Creationism’s Tower of Babel

Responding to selective pressures from both within and without, creationism seems to be evolving, and a confusing array of varieties are competing for dominance. Since the 1980s, all creationists have tried to adapt to what, for them, is a harsh legal and intellectual environment. Though it has not yet and is not likely to ever displace the older forms, intelligent-design theory has been by far the most successful of the new varieties of creationism; its "memes" are sweeping through the population. In part this is because intelligent-design creationists (IDCs), by explicitly discussing only a relatively minimal set of commitments, have so far managed to avoid major direct conflicts with the other creationist factions and also have been able to better camouflage their religious basis when in the public environment. IDCs have also evolved more complex ways of expressing the creationist view than the simple formulations of the Institute for Creation Research leaders and their ilk. Furthermore, to their credit, IDCs have recognized the errors in many of the old creationist arguments against evolution and no longer claim, for instance, that evolution is refuted by the Paluxy "manprints," the depth of moon dust, or the second law of thermodynamics. These arguments, and others as well, are weak and in the end not rationally viable in the face of the scientific evidence. That the new creationism has changed in this way is one evolutionary development that is to be welcomed.

However, there is one crucial difference-the new varieties of creationism do not arise at random but, as one would expect in this case, by design. Despite their serious disagreements, creationists have one common goal, which is to defeat the evolutionary account of the origin of species and replace it with one or another supernatural, divine account of special creation. Because they all hold on to their desired religious end above all else, the evolution of creationism is teleological-goal directed.

Johnson declares that "Darwinism is in serious trouble" and "the proud tower of modernism is resting on air." Marx and Freud have fallen, he cries, and "Darwin is next on the block." With regard to the creationist tower, Johnson knows that the construction and defense of his form of creationism is theologically risky, and he tells his followers that "we had better count the cost before we start to build the tower." He writes that "accommodationists in the Christian academic world" and even some fundamentalists, have advised him that "it is futile and dangerous to challenge the truth claims of modernism on secular territory." However, he reassures these doubters of little faith that the Darwinian materialists are overconfident, and likens evolutionary theory to the Soviet Union in the days before its fall, proclaiming that "a cultural tower built on a materialist foundation can look extremely powerful one day and yet collapse in ruins the next."

However, intelligent-design creationists are wrong to say that evolution is just a "loaded story" or an assumed point of view; rather, it is as well confirmed by the scientific evidence as any of the other great explanatory theories. More important, they are wrong to say that scientific naturalism is metaphysical dogma; rather, it is a methodology that is rationally justified and that is accessible to all. As Albert Einstein reflected in Out of My Later Years: "The whole of science is nothing more that a refinement of everyday thinking." In everyday life we take it for granted that the lawful processes of cause and effect are not broken by miraculous interventions. When we are at the grocer's we squeeze the vegetables to check for freshness, but we don't, and can't check for devils in the lettuce. It is this quotidian, mundane, and yes, entirely natural reasoning (in both senses of the term) that makes the knowledge we gather by such a method public knowledge. Science only makes this process more precise. Creationists could not be more wrong that this is mere dogma.

There is one point of agreement with the creationist who has been my main adversary in my book. Phillip Johnson says he "regards the idea of a Christian political party with a combination of horror and amusement," given that "Christian denominations are themselves so confused and internally divided." To his sentiment, I want to say "Amen!" But why, I wonder, does he think that a Christian theistic science would be immune from the fractious fractionalism? Would it really be wise to inject this ancient and ongoing conflict among private religious beliefs into the science classroom? Although we should be respectful of individuals' right to express and live their lives in accord with their religious values, we must not compromise the common public values, especially those exemplified in the ideals of the scientific epistemic virtues, that allow us to act in concert.

Agnes Meyer wrote in Education for a New Morality that "from the nineteenth-century view of science as a god, the twentieth century has begun to see it as a devil. It behooves us now to understand that science is neither one nor the other." Meyer had a different set of issues in mind, but her good advice is relevant and perhaps even more apropos to this controversy. Science is neither God nor devil, but profoundly human. It is not infallible. It cannot answer every question. It reveals nothing of possible supernatural realms. It is simply the best method that we evolved creatures have yet discovered for finding our way around this natural world.

Robert T. Pennock is an assistant professor of philosophy. He earned a PhD in history and philosophy of science from the University of Pittsburgh. This article is adapted from his book Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism (MIT Press, 1999), which has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and other major awards.