Morality, Religious Symbolism, and the Creationist Movement

Creation Evolution Journal
Morality, Religious Symbolism, and the Creationist Movement
Joseph E. Laferriere

And today, this God-rejecting, man-exalting philosophy of evolution spills its evil progeny—materialism, modernism, humanism, socialism, Fascism, communism, and, ultimately, Satanism—in terrifying profusion all over the world.

[Morris, 1963:83]

Many people view controversies such as the present debate between creationists and evolutionists as conflicts between religion and science. The idea of an inevitable discord between the two has been around for some time and is held by many in scientific circles. This conception is exemplified by the classic, two-volume work A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (White, 1896). This is still considered by many as a classic authority on the subject, but the book's extreme viewpoint has been criticized as simplistic by several scholars (Lindberg, 1983). The overall thesis is based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of religion by both scientists and theologians and, certainly, by the lay public as well. The way these two terms are properly defined, science and religion appear to be entirely separate realms of human behavior with no potential for conflict. Understanding the nature of these perceived disagreements and the reasons why the supporters of pseudoscientific theories are so fervent in their beliefs requires a knowledge of the structure of religious systems and the symbolic nature of many aspects of religious beliefs.

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The Structure of Religions

Whereas science is considered to be the systematic study of the natural universe, religion is a social phenomenon best defined as a system of morality and ethics which establishes a common basis for human decision-making and which provides emotional support and a sense of purpose and direction for its adherents. Such a broad definition includes not only the traditional Western religions but also smaller-scale tribal religions and nontheistic religions or "ideologies" such as Humanism, Confucianism, Hinayana Buddhism, and Marxism, which exhibit many of the same characteristics as more familiar belief systems. The idea that religion necessarily involves belief in God is a common American misperception based upon most people's limited experience with other systems.

French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1915) suggested that one characteristic shared by all religions is that they make a sharp distinction between the sacred and the mundane. The mundane includes all the everyday aspects of life, such as the ethics used in decision-making, the emotional and psychological benefits from religious devotion, and so forth. The sacred consists of some special symbol or idea which serves to lend authority to the mundane aspects of the religion, changing it from a haphazard collection of rules and rituals into a relatively coherent system of belief. Frequently, the adherents to a particular belief system portray the ultimate purpose of the religion as wound up in the sacred symbol itself (for example, worship of God) rather than acknowledge the mundane side of the religion as primary. This is because the symbol must be thought of as being real or it loses its meaning.

This sacred concept may take many forms. Frequently, it is represented by the belief in one or more supernatural beings, but other concepts may serve the same purpose. A person may serve as the sacred symbol, such as a king or an ancestor, as may an object or a totemic animal. Even a pure idea may be held sacred, as are the four central truths of Buddhism, the Revolution in Marxism, or the ideals of intellectual freedom and the dignity of the individual in contemporary Unitarian-Universalism (Robinson, 1985).

Harold Fallding suggests three criteria by which one may determine what is sacred about any particular religion: (1) it must be transcendent, something above and beyond the realm of ordinary experience; (2) it must be comprehensive, something so all-inclusive and compelling that all other aspects of the religion may ultimately be traced back to it; and (3) it must be something dogmatically agreed upon by all members of the group (Fallding, 1972). People may disagree about details (for example, about the proper way to perform a certain ritual), but they must be in agreement about the criteria by which they are to decide the argument—that is, in terms of the sacred principle. The colloquial expression, "Is nothing sacred?" in the sense of "Is nothing beyond question?" illustrates this point quite well.

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Mythology plays an important role in religion. Many people think of myths as being quaint folk tales which are obviously false to the nonbeliever but which some naive, unenlightened people tend to take seriously. There is, however, a sharp distinction between folk stories, which are told for enjoyment, education, or other mundane purposes, and sacred myths, which are held to have special significance and special authority. Myths serve to define the properties of the sacred concept and to elaborate on the proper relationship between the sacred and the mundane. For example, a myth stating that the first woman was created from a certain unimportant portion of the male anatomy for the purpose of providing companionship for the man may be interpreted as stating that women's role is less important than that of the man in the society that places credence in that particular myth. Innumerable generations of chauvinistic males have used just such a myth to justify social roles existing in their societies.

