Friday, June 10, 2016

Dembski: oppressed by the suffocating trappings of piety

Dembski, devout, faithful...and yet reasonable!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; ID guru William Dembski not only gives every impression of being a nice guy but I think the implications of his work deserve serious attention. However, like some of the other nice guys I’ve mentioned in my blogs (see here, here and here) Dembski has ended up getting the rough end of the deal. If my reading of the situation is right then poor Dembski has fallen between two stools: It seems that the respected Baylor Baptist University found him “too fundamentalist” whereas more recently his ex-employer, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) in Fort Worth, Texas found him not fundamentalist enough with the consequence that Dembski has swung away from fundamentalism. (That’s not such a bad thing!). Wiki has an item on the Baylor controversy, but the details of the later contention at SWBTS  have only surfaced recently in a post on Dembski’s blog entitled “Disillusion with Fundamentalism”.  I would say that Dembski is now as conservative an evangelical as I once was; but he is not a liberal by any stretch of the imagination, although I would call him an intelligent and reasonable evangelical. Below I quote from Dembski’s blog with my comments interleaved.

But before I continue I must qualify my position on Dembski. Although I believe his work should receive more attention, I would nevertheless not accept the constructions that some of Dembski’s interpreters on the Christian right have placed on his work. They (and perhaps even Dembski himself - although see here) have read a “God of the Gaps” meaning into Dembski’s conclusions probably as an outcome of their a priori naturalism vs intelligence paradigm. This is something I have argued against. (See here for example) and will continue to argue against in future articles. But that is by the by. What I would like to focus on here is the oppressive fundamentalist atmosphere from which Dembski eventually managed to extricate himself. To me Dembski’s story has some similarities with that of Raymond Franz, ex-Watchtower (Jehovah’s Witnesses) governing body member who was disfellowshipped by the organisation in 1981. (A story that can be read in Franz’s book “Crisis of Conscience”)

The trouble at SWBTS started for Dembski after the publication of his book The End of Christianity, which according to Wiki:

…. argued that a Christian can reconcile an old Earth creationist view with a literal reading of Adam and Eve in the Bible by accepting the scientific consensus of a 4.5 billion year of Earth.[43] He further argued that Noah's flood likely was a phenomenon limited to the Middle East.[44]

In Dembski’s words:

My solution is to argue that the Fall had retroactive effects in history (much as the salvation of Christ on the Cross acts not only forward in time to save people now, but also backward in time to save the Old Testament saints).

My Comment: I don’t accept the aggrandised cosmic status that the fall of humanity has in evangelical theology. Briefly: If the serpent of Genesis is to be linked with Satan in some way then it is possible to take this as evidence of a fall prior to the fall of humanity. In fact in an article entitled “Who was the Serpent?” the fundamentalist ministry Creation Ministries International identifies the serpent as the agent of Satan (See: and then goes on to talk about Satan’s fall (My emphasis):

[Satan] fell through pride (1 Timothy 3:6), and we deduce that this event must have been after the sixth day of creation, when God ‘saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good ’ (Genesis 1:31), and before the Fall of man, recorded in Genesis 3.

So here we have a fundamentalist ministry admitting some kind of imperfection prior to the fall of man, but CMI rightly admits:

God has chosen not to tell us very much about the origin and apostasy of Satan.

That is, we can’t draw comprehensive conclusions about cosmic “imperfection” being exclusively down to the fall of man. It is also possible that the presence of imperfection implicit in the serpent story is actually intrinsic to the creation itself rather than being introduced at some point. After all, the propensity for an agent, whether man or Satan, to fall is in itself suggestive of an a priori performance vulnerability. Moreover, Genesis 1 uses the word “good” as opposed to “perfect”, a word that Denis Alexander says actually meant “fit for purpose” and therefore shouldn’t be confused with “perfection”. There is also the ambiguous expression of the origin of cosmic weakness and vanity in Romans 8:20-22.  The upshot is that even on evangelical terms there isn’t an obliging theological case for Dembski’s retroactive effects of the fall; imperfection predates man.

Dembski says the following about his book:

Don't ask questions!
The book is a piece of speculative theology, and I’m not convinced of all of its details. It’s been interesting, however, to see the reaction in some Christian circles, especially the fundamentalist ones. Ken Ham went ballistic on it, going around the country denouncing me as a heretic, and encouraging people to write to my theological employers to see to it that I get fired for the views I take in it.

