Pennock on postmodernism in ID creationism

Rob Pennock has a new article out in Science and Education. It analyzes how Phillip Johnson brought postmodernist elements to the ID movement, tracing these elements back to Johnson’s midlife crisis, his gradual turn to evangelicalism, and his move into “Critical Legal Studies” in legal studies, wherein he made up the entire “right wing” of that field. Pennock compares Johnson’s 1984 article on critical legal studies to his later arguments against evolution and for a conservative evangelical Christianity (Johnson didn’t actually argue very much for ID!).

Some of these connections have been noted before, but this is the first thorough academic analysis. The article is also useful for the assembly of references and key statements by Johnson and his influences. A few things I would note: Pennock calls Johnson the “godfather” of ID, which I think is apt, because the “father(s)” of ID would I think more appropriately be identified as the Foundation for Thought and Ethics folks that were assembling Of Pandas and People and getting young- and old-earth creationists to team up throughout the mid-1980s. This was mostly before Johnson was involved; but once Johnson did become involved, he rapidly became the most important voice, and it is perhaps true to say that most of us would never have heard of ID without Johnson, as it might never have moved out of the fundamentalist subculture it arose within.

Another interesting point is that fundamentalist/evangelical theologians and commentators in general have had an ongoing love/hate relationship with postmodernism. Basically, they like the bit that undermines mainstream consensus science, progressive public policy, and the like; but they don’t like the bit that undermines their own strictly and uncritically held doctrines. (Biblical literalism, and its expression in things like creationism, is perhaps the most perfect target for postmodern deconstruction ever invented; except that the people who really care about debunking creationism essentially universally have no truck with postmodernism either.) The problem for them is that these bits are actually the same bit, namely the bit in postmodernism about how truth is relative; so the evangelical/fundamentalist interaction with pomo tends to be inconsistent and tries to have it both ways. Trying to have it both ways, wth the expected result of inconsistency and incoherence, is a general feature of fundamentalist and creationist argumentation in my experience.

One example of the above: John Mark Reynolds, a young-earth creationist, professional apologist at Biola, and DI fellow, is both (a) a severe critic of postmodernism, and (b) nevertheless considers Phillip Johnson an extremely important evangelical, personally hugely influential to Reynolds himself, and, if I recall correctly, claimed that Johnson was the most important thinker of the 20th century or something like that.

Here’s the link, and a quote from the conclusion:

Robert T. Pennock (2010). The Postmodern Sin of Intelligent Design Creationism. Science & Education DOI: 10.1007/s11191-010-9232-4


However, in the end, there is a lesson to be drawn from this history, though it is not about the details of creationism’s dalliance with postmodernism; this affair, in any case, is not the worst of IDC’s sins by any means. The real scandal is that of the academy in its dalliance with radical postmodernism. Intelligent Design Creationism is a particularly telling example of the postmodern sin.

IDC shows in a striking manner how radical postmodernism undermines itself and its own goals of liberation. If there is no difference between narratives – including no differ- ence between true and false stories and between fact and fiction – then what does liberation come to? Are scientific investigations of human sexuality really no more likely than the Genesis tale of Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib? Those original goals – the overthrow of entrenched ideologies that hid and justified oppression – that motivated the postmodern critique were laudable. But the right way to combat oppression is not with a philosophy that rejects objectivity and relativizes truth, for that guts oppression of its reality. In his article, Johnson began with some harsh words for the practitioners of Critical Legal Studies:

We expect adolescents to come up with grand criticisms of the existing order without proposing a realistic alternative, but by the time one graduates from law school, or at least by the time one achieves tenure on a law school faculty, we generally expect the former adolescent to have developed a willingness to come to terms with reality. (Johnson 1984, p. 248)

In an interview many years later Johnson remarked, “I’ve found that people often say things about their enemies that are true of themselves” (Johnson 1992a), without apparently appreciating the reflexive irony of his observation. His rhetorical question to those who might be tempted by Critical Legal Studies (which he must have forgotten when embarking on his own adolescent challenge of evolutionary science), applies equally to Intelligent Design Creationism and to extreme postmodernism – “Do You Sincerely Want to Be a Radical?” We do not need a God’s-eye view of truth-with-a-capital-T to recognize oppression, but we do need the grounding in reality that science helps provide. We need at least that mundane sort of truth if we are to be set free and it was the sin of radical postmodernism to think otherwise.