Mythology, in turn, is often supported by what anthropologists call folk science, a collection of pseudoscientific beliefs about how nature operates. The relationship between mythology and folk science is very intimate and works in both directions. Mythology provides the central paradigms for folk scientific theories, and folk science serves, at least in the minds of the practitioners of the religion, to reinforce and lend credence to the mythology. Folk science differs from true science in that it is not subject to rigorous testing and independent verification and it is frequently vitalistic, making recourse to unseen and unmeasurable forces and entities. In this way, it can interact directly with the sacred concept, especially if it is a supernatural symbol, since much of nature is often conceived of as interacting with the supernatural world.

We can therefore picture a hierarchy of roles which religion plays, as shown in Figure 1:

Figure 1: The Structure of Religious Belief

The primary function of religion is concerned with ethics and psychology at the mundane level. This is supported by the people's concept of the sacred, which in turn is given form and credence by mythology and folk science. People often rely upon folk science so heavily for verification of the structure of their belief system that they interpret challenge to folk scientific theories as threats to the entire structure of their religions, even though the challenge to the core of the belief system is very indirect indeed. This can lead to denial of facts which contradict the established perceptions in an attempt to remove the sources of psychological conflict involved in evaluating facts and revising one's world view and one's bases for decision-making. Herein lies the crux of the perceived conflict between science and religion.

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The Trobriand Islanders

One example of such a conflict in a non-Christian society involves the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands in the South Pacific off the coast of New Guinea (Malinowski, 1948). At the time they first encountered Western anthropologists, the Trobrianders did not believe that there was any connection between sexual intercourse and pregnancy. This was not a case of sheer ignorance. The people had domesticated animals and were perfectly cognizant of the necessity of males for the propagation of the herd, but they refused to extrapolate the idea to humans. When visitors tried to convince the people of the white man's theory, the visitors encountered active resistance and even ridicule.

A little knowledge of the Trobrianders' religion offers an explanation for the resistance to these new ideas. They believed that various types of spirits inhabited the forest, interacting with living humans on a regular basis. These spirits caused and cured diseases, affected human interactions, and so forth. The people had rituals honoring these spirits, and their entire magical system (magic being applied folk science) revolved around the invocation of the powers of these spirits. The people also believed in reincarnation. They believed that one of the spirits of the dead would enter a woman's body and transform itself into a child. The anthropologists, by challenging this folk scientific theory of procreation, were calling into question the Trobrianders' belief in these spirits and threatening the integrity of their religious beliefs.


Another example involves the modern secular religion of Marxism. Creationists are fond of pointing out that Marx made several favorable comments about Darwin and his theory of evolution, even to the point of having considered dedicating Das Kapital to the famous naturalist. In this way, the creationists feel they can capitalize upon Marx's unpopularity in the West and make Darwin take the blame for the spread of communism. However, there is much more to this story which they blissfully ignore.

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It is true that Marx and Engels spoke favorably of the theory of evolution, but they strenuously opposed Darwin's proposed evolutionary mechanism, natural selection. In this they were in basic agreement with many of their nineteenth-century contemporaries who could not picture a hereditary mechanism for natural selection. Marx and Engels rejected the theory for somewhat similar reasons as those given by present-day creationists. Marxist theory is firmly rooted in the much older philosophy of materialism: the belief that the universe consists solely of matter and energy and its resultant properties. Materialists believe that nature operates according to certain definite rules which are constant throughout the universe. This viewpoint thus precludes the roles which supernatural forces might be conceived as playing. Natural selection involves a large element of chance, which is as inimical to Marxist determinism as it is to fundamentalist notions of divine creation (Zirkle, 1959; Graham, 1972). Marx and Engels preferred Lamarckian concepts of the inheritance of acquired traits, since the orthogenetic aspects held more philosophical appeal (Zirkle, 1959:6). They condemned natural selection as a product of "reactionary" Malthusian ideas.

To quote from Lysenko's infamous speech announcing the imposition of his theories on Stalinist Russia (1948:59-60):

We must not wait for favors (i.e. lucky chances—T.L.) from nature; our task is to wrest them from her. . . . By ridding our science of Mendelism-Morganism-Weismannism [that is, genetics] we expel fortuities out of biological science. We must firmly remember that science is the enemy of chance.

