Dembski and the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind

The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.

— Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994)

William DembskiTime was, Bill Dembski was among the leading voices for “intelligent design.” His books provided the mathematicotheological Jello on which the movement thrived. His personal blog, filled with chest-thumping rants and red meat to the faithful, became a group blog coauthored by some of the biggest names in ID (outside the Discovery Institute). His presence at Baylor University briefly lent the ID movement credibility, his disgrace there made him (and ID) a cause célèbre, and his various attempts to worm his way back into Harvard-on-the-Brazos just made for good entertainment.

Then he dropped off the radar for anyone without a passionate curiosity about the creationist scene.

Having been pushed out of Baylor for antagonizing the faculty while trying to confer the school’s blessings on ID and before trying to sneak back in using money fronted through the Disco. ‘tute, he decamped to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and then reoriented to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is there no longer.

Not long ago, Dembski revealed a bit of why he departed fundamentalist academia. At Southwestern Baptist, he wrote a book which seemed to be sympathetic to the view—consonant with all the available science—that Earth is billions of years old. This created a stir, in light of the Southern Baptist Convention’s endorsement of scientific creationism and presumably its view on the age of the Earth. He was called before the school’s luminaries, and crafted a careful statement explaining his views on, of all things, Noah’s flood (which he felt one could interpret more flexibly than the Southwestern Baptist leadership did). Having hedged his true feelings to keep his job, he resolved to move on. He explains:

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.

Now, one could take this moment to wonder where Ben Stein and the Expelled: No Intelligence… crew were in 2010 when all this was going down. One could snark about the collapse of ID’s “big tent” approach to questions of the age of Earth, Noah’s flood, etc. But let’s rise above that impulse (except to note [or gloat] that the film company associated with Expelled was liquidated in bankruptcy the next year).

Dembski’s fall is part and parcel of a long-term failure of the evangelical community, one which Mark Noll, an evangelical historian (in both senses—a historian who studies evangelicals, who happens to be evangelical), identified decades ago in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994). He argued that evangelicals persistently failed to engage with the broader culture, even at their own institutions of higher learning. Noting the creation of colleges by evangelical leaders Bill Bright, Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, Noll observed: “Despite the absence of formal educational credentials, each man presumes to establish a Christian university. Small wonder that evangelical thinking so often appears naïve, inept, or tendentious.”

To be sure, a few evangelical colleges…have made some progress in the postwar years at promoting scholarship alongside the more general goals of broad learning and basic Christian orientation. But the distance remaining before such places become first-rate reservoirs of thought is still very great.

Later, Noll observes, discussing the rise of fundamentalism in late-nineteenth-century America:

One of the additional consequences from the dogmatic kind of biblical literalism that gained increasing strength among evangelicals toward the end of the nineteenth century was reduced space for academic debate, intellectual experimentation, and nuanced discrimination between shades of opinion. This situation also had an anti-intellectual effect by driving out of fundamentalism at least some intellectuals who, though entirely content with classical Christian orthodoxy, found the odes of fundamentalism a disgrace.

Which brings us back to Bill Dembski’s travails. His narrative of the exit from Southwestern Baptist continues:

Sometimes I marvel at my own naiveté. I wrote The End of Christianity thinking that it might be a way to move young-earth creationists from their position that the earth and universe are only a few thousand years old by addressing the first objection that they invariably throw at an old-earth position, namely, the problem of natural evil before the Fall. I thought that by proposing my retroactive view of the Fall, that I was addressing their concern and thus that I might see some positive movement toward my old-earth position.

Boy, was I ever wrong. As a professional therapist once put it to me, the presenting problem is never the real problem. I quickly found out that the young-earth theologians I was dealing with were far less concerned about how the Fall could be squared with an old earth than with simply preserving the most obvious interpretation of Genesis 1–3, namely, that the earth and universe are just a few thousand years old. Again, we’re talking the fundamentalist impulse to simple, neat, pat answers. Now I’ll readily grant that the appeal to complexity can be a way of evading the truth. But so can the appeal to simplicity, and fundamentalism loves keeping things simple.

Again, consider Mark Noll’s diagnosis from 1994:

Creation science has damaged evangelicalism by making it much more difficult to think clearly about human origins, the age of the earth, and mechanisms of geological or biological change. But it has done more profound damage by undermining the ability to look at the world God has made and to understand what we see when we do look. Fundamentalist habits of mind have been more destructive than individual creationist conclusions. Because those habits of mind are compounded of unreflective aspects of nineteenth-century procedure alongside tendentious aspects of fundamentalist ideology, they have done serious damage to Christian thinking.

Whether the academy is stronger or weaker for Dembski’s absence I leave to others to judge. But the academy thrives on a diversity of voices, and when scholars are free to explore ideas without ideological interference. As Noll argued compellingly over twenty years ago, the absence of evangelical voices from academic debates weakens the academy, even as the evangelical disconnect from the life of the mind harms evangelical culture. None of those ideas ought to have been news to Dembski, who spent much of his career claiming to be a brave voice against censorship. When he was pressed to retract his inflammatory remarks about his colleagues at Baylor, Dembski insisted, “for me to retract [them] would be tantamount to giving in to the censorship and vilification against me that had been a constant feature since I arrived on campus. I could not and would not betray all that I have worked for in my professional career.” He spun that experience into his star turn in Expelled, speaking out against the supposed censorship of secular academia. But the only real censorship he seems to have faced came in the evangelical academy, and it’s taken him years to speak out against that scandal of the evangelical mind.

Josh Rosenau
Short Bio

Josh Rosenau is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.