Creationism, Ideology, and Science

by Eugenie C. Scott

Many causes and movements were discussed during the "Flight from Science and Reason" conference. Most reject science as a way of knowing, or denigrate logic or reason. Creationism differs in some important ways: supporters are science fans, not detractors, and they believe science is useful, important, and something that students should be exposed to. But creation science illustrates extremely well one of the themes of "The Flight from Science and Reason" conference: the ignoring or denying of empirically-based knowledge when it conflicts with ideology. Opinions and values are more important than facts and reason, which is shown in their selective choice of data to accept or to reject. Whereas T. H. Huxley warned of the Naturalistic Fallacy of assuming that what is, is what ought to be, creation scientists, like extreme Afrocentrists, radical feminists and several others discussed at the "Flight from Reason" conference, apparently see what ought to be as what is.

In this paper, I will first discuss who the creationists are, stressing the many varieties of creationism and how they differ in their approaches to both science and theology. I will discuss a brief history of the movement, the emergence of creation "science" and also the current, "neocreationism" period. I suggest that a characteristic of neocreationism is the rise of more moderate antievolutionists, some of whom are located on secular campuses. Some of these argue that a "Christian perspective" is equivalent to a "feminist perspective", or a "Marxist perspective", or some similar approach extant on campuses today, and thus deserves a place in the curriculum.

The presence of so many "isms" on college campuses today begs the question, "what happens when ideologies become 'scholarly perspectives?'" Can there be a "Christian perspective" that is truly scholarly? I discuss reasons why I am doubtful that a supernatural ideology, especially, can be consistently scholarly.

I then discuss the importance to public science literacy of teaching evolution and suggest some ways that university and professional scientists may assist in this important endeavor. To do so will require teachers to distinguish between where science leaves off and philosophy begins.


There is not one creationism, but many varieties, ranging from strict Biblical literalist young-earth creationism, through a variety of old-earth creationisms ("Gap Creation;" "Day-Age Creationism"), to progressive creationism, to continuous creationism, to theistic evolutionism. Specific terms may have slightly different connotations depending on who is using them, but in general, young-earth creationism is concerned with the universe being created at one time, within the last 10,000 years. Noah's Flood is an essential element to both young-earth theology and science. It was an historical occurrance, wherein water covered the whole globe. During the year the Flood waters receded, all the geological features of the world (such as the Grand Canyon, the Himalayas, etc.) were established. Old-earth creationists accept modern geology and radiometric dating and an old earth. Among them, "Gap creationism" allows for there to have been a long period of time before the six days of creation described in Genesis (Numbers, 1992), or alternately for the six days in Genesis to be separated by thousands or hundreds of thousands of years of time. "Day-Age creationism" accommodates some of modern geology by claiming that each of the six days in Genesis is actually an immensely long period of time.

In "progressive creationism," God created the original species, but subsequently they have "progressed" by diverging (i.e., evolving) into new forms. The Flood is considered a local, not a universal event. "Continuous creationism" and "theistic evolutionism" are further along the continuum, referring to a Christian perspective that accepts a considerable amount of evolution. In continuous creationism, God plays a very active role in directing the evolution from the created kinds. Theistic evolution in the most general sense is the idea that God created, but through the process of evolution. By and large, theistic evolutionism accepts the evidence of science, and fine-tunes the theology if necessary. The Flood of Noah is not an historical event, but a metaphor of the importance of obedience to God, and ultimately of God's love for humankind. Theology varies as to how involved God is in guiding the evolutionary process.

The above continuum is largely organized by the degree of biblical literalism, with theistic evolutionism (the perspective of most mainline Protestants and the Catholic Church) being the least literal. It can also be organized as a continuum of how much of modern science is accepted, with the young-earth creationists being the most out of touch. Some theistic evolutionists, especially those of a more Deistic inclination (God created the universe and its laws, and left it to operate without further intervention), are scarcely distinguishable from nonreligious evolutionists, which is why the conservative Christian world with its stress on a personal God, often speaks harshly of theistic evolutionism.