Marxists also believed that human beings are all formed alike and can be molded into any form desired. Soviet scientists espousing theories emphasizing differences between groups of organisms, especially people, were frequently branded as supportive of Nazi-style racism. Differential reproduction, of course, is the core of the theory of natural selection. Eventually, any study of human genetics, even from a medical perspective, was suspect (Joravsky, 1970).

Quantum mechanics was also frowned upon by Soviet theoreticians for similar reasons, since its emphasis on the role of the observer seemed to imply philosophical idealism, while the role of chance in predicting the path of an object called into question the role of causality in nature and the certainty of natural laws (Graham, 1972). Other scientific theories, such as modern views of cosmology, were condemned because they lent themselves to arguments in favor of divine intervention (Graham, 1972).

While Lamarckian ideas died in the West as a result of lack of experimental verification, they survived in the Soviet Union because of support from Marxist theoreticians and the intervention of Stalinist political authorities. Those supporting these theories emphasized a contrived dualism between "bourgeois science" and "proletarian science" remarkably similar to the creationist "two model" approach.

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By 1948, these Lamarckian (or, more accurately, degenerate pseudoLamarckian) theories had won official approval and were installed as the only acceptable bases for biological research in the Soviet Union. The charlatan Lysenko was made dictator of biological sciences throughout the Soviet Union, where he remained more or less in control until the fall of Krushchev in 1964 (Medvedev, 1969). Soviet agriculture was thus set back several decades as plant and animal breeders struggled with totally ineffective methods.

Ben Franklin's Lightning Rod

Medieval Europe had a rather elaborate folk science based largely upon the literal interpretation of the Bible. This folk science also received contributions from the theories of the ancient Greek philosophers and from the pre-Christian religions from other parts of Europe. The emerging science of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had to counteract many of these long-standing notions in order to gain acceptance and counter the political power of the established churches, which had used these beliefs in their moralizing messages for years and held them to be inviolate.

Benjamin Franklin, for example, encountered the wrath of both Catholic and Protestant theologians over his invention of the lightning rod (White, 1896). Pre-Christian peoples in most of Europe believed that lightning was caused by one of their gods—Thor in northern Europe and Jupiter in the south. In accordance with the biblical admonition that "the gods of the heathens are devils" (Psalms 96:5), the power of causing lightning was transferred to Satan when the people were Christianized. One of Lucifer's many medieval nicknames was "The Prince of the Power of the Air." Throughout the Middle Ages, church bells across Europe were baptized and then rung during thunderstorms to scare away Satan.

In 1752, however, during the heyday of the New England "fire and brimstone" epoch, a Bostonian deist named Franklin invented the lightning rod and was promptly denounced from pulpits on both sides of the Atlantic for challenging the power of the devil. Since his contemporaries believed that Satan cannot do anything without the acquiescence of the Almighty, this implied to them that Franklin was thwarting the will of God. Franklin had thus challenged both the people's conceptions of their deity and the folk science which supported it. For twenty to thirty years, churches in both Europe and America refused to allow lightning rods to be affixed to their steeples, with some tragic results.

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Perhaps the most famous and long-lasting controversy involving a perceived clash between science and religion is the case of the heliocentric theory of the solar system (White, 1896; Kuhn, 1959; Gingerich, 1982). The idea that Earth moves around the sun is an old one, dating back to Pythagoras in the sixth century BCE, but the idea failed to gain much support and remained an academic curiosity until resurrected by Nikolai Kopernicki (Copernicus) in the sixteenth century. Copernicus arrived at his theory about 1500, while a professor in Rome, but was so fearful of the authorities that he refrained from publishing his ideas until 1543, when he had retired to his native Poland and was on his death bed. His editor insisted on adding a disclaimer to the front of the book, stating that the theory was being presented not as fact but merely as a thought experiment, a common practice among wary scientists of that era. The statement served its purpose well, preventing the book from being banned outright, although it did draw scathing denunciations from both Martin Luther and John Calvin. Copernicus was accused of attempting to resurrect ancient pagan beliefs, which is particularly ironic since the ancient philosophers who first proposed the idea had been vehemently denounced as heretics by the Greek community.

