Whatever Happened to Intelligent Design Theorist William Dembski?

Summary: Young earth creationists have knocked out of action one of the most effective advocates for Intelligent Design. This is symptomatic of the rift between these two anti-evolution movements which are both mainly composed of Bible-believing Christians.

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Among Christians who take the Bible seriously as revelation, there are three main schools of thought regarding human evolution and the age of the earth. Evolutionary creationists, also known as theistic evolutionists, acknowledge the physical evidence for common ancestry between humans and other primates (e.g. Endogenous Retroviruses in Your Genome Show Common Ancestry with Primates ). They understand that the Bible, including the Genesis creation narrative, was given to teach spiritual truths (II Timothy 3:15-17), not physical history.

There is abundant and clear evidence that the earth is far older than the 6000 years dictated by a literal reading of Biblical genealogies. For instance, we can drill down into glaciers in central Greenland and Antarctica, and observe over 100,000 years of alternating summer/winter ice layers, with no trace of a global Flood. “Old earth” creationists accept the reality of this evidence, but typically reject the notion that humans evolved from other primates.

Young earth (YE) creationists reject both evolution and the notion of an old earth. They propose an alternate reality, in which the earth and the universe are only 6000 years old, and most sedimentary rock layers were laid down in a year-long global Flood. This Flood geology was developed in the early twentieth century by George McCready Price in obedience to the visions of Adventist prophetess Ellen White. John Whitcomb and Henry Morris appropriated Price’s geology while covering up its cultic origin , and published it in 1961 in The Genesis Flood. Weighing in with some 500 pages of dense, footnoted text and figures, The Genesis Flood seemed to offer scientific support for a literal six-day creation.  This evidence was all bogus, but that did not matter. The book became wildly popular among fundamentalists, going through 29 printings. For the century prior to 1961, almost no Christians, fundamentalist or not, held that a young earth and a six 24-hour day creation was justified either biblically or scientifically. By 1970, however, The Genesis Flood had established YE creationism as the standard position among conservative evangelicals in America, with growing numbers of adherents in Australia and the U.K.

The 1991 publication of Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial sparked the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. ID advocates generally fall in the old earth camp. While recognizing the great antiquity of the universe, they attempt to find gaps in our current understanding of the history and mechanisms of evolution. They then use these gaps to claim that the intervention of an Intelligent Agent is necessary to explain today’s biota.

YE creationists are typically quite forthright in stating the religious foundation of their worldview. Their starting point is their particular interpretation of the Bible, and they fit all the physical evidence around that. The earth must be young and thus any evidence that it is old must be flawed. That accounts for their resolute denial of the facts (such as the annual layers in glacier ice) that are conclusive for everyone else.

ID advocates, on the other hand, are more coy about their motivations. They typically purport to be objective scientists who happen to discover evidence for design in the biological world, and who simply wish to broaden the education of schoolchildren by exposing them to “the controversy” over the adequacy of evolutionary theory.

The epicenter of the ID movement is the Discovery Institute in Seattle. A number of pedigreed PhD’s are on staff there, producing books and articles which are intended to withstand the scrutiny of the greater academic world. They are careful to not specify the identity of the Intelligent Designer who must have intervened somehow to produce new batches of plants and animals through the eons of geologic time.

However, outsiders are not fooled. Only God (or some super-intelligent, powerful and long-lived alien civilization) would be capable of making the sorts of repeated genetic interventions over millions of years needed to bridge the alleged gaps in natural evolution. Most of the founders and principals of the Discovery Institute are conservative Christians, and the leaked 1998 manifesto of the Institute, the “Wedge Document”  clearly articulated a religious goal: to “reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

Relations were initially warm between YE creationists and ID theorists. The large, established YE creationist base helped provide venues for ID speakers, and the academic credentials of the ID scholars lent credibility to the anti-evolution plank of the YE platform. The ID folks minimized mention of their views on the earth’s age, and the YE crowd did not press them on it. In recent years, however, YE creationists have taken to vehemently denouncing old earth creationists as “compromisers”.

