.Phillip Johnson’s Assault Upon Faith-Based Darwinism

A modern monkey trial isn't what Phillip Johnson expected when he wrote a critique of evolution that launched intelligent design -- or was it?

When fevered creationists gather outside a Dover, Pennsylvania, courtroom this fall, Berkeley’s Phillip E. Johnson will probably shake his head in disapproval. Like many East Bay residents, the emeritus Boalt Hall law professor will watch uneasily if people waving Bibles make an intemperate attack on evolution in support of the doctrine known as “intelligent design.”

The September trial promises to be a historic moment for the intelligent-design movement — conceivably as important as the infamous Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925 was to the teaching of evolution. Last October, in the first case of its kind, the Dover Area School Board required science teachers to read ninth graders a short statement about Darwin’s theory of evolution. The statement included the following:

“Because Darwin’s theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence. … Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book Of Pandas and People is available for students to see if they would like to explore this view in an effort to gain an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves. As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind.”

Dover area biology teachers refused to read the words. Eleven parents sued the school board, claiming its action violated the Constitution’s prohibition against laws “respecting an establishment of religion,” which courts have ruled forbids the teaching of creationism.

Supporters of the school board claimed its action was not religiously motivated. But press coverage of the board’s deliberations puts the lie to that claim. The York Daily Record quoted one board member as saying, “This country wasn’t founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution. … This country was founded on Christianity, and our students should be taught as much.”

The board also betrayed its true intentions by entrusting its defense to the Thomas More Law Center, a public- interest law firm “dedicated to the defense and promotion of the religious freedom of Christians, time-honored family values, and the sanctity of human life.” Attorney Richard Thompson says his client’s message to ninth graders was merely designed to promote critical thinking. Yet he willingly imagines the sort of thinking it might promote: “After considering intelligent design, the student may ask, ‘Who is the designer?’ And the student may come to the conclusion the designer is God.”

Back in Berkeley, all this talk of God and intelligent design disturbs Phillip Johnson. Yet his is not the discomfort of a creationism opponent. Instead, his unease stems from being the very father of the movement on trial in Dover.

In 1991, Johnson published Darwin on Trial, the book that served as catalyst for the intelligent-design movement. The volume was a rhetorically persuasive work of scientific criticism aimed at debunking what Johnson called “the scientific orthodoxy of today, which is that all living things evolved by a gradual, natural process — from nonliving matter to simple microorganisms, leading eventually to man.”

As one would imagine, Johnson was heavily critical of naturalistic evolution, a doctrine he prefers to call Darwinism. But he hardly wrote at all about God. “I am not a defender of creation-science,” he wrote, “and in fact I am not concerned in this book with addressing any conflicts between the Biblical accounts and the scientific evidence.” In fact, he pointedly disavowed creation-scientists in his book, calling them “biased by their precommitment to Biblical fundamentalism.”

Consequently, Johnson is not at all involved in the first big legal challenge to the doctrine he helped launch, despite his role as the movement’s popularizer and his status as its eminent legal theorist. In fact, he looks down his well-read nose at the spectacle in Dover. He insists that he would rather see the intelligent-design debate remain purely academic. “All of these local controversies are opened up by local people pursuing their own agendas,” he says. “They may have in their mind they are furthering the intelligent-design movement, but that isn’t necessarily the case and it isn’t at our urging that they’re doing it.”

Getting a read on Johnson’s true designs can be a challenge. While he insists he has no control over local skirmishes such as the Dover flap, in the past his fingerprints appeared on the movement’s most clear-cut effort to shape classroom curriculum. The question now is whether Johnson truly disagrees with the Dover school board’s goals, or if he merely believes there is a more effective way to make the case for creationism.

On the walls of Johnson’s Berkeley living room, framed political cartoons make light of his famous fight with evolution. One of the caricatures shows the stout, bespectacled law professor arguing with a massive gorilla. Johnson, who is 65, gets the best of the primate — not by strength, but through the power of rhetoric.