Some seventy years later, however, Galileo Galilei reached much the same conclusions as Copernicus and obtained further evidence through his telescope to support the idea. He made the mistake, however, of asserting that the theory was in fact true and thus incurred the full furor of the church. Both the Catholic church and the various Protestant denominations at the time were highly sensitized and defensive of their positions due to their mutual conflict over the Reformation, in much the same way that the Cold War polarized Soviet opinion in the late 1940s (Kuhn, 1959; Graham, 1972). Galileo was twice called before the Inquisition and forced to recant his beliefs. The second time, in 1633, all of his and all of Copernicus's books were placed on the church's "Index of Proscribed Books," where they remained until 1835. A flood of books were printed and sermons preached by both Catholic and Protestant theologians denouncing Galileo as an atheist who thought to dethrone God and discredit the entire Bible. Galileo was not an atheist but remained a loyal Catholic to the bitter end, making every attempt to find scriptural support for his theory.

The tirade against the heliocentric theory did not subside quickly. Even as late as the 1870s, books were still being published denouncing Galileo's theory. It was not until 1984, some 440 years after Copernicus first proposed the theory to modern science, that Pope John Paul II took steps toward acknowledging that the church had erred in condemning Galileo (Golden, 1984). Pro-geocentric groups continue to advocate their position to this day; one of these groups has even been reported as proposing a space-shuttle experiment to "prove" its theory (Kendig, 1986).

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Comparing this controversy to the briefer episode over Franklin's lightning rod, we find a marked difference in the magnitude and duration of the conflict. The lightning rod polemic died out and was virtually forgotten after only thirty years, while the astronomical diatribes attracted more attention and persisted for centuries. Franklin was merely questioning one small piece of Christian folk science, making God just a bit less powerful and a bit less fearsome than he had been. The lightning rod proved of immense practical value, as eventually became obvious to all. Galileo, however, was challenging one of the central cornerstones of Christian philosophy: the idea that God created the universe for the express benefit of the human race, indicative of the special relationship between humans and God (Becker, 1985). Moving Earth from the center of the cosmos and making it just one more body in the heavens shakes the idea and makes it sound a little less plausible. It thus makes the human species seem less important and God's purpose in creating the universe less clear.

The Flat Earth Society

One can take this idea of the human race being at the center of the universe a step further. If the world were flat and the sun were thirty-two miles across and three thousand miles above Earth, the world would not only be the center of the universe but would also constitute most of the universe and be unique in the cosmos. The view just put forward is that held by a religious group called the Flat Earth Research Society International of Covenant People's Church Genesis 9:16 (P.O. Box 2533, Lancaster, CA 93539). The following excerpt from an editorial in the society's publication, Flat Earth News (Johnson, 1983), illustrates the seriousness with which its members view their mission:

I hope all of you understand this is by FAR the most important work on earth. . . . Nothing even to compare with. No hope in Church or University or anywhere to be given a HINT of the "way things really is." Long ago a flat earther named Paul, said about the "herd" the "people" . . . if and when they REFUSE to keep a heart and mind, trying to find God-Truth, turn lose of faith, hope, and charity, THEN their minds become dark and devoid of an understanding, will believe any lie, as they tell and hear lies. So it is today, only through our society can a person become SANE and thereby regain . . . the knowledge that we are here to seek the truth and to try to ease the pain of God's creation. It is impossible to do anything if a person is INSANE. All who believe the world is a ball are INSANE! Science RELIGION is "programmed insanity" the "Big Lie Religion," taught and invented by the Judo-Christian Religion. (Christian Science religion was founded by Martin Luther, a former Catholic Priest). Anyway the world is now "ended"-those who before December 31, 1981, believed and had faith in the Big Lie Christian Science world of make believe fable, will go on, will remain a part of the "herd" . . . no one cares, no one will try to "convince" him of anything. Those who did NOT believe or do not go along with the big lie, after they heard of Flat Earth Society, will join us, as they "belong," not because they are "talked into it or are convinced" by us. No, only those who ALREADY are aware of the idiocy of the ball-globe world, can or WILL understand. All else have and will keep the "mark of the beast" which is NOT to be SANE and reasonable. [sic; emphasis, punctuation, and ellipses in original]

