Creationist Theology Confronts Science in the U.S.

Creation “science”, i.e. the theory that the world and all life was created by divine intervention is far from extinct.  On the contrary, according to a recent article in the New Scientist magazine, it is “mutating and spreading”.

 Widespread Belief in Creationism

Ironically, when Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, where he enunciated his theory of evolution through natural selection, it did not receive a very hostile reception from the Christian clergy.. In fact, by 1900, mainstream Protestants had adapted their theology to it. More conservative Christians had misgivings but nearly all agreed that the Earth is millions of years old, and there was no organised opposition to the teaching of the theory of evolution. Now, a century later, in the US — arguably the world’s leading scientific nation — 47 per cent of Americans, including a quarter of college graduates, believe humans did not evolve, but were created by God a few thousand years ago! Nearly a third believe creationism should be taught in science lessons.
Most teachers avoid trouble from right-wing activists by not teaching evolution at all. Some teach that there is  scientific evidence that supports the story of how the earth and life on it was created in the Bible — that the Earth was created less than 10,000 years ago, that fossils are the result of Noah’s flood and that dinosaurs existed until recently.

It is curious that evolutionary theory is met with greater hostility now than 100 years ago, and also that it appears to be a phenomenon limited largely to the U.S. While opinions differ on how the creationist movement gathered momentum in the U.S., today creationism is being encouraged by right-wing political groups to exploit people’s misgivings about science to boost their membership and pursue wider goals. This is now spreading the belief far beyond the U.S.

Historians now say that the history of creationism in the US is intimately tied up with the country’s social and political development. Creationists, have two main problems with Darwinian evolutionary theory. If humans were not created in God’s image (as described in the Bible), but descended from animals, why should they behave any better than animals? And if people could evolve by the working of natural laws alone, what need is there for God?

Rapid urbanisation in the 1920s in Europe and North America radically changed social structures and caused anxiety about moral standards among conservative Christians. A target of ire for conservative Christians became the belief in “godless evolution”. In 1925, Tennessee prohibited teaching “that man has descended from a lower order of animals”. Subsequently, 20 states debated  similar anti-evolution laws. Successful counter-pressure from scientists defeated them in all but Arkansas and Mississippi. But the controversy fostered popular suspicion of evolution, and it steadily disappeared from school textbooks.

New Surge in the Sixties

The next upheaval came when a hydraulic engineer named Henry Morris and a Bible scholar, John Whitcomb, published a book called, “The Genesis Flood” in 1961. The book asserted that the entire Universe was created in six days less than 10,000 years ago; that the second law of thermodynamics started operating only with Adam’s sin in Eden; and that the fossil record, and geological formations such as the Grand Canyon, were created in a year by the planetary cataclysm of Noah’s flood. Empirical evidence was cited for everything.

Though Morris’s ideas were entirely unscientific, it was an enormous success, because it appeared at an opportune time. After the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, embarrassed American scientists demanded better science education for Americans. As part of this drive for science teaching, a new text book that heavily emphasised evolution was issued by the government-funded Biological Sciences Curriculum Study and bought by half of the school districts in the US.

Right wing zealots used Morris’s book to oppose this move. The book also suited a new effort to promote religion in public schools. Although laws against teaching evolution became impossible in 1968, when the US Supreme Court said the Arkansas law violated the First Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids the State, and thus state-funded schools, from promoting a particular religion. But while religion couldn’t be taught in schools, science could be. So in the 1970s, Arkansas and Louisiana passed laws requiring science classes to give equal time to Morris’s “creation science” and evolution. The Supreme Court overturned the Louisiana statute in 1987, ruling that creation science was really religious belief, so could not be taught as science. Critical to the decision was the active intervention of scientists, who wrote the court a definition of science. Creation science did not meet requirements such as starting with a falsifiable hypothesis.

So in the 1990s, creationists abandoned law and focused on the school boards, which set teaching requirements in state schools. They convinced several to require teachers to describe evolution as “theory rather than fact”. Alabama added a disclaimer to texts describing evolution,  labelling them as “controversial”. A similar statute in Louisiana was overturned by a local court in 1997, a decision now being appealed to the Supreme Court.

But despite these successive courtroom defeats for creation science, no law actually prohibits a teacher from teaching creationism. Last August, the Kansas State Board  of Education — which included several fundamentalists — rejected the school  curriculum standards written by its scientific advisers. The curriculum it adopted in its place was secretly written by Tom Willis of the Creation Science Association of Mid-America. Willis believes that dinosaurs lived in the US until late in the 19th century, and his school curriculum ask  students to “analyse hypotheses about  extinction of dinosaurs” and “show the weaknesses in the reasoning”.

The events in Kansas have inspired a nationwide outcry from scientists, a refusal by national science agencies to let Kansas use their science standards in other areas and a software firm’s decision not to locate in Topeka, Kansas. These moves have put the anti-evolution lobby on its backfoot and four other states have dropped various anti-evolution proposals. But similar proposals remain alive in four more.

Changing Strategy to Keep the Debate Alive

Defeats in the courts  have helped split the creationist camp. When the Louisiana equal-time law (which required equal time to be given for teaching of both creationism and evolution) was overturned in 1987, creationists could no longer sell creationism as  science. Many creationists changed tack to propound “intelligent design”, a way of trying to find evidence for God without being tied to Morris’s extreme ideas in “The Genesis Flood”.

The new breed of creationists now argue that  evolution means that all living things are the product of “mindless material forces”. Further they assert that there must be empirical evidence for God — and if  scientists deny this it is because they too are pushing an atheistic agenda. Thus the debate on creationism and evolution has been turned into one on theism versus naturalism. Such a turn to the debate is able to attracts a majority of “believers” — including  40 per cent of Americans who believe that evolution was God’s way of creating life. Many scientists who are themselves practising Christians say that creationists are creating a false choice between creationism and atheism, which they equate with orthodox science. As a result nearly half of all Americans,  according to recent opinion polls, think children should be taught both evolution and  creationism “so they can make up their own minds”, as though the two were competing explanations.

If nothing else, the creationist debate in the U.S. is a clear reminder of the fact that science and rationality do not necessarily follow from knowledge of science. A nation which has the highest concentration of scientific institutions in the world, where everyday life is replete with the use of hundreds of technological artifacts, also boasts of the most vigorous movement against a materialistic understanding of the origin of life and universe.