Creationism USA: Bridging the Impasse on Teaching Evolution
So many books on creationism!—Books promoting various creationist positions, books critiquing those positions, books by historians on creationists, and books by scholars and pundits explaining what is going on with creationists and how to deal with them. The wisdom writer was correct, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). This weary Christian geologist has read many of them and has even contributed to a few.
Enter Creationism USA by Binghamton University education historian Adam Laats. It is a book in the category of explaining what is going on and recommending solutions. Laats reveals that his interest in creationism was “sparked” by Ron Numbers, which will be obvious to readers of this book who have read The Creationists, widely considered the definitive history of the creationist movement.1
Laats opens the book with the provocative statement, “Americans do not really disagree much about evolution,” which seems to clash with the book’s subtitle. To be sure, the author reviews multiple examples of creationism culture battles across the country through the decades. Despite this “miserable situation,” he proposes that there is a “productive way forward.” He contends that we all are somewhat ignorant about both creationism and evolution, that American creationism is widely misunderstood by its critics, and again, we don’t disagree about evolution as much as we think. An important point he makes is that a majority of Americans are creationists to the extent that they believe in God and that God was involved somehow in the unfolding of natural history, either through natural, but superintended, evolutionary processes or by a succession of miraculous acts.
Chapter one, “After Their Kinds,” confronts the presumption that modern science is the ultimate source of truth about nature. It partly drives the debate over evolution: the tension between mystery and certainty. Drilling down on what people really think about evolution, beyond the simplistic and misleading polling questions, social scientists have discovered a confusing range of opinions about science and faith. “There is no single creationist position out there, and no single evolution position” (27). Laats provides a virtual Field Guide to American Creationism, outlining many of the creationist positions. His net captures positions beyond the evangelical-fundamentalist subculture, including those held by Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and other faith traditions.
Chapter two, “The Evolution of Radical Creationism,”contains the author’s historical overview. He changes terminology from “YECs” (young earth creationists) in chapter one to “radical creationists” for the rest of the book. As he explains in the appendix, radical creationists are YECs who both reject mainstream evolutionary science and work to influence public policy concerning education and other values associated with conservative American Christianity. They exhibit “outward-focused activism” (183). Laats reviews how fundamentalists of the early 20th century were fire-brand antievolutionists, but not particularly adamant about interpreting the days in Genesis 1 as literal. That was left mostly to the Adventists, like George McCready Price, who claimed that his young-earth flood geology alternative to mainstream geology made Darwinian evolution impossible. Price’s fellow Adventists established the Deluge Geology Society which attracted a young hydraulic engineer and Baptist, Henry Morris. Morris would transform YEC into a national, if not global, movement by the end of the 20th century. The movement’s outward-focused activism included introducing laws in several states designed to give “creation science” equal time with evolution science, despite repeated losses in court decisions. He also traces the emergence of creationist colleges and private schools.
Stories of attempts to reconcile evolution with Christian faith are told in chapter three, “Evolution and All That.” The author observes that creationists, even radical ones, do not hate science. Rather, they associate evolution with “a whole range of social problems that have only the most tenuous connection to formal religion and theology” (48). He begins with Darwin’s contemporaries. While Harvard botanist Asa Gray made special efforts to calm the nerves of wary Christians over the implications of evolution, Princeton Seminary theologian Charles Hodge attempted to distinguish possible ideas of change in species over time that were superintended by God from what he called Darwinism, an atheistic view that robs creation of any purpose or plan which could be attributed to God’s will or divine action.2 Laats introduces Wheaton College biology professor Russell Mixter as one evangelical in the middle of the 20th century who migrated from YEC beliefs after undergraduate and graduate study to old earth creation (OEC) and progressive creationism. Mixter found encouragement from prominent Baptist theologian Barnard Ramm, whose 1954 book The Christian View of Science and Scripture proposed a middle ground for conservative Christians searching for a way to reconcile the authority of scripture, science, and faith.
Radical creationists like Henry Morris rejected such attempts at accommodation. He and co-author Bible scholar John Whitcomb, Jr. rocked the evangelical-fundamentalist world with The Genesis Flood,3 claiming scientific evidence for the YEC beliefs. Their book demanded a choice between godly creation science and godless evolution and all that follows from it; any middle ground is a deadly compromise. From The Genesis Flood onward, the culture war over evolution became not so much about science and theories of origins, but about trust and authority. As he argues in chapter four, “What Not to Know and How Not to Know It,” students at creationist schools or visitors to creation museums are taught a lot about evolution, but also at each turn they are taught the perceived dangers of believing it.
In chapter six, “I Saw the Light,” Laats explores what he calls “missionary suppositions” on all sides that involve misguided biases and the language of conversion to capture the public’s attention. Why is it, he asks, that evolutionists so often refer to their “belief” in evolution, when science is not a system of belief? These misconceptions keep many from moving beyond thinking that the only options are evolution or creation, more precisely, atheism or theism.
The seventh and final chapter, “Evolution USA,” implies a hopeful shift in national orientation from the book title (Creationism USA) following his “simple and obvious, two-part plan” (151). The first part has to do with radical creationists and secular evolutionists agreeing that our children need to learn about evolution. The second part has to do with protecting evolution education from religious ideas. Stop arguing about creationism being a science or whether evolution is a religion. For teachers, that will mean scrutinizing teaching materials to identify potential controversies, sticking to the science-only script, and building trust relationships with students and parents. Laats’s message to radical creationists is something like, “Chill, studies show that Christian students in public schools introduced to evolutionary science are actually unlikely to reject their faith.” To radical evolutionists (a moniker he never uses in the book) the message is something like, “Stop teaching evolution like you are trying to convert students to your secular faith. Your Christian students are really not so afraid of your science; they just don’t trust you. Work on that.”
Creationism USA provides a decent summary of important historical material and cultural analysis for anyone new to the creation-evolution controversy. If Laats is reaching out to creationist readers, I sense that he is overtly careful not to offend. He expects creationist Reviews schools to teach evolution well along with creationist alternatives (but that is what they want anyway, he contends). However, Laats doesn’t seem very concerned that radical creationist textbooks, websites, and museum exhibits are full of overt omissions and misleading communications of the facts in their critiques of mainstream geology and evolution. He seems to be impressed that they are packaged well. It is as if Laats is practicing the postmodern value of letting them have “their truth.”
Perhaps the book will be particularly useful for public science educators whose classrooms include significant numbers of students with creationist backgrounds. My impression, from his various recommendations for “bridging the impasse on teaching evolution,” is that he is asking the most from this group of readers. They need to understand that it is not the science of evolution that is troubling to so many Americans, but rather the implications from their lessons that allegedly imply scientific support for an atheistic worldview. He asks each side to give up on trying to convert people; to not promote religiously motivated creationism or philosophically motivated naturalism along with teaching evolution in public schools. His descriptions and characterizations of various creationist positions are spot on, as well as his analysis of the failure of current approaches in evolution education to move the needle toward broader acceptance.
Cite this article
- Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (New York: Knopf, 1992).
- Laats might have included here the more moderate, accommodating approach of Hodge’s Princeton colleague, B. B. Warfield, who held a concursus view of divine action. See “A Case Study: B. B. Warfield, Concursus and Evolution” in Mark Noll’s Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011), 110-116.
- John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications (Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1961).