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This passage, of course, makes even the most rabid creationist writings appear tame, but several important points may be made from it. It is difficult to determine a great deal about the belief system of the writer from this, since the author makes self-contradictory statements, first invoking the support of God and St. Paul and then denouncing the "Judo-Christian Religion." It does appear, however, that the Durkheimian sacred symbol of his religion is not God but rather the flat earth theory itself. This idea satisfies all three of Fallding's criteria for identifying the sacred symbol. The author obviously considers his work to be crucial, transcending in importance his mundane, everyday experience. This apparently motivates him to spend a great deal of time and energy and to risk the scorn and ridicule of others to further his ideals. The idea can be viewed as comprehensive, since he equates it with sanity and logic, as well as with salvation. He is extremely dogmatic and emphatic about his beliefs and considers opposing viewpoints as not only wrong and influenced by evil forces but actually insane. Science is viewed as a competing dogmatic religion.

Scientific Creationism

Much of this is relevant to our discussion of the creationism phenomenon, which is currently the most hotly debated controversy of this kind. I do feel, however, that the reasons for the devoted adherence to this particular theory are more complex and more inclusive. Evolution, by regarding the human race as a species of primate rather than as the primary purpose of the universe, diminishes the importance and uniqueness of the race in the same way as the heliocentric theory of the solar system, but there is more to the problem than that. Creationists view evolution as an attack on their religious beliefs at all levels—not only contradicting their biblical mythology and the folk science arising from the literal interpretation thereof but also shaking their perceptions of God. It also challenges the fundamentalist view of human nature and hence the moral and ethical essence of their religion (Becker, 1985).

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I maintain that the sacred symbol of the fundamentalist religion is not God but the Bible itself, which has been elevated from mythology to the central focus of the belief system. Fundamentalists have become bibliolaters (Bible worshippers), elevating the Scripture itself to the rank of sacred symbol. They have identified the Bible and its creationist mythology so closely with belief in God that the two have become virtually indistinguishable. Literal interpretation has become the principle raison d'etre of the movement (Carnell, 1984). Hence the ubiquitous reference in fundamentalist literature to "Bible-believing Christians." The folk science that Henry Morris and his fellow active creationists have formulated is a mixture of biblical literalism and fundamentalist moral viewpoints with whatever pieces of modern science they can find which do not contradict their preconceived conclusions. They have thus painted themselves into a corner by committing themselves to a demonstrably false doctrine.

Contrary to popular belief, the extraordinary emphasis placed upon creation and the literal interpretation of the Bible is hardly well engrained in the Christian tradition nor the viewpoint of the majority of present-day American Christians (Hargrove, 1986). Roman Catholicism has long maintained that the pope and the church have equal authority with the Scriptures, while Luther and Calvin emphasized the dynamic relation between faith and grace rather than metaphysical aspects of the Christian heritage (Denbeaux, 1984). Many theologians throughout the history of Christianity have argued for allegorical interpretations of certain passages, especially Genesis. The fundamentalist movement is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of Christianity, having first gained force in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It arose as a reaction to the modernist movements of that era, which attempted to reconcile Darwinism with Christian theology. It gained momentum from the liberal reaction to Social Darwinism following World War I, which caused several politically progressive activists, such as William Jennings Bryan, to join its ranks (Larson, 1985).

The Scriptures satisfy Fallding's criteria for the fundamentalist sacred symbol. The Bible is viewed as divinely inspired if not authored directly by the Almighty himself. Its role is certainly comprehensive, since fundamentalists rely upon it for answers to all sorts of questions—mundane as well as theological—and invoke it to support political positions on abortion, homosexuality, and so forth. And there is no question about their unswerving dogmatism concerning its literal interpretation (Sturm, 1982; Doland, 1983). Henry Morris, acknowledged leader of the creationist movement, in discussing discrepancies between the Bible and modern science, states:

It is precisely because Biblical revelation is absolutely authoritative and perspicuous that the scientific facts, rightly interpreted, will give the same testimony as Scripture. There is not the slightest possibility that the facts of science can contradict the Bible and, therefore, there is no need to fear that a truly scientific comparison of any aspect of the two models of origins can ever yield a verdict in favor of evolution.

