Ya Gotta Believe!
Biology professor Michael Dini of Texas Tech University made himself a media celebrity by publishing on his web page his criteria for recommending students to medical school. Dini requires that a student seeking a recommendation be earning an A in his class and be well known by him. So far so good, but he also demands that the student affirm “truthfully and forthrightly” a scientific answer to the question, “How do you think the human species originated?” Dini’s words appear to mean that a student seeking a recommendation must not only demonstrate an understanding of evolution but also affirm a personal belief that the human species originated purely by natural causes and not by divine creation.
This last requirement became newsworthy when the US Department of Justice advised Professor Dini that it was investigating a student’s complaint that the requirement of belief in evolutionary naturalism violated his right to religious freedom. The legal case is somewhat hypothetical because the student in question withdrew from the course before earning a grade. Nonetheless, the complaint received newspaper coverage in Dallas, Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and London, with editorialists all supporting the professor’s right to impose his own standards. I wonder what the reaction of the same pundits would have been if a professor were requiring prospective medical doctors to affirm a belief in the sanctity of human life.
What interests me about the Dini case is why such a dispute erupted at this time, why it escalated, and why it attracted so much attention around the nation and even abroad. Texas Tech University competes for state funding with more powerful universities, in a state where many voters are creationists. The last thing it needs is to antagonize public opinion, yet Professor Dini picked a fight over belief in Darwinism, and the president of his university supported him. Some may also wonder why a Christian public interest law firm chose this case to pursue, and why the Justice Department invited editorial criticism by getting involved.
I have wondered why no journalist perceived that the dispute, however offbeat, raised a significant issue of principle that ought to have appealed to liberals. That educators should require only knowledge and not belief is an important tenet of Enlightenment rationalism, often invoked in liberal circles to distinguish secular from religious education, to the disadvantage of the latter. It is commonplace in law schools to say that compulsory affirmation of belief is a defining feature of totalitarian regimes, because coerced endorsement is more intrusive than prohibition of dissent. That is why religious dissenters may not be compelled to salute the flag, even in wartime.
An irony of our times is that liberals, who once proudly styled themselves as “freethinkers,” and never imagined that they would one day be enforcers of dogma, are in a position, particularly in public education, to impose their prejudices on others. Now a burning issue is whether dissenters from the liberal credo should be permitted to do their own freethinking about such explosive subjects as abortion, homosexuality, and evolution. Freedom to disbelieve in the dominant creed should always be an appealing cause for true liberals. Sometimes the dissenters may seem unreasonable, but this just gives liberals a better opportunity to demonstrate that they stick to their principles even in the hardest cases, as when the ACLU defended the right of Nazis to hold a parade in the Jewish community of Skokie, Illinois.
Why did this dispute occur now, rather than earlier? The creation/evolution dispute is an active volcano in the United States again, with believers in creation convinced that the tide is at last turning in their favor as the Darwinists lose ground both in public opinion and in science. Many biology classes still teach that the classic peppered moth story shows the power of natural selection and that textbook illustrations of embryonic similarities prove evolutionary relationships. However, many people have found out what is wrong with the standard evidence for evolution, and skeptical students make a point of broadcasting what they know.
Journalists and biology teachers are fascinated by this renewal of an ancient conflict. Some are perplexed that creationists will not believe that their cause is hopeless, while others are alarmed by what they imagine to be a resurgence of religious fanaticism in America, something like the explosion of Islamic extremism around the world. Those who are alarmed and frustrated by their inability to persuade the public feel an urge to assert their authority before matters get out of hand.
If you take the challenge to evolutionary naturalism at all seriously, there is plenty of reason to be alarmed, because the stakes are immense. To see why, just consider the profound changes that occurred in Europe and America after the Darwinian triumph discredited what had previously been the prevailing doctrine about how the human and other species originated. One priesthood was dethroned, while another took its place and still rules the cognitive realm. There were consequences for biology, but far greater consequences for such cultural matters as the basis of law. God and his Commandments, once universally respected, became divisive concepts unfit for public display.
Could the Darwinian scriptures ever be discredited in their turn? That may seem impossible on the basis of the myth of linear progress we all absorbed in school, but our teachers did not foresee the changes we are witnessing. Who could have imagined the headlines of today only a few years ago, when our government was arming Islamic militants to destabilize the mighty Soviet Union? Or who could have predicted that it would become legally risky to express disapproval of homosexuality? Conventional thinking about what is possible seems to have overlooked something important.
In the case of Darwinism, that something is easy to describe. Our cognitive mandarins found evolutionary naturalism so congenial a philosophy that they thought it unimportant that nobody had ever proved that the Darwinian mechanism of random genetic variation, winnowed by differential survival and reproduction, ever could or did accomplish any significant biological creation. The spirit of the time allowed the most important element in the Darwinian scenario to be assumed, with the absence of proof concealed behind a myth of progress and a definition of “science” that made Darwinism virtually true by deduction.
As the myth of progress falters, thinking people are beginning to awake from their dogmatic slumbers and discard the restrictions that the mandarins have long imposed upon their minds. “Could the God of the Bible really be our creator after all? Why can’t we consider that possibility?”
For all their bravado, the ruling Darwinists know that their difficulties are growing. Hence, their efforts to persuade us have become ever more strident without becoming more persuasive. When a teacher has to resort to explicit coercion, he has abandoned hope of convincing the doubters. The situation today is very different from what it was fifty years ago, when Darwinists were confident that opposition was fading and that they would soon find whatever proof they still needed. They still have power to exclude and coerce, but when they have to display it openly, they reveal their weakness.
Note: Professor Dini recently amended his wording slightly, but the dispute remains unresolved. May a professor require belief in evolution, or only understanding?
Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.
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“Ya Gotta Believe!” first appeared in the May 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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