Some ID advocates write mainly about observable aspects of the physical world, such as fossils and mutations in DNA. It is straightforward to do basic fact-checking and to show that the conclusions asserted by those ID proponents are insupportable (see e.g. here  on Stephen Meyers’ treatment of the Cambrian explosion, and here  on Jonathan Wells’ “Icons of Evolution”).

The writings of William Dembski, on the other hand, deal with more intangible concepts like information theory. Dembski became a key figure in the ID movement in the 1990’s and beyond. His breakout book was The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities (1998), which became something of a best-seller. In this and his other works, Dembski claimed to have demonstrated that the sort of increases in genetic information content required by unguided evolution were mathematically impossible. There is “no free lunch”; only the intervention of an Intelligent Agent can explain the observed “specified complexity” in the biological world.

Critics have published numerous articles denouncing Dembski’s work. They claimed to find inconsistencies and outright errors in his writings. However, due to the nature of the subject, both Dembski’s writings and those of his opponents are somewhat hard for nonspecialists to follow. Thus, his writings were often considered by anti-evolutionists to be unrefuted, and to be the final nail in the coffin of Darwinism.

Opponents of evolution were, of course, delighted to have such a smart and articulate guy confidently proclaiming the demise of Darwinism. For many years he was a golden boy of ID. Books and articles flowed from Demoski’s keyboard, and he was invited to speak in many venues. His face adorned the cover of WORLD magazine. He was a long-time fellow at the Discovery Institute. However, he is no longer is very active in the field. What happened?

He and some ID colleagues set up an ID think tank at Baylor University in 1999. That was soon quashed after an outcry by the other faculty members. In 2006, Dembski took up a faculty position at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) in Fort Worth, Texas, and continued highly visible activities promoting Intelligent Design. Dembski was clear with the seminary that he was an old-earth, not a young-earth creationist.

In 2009 he published The End of Christianity. In that book he attempted to reconcile the evidence from the fossil record that animal suffering and death occurred for millions of years before humans appeared, with the traditional theological notion that this suffering and death is collateral damage from man’s Fall. Western Christianity, following Augustine, has often held that the original peaceable, vegan animal world was plunged into carnivory as a outworking of man’s Fall and the subsequent curse on humans and their world. Dembski accepted this basic premise, and speculated that the effects of man’s sin may have (since God dwells outside of the linear time to which we are constrained) propagated backwards as well as forward in time. Thus, the carnage in the animal world during the eons before humans appeared was indirectly a result of the actions of those later humans. Towards the end of the book, as a sort of afterthought, Dembski mentioned the possibility that Noah’s Flood was actually a local flood in the Middle East, rather than a global deluge.

That, alas, proved to be his undoing. Hard-core YE creationists such as Ken Ham were incensed that Dembski would question the reality of a global Flood. They denounced him coast to coast and orchestrated letter-writing campaigns to his employer, demanding his ouster. Dembski was hauled before an inquisition at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It was made clear that if he did not satisfy them on the global extent of Noah’s Flood, he would be immediately fired as a heretic.

This put Dembski in an agonizing personal dilemma. If he had been financially solvent, he would have simply resigned right away. However, he had a severely autistic son plus two other children to support, and had no other way to pay the medical bills. He therefore “finessed” it, issuing a statement with sufficient ambiguity to keep him his job, while allowing him to later clarify his actual convictions. He did seek, and find, alternative employment as quickly as possible, first at another seminary, and then (2013-2014) back at the Discovery Institute as a full-time research fellow. Here is how Dembski described this experience at Southwestern :

At the meeting with president, provost, dean, and senior professor, the president made it clear to me from the start that my job was on the line. “Job on the line” in this context does not mean finishing out the academic year and giving me a chance to find another academic job. My questioning the universality of Noah’s flood meant I was a heretic, or at least not suitable for teaching at Southern Baptist seminaries, and thus I’d need to be clearing my desk immediately—unless my theological soundness could be quickly reestablished.

