In the first few decades of the twentieth century, several U.S. states passed laws forbidding the teaching of evolution in public schools. The most famous of these was Tennessee’s Butler Act, under which John Scopes was tried and convicted, only to be acquitted on a technicality. Today none of these laws remain in force, having been struck down by the Supreme Court in 1968 in in Epperson v. Arkansas, but the creationist movement has not faded away. Although they have suffered several more major defeats in court over the years, their campaign to push creationism into public schools and evolution out has not ceased, and neither have attempts at passing anti-evolution legislation by lawmakers with creationist sympathies. But despite all this, there are still people who believe that creationism is not a serious problem today, not worth getting concerned about or involved in. This essay will attempt to counter that misperception.
The first reason to fight creationism has to do with the public perception of science in general. Now more than ever, human civilization is dependent on understanding science and technology. Issues such as global warming and alternative energy, genetic manipulation and cloning, stem-cell and other medical research, environmental destruction and species extinction, and many more are complex ethical matters, and we as a people cannot hope to make the right decisions if we do not possess an understanding of the science involved. Without such an understanding, there is no way to separate facts from hype, spin, and fearmongering.
In light of this, it is extremely disturbing that poll after poll reveals the general public’s grasp of science to be dismal. According to polls such as those of the National Science Foundation, large minorities or even majorities of the American public are unaware of many basic facts about how science works or what it has discovered, such as how long it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun. When people are uninformed about even the basics of science, it is hardly to be expected that they will be able to make wise decisions when it comes to the far more complex issues that face society today.
Creationism is, without a doubt, a major contributor to this state of affairs. Being fundamentally opposed to science, creationism perpetuates itself by teaching people to fear and mistrust science, to avoid exposing themselves to the writings of scientists, and to value their own personal opinions and beliefs over conclusions arrived at by diligent research and investigation. It is no exaggeration to say that this anti-intellectual outlook could have lethal consequences when it comes to areas where science affects us all. To safeguard the well-being of our fellow human beings and to make the best decisions for our common future, it is necessary to spread understanding of science and the scientific method, and that means fighting and overcoming creationism.
Even beyond the general issue of scientific literacy, there are ways in which understanding evolution specifically is vital to making important policy decisions. When it comes to fast-mutating pathogens such as the AIDS virus and emerging epidemics such as avian flu, a detailed understanding of evolution is important if we are to effectively combat these scourges. Evolution helps us to understand how diseases leap from animal to human, how they increase or decrease in virulence, how they mutate to survive the drugs we use to stop them, and where we should look to find already-existing natural defenses that we can use against them. When it comes to farming and agriculture, evolution helps us understand how to maximize yields and prevent losses due to disease and pests. When it comes to medicine, evolutionary reasoning helps us understand how to study, control and manipulate cells, genes, and organs. When it comes to engineering, the principles of evolution can be applied in the form of genetic algorithms to design new innovations that never would have occurred to a human. Creationism and its descendant, intelligent design, are scientifically sterile hypotheses that offer no help, no guidance, in making the best use of these scientific advances.
Another reason to fight creationism is to maintain the separation of church and state. The United States, as well as most Western democracies, were born out of the Enlightenment philosophical tradition that recognized the baneful effects of tangling religion together with government. The medieval theocracies were terrible places where human rights were trampled and the spirit of free inquiry stifled by law. The lesson we learned from them was to create governments where all people were free to practice their own religion as they saw fit without coercion, and no sect or church could use the power of the state to force its beliefs on anyone else. It is no coincidence that the countries incorporating this principle have flourished. But the wall of separation must continually be guarded against the attacks of religious fundamentalists who do not appreciate this freedom and would prefer to write their own beliefs into law to the exclusion of all others. Creationism is one such attack, as one can verify by viewing creationist strategy papers such as the Wedge Document. Mandating that it be taught in public schools would constitute an official endorsement of one religion over others, doing undeniable harm to those parents who would prefer to raise their children as they see fit, without government interference in matters of religion. It is vital to fight creationism in order to preserve this basic human freedom.
This point leads inevitably to considerations of academic and intellectual freedom and the need to fight censorship. As the Wedge Document and other statements show, creationists of all stripes have made little secret of their desire to reshape society in their image, creating a theocratic state where their particular belief systems would receive official government support and approval and people who believe differently would be second-class citizens or worse. Some avowed creationists, the so-called dominionists, have gone even farther by openly stating their desire to abolish democracy and create a theocratic, Old Testament-style dictatorship, with them in control, of course. (Lenny Flank has more information on the political goals of the creationist movement.) For the sake of preserving the liberty of all people, this abhorrent plan must be opposed and defeated.
Even creationists who are not quite so extreme have let their true goals slip on occasion: to require creationism to be given “equal time”, in defiance of scientific consensus, not just in public elementary schools but in private universities, in scientific textbooks, perhaps even in scientific research itself. Consider what Henry Morris, the grandfather of the modern creationist movement, had to say in a 1975 article for the ICR:
“We conclude, therefore, that both creation and evolution should be taught… in all books and classes where either is taught or implied.”
Academic freedom and scientific integrity demand the rejection of this tactic. Creationism has failed to win the approval of the scientific community; now its backers are trying to do an end-run around that scrutiny by legislative fiat.
And note, too, that their attacks are not limited solely to biology. On the contrary, creationists take issue with almost every field of science. The theory of evolution is, of course, their first and most prominent target, and to destroy it creationists would tear down virtually all of modern biology; but they have many other targets as well. To accommodate Noah’s Flood, virtually everything we know about geology would have to be tossed out. To make room for a young Earth, quantum mechanics and other branches of physics used in radiometric dating would have to go. To allow for a young universe, astronomy and cosmology would also need to be completely rewritten. To enshrine the Biblical view of human history, archaeology would be required to undergo substantial revision. And to make the full scope of their ambition clear, many creationists have stated their desire to throw out the core scientific principle of naturalism itself, making prayer an acceptable method of scientific inquiry and miracles an acceptable scientific explanation for any phenomenon. And all this is itself just one prong of a broader strategy to impose the extreme religious views of a particular group on all people everywhere. For the sake of preserving scientists’ and teachers’ freedom to study, work and learn as they wish, following where the evidence takes them, and to safeguard our hard-won knowledge of the world gained over hundreds of years of patient investigation, creationism must be opposed.
Finally, there is one simple, straightforward reason to fight creationism: it obstructs the scientific progress and the growth of human understanding. We humans are a naturally curious species, and when that curiosity is channeled through science, it has led to incredible dividends. Not only does science provide us with numerous practical benefits, on another level it has helped us appreciate what a truly awe-inspiring place the universe is. Our investigations have revealed a cosmos far vaster, more ancient, more intricate and more profoundly interconnected than even the most imaginative poets and theologians of antiquity ever dreamed. We now know that we are but one species on a planet full of life, heirs to a multibillion-year process of evolution that has brought forth a nearly limitless diversity of wonderful forms. The more we learn, the more humbling and yet glorious it all is. The rewards of intellectual discovery may not be as tangible as the other products of science, but I like to think that they are no less important.
Creationism stands in opposition to this process of enlightenment, seeking instead to return us to the days when the limits of the inquiring mind were rigidly circumscribed by superstition and dogma. For this reason alone, it deserves to be opposed by all right-thinking people of conscience and principle. The true universe is too vast to fit into any one holy book or religious tradition, and it deserves to be fully investigated so that our descendants may marvel at discoveries even greater than the ones that amazed us. For this reason alone, creationism should and must be opposed wherever it may appear.