Creationism, Ideology, and Science

by Eugenie C. Scott

Many causes and movements were discussed during the "Flight from Science and Reason" conference. Most reject science as a way of knowing, or denigrate logic or reason. Creationism differs in some important ways: supporters are science fans, not detractors, and they believe science is useful, important, and something that students should be exposed to. But creation science illustrates extremely well one of the themes of "The Flight from Science and Reason" conference: the ignoring or denying of empirically-based knowledge when it conflicts with ideology. Opinions and values are more important than facts and reason, which is shown in their selective choice of data to accept or to reject. Whereas T. H. Huxley warned of the Naturalistic Fallacy of assuming that what is, is what ought to be, creation scientists, like extreme Afrocentrists, radical feminists and several others discussed at the "Flight from Reason" conference, apparently see what ought to be as what is.

In this paper, I will first discuss who the creationists are, stressing the many varieties of creationism and how they differ in their approaches to both science and theology. I will discuss a brief history of the movement, the emergence of creation "science" and also the current, "neocreationism" period. I suggest that a characteristic of neocreationism is the rise of more moderate antievolutionists, some of whom are located on secular campuses. Some of these argue that a "Christian perspective" is equivalent to a "feminist perspective", or a "Marxist perspective", or some similar approach extant on campuses today, and thus deserves a place in the curriculum.

The presence of so many "isms" on college campuses today begs the question, "what happens when ideologies become 'scholarly perspectives?'" Can there be a "Christian perspective" that is truly scholarly? I discuss reasons why I am doubtful that a supernatural ideology, especially, can be consistently scholarly.

I then discuss the importance to public science literacy of teaching evolution and suggest some ways that university and professional scientists may assist in this important endeavor. To do so will require teachers to distinguish between where science leaves off and philosophy begins.


There is not one creationism, but many varieties, ranging from strict Biblical literalist young-earth creationism, through a variety of old-earth creationisms ("Gap Creation;" "Day-Age Creationism"), to progressive creationism, to continuous creationism, to theistic evolutionism. Specific terms may have slightly different connotations depending on who is using them, but in general, young-earth creationism is concerned with the universe being created at one time, within the last 10,000 years. Noah's Flood is an essential element to both young-earth theology and science. It was an historical occurrance, wherein water covered the whole globe. During the year the Flood waters receded, all the geological features of the world (such as the Grand Canyon, the Himalayas, etc.) were established. Old-earth creationists accept modern geology and radiometric dating and an old earth. Among them, "Gap creationism" allows for there to have been a long period of time before the six days of creation described in Genesis (Numbers, 1992), or alternately for the six days in Genesis to be separated by thousands or hundreds of thousands of years of time. "Day-Age creationism" accommodates some of modern geology by claiming that each of the six days in Genesis is actually an immensely long period of time.

In "progressive creationism," God created the original species, but subsequently they have "progressed" by diverging (i.e., evolving) into new forms. The Flood is considered a local, not a universal event. "Continuous creationism" and "theistic evolutionism" are further along the continuum, referring to a Christian perspective that accepts a considerable amount of evolution. In continuous creationism, God plays a very active role in directing the evolution from the created kinds. Theistic evolution in the most general sense is the idea that God created, but through the process of evolution. By and large, theistic evolutionism accepts the evidence of science, and fine-tunes the theology if necessary. The Flood of Noah is not an historical event, but a metaphor of the importance of obedience to God, and ultimately of God's love for humankind. Theology varies as to how involved God is in guiding the evolutionary process.

The above continuum is largely organized by the degree of biblical literalism, with theistic evolutionism (the perspective of most mainline Protestants and the Catholic Church) being the least literal. It can also be organized as a continuum of how much of modern science is accepted, with the young-earth creationists being the most out of touch. Some theistic evolutionists, especially those of a more Deistic inclination (God created the universe and its laws, and left it to operate without further intervention), are scarcely distinguishable from nonreligious evolutionists, which is why the conservative Christian world with its stress on a personal God, often speaks harshly of theistic evolutionism.

Whether God created is therefore in fact not the main issue in the creation/evolution controversy, since "God created" does not rule out the possibility that God created through the process of evolution. Catholics, mainline Protestant denominations, and Reformed, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and most Orthodox Jews hold to some form of theistic evolution (see McCollister, 1989, for examples.) The term "special creationist" has come to refer to the belief that God created according to a literal interpretation of Genesis: the universe was created all at one time, in essentially its present form.

Special creationists, especially at the more conservative end of this continuum, are fundamentally antievolutionists. They believe that evolution is an evil idea that children should be protected from. Their theology says that if evolution occurred, then God did not create mankind specially. Mankind, then, is not particularly special to God, which makes the Fall of Adam and Eve irrelevant. Without Adam and Eve's sin, the death of Christ is irrelevant — and the death of Christ is the foundational event of Christian theology. Everything in Christianity, in this view, relies on the literal truth of Genesis: six 24-hour days of creation, a flesh and blood Adam and Eve, a literal Noah's Flood, and so on. If evolution is true, then, salvation itself is in jeopardy, for how can Revelations be true if the rest of the Bible is not? To protect children from evolution is to save their souls; obviously, a powerful motivator.