[H. Morris, 1974a:15]

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Keister adds: "Whenever theory and Scripture truly disagree, the theory obviously must be modified" (1974a: 15). Morris (1984) attributes the very strength of the Creation Research Society to its specific doctrinal commitment and to edict in its constitution prohibiting compromising of its rigid fundamentalist position.

Creationists naturally prefer to find evidence from scientific studies which supports rather than refutes their folk science. Much of their literature, exclusive of their misguided criticisms of legitimate scientific theories, consists of attempts to use scientific findings to reinforce their previously held ideas. Bouw (1980), for example, attempts to identify the Star of Bethlehem from astronomical data. Koontz (1971) cites modern chromosomal studies in support of the contention that women were indeed created from male tissue, since creating an XX genome from an XY would be easier than the reverse; he adds that the choice of a rib as the anatomical portion of Adam's body from which Eve was made was particularly appropriate, since bone marrow has been found to be one of the best sources of cells for tissue culture. Other writers use archeological evidence to "prove" the authenticity of biblical accounts (for example, Balsiger and Sellier, 1976). Brauer (1971) cites the complexity of the realm of organic chemistry as evidence for the infinite wisdom of the Almighty. This is a recurring theme in creationist literature: that so complex a world could not have arisen by forces operating by random chance. Similarly, Rea (1981) uses optimal foraging theory as evidence of design by an omniscient creator.

Creationists picture evolution as a threat to all aspects of their religion—not just to their folk science. Disbelief in the Bible, they say, leads inevitably to disbelief in God and eventually to social and moral decay. Morris (1974a:219) lists six ways in which his perception of God is inconsistent with the theory of evolution (or, more accurately, with his perception of the theory). He feels that evolution contradicts God's omnipotence (why should God create the universe gradually when he could have done it instantaneously), his personality (his desire to be worshipped not having been fulfilled for many aeons), his omniscience (trial and error evolution being neither wise nor efficient), his purposiveness (creating man by a roundabout route), his grace (by condemning the less fortunate), and his loving nature (survival of the fittest being rather cruel and heartless; apparently Morris considers floods kinder). Ingram adds that "the very notion of authority . . . hangs on the truth of creation and an understanding of it" (1977). Morris also criticizes nonliteralist interpretations of the Bible partially by quoting New Testament figures (especially Jesus) as having regarded the book of Genesis as literally true (Morris, 1974a:242-247). Saying that the infallible Christ was wrong about this point would call his entire divinity into question (see also, Williams, 1983).

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Discussions of the mundane moral side of the controversy figure prominently in creationist writings. Morris himself exemplifies the way in which one's religion can influence one's decision-making process. He writes that he even majored in hydrology for the express purpose of studying Noah's flood and establishing its actual occurrence (1984). He believes that evolution gives students a negative view of themselves, their origins, and their destinies, thus leading to poor mental health and ultimately to "anti-scientific" solutions to their problems, such as drugs, astrology, witchcraft, and so forth (1974a:1-4). Awareness of the impending judgment, according to Morris, acts as a stimulus toward moral, responsible behavior, whereas students who are taught that they are descended from apes will behave like apes. One of the primary values of his books, he asserts, is that "the student can be led into a comprehensive, coherent, and satisfying world-view centered in his personal Creator and Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" (1974a:15). He adds:

Once man has rejected the Bible and other religious authority, there is no more divine constraint toward honesty or purity or charity or any of the other ethical values associated with divine revelation.


Creationists frequently attribute many, if not all, of the world's ills to the spread and acceptance of the theory of evolution. Morris, for example, blames evolution for the declining morality of present-day society, attributing to it the rise of every anti-Christian philosophy of the twentieth century, as in the passage cited at the beginning of this article. Tim LaHaye (in Morris, 1974b:5) writes:

Accepting man as animal, [evolution's] advocates endorse such animalistic behavior as free love, situation ethics, drugs, divorce, abortion, and a host of other ideas that contribute to man's present futility and despair.

