Nov. 22, 1997
You say you want a devolution?
Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson
cheerfully deconstructs the scientific
church of Darwin
By Jay Grelen
Is it a bird? Is it a dinosaur? The dinosaur-to-bird
theory, a mainstream evolutionist orthodoxy, is faltering.
A new book that proclaims the old faith, The Mistaken
Extinction: Dinosaur Evolution and the Origin of Birds, is
hitting the stores this month. But Alan Feduccia,
chairman of the biology department at the University of
North Carolina, has come out in opposition: "The
dinosaurian origin of birds is based on sloppy science." As
academic evolutionists fight among themselves, the
feathers are beginning to fly.
The tail ends of America's cars exhibit a more populist
angle on the evolution/creation debate. When some
Christians began displaying plastic fish, evolutionists on
their vehicles added legs to the fish. When some
Christians then inserted Jesus' name inside the fish,
evolutionists followed with the name of their patron
saint, Darwin. Now there's a third stage: A big Jesus fish
devouring the evolved fish of Darwin.
As Thanksgiving approaches this year, Christians can
thank God for the work of researchers at creation science
institutes who have fought for many years to show that
the world is God's world. They can also be thankful for the
new work of Michael Behe that is creating a stir; his
book, Darwin's Black Box (see World, Nov. 30/Dec. 7,
1996) has opened up a new front in the debate.
But grabbing the greatest amount of attention these days
is Phillip E. Johnson, the lawyer and professor who is
somewhat of a prodigal son. Mr. Johnson grew up in a
nominally religious home, majored in English literature at
Harvard, went to law school at the University of Chicago,
clerked for liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl
Warren, and in 1967 became a professor at the University
of California at Berkeley, his academic home to this day.
Mr. Johnson, however, was theologically homeless. He had
been an agnostic with a failing marriage. Then he
accompanied his 11-year-old daughter to a Vacation Bible
School dinner. The pastor's message caught Mr. Johnson's
attention, however, and he started down the path to
Christ. First, he slowly came to understand Jesus and his
need for salvation. Then, he started to reevaluate the
systems of belief, on issues such as evolution, that he
had absorbed during his years apart from God.
The work that now consumes him began when Mr. Johnson
visited Charles Darwin's home in England and began to
read books about evolution, such as Richard Dawkins's The
Blind Watchmaker. The more Mr. Johnson read, the more he
realized that "mutation and selection can't create, and
that there are even more fundamental problems than that
with the Darwinian scenario." Six years ago Mr. Johnson
published the result of his study, Darwin on Trial-and
since then he has been a frequent debater and college
lecturer on the inadequacies of the evolutionary faith.
The Johnsonian personality has been helpful in that
pursuit. Articulate in debate, he is quick to tell a funny
story or laugh at another's. He is careful, whether in a
group or one-to-one, to make eye contact with his
listeners. He can dominate a conversation through the
sheer force of his words and ideas, but he is also willing
to listen to questions and then explain an idea until it is
Don't be too quick, however, to tag Mr. Johnson's car with
a creation science sticker. What he emphasizes about the
origins of the world is that it is the product of
intelligent design. He is deliberately a deconstructionist:
"I've got this simple project of putting the demolition
charge on the key philosophical concept that has allowed
the atheists and agnostics to dominate the whole
intellectual world and governmental world in a country
where most of the people believe in God."
As Mr. Johnson has been making his case during the
1990s, he has been fine-tuning his message and amassing
allies. He speaks on campuses and in churches. For the
last two years, he has taught at the Cornerstone Festival,
several days of loud music and hours of teaching staged
on a farm by the counter-culture community Jesus People
USA. He is about to embark on a tour of seminaries in the
Southern Baptist Convention, a group whose support he
covets and is winning.
Unlike those who see the persuasiveness of evolution and
all its evil cousins as a sign that the end is near, Mr.
Johnson believes that Darwinism is crumbling: "Those
people are already fighting with each other. Sometimes
what people say is that we are a major defection or two
away from total victory. Once we get some undeniably
legitimate figures in the scientific and intellectual
communities saying, 'This is a legitimate issue. We can't
sweep this under the rug anymore,' that's when the
situation will have radically changed."
The ascent of Darwinism brought on a frightening new
world, Mr. Johnson says. Naturalistic evolution, by
definition, excludes God; the natural conclusion, once
evolution became the accepted orthodoxy, was for
absolute lines of morality and behavior to become
relative, allowing for the flourishing of many elements
now seen as harmful: the sexual revolution fueled by easy
methods of birth control; feminism; the "right" to
abortion; and a consequent devaluation of human life.
Conversely, if Mr. Johnson's campaign succeeds, he
believes that exclusion of God from the public arena will
become much more difficult: "Once the issue is properly
understood, the evolutionary scientists cannot defend the
position that we should follow materialist philosophy
regardless of the facts. It's because of the confusion
between the philosophy and the facts that they've been
able to dominate the scene. Once they don't dominate the
scene, then we have a radically new world. That's when
the opportunity to talk about what really happened
Once God is in the picture, Mr. Johnson says, there will be
a new look at the evidence: "If we say, 'Did a bacterium by
gradual steps turn into a lobster or an insect or a worm ...'
most people ask, 'Is it possible God could have done it
that way?' That's a boring question. Of course it is
possible. But if God is in the picture at all, then what's
the evidence that he did change a bacterium by gradual
steps into a worm? There's no evidence. It's not recorded
in the fossils. It's not testable in the laboratories. It's
something that if anybody believes it, they believe it on
faith, faith in evolution."
Ministers and Christians in science "have been heavily
influenced by indoctrination.... Evolutionary science is
based on naturalism and draws philosophical conclusions
to that base. That's why any theistic evolution is
inherently superficial. It leads people into naturalistic
thinking, and they don't realize it."
One powerful piece of indoctrination, Mr. Johnson notes,
was the 1960 film Inherit the Wind. "They see the Rev.
Jeremiah Brown, the anti-intellectual. They want to be
both Christian and intellectually respectable. The tragedy
is that it lets naturalistic thinking into the doors of the
church. This explains why the mainstream religious are
leaning to the naturalistic-the liberal-side."
What happens when that thinking changes? Mr. Johnson
says, "The next step after the realization that Darwinism
isn't true ... is to ask, 'How did this happen?' At that point,
Romans 1:20 comes strongly into play. We see that part of
the human project has always been to get rid of God." So
rising above the "science" that gets rid of God "will be
every bit as significant as the Darwinian revolution of
the 19th century was in its way, and that's what caused
the complete marginalization of theism in the
Romans 1:20 states, " For since the creation of the world
God's invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine
nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from
what has been made, so that men are without excuse."
That is something to be thankful for in this year of our
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