Book review: Natural God, Deism in the Age of Intelligent Design

by Beth Houston

★★★

The final two chapters of this book are inspiring. But since most readers will slog through the first 400 pages to reach those chapters, I’d better review the initial pages as well. So bear with me, here, until we get to the good stuff.

I opened Beth Houston’s new book to find a heated attack on Darwinism on the very first page. Surely, in this age of genetics and evolutionary biology, she’s not going to base her Deism on Creationism is she?

Nope. “Genesism,” says Houston, is just as far off the mark as evolution, and the Truth hides somewhere between what fundamentalists and Darwinists believe. Both, in Houston’s opinion, are too dependent upon their “religion.” She settles for her own brand of Intelligent Design, attacking both sides of the creation/evolution debate with equal gusto, forming an uneasy alliance along the way with a few fringe scientists on the Christian side of the ledger (Discovery Institute folks and other apologists). Ain’t no way Houston’s daddy was an ape and her granddaddy a worm.

Houston leans on arguments for the irreducible complexity of such body members as the eye and the bacterial flagellum, arguments which are no longer convincing to mainstream biological science. She battles Darwin’s assumption of smooth evolutionary transition between species, a theory that was disbanded years ago in favor of “jumpy” transition. She insists that “no transitional fossils exist” between species, even while she points out a couple of great examples transitioning from fish to tetrapod: the Panderichthys and the Tiktaalik.

Houston attacks Darwin on a personal level, seeking to discredit him, often reducing his teachings on natural selection to a form of “kill or be killed.” This idea, she claims, has been refuted biologically: God’s creation was designed to advance through cooperation. An interesting direction, I must admit.

I think Houston considers a large part of the creation process to be God fiddling with DNA during the Cambridge Explosion. No life, she explains, has evolved beyond the boundaries of it species since that time. No macro evolution. Presumably humans, too, have been around for 500 million years? I’m not real clear on exactly how and when God made mankind in Houston’s opinion.

Then, she mutters her oft-repeated mantra that what differentiates Deism from the rest is a reliance upon Truth. Truth is the most important thing. Sigh.

When the rant against evolution ends, Houston starts in on Jesus. “Scholars searching for proof of the historical Jesus have groped as futilely as Darwinians scouring fossil beds for missing links.” As a historical Jesus scholar who also has studied evolution, I couldn’t count the number of statements Houston makes that I deem direct falsehoods, so I struggled with much of the book.

Did I finally learn what a Deist believes in today’s world? Well, eventually, but for hundreds of pages I held a pretty negative view. A Deist apparently disbelieves in both evolution and the divine intervention necessary to bypass evolution.  (Miracles, in that they violate natural law, contradict the God of nature.) A Deist touts the humanitarian teachings of Jesus, while shrugging off the possibility that Jesus was a real person. A Deist is a bit of a conspiracy theorist, ranting against evil on every side, from republicans to Richard Dawkins to whole wheat bread. And don’t get a Deist started on the topic of gender inequality!

Finally, I arrived at the last two chapters, which are both spiritual and practical. Houston’s philosophy, if only it could be divorced from fringe science, is attractive. Deism is about love, respect, and growth. It is about appreciating the beauty and creativity of God’s work. It reaches a crescendo in the final ten pages with that most wonderful of words: hope. It turns out Deism is a narrow version of my own Liberal Christianity.

There is one major selling point: as frustrated as I felt with the book’s meandering direction, its saving grace is that it’s just so darn fun to read. Houston is an engaging writer. It reads like a coffee-house conversation with an eloquent, opinionated aunt, whose caustic put-downs of everything you hold sacred are so creative that you can’t help sniggering. So, for me, the book earns a compromising three-star rating … one star for the first 400 pages, five stars for the last 75, and a plug for all the chuckles.

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