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The New Creationists
The foremost student of a belief held by nearly half of all Americans traces its history from Darwin’s bombshell through the storms of the Scopes trial to today’s “scientific creationists”—who find William Jennings Bryan too liberal
November 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 7
What sort of institutional bases do scientific creationists work from? Have they gotten much support from religious denominations?
The answer varies from denomination to denomination. For years the most supportive denomination has been the Seventh-day Adventist Church—the home of George McCready Price—which in the late 1950s organized what became known as the Geoscience Research Institute. This has been one of the best-supported creationist institutes since that time. The Missouri Synod Lutherans have flirted at times with creating a similar organization but have never consummated that desire. In 1970 Tim LaHaye, pastor of Scott Memorial Baptist Church in the San Diego area, invited Henry Morris to come out to Southern California to help start Christian Heritage College and a creation-science research center. When the members of the center began quarreling, the Morris faction in 1972 regrouped as the Institute for Creation Research, supported by the Baptist congregation at Scott Memorial Church. More than any other institution, the Institute for Creation Research has successfully propagated what we now know as creation science.
You write: “To understand twentieth-century creationism, little knowledge of formal science and philosophy is necessary; familiarity with the Byzantine world of popular religion is essential.” Why?
Because the primary actors in the creationist story have been influenced very little by prevailing fashions in science or philosophy. A decade or so ago scholars began emphasizing the degree to which creationist fundamentalists subscribed to a Baconian philosophy of science, which had been much more influential in the nineteenth century than in the twentieth. To some extent that emphasis is accurate. A few early-twentieth-century creationists did invoke Bacon, just as some creationists in recent years have quoted the philosophers of science Karl Popper and Thomas K’fchn. But as far as I can tell, this is largely window dressing. The average creationist in discussing science has gone to the dictionary, not to philosophers of science, to determine what science is or should be. And of course, there he is likely to discover that science is “classified knowledge based on factual information.” Creationists like that definition because they can use it to delegitimize evolution.
What most influences creationists are the religious beliefs coming out of their own denominations, whether it be Seventh-day Adventist, Missouri Synod Lutheran, Southern Baptist, or conservative Presbyterian. And if you want to know why creationists are creationists, it is much more important for you to understand their denominational and religious loyalties than to try to come up with some philosophy of science.
But is creation science really a science?
Despite what Judge William Overton decided in the Little Rock creation versus evolution trial in the early 1980s, I’m not sure that there is any sound way to demarcate science from nonscience. Science, according to one way of thinking, is what scientists do. If one accepts that definition, then perhaps scientists working on creation are doing science. I think for noncreationists there are two perspectives that might be adopted. One is that creationism is bad science and thus does not deserve to be taught in public schools. I personally think that is a persuasive position to take. Just as we would not want bad history taught, I hope that we would not want bad science taught. But because so much of the attention on creation science has come from the courts, the argument that creationism is bad science has rarely been used. Like it or not, it is not unconstitutional to teach bad science.
“A recent Gallup poll told us that 47 percent of Americans now believe in a recent special creation of the first human beings.”
Second, one should note that the canons of scientific research have changed greatly. There was a time when mixing science and religion was perfectly acceptable. We occasionally even find Darwin referring to a Creator. Today one could scarcely claim to be doing science and at the same time invoke the supernatural. Naturalism has become a distinguishing characteristic of contemporary science. Thus one could argue that because present-day creation scientists are not strictly naturalistic, they operate beyond the boundaries of science. But I would stress that all lines of demarcation between science and nonscience—or pseudoscience—are historically contingent.
In the 1987 Supreme Court case regarding the Arkansas and Louisiana Balanced Treatment acts seventy-two Nobel laureates signed a brief arguing that “this case is crucial to the future of scientific education. Our capacity to cope with the problems of food production, health care and even national defense will be jeopardized if we deliberately strip our citizens of the power to distinguish between phenomena of nature and supernatural articles of faith.” Roughly a century earlier writers like Andrew Dickson White and John William Draper were publishing influential works purporting to show how religion had always been at war with scientific inquiry. Are we seeing in the current polemics against creationists an echo of the hyperboles of the last century?