Usually, though, the joke is on Johnson. In debates about intelligent design, he tends to remain calm. But his opponents sometimes resort to condescending comments that suggest the old man believes the world is flat. “I play the straight man,” he chuckles. “I let them score the easy points, go for the laughs.”

On the larger scorecard, Johnson is still gaining ground. Intelligent design has had a good year. It found a place on national magazine covers, is routinely considered on editorial pages, and earned a nod in the movie War of the Worlds and a flat-out endorsement in the popular Matrix trilogy. Currently, eighteen bills in thirteen states are challenging the teachings of evolution. Intelligent-design clubs are popping up at universities (Stanford) and high schools (San Diego), and local school boards across the country are asking: Is evolution the only story for man’s existence?

Perhaps most notably, in a development seen as a major doctrinal shift away from evolution by the Catholic Church, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn recently wrote in The New York Times that “evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense — an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection — is not.” The archbishop used language so reminiscent of Johnson’s arguments that he could have been quoting from Darwin on Trial.

The rough outlines of intelligent design are far from new, and have been kicking around in philosophy classes for hundreds of years. According to William Dembski’s 1998 essay The Intelligent Design Movement, the most famous early argument came with the 1802 publication of William Paley’s Natural Theology. Paley posited that if you found a watch in a field, the device’s obvious suitability for telling time would be a clear sign that its design was the product of an intelligence, and not simply the output of undirected natural processes. Paley suggested that the same was true of life on Earth.

The theory was perhaps first presented as science in 1989, when Percival Davis and Dean H. Kenyon published Of Pandas and People, a biology textbook that offered an alternative to evolution. Although Davis and Kenyon pointedly used the term “intelligent design,” their book struck evolutionists as a creationist ploy to get inside classrooms.

But the event that really put intelligent design on the map was the 1991 publication of Johnson’s Darwin on Trial. “If it weren’t for him, the intelligent-design movement would not exist,” says Michael Behe, the microbiologist whose 1996 book Darwin’s Black Box attempted to give the doctrine a scientific underpinning. “We’d be separate, scattered skeptics at isolated institutions.”

Far from advancing a God-created-the-universe-in-six-days creationism, Johnson’s brand of intelligent design was a straight-up critique of evolution’s weaknesses. He attacked the theory by exploiting its missing links. He accepted evolution where he could see it: that is, where fossil evidence existed. But where evolutionary biologists couldn’t point to evidence connecting the dots from one species to another, Johnson found evolution’s intuitive leaps unconvincing.

For instance, where his book addressed the notion that amphibians evolved into reptiles, Johnson wrote, “No satisfactory candidates exist to document this transition.” And just because the human eyeball is similar to that of a squid, Johnson is unwilling to imagine an evolutionary link between the species, absent other evidence of common genetic inheritance. “The point here is not that Darwin is altogether wrong,” he says, “but that it seems to be true only within a very narrow range rather than in the great creative story which is told about.”

Some readers of Johnson’s book allege that he played very fast and loose with his facts. In an online critique at TalkReason.org titled “The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth? Why Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial and the ‘intelligent design’ movement are neither science — nor Christian,” writer Brian Spitzer called the book “perhaps the ugliest and most deceptive book I have ever seen.” Spitzer maintained that Johnson misrepresented the work of eminent evolutionists in dozens of separate instances. On the other hand, physicist and atheist Steven Weinberg described Johnson as “the most respectable academic critic of evolution” in his 1992 book Dreams of a Final Theory.

What Johnson admittedly admires about Darwin’s theory is its persuasiveness. After all, the fossil record is rife with gaps and missing links, yet somehow Darwin managed to use these shortcomings to prove his point. “What he claims and what he delivers upon are two different things,” Johnson says. “What Darwinism is, is a wild extrapolation from limited data. … The claim Darwin made was that we have design but no designer. We know you don’t need a designer to do the designing because natural selection can do the job working on random variations.”

If Johnson is going to make a leap of faith, he’d prefer it to be a religious one. “I am a philosophical theist and a Christian,” he wrote in Darwin on Trial. “I believe that a God exists who could create out of nothing if He wanted to do so, but who might have chosen to work through a natural evolutionary process instead.”

