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The Rhetorical Problem of Intelligent Design
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The Rhetorical Problem of Intelligent Design Phillip E. Johnson The greatest hurdle faced by the Intelligent Design (hereafter ID) movement is to overcome the prejudice that says that to attribute anything in biology to a Designer is to engage in "religion" rather than "science." To put the same prejudice in other words, Darwinists assume that ID amounts to "creationism," and therefore it must rest on a literal interpretation of the Bible rather than upon empirical evidence . It matters not a whit that the advocates of ID talk only of scientific evidence and the Darwinists are the ones who want to bring the Bible into the discussion. I have encountered this kind of response hundreds of times. After I have explained why the scientific evidence does not support Darwinian claims for the supposed vast creative power of natural selection, Darwinists typically respond by saying something about the need to keep religion and science separate. The bottom line is always the same: "ID violates the rules of the game no matter what the evidence, because an unyielding philosophical materialism is the basis of all science." Of course a "science" that is defined as applied materialist philosophy will always end up concluding that the apparent wonders of design in biology (whose existence everybody acknowledges) are actually produced by the operation of purposeless material processes such as random mutation and natural selection. As long as materialist prejudice bars the door, the advocates of ID cannot get a hearing regardless of how much evidence they have. But why does the prejudice have so much power, and how can it be overcome? I will answer that question in terms of Stanley Fish's model of how liberal rationalism sets the boundaries of political and academic discussion , particularly with respect to claims involving God. Fish, who is not only a distinguished literary scholar but also a professor of law, has set out his model in a 1997 article in the Columbia Law Review, and also in an exchange with Richard John Neuhaus in the February 1996 issue of Fz'rsf Things.1 Fish begins with John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), written after a century of religious conflict had shown the need for a formula that would Phillip E. Johnson is the Jefferson E. Peyser Professor of Law at the University of California in Berkeley, California. © Rhetoric & Public Affairs Vol. 1, No. 4,1998, pp. 587-591 ISSN 1094-8392 588 Rhetoric & Public Affairs enable conflicting religious factions to live together in peace, while still providing the government with enough authority to rule. British Protestants had renounced the authority of the Pope, and subsequently had beheaded one king (Charles I) and driven another into exile (James II). After those events, it was clear that no human authority could impose uniformity in religion at any acceptable cost. Moreover, Locke's own theology taught him that every man should be left free to work out his own salvation as his conscience dictates. Locke therefore recognized that, because "every church is orthodox to itself," there can be no neutral vantage point from which one can judge which church is the true one, and so the government's policy should be one of tolerance. On the other hand there must be some limit to what is tolerated, or people would justify all sorts of crimes on the basis of religious motivation . Locke put the point in the form of a rhetorical question: "if some congregations should have in mind to sacrifice infants... or practise any other such heinous enormities, is the magistrate obliged to tolerate them, because they are committed in a religious assembly?"2 The answer of course is "no." As to matters which the civil government considers to be fundamental, religious dissidents, like everybody else, must conform to the law. The policy of tolerance applies only to matters which are properly for private decision, such as the form of worship. But of course this very division privileges the governing ideology, which sets the boundary between what is public and what is private, and stigmatizes the outsiders. To believers in infant sacrifice—or in a right to abortion, to substitute a contemporary illustration—such killings are not heinous...