With a severely autistic son, debts, and a family still upset about my experience at Baylor, I wasn’t about to bare my soul and tell this second star chamber (my first being Baylor’s External Review Committee) what I really thought. I therefore finessed it. You can read the statement I wrote for yourself, especially paragraph three, where I said just enough to keep my job, and just enough to give me room to recant, as I’m doing here.

If I had been feeling less vulnerable, if I had independent financial means, I would have said goodbye to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary right then and there. This is one of the things I find most destructive about fundamentalism, the constant threat that at any moment one can run afoul of the orthodoxy du jour, and be thrown under the bus because that’s the proper place for heretics.

This is a deeply unhealthy situation for theological education, leading to a slavish mentality among faculty, who must constantly monitor and censor themselves if they are to stay in the good graces of the fundamentalist power structures.

He remarks further:

Christian orthodoxy is one thing. A “canst thou be more conservative than I?” mentality is another. And this is what I saw emerging.

What’s behind this is a sense of beleaguerment by the wider culture and a desire for simple, neat, pat solutions. Life is messy and the Bible is not a book of systematic theology, but to the fundamentalist mentality, this is unacceptable. …Fundamentalism, as I’m using it, is not concerned with any doctrinal position, however conservative or traditional. What’s at stake is a harsh, wooden-headed attitude that not only involves knowing one is right, but refuses to listen to, learn from, or understand other Christians, to say nothing of outsiders to the faith. Fundamentalism in this sense is a brain-dead, soul-stifling attitude. I see it as a huge danger for evangelicals.

Dembski notes elsewhere that the young earth creationists

…were friendly to ID in the early 2000s, until they realized that ID was not going to serve as a stalking horse for their literalistic interpretation of Genesis. After that, the young-earth community largely turned away from ID, if not overtly, then by essentially downplaying ID in favor of anything that supported a young earth.

The Noah’s Ark theme park in Kentucky is a case in point. What an embarrassment and waste of money. I’ve recently addressed the fundamentalism that I hold responsible for this sorry state of affairs.

For Dembski, “…this entire incident left so bad a taste in my mouth that I resolved to leave teaching, leave the academy, and get into a business for myself, in which my income would not depend on political correctness or, for that matter, theological correctness.”

Thus, in 2014 he retired from active research and teaching in intelligent design, to focus on issues of education, human freedom, and technology. Dembski still believes that ID is correct, and will someday triumph over standard evolution. But his interests have largely “moved on”. In 2016 he resigned his formal associations with the ID community, including his Discovery Institute fellowship of 20 years. He currently supports his family by building educational software and websites.

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About ScottBuchanan

Ph D chemical engineer, interested in intersection of science with my evangelical Christian faith. This intersection includes creation(ism) and miracles. I also write on random topics of interest, such as economics, folding scooters, and composting toilets. Background: B.A. in Near Eastern Studies, a year at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a year working as a plumber and a lab technician. Then a B.S.E. and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Since then, conducted research in an industrial laboratory. Published a number of papers on heterogeneous catalysis, and an inventor on over 80 U.S. patents in diverse technical areas.
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6 Responses to Whatever Happened to Intelligent Design Theorist William Dembski?

  1. Rick Pulling says:

    Scott – I’m curious where you stand on the YE / ID discussion. As I think you are indicating, I am not sure most of us would fall into neat categories or tight camps. You have a good summary here of how things have “evolved” in the YE / ID ongoing discussions. Hope you’re doing well, Rick Pulling

  2. There are numerous ironies. In the US, Intelligent Design advocates are almost all Old Earth creationists, but their UK franchise (Centre for Intelligent Design), is supported and run by YECs. The Discovery Institute is behind “Academic Freedom” bills which would allow teachers in publicly funded schools to teach creationism, but has never spoken out for the academic freedom of those who teach in the numerous US Higher Education establishments that demand Young Earth orthodoxy. Having learnt here of Dembski’s personal circumstances, I take no joy in his humiliation, and stand appalled at his erstwhile colleagues across the theological spectrum who did nothing to help him.

