Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Intelligent Design as Roman Mythology

It is appropriate that in the month of January, I have made so many entries about the Intelligent Design movement. January is named for Janus, the Roman god of gates, often depicted as having two faces. The more I study the ID movement, the more convinced I am that Janus is the perfect symbol for it. Indeed, the two-faced nature of the ID movement is, ironically, by design. This was the nature of the strategy that was devised by Phillip Johnson to get ID a seat at the table. One face is presented to scientists and legislators and the other is presented to the churches and to the folks who fund the Discovery Institute and other ID organizations. When speaking to legislators or scientists, ID advocates claim that ID is a legitimate scientific theory and that they are merely scientists objectively following the evidence wherever it leads, without a prior commitment to any outcome. But when speaking in churches, on religious radio shows, or in fundraising efforts, they speak bluntly of ID as the wedge that will restore God to his rightful place in American culture and turn the tides against the atheistic hordes. From the very beginning, Phillip Johnson conceived of this as primarily a battle of public relations and was concerned about how to package ID in the most effective way. In an interview in 2000, Johnson said:

So the question is: “How to win?” That’s when I began to develop what you now see full-fledged in the “wedge” strategy: “Stick with the most important thing”, the mechanism and the building up of information. Get the Bible and the Book of Genesis out of the debate because you do not want to raise the so-called Bible-science dichotomy. Phrase the argument in such a way that you can get it heard in the secular academy and in a way that tends to unify the religious dissenters.

In other words, don’t talk about religion because it scares people off. And also (he didn’t say this, but as an attorney he knows it) because the courts have repeatedly rejected attempts to get creationism into school classrooms because, despite the rhetoric of scientific objectivity, it was at heart a religious dogma and not a real scientific theory. When they speak to Christian audiences, however, they drop the pretense that it’s really a question of following the scientific evidence where it leads. On American Family Radio last year, for instance, Johnson knew that he was speaking to an audience of Christians and supporters, so he could be honest in admitting,

Our strategy has been to change the subject a bit so that we can get the issue of intelligent design, which really means the reality of God, before the academic world and into the schools.

In times of candor, he even admits that it isn’t a battle about science at all, as he told World Magazine in 1996:

This isn’t really, and never has been a debate about science. Its about religion and philosophy.

Nor is this by any means limited only to Philip Johnson. While he was the general who devised the war plan (Johnson likes to talk in military metaphors), the commanders on the ground follow the plan to a T as well.

For example, Jonathan Wells claimed in a debate with Massimo Pigluicci in 2001 that he was just a scientist who was convinced in college that evolution was false merely because he studied the evidence objectively, and it’s really evolutionists who have a prior commitment to a religious position. But his own words contradicted him when someone found his testimony on a Unification Church webpage (Wells is a follower of Rev. Moon’s Unification Church:

Father’s words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism. When Father chose me (along with about a dozen other seminary graduates) to enter a Ph.D. program in 1978, I welcomed the opportunity to prepare myself for battle.

Certainly being handpicked by Rev. Moon to go to grad school, and doing so having “devoted his life to destroying Darwinism”, represents as clear an a priori commitment as it is possible to hold.

William Dembski is much the same way, of course. Dembski gets downright indignant if you dare to mention the religious nature of ID and even talks of “atheistic” witchhunts and compares the scientific establishment to the Soviet Union. But again, when speaking to supporters, he’ll be honest about his prior commitments. He told Touchstone Magazine in 1999 that,

Intelligent design readily embraces the sacramental nature of physical reality. Indeed, intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory.

And in a 1999 book, he wrote of the theological basis for his attempts to change how science operates:

If we take seriously the word-flesh Christology of Chalcedon (i.e. the doctrine that Christ is fully human and fully divine) and view Christ as the telos toward which God is drawing the whole of creation, then any view of the sciences that leaves Christ out of the picture must be seen as fundamentally deficient.

Let us return, in conclusion, to Phillip Johnson. The last way that that ID movement presents two faces is in disguising its political goals. In a 2001 interview with the San Francisco Weekly, Johnson said,

We definitely arent looking for some legislation to support our views, or anything like that. What our adversaries would like to say is – these people want to impose their views through the law – No’ that’s what they do. We’re against that in principle and we dont need that.

But the reality is that the ID movement actively lobbies for such legislation all around the country. Since that 2001 interview, they have pushed for legislation in Michigan (HB4946 would mandate the teaching of “intelligent design theory” alongside evolution); Ohio (in 2002, the State Board of Education voted down an attempt to put ID into science classrooms as an alternative to evolution; Texas (the state board that oversees textbook selection rejected attempts by ID supporters to make wholesale changes in biology textbooks); Georgia (a battle in Cobb County over putting creationism into the schools ended recently with the school board affirming that teachers should stick to the science, while respecting that some religious groups may be offended); and several other states. And at the national level, they pushed to get an ID amendment added to the No Child Left Behind act (it passed the Senate, but was removed in the final version of the bill when the two versions were reconciled). So while Johnson claims that they’re against using legislation to support their goals, and that “their adversaries” falsely claim otherwise, they are in fact active all over the country in pushing such legislation. Yet another example of the Janus effect at work. And while Jesus did tell his followers to turn the other cheek, I don’t think he had in mind turning an entirely new face.