Whether God created is therefore in fact not the main issue in the creation/evolution controversy, since "God created" does not rule out the possibility that God created through the process of evolution. Catholics, mainline Protestant denominations, and Reformed, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and most Orthodox Jews hold to some form of theistic evolution (see McCollister, 1989, for examples.) The term "special creationist" has come to refer to the belief that God created according to a literal interpretation of Genesis: the universe was created all at one time, in essentially its present form.

Special creationists, especially at the more conservative end of this continuum, are fundamentally antievolutionists. They believe that evolution is an evil idea that children should be protected from. Their theology says that if evolution occurred, then God did not create mankind specially. Mankind, then, is not particularly special to God, which makes the Fall of Adam and Eve irrelevant. Without Adam and Eve's sin, the death of Christ is irrelevant — and the death of Christ is the foundational event of Christian theology. Everything in Christianity, in this view, relies on the literal truth of Genesis: six 24-hour days of creation, a flesh and blood Adam and Eve, a literal Noah's Flood, and so on. If evolution is true, then, salvation itself is in jeopardy, for how can Revelations be true if the rest of the Bible is not? To protect children from evolution is to save their souls; obviously, a powerful motivator.

A secondary motivation is to prevent society from going further downhill, believing as they do that evolution (because it supposedly denies God) removes the source of morality. As Henry Morris, arguably the most influential creationist of the late 20th century puts it,
Evolution is at the foundation of communism, fascism, Freudianism, social darwinism, behaviorism, Kinseyism, materialism, atheism, and in the religious world, modernism and neo-orthodoxy. Jesus said "A good tree cannot bring forth corrupt fruit". In view of the bitter fruit yielded by the evolutionary system over the past hundred years, a closer look at the nature of the tree itself is well warranted today. (Morris, 1963:24)
This is not evolution as seen by scientists. Evolution is the idea that the universe today is different from what it has been in the past: that change through time has occurred. Regarding organic evolution, the evolution of plants and animals, the conclusion is reached that living things share common ancestors in the past from which they are different. Darwin called organic evolution "descent with modification", and it is still a useful phrase. Morris' and mainline science's two contrasting perceptions of evolution illustrate again how ideology shapes interpretation of empirical data.

The antievolution movement has had a long history in the United States, dating from the first introduction of Darwin's ideas during the latter part of the 19th century. Creation "science" is only a recent manifestation of this antievolutionism.


Creation "science" is a movement of largely biblical literalist Christians who seek to get evolution out of the public school curriculum. They differ from other antievolutionists in their attempt to demonstrate the truth of a literal biblical interpretation of Genesis using data and theory from science — not just through theology. The Young Earth creationists are the most numerous, but many old earth creationists use scientific arguments as well.

Although attempts to "prove" the literal truth of the Bible have been around since the 19th century, the most recent version of this approach hails from the mid 1960's, stimulated by the publication of John Whitcomb and Henry Morris' The Genesis Flood (1961) and the founding of both the Creation Research Society and the Institute for Creation Research. Why the 1960's? The answer is simple: the post-Sputnik science education panic of the late 1950's and 1960's resulted in improved textbooks that returned evolution to the curriculum at levels not seen since before the Scopes Trial of 1925 (Numbers, 1992). Giving an extra nudge to the process was the Supreme Court case of Epperson v. Arkansas, which overthrew antievolution laws such as Tennessee's under which John T. Scopes had been tried.

With evolution no longer able to be banned, antievolutionists developed the strategy that its "evil effects" could be ameliorated by teaching biblical Christianity alongside it. Because the First Amendment of the Constitution clearly disallows advocating sectarian religious views in the classroom, "scientific" creationism was developed to be an alternate scientific view that could be taught as a secular subject. During the 1970's and early 1980's, creationists campaigned to pass "equal time" laws wherein creation science would be mandated whenever evolution was taught. This approach had to be abandoned when the Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) that creationism was inherently a religious concept, and that to advocate it as correct, or accurate, would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. But Justice Brennen's decision left a couple of loopholes that antievolutionists have been exploiting ever since (Scott, 1994). Subsequently, antievolutionism has evolved into new forms which are characterized by the avoidance of any variant of the "c word"; phrases like "intelligent design theory", or "abrupt appearance theory" are used instead of "creation science", "creationism", and related terms. I call this newest stage of antievolutionism "Neocreationism".


