Reflections on the Discovery Institute’s response to Creationism’s Trojan Horse

January 2015

About 10 years ago, philosopher Barbara Forrest and biologist Paul R. Gross published a book called Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, advancing the thesis that the Discovery Institute was using the ID movement to smuggle evangelical Christianity into the American education system in scientific guise. Largely because of her role as primary author of that book, Forrest became a key witness in the 2005 Kitzmiller v Dover trial. The book also stirred the DI to break the general silence it had maintained since 1999, when a copy of the document forming the basis of Forrest’s work was first published on the Internet. The document, prepared by employees of a public relations firm retained by the DI through a subsidiary, the Center for Science and Culture, was in effect a solicitation for money to support ID research. Originally untitled, it was dubbed the “Wedge Document” for reasons obvious to anyone who reads it. The DI’s response, titled “The ‘Wedge Document’: ‘So What?’,” is on its website (PDF format) at (All citations hereafter are to that PDF file.)

The DI’s primary complaint is that “Darwinian activists and self-identified ‘secular humanists’ claimed that the ‘Wedge Document’ provided evidence of a great conspiracy by fundamentalists to establish theocracy in America and to impose religious orthodoxy upon the practice of science” (p. 1). According to DI, a primary purpose of the Center for Science and Culture is “to counter the idea that science supports the unscientific philosophy of materialism.” It is hardly to be believed that anybody is actually claiming that science supports an unscientific idea. The authors obviously mean to say something like, “We’re working to counter the idea that science supports the philosophy of materialism, because materialism is actually unscientific” (p. 2). This bring up two questions: Do some people say that science supports materialism, and is materialism unscientific?

To the first, the answer obviously is yes. But then, you can find people claiming scientific support for just about anything. The DI’s position, though, is that this particular claim is prevalent enough to warrant concern. And yes, it’s a very popular mistake, if it is a mistake. But is materialism actually unscientific? That seems to be the case that the DI is actually trying to make. That, they say, is what the Wedge strategy is all about; and on that basis, they claim that the strategy has been misrepresented by its adversaries. Thus we get:

Far from attacking science (as has been claimed), we are instead challenging scientific materialism—the simplistic philosophy or world-view that claims that all of reality can be reduced to, or derived from, matter and energy alone. We believe that this is a defense of sound science. (p. 2)

Very well. At this point, it would be a good idea to get some notion of how we should distinguish sound science from unsound science. But we don’t get that right away. What we get next are some examples of what DI regards as unsound science: neo-Darwinism, chemical evolution theory, many-worlds cosmologies, and physicalist conceptions of the mind. All of these, obviously, are consistent with and, at least in that sense, provide some support for philosophical materialism. But that doesn’t make them bad science until it has been demonstrated that materialism is itself bad science.

As the authors say, there is nothing at all scandalous about any of this, so stated. The progress of science has always depended absolutely on challenges to its own orthodoxies. A theory is not unscientific just because it is unorthodox. But neither does a new theory acquire scientific merit merely because it is unorthodox, nor merely because its advocates have all the proper scientific credentials.

The DI’s scientists claim to have made some new discoveries that challenge certain current orthodoxies, and the authors admit that these discoveries “either support, or are consonant with, a ‘broadly theistic’ world-view” (p. 2). This, they suggest, ought to be irrelevant to a scientific analysis of those discoveries. And they are correct. It would be grossly unscientific to argue, “If X is true, then God might exist, therefore X can’t be true.” But if a critic instead argues, “If X is true, then God might exist, but X is probably not true, because Y,” then X’s advocate is obliged to challenge Y, and to challenge it on its scientific merits. It is also grossly unscientific to argue, “If Y is true, then God might not exist, therefore Y can’t be true.”

We are told, “The best way to dispel the hysteria surrounding the wedge strategy is to actually look at the document in question” (p. 5). This may remind one of Christian apologists who claim that the best way to discover that the Bible is true is to read it. In both cases, it does work, but only for those who want to believe. In both cases, the counsel “Just read it” is usually not really directed to the adversaries. It is instead a way of reassuring the flock. The purpose of apologetics is rarely to convert unbelievers. Nearly always, it is to reinforce the beliefs of those already converted.

The apologists’ problem, of course, is that so many people who do actually read the Bible become immediately convinced that it’s mostly nonsense. Likewise, quite a few people who actually have read the Wedge Document say it is something we should be worried about. I found it and read it as soon as I heard about it. I didn’t get hysterical about it, and I don’t think anybody should. But it is worrisome for us who think evangelical Christianity is a mistake.

The authors then discuss various quotations (italicized in the following) that have been emphasized by their detractors—“none of which,” they say, “support the claims that our opponents have made about us” (p. 5). We shall see, keeping in mind that according to the DI, the primary purpose of the Wedge strategy is not to promote religion but to promote a proper understanding of science.

The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization is built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West’s greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.

