When I was in college, a professor told a story about a boy from a backwoods family who was being interviewed by a visiting anthropologist. Asked about his siblings, the boy proudly declared that his brother was at Harvard. The astonished anthropologist asked what the brother was studying. "It's not that way," replied the boy. "They're studying him."
Likewise, the academic world regards Christian theism as an object for study rather than as a participant in academic discourse, as Notre Dame history professor George Marsden has shown (see his new book The Soul of the American University, Oxford). The standards of academia discourage a professor who is teaching, say, the history of Christianity from taking the position that Christianity may be true. Such restrictions do not apply to advocates of other viewpoints. Socialists teach socialism, and feminists teach women's studies. As Marsden wrote in the "Wall Street Journal" (Dec. 22, 1993), "Many contemporary academics insist that the only respectable place for religion in the academy is on the syllabus-as an object of study-where it may be subordinated to Western scientific methods of analysis."
Sometimes this double standard requires that a thinker or group be split into two parts, to separate the politically correct from the incorrect. In Marsden's words: "One conspicuous example is that, although universities welcome African-Americans and build programs in African-American studies, they find little place for positive evaluations of the dominant religion of African-American culture." One might paraphrase this point by saying that the secular content of the Reverend Martin Luther King's views on racial justice has a very different status from the religious background of those same views. The former goes to the university as an honored participant; the latter only as an object of scientific study. Why is that?
One reason is that secularists employ a definition of rationality that allows no place for a supernatural Creator. An ongoing academic freedom case at San Francisco State University provides a striking example of the disapproval with which the scientific community regards the concept of a God who threatens to become a reality we cannot ignore. Biology professor Dean Kenyon was the co-author some 20 years ago of a respected book titled Biochemical Predestination that supported the orthodox scientific theory that living organisms evolved from nonliving chemicals through natural chemical processes. As the years went by, Kenyon's doubts grew, however, and eventually he concluded that the evidence did not support the assumption that unintelligent material processes are capable of forming living organisms by chemical evolution.
As instructor of a large introductory course for nonmajors, Kenyon taught the prevailing theories of chemical and biological evolution, but he also taught the weaknesses of those theories and suggested to his classes that life might in fact be the product of "intelligent design"-however distasteful that prospect might be to orthodox scientific materialists. A few students complained, and the professor was called on the carpet. The dean of science told him that his teaching of intelligent design amounted to biblical creationism, and that to consider this possibility favorably was to bring the forbidden topic of religion into science. To ensure that he had no further opportunity to advocate such absurdities, Kenyon was removed from his regular classroom duties and relegated to laboratory supervision.
Professor Kenyon challenged this administrative action by bringing a complaint before San Francisco State University's Academic Freedom Committee. The committee ruled that professors of biology, like those who teach other subjects, have a right to dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy in their field. It therefore unanimously urged the administrators to reinstate Kenyon in the classroom. The dean and the department chair balked at first, but they gave way after the full academic senate voted to support the committee's recommendation.
Kenyon won a victory, but the conflict is not over. In late February, the Biology faculty at San Francisco State adopted, by a vote of 27 to 5, a resolution declaring that "There is no scientific evidence to support the concept of intelligent design," and that therefore "the intelligent design view is not scientific." In context, the statement, like many others on the subject from the scientific community, combines two discordant propositions. On the one hand, the scientific authorities want to say that intelligent design is not eligible for consideration because it is religion, not science, and hence cannot be tested. On the other hand, they want to say that they have thoroughly tested the concept and rejected it as false. The apparent purpose of this confused declaration is to set the stage for another effort to prevent Kenyon from suggesting to students that there really is evidence for intelligent design, but what will happen next is anybody's guess.
The Kenyon case thus constitutes only a limited victory for those who believe that genuine academic freedom requires a hearing for theistic thinking about problems such as the origin of life; but even this limited victory reflects the fact that a debate about the dogmas of naturalistic evolution has been successfully launched in the universities. In that debate, considerable attention has been paid to my own book Darwin on Trial (InterVarsity), and to the lectures on Darwinism that I have given on many university campuses, some of which have been widely distributed on videotape. Other Christian thinkers have also made substantial contributions to the debate. For example, Whitworth College philosophy professor Steven Meyer published a fine essay on the Kenyon case in the Wall Street Journal just before San Francisco State's academic senate voted on the matter. Kenyon's colleagues thus knew that he was not an isolated individual, but a person asserting a position that has support in the society at large.