A secondary motivation is to prevent society from going further downhill, believing as they do that evolution (because it supposedly denies God) removes the source of morality. As Henry Morris, arguably the most influential creationist of the late 20th century puts it,
Evolution is at the foundation of communism, fascism, Freudianism, social darwinism, behaviorism, Kinseyism, materialism, atheism, and in the religious world, modernism and neo-orthodoxy. Jesus said "A good tree cannot bring forth corrupt fruit". In view of the bitter fruit yielded by the evolutionary system over the past hundred years, a closer look at the nature of the tree itself is well warranted today. (Morris, 1963:24)
This is not evolution as seen by scientists. Evolution is the idea that the universe today is different from what it has been in the past: that change through time has occurred. Regarding organic evolution, the evolution of plants and animals, the conclusion is reached that living things share common ancestors in the past from which they are different. Darwin called organic evolution "descent with modification", and it is still a useful phrase. Morris' and mainline science's two contrasting perceptions of evolution illustrate again how ideology shapes interpretation of empirical data.

The antievolution movement has had a long history in the United States, dating from the first introduction of Darwin's ideas during the latter part of the 19th century. Creation "science" is only a recent manifestation of this antievolutionism.


Creation "science" is a movement of largely biblical literalist Christians who seek to get evolution out of the public school curriculum. They differ from other antievolutionists in their attempt to demonstrate the truth of a literal biblical interpretation of Genesis using data and theory from science — not just through theology. The Young Earth creationists are the most numerous, but many old earth creationists use scientific arguments as well.

Although attempts to "prove" the literal truth of the Bible have been around since the 19th century, the most recent version of this approach hails from the mid 1960's, stimulated by the publication of John Whitcomb and Henry Morris' The Genesis Flood (1961) and the founding of both the Creation Research Society and the Institute for Creation Research. Why the 1960's? The answer is simple: the post-Sputnik science education panic of the late 1950's and 1960's resulted in improved textbooks that returned evolution to the curriculum at levels not seen since before the Scopes Trial of 1925 (Numbers, 1992). Giving an extra nudge to the process was the Supreme Court case of Epperson v. Arkansas, which overthrew antievolution laws such as Tennessee's under which John T. Scopes had been tried.

With evolution no longer able to be banned, antievolutionists developed the strategy that its "evil effects" could be ameliorated by teaching biblical Christianity alongside it. Because the First Amendment of the Constitution clearly disallows advocating sectarian religious views in the classroom, "scientific" creationism was developed to be an alternate scientific view that could be taught as a secular subject. During the 1970's and early 1980's, creationists campaigned to pass "equal time" laws wherein creation science would be mandated whenever evolution was taught. This approach had to be abandoned when the Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) that creationism was inherently a religious concept, and that to advocate it as correct, or accurate, would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. But Justice Brennen's decision left a couple of loopholes that antievolutionists have been exploiting ever since (Scott, 1994). Subsequently, antievolutionism has evolved into new forms which are characterized by the avoidance of any variant of the "c word"; phrases like "intelligent design theory", or "abrupt appearance theory" are used instead of "creation science", "creationism", and related terms. I call this newest stage of antievolutionism "Neocreationism".


The neocreationism period continues the "equal time" for creation and evolution of the creation science era, but with some new wrinkles. A popular neocreationist variant of creation science is "Intelligent Design Theory" (IDT), a lineal descendent of William Paley's "Argument from Design". William Paley's 1802 Dialogues Concerning Natural History attempted to prove the existence of God by examining his works. Paley believed in the traditional God of the literal reading of Genesis: the Creator who had produced a perfect world in which everything had its purpose. He used a metaphor of a watch to demonstrate how observing the perfection of nature "proved" there was a God, the "divine watchmaker." If you found an intricately contrived watch, it was obvious that such a thing could not have come together spontaneously; the existence of a watch implied a watchmaker who had designed the watch with a purpose in mind. Similarly, as there was order and purpose and design in the world, so naturally there would have to be an omniscient designer. The existence of God was proven by the presence of order and intricity (Dawkins, 1987).

The vertebrate eye was Paley's classic example of design in nature, well known to educated people of the 19th century. In fact, Darwin deliberately used the vertebrate eye in The Origin of Species to demonstrate how complexity and intricate design could come about by natural selection. Modern day IDT uses the vertebrate eye and similar structural wonders to demonstrate how evolution could not have possibly occurred, because complexity of this sort could never have occurred "by chance." In fact, one will find not just the vertebrate eye, but the structure of DNA or cytochrome
The best-known statement of IDT is a book by Percival Davis and Dean Kenyon, Of Pandas and People (1993), written as a supplement for high school biology courses. Instead of presenting the more familiar creationist "teach evolution, but also teach creation science", Pandas offers the notion that teachers should "teach evolution, but also intelligent design theory." In content, there is nothing in IDT that hasn't already been expressed in earlier creation science literature. "Intelligent Design Theory" is merely a euphemism for creation science. A discussion of the promotion and use of Pandas is in Larson, (1994.) (See Padian, Ruse, and Skoog in Hughes, 1992, for reviews.)