At one point in the book, I examine what evolution would look like within the framework I lay out. Now, I’m not an evolutionist. I don’t hold to universal common ancestry. I believe in a real Adam and Eve (i.e., an original human pair) specially created by God apart from primate ancestors. Friends used to joke that my conservativism, both politically and theologically, put me to the right of Attila the Hun. And yet, for merely running the logic of how a retroactive view of the Fall would look from the vantage of Darwinian theory (which I don’t accept), I received email after email calling me a compromiser and someone who has sold out the faith (the emails are really quite remarkable).

My Comment: Here we can actually see evidence of just how conservative Dembski’s evangelicalism actually is and yet the fundamentalist heretic hunt started in earnest once his book had been published. Having had first-hand experience of fundamentalism I could have told Dembski that he was never going to put the nasty genie back in bottle unless he recanted.  We all know about Ken Ham going into “Hell and Hamnation” mode and the only way to stop that is to concede the Divine authority of Ham’s opinions. Contrast that with Dembski’s very admirable self-critical attitude: Viz: “The book is a piece of speculative theology and I’m not convinced of all of its details” Excellent! Notice also that fundamentalists just didn’t understand Dembski’s very intellectual approach of studied detachment: He was able to work through and explore the logic of a case he was not necessarily committed to. But Fundamentalism in its intellectual bankruptcy just doesn’t allow this kind of exploratory detached intellectual inquiry. Not surprisingly Dembski has turned against fundamentalism and goes on to condemn fundamentalism as follows (My emphases):

There’s a mentality I see prevalent in conservative Christian circles that one can never be quite conservative enough. This got me thinking about fundamentalism and the bane it is. It’s one thing to hold views passionately. It’s another to hold one particular view so dogmatically that all others may not even be discussed, or their logical consequences considered. This worries me about the future of evangelicalism.
Don't think!
My Comment: Strong fighting talk! Although I’m not an evangelical I do have a lot in common with the kind of intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive, self-critical evangelicalism that Dembski represents.

What’s behind this is a sense of beleaguerment by the wider [fundamentalist] 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…… The reaction of fundamentalists was to me surprising, though in hindsight I probably should have expected it.

My Comment: Yes, Dembski should have expected it especially as it ought to be clear that the simple, neat, pat solutions offered by fundamentalists constitute their fearful over-reaction to the epistemic insecurity inherent in life’s messiness. I have worried this very question many times:

and so on….

Why was it surprising to me? I suppose because during my time at Princeton and Baylor, I myself was always characterized as a fundamentalist. “Fundamentalist” is typically a term of abuse….. But I intend fundamentalism here in a very particular sense.

My Comment: This is a reference to Dembski’s Baylor days when he was viewed as too fundamentalist. On what Dembski now understands by “fundamentalist” he says (My emphases):

 Be unreasonable!
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.

My Comment: You mean Bill you've only recently noticed that? Now that’s what I call a very strong definition of fundamentalism! It's a sign that Dembski was well and truly put through the wood chipper as fundie Mark Driscoll would say! But if that’s Christianity in action who wants it! Yes, it's a huge danger for all Christians. As I have said before, fundamentalism is one part doctrine and two parts attitude; something of that attitude comes out in what Dembski describes above and I interpret this attitude as a fearful paranoiac reaction against epistemic insecurity; the result is that Fundamentalists do not draw with light impressionistic lines, but with deep heavy bold black outlines that detract from the whole for the sake of the individual black and white demarcations that are so important to fundies for their certainty and in their heretic hunting.

For a concrete example of fundamentalism at its worst, consider how hyper-conservatives, pushing a jaundiced view of biblical inerrancy, have treated my good friend, colleague, and collaborator Mike Licona (we coedited a book titled Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science). Even though he holds to the entirely traditional view that Jesus resurrected bodily from the dead and is by any accounts conservative in his understanding of the New Testament’s historical reliability, he isn’t quite conservative enough for the hyper-conservatives…… In consequence, Licona has been ostracized by much of the seminary world in which I used to teach and lecture.

My Comment:  You bet! Raymond Franz could no doubt tell us a similar story.  Like Franz Dembski had to leave the fundamentalist institution that was so oppressive of his courageous search for truth:

Indeed, 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.

