St Stephen Lewisham

18th July 2010

Design – or Accident? –
Part One: Was it an Accident?


Those of you who were prepared for confirmation by me (and that includes a fair number of those present today) will already have heard about what I am going to say before, because it’s my usual starting-point. If you are one such person, that shouldn’t matter: because hearing the truth more than once never did anyone harm, and anyway, you may have forgotten all about what I said since your Confirmation.

What is called the ‘Argument from Design’ is one of the simplest ways of explaining to people why we believe that God exists. It isn’t, and has never claimed to be, a ‘proof’ in the sense of something which will automatically convince everyone who hears it. Frankly, such proofs don’t exist. If there were no such a thing as doubt there’d be no such a thing as faith. Absolute certainty only exists in areas like mathematics.

The Argument from Design goes as follows:

Imagine that you, like Robinson Crusoe, are living alone on a small desert island. You’ve been there several months and never seen any evidence of another human being during all that time.

Then one morning, when you are going down to the beach for your morning bathe, you notice that a group of quite large stones spells the word ‘OX’ in capital letters. You have passed that way each morning and are quite certain that you had never seen that before. Now, what is your first reaction to this discovery?

Your first thought surely is ‘somebody did that’. Why do you think that? Because whenever things form a pattern or a design, our first instinct is to believe that it has been made by a Designer – and we are usually correct. So those stones suggests that there is some other intelligent being on the island, (or that an intelligent being came by sea during the night and then sailed away again).

Now, a single incident like proves nothing. After all, it might have been the wind or the waves which accidentally drove the stones into that pattern. But then suppose that several days later, you find another group of large stones which spell the word ‘BAT’. Not only does your suspicion grow that somebody was responsible, but that the Someone might actually speak English! And the more often it happens, the more certain you become, as a result of seeing these designs, that some intelligent Designer was responsible for them, rather than blind chance.

Now it is a fact that wherever we look in the everyday world is riddled with hundreds and hundreds of such patterns. From the uniquely-patterned ice-crystals which go to make up a shapeless snowflake, to the position and movement of sun, moon stars and planets which is predictable within fractions of a second years and years before the actual event takes place, we can turn to the human body with its incredible complexity of cells -- largely self-regulating. Whilst these reproduce, combine, or quietly fold themselves up and are eliminated, there are patterns galore, often (as in the case of a snowflake) in the most unexpected, apparently patternless places. Like our Desert Islander we might be excused for drawing the conclusion that ‘Someone has been at work here designing all these things’. It is at least as plausible as ‘mere co-incidence.

The fact is that once people are encouraged to look for designs and patterns like these, the more often they find them. So the study of Natural Science, so far from always leading professional scientists away from believing in the existence of a Designer involved in creation (as people once feared they would), actually leads many of them to believe in the existence of such a Being or Beings.

Which is why it is such a good idea, very early on in teaching the Christian Faith, to give people a lesson or two on human biology. For the human body is the most wonderful piece of design of all, if you come to think of it, and all of us are inside it 24-hours a day seven days a week. In other words it something , unlike the stars, which is very close to each of us if we wish to study it.

So the Argument from Design is a really powerful, and ready-to-hand one which often opens the unbeliever’s eyes to the possibility of there being an Intelligent Creator behind it all.

But before trying this argument out on your non-believing friends, let me give you three warnings.

First, the Argument from Design does not in any way prove that there might not be a hundred-and-one intelligent Creators rather than just one. Lots of the world’s population believes in multiple gods and goddesses. Such people are called Polytheists.

Secondly, whether there are one or a thousand creators, the Argument from Design doesn’t tell us whether they play any further part in the process of Creation apart from having started the whole thing off. Less than two-hundred and fifty years ago the majority of Church of England clergy, and especially their bishops believed just that. They did believe in a Creator God who had created the Universe a few thousand years ago, but they also believed that God then withdrew from taking any further active part in it. He simply left it to run itself, well or badly, according the unchangeable Laws which He had laid down at creation. So there could be no miracles, no answers to prayer, no spiritual experience. Man, as the Master of Creation had been, or would soon be, given the ability to rule it on his own.

Such people were called Deists. One can see why Deism was attractive to those discovering about Natural Science. It meant that, given time, ‘every day and in every way things would get better and better’. That period, by the way, was called The Enlightenment and we are still suffering, especially in the Church from its disastrous after-effects on human thought.

But the third, and most serious shortcoming about the Argument from Design is that it tells us nothing for certain about whether the Designer (or Designers) is righteous or evil, whether He wishes us good or ill, and whether men should behave according to moral principles, or simply be free to do what they please (as many of today’s so-called ‘enlightened’ people believe).

To get answer that question – does God love us? -- we have to look much further than the Argument from Design, useful though it is. We have, in fact, to look at the way in which we believe God has revealed Himself, and in particular what happened two thousand or so years ago at the Incarnation of God Himself.

However, that must wait for the next time I have the opportunity to preach to you!

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