Creationism Kansas Style

(This column was first published in the September 13, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    Last month the Kansas Board of Education voted six to four to eliminate references to biological evolution and the big bang origin of the universe from its state school syllabus. This action does not prevent teachers from presenting these ideas but, since statewide examinations will not include these topics, the message is clear. All teachers know the classroom inquiry: "Will this be on the test?"

    One posted e-mail response to this vote was: "I applaud the decision by Kansas and other states to center their science on Christian Creation. In fact, I would be thrilled to see every state, except [my own], follow their lead. This would give my child a significant advantage over the competition when he gets to job-seeking age."

    Unfortunately, this message misses a central point. The Kansas decision will have an effect on textbook publishers, so it will have powerful national implications. Developing any book is an expensive undertaking and publishers cannot afford to print separate texts to meet each curriculum. For that reason most cover only the non-controversial concepts included in all curricula. So religious fundamentalists have won an important skirmish in their national battle with scientists.

    I support Stephen Jay Gould's Time Magazine commentary in which he calls the Kansas decision "a misguided effort that our courts have quashed at each stage, and that saddens both scientists and most theologians. No scientific theory, including evolution, can pose any threat to religion -- for these two great tools of human understanding operate in complementary (not contrary) fashion in their totally separate realms: science as an inquiry about the factual state of the natural world, religion as a search for spiritual meaning and ethical values."

    Despite Gould's point, this debate has gone on since Darwin's The Origin of Species was published in 1859. Fundamentalists accept only a literal interpretation of the Bible -- there are no metaphors here; every word is true. This leads to a geological history encompassing only a few thousand years and a world populated by organisms created and fixed at the beginning of that time. These views are opposed by scientists who believe that even the earth's 4 1/2 billion year geological record goes beyond Bible history and that life forms are modified over long time periods in response to environmental conditions.

    From what I have seen in creationist literature, its focus is on attack. It adopts alternatively a cartoon approach -- "Do you want to believe your ancestors were monkeys?" -- or an argument that the record is incomplete: "No one can show one species evolving into another." It also claims that since no one was around to witness the origin of life, evolution is simply a theory. The implication here is, of course, that theories carry little weight; never mind such theories as gravity and celestial physics -- the latter a good example of one formerly rejected by religious authorities.

    I am concerned by these arguments, as are many theologians, not only for their effect on science, but equally for their effect on religious belief. The mass of evidence in support of evolution is overwhelming and continues to mount. In the face of this creationists retreat behind such modifications as their current acceptance of micro-evolution as opposed to macro-evolution. Dogs evolved into various breeds: okay; wolves evolved into dogs: no. And they extend history by allowing for longer day lengths. (What would that do to Methuselah's 969 years?)

    This defense of religion can have only one effect: to continuously reduce its purview. Every piece of new evidence -- every fossil bone unearthed, every genetic relationship discovered -- shrinks the region of belief. This is, I suggest, wrong-headed. Religion is too important to be fighting this battle.-- Gerry Rising