Morris even goes so far as to trace the history of the idea of evolution back to the supposed indoctrination of Nimrod by Satan at the Tower of Babel (1974b:66-76). Klotz (1971; 1984) blames evolutionists for the current ecological crisis since, in his view, the theory of evolution teaches that people have a right to eliminate species which cannot compete with our own. Creationists, Klotz says, seek not to upset the divinely inspired balance of nature (thus ignoring the biblical admonition, "Go forth and multiply and subdue the Earth," which has influenced Christian thinking about the environment for two thousand years).

This perception of attack from all sides and the uncompromising nature of the literalist position is the ultimate reason for the creationist controversy and the reason it is not likely to disappear quickly from the political arena. It even promises to be around longer than the dispute over the heliocentric theory of the solar system.

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Creationism versus Humanism

It should be pointed out, of course, that the creationists portray evolutionists in much the same light. They maintain either that the theory of evolution is a dogmatic religion conflicting with the true word of the creator (Zimmerman, 1976) or that it is a central tenet of the religion of secular humanism and, as such, on equal footing with creation. Duane Gish, for example, writes:

They have combined this evolution theory with humanistic philosophy and have clothed the whole with the term "science." The product, a nontheistic religion, with evolutionary philosophy as its creed under the guise of "science," is being taught in most public schools, colleges, and universities of the United States. It has become our unofficial state religion.


According to creationists, one must either be a Christian and a creationist or a secular humanist and an evolutionist; there is no middle ground. In this they are as dogmatic and uncompromising as some extreme atheist organizations. Both groups decry the moderate positions of modernism and Christian humanism espoused by many contemporary churches. They take a dim view of the scores of mainline denominations, including the Roman Catholic church and many of the larger Protestant denominations, which have decided either to accept or ignore the theory of evolution and concentrate on the moral side of their religion rather than struggle to cling to literal interpretation of mythology several millennia old. The creationists have thus entrenched themselves in their positions and isolated themselves from a large part of society in much the same manner as the flat-earthers. Only the currently favorable political climate keeps the movement as vibrant as it is now.

The charge that evolutionists are dogmatic in their beliefs may have a grain of truth, at least for some scientists. Many assertions about evolution as an "established fact" have been printed and are sincerely believed by many scientists. Researchers, after all, are human and as much in need of certainty about their world views as anyone else (Seachord, 1984). Such statements are, however, exaggerated and play directly into creationist hands. Ideally, scientific theories should never be regarded as "proved" and should always be considered on "semiprobation" pending the acquisition of new evidence (Feibelman, 1972). Theories are useful to the extent that they explain the facts of nature.

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Evolution continues to be accepted by scientists because it is extremely powerful in explaining innumerable natural phenomena (Kitcher, 1982). Controversies concerning various details about the history of life on the planet abound in the scientific literature, and our understanding of past events is constantly changing due to new evidence. The theory of evolution remains the most useful framework for providing hypotheses. This adaptability is the main strength in the scientific method and the primary attribute which separates true science from folk science. Creationists cannot alter their beliefs since they are committed to a specific literary passage.


Those of us who have come to accept the theory of evolution have a responsibility to counter creationist beliefs not only on their chosen battlegrounds, such as debating fine points of esoteric scientific theory, but also by expanding the controversy to include those fundamental issues of morality and philosophy which lie at the root of the problem. We need to show the public that it is indeed possible to be a warm, caring, loving person and to feel good about life and have hope for the future without giving literal credence to age-old mythology. Morality in twentieth or twenty-first century society is no more dependent upon Earth's age or the age of our own species than it is upon the shape of Earth or the motion of the sun. Regardless of how the human race came into being and how it acquired its intelligence and sense of morality, the fact remains that these do exist and that we must satisfy our social and psychological needs, both individually and collectively. The theory of evolution can play much the same role as traditional mythology in answering psychological needs and justifying one's world view (Seachord, 1984).

Byers (1984) argues for cooperation rather than confrontation between science and religion so that both may benefit. Gilkey (1982) goes a step further, holding that religion and science have never truly been in conflict, that both permeate all aspects of society in different ways. I agree. Worthwhile modern religion, regardless of its sacred symbolism, need not be bound by anachronistic perceptions of nature, especially in an age when science is constantly expanding the frontiers of knowledge. Rather, it should adapt to changing conditions and grow with the truly awe-inspiring advances in understanding. Static folk science may have sufficed in a slower-changing culture, but it can be deleterious for modern civilization. Religion should help individuals and societies cope with the scientific advances and strive to ensure that the fruits of this labor are used for moral purposes rather than deny that such advances exist.