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…….. Again, we’re talking the fundamentalist impulse to simple, neat, pat answer

In any case, after the review of Tom Nettles [apparently a very condemning review - ed] appeared, I sensed a seismic shift against me at Southwestern Seminary where I was teaching. Previously I had been a golden boy, with my visage even being used to advertise the seminary in publications such as World Magazine. Now, however, fellow faculty showed a solicitude for me that I had not seen before, as though I might be facing the gallows.

My Comment: The gallows? How about the heretic’s pyre? Poor Dembski! Just like Franz he thought his sweet reasonableness might be catching and reciprocated. Big, big mistake and a big, big shock! Unfortunately for Dembski the cards were stacked against him and the fundamentalists had him over a barrel as we see below. The following is also reminiscent of Raymond Franz except that Dembski 's vulnerable circumstances were such that he was forced to fudge it:

 I was to meet in the president’s office, and those present would include the president, the provost, the dean of theology, and one of the senior professors. I knew that I was not up for the Nobel Prize or any honor that might warrant a meeting with such an august assembly. And so, with a keen sense for the obvious, I concluded that I was in a heap of trouble. Indeed, I was.

Therefore support your local gun dealer!
….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.

Blessed are the peace makers?
Upton Sinclair once remarked, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” In my own case, I would amend this to, “It is difficult to get a man to admit his actual beliefs when his salary depends on not admitting them.”

I was always up front with Southwestern Seminary about my old-earth views. But over time it became clear that I was increasingly in the minority and that the young-earth position was the safer one to assume. But over time it became clear that I was increasingly in the minority and that the young-earth position was the safer one to assume. Ironically, I had not misrepresented my views on Noah’s flood when I was hired at Southwestern Seminary—it simply didn’t come up. Indeed, the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, to which I had to subscribe, makes no mention of Noah’s flood, nor was I ever asked about it during my job interview and hiring process.

My Comment: To have the control of one’s income in the hands the enemies of free thought is an unenviable position to be in to say the least. Yes, it is deeply, deeply unhealthy for many reasons not least to intellectual life. This is the stale dank putrid air of fundamentalist oppression and one of the precursors of cultism.  Ironically it was the anti-ID biologist Andrea Bottaro on Panda’s thumb who, according to Dembski, saw through the charade of an apparent recantation by Dembki of his “heretical views” on Noah – it seems that the "Star Chamber" managed to intimidate Dembski into some kind of recantation. Dembski’s blog quotes Bottaro as follows (My emphases):

Dembski said he is an inerrantist, not a literalist. I am not really up to speed with fundie systematics, but I think that is a fairly significant difference (to them, at least).

Also, I am pretty sure Dembski had to be an inerrantist (or profess to be) in order to be hired to teach in any Baptist seminary, so I think the big news, if any, is basically that Dembski explicitly stated that at this time he actually believes in Noah’s ark myth as it is described in the Bible. It’s a silly belief, and his groveling for forgiveness should be brought up any time the IDists whine about academic freedom, but it still doesn’t make him a YEC [= young-earth creationism, WmAD].

Dembski’s book (reportedly—I have not read it) states that he believes that the evidence for an old earth is strong and that this evidence is compatible with an inerrantist interpretation of Genesis. Although he oh-hums on the topic in his recantation [i.e., my four paragraphs in the White Paper, WmAD], he has not recanted it, and that alone rules him out as a YEC. In fact, strictly speaking his current recantation also leaves him open to later recant the recantation itself, because what he actually says says is that the Bible “**seem[s]** clearly to teach” the historicity of the flood myth, pending his “exegetical, historical and theological” (and pointedly, not “scientific”) work on the topic.

My Comment: To me all this conjures up a picture not dissimilar to that of Galileo who recanted under duress.  Dembski continues:

As much as I hate to admit it, Bottaro got it exactly right. I would still regard myself as an inerrantist, but an inerrancy in what the Bible actually teaches, not an inerrancy in what a reflexive literalism would demand of the Bible. Have I, as Bottaro suggests, left myself open to recanting the recantation? I have. Without the threat of losing my job, I see Noah’s flood as a story with a theological purpose based on the historical occurrence of a local flood in the ancient Near East.

