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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
To a certain extent we are. I think that the brief represents something of an overreaction to the threat posed by creation science. During times of controversy I think there is a tendency to stress the inevitable hostility between science and religion. But as I’ve argued, the conflicts involving science and religion have rarely been simple ones that have pitted scientist against religionist. Take the 1981 Arkansas trial. The plaintiffs who opposed creation science came overwhelmingly from the ranks of religious organizations, while virtually all the experts testifying in its support held graduate degrees in science. This is hardly what one would predict according to the common formula of science versus religion.
Have the creationists had any discernible impact on scientific notions about the earth’s beginnings?
Certainly in the public arena they have. In the early 1980s two states, Arkansas and Louisiana, passed laws mandating the teaching of “creation science” whenever “evolution science” was taught. A recent Gallup opinion poll told us that 47 percent of Americans now believe in a recent special creation of the first human beings no more than ten thousand years ago. To what extent we can attribute this to the activities of the creation scientists is impossible to say, but there is certainly a striking correlation between their activities and the growing popular beliefs. If you look at the influence of the creationists on the scientific community, though, I think you’ll find very little of it, except in terms of reaction.
Since the 1987 Supreme Court decision invalidated the Arkansas and Louisiana laws, what have creationists been doing to further their cause?
They’re alive and well and very active in local school districts and with individual instructors. The majority opinion in the 1987 case, written by Justice William Brennan, left the door open for creationists to teach their views in science courses if done so voluntarily with a “clear secular intent.” Now we see some creationist high school teachers beginning to take advantage of that loophole. And I suspect that in the near future we will have some attention-grabbing court cases. The dilemma, I think, even for those who oppose the teaching of creationism in public schools, stems from pitting a defense of academic freedom against the belief that teaching creationism breaks down the wall separating church and state.
In the 1920s fundamentalists were fighting to keep evolution out of public education. In the 1980s evangelicals were fighting to get creationism included in the curriculum. What does that change say about the respective fortunes of creationism then and now?
I think it may tell us something about the reduced cultural authority of evangelicals in American society. The evangelicals of the 1920s saw themselves slipping somewhat but still felt powerful enough to prevent what they regarded as an antireligious notion creeping into the public schools. In recent years there have been no illusions among evangelicals that they could monopolize the curriculum. And so now they would be happy to settle for equal time in the public schools. I think this also reflects a phenomenon that we’ve seen occasionally in American history. When a group loses the moral authority to convince the public to behave or think a certain way, there is a tendency to go to the courts. We saw that with Prohibition earlier in the century, and we see that now. If you can’t convince Americans that they should take creationism seriously, then you go to the state legislatures and mandate that high school students should learn creationism whenever they learn evolutionism.
If you were going to make your best case to the contemporary academic world as to why they should take modern creationism seriously, what would that be?
I think that the primary lessons may be historical—that our assumptions about the progressive nature of secularization in Western society need to be re-examined. How else do we explain the resurgence in popularity of creationism in the late twentieth century? I think that it might prompt a reappraisal of the importance of religious values in the lives of Americans. Commitment to religious belief might in many cases be stronger than the authority of the scientific community at a given time.
Besides the religious factors you invoke, what social considerations help explain the efflorescence of creationism?