And, the authors assure us, “as an historical matter, the above statement happens to be true.” Now, a great many competent historians beg to differ, but if the DI thinks it can prove them wrong, it certainly is entitled to try. Historians’ orthodoxies are as subject to challenge as anyone else’s. But even if it is true, it doesn’t prove what the DI wants it to prove.

We can infer nothing about the proper conduct of science from any ideas about democracy, human rights, or free enterprise. Science is more likely to flourish in a society that accepts these notions than anywhere else, but it doesn’t actually need them. Despotic communist tyrants can support perfectly good science, and some of them have done so. If they hadn’t, there would have been no Cold War. The only relevant observation here, if there is one, is the association of Abrahamic theism with scientific progress. The implicit claim is that if the West had not been committed to the notion that we were created in God’s image, the scientific revolution would never have happened.

I find the claim absurd, but let’s go ahead and stipulate it. Nothing follows from it as to the proper relationship between science and religious belief. Science has never been about commitment to any particular belief about the nature of reality. It is about commitment to a certain method of answering questions about the nature of reality. If the first scientists needed to believe in God before they could begin developing that method, then that was just an accident of history, not much more relevant to science itself than the fact that the first modern scientists were all Europeans.

Now, having affirmed their belief that modern science owes its very existence to Abrahamic theism, the authors then assure us that there are some atheists in their ranks:

Here is the truth, whole and nothing but: Many—though not all—of our fellows believe in God. Most of them think that that this belief has played a positive influence on the development of Western culture (p. 5).

Yeah, well, there are gay Republicans, too, and I know why. Some gay people are politically conservative. So am I, though I’m strictly heterosexual. In the United States, the Republican Party is the conservative party. I happen to see no conflict whatsoever between my political principles and the desire of homosexuals to enjoy the same rights I enjoy—all of those rights, without exception. Apparently, many Republicans, at this particular moment in history, think otherwise. So be it. It’s the task of real conservatives to show them the error of their way. More to the point, though, a conservative who happens to be gay may well be willing to set aside his concern for his personal rights in order to advance everything else that is on his political agenda.

None of us can fight for every cause we believe in. Our lives are too short and our resources too limited. The DI is supporting research that might not otherwise be done. Some of it, maybe all of it, ought to be done for reasons having nothing to do with any question about God’s existence. Scientific questions need answers, and whether those answers are potentially hostile or friendly to religion is scientifically irrelevant. If a particular institution with a religious agenda has some money to distribute for scientific research for which funding is not otherwise available, it comes as no surprise to me if a few atheists are willing to come on board. Neither does it surprise me in the least that the institution’s leadership uses their presence as evidence that they don’t actually have a religious agenda.

Their next excerpt:

Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea [that humans were created in the image of God] came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science. Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment.

This, the authors say, is “the worldview of scientific materialism.” Fair enough. Let’s call a spade a spade. But then they say, “We think that the theories that gave rise to it (such as Darwinism, Marxism and Freudian psychology) are demonstrably false” (p. 6).

Back to Darwin in a moment. Marx might have thought he was thinking scientifically. When I was in college during the 1970s, I knew some professors who seemed to think he was. But in all of the literature I have read promoting scientific materialism, there has been not one opinion either credited to Marx or dependent on any notion original with Marx, so far as I can recall. The philosophical or scientific materialism advocated in the 21st century owes nothing to Karl Marx. And it owes less to Sigmund Freud. Except among a few doctrinaire types, his views have not been regarded as scientific for at least two generations. The linking of scientific materialism with Marx and Freud is a pure strawman attack. Materialists can repudiate them, and most of us do. They might have been, and probably were, materialists, but we didn’t get our ideas from them.

And neither did we get our materialism from Darwin. We got the theory of evolution from Darwin, but evolution does not entail materialism. If it did, no Christian could accept evolution, but a majority of Christians do accept it. The last few popes, in particular, have explicitly declared that there is no conflict between evolution and the historically orthodox teachings of Christianity.

Most of us materialists already agree with the Discovery Institute that Marxism and Freudianism are demonstrably false. We don’t agree about Darwinism, but it wouldn’t matter if we did. An irrefutable falsification of Darwinian theory would do nothing to refute scientific materialism. A refutation of materialism would also require a cogent argument for a particular alternative to Darwinism, and the DI has not provided such an argument.

They are trying to, yes, sort of. The authors assure us that they “are challenging the truth of particular scientific theories . . . using appropriate scientific methods, canons of reasoning and evaluation and, most importantly, scientific evidence” (p. 7). Insofar as that is what they actually are doing, there can be no reasoned objection. But they also say they “are challenging the philosophy of scientific materialism” (p. 7). And they are just as entitled to do that as well. But then they allege that their “detractors fail to make this critical, but obvious distinction” (p. 7). Maybe their detractors are confused because the DI is confused. An attack on evolution is not per se an attack on scientific materialism. What the DI may be suggesting (as creationists commonly allege) is that there can be no argument for evolution that does not presuppose materialism. To say this, is indeed to conflate a scientific theory with a philosophical theory, but the DI’s adversaries are not the ones saying it. To those who understand what the theory of evolution actually says, and what it does not say, evolution is just science doing its usual thing, and doing it very well, and so the claim that evolution is actually bad science does look very much like an attack on science itself.