Darwin on Trial is not just an attack on evolution, but on the very modern principles of science. Johnson believes Galileo and his descendants worked to solve the questions of our existence based on science, not faith, but that for several centuries since then, men of reason — astronomers, mathematicians, philosophers — have conspired to purge God from the handiwork of the universe. By the time Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859, the fatal blow had been cast.

“The very persons who insist upon keeping religion and science separate are eager to use their science as a basis for pronouncements about religion,” he wrote. “The literature of Darwinism is full of antitheistic conclusions, such as that the universe was not designed and has no purpose, and that we humans are the product of blind natural processes that care nothing about us.”

Johnson suggests that evolution has become a faith-based movement in its own right. He maintains that biologists have become so invested in the Darwinian worldview that they have ceased looking for contradictory evidence. “As the creation myth of scientific naturalism, Darwinism plays an indispensable ideological role in the war against fundamentalism,” he wrote. “For that reason, scientific organizations are devoted to protecting Darwinism rather than testing it, and the rules of scientific investigation have been shaped to help them succeed.”

Johnson regards scientists as today’s reigning priesthood — a monklike discipline that controls our culture’s story of creation and protects its orthodoxy as ruling paradigms have done for centuries. “They are jealous of their power,” he says. “They will do anything to protect it. If that means labeling someone like me as a Bible-thumper, then that’s what they’ll do. They’ll say, ‘You don’t agree with evolution, therefore you believe in the Bible’s account! You read Genesis literally!’ Of course, that’s the stereotype they want to preserve.”

Evolutionary biologist William Provine is one member of the “priesthood” who has publicly debated Johnson. Provine has his Cornell University students read Darwin on Trial and has invited Johnson in for quizzing. After class the two men have shared cocktails. Provine considers Johnson “a very worthy opponent.”

But Provine lambastes Johnson’s notion that the universe has been put together with outside help. “Phil has never persuaded me to change one of my views on evolution, ever,” says Provine, a no-doubt-about-it atheist. “I do admire his clear-cut focus on assumptions — Phil is one smart cookie, and his mental apparatus in his head — whoa, man — he’s got some great mental power. … But intelligent design is complete and utter bullshit. … By the end of the semester, I believe he’s made more evolutionists than I have.”

In spite of their disagreements, Johnson’s academic pedigree gives him a lot in common with the men of reason he challenges. He grew up in a mostly secular household in Aurora, Illinois, and attended Sunday school with little enthusiasm. He entered Harvard after his junior year in high school and left with a degree in English literature. After attending law school at the University of Chicago, where he graduated first in his class, he headed off to Washington, DC, to clerk for Earl Warren, chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Johnson’s time with Warren, a former governor of California and graduate of UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, gave him a close-up view of a legendary contrarian at work. “A remarkable person with great qualities,” he says, noting drily that Warren also was an ahead-of-the-curve thinker — albeit on racial equality and the rights of criminals. “Most of his positions came to be consensus viewpoint down the road.”

But interestingly enough, some of Warren’s most famous consensuses were forged in opposition to the nation’s religious establishment. The court that he presided over issued two rulings that helped banish God from public school classrooms. Engel v. Vitale (1962) forbade a New York school board from requiring students to recite a “nondenominational” prayer in schools, and Epperson v. Arkansas (1968) ruled that it was unconstitutional for the state to forbid schools and universities from teaching “that mankind ascended or descended from a lower order of animals.” These cases, and others like them, form the legal backdrop for the struggle Johnson wages today.

After his Supreme Court clerkship ended, Johnson had the choice of teaching at Yale or Boalt; he chose Warren’s alma mater because he liked its relaxed academic culture. Johnson arrived in Berkeley in 1967. He was as agitated by the Vietnam War as many of his peers, and recalls participating in one peaceful march. But as the protests became aggressive, he became unsympathetic. When the movement turned to lawlessness, Boalt’s resident criminal law expert drew the line.