The example of naturalistic evolution tells us why theistic thinking has so little standing in the academic world. The contemporary academic world takes for granted a philosophy called scientific naturalism. According to this philosophy, nature is "all there is," which is to say the cosmos is a closed system of material causes and effects that can never be influenced by anything outside of nature-like God-for existence.
"God," in this system of thought, is a product of the human imagination and largely a remnant of prescientific ignorance. At one time, humans believed in a host of gods living in places like Mount Olympus and attributed natural events like storms and fires to the whims of these beings. As knowledge advanced, humans gradually put aside the lesser spirits but retained the one Supreme Being as the cause of our existence.
At last, the greatest scientific discovery of all was made, and humans learned that we are the products of a combination of chance events and impersonal natural laws. This discovery set the stage for the famous "death of God," the insight that man created God rather than the other way around. The most advanced and influential thinkers thereafter ignored the Creator altogether, or they looked for a way to conform religion to naturalism through liberal theology. Others retained some remnant of supernatural religion by imagining the Creator as responsible for establishing the laws of nature at the ultimate beginning of the cosmos, where scientific investigation is unable to penetrate.
Naturalistic philosophy is not necessarily hostile to the "idea of God." On the contrary, that is just the point. For philosophical naturalists, God is not an independent reality but an idea in the human mind. Proper naturalists do not insist upon the nonexistence of God because that is to take the issue more seriously than it deserves. Instead, they consign the whole subject to the category of "religious belief," which is understood to be a product of the human imagination. Although God does not exist, or at least does not take part in historical events, beliefs about God do exist and have important consequences. Such religious belief contrasts with scientific knowledge. The difference is that beliefs are untestable and hence valid only for the person who holds them, whereas knowledge is objective and hence valid for everyone. That is why, in an educational system based on naturalistic principles, naturalistic evolution may be taught to students as fact regardless of whether they or their parents object. No statements assuming the objective existence of God may be made, however, because no student should have to listen to subjective beliefs being presented as if they were facts.
Naturalistic philosophy has ethical consequences, and these are also manifest in public education and law. At one time it was thought possible to find a basis for morality and justice in science itself, but with the fall of Marxism, that hope has been discredited. The current fashion in academia is a genteel nihilism. Because scientific knowledge extends only to questions of fact and not to questions of value, matters of morality are inherently subjective and relative. In consequence, students in public schools are taught that they must choose standards of morality themselves and should subject all morality that comes to them by tradition or training in the home to critical analysis.
The predominance of naturalistic assumptions in the universities and colleges guarantees that theistic thinking will be taken more as a personal eccentricity than as a serious contribution to knowledge. What is the value of a theism that is founded upon unreality? As naturalists see it, when God died, humankind lost nothing important because we still retained the goodness and rationality that we had projected onto this imaginary father figure in the first place. To bring God back into the picture now is, at worst, to embrace irrationality or, at best, to add some superfluous God-talk to ideas that are justifiable on naturalistic grounds. The most favorable thing you can say about a Christian theist in academia is that his work is so good you would never have guessed he was a Christian.
Many Christian college and seminary professors have understandably wanted to win the respect of their peers in the secular academic world, and so they have worked mightily to reconcile the naturalistic understanding of knowledge with Christian faith. Intelligent naturalists do not necessarily disapprove of this effort, provided it is clear who is in charge. What they do insist upon is that subjective religious belief must always conform itself to objective scientific knowledge, never the other way around. Thus, if a Christian college professor teaches "evolution" exactly as Carl Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould would teach it, he may append a theistic interpretation that characterizes the process as God's way of creating. This interpretation will earn him no great credit from naturalists, but they will be tolerant so long as it is clear that the theism in "theistic evolution" refers to a personal reflection upon a process that is objectively explainable on a naturalistic basis. If a professor were to give his theism some scientific content-for example, by suggesting that pre-existing intelligence may be required to make living organisms from nonliving chemicals-he would forfeit instantly his standing in the scientific community and the secular academic world. Like Dean Kenyon, he would be accused of injecting subjective "religion" into the objective realm of science.