Of course it’s possible that the scientific community made a mistake when it took its Darwinian turn. Science is a human enterprise and makes no pretense of infallibility. But the DI needs to explain the particular nature of that mistake if it is to make its case. The next excerpt from the Wedge Document seems to be an attempt in that direction:

Discovery Institute’s Center . . . wants to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.

The authors hasten to deny that they “want to impose a religious agenda on the practice of science” (p. 9). OK, let’s see if we can parse the logic of this. I don’t think it would be unfair to accuse the Roman Catholic Church of having a religious agenda, but the Roman Catholic Church seems to be thoroughly convinced that the theory of evolution is consonant with Christian and theistic convictions. Of course, some Catholics disagree with their church about this, as do a much larger number of evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants. And so the issue of whether evolution is consonant with Christianity looks very much like a sectarian dispute among Christians.

What does the scientific community itself have to say about it? With virtual unanimity, it has said: “Don’t ask us. We’re telling you that evolution happened. Whether this is consistent with your religious faith is not our problem, but we know that there are many people whose faith is not challenged by it.”

If, for some reason, scientists were to decide that their work had to be consonant with religion in general, then there would be no science, because the world’s religions collectively agree on practically nothing. But the DI is not asking for anything so ecumenical. The DI wants science to be consonant with Christianity, and apparently not just any kind of Christianity. In their minds, it seems, consonance with Roman Catholicism does not count as consonance with Christianity, and neither does consonance with mainstream Protestantism. The DI wants a science that is consonant with that subset of Protestant beliefs that rejects evolution. But, we are assured, the Wedge strategy is not attempting to impose a religious agenda on science. And surely, they are all honorable men.

“This passage instead,” they say, “was referring to our conviction that science, rather than supporting a materialistic philosophy, is at least consistent with theistic belief, including Christian belief” (p. 9). If supporting materialism means entailing materialism, they are correct. No scientific principle compels a belief in materialism. Many of us have become persuaded that the application of those principles has generated a mass of discoveries that make materialism more credible than any alternative, but plenty of people think otherwise. Plenty of atheists and other non-Christians fail to find, even in evolution, any justification for materialism. If there is a problem with materialism, the solution is not to be found in an attack on evolution.

The authors then protest that the Wedge Document might easily be “misunderstood” if it is read “out of context on a hostile atheistic website.” It is not clear to me how an entire document can be read out of context, in the ordinary sense of “out of context.” In any case, the authors’ attempts to argue that the document does not mean what at face value it seems to mean are, to put it charitably, unconvincing. A bit less charitably, I’m inclined to call them disingenuous.

They mention that a few scientists “think that a considerable body of evidence now points to the intelligent design of life and the universe,” and they insist that the Wedge Document “does nothing more sinister than announce our intention to support the research of such scientists” (p. 9). But it does do more. It also explains, to prospective donors, why the DI thinks those scientists deserve support. Whether it is fair to characterize those motivations as sinister is perhaps a matter of perspective. The Inquisition certainly never thought there was anything sinister about its activities.

And of course, as the authors note, it is fallacious to argue that intelligent design is unscientific just because it is religiously motivated. The motivation behind any theory is irrelevant to its scientific credentials. But exactly the same irrelevance holds for the motivation behind any criticism of any theory. ID’s proponents would have us believe that all objections to ID are motivated by atheistic presuppositions. But so what if they are? The evidence at hand either supports ID or it does not. Disinterested observers, if there are any, can decide for themselves which is the case.

And indeed, the authors themselves seem to concede as much. “It’s not what motivates a scientist’s argument that determines its validity; it’s the quality of the evidence and analysis that the scientist uses to support the argument” (p. 10). Yes, and the scientific community—which includes a substantial number of people who don’t for a minute doubt God’s existence—has rendered its verdict: ID is not supported by the evidence at hand.

The authors try to deny this. They accuse their adversaries of failing to address “the evidential case that we are making and the challenges that now face neo-Darwinism and other similarly simplistic materialistic theories” (10). They accuse their adversaries of trying to “change the subject and speculate about motives, conspiracies and personal associations” (p. 11). And yes, some of their adversaries have done just that. But not all of them. Many have published thorough, and purely scientific, critiques of Behe, Dembski, and other ID proponents and explained exactly why their theories fail to pass scientific muster. ID has lost on the scientific battlefield, and now its advocates are speculating about motives and conspiracies.


(This page last updated on June 15, 2015

Site home.

Religion index.