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How Not To Conduct A Panel On Evolution And Creation
The current resurgence of old-time fundamentalism and the attendant revival of the theory of Creationism as a challenge to the principles of evolution have obviously caught many mainstream religious and scientific leaders off guard.
Finding it difficult to take Creationism seriously, and yet wanting to be thought fair to all sides of a growing controversy, these mainstream leaders can easily fall into traps which serve to muddle the issues—to the great advantage of the Creationists.
An unfortunate example of this was provided this past fall at the Annual National Conference on Church and State, sponsored by Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU). AU describes itself, quite rightly, as "a 33-year-old non-profit, non-partisan, non-sectarian organization of individuals of every religious persuasion (and some of no religious persuasion) who are working together to help preserve and protect our American heritage of religious liberty."
The kick-off event of the AU Conference was a panel discussion on the announced topic: "Scientific Creationism, Secular Humanism, and Public Schools." Inasmuch as AU publications had consistently attacked the Creationist movement as a religious front that had no business dictating public school curriculum, I went into the panel expecting a thorough dissection of our opposition.
To my astonishment and chagrin, I found that the AU panel was stacked against a credible pro-evolution position.
The two major speakers on the panel were attorney Paul James Toscano of Brigham Young University Law School and Julius B. Poppinga, President of the Christian Legal Society. Although both panelists discussed the evolution vs. Creationism controversy, this was not in fact the primary focus of either speaker. Instead, they focused on certain legal issues which they thought were at the root of the Creationism debate. But their manifest confusions on the subject of evolution invalidated both their presentations.
Toscano's speech was a summary of a lengthy law journal article he had just written on "The Establishment of Humanism in the Public Schools: A Dubious Neutrality."
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Toscano declared that the Supreme Court has effectively established secularism as the preferred public religion because it has said that all laws must serve a secular purpose and that no law may favor theistic religious belief over alternative religious attitudes. He provided what he regarded as the axioms of secular humanism and pronounced it a religion, because its assumptions were a matter of personal taste and could not be proven. Toscano then proceeded to serve the same sentence of religiosity on the theory of evolution "and other unseen realities"—all such theories are just as mystical, subjective, and ultimately unproveable as any religious belief. "A religious mystic can refute evolution with as much logic — or as little — as the secular historian can refute the Resurrection of Christ," Toscano asserted.
By this light, of course, it would seem unfair for public schools to teach one kind of "religious ideology" such as evolution without granting equal time to other kinds of religious ideology such as Creationism. Since true religious neutrality is impossible to attain in our public schools, Toscano suggested that parents who send their children to religious schools should not have to pay taxes to support public schools which are dedicated to secularism. (Toscano averred that he was personally committed to secularism and would not want his children in religious schools.) This was the only solution that Toscano could square with our country's tradition of pluralism and diversity; he objected to secular humanists who "imposed" their religious ideologies such as evolution on all public school children.
If you are ready to grant that all science is really religion, or that Creationism is just as scientific as evolution, then Toscano's conclusions might be difficult to evade. But his speech left me (and evidently many others at the Conference) dizzy, as though we had just strolled with Alice Through the Looking Glass, where everything is the reverse of the way they usually are. Unfortunately, the other speaker, Mr. Poppinga, was not a very good guide for getting us back to reality. Instead, in some ways he compounded Toscano's confusion.
Like Toscano, Poppinga equated secular humanism and theism as "philosophies which can be given religious expression." He further declared, much to my consternation: "Evolution is to Humanism what Creationism is to Theism"—an analogy which casually eliminated the very possibility of a theistic religion that is compatible with evolution. Was he unaware that this is the very combination which presumably has prevailed within the general public since the time of the Scopes Trial? Poppinga said he personally preferred the Genesis account over Darwin; but in any case, public schools should not "indoctrinate" students in evolution to the exclusion of Creationism. Students should see both sides and should make up their own minds.
The question and answer period from the audience following the two speakers was just as unsatisfactory and confused as the main presentations. Many of us were greatly perturbed by the analysis offered by Toscano and Poppinga and felt that the pro-evolution position had not been put forward effectively; unfortunately, no one was able to disentangle the chaos into something more sensible.
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Some of the audience seemed to have been persuaded by the speakers into thinking that evolution may not be much better than Creationism after all (although the scientific merits of either case played virtually no role at any point during the panel discussion). One questioner took a somewhat differing approach, arguing that public schools shouldn't be teaching anything at all about the origin of life because different religions had different perspectives.
It is not my purpose in this article to undo all the confusion created by Toscano and Poppinga; other articles in this journal should be addressed to those points. But I think it was a great waste that a leading organization such as Americans United should sponsor a panel so dominated by a position antithetical to its own, especially when the audience had come from all over the country to learn (among other things) how to offset the pro-Creationist pressure on school boards and textbook writers.
It is time we started taking the Creationists seriously as a political force. And that means it is time to sit down and educate ourselves about how to combat them, without apology—much less without surrender.
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.