A second Neocreationist approach not only avoids the use of the term creation science, but eschews euphemism completely, coming right out with the essence of antievolutionism. The argument here is "teach evolution, but also teach the evidence against evolution." The "evidence against evolution" approach of course makes little scientific sense: it is rather like requesting that "evidence against heliocentrism" be presented when the solar system is taught. There is no scientific evidence against evolution. "Evidence against evolution" has always been synonymous with creation science, which specializes in finding anomalous tidbits in the scientific literature that appear to "prove" that evolution did not occur (Futuyma, 1995).

In my job as director of a nonprofit clearinghouse for information on the creation/evolution controversy, I receive information on the full gamut of attacks on evolution. For example, during the last six months before this writing I received requests from New Hampshire for information to help keep old-fashioned scientific creationism out of a school district; requests from Louisiana and Texas for information on "intelligent design theory"; and requests from Ohio and California for assistance in combating "arguments against evolution", among other requests. The Epperson and Edwards Supreme Court decisions have ended only the attempts to outlaw the teaching of evolution, and to mandate the teaching of creation science with evolution. They have not ended attempts to prevent students from learning evolution, nor even attempts (of individual teachers) to teach creation science.

Even though my office still handles numerous calls about creation science, given trends already apparent, I think that in the future, the influence of creation science will wane in favor of more sophisticated neocreationist attacks on evolution. Teachers and school boards will face more pressure to teach not creation science, but "intelligent design theory", or "evidence against evolution." I see this primarily because these approaches are less vulnerable to legal challenges. Intelligent Design Theory and Evidence Against Evolution do not sound as blatantly sectarian as something with the word "creation" in it. They are merely bad science, and the First Amendment protects against the establishment of religion, not against bad science. If creation science is primarily the result of the efforts of young-earth special creationists such as those at the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) and the Bible Science Association, Neocreationism is dominated by more moderate creationists, many of whom are conservative Christian antievolutionists operating at the university level. These are generally "old earth" creationists, who do not quibble about the age of the earth (and who therefore appear more reasonable to the general public), but who nonetheless deny that evolution took place. I believe their influence will increase: although the ICR reaches thousands of individuals at their "back to Genesis" rallies and through their extensive publishing efforts, these faculty members are influencing the attitudes of future college graduates. College graduates vote at higher levels than non-graduates, are the next journalists and politicians, and in general are more influential in shaping public opinion. These academically-based "Christian Scientists" are far less well known than their young-earth counterparts.


By "Christian Scientists" I do not mean followers of Mary Baker Eddy, but Christians who are also practicing scientists. How many are there? In the general public, the percentage of self-identified Christians is 86% (Goldman, 1991). Is the percentage of scientists this high? I do not know of any reliable recent surveys on the religious inclinations of scientists, but even if only half the scientist corps identifies itself as Christian, the number of scientists who are believers would be substantial. As is the case with Christian theology, the degree of belief and specific doctrinal acceptance doubtless varies greatly among these academics. My comments will concern the fraction professing conservative Christianity, a term which overlaps with evangelistic Christianity and fundamentalist Christianity in referring to belief in a personal God and a belief in the inerrancy (and/or literal truth) of the Bible. I also primarily am speaking of conservative Christians who teach at secular colleges and universities, not religious ones.

Many of them are associated with Christian Leadership Ministries, an affiliate of Campus Crusade for Christ that targets college and university faculty members. CLM claims to be on more than 800 US campuses. Its newsletter, The Real Issue, encourages faculty members to stand up for their academic freedom to express religious beliefs. But the expression of religious beliefs can take many forms, from benign to clearly illegal. In its mildest form, religious beliefs might be expressed (as are many other opinions) in time-honored fashion by being taped to a professor's office door. Some conservative Christians argue that if colleagues can put up gay rights literature on their office doors, so should they be able to put up Christian literature without being harassed. In its least acceptable form, some professors try to convert students to Christianity in the classroom, in violation of the First Amendment's Establishment clause.

Two court cases concern classroom proseletizing. Phillip A. Bishop, professor of exercise physiology at the University of Alabama, was accused of proselytizing students in class, and teaching "intelligent design theory" in an optional class held outside of regular class time. In the class, he expressed his views on the "evidences of God in Human Physiology". Students didn't have to attend, but as the special class was offered just before the final exam, at least some students felt coerced. The dean of the college instructed Bishop to quit witnessing in class and not to have extra-class meetings in which religious views of the subject matter were discussed.

