The Evolution of Creationism

Creationism is evolving. Several new varieties of creationism have appeared recently and are competing to stake out a niche in the intellectual landscape. Someone who last looked in on the creationism debate in the 1980s would today still find much that is familiar but would also be struck by the significant changes the controversy has undergone. For instance, while the vast majority of creationists, the "young-earth" groups, still hold fast to the idea that God created the world and all its creatures some six to ten thousand years ago, some have returned to an earlier interpretation of the "days" of Genesis as ages, and these "old-earth" creationists are willing to accept the geological chronology, though they still reject evolution. Such theological differences among creationists about just what counts as a "plain reading" of the Bible have led to significant factional divisions within their ranks.

What may be the most significant recent development in the conceptual evolution of creationism is a powerful movement that is gaining strength and is beginning to take the lead in the battles against evolution in the field. This is the group of creationists that advocates "theistic science" and promotes what they call "intelligent-design theory." Creationism-watchers have called the advance guard of intelligent-design creationism (IDC) the "upper tier" of creationists because, unlike their earlier counterparts, they carry advanced degrees from major institutions, often hold positions in higher education, and are typically more knowledgeable, more articulate, and far more savvy. The most influential new creationist and unofficial general of this elite force is Phillip Johnson, of the University of California at Berkeley. Johnson is neither a scientist nor a philosopher nor a theologian, but is a professor of criminal law at Berkeley Law School. Johnson burst onto the field of battle in 1991 with the publication of his book Darwin on Trial, which he has followed up with more books and a barrage of articles.

In most of his writings and speeches, Johnson tries to avoid making specific commitments on the points of contention that divide the main creationist camps. This is one of the identifying characteristics of intelligent-design creationists (IDCs). Although IDCs include both old- and young-earthers, in their writings one never sees anything about the Great Flood, and the issue of Noah's Ark is avoided like the plague. As far as possible, they shun even mentioning
the Book of Genesis or its interpretation. Usually, one has to look carefully to find a veiled reference, let alone a forthright statement, that indicates a specific stand on the age of the earth. Their plan is to unite the different camps under a generic banner and keep these factional issues out of sight until the main battle is won.

In their activism involving the public schools, all creationists are working toward the same end-destroying evolution-and here too their strategies of attack have evolved. Having been repeatedly defeated in their attempts to get major creationist legislation to stick, they have turned their attention to more local activism. In 1997, I attended a public hearing held by the Texas State Board of Education on their proposed curriculum standards for the state schools, and I listened in amazement as creationists stood in turn to testify against inclusion of evolutionary terminology in the science curriculum. They claimed that biologists were abandoning the theory and that, in any case, it was "not that important in biology" and so students should not waste their time on it. If evolution had to be included, then at least teachers should be instructed to present the scientific evidence against it as well.

Religious conservatives on the board spoke in strong support of these proposals and urged that evolutionary concepts be omitted or put in "neutral language." Another proposal they recommended was to include discussion of "alternative theories" such as "design." This same scenario is played out in public hearings around the country and, with too few scientists taking creationism seriously enough to pay close attention, state boards of education have often compromised or given in to creationists' demands. In Alabama and recently Kansas, the proposed curriculum was amended to water down statements on evolution, while other states have included evolution "disclaimers." Furthermore, across the country, communities from Vista, California, to Plano, Texas, to Merrimack, New Hampshire, have discovered that they have inadvertently elected creationist "stealth candidates" to their local school board who then work to modify the science curriculum in such ways.