    • Interesting info on the symbiosis between these two movements, thanks. I don’t recall the ID folks ever publically criticizing the YE folks – -they probably know they need at least marginal YE support. There seems to be more passion/energy, and maybe more numbers, in the YE movement than in ID. I think the YE folks tolerate ID much of the time as it serves their purposes.
      Where I have noticed young earthers going into attack mode on old earthers is when an old earther seems to be threatening the YE franchise. For instance, astronomer Hugh Ross’s Reasons to Believe is an old earth, anti-evolution ministry which stresses things like big bang origin of the universe and the fine-tuning of the physical constants of the universe [which I don’t want to argue about here…] . This ministry explicitly repudiates key YE claims, and competes with YE creationism for the attention of many conservative Christians — and so the YE spokesmen vigorously denounce Hugh Ross as a dangerous deceiver.
      I think part of the reason that the YE crowd attacked Bill Dembski so viciously is that he was teaching at one of a handful of largish seminaries that is explicitly or primarily pro- young earth. So the young earthers did not want to see Southwestern seminary start to go the way of “compromise”.

  3. Heather says:

    Wow, thanks for documenting this. How intelligent design and evolution (or subscribing to the theory) became a salvation issue I’ll never understand. As a layman, I still struggle with reconciling the fall and birth of sin within evolution, but I sure do appreciate the thoughtful and non-hysterical way you present information. I wish there was a perfect church where conservative evangelicals could also believe in science facts. Choosing between a progressive church (which isn’t where I believe on most issues) or the conservative church (which alienates science thinkers among other things) is frustrating.

    • Heather, I feel the same way. I’m not sure what the answer is.

      Since I can’t seem to find a whole church that meets the criteria you articulated, the way I cope personally is to seek out individuals that do. In the evangelical church I attend, there seems to be gentlemen’s agreement to not talk about creationism, since it is seen as divisive. We are in the northeastern U.S., where fundamentalism is not as strong, and there is a fairly high average level of education in our congregation. However, I have learned that most people there would be scandalized if I told them that I thought evolution is true. There are, however, a few other scientists in the pews, so we can quietly affirm each other off on the side.

      If you are into science, I’d like to suggest the American Scientific Affiliation as a resource. Their annual gatherings are a wonderful place to meet other evangelical Christians who are clued into the scientific facts. We try to go at least every other year, and have found some good friends there. This article gives the flavor of the kinds of things that go on there: https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2015/08/09/some-highlights-of-american-scientific-affiliation-2015-meeting/

      Other suggestions — Intervarsity Christian Fellowship is very dedicated to intellectual integrity, which of course translates into being open to genuine science. While they don’t make a point of opposing YE creationists, IV Press has published at least one pro-evolution book, How I Changed My Mind About Evolution. My daughter, as a young adult in search of intelligent Christian fellowship, for a while attended the Intervarsity graduate student fellowship at a local university, even though she was not a student there.

      A church, actually a church network now, which blends rigorous thinking and Bible faith is Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, https://www.redeemer.com/ . The pastor, Tim Keller, is highly educated and is able to hold his own in an atmosphere of intense skepticism. I think you could listen to any of his on-line sermons or podcasts and come away stimulated and edified. I don’t think he himself can quite stomach full-on human evolution b/c of issues of original sin, but he does not make an issue of it.

      I have sketched out my views on Bible/creation/evolution here:
      https://letterstocreationists.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/evolution-and-faith-my-story-part-2/
      That article touches on the Adam/original sin issue, and has a link to a more in-depth article on that subject.

      Best regards…

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