United Press International
December 21, 2000

Commentary: It's Perilous to Ponder the Design of the Universe

By Uwe Siemon-Netto, UPI Religion Correspondent

Professor William A. Dembski, 40, does not show his face at Baylor University in Waco, Tex., all that often anymore.

"That's a very hostile environment over there," he told United Press International. "I go to the library and use the athletic facilities, but I work from home."

Baylor calls itself the world's largest Baptist university with 18,000 students. So why would this eminent scholar feel unwelcome in this Christian school? Why is he an exile within his own four walls?

Well, Dembski entertains the hypothesis that the universe is the product of mindful planning rather than a random set of circumstances. Though an evangelical Christian, this scholar with doctorates in mathematics and philosophy does not name the designer, at least not in his work.

Still, his ideas do not sit well with Baylor professors stuck in methodological naturalism. This stricture obliges scientists to be provisional atheists in their work, even if their research surfaces evidence to the contrary.

They denounced Dembski's theories as "stealth creationism," as though he had promoted the notion that God made this world in six days, exactly as the Bible says.

In e-mails and letters to the local media, Dembski's opponents accused him of endangering Baylor's scholarly reputation. At one point, the controversy became so frenzied that Robert Sloan, the university's president, spoke of "McCarthyism."

Sloan, a renowned New Testament scholar, reminded faculty members how much scientists had suffered in the past when pressured by fundamentalist creationists. "It's rather ironic that people in the scientific community now appear to be suppressing others."

Yet it took Dembski's antagonists a little over a year to have him fired from his position as Baylor's Center for Complexity, Information and Design. Now he is just an associate research professor.

Sloan had caved in, although he "still supports Dembki's work," according to Larry Brumley, Baylor's spokesman.

William Dembski is a leading proponent of a theory known as Intelligent Design. This is also the title he gave to one of his books that received much acclaim around from the world. It has already sold 20,000 copies, a staggering figure for a volume of this kind.

In his research, Dembski applies mathematics and statistics to detect purpose in the makeup of the natural world. As the magazine Christianity Today put it, he is "looking for the difference between a jumble of clouds and skywriting that broadcasts a message."

President Sloan himself had discovered him a little over a year ago. Sloan had set himself two goals: leading Baylor into the top tier of American universities while also guiding it back to its Baptist heritage.

As part of this endeavor, Sloan set up the Michael Polanyi Center and put Dembski in charge. The problem is that Baylor is caught up in the tension between the conservative Southern Baptist Convention and the more liberal Baptist General Convention in Texas to which this school owes allegiance.

"I stepped into internecine Baptist struggles," Dembski told UPI referring to the ironic kind of struggle where even men and women of faith purport a materialist way of thinking while at work. "Some of my greatest enemies are Christians," Dembski said.

So fierce was the opposition that in April most Baylor biologists boycotted a Polanyi Center conference attended by renowned mathematicians and other scientists from around the world, including two Nobel laureates. Scholars from other universities even tried to sabotage the conference. They sent bogus notes to all schedules speakers "disinviting" them, the American Spectator reported.

Although the conference was a resounding success, Baylor's faculty senate voted to ask President Sloan to end all Intelligent Design initiatives. Sloan then convened an "independent committee" to evaluate Dembski's work. It recommended absorbing the center's functions into the Institute for Faith and Learning but unambiguously recognized Intelligent Design as a legitimate scientific discipline.

Buoyed by this report, Dembski sent out an e-mail: "Dogmatic opponents of design have who demanded the center be shut down have met their Waterloo." Said Dembski, "I did not reckon with the faculty's lack of a sense of humor." Two days later, with Sloan's accord, Dembski was fired from his position as director of the center.

Baylor spokesman Brumley mused on Thursday that "a lot that some bridge-building has to be done within the faculty" for Dembski's work to go forward. Meanwhile, Dembski works in his house determined not to let his foes relish their success.

"I have offers from some Christian colleges," he said, "but to go there would mean handing a victory to my opponents here. My contract with Baylor runs for another four years."