Bishop sued his institution on free speech/academic freedom grounds, and won at the Federal District court level (Bishop v. Aranov, 1991). The Appeals Court, however, reversed the decision, declaring that a classroom, during instructional time, was not an open forum, and that the University can reasonably restrict Bishop's speech during that time. The appeals court did not decide against Bishop on the grounds that he was violating the establishment clause, but on the (in some ways) narrower grounds of the right of the University to set curricula.

In the second case, Dilawar Edwards, an education professor at California University of Pennsylvania, in 1991 used fundamentalist and religious right publications (including creation science books) in his course on teaching methods to "balance" established, secular instructional materials. Students claimed that he didn't teach media resources, the topic of the course, but instead harangued them about how secular humanism in public schools violated Christian principles. The dean of the college told him to "cease and desist using doctrinaire material of a religious sort" in the classroom, and Edwards sued the college, claiming academic freedom to choose whatever materials he wants to use. The case is still pending.

These cases bring up important concerns regarding academic freedom for religiously-based views. It is clear that teachers at the K-12 level have strictly limited academic freedom regarding religion: they may not express religious views to students because of their special position as authority figures and the nature of K-12 students as captive audiences. But faculty authority is weakened over adult college students (though certainly not absent when grades are involved) and usually college students have options allowing them to avoid particular professors and classes. There are also no laws requiring college attendance such as there are at lower educational levels, and thus college students are not "captive" in the sense that K-12 students are. What, then, are the limits of academic freedom and religious speech at the university?

The Bishop case concluded that academic freedom is not absolute at the university level when it comes to religious speech: a professor does not have the right to proselytize students. Is there something between posting Biblical literature on one's door and witnessing in class?

Some conservative Christians distinguish between proselytizing and presenting information "from a Christian perspective." As discussed at the "Flight from Science and Reason" Conference, many academics openly teach "from the point of view of" some perspective. If it is considered legitimate for a professor to announce in, say, a history class, that he or she will be teaching the subject from a feminist, or Marxist perspective, should not a Christian professor be able to make a similar declaration? The point made by conservative Christians like George Marsden (1995) is that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: if the university does not protest when Marxist, feminist, gay, or Afrocentric perspectives inform the presentation of scholarly material, it should not protest a Christian professor's similar declaration.


Christianity is clearly an ideology, but so arguably are Marxism and feminism, and perhaps some other "isms". The argument is made that Marxism and other "isms" are not only ideologies, but legitimate scholarly approaches to knowledge, as well. Can an ideology be scholarship? The question strikes at a fundamental tenet of scholarship and directly to one of the themes of "The Flight from Science and Reason" conference. If knowledge is to be distinguished from opinion, there must be sources of information beyond the individual. Information comes in many guises, and some of it is contradictory. Scholarship requires the weighing and judging of information in order to come to reliable and valid conclusions. Ideology may or may not be based on scholarship, but what makes ideologies troubling is that they also include a component of belief which always has the potential to overshadow the scholarship. There is always the possibility that empirically-based knowledge will be replaced or denied because of ideology.

It is theoretically possible to have a scholarly feminist perspective, a scholarly Marxist perspective, a scholarly environmental science perspective. The sorts of radical feminism, radical multiculturalism, and radical environmentalism criticized at the Flight from Science and Reason conference are not truly scholarly because they place ideology over empirical evidence and logic. In fact, some of them revel in their rejection of logic and reason. When the claim is made that Black Egyptians sailed to Mesoamerica and taught the Olmec to build step pyramids, clearly the ideology of Black superiority and supposed self-esteem is being promoted at the expense of actual empirical evidence.

