. Anyone who is familiar with academia and the history of science knows that it is full of egos, ids, contention, personal attacks, pet theories, invective, politics, spiritual implications, and ulterior motives.

    I’m sure that we can fully embrace the honest pursuit of truth through applying the scientific method. But we should be careful about putting to much stock in what Ambrose Bierce correctly identifies in _the Devil’s Dictionary_ as “the art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.”

    I wish I had more time to thoroughly discuss the subject…but duties don’t allow it.

  11. Jon Saboe says:

    My meager understanding of ID is this:

    Certain principles of Design Inference are used by scientists every day in many fields of inquiry including archeology (is that a sharp stone or an arrow head), forensics (did a beam of wood strike him in the head, or did someone hit him with a bat), and even SETI (is that a naturally occurring sequence, or are aliens trying to communicate with us).

    ID simply applies these principles to biology. There is nothing in it that undermines evolution, or that creates a schism between “science” and “religion”. The only schism it creates is between scientists who are dogmatically devoted to a one-sided, pure, atheistic, and materialistic worldview (who insist that all is matter and energy, and that non-deterministic information can arise from undirected interactions of the two) and scientists who claim to have discovered some circumstantial evidence that there may have been a creative agent involved in the abiogenesis process.

    It shouldn’t be contrary to any LDS teaching, since your Bible states in Romans 1:20 that “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.”

    However, ID does NOT step outside of the prevue of science by declaring or claiming WHO the Designer is. This is why many Creationists warn against ID, since it doesn’t lead to the God of the Bible, and also undermines doctrines like the Fall, sin, and soul.

    I believe that it makes a demand to return to the Scientific method since the following have never been observed, tested, repeated, or empirically verified, yet they are all taught has scientific fact:

    1. Abiogenesis: Life arising from non-living chemicals.

    2. Macro-Evolution: New species with new traits, abilities, structures, and systems arising from other species. (The term Macro-Evolution was first coined by Russian evolutionist Iurii Filipchenko in his book on evolution.)

    3. Proteins forming without DNA, or DNA forming without Proteins. (One had to “evolve” first.) (There is the miraculous suggestion that polarized light from pulsars might have adjusted the ratios, thereby allowing a chain reaction of mono-ciliated amino acids to grow!)

    4. Right-handed amino acids forming in vats of organic chemicals. (The ones needed for life)

    5. Non-deterministic Information without an intelligent, non-naturalistic source.

    These are assumption, AND necessary requirements for life arising of its own accord, but until they are observed or repeatable, they are simply a matter of faith.

    ID simply states, “If it looks designed, MAYBE it is.” An honest, scientific inquiry, and nothing that presents a threat to biological evolution, natural selection, or any of the many OBSERVED traits that are exhibited by the grand tapestry of life here on planet Earth.

  12. Jon Saboe says:

    Sorry! This phrase (There is the miraculous suggestion that polarized light from pulsars might have adjusted the ratios, thereby allowing a chain reaction of mono-ciliated amino acids to grow!) belongs after number 4!

  13. danithew says:

    Pleez fiks tha tytel speling …

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  15. Clark says:

    Max, your comment about Dawkins can be turned around. If there is some presumptive ‘danger’ to evolution because of people like Dawkins what about all those Christians who accept variations on young earth creationism? Should we say Christianity entails that?

    Your point about the early moments of life is apt. It is, I think, about the only place there IDers can make a claim. But that’s simply because the move from non-life to life simply isn’t understood at all. You’d admit I hope that what you outline as your form of ID is a particularly minority view in terms of all the ID proponents.

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  17. Seth R. says:

    Following up on Ayala’s remarks listed above…

    Annie Dillard writes some pointed remarks on the subject of “God having a lot to account for.”

    “The faster death goes, the faster evolution goes. If an aphid lays a million eggs, several might survive. Now, my right hand, in all its human cunning, could not make one aphid in a thousand years. But these aphid eggs – which run less than a dime a dozen, which run absolutely free – can make aphids as effortlessly as the sea makes waves. Wonderful things, wasted. It’s a wretched system. Arthur Stanley Eddington, the British physicist and astronomer who died in 1944 suggested that all of “Nature” could conceivably run on the same deranged scheme. “If indeed she has no greater aim than to provide a home for her greatest experiment, Man, it would be just like her methods to scatter a million stars whereof one might haply achieve her purpose.” I doubt very much that this is the aim, but it seems clear on all fronts that this is the method.

    Say you are the manager of the Southern Railroad. You figure that you need three engines for a stretch of track between Lynchburg and Danville. It’s a might steep grade. So at fantastic effort and expense you have your shops make nine thousand engines. Each engine must be fashioned just so, every rivet and bolt secure, every wire twisted and wrapped, every needle on every indicator sensitive and accurate.

