Bowing to the Text

By way of The Panda’s Thumb, I came across this story that just had to be shared.

Regular readers of this site are probably familiar with the arch-creationist William Dembski, one of the founders of the intelligent-design movement. When I last wrote about him, I mentioned that he, like other creationists who insist their work is motivated strictly by science and not religion, has somehow ended up at a conservative Christian seminary – in Dembski’s case, the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

In 2009, Dembski published a book, The End of Christianity. In it, he acknowledged the great age of the universe and the recent emergence of humanity, but argued that Adam and Eve were real individuals whose original sin traveled backwards in time and retroactively corrupted existence from the moment of the Big Bang so that it had always included natural evil. (Neat trick, that.) Although this view represents a dangerous flirtation with scientific fact, he would probably have gotten away with it – except that his book contained one other statement so outrageous it couldn’t be allowed to stand:

Noah’s flood, though presented [in the Bible] as a global event, is probably best understood as historically rooted in a local event.

Naturally, this drew the immediate ire of Dembski’s colleagues at SBTC. In short order, according to an article in the Florida Baptist Witness, he was called before the college president, Paige Patterson, who sternly explained that Dembski had expressed thoughts which professors at SBTC are not allowed to think:

“Had I had any inkling that Dr. Dembski was actually denying the absolute trustworthiness of the Bible, then that would have, of course, ended his relationship with the school,” he said.

Surely, this will be remembered as a pivotal moment in the history of the ID movement! One of the godfathers of intelligent design, one of its towering intellectual giants, is called before a religious authority and is told that his views – views which, he says, are based on solid empirical evidence – told that those views clash with the literalist interpretation of the Bible which many members of that particular sect profess. Surely, this would be a chance for Dembski to stand up for himself and affirm his intellectual independence. Surely, this would be the hill where he would plant his flag and fearlessly declare for all the world to see: “Here I stand, I can do no other!

Surely…?

“In a brief section on Genesis 4–11, I weigh in on the Flood, raising questions about its universality, without adequate study or reflection on my part,” Dembski wrote. “Before I write on this topic again, I have much exegetical, historical, and theological work to do. In any case, not only Genesis 6–9 but also Jesus in Matthew 24 and Peter in Second Peter seem clearly to teach that the Flood was universal. As a biblical inerrantist, I believe that what the Bible teaches is true and bow to the text, including its teaching about the Flood and its universality.”

(I can’t read that without hearing the minstrels from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Brave Sir Dembski ran away…”)

Take a moment to savor the irony. The ID movement has always made a special point of lamenting how unfairly they’ve been persecuted by advocates of science, how their views have been unjustly “expelled” from academia. Yet here we have William Dembski, one of the most influential modern creationists, experiencing genuine persecution for his views – and it’s coming not from an evolutionary biologist, but from the president of a religious institution! (Meanwhile, creationists such as Michael Behe continue to teach at secular universities and haven’t been forced out, even though Behe’s views are widely rejected by his colleagues.) Doesn’t this speak volumes about which side really stands for freedom of speech, which side welcomes an open debate, and most importantly, which side is doing science?

But just as fascinating, I think, was Dembski’s craven response. When threatened with losing his job, he immediately recanted, despite everything he had said before about how his views were founded on the evidence. He immediately surrendered those views and, in his own words, “bowed to the text” – prostrating himself before the Bible and confessing that he believes it, not because that’s what the evidence says, but because that’s what’s written and he knows he’s not permitted to doubt or think independently. Regardless of what the facts say, he knows his beliefs must be subordinated to the cold demands of dogma. Is this not a total abdication of intellectual honesty?

That said, the only thing Dembski has really done is to say explicitly what all creationists believe implicitly. Their interpretation of scripture must be held as true, trumping all fact, all evidence and all reason. Their conclusions are dictated to them in advance, prior to any investigation of the world, with no possibility that the 21st-century descendants of the scientific revolution know anything more than the Bronze Age scribes who first wrote these ancient books.

This episode also shows the ongoing collapse of the ID movement’s efforts to seek mainstream legitimacy. In the beginning, its advocates put on a pretense of doing science, cloaking their religious intent in neutral language to sneak their way past the First Amendment. But no one was fooled, particularly not the courts. With ID advocates failing to win the scientific acclaim they’d sought, they’re falling back on their natural allies – the right-wing churches and religious institutions that never had any qualms about identifying themselves as creationist. Naturally, these groups have little patience for the watered-down legal apologia of ID, and demand instead that everything be slathered with a thick frosting of Jesus. With the ID advocates now dependent on these groups for their livelihood, they’re doing as instructed. This is a very positive development for defenders of church-state separation, giving us extra ammunition the next time the advocates of ID try to slip their dogma into public schools.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Katie M

    With apologies to Monty Python.

    Brave Sir Dembski ran away.
    (“Yes!”)
    Bravely ran away away.
    (“I did!”)
    When danger reared its ugly head,
    He bravely turned his tail and fled.
    (“Yes!”)
    Yes, brave Sir Dembski turned about
    (“I did!”)
    And gallantly he chickened out.

