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Urgent Need to Fight Creationism

After years of studying the creation-evolution controversy, I  have no doubts about the religious intent of the  creationists. As Ayala, Gould and Gell-Mann suggest, creationists are simply using science to bolster their credibility as they seek to bring their religious theories to the public schools. In fact, this goal is made explicit in a creationist newsletter, which advises their vanguard to "sell more science. . . . Who can object to teaching more science?" Yet the creationists h

By | November 17, 1986

After years of studying the creation-evolution controversy, I  have no doubts about the religious intent of the  creationists. As Ayala, Gould and Gell-Mann suggest, creationists are simply using science to bolster their credibility as they seek to bring their religious theories to the public schools. In fact, this goal is made explicit in a creationist newsletter, which advises their vanguard to "sell more science. . . . Who can object to teaching more science?" Yet the creationists have done little to develop the empirical evidence needed to support their so-called science. For them, the Bible is sufficient.

Creationists have influenced teachers, school boards and textbook publishers because there is considerable public support for their demands. According to surveys,
most Americans believe that both the scientific theory of evolution and the biblical theory of creation should be taught in public schools. In the United States, citizens assume that democratic notions of fairness are relevant to evaluating the validity of science and that justice calls for equal time. In part, this reflects the limited public understanding of the scientific method, but it also sug gests the pervasive influence of moral and religious values in many aspects of secular life. Other scientific activities-for example, fetal research, animal experimentation and reproductive technologies-are also under attack.

These ubiquitous concerns about morality are reflected in censorship disputes and in attacks on secular humanism (the latest dirty word) as well as on the teaching of evolution. Generally distressed by uncertainty and change, many people seem to find in creationism a coherent, logical and orderly system that unequivocally explains an
uncertain world. This is a major source of its appeal. A creation scientist explains his "conversion" from evolution in these terms:
"Science can't be trusted, but God can. . . . Scientific data is so permanently incomplete that it is hardly a good place to sink an anchor for anything to do with eternity."

Herein lies the fallacy for scientists who use rational arguments and the weight of empirical evidence to battle creationists' claims. For those whose beliefs are threatened by science, the social and moral implications that can be drawn from a scientific theory assume far greater importance than the details of scientific verification.

Moreover, scientists' efforts to deny the conflict between science and religious values are also bound to fail. The recurrence of disputes over textbooks suggests that the treaty between science and religion, based on the assumption that they deal with separate domains, is an unrealistic myth. Religion, like science, purports to be a picture of reality, a means by which people render their lives and the world around them intelligible.

People seek in their beliefs about nature the values that will guide behavior. Claiming scientific respectability while arguing that science is as value-laden as other explanations, creationists offer intellectual plausibility as well as salvation, the authority of science as well as the certainty of Scripture. Whatever the Supreme Court decision, their influence is likely to persist.

Creationism must be seen as part of a movement that extends far beyond science-a movement to integrate religion into secular and political affairs. This makes it even more urgent that our courts, our elected officials, our scientists and our teachers continue to fight the creationists. The permeation of fundamentalism into secular life is surely a very dangerous trend.

Nelkin is a professor at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853.
 

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