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Phillip Johnson: The “Mahatma” of the Intelligent Design Movement 

David Klinghoffer

Intelligent Design

Editor’s note: Phillip E. Johnson, Berkeley law professor and author of Darwin on Trial and other books, died on November 2. Evolution News is sharing remembrances from staff, friends, and Fellows of Discovery Institute.

Phil Johnson (1940-2019) is the “godfather” of the intelligent design movement. But on a new episode of ID the Future, biologist Jonathan Wells contributes another moniker: the Indian honorific title Mahatma, or “great soul.” Phil operated partly in the background, as far as the public is concerned, yet contributed many of the ideas and strategies that define ID advocacy today. Dr. Wells discusses Johnson’s impact with host Rob Crowther. Listen to the podcast or download it here.

ID’s Chief Counsel

Much of his influence was felt in his bringing together ID scientists and scholars who otherwise might never have met. Wells recounts a turning point for ID, a 1993 meeting at Pajaro Dunes, California, where Johnson and his family were fond of vacationing.

Besides this networking role, he reminded ID proponents to keep their writing and teaching aimed squarely at the big prize: the contest with materialist explanations of life’s origins. An article assessing his life appears at Christianity Today, quoting Biola University physicist John Bloom:

Phil helped us focus on the right questions. Whatever the details, was God involved in creation or did mindless particles come together to make us? What conclusion does the actual evidence support? Sometimes we don’t see the forest for the trees: Phil reminded me to focus on the big picture.

The article also acknowledges how his mind, that of an attorney and legal scholar, spotted the slick tactics in evolutionary arguments, “the same rhetorical tricks that clever lawyers use when they have to defend a flawed case in court.”

“I Could Die Tomorrow”

In an email, Dr. Bloom told me an interesting further anecdote. 

I chauffeured Phil around for some Southern California speaking engagements just a month or so before his first stroke. I remember him commenting on our ride that the ID movement was launched well, and he didn’t have much to contribute anymore. Rough quote: “I could die tomorrow, it will continue on fine without me.” (Said with a tone of great satisfaction.)

That is a spooky. In fact, though, his intellect and influence were not at all extinguished by the turn in his health. At Evolution News, we are seeing a parade of ID scientists and scholars, offering their tributes, many agreeing that Phil Johnson helped to set their direction in life. There’s much more to come, each a testament to how “Mahatma” Phillip E. Johnson, truly a great soul, lives on.

Photo: Phillip Johnson against the backdrop of Pajaro Dunes, a screenshot from Unlocking the Mystery of Life, via Illustra Media.