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Dr Phillip E. Johnson (1940-2019)

February 2020 | by John Tredgett

Dr Phillip E. Johnson
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Author, law professor and ‘Father of the Intelligent Design movement’, Dr Phillip E. Johnson has died aged 79.

Following a nominally Christian upbringing in Illinois, Johnson studied English Literature at Harvard and Law at the University of Chicago.

He taught criminal law at the University of California, Berkeley, for over thirty years, also serving as deputy district attorney.

His thirties were a period of ennui, but aged 38 and following a divorce, Johnson became a Christian. He attended the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, later becoming an elder.

In 1987-88 while on sabbatical in England, Johnson read several books on evolution. Included was The Blind Watchmaker, a landmark defence of the theory by atheist professor, Richard Dawkins.

It was a turning point for Johnson: ‘Something about the Darwinists’ rhetorical style made me think they had something to hide’. He perceived fallacies and inconsistencies in evolutionary thought which he – an expert in law – felt qualified to expose.

The fruit of Johnson’s research was Darwin on Trial (1991), itself a landmark critique of evolution. The book helped galvanise opinion among other Christians unpersuaded by evolution; in the following year, Johnson organised a conference on the subject.

A key technique used by Johnson was the ‘wedge strategy’. He called upon critics of the theory to focus upon and develop specific, telling flaws in evolution rather than be side-tracked by other flashpoints, such as Noah’s Flood, the Garden of Eden or the age of the earth.

Did Johnson see any compatibility between theism and evolution? No: ‘Make no mistake about it,’ he declared in Darwin on Trial, ‘in the Darwinist view… God has nothing to do with evolution’. He asserted that the randomness inherent in the evolutionary process was incompatible with the purposive God of Christianity.

In 1996, Johnson helped launch the Center for Science and Culture, part of the Discovery Institute and a think tank promoting Intelligent Design in the public square.

Johnson also campaigned for the freedom of biology schoolteachers to put forward Intelligent Design as a viable alternative to evolution. He was successful in the state of Ohio in 2003 – the law changed in favour of ‘teaching the controversy’.

From 2001 onwards, Johnson suffered a series of minor strokes. His academic labours reduced and he spent more time at home with family.

Passing away at home in his sleep in November 2019, Johnson is survived by his wife, Kathie, two children and four grandchildren.

John Tredgett