Now we come to another question. Ideology and scholarship are at best uncomfortable bedfellows. Can a supernatural ideology be scholarship? Can Christian scholarship meet the tenets of scholarship in this sense? We're talking now not about posting religious items on one's office door, much less trying to convert students to Christianity, but something called "teaching from a Christian perspective" as a scholarly endeavor. Is a "Christian perspective" inherently in that class of views where ideology is the ultimate determinant of truth? Most conservative Christians who have complained that views important to them are given short shrift on campus have not been explicit about how their religious views might inform their scholarship, as opposed to their free speech outside of the classroom. George Marsden suggests one way a Christian perspective might influence a teacher's presentation in social science:
Such unproven assumptions [that there is no created order] have a greater effect in the humanities and social sciences than in the largely technical disciplines and natural sciences. Since most scholars today will tolerate only a naturalistic understanding of humans, they have no basis for interpreting moral standards except as survival mechanisms — that is, as social constructions suiting the needs of a particular community. The result of this view is, inevitably, moral relativism of one sort or another. Religiously informed scholars, on the other hand, while acknowledging the cultural forces that shape beliefs, are also open to the possibility of permanent, universal standards of right and wrong established by a creator. (Marsden, 1993)
Marsden himself seems to imply that the "Christian perspective" may be more relevant in the more subjective sciences. But what of a "Christian" view of natural science? In truth, all true scholarship requires the collection of information and its logical evaluation against agreed-upon standards. Science may, however, be quantitatively different from other scholarship because of the amount of emphasis it places on empirical information and whether the explanation "works." Obviously, there is subjectivity in science, and it is no great revelation to state that historical, political, and social factors influence the course of science, and even the conclusions reached. Science is a human endeavor, which means it is cumbersome, subject to human egos, messy, slow, and at any given time, much of it will be in error. But the saving grace of science is that it is open-ended, and conclusions are accepted as tentative, subject to later revision. Explanations that don't hold up over time, or which are contradicted by other data that seem better, are eventually rejected. (Sometimes we have to emphasize the "eventually!") Science's great power is its ability to reject some explanations based on logic and empirical evidence, rather than by opinion, authority, or assertion. It's an untidy procedure, but it has given us more knowledge of the natural world that had by any other society in the history of our species. Thus even granting that "scholarship is scholarship", science is held to slightly different standards than other forms of knowledge. It is harder to argue the "strong constructivist" (Gross and Levitt, 1994) perspective when discussing cell permeability than when discussing, say the Civil War. One may correctly argue that the "truth" of Reconstruction varies considerably between southern Blacks and southern Whites, but there is no Afrocentric Krebs cycle that contrasts with a Eurocentric Krebs cycle. Except for those who deny objective reality, the logical-empirical methodology of science does allow the rejection of some ideas and the tentative acceptance of others.

Christianity is clearly an ideology, and it is apparent in many presentations in this book that when ideology is given precedence over evidence, science suffers. The extensive literature of creation "science" demonstrates the futility of trying to do empirical science after conclusions have already been determined based on revealed truth. This was recognized by the Federal District Judge in the McLean vs. Arkansas case

Is there a "Christian perspective" that is not as extreme as the blatant distortions of science of the Institute for Creation Research? I have not found any examples that are free from a willingness to subvert science to ideology. One largely old-earth creationist proposal is that there are two different kinds of science: "operations science", and "origins science" (Thaxton, et al., 1984; Geisler and Anderson, 1987). A distinction is made between phenomena which occur "with regularity" and those which occur "singularly." Regularly-occurring phenomena can be studied in the fashion most of us associate with normal science, or "operations science." But one-time phenomena, such the Big Bang, and other evolutionary events comprise what creationists call "origins science."

Of course there are differences in the study of repeatable events vs. non-repeatable ones, but mainstream philosophers of science agree that phenomena of historical sciences like geology, paleontology, and astronomy can be studied scientifically, and even experimentally. Mount St. Helens erupted as a singular event, but this does not prevent there being a science of volcanoes. Similarly, even if bears and dogs split from a common ancestor only once, we can still evaluate the hypothesis that bears and dogs are closely related against empirical evidence (from fossils, comparative anatomy, biochemistry, etc.) We can also learn about the processes that influence evolution by looking at the evidence for other such splits. There are many ways to scientifically study events of this type.

Creationists add an additional factor to this bimodal division of the scientific world, which I believe sheds light on why the division was invented in the first place: it allows the intrusion of the supernatural into scientific explanation. Geisler proposes that to accompany the two kinds of science, there are two kinds of causation: primary causes and secondary causes. Operations science relies properly on secondary causes, but origins science is allowed to invoke primary causes. Thaxton, et al., refer to primary cause more bluntly as the "God hypothesis", and agree that in operation science, "the appeal to God is quite illegitimate, since by definition God's supernatural action would be willed at His pleasure and not in a recurring manner." (Thaxton, et al., 1984:203) But when dealing with "origins science", it is not only permissible, but essential to allow recourse to supernatural causation (i.e., miracles.)

Few would argue with not resorting to miracles in operation science, but proponents of this artificial division do not make a solid case for resorting to miracles in origin science. Arguably, non-recurrent events may be more difficult and challenging to study than repeated events, but that in itself is insufficient to require resorting to the supernatural.

Science as it is practiced in the late 20th century has on the contrary, eschewed resorting to miracles to explain natural phenomena. Creationists recognize that they are outside of the mainstream in their insistence on allowing supernatural causation, but claim that the rejection of the supernatural in modern science is a function of "naturalism" (materialism), a philosophy that defines reality in terms only of material causes (Johnson, 1990). Because evolutionary scientists supposedly are caught up in a metaphysical viewpoint that rejects the possibility of a Creator, creationists believe evolutionists are unable to countenance the evidence for supernatural intervention in the history of life.

