A Conversation With Barbara Forrest

Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, La., is co-author of the new book Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (Oxford University Press). Written with Paul R. Gross, who holds a Ph.D. in general physiology, the book explains the Religious Right’s strategy for working “intelligent design” creationism into America’s public schools.

Forrest, a member of Americans United’s National Advisory Council, recently discussed the book with Church & State. Excerpts from the interview follow. To read the complete interview, please visit AU’s website at For more information about the book, visit Forrest’s website at

Q. In your new book, Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, you focus on The Wedge strategy pioneered by Phillip Johnson. For those not familiar with it, what is “The Wedge” strategy and what is its ultimate goal?

A. The Wedge strategy is the intelligent design movement’s tactical plan for promoting intelligent design creationism as an alternative to evolutionary theory in the American cultural mainstream and public school science classes. The movement’s 5-, 10-, and 20-year goals are outlined in a document on the Internet entitled “The Wedge Strategy.” Informally known as the “Wedge Document,” it was a fund-raising tool used by the Discovery Institute to raise money for its creationist subsidiary, the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, which was established in 1996 and is now called the Center for Science and Culture. According to the Wedge Document, the strategy is designed to defeat “Darwinism” and to promote an idea of science “consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.” The ultimate goal of the Wedge strategy is to “renew” American culture by shaping public policy to reflect conservative Christian values.

The intelligent design (ID) creationists who are executing this strategy collectively refer to themselves as “the Wedge.” Phillip Johnson, the architect of the strategy and the group’s de facto leader, invokes the metaphor of a wood-splitting wedge to illustrate his goal of splitting apart the concepts of science and naturalism…. Science, however, is a naturalistic enterprise. Scientists cannot appeal to supernatural explanations because there is neither a methodology for testing them nor an epistemology for knowing the supernatural. Science has a naturalistic methodology, known less controversially as “scientific method.”

Q. Advocates of intelligent design argue that their ideas are not necessarily religious. Yet it would seem that if humans were intelligently designed, the designer must have been God. In light of this, how do ID proponents argue that their ideas are not religious in nature?

A. ID creationists contend that the work of an intelligent designer can be empirically detected in nature, but they evade questions about the designer’s identity and the mechanisms through which it works by insisting that detecting its activity does not require knowing its identity. They argue that ID is based on cutting-edge science. Yet even ID proponents with legitimate science credentials have never produced one iota of original scientific data to support these claims. Biochemist Michael Behe never invokes ID in any of his professional publications. He surely would do this if he really believed that ID is a genuine scientific theory. In his role as an ID proponent, he claims that biological structures such as bacterial flagella are “irreducibly complex,” meaning that their parts could not have been assembled over time by natural selection and that the absence of one part would by definition make the entire structure nonfunctional. Yet he admits that his definition of irreducible complexity is flawed and has not so far produced a promised revision of it….

As to whether ID is religious, we can go straight to the horse’s mouth to verify this. Fortunately, members of the Wedge themselves have made the task very easy by confirming unambiguously on numerous occasions that ID is fundamentally a religious belief.

Q. Intelligent design supporters often portray it in the media as some new, groundbreaking idea. But isn’t it true that the argument from design is an old, discredited idea that actually pre-dates Charles Darwin? What are the origins of what is now called intelligent design?

A. The argument from design is indeed very old and illustrates how pre-scicntific people constructed explanations of the cosmos that reflect their own experience as intelligent agents. Thomas Aquinas used it as one of his arguments for God’s existence, noting that many natural objects function as though they are aiming toward “the best result.” Thomas reasoned that since an object lacking intelligence cannot do this without external guidance from an intelligent being, there must be such a being by whom unintelligent things are purposefully directed. The idea of intelligent design is also central to William Paley’s 1802 book, Natural Theology, where he presents his famous watchmaker analogy. Although ID proponents, particularly William Dembski, deny that ID is natural theology, the resemblance between what Paley said in 1802 and what Dembski says today is striking. Reading Paley is like reading works by ID creationists in many ways.

Q. The Foundation for Thought and Ethics published Of Pandas and People, a popular ID volume. The name of this group sounds innocuous. What did your research turn up about the Foundation?

A. The Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE) is a publishing company headquartered in Richardson, Texas. The founder and president is Jon A. Buell, whom the FTE website describes as an “author, editor, and lecturer.” Although the website is registered under the organizational name, William Dembski is the administrative contact, and the FTE mailing address is actually Dembski’s. FTE has been an integral partner in the Wedge strategy since Phillip Johnson first organized the Wedge in the early 1990s…. FTE’s true mission is to put materials into the hands of parents, students, and teachers that promote a conservative Christian worldview. One of its most recent efforts is described in a fundraising letter in which FTE promotes its book. Sex and Character, apparently attempting to cash in on rising interest in abstinence education in public schools, or, as FTE puts it, to “increase the cleansing tonic we are sending into the classrooms of our country’s youngest citizens.”

Q. Your book contains a lot of information about the Discovery Institute. What is this organization, and what tactics does it use to promote the spread of ID in public schools?

A. The Discovery Institute is a conservative think tank in Seattle, Washington. Its founder and president is Bruce Chapman, a former member of the Reagan administration. The organization has several interests centering around transportation and other issues in the Pacific Northwest, but it functions primarily as the headquarters of the ID movement. Although it purports to be a secular organization, its religious moorings are clearly recognizable. Patricia O’Connell Killen, a religion professor at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma whose work centers around the regional religious identity of the Pacific Northwest, recently wrote that “religiously inspired think tanks such as the conservative evangelical Discovery Institute” are part of the “religious landscape” of that area.