Biblical creationists who challenge the theory of evolution on a combination of scriptural and scientific grounds have fared no better. Their premise, that the Bible has some standing as a record of natural history, seems nonsensical to those who see the world through naturalistic spectacles. To metaphysical naturalists, the Bible belongs to the realm of religion, whereas the history of life on earth belongs to the naturalistic realm of science. There is no reason whatever to expect the two to be consistent, because the biblical account of natural history is deemed to be composed of prescientific legends. The program of squaring science with the Bible is thus about as sensible as trying to square the scientific account of childbirth with the story that the stork brings babies. For naturalists, the proper way of reconciling science and Scripture is to adopt a naturalistic interpretation of Scripture. This is accomplished through what is called the "higher criticism" of the Bible, and it is the orthodox theory of interpretation in most mainline seminaries today.
WHAT WORKS, WHAT DOESN'T
If neither theistic evolution nor biblical creationism is effective in challenging the domination of scientific naturalism in our colleges and universities, what approach does have a chance of success? When I began writing my book Darwin on Trial, several basic points were clear to me:
First, the Darwinian theory of evolution is not merely or primarily a scientific theory of interest to professional scientists in their laboratories and classrooms. It is, first and foremost, a creation story for the culture, a story that is endorsed by government and propagated through the media and the public schools. The story tells us that we were created by blind and purposeless material processes rather than by a purposeful Creator who cares about what we do and what happens to us. The theory entails a naturalistic view of God, whether or not that implication is made explicit in a particular textbook or television program.
Second, what is fundamentally important about the Darwinian theory is not the claim that biological creation was a gradual, long-term process. The important claim is that purposeless material processes, such as random mutation and natural selection, were capable of doing all the work of biological creation so that there is no need for a Creator. This claim-which I call the Blind Watchmaker thesis-masquerades as something that has been proved by scientific evidence. On the contrary, the evidence that the mutation/selection mechanism can create new complex organs or new types of organisms is somewhere between very weak and nonexistent. The Blind Watchmaker mechanism is a child of metaphysical naturalism, not of empirical science. It survives because the leading alternative is supernatural creation, which is unacceptable to the rules of today's science.
Third, the all-important task was to mount a critique of the Blind Watchmaker thesis that the academic and scientific culture could not easily ignore. To do this, it was necessary to put aside all questions of biblical interpretation or veracity and to concentrate entirely on the claims of Darwinism. In the academic world, a Bible/science debate is a nonstarter, because it invokes a stereotype that shuts off thought. What was needed was to press questions that are legitimated within the context of mainstream academic thinking, questions about what has been proved about evolution and what has merely been assumed.
Finally, conditions were, in many respects, more favorable for a re-examination of Darwinism in the 1990s than previously. During the 1980s, widespread publicity had been given to the writings of certain prominent fossil experts, who had insisted that the fossil record was incompatible with the Darwinian picture that major evolutionary changes occur in gradual increments by the accumulation of tiny random mutations through natural selection. The Darwinists had proposed a subtheory to solve the problem, called punctuated equilibria or "punk eek," but this improvisation was vulnerable to criticism. The very need for a new theory to deal with the fossil record indicated that the problem was conceded to be serious.
RETHINKING THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE
At a more general level, philosophies of science were being discussed at the university level that called into question whether the scientific enterprise is as objective as had been claimed. Some authorities at leading universities called themselves "social constructivists" and preached that scientific theories, including Darwinism, reflect the political and social conditions of their times. It had become common to talk of paradigms, and paradigm shifts, and potential revolutions in scientific thought. That modern science could be captured by some philosophical notion, and used for political or religious purposes, was no longer unthinkable. Indeed, the pseudosciences called Marxism and Freudianism have lost their scientific standing in recent years, and Darwin, Marx, and Freud are often grouped as the thinkers who most profoundly influenced the twentieth century. As a result of these developments, critics of Darwinism had an unprecedented opportunity to make their points in language that the academic world was used to hearing.
The argument of Darwin on Trial was shaped by these considerations and expressed in language judged most likely to be intelligible to a contemporary academic audience. At the same time, the argument was uncompromising on the main issue, which is the validity of naturalism as a starting point for modern thought, scientific or otherwise. I insisted upon asking whether naturalism is true, even though the immediate response from critics was that to ask such a question showed I did not "understand how science works." My objective was not to please the naturalists, or to compromise with them, but to bring out into the open the essential assumptions they were hiding, and thus to make those assumptions vulnerable to criticism.
By now it is clear that this strategy has met with considerable success. My book is selling well and is being used in college courses at a number of institutions. I have spoken at dozens of universities and colleges, in many cases with the full approval of academic authorities at official events and even in courses dealing with evolutionary biology. Many leading figures in science and philosophy have reviewed the book and thus have been drawn further into the discussion of fundamental assumptions. As the discussion continues, evolutionary biology professors will find it increasingly difficult to get away with a dogmatic approach to the controversy.
