With battles already raging in Florida and Texas over whether to teach intelligent design in school, the topic will soon gain even more attention thanks to the April release of a new film by conservative actor Ben Stein.
The traditional battle lines are drawn, with religious conservatives fighting for the teaching of intelligent design, and the scientific community (among others), fighting against.
It might come as some surprise to both sides, then, that one of the paragons of the enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson, seemed to believe in intelligent design. To be clear, he did not favor teaching religious doctrine in schools, but as a personal matter seemed to describe the world in a way that echoes the language of intelligent design advocates.
It is true that Jefferson believed in applying the scientific method toward spiritual matters. In a letter to his nephew Peter Carr, he urged rigorous application of scientific principles to the Bible. For instance, he encouraged him to look at the story of Joshua making the sun stand still and then added, “you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis, as the earth does, should have stopped” without then having “prostrated animals, trees, buildings.” Jefferson conceded that such an investigation might take the young man away from God. “Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. ” If, on the other hand, “you find reason to believe there is a God,” you will find comfort and happiness in that, too. And you should not feel badly or anti-God should your mind take you away from the church since “your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven.”
It was this same rationalist impulse that led him to cut out the parts of the Bible he disliked, mostly the miracles and signs of Jesus’s divinity. (Beliefnet now has the Jefferson bible online, including the portions he cut).
But Jefferson’s scientific bent nonetheless led him to believe in God. The best explication came in a letter to John Adams April 11, 1823, when Jefferson was 80. “I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition,” he wrote. This “design,” as he called it, can be seen in many aspects of nature. “The movements of the heavenly bodies, so exactly held in their course by the balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces, the structure of our earth itself, with it’s distribution of lands, waters and atmosphere, animal and vegetable bodies, examined in all their minutest particles, insects mere atoms of life, yet as perfectly organised as man or mammoth, the mineral substances, their generation and uses, it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is, in all this, design, cause and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a fabricator of all things from matter and motion, their preserver and regulator while permitted to exist in their present forms, and their regenerator into new and other forms.” Some Being is the “fabricator” of all these things.
What’s more, he writes, it wasn’t a one time event. Providence is helping to keep this equilibrium. Though he predated Darwin, so we’ll never know what kind of impact evolutionary theory would have had on his theism, Jefferson believed that even the death of living organism and galactic bodies was sign of a “design” from a Creator. “We see, too, evident proofs of the necessity of a superintending power to maintain the Universe in it’s course and order. Stars, well known, have disappeared, new ones have come into view, comets, in their incalculable courses, may run foul of suns and planets and require renovation under other laws; certain races of animals are become extinct; and, were there no restoring power, all existences might extinguish successively, one by one, until all should be reduced to a shapeless chaos. So irresistible are these evidences of an intelligent and powerful Agent that, of the infinite numbers of men who have existed thro’ all time, they have believed, in the proportion of a million at least to Unit, in the hypothesis of an eternal pre-existence of a creator, rather than in that of a self-existent Universe.”
Yes, Thomas Jefferson – hero of modern liberals — believed that an “intelligent and powerful” agent had created a “design” that regulated the universe at the most cosmic and microscopic levels. Where he’d likely disagree with today’s proponents of intelligent design is that he did not believe that theology should be taught in the schools, particularly to the impressionable young. Still, it’s a reminder that intelligent design need not be viewed as inherently incompatible with science and the use of reason.