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More on Christianity Today and Phillip Johnson’s Legacy in Science Education and Law

Christianity Today

Evolution News recently commented on a Christianity Today obituary of Phillip Johnson, which misrepresented and greatly understated his legacy in science education and the law. The obituary has now been modified in response, but the modifications either fail to correct the errors, or make corrections that, while technically correct, seems to deliberately ignore the real-world influence that Johnson exercised. In other words, the article’s problems remain effectively unchanged.

It now says this: “A few states started requiring schools to teach the intelligent design critiques of Darwinian evolution in the late 1990s and early 2000s, until a federal court ruled it was unconstitutional for schools to teach intelligent design.” Saying that teaching the controversy persisted “until a federal court ruled it was unconstitutional for schools to teach intelligent design” is really not any different from the original wording which said such policies persisted “until it was stopped by a federal court ruling.” If you don’t see the difference, that’s because the new language is really no different in meaning from the article’s original inaccurate version. Evolution News provided extensive documentation that multiple states continued to teach the controversy over evolution, and even adopted new policies, following the 2005 Dover court ruling. Indeed, at least eight states that adopted “teach the controversy” policies still have those policies in effect today. The article is simply wrong in suggesting that Johnson’s influence ended in the early 2000s.

Regarding the Santorum Amendment, the article now says, “The languge [sic] did not make it into the final version of the [No Child Left Behind] bill.” That is technically correct, just as the obituary’s original statement was technically correct that the Santorum Amendment “didn’t pass” into the final No Child Left Behind Act adopted by both houses of Congress. But the modified language has the same flaw as before: it fails to recognize that (a) the Santorum Amendment overwhelmingly passed the U.S. Senate, and as a result, (b) language from the Santorum Amendment was incorporated directly into the Conference Report of the law, which had legal import. Indeed, as noted, in multiple cases that Conference Report language has been cited by education authorities seeking to teach the evolution controversy. See our previous article for the details.

A Profound Legacy

Why can’t Christianity Today (CT) simply acknowledge that Phillip Johnson’s legacy on science education has been profound, and that it continues to this day? Why can’t it acknowledge that the intelligent design movement has had major legislative victories in recent years? What would Phillip Johnson have made of all this? Coverage of Phillip Johnson in CT from the past might shed some light.

If he could speak to us now, Johnson might remark that his 2019 obituary shows how times have changed — and not necessarily for the better. In 1997, CT published a seven-page profile spread about Johnson that lauded his “distinguished academic career” as an “intellectual heavyweight,” and foresaw that his work would spark a “revolution” in thinking on Darwin. Today, their obituary focuses on academic critics of Johnson, and they can’t acknowledge his lasting legacy in science education, even when the facts are spelled out for them.

What Phil Johnson Might Say Now

Johnson might note that when someone refuses to acknowledge the truth, that usually indicates some level of awareness that the evidence isn’t on his side. As a younger Stephen Meyer noted in that 1997 CT feature story, Johnson once remarked that “something about the evolutionists’ rhetorical style made him think they had something to hide.” Those same tactics — downplay the challenges and hide the losses — definitely persist, but we now see they have moved beyond evolutionary biology classrooms and even into mainstream Evangelical media. 

Johnson might also note that taking the wrong strategy in the face of challenges can have devastating consequences. Here’s some strategic wisdom he offered in that 1997 article:

You never win unless you win by the right methods. I don’t mean that in some kind of woollyheaded idealistic way. I’m talking about hardheaded strategy here. Fights are often very healthy. What has gotten us into such a mess is victories that were won by the wrong methods: civil wars, religious wars, oppression.

How does this apply here? Well first, this CT obituary seems to adopt the false narrative that intelligent design is a spent force. Hardly! From over 100 peer-reviewed ID-supporting scientific papers, to hugely popular media (Stephen Meyer’s PragerU video that was released three weeks ago already has over a million views on YouTube alone, and much more if you count other platforms!), to mainstream scientists continuing  to abandon Darwin, there are numerous reasons that isn’t true. All of the tributes currently pouring in for Phil Johnson are another piece of evidence that ID is alive and well. Johnson would probably remind us that surrendering to your challengers because their views are culturally popular, and then adopting and promoting their false ideas, is never a path to victory.

Strategy: Total Capitulation

Some mainstream Evangelicals today evidently disagree. They think that the best way to deal with Darwin is to capitulate completely. This includes embracing “theistic evolution,” something that CT essentially did in a 2011 cover story that heavily favored evangelical scientists who not only fully accept modern evolutionary biology but also reject traditional doctrines about Adam and Eve. The 2011 piece repeatedly quotes Evangelical evolutionary scientists saying things like: the human population “was definitely never as small as two … The data are absolutely clear on that,” that Adam and Eve “do not fit the evidence,” or that although there was “wiggle room in the past” to believe in Adam and Eve, “human genome sequencing took that wiggle room away.”

Phillip Johnson pointed out in a 1994 op-ed for CT, “Shouting Heresy in the Temple of Darwin,” that “Darwinism is founded upon a naturalistic picture of reality,” and if we’re at least willing to challenge naturalistic assumptions then we can be freed to discover the truth. The debate over Adam and Eve is a perfect illustration. Ola Hössjer and Ann Gauger recently showed in a technical BIO-Complexity paper, “A Single-Couple Human Origin is Possible,” that if we question naturalistic assumptions about human origins and entertain the possibility that an initial pair was “instantiated” with “primordial diversity,” then “as far as we know scientifically from the genetic data, the human species could have come from as a single couple, so that all humans alive today could have descended uniquely from that first pair.”

Though their technical paper doesn’t cite Phillip Johnson and focuses strictly on the science, it certainly follows Johnson’s philosophical approach. Hössjer and Gauger note that in human population genetics, “certain common assumptions used for convenience have been misinterpreted as if they were data-driven conclusions, without testing the single-couple origin hypothesis scientifically.” This is the core issue Johnson identified: Evolutionary biologists make naturalistic assumptions, so it comes as no surprise when they then get naturalistic answers. 

Phillip Johnson 101

It’s OK to make assumptions in your models, but evolutionists rarely acknowledge these assumptions, and simply state their conclusions as facts. This is Phillip Johnson 101. Johnson also predicted that by questioning naturalism we’ll find better answers. And guess what happened? When qualified scientists who were outsiders to the evolutionary community were willing to challenge these naturalistic assumptions, they effectively showed that the whole thrust of the 2011 CT cover story on Adam and Eve was scientifically wrong. An initial pair of humans is scientifically possible after all.

In short, there was no need for the Evangelical community to divide over Adam and Eve because science had not refuted the idea of an initial pair. But if the science against Adam and Eve isn’t there, why are a contingent of Evangelicals rushing to embrace Darwin? In his 1994 CT op-ed, Johnson again perfectly described what is still happening in 2019:

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,” bur rather theistic naturalism. Under either name, it is a disastrous error.

Phillip Johnson’s obituary at CT of course does not explicitly adopt “theistic evolution” or “theistic naturalism.” And it does highlight quite a few of Johnson’s accomplishments. But by downplaying his successes where it culturally matters most — in law and science education — and by emphasizing his critics and essentially ignoring his supporters when it comes to the science, it certainly adopts the rhetorical style of Darwin-defenders. This isn’t surprising, given CT’s tendency in recent years to boost scientists who adopt fully naturalistic assumptions about human origins. Johnson was right in the 1997 CT profile: “Scientists have become our priests, telling us how we came to be and what we can put our faith in.”

Photo: Phillip E. Johnson, “How Darwinists Think — Lecture and Q&A,” via YouTube (screenshot).