11/10/2010 02:47 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

In the Creationist Universe, Religious Dogma Trumps Scientific Inquiry

While the results of the midterm elections provided some evidence on the state of the economy, there's a far clearer indicator of just how bad things are. William Dembski, one of the main proponents of intelligent design, has recanted his scientific views in an attempt to keep his job. As philosopher Michael Ruse has said, explaining but not condoning Dembski's actions, "here he is with a wife and kids to support and the threat of the sack."

The issue is as clear as any could be and demonstrates the kind of litmus test that proponents of religious fundamentalism impose on their adherents -- even on their stars. And make no mistake about it, William Dembski is a first order star in the intelligent design firmament. He is a prolific author who has earned both a Ph.D. in mathematics as well as a Masters of Divinity degree. He is a fellow of the Discovery Institute and a professor of philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Indeed, you can't read anything about intelligent design without encountering Dembski's arguments in support of this version of creationism.

And yet, according to an article in Florida Baptist Witness, even his stellar creationist credentials were not enough to keep the inquisitors from his door. As the article describes it, Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, called Dembski into his office along with "several high-ranking administrators at the seminary."

At issue were two of Dembski's beliefs, as expressed in his latest book The End of Christianity and elsewhere: that the earth is 4.5 billion years old and the universe 14 billion years, and that Noah's flood was regional rather than worldwide.

Again, according to the article in Florida Baptist Witness, "At that meeting, Dembski was quick to admit that he was wrong about the flood, Patterson said."

Patterson went on to say, "Had I had any inkling that Dr. Dembski was actually denying the absolute trustworthiness of the Bible, then that would have, of course, ended his relationship with the school."

Prior to the meeting but in response to growing criticism (and in direct contradiction to what he said in The End of Christianity), Dembski wrote, "As a biblical inerrantist, I believe that what the Bible teaches is true and bow to the text, including its teaching about the Flood and its universality."

This simple admission, an acknowledgement that he "bow[s] to the text" on issues of science, removes Dembski from any consideration as a real scientist. Consider his statement of faith in light of the motto adopted in the 1600s by the Royal Society of London, the oldest extant scientific society in the world. Their motto, a translation and a paraphrase of a line from Horace's Epistulae, reads as follows:

I am not bound to swear allegiance to any master.

Where the storm carries me, I put into port and make myself at home.

Real scientists let the evidence lead them to their conclusions. The pseudoscientists known as creationists use the Bible to generate their conclusions and twist the data to conform. What is so very sad, if not surprising, is that previously Dembski claimed to rely on science for part of his work. For example:

I do not regard Genesis as a scientific text. I have no vested theological interest in the age of the earth or the universe. I find the arguments of geologists persuasive when they argue for an earth that is 4.5 billion years old. What's more, I find the arguments of astrophysicists persuasive when they argue for a universe that is approximately 14 billion years old. I believe they got it right. Even so, I refuse to be dogmatic here. I'm willing to listen to arguments to the contrary. Yet to date I've found none of the arguments for a young earth or a young universe convincing. Nature, as far as I'm concerned, has an integrity that enables it to be understood without recourse to revelatory texts.

To be fair to those who have forced Dembski to walk away from his scientific principles, at this point some, but certainly not all, are willing to turn a blind eye to his old earth views if not his views on Noah's Flood. The Florida Baptist Witness notes that Patterson "believes that proper exegesis of the early chapters in Genesis requires a young earth. But he also said that young- and old-earth creationists banding together to combat evolution is more important than internal debates among creationists."

So, while Patterson would fire Dembski over his views on the Flood, when it comes to the age of the earth, he takes the position that any enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Not everyone agrees with that view, though. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary said, "Theologically, the historical Adam as the common ancestor of the human race is the most important issue. But the question is, how in the world do you end up with an historical Adam if you have an old earth? It's becoming increasingly clear that an old earth implies something other than an historical Adam." Kurt Wise, yet another prominent creationist and a professor of biology at Truett-McConnell College said, "it is impossible to consistently believe in both an old earth and inerrant Scripture."

Although the news of Dembski's retractions appeared a few weeks back, I waited to write about it to see how the creationist community would respond. Surely, those who vigorously promoted Ben Stein's movie Expelled (a film that famously pretended that a scientific orthodoxy relentlessly fired world class scientists who held dissenting views) would come to his defense. Not surprisingly, not a peep of protest has been heard.

Ben Stein meet Paige Patterson, apparently the most moderate of the fundamentalist inquisitors: "Had I had any inkling that Dr. Dembski was actually denying the absolute trustworthiness of the Bible, then that would have, of course, ended his relationship with the school."