Actually, modern science has omitted the supernatural for methodological, not philosophical reasons. It is simply the case that we get better explanations by ignoring the possibility of supernatural intervention or causation, not because scientists have an axe to grind against theism. Much confusion exists between materialism as a philosophy, and the methodological materialism that informs all of modern science. It is logically possible to decouple philosophical and methodological materialism, and individual scientists who are believers do it all the time. Gregor Mendel was certainly not a metaphysical naturalist, but he developed his understanding of the rules of heredity using methodological materialism. Alternatively, I am a philosophical materialist, not a believer, but when I teach science to students, I leave my irrelevant philosophy out of my course content. I stress methodological materialism as a tool to better understand the natural world, not as a foundation for a personal belief.

But creationists would say that Mendel's laws are examples of "operational" science, which begs the question of "what are the topics of origins science?" In my reading, I find that "origins science" is limited to subjects that have theological importance. Conservative Christian theology is concerned with the special creation of the earth, the special creation of life, the special creation of animals and plants, and the special creation of human beings, all by a personal God who had an ultimate purpose in mind. As a result, "origins science", focuses on the Big Bang (the origin of the universe), the origin of life, the origin of the "kinds" of plants and animals, and the origin of humans.


Creationists recently have split over the significance of the Big Bang, with "old earth" creationists like Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe Ministries promoting the idea that the Big Bang is evidence for creation, and "young earth" creationists such as Henry Morris and others from the Institute for Creation Research arguing for a more Biblical literal, special creation view that the entire physical universe came into being in only a few days. Some conservative Christian scientists thus accept modern physics, chemistry, and radiometric dating, but most have difficulty with modern biology, especially descent with modification. The other three "origins" topics all involve living things, which causes considerable discussion among these more moderate creationists.

Assuming that it is an open question wether life might have occurred through natural or supernatural causes, science, because it is limited to understanding the world only be natural forces. By definition, special creationists do not accept the possibility of a naturalistic evolution of life from nonlife, though theistic evolutionists may. Theologically liberal creationists allow that God might have devised the first replicating molecule, that descent with modification occured thereafter.


Origin of life research has always been a mainstay of young-earth creationism, and is also of considerable concern to old-earthers. It seems to be the "soft underbelly" of evolutionary biology, as there is not yet a concensus on precisely how life came about. It is a quite active area of research, however, and there are several vigorously-competing explanations. Creationists, however, view the origin of life as an intractable mystery which will never be solved because it is "too complex" to explain through natural causes. There appears to be an assumption that because it is not yet explained, it never will be.

The issue is theologically loaded: if life itself can be explained without recourse to supernatural intervention, to some (not all) it appears as if the existence of God is refuted. To the response that God could have willed life to have come about naturally (the notion of God as ultimate force in the universe), conservative Christians recoil against the taint of Deism: that God is a distant prime mover rather than the personal God of their theology. As a result, every possible breakthrough (the postulation of an RNA world, for example) is attacked as "too improbable." It is difficult to see how a "Christian perspective" on origin of life research could be scholarly, given this exhibited unwillingness to even consider — much less evaluate objectively — opposing opinions.


The explanation of the variety of plants and animals also varies among conservative creationists. The Bible states that "kinds" (Heb.:baramin) were created, but "kinds" is a poorly defined term that may be a species, a genus, or a family. Much creationist literature concerns the definition of a "kind", and how much "variation within the kind" can take place. For the young earth creationists, this becomes critical because of Flood Geology. Noah was instructed to take seven pairs of every clean kind of animal and five pairs of every unclean kind, and even if the Ark is the size of the Queen Mary (as claimed), the number of "kinds" that would fit on this ship is limited. So if the "cat kind" is equivalent to the family Felidae, there would need to be only seven pairs taken, and after the Ark landed, they could diverge into lions, bobcats, lynxes, pumas, housecats, and other species of large and small cats as an example of "variation within a kind." Other conservative Christians might allow for Felidae to be related to other carnivora, and for descent with modification to have taken place — in animals, anyway. Most draw the line, however, at human evolution.


The notion of human evolution postulates that humans descended with modification from nonhuman ancestors. Humans and living apes shared a common ancestor. This view contrasts strongly with the idea that God specially created humans in his image. Even the most liberal of the conservative Christians have difficulty accepting human evolution, though many will accept that nonhuman animals evolved. Conservative Christianity is based on an individual, personal relationship with God. How could humans have a special place with God if they are a result of the same processes that brought about the rest of nature? Humans — at the very minimum — have to have had a separate creation. And yet the inference to scientists from anatomy, biochemistry, behavior, the fossil record, and even embryology clearly points to our having shared a common ancestor with modern chimps and gorillas.

It is perhaps most obvious in their insistence upon a separate creation for humankind that conservative Christians present a clear example of how Christian ideology could affect the interpretation of scientific data. But "origins science" itself focuses on theologically important topics, allowing the intervention of the supernatural for theological, not scientific grounds.

This is illustrated by the fact that there is a direct correlation between the degree of theological conservatism and the amount of scientific evidence for evolution that is accepted. The most theologically conservative accept only physics and chemistry; the less conservative accept some of biology (for example, some evolution of nonhuman forms) and only the most theologically liberal accept human evolution. Ironically, the scientific evidence for the evolution our species is far better than that for most other mammalian genera. I believe human evolution is not accepted predominantly because of ideological commitments.