One example will indicate the problems that are ahead for Darwinists as the debate continues and expands. Michael Ruse, a leading academic defender of Darwinism, gave a talk about me at the 1993 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The talk was supposed to be an attack, but Ruse actually conceded the main point at issue between us. Darwinism is founded upon a naturalistic picture of reality, he conceded, and this assumption needs to be defended honestly rather than concealed. That concession will be fatal if the evolutionary scientists agree to make it, because the Darwinian version of evolution has hitherto been presented to the public as value-free fact. Biologists have authority to tell us facts that they know from the study of biology, but they have no intellectual or moral authority to order us to adopt a particular philosophy that they happen to prefer. Once the crucial influence of philosophy is admitted, nonbiologists and even ordinary people must be allowed to decide whether to believe what the biologists are saying.
Ironically, while my critique of Darwinism and scientific naturalism has gained a hearing in secular academic debates, it has met with surprising resistance from theistic evolutionists in the Christian academic world. That many Christian college and seminary professors are ardent defenders of Darwinism may seem astonishing, but it is true. There are many reasons for this, including the powerful indoctrination aspiring professors receive in graduate schools. Perhaps the most important factor is that the reigning assumption among Christian intellectuals in recent years has been that, given the futility of fighting a war with science, the best hope for saving Christianity in modern culture is to show that Christian theism can coexist with scientific knowledge, including the theory of evolution. This assumption gave theistic evolutionists an enormous stake in believing that what the rulers of science tell us about evolution is true (and hence unbeatable), and that it is religiously neutral (and hence acceptable).
Neither of those beliefs is correct. What theistic evolutionists have failed above all to comprehend is that the conflict is not over "facts" but over ways of thinking. The problem is not just with any specific doctrine of Darwinian science, but with the naturalistic rules of thought that Darwinian scientists employ to derive those doctrines. If scientists had actually observed natural selection creating new organs, or had seen a step-by-step process of fundamental change consistently recorded in the fossil record, such observations could readily be interpreted as evidence of God's use of secondary causes to create. But Darwinian scientists have not observed anything like that. What they have done is to assume as a matter of first principle that purposeless material processes can do all the work of biological creation because, according to their philosophy, nothing else was available. They have defined their task as finding the most plausible-or least implausible-description of how biological creation could occur in the absence of a creator. The specific answers they derive may or may not be reconcilable with theism, but the manner of thinking is profoundly atheistic. To accept the answers as indubitably true is inevitably to accept the thinking that generated those answers. That is why I think the appropriate term for the accommodationist position is not "theistic evolution," but rather theistic naturalism. Under either name, it is a disastrous error.
SPEAKING SO SECULARISTS LISTEN
How are we to speak so that secularists will listen? First, we have to understand how secularists-in this context, that means those who subscribe to scientific naturalism-think, and what particular words mean in their system of thinking. A message, however eloquent it may sound to us, is a mere noisy gong or clanging cymbal to those who have a different frame of reference. I believe that wise old missionaries have always given that kind of advice to newcomers in the field. Jesus as the Good Shepherd makes no sense to tribes that have never heard of sheep. Likewise, framing an argument in "religious" terms guarantees its rejection by people who have been brought up to think that religion means about the same thing as fantasy. We need to stop talking about the separate realms of religion and science and start talking about truth.
When we understand how secularists think, the next step is to understand what the primary issue is so we can focus on that and leave secondary issues for later. Deciding what is primary and what is secondary is often difficult, but in the case of evolution, it was easy for me. The primary point is not how long it took God to create, or whether he created things abruptly or gradually, or whether the first chapters of Genesis are to be interpreted literally or figuratively. These are all important issues in their way, but they are secondary. The primary issue is whether God created us at all. The naturalists say that our creator was not an all-knowing and loving God, but a combination of chance events and impersonal natural laws. What is more, they claim that evolutionary science has proved this to be the case.
If the naturalists were right, then Christian theists would deserve their marginalized status in the academic world. But the naturalists are not right. They are very, very wrong. And if we learn to think clearly, we can show it.
Phillip Johnson is professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Darwin on Trial (InterVarsity). This article is based on a presentation made at a symposium sponsored by Charles Colson and the Wilberforce Forum, which is a ministry of Prison Fellowship.
Copyright © 1994 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more