Science, likewise, must continue to take its inspiration from honorable religious principles. Many books have been written on scientific ethics and at least two entire journals are devoted to the subject, Environmental Ethics and Science, Technology, and Human Values. Most of the writings share a certain core of ethical criteria, involving primarily a profound respect for life—human or otherwise. There is nothing implicit in scientific investigations of nature which require these values; it is essentially a religious issue and reflects the interface between the two realms of human endeavor. Despite the multitude of rhetoric and distrust between various religious groups, and despite significant differences in detail and interpretation, most contemporary religions do share a fundamental core of basic beliefs. It may do us well to emphasize the similarities instead of the differences.

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The sacred symbols used by scientists in their own religious philosophies can take many varied forms. Many excellent scientists are devout theists, presumably taking their inspiration from the desire to "think God's thoughts after him." Others have drawn their strength from the ideal of doing the greatest possible long-term good for the human race, an ideal which forms the basis of contemporary humanism (Lamont, 1982). Capra (1984) argues for an essential unity between subatomic physics and Eastern mysticism. Even among those religions whose symbol is a deity, the particular form of the belief can vary widely. The vision of an anthropomorphic entity controlling the course of worldly events and condemning those who stray from the prescribed path is hardly universal even among theistic religions. Some Christian groups equate the term god with such concepts as love or nature, maintaining that this should be the basis for human moral behavior, or use the word to symbolize the deepest human needs and desires (for example, Barth, 1948; Eliot, 1928). Most contemporary churches feel compelled to retain the theistic terminology of past generations for reasons of historical continuity (with a few exceptions, such as Unitarian Universalism), but their characterizations of their deity have evolved considerably since the Origin of Species. Many of those who argue for the incompatibility of religion and evolution (for example, Provine, 1982) refuse to acknowledge this variety in theistic thought. They define the terms religion and god so narrowly as to include only those ideas with which they disagree.

The exact form of the symbolism and the metaphysical expression of the beliefs are to a certain extent irrelevant, since ethics and psychology form the basis of religion, and the symbolism serves only as a rationalization of the belief system. As long as scientists use their particular faith as a source of inspiration to discover more about nature rather than as a force dictating their findings, and as long as the results of scientific investigation are used in an ethical manner, there is no conflict between science and religion whatsoever. The danger lies in tying one's faith to a falsifiable dictum, as have the flat-earthers and the creationists.

It may well prove to be difficult to convince some fundamentalists of this need for cooperation, as it may involve changing long-held and deep-seated distrust and misconceptions of science and scientists in many parts of the country. The negative fundamentalist view of human nature also represents a significant obstacle.

Liberalism espouses a doctrine of "progress," based on man's innate potentialities for development, a doctrine which implicitly denies the fact of man's Fall and basic depravity.

[Morris, 1963:19]

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Hence, Christianity, in Morris's view, is inimical to social progress. It certainly need not be.

The adoption of the creationist theories and dogmatism would negate many of the scientific advances of the past two centuries and stifle any further scientific and technological progress. To do so would be to condemn future generations to ignorance and halt the human race's struggle to improve its own existence. This is the ultimate moral question involved in the creation-evolution controversy.


This article stems from a short course on the creation-evolution controversy sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson during the summer of 1983. Thanks are due to my wife, Deborah L. Ellstrom, for her patience, love, and helpful criticism; to Dr. Forest Morrissett, the Reverend David A. Johnson, and the Reverend Russell Lincoln for invaluable suggestions on appropriate literature and for supportive comments regarding earlier drafts of this article; to Wade Sherbrooke, Dr. Oliver Hall, Beatrice Hall, Dr. Ralph Jameson, and Alison Jameson for helpful suggestions concerning the article; and to my parents, whose thoughtful guidance throughout my formative years inspired me to seek truth and knowledge wherever it may lie.


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About the Author(s): 
Joseph E. Laferriere is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona at Tucson.
© 1987 by Joseph E. Laferriere
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.