    You send all nine thousand of them out on the runs. Although there are engineers at the throttles, no one is manning the switches. The engines crash, collide, derail, jump, jam, burn… At the end of the massacre you have three engines, which is what the run could support in the first place. There are few enough of them that they can stay out of each others’ paths.

    You go to the board of directors and show them what you’ve done. And what are they going to say? You know what they are going to say. They’re going to say: it’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.

    Is it a better way to run a universe?”

    Annie Dillar, “A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” Chapter 10 “Fecundity”

  18. What you propose basically tracks Kenneth Miller’s approach in Finding Darwin’s god. He is a Catholic and an evolutionary biologist, so he likes the idea of creation ex nihilo in which all of the potential creativeness of nature is packed in at the beginning by God. Yet his position has been heatedly attacked by Richard Dawkins who insists that Darwinian evolution does not need even this kind of kickstart and that it is intellectually dishonest to believe in it. Obviously, there is nothing in the Darwinian science of evolution that requires God to have a role at the outset of creation of the universe. That is a belief that seems to simply have room left within the otherwise materialist world view that drives Darwinian evolution.

    You seem to dislike the notion of a God who is “tweaking” life to get the outsome he wants, but how is that essentially different from God tweaking his communications with prophets to get the Book of Mormon. We specifically have evidence that he tweaked Nephi to create the Small Plates, and Mormon to include them with his abridgment, for the sole purpose of working around the anticipated treachery of Martin Harris’ wife in stealing the 116 pages of the original manuscript. Why is that somehow beneath Goid? We are told repeatedly in the Book of Mormon that he works through small means to accomplish great things. Tweaking is part of his tool kit. Being able to create the maximum effect with the minimum effort is a mark of intelligence.

    And of course there is the issue of how cellular life began in the first place. Darwinian evolution by definition does not address this. No naturalistic explanation that holds water exists. The hypothesis that an intelligent agent created the first cell is actually more logical and rational than all alternative materialistic ideas, which are simply mathematically impossible.

    There are certainly plenty of Evangelical Christians who seize on anything that supports creation by God as an excuse to teach God as creator in public schools. However, I have NOT seen any insistence in the actual books of Behe or Dembski that this is their goal. On the other hand, if a science teacher thinks there are credible reasons to criticize the assertions of Dawkins that random chance is sufficient creative input for all life and variation, why not let him offer that critique, so long as he effectively also teaches evolutionary theory to his students? Is Darwinism so weak that it can’t stand a little criticism?

    I am amazed that you embrace the conclusions of the judge in the Kitzhaber v Dover case, since he is not in any way a scientist. He is a lawyer and a materialist. His claim that he can pronounce on science without actual credentials of his own ios ludicrous. HIs claim that he can censor scientific criticism of a theory is dangerous, a kind of tyranny.

    Life would be easier for biologists if no one criticized their favorite theories. But why should they get off when physicists have to do it all the time? We would all be better off if we were ready to openly address criticisms of our favorite beliefs, both scientific and religious.

  19. Seth R. says:

    Raymond, if we’re thinking of the same case, it came out pretty conclusively in the Dover case that the ID people were just using ID interchangeably with creationism. They subpoenaed back drafts of the text and found that in almost every instance, the word “creationism” had been crossed out and substituted with “intelligent design” and “God” had been crossed out and substituted with “designer.” Nothing else whatever had been changed in the school textbooks at issue.

    Besides Raymond, what you are talking about may well be true. I don’t think that evolution has much to say about ultimate causes. But that’s entirely irrelevant.

    ID is not science. It has absolutely nothing to contribute to science. It’s just a distracting sideshow that prevents scientists from doing their job. ID deals in the realm of the untestable and unprovable. It may be good theology. It may belong in a social studies class. But it does not belong in a science class and it has nothing to say there.

    It’s a silly distraction and an incredibly transparent ploy for a bunch of fundie religious nuts to force us to listen to the Southern Baptist version of the world in public schools.

    Not interested.

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  21. William MacLean says:

    As an Evangelical Christian I believe in a God who is there and not silent.I also believe he create the heavens and the earth and every living thing upon that earth. I believe he created Mankind (e.g. male and female) with intelligence, purpose and a rationale that they would love Him with all their heart soul and mind and their neighbor as themselves. These are the two greatest commandments that God’s Son-Jesus Christ stated in the New Testament. I thank you for letting me share briefly in response to your critique on intelligent design. By the way God in Christ in not a sadist, but Holy, merciful, righteous, almighty, eternal, sovereign.

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