“The constant atmosphere of protest, and strident claims and denunciations, grew tiresome after a while,” Johnson recalls. “Part of what bothered me about the left … was quite consistent with what bothered me later about Darwinism. It’s the dogmatism, the insistence that everybody believe as they did.”

Johnson published some of the country’s leading textbooks on criminal law and torts, and became renowned for his rhetorical skills. His reputation as a fierce debater was held in high regard. “If you disagreed with Phil Johnson in criminal law, look out,” recalls friend and Boalt professor Jim Gordley. “He had a way of bludgeoning his opponents without embarrassing them — too much.”

But as Johnson’s work at Boalt began to earn him an international reputation, he underwent personal turmoil at home. His first wife, an artist, moved to the left, and was persuaded by what he refers to as “the ideas that were going around in the ’70s.” After she left, Johnson felt a loss of faith in his materialistic ideals. “I felt somewhat unsatisfied,” he recalls. “I felt the ideas and philosophies I was professing were missing something, were inadequate. I became skeptical of the utilitarian and rationalist philosophy that I had picked up on the way through college and law school and the academic career, and I became skeptical of the rationalist orthodoxy of the high university environment.”

In search of a new faith, Johnson turned to Christianity. He attended the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, where he later met his second wife, Kathie; today he has been a member for twenty years. Through gradual study and research, he recalls, he attempted to test whether faith in Christianity was real or imagined. As he told the Christian magazine Touchstone in 2002, he wanted to see whether “I would be throwing my brains out the window and adopting a myth because it suited my personal needs.”

Johnson figured evolution was a good place to begin. In 1987, while on sabbatical with Kathie in London, he read Richard Dawkins’ book-length defense of the theory, The Blind Watchmaker, along with Michael Denton’s Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. The latter book, particularly, nudged Johnson’s thought process in a new direction. Johnson dug further into Darwin’s work. He eventually concluded that the naturalist’s greatest accomplishment had been to deliver what the rationalists most wanted: a world without God.

“When I studied the matter, it seemed to me all a matter of assumptions and wishful thinking,” Johnson says. “And the desire was to be able to explain life without recourse to a Creator or any sort of outside force. The only test Darwin had to pass is that it is more plausible than any other explanation. The Creator is disqualified from the outset because the Creator would be something outside of science, and unobserved.”

This was the eureka moment for Johnson and his wife. “I was hesitant at first of his ideas,” Kathie says. “But then I went down to a London bookstore one day and picked up Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Science.” She recalls that the book devoted more pages to bashing creationism than it did to proving evolution. The overkill read like an agenda to squash dissent rather than advance evolution as a theory. “I knew then he was on to something,” she now recalls.

As Johnson sat down to pen his own assault on evolution, his colleague Gordley was surprised by his friend’s new interest. “I think if you would have told him, ‘Phil, you’re going to write about evolution’ two years earlier, he wouldn’t have believed you. … He’d mastered criminal law. He’d mastered torts. At his age, you’re supposed to settle in and say, ‘Yes, I’m the established scholar of this area,’ and relax a little. The last thing you do is launch yourself into a field of this magnitude.”

Yet Johnson found his skills as a lawyer applicable to his new-found passion of prosecuting the case against Darwinism. “Perhaps what I understand best is how people reason, how people argue and how they reach their conclusions,” he says. “This is where I find the Darwinian people so disappointing. … It is often believed in intellectual circles, especially in the Darwinist circle, the people I’m debating, that the world is divided into two people: the people who have faith and the people who just reason. But this is a completely false idea about the world. Everybody reasons and everybody has faith.”

Gordley says Johnson knew he was spoiling for a fight: “Once he got into it, he knew they’d try to discredit him. He knew they’d say, ‘But you’re a Christian.'”

Still, Johnson refused to exempt himself from the debate simply because of his own religious beliefs. “One of the ironies of the whole controversy is that it’s a stock in trade for the Darwinists to say, ‘The critics are religiously motivated and they believe in God and they’re throwing their religion at us and they shouldn’t be doing that, and they should keep that out of science,'” he says. “But being religious or antireligious is the same thing: It’s a position about religion and God, and it goes beyond the evidence and into very confident assertions that are based more on personal convictions than they are scientific testing.”