The neocreationism period continues the "equal time" for creation and evolution of the creation science era, but with some new wrinkles. A popular neocreationist variant of creation science is "Intelligent Design Theory" (IDT), a lineal descendent of William Paley's "Argument from Design". William Paley's 1802 Dialogues Concerning Natural History attempted to prove the existence of God by examining his works. Paley believed in the traditional God of the literal reading of Genesis: the Creator who had produced a perfect world in which everything had its purpose. He used a metaphor of a watch to demonstrate how observing the perfection of nature "proved" there was a God, the "divine watchmaker." If you found an intricately contrived watch, it was obvious that such a thing could not have come together spontaneously; the existence of a watch implied a watchmaker who had designed the watch with a purpose in mind. Similarly, as there was order and purpose and design in the world, so naturally there would have to be an omniscient designer. The existence of God was proven by the presence of order and intricity (Dawkins, 1987).

The vertebrate eye was Paley's classic example of design in nature, well known to educated people of the 19th century. In fact, Darwin deliberately used the vertebrate eye in The Origin of Species to demonstrate how complexity and intricate design could come about by natural selection. Modern day IDT uses the vertebrate eye and similar structural wonders to demonstrate how evolution could not have possibly occurred, because complexity of this sort could never have occurred "by chance." In fact, one will find not just the vertebrate eye, but the structure of DNA or cytochrome baramin) were created, but "kinds" is a poorly defined term that may be a species, a genus, or a family. Much creationist literature concerns the definition of a "kind", and how much "variation within the kind" can take place. For the young earth creationists, this becomes critical because of Flood Geology. Noah was instructed to take seven pairs of every clean kind of animal and five pairs of every unclean kind, and even if the Ark is the size of the Queen Mary (as claimed), the number of "kinds" that would fit on this ship is limited. So if the "cat kind" is equivalent to the family Felidae, there would need to be only seven pairs taken, and after the Ark landed, they could diverge into lions, bobcats, lynxes, pumas, housecats, and other species of large and small cats as an example of "variation within a kind." Other conservative Christians might allow for Felidae to be related to other carnivora, and for descent with modification to have taken place — in animals, anyway. Most draw the line, however, at human evolution.


The notion of human evolution postulates that humans descended with modification from nonhuman ancestors. Humans and living apes shared a common ancestor. This view contrasts strongly with the idea that God specially created humans in his image. Even the most liberal of the conservative Christians have difficulty accepting human evolution, though many will accept that nonhuman animals evolved. Conservative Christianity is based on an individual, personal relationship with God. How could humans have a special place with God if they are a result of the same processes that brought about the rest of nature? Humans — at the very minimum — have to have had a separate creation. And yet the inference to scientists from anatomy, biochemistry, behavior, the fossil record, and even embryology clearly points to our having shared a common ancestor with modern chimps and gorillas.

It is perhaps most obvious in their insistence upon a separate creation for humankind that conservative Christians present a clear example of how Christian ideology could affect the interpretation of scientific data. But "origins science" itself focuses on theologically important topics, allowing the intervention of the supernatural for theological, not scientific grounds.

This is illustrated by the fact that there is a direct correlation between the degree of theological conservatism and the amount of scientific evidence for evolution that is accepted. The most theologically conservative accept only physics and chemistry; the less conservative accept some of biology (for example, some evolution of nonhuman forms) and only the most theologically liberal accept human evolution. Ironically, the scientific evidence for the evolution our species is far better than that for most other mammalian genera. I believe human evolution is not accepted predominantly because of ideological commitments.

There may indeed be a "Christian perspective" which may be scholarly, but it will be difficult to apply it to evolutionary studies and still remain scientific. Whether there are other areas within science where a "Christian perspective" can be applied is an empirical question that has not yet been answered. But as with Marxism, feminism, Afrocentrism, environmentalism or any other ideology, there is a great risk of subverting evidence to belief. From the evidence so far, a supernatural ideology is yet more fraught with this risk.


Currently, the most active and effective antievolutionists are the grass-roots, young-earth proponents from the ICR, the Bible-Science Association, and affiliated groups. It is my contention that more moderate forms of antievolution, such as some of those discussed above, will be having a proportionately greater effect in the future partially because of their presence on secular campuses where they are able to influence the next generation of leaders.