There may indeed be a "Christian perspective" which may be scholarly, but it will be difficult to apply it to evolutionary studies and still remain scientific. Whether there are other areas within science where a "Christian perspective" can be applied is an empirical question that has not yet been answered. But as with Marxism, feminism, Afrocentrism, environmentalism or any other ideology, there is a great risk of subverting evidence to belief. From the evidence so far, a supernatural ideology is yet more fraught with this risk.


Currently, the most active and effective antievolutionists are the grass-roots, young-earth proponents from the ICR, the Bible-Science Association, and affiliated groups. It is my contention that more moderate forms of antievolution, such as some of those discussed above, will be having a proportionately greater effect in the future partially because of their presence on secular campuses where they are able to influence the next generation of leaders.

A high percentage of citizens reject evolution (currently, polls consistently show 47% - 49% of Americans deny that humans evolved from earlier forms [American Museum of Natural History, 1994; Scott, 1987; Toumey, 1994]). Evolution is a basic component of science, and essential to biology and geology. One is not scientifically literate if one does not understand evolution. I would hope that scientists would do what they could to encourage individuals to accept evolution as science.

Evolution — accurately presented — needs to be in pre-college as well as college education. There are a number of things that scientists, especially those at colleges and universities, can do to teach it better. Most of them have little to do with the actual scientific content of the subject, but rather with improving the perception of evolution by the public.

I speak before many public audiences and do a fair number of radio call-in programs. The most common response I get when I ask people "what does evolution mean", is "man evolved from monkeys." The second most common answer is, "evolution means that you can't believe in God." The perception that religious faith and acceptance of evolution are incompatible is, in my experience, widespread. One source of this confusion comes from antievolutionists. Leaders of the Institute for Creation Research proclaim that "one can be either an evolutionist or a Christian."

As mentioned before, reliable polls place the number of self-identified Christians in the US as upwards of 86% (Goldman, 1991), the highest percentage of believers of any developed country. If scientists give Americans the same choice as the ICR gives them, there will be scant interest in teaching and learning evolution, which would be detrimental to the science literacy of our nation. To encourage people to learn about evolution, it is necessary to allow them to retain their faith.

This follows from the logic of the nature of limitations governing modern science. It is also good strategy, if our goal is to increase the amount of science literacy in our nation.

Not all creationists are extreme in their rejection of evolution. To many moderate creationists, evidence from science demonstrates that the universe is old, the earth is old, plants and animals evolved, and even human beings had earlier ancestors different from them. They merely want to draw the line at the assumption of evolutionary materialism, the philosophy that evolution (and its material causes) are not only sufficient for explaining the presence and form of the modern universe, but proof that there is no supernatural intervention. The fear that teachers are serving up not just science, but materialism in their lesson on evolution is part of the opposition to evolution that I have encountered — and not just from young-earthers who are at the fringes of modern science, but more moderate conservative Christians who are within the modern scientific mainstream in many respects.

In dealing with hundreds of elementary and high-school teachers, I have found that the number of teachers that actually promote materialism along with evolution is vanishingly small. At the college level it is more common, but it is still not general. Vocal proponents of evolutionary materialism such as William Provine at Cornell, Paul Kurtz at SUNY Buffalo, and Daniel Dennett at Tufts vigorously argue that Darwinism makes religion obsolete, and encourage their colleagues to do likewise. Although I share a similar metaphysical position, I suggest that it is unwise for several reasons to promote this view as a scientific one (Scott, 1995).

First, science is a limited way of knowing in which practitioners attempt to explain the natural world using natural explanations. By definition, science cannot consider supernatural explanations: if there is an omnipotent deity, there is no way that a scientist can exclude or include it in a research design. This is especially clear in experimental research design: an omnipotent deity cannot be "controlled" (as one wag commented, "you can't put God in a test tube, or keep him out of one.") So by definition, if an individual is attempting to explain some aspect of the natural world using science, he or she must act as if there were no supernatural forces operating on it. I think this methodological materialism is well understood by evolutionists. But by excluding the supernatural from our scientific turf, we also are eliminating the possibility of concluding through the epistemology of science that there is no supernatural. One may come to a philosophical conclusion that there is no God, and even base this philosophical conclusion on one's understanding of science, but it is ultimately a philosophical conclusion, not a scientific one. If science is limited to explaining the natural world using natural causes, and thus cannot admit supernatural explanations, so also is science self-limited in another way: it is unable to reject the possibility of the supernatural.

Scientists like other teachers, must be aware of the difference between philosophical materialism and methodological materialism and not treat them like conjoined twins. They are logically and practically decoupled. Furthermore, if it is important for Americans to learn about science and evolution, decoupling the two forms of materialism is essential strategy.

