Reports of the National Center for Science Education

(Phillip Johnson's) Response to Edward Davis

[In RNCSE 18(6) we published a review essay by Edward B Davis which examined 3 major books focused on the issue of design in nature. In this issue we print a response from Professor Phillip Johnson of the University of California at Berkeley, followed by Davis's reply.]

On the whole, I thought the review essay on the Intelligent Design Movement by Edward B Davis (Nov/Dec. 1998 issue) was thoughtful and fair-minded. So I write not to complain, but to clarify a single point.

Davis says that I needlessly polarize the debate by referring to methodological naturalism (MN) as "methodological atheism," and by trying "to equate evolution and MN with atheism." Not exactly, as they say in the rental car commercial. I did use the term "methodological atheism" in Chapter 5 of my book Reason in the Balance>, but that was in the context of my response to Fuller Theological Seminary Professor Nancey Murphy, who had used that term before me.

In fact I think that atheism and naturalism are significantly different, and that naturalism is by far the more effective in eliminating God from reality. Atheists (like Richard Dawkins or William Provine) call attention to the importance of the "God question" by noisily insisting that God does not exist. The scientific leadership could not endorse the Dawkins/Provine view and still insist that "science and religion are separate realms." If Darwinian evolution and theism are conflicting answers to the same question ("Who created us - God or nature?"), then it is very difficult to justify saying only that only one answer may be considered in public education, or even in scientific research. Provine recognizes this, and combines his own advocacy of atheism with calls for opening the discussion - in the science classroom and elsewhere - to advocates of theism who think they have evidence to support their position. Wiser heads in the scientific community regard such an open debate as an invitation to disaster.

Atheism accepts the legitimacy of the "God question" by giving a negative answer. A more effective way of disposing of the question is to rule it out of order as irrelevant in science, where we study what really happened. Scientific naturalism accomplishes this by teaching that science is committed by definition to methodological naturalism and that we can have "knowledge" only of things that science can investigate. Instead of "God does not exist," the scientific naturalist position is that "we have no need for that hypothesis." For intellectual purposes, Occam's razor takes care of the rest of the job. Anyone who wants to bring up God (or intelligent design) is banished instantly to the realm of "religious belief", where subjectivity (faith) rules and there is no objective knowledge to be found.

This is the strategy of Stephen Jay Gould's "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA) proposal, for example. Religious people may take their seats as citizens when subjects like moral values are under consideration, but they must cede to science (guided by MN) the sole authority to describe factual reality. When the religious people accept that division, as many do, they implicitly concede that God is just as real as Zeus and Santa Claus.

By Phillip E Johnson
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.