A high percentage of citizens reject evolution (currently, polls consistently show 47% - 49% of Americans deny that humans evolved from earlier forms [American Museum of Natural History, 1994; Scott, 1987; Toumey, 1994]). Evolution is a basic component of science, and essential to biology and geology. One is not scientifically literate if one does not understand evolution. I would hope that scientists would do what they could to encourage individuals to accept evolution as science.

Evolution — accurately presented — needs to be in pre-college as well as college education. There are a number of things that scientists, especially those at colleges and universities, can do to teach it better. Most of them have little to do with the actual scientific content of the subject, but rather with improving the perception of evolution by the public.

I speak before many public audiences and do a fair number of radio call-in programs. The most common response I get when I ask people "what does evolution mean", is "man evolved from monkeys." The second most common answer is, "evolution means that you can't believe in God." The perception that religious faith and acceptance of evolution are incompatible is, in my experience, widespread. One source of this confusion comes from antievolutionists. Leaders of the Institute for Creation Research proclaim that "one can be either an evolutionist or a Christian."

As mentioned before, reliable polls place the number of self-identified Christians in the US as upwards of 86% (Goldman, 1991), the highest percentage of believers of any developed country. If scientists give Americans the same choice as the ICR gives them, there will be scant interest in teaching and learning evolution, which would be detrimental to the science literacy of our nation. To encourage people to learn about evolution, it is necessary to allow them to retain their faith.

This follows from the logic of the nature of limitations governing modern science. It is also good strategy, if our goal is to increase the amount of science literacy in our nation.

Not all creationists are extreme in their rejection of evolution. To many moderate creationists, evidence from science demonstrates that the universe is old, the earth is old, plants and animals evolved, and even human beings had earlier ancestors different from them. They merely want to draw the line at the assumption of evolutionary materialism, the philosophy that evolution (and its material causes) are not only sufficient for explaining the presence and form of the modern universe, but proof that there is no supernatural intervention. The fear that teachers are serving up not just science, but materialism in their lesson on evolution is part of the opposition to evolution that I have encountered — and not just from young-earthers who are at the fringes of modern science, but more moderate conservative Christians who are within the modern scientific mainstream in many respects.

In dealing with hundreds of elementary and high-school teachers, I have found that the number of teachers that actually promote materialism along with evolution is vanishingly small. At the college level it is more common, but it is still not general. Vocal proponents of evolutionary materialism such as William Provine at Cornell, Paul Kurtz at SUNY Buffalo, and Daniel Dennett at Tufts vigorously argue that Darwinism makes religion obsolete, and encourage their colleagues to do likewise. Although I share a similar metaphysical position, I suggest that it is unwise for several reasons to promote this view as a scientific one (Scott, 1995).

First, science is a limited way of knowing in which practitioners attempt to explain the natural world using natural explanations. By definition, science cannot consider supernatural explanations: if there is an omnipotent deity, there is no way that a scientist can exclude or include it in a research design. This is especially clear in experimental research design: an omnipotent deity cannot be "controlled" (as one wag commented, "you can't put God in a test tube, or keep him out of one.") So by definition, if an individual is attempting to explain some aspect of the natural world using science, he or she must act as if there were no supernatural forces operating on it. I think this methodological materialism is well understood by evolutionists. But by excluding the supernatural from our scientific turf, we also are eliminating the possibility of concluding through the epistemology of science that there is no supernatural. One may come to a philosophical conclusion that there is no God, and even base this philosophical conclusion on one's understanding of science, but it is ultimately a philosophical conclusion, not a scientific one. If science is limited to explaining the natural world using natural causes, and thus cannot admit supernatural explanations, so also is science self-limited in another way: it is unable to reject the possibility of the supernatural.

Scientists like other teachers, must be aware of the difference between philosophical materialism and methodological materialism and not treat them like conjoined twins. They are logically and practically decoupled. Furthermore, if it is important for Americans to learn about science and evolution, decoupling the two forms of materialism is essential strategy.