Johnson believes his opponents take great joy in cramming those convictions down the throats of the believers.

One of Johnson’s most prominent opponents works out of a small Oakland office lined with skulls marking the stages of man’s evolution. Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, works daily to keep evolution as the reigning public school curriculum about life’s origin. Branch and his crew of ten part-time staffers read through textbooks, lobby against proposed legislation, and track down talking heads for newscasts. But still they have a hard time convincing Americans they’re right.

More Americans have come around to accepting evolution in the eighty years since the Scopes trial, but yet not even a majority embraces the doctrine today. In a November 2004 Gallup poll, 1,200 random participants were asked, “Do you think that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is a scientific theory that has been well supported by evidence?” Some 35 percent said evolution was well supported, but another 35 percent said it was not. The remainder said they didn’t know enough to offer an opinion.

Creation-friendly school districts remained loath to teach evolution long after the Scopes trial, Branch says. The foot-dragging continued until 1957, when space travel forced their hand. Sputnik was launched that year, and as the US government scrambled to match Soviet advances in the sciences, new rounds of federal funding were pumped into high school programs. The national Biological Sciences Curriculum Study was released, which advocated evolution. The creationists fought back with a version of their own curriculum, which they called “creation-science.”

For decades, the two sides battled at local school board elections, sometimes appealing their cases into federal courts. But the Supreme Court’s 1987 ruling in Edwards v. Aguillard ended the dispute, striking down a Louisiana law that would have allowed equal treatment of evolution and creation-science, banishing all Biblical accounts from the classroom, but leaving the door open to “alternative scientific theories.” The ruling cemented Darwin’s place in the public schools.

Since then, Branch believes, creationists have attempted to disguise their efforts to get around Edwards v. Aguillard. “Creationism watchers know well that ‘intelligent design’ has primarily been a legal strategy from the very beginning,” a statement on his center’s Web site says. “It emerged shortly after the catastrophic defeats of ‘scientific creationism’ in the courts during the 1980s.”

Branch elaborates on this suspicion: “Intelligent design is a weakened and airbrushed version of creationism. Anti- evolutionists appear in cycles. Right now, intelligent design is their big-tent strategy, a chance to round up all [creationists] by presenting this as a ‘new idea.’ But it’s nothing new. It’s meant to pass constitutional scrutiny.”

Two years after the court barred creation-science from the classroom, the biology textbook Of Pandas and People embraced the term “intelligent design” in an effort to comply with the court’s alternative theory clause. The book was blasted as a weak attempt by creationists to infiltrate the schools.

Branch coyly refers to intelligent design as “hardly scientifically ready” for the classroom, but he’s actually much less charitable than that. He points out that the movement has not published a single peer-reviewed article in a scientifically regarded journal, compared to the tens of thousands on evolution’s side. In fact, in a recent demonstration outside a Kansas school board flirting with the concept of intelligent design, evolutionist supporters showed up pushing wheelbarrows loaded with papers to symbolize their published advantage.

To opponents such as Branch, intelligent design is nothing more than the latest attempt to wedge God back into public school classrooms. “Phillip is a smart guy,” Branch says. “He’s got a twinkle in his eye and he writes pretty well. … He’s also a fundamentalist creationist.”

<Fundamentalist or not, Darwin on Trial recharged Johnson’s intellectual machine. His new life’s passion was denouncing evolution and organizing like minds to do the same. An impressive paper trail of subsequent articles and interviews helped to flesh out his ideas. He followed Darwin on Trial with other books, Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds and The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism. To serve as an organizational locus for like-minded academics, he helped found the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture at the Christian think tank the Discovery Institute.

He also actively advanced another controversial theory at odds with the scientific establishment, challenging the widely accepted notion that HIV causes AIDS. Johnson belongs to a group that argues that although HIV and AIDS usually occur in conjunction with one another, the existence of AIDS sufferers who don’t test positive for HIV suggests that the virus may accompany the disease, but does not cause it.

