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Doubting Rationalist

Intelligent-design theorist Phillip Johnson with wife Kathie. Johnson does not take the Bible's Creation chapter literally, but argues that evolution cannot account for biological complexity.
Intelligent-design theorist Phillip Johnson with wife Kathie. Johnson does not take the Bible's Creation chapter literally, but argues that evolution cannot account for biological complexity. (By Randi Lynn Beach For The Washington Post)

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He just heard the words, perhaps for the first time in his life. "I wasn't convinced," Johnson says, "but I said to myself: 'The minister's presenting me with a real option.' "

Johnson drove home that night and pulled out his books of law and philosophy. If this was to be his epiphany, he would experience it with his rationalist lights on.

"I was concerned that I could be just throwing my brain away," he says. "I needed to know if I was adopting a myth to satisfy my personal hunger."

He was nudged along by his interest in "critical legal studies," a left-wing movement that holds that the law is prejudice masquerading as objective truth. Asked to contribute a conservative critique for the Stanford Law Review, Johnson embraced the movement -- sort of.

"I disliked intensely their infantile politics," he says. "But their critique of liberal rationalism and the sham neutrality of rationalism helped me become a Christian. I became the entire right wing of critical legal studies."

In time, he converted and married his present wife, Kathie -- who also was an adult convert. They met at the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, which was, like most everything in that town, a very liberal institution. "We have never felt," Johnson says, "a need to be around only people who agree with us."

London Calling

All of which laid the groundwork for Johnson's sabbatical in 1987. He traveled to London nagged by the sense that his intellectual gifts had been put to mediocre ends. One day while browsing in a bookstore, Johnson picked up a copy of "The Blind Watchmaker" by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins argued that life was governed by blind physics, that free will was illusion, that religion was a virus.

Johnson devoured dozens more evolutionary texts. He found extraordinary minds and polemics, but the evidence didn't much impress him.

"I was struck by the breadth of Darwin's claims as opposed to how scanty were the observable changes." He peers at you with that unwavering gaze. "I said to my wife that I shouldn't take this up. I will be ridiculed and it will consume my life.

"Of course, it was irresistible."

This was more than a middle-age exercise in mental gymnastics. Johnson discerned in Darwinism a profound challenge to the faith he had embraced so passionately.

"I realized," he says, "that if the pure Darwinist account was accurate and life is all about an undirected material process, then Christian metaphysics and religious belief are fantasy. Here was a chance to make a great contribution."


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