    Bravely taking (“I certainly did!”) to his feet,
    He beat a very brave retreat.
    (“all truth!”)
    Bravest of the braaaave, Sir Dembski!
    (“I did!”)

  • mikespeir

    I wonder how much else he will admit to have said “without adequate study or reflection”?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    It’d a good thing SBTC president Paige Patterson nipped this in the bud, or the next thing you know their biology department would be teaching that insects have six legs instead of four. (Lev 11:21-22)

  • Ubi Dubium

    I am wondering about what is really going on in Mr. Dembski’s head. We hear more and more often about pastors who no longer believe, but are keeping up a facade, pretending to believe so they can keep their jobs. His original comments sound like all the rationality he’s been exposed to over many arguments and debates might have finally gotten through, at least a little. Then he realized that he was letting it show too much, and quickly back-pedaled. How fast would he have been fired if he hadn’t?

    Mr. Dembski, if you have realized, as we have, that biblical inerrancy is totally unsupportable, and completely out of line with reality, I hope that you will be looking for a new job very soon. One where you can say what you really think without being fired for heresy.

  • http://killedbyfish.blogspot.com feralboy12

    The original sin went back in time and corrupted the universe from the big bang onward? Oh my…
    That certainly violates my version of Occam’s Razor, which states: Given competing hypotheses to explain a phenomenom, the correct hypthesis is probably the one with the fewest magic dingleberries attached. That’s one big honking dingleberry you stuck on that thing, Mr. Dembski.

  • Hermes

    That just about sums it up. Behe gets criticized for accepting common descent, and Dembski calls the Gilgimesh flood — oops! — I mean ‘the Genesis flood’ a localized event and he gets slammed.

    Yep. These people are interested in reality. They can be reasoned with.

    One observation; Since this is yet another example of these folks not agreeing on anything, can we just laugh at them when they start to talk about universal morality based on their deity while at the same time they ignore their own Bible? Say, when they ignore the worldwide flood that they insist was a real event?

  • http://daylightatheism.org J. James

    “A thick frosting of Jesus”- :D Anyway, this is terrific news! Finally, what we have all been waiting for, folks! Now they can’t even use their threadbare veil of science and osmosed respectability anymore! This is just fantastic news. Now we can tear into them without restraint like we’ve been itching to all the time. The sheer riddiculousness of these events may just shatter them forever. Their “”””science”””” is officially dead now. It has no base and no respectability. Of course, we knew this all along, but still now we have a club to brain them with(oxymoron I’m sure). Let’s break out the sushi, au gratin potatoes and eggs Benedict! IT’S PARTY TIME!! 8D

  • Eurekus

    ‘and demand instead that everything be slathered with a thick frosting of Jesus.’

    With Xmas coming on let us remember, ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’. …..eyeroll with a distinct feeling of nausea.

    When will people realise Christianity is a morally polluted sewer? Christians, for the sake of the God of your mind, pick up a book on evolution and learn! Nothing is the equivalent of science, including your bible.

  • Valhar2000

    Well, I don’t know. It is true that ID as a legal strategy is dead now, but I am not sure that is the main thrust of the movement. Right now a majority of Americans are creationists; it will not be long before pro-creationist laws are passed, judges co-opted or overruled, and the constitution’s guarantee of separation between church and state eradicated, all with the support of “the American people”.

    ID was a bold daring assault by a group of commandos that failed: the main army is still marching on, and while slower it is much more powerful.

  • Leum

    I disagree. There hasn’t been much legal noise from the creationists these past few years. I think that particular effort has more or less exhausted itself. Right now the creationists are all too busy trying to destroy Obama and discredit the federal government to care much about local government.

  • Keith

    I’m willing to cut Dembski at least a little slack here. If his job was really being threatened over a rather minor detail of Christian dogma, then I don’t entirely blame him for protecting his, and his family’s financial security by recanting.

  • Stephen P

    I’m not willing to cut Dembski any slack at all. He’s in his current situation because 15+ years of intellectual dishonesty (if not outright dishonesty) have made him virtually unemployable. He’s made his bed, and now he’s got to lie in it.

  • Hermes

    alhar2000, I agree. What Russell and other atheists wrote in the last couple hundred years should have been enough for most people to get it. But, it was not, so we should take that into account before claiming an early victory. For the most part, evidence doesn’t matter to these folks and if anything it is seen as a threat.

    For example: I was talking to some prospective teachers a while ago, and that gave me the impression that a significant fraction of them were in the business of first pushing a Biblical ideology and secondly in covering the course material. Many of them were smart enough to know that they should talk in code and not directly about their specific religious beliefs. That they should attack what they see are threats while ignoring any evidence.

    I talked to one of the prospective teachers in a psych class. She indignantly slammed evolution and when asked if she knew anything about it her response was that she knew enough and had investigated it. Very hostile, and even offended that I did not immediately agree with her and questioned her on it at all. These are not sane or reasonable people.

