Legal and political battle lines have been drawn across the country over the teaching of “intelligent design” — the view that life is so complex it must be the product of a “higher intelligence.” The central issue under debate is whether “intelligent design” is, in fact, a genuine scientific theory or merely a disguised form of religious advocacy — creationism in camouflage.

Proponents of “intelligent design” aggressively market their viewpoint as real science, insisting it is not religiously based. Writes one leading advocate, Michael Behe: “The conclusion of intelligent design flows naturally from the data itself — not from sacred books or sectarian beliefs.”

Proponents of “intelligent design” claim that Darwinian evolution is a fundamentally flawed theory — that there are certain complex features of living organisms evolution simply cannot explain, but which can be explained as the handiwork of an “intelligent designer.”

Their viewpoint is not religiously based, they insist, because it does not require that the “intelligent designer” be God. “Design,” writes another leading proponent, William Dembski, “requires neither magic nor miracles nor a creator.”

Indeed, “design” apparently requires surprisingly little of the “designer's” identity: “Inferences to design,” contends Behe, “do not require that we have a candidate for the role of designer.” According to its advocates, the “designer” responsible for “intelligent design” in biology could be any sort of “creative intelligence” capable of engineering the basic elements of life. Some have even seriously nominated advanced space aliens for the role.

Their premise seems to be that as long as they don't explicitly name the “designer” — as long as they allow that the “designer” could be a naturally existing being, a being accessible to scientific study — that this somehow saves their viewpoint from the charge of being inherently religious in character.

But does it?

Imagine we discovered an alien on Mars with a penchant for bio-engineering. Could such a natural being fulfill the requirements of an “intelligent designer”?

It could not. Such a being would not actually account for the complexity that “design” proponents seek to explain. Any natural being capable of “designing” the complex features of earthly life would, on their premises, require its own “designer.” If “design” can be inferred merely from observed complexity, then our purported Martian “designer” would be just another complex being in nature that supposedly cannot be explained without positing another “designer.” One does not explain complexity by dreaming up a new complexity as its cause.

By the very nature of its approach, “intelligent design” cannot be satisfied with a “designer” who is part of the natural world. Such a “designer” would not answer the basic question its advocates raise: it would not explain biological complexity as such. The only “designer” that would stop their quest for a “design” explanation of complexity is a “designer” about whom one cannot ask any questions or who cannot be subjected to any kind of scientific study — a “designer” that “transcends” nature and its laws — a “designer” not susceptible of rational explanation — in short: a supernatural “designer.”

Its advertising to the contrary notwithstanding, “intelligent design” is inherently a quest for the supernatural. Only one “candidate for the role of designer” need apply. Dembski himself — even while trying to deny this implication — concedes that “if there is design in biology and cosmology, then that design could not be the work of an evolved intelligence.” It must, he admits, be that of a “transcendent intelligence” to whom he euphemistically refers as “the big G.”

The supposedly nonreligious theory of “intelligent design” is nothing more than a crusade to peddle religion by giving it the veneer of science — to pretend, as one commentator put it, that “faith in God is something that holds up under the microscope.”

The insistence of “intelligent design” advocates that they are “agnostic regarding the source of design” is a bait-and-switch. They dangle out the groundless possibility of a “designer” who is susceptible of scientific study — in order to hide their real agenda of promoting faith in the supernatural. Their scientifically accessible “designer” is nothing more than a gateway god — metaphysical marijuana intended to draw students away from natural, scientific explanations and get them hooked on the supernatural.

No matter how fervently its salesmen wish “intelligent design” to be viewed as cutting-edge science, there is no disguising its true character. It is nothing more than a religiously motivated attack on science, and should be rejected as such.