Phillip Johnson has been a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, for 26 years. He received his B.A. from Harvard and his J.D. from the University of Chicago. Johnson is the author of Darwin on Trial, a work which contends theories of evolution are based on philosophical naturalism. Since the writing of his book, Johnson has spoken and debated extensively with experts on the issue.
On February 27, 1994, The Los Angeles Times published an editorial defending orthodox science against a host of enemies. First on the enemies' list came the infamous creationists, of course, who engage in what the Times called "pernicious efforts...to infiltrate the public schools with the arrant nonsense of 'creation science.'"
The L.A. Times warned that science also faces new enemies on the left, however. These include Afro-centrists who promote theories of black racial superiority and Native Americans who question the "well-established anthropological fact" that their ancestors migrated to America from Asia across the Bering Strait.
The Times also deplored the fact that aid and comfort is given to these enemies of science by certain "post-modernist" scholars, who argue that all knowledge is relative and that mainstream Western scientists therefore have no greater authority to explain reality than other thinkers.
In short, The Los Angeles Times saw the authority of science as being under attack from all directions, with some of the attacks coming from prestigious or fashionable academics of the left. The editorial response was a straightforward declaration of cultural war against the critics. The newspaper did not consider the possibility that the contemporary scientific world view might actually contain any subjective or debatable elements, although it did acknowledge that individual scientists sometimes commit fraud or error.
With respect to any challenge to scientific doctrines from religion, the Times quoted the current President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, genetics professor Francisco Ayala of the Irvine Campus of the University of California and a former Catholic priest, as saying that "science does not contradict religion."
In interpreting what it took Ayala to mean, however, the Times drew a firm line in the sand. It stated, "Religion has a legitimate role in the discourse over the ultimate origin of matter, a mystery that science may never solve." After that ultimate beginning, however, to ascribe any role to God in the history of the cosmos would be to "seek refuge from scientific uncertainty in the irrational." The editorial went on to warn that departure from scientific orthodoxy on the subject of biological evolution would lead inevitably to "intellectual and economic suicide," because "scientific and technological prowess is critical to American competitiveness in a global economy." The Times even advertised a "hotline" 800 number that "right-thinking" parents and teachers were encouraged to call for assistance "in resisting the forces of ignorance."
An on-going academic freedom case at San Francisco State University provides another illustration of the extreme disapproval with which the current scientific orthodoxy regards the concept of a God who does not retire from all further activity after the ultimate origin of matter. Biology professor Dean Kenyon was the co-author 26 years ago of a respected book entitled Biochemical Predestination, which supported the orthodox scientific theory that living organisms evolved from non-living 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 non-majors, Kenyon taught his students the prevailing theories of chemical and biological evolution, but he also taught the weaknesses of those theories and suggested 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 department chairman and 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.
Kenyon challenged this administrative action by bringing a complaint before SFSU'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 his normal teaching assignments. The dean and department chairman balked at first, but they gave way after the full academic senate voted to support the committee's recommendation. Kenyon had won a victory, and students at San Francisco State will at least temporarily be exposed to a viewpoint which the reigning authorities in the scientific world regard with a disgust bordering on hatred.
How long this victory will last is questionable, however. In February, the biology faculty at San Francisco State adopted, by vote of 27 to 5, a resolution declaring, "There is no scientific evidence to support the concept of intelligent design," and therefore "the intelligent design view is not scientific." In context, the statement, like many others on the subject from the scientific community, tries to combine 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 on the other hand they want to say they have thoroughly considered the concept and rejected it as false.
The apparent purpose of this confused declaration is to set the stage for some effort to prevent Kenyon from telling students that he thinks there is evidence for intelligent design, but what will happen next is anybody's guess.
The bitter debate over whether "creation" or "intelligent design" may be considered as a possibility in scientific discourse is no minor matter. Behind it lies one of the most important questions of human existence: Did God create Man, or did Man create God? Theism - whether Christian, Jewish, or Islamic - proclaims the former. Scientific naturalism, the philosophy of contemporary natural science, proclaims the latter. According to the scientific naturalist version of cosmic history, nature is a permanently closed system of material effects that can never be influenced by something from outside - like God, for example. For governmental and educational purposes today, science is defined as proceeding from naturalistic premises, and science is given exclusive authority to portray objective reality. This means scientific naturalism is effectively the established religious philosophy of America.
God, in this metaphysical system, is inherently a product of human imagination, and therefore a relic from prescientific times, when humans knew no better than to attribute to a supernatural being their own existence and that of everything else they encountered. Science has allegedly changed all that, and made all educated persons aware that we are in reality products of mindless, purposeless, material processes. In the words of one of the most influential of modern Darwinists, the Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, the "meaning of evolution" is "Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind." Evolutionary scientists often blur that message for tactical reasons, but they will never abandon it. Whatever you may think that word "evolution" means, the people who direct science education mean by it that our existence is an accident, and we are responsible to no creator.
Some scientific naturalists are aggressive atheists, but most take the line of The Los Angeles Times editorialist: God may exist, and may even be allowed to establish the initial conditions at the absolute beginning of space and time, but thereafter God must mind his own business and stay out of "our" cosmos. In particular, God must neither program the evolutionary process in advance nor step in from time to time to give it a nudge - unless He is prepared to endure the combined wrath of The Los Angeles Times and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. We might say the problem with God is not that He does not exist, but that naturalistic philosophy has relegated Him to the ranks of the permanently unemployed.
