Faith & Reason: The argument from design is flawed

`If the Lord Almighty had intended sodomy to be natural, He would have built men's bodies differently.' Is Nicholas Winterton right or wrong?
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The Independent Culture
LIKE MARTIN Luther King, I have a dream, but it is more modest than his. I just wish that some time, some day, it would be possible to write about religion without discussing anal sex.

This has not been a good week for the dream. In the Commons debate on the age of consent, the Conservative MP Nicholas Winterton announced that God had not designed human beings to gratify themselves that way: "If the Lord Almighty had intended sodomy to be natural, He would have built men's bodies differently." It was one of those remarks which opens, like a lightning flash, a vast inspiring vista of stupidity and ignorance. For, of all the Christian arguments around sex, the argument that certain practices are unsafe because they are abhorrent to God is surely the one which needs least thought to explode.

If the Lord Almighty had intended parturition to be natural, he would have built women's bodies differently. By far the most dangerous consequence of any sexual practice a human can indulge in is childbirth. Before modern medicine, or at least modern hygiene, the death rate among mothers was terrifying: about a third of all live births in 16th-century England seem to have ended with the mother's death. These are worse odds even than those facing the men who took their pleasure in bathhouses in San Francisco in the Eighties. Yet childbirth is one of the few things that the Bible favours almost all the way through and that some strands of Christianity continue to regard as an unmixed blessing.

The risks of childbirth are borne entirely by women, which may help to explain why they have escaped Mr Winterton's notice. The other part of the reason, of course, is that childbirth is now extremely safe in Europe: we expect mothers to survive just as we are shocked when children die. It takes an effort of imagination and a little research to realise what the natural state of affairs was like. Similar reasoning applies to the doctrine, which I believe Mr Winterton also holds, that the foetus is a human being from the moment of conception. Something between two-thirds and four-fifths of all fertilised eggs miscarry before birth; most of them without anyone noticing at all. This is not evidence of a thoughtful designer.

In fact it seems to me that all instances of the argument from design are and must be flawed. This is not just because of Darwinian arguments about the evolution of complex physical structures like the human eye and the equally complex nervous systems that make eyes useful. These arguments are completely convincing. Whatever the scientific disputes within a framework of Darwinian explanations, none of them leaves room for planning or teleology; and the most powerful evidence of Darwinian adaptations always comes from bad designs as much as from good ones.

Even the human eye has its retina facing backwards, in a manner of speaking. That is why we have a blind spot, where the optic nerve passes though; and God, by definition, has no blind spot. He had no need to build one into us and every other mammal. But the argument from design, in its most popular form, is not really about the perfection of the natural world; in that, narrow, form, it was not intended for converting people, but for reassuring those who already believed that they had chosen the right side, and for making their faith more elaborate. In the broad, popular form represented by Mr Winterton, it is about the coincidence of two perfections: the physical and the moral.

And here, I think, it really gets into trouble. The coincidence in this world of physical and moral perfection, as exemplified by the way in which Mr and Mrs Winterton fit together, is too rare and delicate a conjunction on which to base any general moral theory.

It has an extraordinarily 18th-century feel about it, as if the world were laid out for our edification like an agreeable stretch of parkland, but the parkland is best enjoyed from the house, a point of view which makes the gin traps in the shrubbery disappear.

It is true, I suppose, that all religions have to take a view about the sort of human sexual activity which God, or the equivalent, has in mind (or the equivalent) for us. But there is no reason to suppose that this will be particularly natural; and no reason to suppose that what is natural, if we find it, is good. It is a great weakness of the Christian gay case that they tend to argue on the same lines as Mr Winterton - though in the opposite direction. They tend to claim that they were created as they are and this disposition must therefore be good. But the goodness of their sexuality must be derived from something other than innateness. It is likely that science will find soon that some people are born with a disposition to be sociopaths or child molesters; such moral deformations are just as natural as physical ones.

In a curious way, this argument is independent even of Darwin. The abundant imperfections of the world, and the way in which even its most perfect machineries tend to mangle the innocent, would still be here even if we believed they had been put in place directly by God.