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!


“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.

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About Adam Lee

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