To further defuse the religious issue, scientists can be more careful about how they use terms. For example, evolutionists sometimes confuse the evidence we have for considerable contingency during the course of evolution with evidence for a lack of ultimate purpose in the universe. Futuyma writes,
Perhaps most importantly, if the world and its creatures developed purely by material, physical forces, it could not have been designed and has no purpose or goal.... Some shrink from the conclusion that the human species was not designed, has no purpose, and is the product of mere material mechanisms — but this seems to be the message of evolution. (Futuyma, 1995)
G. G. Simpson is regularly quoted with dismay by creationists as saying "Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned." (Simpson, 1967:345.) A theist might respond that we do not know what God's purpose is or what he planned. It is possible that if there is an omnipotent, omniscient deity, it was part of its plan to bring humans and every other species about precisely in the rather zig-zag, contingency-prone fashion which the fossil evidence indicates. Of course, this would be a theological statement, but that is the point. Saying that "there is no purpose to life" is not a scientific statement. We are able to explain the world and its creatures using materialist, physical processes, but to claim that this then requires us to conclude that there is no purpose in nature steps beyond science to philosophy. One's students may or may not come to this conclusion on their own; in my opinion, for a nonreligious professor to interject his own philosophy into the classroom in this manner is as offensive as it would be for a fundamentalist professor to pass off his philosophy as science.

Another way scientists can help defuse the religious issue is by being explicit about what we can and cannot say about design. As with "purpose" in nature, "design" is largely a theological position. But many evolutionists, ever mindful of William Paley's Argument from Design, stress not the perfection of structure in nature, but the often erratic, cobbled-together-from-what's-available nature of many structures, such as the panda's thumb or the anglerfish's lure. This is an important point to make, and helps students realize that natural selection does not result in "perfection" of structure. When we look at either the fossil record or the "design" of many structures, it is difficult to see evidence of advance planning. In terms of proximate cause, then, design in nature is not apparent. But ultimate cause is, as we discussed, outside of the boundaries of science. Allowing a student of conservative religious views to continue to believe in ultimate design or purpose need not detract from that student's understanding of the evidence for the contingency of proximate cause. Separating the two types of causation may, indeed, keep a student from being "turned off" of evolution, especially if he or she comes into the class with the idea that "evolution means you can't believe in God."


Creationism offers some interesting contrasts to other topics discussed in the "Flight from Science and Reason" conference. Creationists (antievolutionists) are not attackers of science, they appreciate reason and believe they are being objective, but just as do postmodernists, they reject the Enlightenment traditions that brought about modern scientific epistemology. The distinction is that they are premodernists, rather than postmodernists (Eve and Harrold, 1991). They illustrate extremely well one of the concerns that supporters of science and reason have in the face of so much antiscience: the replacement of empirical and logical evidence with ideology and dogmatic belief.

The antievolution movement has as its prime motivator the fear that religion is under attack by the study of evolution, and great efforts have been made over the last 70 years to "shield" students from evolution's "evil effects." Like a neutral mutation that replaces the wild type if no selective forces are brought against it, so will antievolution prevail if not opposed by academics (and even more importantly, at the grass-roots level of the school board and the individual school.) To successfully oppose antievolution, scientists need to understand what motivates the movement, and also to recognize that the movement is not monolithic. There is great variation among conservative Christians in the degree to which they reject evolution. Those who spurn evolution out of fear that a hegemonic materialist philosophy is being promoted at the expense of their religion are very different and more "reachable" than those who reject evolution because of fancied scientific evidence against it.

I suggest that scientists can defuse some of the opposition to evolution by first, recognizing that the vast majority of Americans are believers, most Americans want to retain their faith, and it is demonstrable that individuals can retain religious beliefs and still accept evolution as science. Scientists should avoid confusing the methodological materialism of science with metaphysical materialism. Also, scientists should avoid making theological statements (such as those concerning ultimate purpose in life, or ultimate cause) in the context of their scientific discussions.

Antievolutionism is perhaps the most successful form of irrationalism besetting the American public, though it currently is not represented at the university level to the degree that some of the other "isms" discussed at this conference. It would be nice for American science literacy if its rate in the "real world" outside the university matched its rate within. The efforts of university and professional scientists will be critical in this regard.

References Cited


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Reprinted with permission from New York Academy of Sciences. The Flight From Reason. Volume 775 of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. June 24, 1996