Discovery Institute’s most important subsidiary is its creationist arm, the Center for Science and Culture (CSC), established in 1996 as the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture in order to advance the Wedge strategy. Chapman calls the center “our No. 1 project.” Although the CSC website advertises lucrative fellowships of up to $50,000 a year for “support of significant and original research in the natural sciences, the history and philosophy of science, cognitive science and related fields,” none of the center’s fellows has ever produced the scientific research which the Wedge Document says is to form the foundation of the Wedge strategy.

Instead of producing original scientific data to support ID’s claims, the Discovery Institute has promoted ID politically to the public, education officials, and public policymakers.

Q. You teach at the university level and your coauthor, Paul Gross, has a Ph.D. in general physiology. Based on your knowledge of higher education in America, is intelligent design commonly taught in university-level biology courses as a serious alternative to Darwinian theory?

A. No. Respectable university science departments teach evolution because it is the only scientific theory that explains the development of Earth’s life forms. The Wedge does have a following in academia, however. The cultivation of support in higher education is one of the most active parts of their strategy. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that they have faculty supporters on every university campus in this country, including at Ivy League schools. Some, such as Alvin Plantinga at Notre Dame and Frank Tipler at Tulane University, are high-profile figures in academia.

There are certainly religious schools that teach ID. Biola University and Oklahoma Baptist University are listed on the Access Research Network (ARN) website as “ID Colleges.” In addition, the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Center, which began as a student organization at the University of California at San Diego, helps establish student IDEA clubs on university and high school campuses. The Intelligent Design and Undergraduate Research Center, ARN’s student division, also cultivates followers at universities. Campus youth ministries play an active role in bringing ID to university campuses through lectures by Wedge leaders Phillip Johnson, William Dcmbski, Jonathan Wells, Michael Behe, and other ID figures. But this activity takes place outside university science departments. No science program worth its salt is going to teach ID….

Q. Scientists publish the results of their research in peer-reviewed journals that are subject to rigorous scrutiny from other researchers working in the field. How do ID proponents disseminate their ideas? Are there peer-reviewed ID journals?

A. The major vehicle for the dissemination of ID is the roughly three dozen books its proponents have published and marketed aggressively. The Wedge strategy called for publication of 30 books by 2003, and that deadline was almost met. It probably has been met by now. Wedge members also write numerous op-eds and magazine articles and have made masterful use of the Internet. Two issues of Touchstone magazine have been devoted to ID. Christianity Today, which I had always considered a credible magazine, has unfortunately given ID a very high profile. Focus on the Family, in addition to co-publishing the creationist videotape Unlocking the Mystery of Life, which features the major Wedge leaders, publishes pro-ID articles on its website and in its Citizen magazine. FOF employee Mark Hartwig is also a CSC fellow, a connection which has helped to publicize ID extensively. James Dobson often features ID proponents on his radio program….

Q. To many people, this may seem like an esoteric debate over obtuse scientific questions. Why should parents be concerned? How will the outcome of this debate affect our children ?

A. The debate is esoteric only in the sense that it involves science, which most Americans understand poorly despite their love of technology. But even though the average American’s scientific literacy is rather low, there are aspects of the issue that parents can and should understand. Americans insist that education is one of their chief priorities, but the U.S. is the world’s only industrialized country in which people are still fighting over evolution. Even developing countries are not doing this. Americans look like fools to the rest of the world….

Parents should be concerned about the resurgence of creationism as ID because it threatens the quality of their children’s education. It diminishes their chances for competing in the job market, making informed choices as consumers of medical care, and making responsible contributions as citizens. Not the least of people’s concerns should be the enormous amounts of time and money being wasted on this issue. Science is one of the weakest areas of American education, and the resistance many teachers lace when teaching evolution discourages them, especially those who arc under-prepared, from bothering with it. Parents should support teachers and insist that schools offer quality science instruction. If a school’s science instruction is good, it’s a pretty good bet that everything else is, too. Every day and every tax dollar spent fighting creationists, paying the costs of inevitable lawsuits, etc., is a day and a dollar not spent on decently educating children, and that should make parents fighting mad.

Q. Creationists have for years labored to undermine the teaching of evolution in the public schools. What is different about this new ID strategy? In what ways is it more sophisticated?

A. First, I want to stress that there is virtually nothing different about ID in terms of its identity as creationism. The “new” ID creationists use virtually the same arguments, employ the same tactics, and have the same agenda as the earlier “creation scientists.” That is clearly documented in our book.

The difference is that the creationists at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture are more aggressive and more politically connected and sophisticated than earlier creationists. The core group in the Wedge has the luxury of devoting themselves to these efforts, unlike their opponents, who do not have the benefit of wealthy benefactors to bankroll clerical staff, expensive advertising campaigns, and political networking, as Wedge members do.

Finally – and I cannot stress this point strongly enough – Americans who value their Constitution and religious freedom should be concerned about the larger problem of which ID is a prominent symptom. Americans need to know about the darker side of the Wedge strategy, which few people except its supporters have seen. ID is more than just creationism’s Trojan horse – it is a stalking horse for the Religious Right’s effort to steamroll its way into American education and public policy. The core of this issue is really about power – who controls education and thus the minds of children, and who controls the policy that shapes American culture and public life. ID proponents share the Religious Right’s dislike of secular education. They also share its theocratic vision for our country. Their most vocal supporters include powerful Religious Right leaders: James Dobson, Phyllis Schlafly, Beverly LaHaye and D. James Kennedy.

Copyright Americans United for Separation of Church and State Feb 2005

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