To date, I have not done the exegetical, historical, and theological work that I said I needed to do if I were weighing in on this topic again. But I’m not weighing in on this topic as a theologian or exegete or historian intent on making a rigorous argument. Having left seminary teaching for good, I’m now a private citizen entitled to my opinion.

My Comment:  As a private citizen Dembski doesn’t have to tow the line. He can now breathe the fresh air of academic freedom, freedom from the fancied divine authority of opinions that were in control his income. But I don’t think this is the last we will hear of William Dembski; at least I hope not. Now that he is free of fundamentalist bullies his work may have a renascence.

Yes, very right wing.
Summing Up: What an indictment this affair is on evangelico-fundamentalist educational institutions! It is in fact an all too human story of religious prejudice. But it’s happened before.  When I moved into Christianity the message of Grace, forgiveness, repentance and new life seemed like something from another world and it still does; for humans who instinctively think that merit with God is earned it is a very alien message and they resist taking it on board, especially fundamentalists. Fundamentalists of all flavours find it difficult to imagine that this free gift of salvation is available to those who don’t follow the specifics of their particular brand of spirituality. They just don’t get it. To them the elaborations of the faith are all important non-optionals and one’s faith is suspect if one doesn’t swallow whole and digest slowly all those non-optionals. See for example my own brush with fundamentalist Nigel Wright who ends his conversation with me quite sure that I need converting - to his views of course.

 All told I’m reminded of my visit to the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem which I recount here. In that essay I quote journalist H. V. Morton who wrote of his own visit to the church as follows:

The church gives an overwhelming impression of darkness and decay. ... the decay everywhere of stone, wood and iron was fantastic. I saw canvases, still framed, that were bleached white; the last fragments of paint had peeled off, but they were still in position. There were ominous cracks and fissures in stone and marble. I thought how odd that extreme devotion can have exactly the same effect as extreme neglect. The church of the Holy Sepulchre wears its air of shabby decay for the simple reason that re-hanging a picture, the repair of a stone, and even a window assume such gigantic importance in the eyes of the communities that they provoke a situation capable of indefinite postponement.
The first impression of the church is of a series of treasure caves. It is unlike the most ornate Roman Catholic church in Italy or Spain. Its richness and flamboyance are those of the orient. It is as though the spoils of Asia minor, of Russia, and of Greece, accumulating for centuries have been heaped in candle-light on the overburdened altars. Art and vulgarity stand side by side; A priceless chalice, the gift of an emperor, stands next to something tawdry and tinselly, that might have been pulled from a Christmas tree.
 ....Calvary, the holiest place on Earth. I looked round hoping to be able to detect some sign of its former aspect, but that has been obliterated for ever beneath the suffocation trappings of piety... I went away wishing that we might have known this place only in our hearts.  (from H. V. Morton's "In the Steps of the Master") 

Darkness and an air of shabby decay, extreme devotion, art and vulgarity side by side, tawdry and tinselly elaborations and above all the suffocating trappings of piety – I have found Morton’s passage the perfect metaphor for Christian fundamentalist piety.  Like Morton I wish I had only known Cavalry in my heart and had never met the domineering and sometimes downright tyrannical Christian fundamentalists!

The Cultural Logic of Late Fundamentalism

Postscript: 20 June
I've said something like the following many times before, especially on my VNP blog: Fundamentalists believe that in the Bible they have an unequivocal unambiguous revelation about endless doctrinal minutia. They believe that through this "direct" revelation they have managed to all but bypass epistemic uncertainty, ambiguity and the fallibility of human inference. The hardened fundamentalist consequently closely identifies his opinions with God's opinions and vice versa. 

Given this foundational epistemic the grim logic of the heresy hunt then quickly asserts itself: Because in their view revelation is received manifestly correctly and unquestioningly intuitively it follows that dissenters, whether they be liberals, moderate evangelicals like Dembski or one of the many other diverse fundamentalist groups (in fact especially other fundamentalists), they are all likely to be viewed by fundies as guilty willful heretics with a bad conscience. Hence, acrimonious rows very easily break out, especially between fundamentalists themselves where there is a lack of compliance on both sides. It is this logic of heresy which is probably at the bottom of Dembski's discomfiture: Because in the fundamentalist estimation he is likely to be seen as a willful heretic with a bad conscience then the protestant equivalent of excommunication (i.e. disfellowshipment) is a logical outcome, and in the fundamentalist's judgement entirely justified. 

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