    One saying that I made up that seems to get traction with them is this;

    * Not looking for or dismissing the best available evidence is a moral failing, not just a factual one.

    Anyone who holds to a position while ignoring contrary available evidence in the age of search engines (let alone libraries) does not deserve the benefit of the doubt. They are are at best incurious, but even that seems to be granting too much.

    When a theist attempts to push anything when it is easily contradicted, they should be called on it; they are intentionally being immoral.

    They should not be given a pass on this once they are found out. They must acknowledge the mistake; that they were wrong to not look or ignore what they were aware of. They must commit themselves to the best available evidence regardless of where that goes. They can believe what they wish, but they can not say evidence supports their beliefs when it doesn’t.

    I now demand that disregarding or ignoring the best available evidence is a moral error and not just a factual mistake. That demand is warranted because it applies to everyone and every topic.

    I am not exempted and neither are people I agree with and cite in support of my claims and beliefs. That includes my own lack of belief in theist claims. If the best available evidence shows that it is more likely than not that some set of deities exists, I will take that seriously. Note that this is not the same as

    and not just a potential item among other weakly supported or unsupported assertions about reality. Just raising a possibility or eliminating the competition is not good enough if there is plenty of better evidence to review, and that best available evidence is not in direct support of their claims.

    —–

    I derived and expanded on this idea from Alan Sokal, who wrote;

    “The bottom line is that all of us — conservative and liberal, believer and atheist — live in the same real world, whether we like it or not. Public policy must be based on the best available evidence about that world. In a free society each person has the right to believe whatever nonsense he wishes, but the rest of us should pay attention only to those opinions that are based on evidence.”

    Source: Taking evidence seriously from The Guardian
    PDF (download or view): http://ebookpedia.net/Taking-evidence-seriously.html

  • Hermes

    Bah! Pasting error. I was responding to

    * Valhar2000

    not

    * alhar2000

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I’m willing to cut Dembski at least a little slack here. If his job was really being threatened over a rather minor detail of Christian dogma, then I don’t entirely blame him for protecting his, and his family’s financial security by recanting.

    I disagree, Keith. Regardless of whether or not the Flood is a “minor detail” of Christian dogma, the principle at stake is hugely important. SBTC has just made it clear that Dembski has no intellectual independence while he’s working there: he’s required to conform to their interpretation of Christianity in all respects and isn’t permitted to express independent thought if it goes against any portion of their creed.

    By accepting that condition, Dembski’s made it clear that he values his job security over his intellectual honesty, and that he’s willing to repeat whatever party line he’s told to repeat in exchange for a paycheck. By agreeing to this, he’s negated any claim he ever had or ever will have to be taken seriously as a real scholar.

  • bassmanpete

    Noah’s flood, though presented [in the Bible] as a global event, is probably best understood as historically rooted in a local event.

    There, that’s fixed it! (If you don’t understand, check the Australian definition of rooted.)

  • http://daylightatheism.org J. James

    @Eurekus
    *looks askance*
    Your comment sounds like a Christian pretending to be an atheist.

  • Eurekus

    J.James

    You’re kidding. Right?

    Fundies just frustrate me with their horse goggles. My wife’s one. I always battle countering the bullshit she tries to teach the kids with the critical thinking I teach them. Get me now? Considering we actually have a strong marriage I think I’m doing well.

    Since you don’t know me I won’t take that as an insult.

  • Eurekus

    Hi Ebon

    Is there any chance you could delete my last post?

    I should not have been so vocal.

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos

    You complain about being called a fake atheist. Tehehe…

    Now that his [Dembski's] academic integrity is entirely shot, he should try working for the Templeton institute, I hear they like people like him.

    bassman… I looked it up, that’s weird. Rooted is completely different in meaning depending on the region, I guess.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Oh, he’s well ahead of you there, Zietlos.

  • Eurekus

    Complaining? I should’ve just laughed it off. When I wrote comment no 18 the other day I just had an even more amuzing run in with a believer.

    My comment no 8 was just me appealling to the rational mind of the indoctrinated. Like how this post can be interpreted to be. Without appeals like ours, let’s face it, humanity will be lost to delusion just like our good mate Dembski or worse, maybe even like Ken Ham and Ken Hovind.

  • sam

    “…he acknowledged the great age of the universe and the recent emergence of humanity, but argued that Adam and Eve were real individuals whose original sin traveled backwards in time and retroactively corrupted existence from the moment of the Big Bang so that it had always included natural evil. (Neat trick, that.)”

    Why wasn’t this statement also considered anathema to the Borg..er, christian collective mind? It explicitly denies the Genesis 1 account that yhwh’s creation was “good”, as the creation was already retroactively corrupted by Adam & Eve’s “sin”. Was it that the idea of time-traveling, materially corruption-inducing metaphysically-noncorporeal disobedience was such an ass-rapingly stupid idea that even the SBTC thought it unworthy of comment?

    You hear Monty Python when you read Dumbski’s retraction. I hear a temporarily wayward borg returning to the collective.


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