Johnson retired from Boalt Hall in 2000, and until a few months ago, he traveled the nation frequently, lecturing and debating biologists as his movement’s chief spokesman. He has survived two strokes — the last one earlier this year — yet he still processes information quickly, a lecturer whose answers can last up to five minutes. He gets out for daily walks in his North Berkeley neighborhood near Gilman Street, and visits the gym a few times a week to loosen up his stubborn left shoulder and arm. But since his second stroke he has been reduced to the role of long-distance adviser, organizing via e-mail and phone calls from his home office.

Still, it isn’t just his health that keeps Johnson far from the pending trial in Dover. He characterizes Dover’s effort to require discussion of intelligent design in classrooms to an error in judgment. As a professor for 38 years, he opposes required curriculums because he believes in academic freedom for teachers. Even so, he would prefer that instructors treat evolution as theory rather than fact.

Johnson also fears that a loss in federal court could open the door to a broader court ruling that bars the teaching of intelligent design in public school classrooms, effectively leaving Darwinism as the uncontested orthodoxy of our time.

But in spite of his reservations, Johnson’s ideas keep inspiring his followers to take action. “When Phil Johnson wrote his book, he wasn’t writing to the university crowd,” argues Richard Thompson, attorney for the Dover Area School Board. “It was written for the community at large to read and understand. There might be strategic and tactical reasons why they don’t want the battle to go forward, but once they let the genie out of the bottle, people were going to take it to heart and try and develop a curriculum around their ideas.

“People read books,” he adds. “And ideas are the consequences.”

Perhaps Johnson’s biggest concern about Dover is that he believes too much emphasis on religion is tactically unwise for his movement. Johnson has spoken and written of the importance of presenting intelligent design in language that can be safely spoken in the academic world.

“What I’m not doing is bringing the Bible into the university and saying, ‘We should believe this,'” Johnson said in a talk transcribed on the Web site of Coral Ridge Ministries. “Now, bringing the Bible into question works very well when you’re talking to a Bible-believing audience. But it’s disastrous when you’re talking, as I am constantly, to a world of people for whom the fact that something is in the Bible is a reason for not believing it. If they thought they had good evidence for something, and then they saw it in the Bible, they’d begin to doubt. … That’s what’s got to be kept out of the argument if you’re going to do what I want to do, which is focus on the defects in their case — the bad logic, the bad science, the bad reasoning, the bad evidence. In fact, it’s my debating opponents in the university world who want to talk about the Bible.”

What troubles debating opponents such as Provine most about Johnson, is that they view him as intellectually dishonest when he says intelligent design is not creationism. Such discussions inevitably lead to someone pressing Johnson about what his designer might look like, or what kind of plan the designers had intended. Answering such questions at length usually leads Johnson down a road his critics view as evasive, but he contends is intellectually consistent. If you can’t prove scientifically that a designer does not exist, why is he forced to prove scientifically that one does?

“When you ask a Darwinist, ‘What evidence do you have for your mechanism that random variation and natural selection can actually do any creating?’ the Darwinist will say, ‘Well, tell me what God looks like,'” Johnson says. “‘Why did he do this or that? I want you to show me God doing the creating because if you can’t show me that, we can get rid of God or the creator and what’s left is Darwinism, so it’s got to be true.’ It’s the variation of, ‘This is the only thing that could have happened, so it doesn’t have to be demonstrated, it can just be assumed to be true.’ And anyone who doubts that it could be true has to provide ironclad proof and justification for an alternative.”

Johnson has a name for his strategy of cleaving talk of evolution’s scientific merits from any discussion about God. He calls it “the wedge,” and despite its emphasis upon questioning the materialistic basis of science, he said in the Coral Ridge Ministries talk that it is “inherently an ecumenical movement.” The wedge strategy’s greatest success to date came with the 2001 passage of the school-funding bill that eventually became No Child Left Behind. Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania tacked on an amendment that stated the following, according to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia:

“It is the sense of the Senate that (1) good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science; and (2) where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject.”

