Review: The Wedge of Truth

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
20
Year: 
2000
Issue: 
6
Date: 
November–December
Page(s): 
11–13
Reviewer: 
John F Haught
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism
Author(s): 
Phillip E Johnson
Downers Grove (IL): InterVarsity Press, 2000. 192 pages.
Paul Tillich, the great German and American theologian, warned theologians never to embrace or reject any scientific idea for purely theological reasons. Such a strategy is theologically injudicious not only because scientific ideas are always subject to revision but also because new ideas from science can be an important stimulus to theological development.

One such idea has been that of evolution. Followers of Tillich's dictum do not reject or edit Darwin's "dangerous idea" if at first it seems not to sit well with certain inherited theological ideas. Instead they embrace it in all of its raggedness and, if need be, modify their theology accordingly. Although skeptics might consider such theological revision a defeat for religion, the fact is that religious thought has often undergone important change in the face of new intellectual challenges. Otherwise it might have died.

Phillip Johnson, however, wants nothing to do with theological revision. A (now-retired) University of California-Berkeley law professor and not a professional theologian, Johnson has written another in a series of books and articles drumming home his opinion that evolutionary science is simply theologically unacceptable. He already knows exactly what he wants in his vision of the universe, and evolutionary science's picture of life does not fit the bill. Unlike Tillich, who refused to allow theology to dictate to science, Johnson has made a second career of telling his readers what to think about evolutionary biology. In each new publication, his message to them is the same: if they want anything to do with God, they must renounce the central tenets of evolutionary biology.

Johnson's anti-evolutionary argument has itself undergone no significant evolution since he wrote Darwin on Trial (Washington DC: Regnery Gateway, 1991). We can always safely predict the contours of his impeccable logic:

Major premise:

Philosophical naturalism is atheism.

Minor premise:

Evolutionary science is philosophical naturalism.

Conclusion:

Therefore, evolutionary science is really atheism.

In The Wedge of Truth Johnson does not disappoint us. As always, he is readable, interesting, and often clever. But after making our way through this thin volume, we find that the old familiar refrain sounds through once again: The ruling philosophy of modern culture is naturalism, materialism, or physicalism, and evolutionary science is the main carrier of this dour metaphysics. We find here yet again Johnson's firm refusal to accept the distinction that most religious thinkers and scientists make between methodological and philosophical naturalism. To Johnson it seems that if evolutionary science leaves out God as part of its method, this will likely lead scientifically educated people to leave out God in their extrascientific interpretations of the world as well. While most of us are willing to let science refrain from any comments on value, purpose, and the existence of God, Johnson is not. Here again he takes evolutionary biology's silence about things religious to be an outright denial of God's existence.

What is fresh in this book is some of the imagery in Johnson's otherwise predictable message. The "Wedge" of truth will split the "modern" naturalistic synthesis asunder. Its cutting edge consists of the brave (and academically marginalized) defenders of "Intelligent Design", especially William Dembski, Michael Behe, and Johnson himself. Inserted into "the log of naturalism" and hammered home by Johnson's logic, the Wedge — in combination with the cultural influence of evangelical Christianity — will breach the palisade of scientific naturalism and expose the infectious evolutionary ideas that are its main carrier.

The fissure at which the Wedge penetrates the log of materialism is Darwin's science. Once the Wedge has splayed open evolution as nothing more than a decaying veneer of bark that conceals the trunk of atheist propaganda, Darwinism will begin to lose its hold on the minds of people, including teachers and students. Maybe the next generation of Americans will have begun to get things right once again, and science textbooks will have been purged of the idea that new species of life can gradually evolve by natural selection over the course of time from a common ancestry.

Since I am one of the evolution-friendly theologians The Wedge brands as "modernist" compromisers of truth, Johnson will not be surprised that I would find fault lines in his own unchanging position on evolution, science, and theology. These are really not hard to locate.

First of all, there is Johnson's highly edited version of biology as ruling out macroevolution (he accepts "microevolution" but claims that it cannot lead to whole new biological types). In rebuttal, there is no need here to reprise the scientific information on evolution that most readers of RNCSE have at their fingertips. From my own point of view, though, what is particularly striking is Johnson's violation of the now well-established principle that theology has no business dictating what the range of data for scientific understanding will include. Without admitting it, Johnson, the would-be theologian, is telling scientists to avoid any data that do not fit the Wedge's idea of "Intelligent Design". In effect, this means that he — along with Dembski, Behe, and others — is asking biologists to leave out most of the fascinating story of life on earth.

Second, there is Johnson's unwavering insistence that the evolutionary idea of natural selection is inherently atheistic. While it is no doubt true that some scientific defenders of Darwinism do read natural selection through the lenses of philosophical materialism, the scientific idea itself cannot be any more inherently atheistic than is the law of gravity or any other law of nature. If some scientists see atheism as a consequence of evolutionary science, then they are no less guilty of violating the canons of scientific method than is Phillip Johnson, who fully concurs with them in this belief. They are implicitly lending their scientific authority to the minor premise of Johnson's syllogism. In doing so, they themselves unwittingly sabotage science education in an overwhelmingly theistic social setting.

If the evolutionist, in a pensive moment, opines that a universe sponsoring such a "cruel" or "impersonal" process as natural selection must surely be a godless one, let it be admitted that such reflection is not itself part of scientific work. Science does not admit of such metaphysical intrusions. If there is any value in Johnson's work, perhaps it consists in its oblique rebuke to those scientists who recklessly engage in a mixing of science with materialist ideology and then call this amalgam "science". Such a fusion, after all, is no less methodologically inadmissible than Johnson's own conflation of a heavily edited version of biological science with the incurably theological notion of "Intelligent Design".

Third, there is Johnson's theologically disputable squeezing of the idea of God into the mold of "Intelligent Design". To Johnson's credit, he does turn our attention to an issue that deserves serious attention, namely the meaning of "information" and its place in nature. Yet he tends to merge the notion of information with his own rather restrictive idea of design, and then attributes its presence directly to divine influence.

Johnson and other "Intelligent Design" advocates are too eager to bring God into the picture. A God brought in so hastily, however, is inevitably too small for both our minds and our spirits, and will eventually die. The best of our religious wisdom, after all, tells us that God is a reality for which we must somehow wait, perhaps across endless ages. Moreover, as Tillich also wisely says, we are stronger when we wait than when we possess. A God hastily associated with "design" as Johnson conceives of it is too easily possessed, too small to fit the real world, and may not be worth waiting for.

About the Author(s): 
James F Haught, PhD
Department of Theology
Georgetown University
37th & O Street NW
Washington DC 20057-1135