Scientific naturalism provides our established religious philosophy with its picture of reality. Liberal rationalism provides its ethical and political starting point. If we are accidental products of a purposeless cosmos, as science currently tells us, then there are no objective values which we are obligated to respect. Value is inherently a human creation in a naturalistic universe. As individuals or as societies, we create values out of our imagination, just as we created God, and we can recreate those values as we choose. That is why marriage, for example, can be culturally redefined at any time. Marriage is not inherently a lifetime union between a husband and a wife, looking to the production of children. It was defined that way in a pre-modern culture, and our modernist or post-modernist culture can redefine it to include arrangements intended to be only temporary, or same-sex unions, or even arrangements involving multiple partners. Why not, now that we know the God who supposedly created marriage was in fact created out of the imagination of our ancestors?
The long name for our established religious philosophy is scientific naturalism and liberal rationalism; for convenience I will simply refer to it as "modernism." Modernism is typically defined as the condition that begins when people realize God is truly dead, and we are therefore on our own. Modernism has a number of real or apparent advantages that have enabled it to become the ruling philosophy of our time. I will first state these advantages now, as a defender of modernism might describe them. My critique will come later.
(1) Modernism's metaphysical foundation rests firmly upon scientific naturalism, which is "the way things really are." Through science we now know that nature, of which we are a recently evolved part, really is a purposeless system of material causes and effects, whether we like it or not. Any other system - particularly one based upon supposed divine commandments - would therefore be founded upon illusion rather than reality. The fact is man invented God, rather than the other way around. Once science has established the facts, there is no going back to prescientific beliefs, however attractive those beliefs may have been in their time.
(2) Modernist naturalism equals rationality because it excludes consideration of miracles, defined as arbitrary breaks in the chain of material causes and effects. This way of defining rationality is particularly important to scientists, who see the success of science as inextricably linked to the presumption that no supernatural mind or spirit ever interferes with the orderly (but purposeless) course of natural events. For most modernists, the identification of naturalism with rationality is so complete that they do not think of naturalism as a distinct and controversial metaphysical doctrine, but simply assume it as part of the definition of "reason."
(3) Modernist naturalism is liberating, especially in gender roles and sexual behavior, because it frees people from the illusion that outdated cultural norms have permanent validity as commands of God. Persons who attack scientific naturalism, or the theory of evolution, probably do so as part of a disguised agenda to re-establish a patriarchal and stifling code of sexual behavior. Thus The Los Angeles Times has repeatedly attacked the Vista, California (San Diego County), School Board for threatening to allow challenges to Darwinism in the curriculum and for attempting to institute a sex education curriculum based upon abstinence rather than "safe sex." The modernist media see challenges to Darwinism or sexual freedom for teenagers as equivalent manifestations of religious fundamentalism, and hence unconstitutional.
(4) Modernist naturalism supplies the philosophical basis for democratic liberty, because it relies only upon knowledge which is in principle available to every citizen. Persons who wish to make public policy from some divine revelation are inherently undemocratic, because they assert authority based on knowledge revealed only to them, and hence is not available to others.
In contrast, the observations and methods of reasoning employed by science are universally accessible in principle, although the special study required limits the capacity of ordinary citizens to understand them in practice. If public debate is carried out only on the basis of knowledge derived from sensory experience and scientific investigation, then in principle everyone can participate on equal terms. Debates between competing supernaturalistic ideologies can be settled only by force, whereas debate on naturalistic principles is open to reason and hence to peaceful solution.
(5) Finally, modernist government is acceptable even to many religious people, including theists who prudently want to avoid clashing with natural science. Modernism is not anti-religious, as we have seen, provided that "belief in God" stays in its proper place in private life. Believers may have their own churches, and may send their children to private religious schools if they can afford to do so, provided they do not try to claim a place for their views in the public square by, for example, seeking to advocate them in the public schools.
To the extent that the religious folk agree to remain in the sanctuary of private life, and cede control of the public square and especially public education to the modernists, the modernists can afford to leave them alone. If faced with a genuine challenge to their right to rule the culture, however, modernists would have to fight back by making explicit what is already implicit in their philosophy: man created God rather than the other way around. Theistic religion can escape the potentially lethal scrutiny of modernist science only by accepting modernist domination of public life.
Rule by modernists may actually be more acceptable to many theists than rule by theists. Theistic religion takes many forms, and Protestants, Catholics and Jews may in some cases be more suspicious of each other than they are of modernist agnostics, who claim to be "neutral" on disputed questions of religious doctrine.
The restriction of religion to private life therefore does not necessarily threaten the vital interests of the majority religion, if there is one, and it protects minority religions from tyranny of the majority. It also provides theistic religion in general with a measure of protection from the potentially lethal scrutiny of scientific naturalism.
When I describe modernist naturalism as the established religious philosophy of America, therefore, I do not mean that everyone is required to believe it. The American version of modernism does not aspire to obliterate theism, as Soviet Marxism did, but to marginalize it and thus render it harmless. Modernism is established in the sense that the intellectual community, usually invoking the power of the federal judiciary and the mystique of the Constitution, vigorously and almost always successfully insists that law and public education must be based upon naturalistic assumptions.
Although the national motto may be "In God We Trust," good citizens of the modernist state trust in God only with respect to matters that concern no one but themselves and their families. When they take actions that affect others, trust in God becomes unconstitutional.
Phil Johnson's article will be continued in the next Real Issue where he will critique these five apparent advantages of modernism and explain their consequences.