A bill containing the amendment originally passed by a vote of 91-8, but ultimately was left off the final version of the act.

Johnson wrote the amendment, which is strikingly similar in several respects to the Dover school board’s message to ninth graders. Might the intelligent-design movement’s factions agree about more than meets the eye? Comments Johnson has made elsewhere seem to suggest so.

“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,” Johnson was quoted in the National Post, a Canadian newspaper. As he said in the Coral Ridge Ministries address, “You have to start someplace, and you have to prepare minds to hear the truth. You can’t give it to them all at once.”

His critics consider such comments as proof that intelligent design is really just politically savvy creationism. For instance, Wikipedia’s entry on Johnson states: “Since Johnson is considered by those both inside and outside the movement to be the father and architect of the intelligent-design movement and its strategies, Johnson’s statements validate the criticisms leveled by those who allege that the Discovery Institute and its allied organizations are merely stripping the obvious religious content from their anti-evolution assertions as a means of avoiding the legal restrictions of the [US Constitution.]”

As further evidence of the movement’s real intent, critics often point to a six-page paper called “The Wedge Strategy” that was evidently leaked to intelligent-design critics. The document, which apparently originated within the Discovery Institute but not with Johnson, explicitly states that the institute’s goal is to promote intelligent design and insert it as the “dominant perspective in science” within twenty years. It further stated that the movement’s goal is to “replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”

Johnson himself points to other reasons for keeping religion in the background. Religious-based discussions of evolution inevitably end up focused on the Old Testament account of the Earth’s creation, he believes, and that tends to divide religious people rather than unite them. “The Jewish people don’t see it as their issue. “They say, ‘Well, we don’t read the Torah quite that way,'” he said in the Coral Ridge talk. “The Catholic people say, ‘Well, that’s a Protestant issue. We’re not worried about the details of Genesis. We’re worried about the teaching authority of the Church.’ The Eastern Orthodox people say something similar. The Protestants are divided between liberals and conservatives, and the conservatives are divided between Old Earthers and Young Earthers. In short, it’s a very divided situation. So when the people of God are divided, the way is open for agnostics to say, ‘We should put all of this aside and say that we don’t deal with any of those God questions. We explain the world without regard to God. ‘”

But in spite of his stated desire for the movement to remain appealing to people of many faiths, Johnson remains certain that intelligent design will ultimately draw people to Jesus. “The objective is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the nonexistence of God,” he wrote in a 1999 article. “From there, people are introduced to ‘the truth’ of the Bible and then ‘the question of sin’ and finally ‘introduced to Jesus. ‘”

Perhaps Johnson’s nonreligious critics have trouble taking him at his word because they don’t understand the extent to which he believes that open intellectual inquiry will ultimately lead people to Christianity. Johnson believes this fundamentally: “We don’t have to fear freedom of thought, because good thinking done in the right way will eventually lead back to the church, to the truth — the truth that sets people free, even if it goes through a couple of detours on the way,” he said in the Coral Ridge talk. “And so we’re the ones that stand for good science, objective reasoning, assumptions on the table, a high level of education, and freedom of conscience to think as we are capable of thinking. That’s what America stands for, and that’s something we stand for, and that’s something the Christian Church and the Christian Gospel stand for — the truth that makes you free. Let’s recapture that, while we’re recapturing America.”

And recapturing America they appear to be, at least if Archbishop Schönborn’s recent words about the relationship of Catholicism to evolution spoke for the new pope. “This was helpful to us,” Johnson says. “But the drawback is that any article penned by a bishop will be viewed as another salvo in the religion vs. science debate. And that’s not what we want. We want ‘Is evolution good science?’ debate.”

Johnson knows it will take time to reframe the debate in those terms. The arc of man’s understanding of the universe’s creation is long, and in an era in which breakthroughs seem to arrive almost every day, it’s moving faster than ever. Today, we rely on evolution. Maybe in the 25th century, it will be intelligent design.

“If that’s the case, then it will be time for somebody like me to come along and attack it as a hidebound, dogmatic thing,” Johnson says, “And that’s alright, too.”


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