To further defuse the religious issue, scientists can be more careful about how they use terms. For example, evolutionists sometimes confuse the evidence we have for considerable contingency during the course of evolution with evidence for a lack of ultimate purpose in the universe. Futuyma writes,
Perhaps most importantly, if the world and its creatures developed purely by material, physical forces, it could not have been designed and has no purpose or goal.... Some shrink from the conclusion that the human species was not designed, has no purpose, and is the product of mere material mechanisms — but this seems to be the message of evolution. (Futuyma, 1995)
G. G. Simpson is regularly quoted with dismay by creationists as saying "Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned." (Simpson, 1967:345.) A theist might respond that we do not know what God's purpose is or what he planned. It is possible that if there is an omnipotent, omniscient deity, it was part of its plan to bring humans and every other species about precisely in the rather zig-zag, contingency-prone fashion which the fossil evidence indicates. Of course, this would be a theological statement, but that is the point. Saying that "there is no purpose to life" is not a scientific statement. We are able to explain the world and its creatures using materialist, physical processes, but to claim that this then requires us to conclude that there is no purpose in nature steps beyond science to philosophy. One's students may or may not come to this conclusion on their own; in my opinion, for a nonreligious professor to interject his own philosophy into the classroom in this manner is as offensive as it would be for a fundamentalist professor to pass off his philosophy as science.

Another way scientists can help defuse the religious issue is by being explicit about what we can and cannot say about design. As with "purpose" in nature, "design" is largely a theological position. But many evolutionists, ever mindful of William Paley's Argument from Design, stress not the perfection of structure in nature, but the often erratic, cobbled-together-from-what's-available nature of many structures, such as the panda's thumb or the anglerfish's lure. This is an important point to make, and helps students realize that natural selection does not result in "perfection" of structure. When we look at either the fossil record or the "design" of many structures, it is difficult to see evidence of advance planning. In terms of proximate cause, then, design in nature is not apparent. But ultimate cause is, as we discussed, outside of the boundaries of science. Allowing a student of conservative religious views to continue to believe in ultimate design or purpose need not detract from that student's understanding of the evidence for the contingency of proximate cause. Separating the two types of causation may, indeed, keep a student from being "turned off" of evolution, especially if he or she comes into the class with the idea that "evolution means you can't believe in God."


Creationism offers some interesting contrasts to other topics discussed in the "Flight from Science and Reason" conference. Creationists (antievolutionists) are not attackers of science, they appreciate reason and believe they are being objective, but just as do postmodernists, they reject the Enlightenment traditions that brought about modern scientific epistemology. The distinction is that they are premodernists, rather than postmodernists (Eve and Harrold, 1991). They illustrate extremely well one of the concerns that supporters of science and reason have in the face of so much antiscience: the replacement of empirical and logical evidence with ideology and dogmatic belief.

The antievolution movement has as its prime motivator the fear that religion is under attack by the study of evolution, and great efforts have been made over the last 70 years to "shield" students from evolution's "evil effects." Like a neutral mutation that replaces the wild type if no selective forces are brought against it, so will antievolution prevail if not opposed by academics (and even more importantly, at the grass-roots level of the school board and the individual school.) To successfully oppose antievolution, scientists need to understand what motivates the movement, and also to recognize that the movement is not monolithic. There is great variation among conservative Christians in the degree to which they reject evolution. Those who spurn evolution out of fear that a hegemonic materialist philosophy is being promoted at the expense of their religion are very different and more "reachable" than those who reject evolution because of fancied scientific evidence against it.

I suggest that scientists can defuse some of the opposition to evolution by first, recognizing that the vast majority of Americans are believers, most Americans want to retain their faith, and it is demonstrable that individuals can retain religious beliefs and still accept evolution as science. Scientists should avoid confusing the methodological materialism of science with metaphysical materialism. Also, scientists should avoid making theological statements (such as those concerning ultimate purpose in life, or ultimate cause) in the context of their scientific discussions.

Antievolutionism is perhaps the most successful form of irrationalism besetting the American public, though it currently is not represented at the university level to the degree that some of the other "isms" discussed at this conference. It would be nice for American science literacy if its rate in the "real world" outside the university matched its rate within. The efforts of university and professional scientists will be critical in this regard.

References Cited


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Epperson v. Arkansas (1968) 393 U.S. 97, 37 U.S. Law Week 4017, 89 S. Ct. 266, 21 L. Ed 228.

McLean V. Arkansas Board of Education (1982) 529 F. Supp. 1255, 50 U.S. Law Week 2412.

Bishop v. Aranov (1991) 926 F. 2d 1066; 1991 U.S. App. Lexis 4118.

1994 American Museum of Natural History, poll of 1,255 individuals conducted by Louis Harris and Associates, Inc.


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Reprinted with permission from New York Academy of Sciences. The Flight From Reason. Volume 775 of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. June 24, 1996