Whoops! There it is again—another commentator implying that we have been trapped in an endless deadlock over evolution and creation. It’s just not true, as we argue in our new book. That doesn’t stop it from being a very popular thing to say.
To be fair, Pastor Ryan Gear is more interested in Christian attitudes than in educational policy. He laments the fact that so many conservative Christians continue to doubt evolution and climate change. He points out that such skepticism is not necessary, from a religious viewpoint.
Fair enough. Gear goes off the rails, however, when he implies that things have not changed for Christians when it comes to evolution and creation. As he puts it, if Darwin were alive today, “he would observe that Christians have not evolved much in relation to his theory.”
Hold the phone. In terms of both education policy and religious belief, such statements woefully misrepresent the history of the evolution/creation debate.
First, as I argue in my upcoming book, co-authored with philosopher extraordinaire Harvey Siegel, evolution education has experienced radical changes across the decades. Over long decades, evolution education has made enormous advances. In the 1920s, several states banned the teaching of evolution in public schools entirely.
As I argued in my first book, the fight over evolution in the 1920s was a fight—successful in many ways—to make explicit and legally binding the traditional evangelical Protestant domination of American public life.
These days, the goals of creationists are much tamer. Even the most vociferous young-earth advocates insist they don’t want creationism taught in public schools. Intelligent-designers have scrubbed the explicit religious references out of their arguments.
Also, the very meanings of creationism itself have changed dramatically. As our leading historian of creationism (and my grad-school mentor) Ronald Numbers has demonstrated, today’s popular young-earth creationism was itself a novelty of the mid-twentieth century. In early evolution battles, very few anti-evolutionists insisted on a young earth.
In 1927, for example, fundamentalist activist William Bell Riley insisted, there is not
an intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the earth was made six thousand years ago; and the Bible never taught any such thing.
Back then, Riley was the hard edge of creationist activism. He was the founder and leader of the World [or World’s] Christian Fundamentals Association. He founded a thriving school in his adopted home city of Minneapolis. He represented, to many contemporaries, the extreme, uncompromising wing of 1920s anti-evolutionism.
And he did not believe in a young earth. He did not think it mattered.
Today, of course, the religious landscape of American creationism is much different. Not only do many Christians in big conglomerations such as the Southern Baptist Convention insist on belief in creationism, but they also believe that real creationism means belief in a young earth and a literal six-day creation.
That is new.
We have not been deadlocked for generations in the same ol’ evolution/creation battles. In terms of public policy and private belief, everything has changed. Utterly.
Why does any of this matter to us? Deadlock suggests a need for drastic action. It suggests a stalemate, one that can only be broken by decisive, radical action. The truth, however, is not quite so exciting.
In the past hundred years, the evolution/creation debates have not been stymied in a go-nowhere morass. Rather, people like me who want more and better evolution education have consistently scored important victories. People like Pastor Gear, on the other hand, have been forced to argue against growing percentages of evangelical Christians who insist on a scientifically outlandish young-earth creationism.
From the perspective of public policy, the prescription is clear. We should keep going with our efforts to improve real evolution education in public schools. Evolution, and only evolution, should be taught as our best current scientific understanding of the way species came to be.
At the same time, we should adopt a determinedly neutral stance toward the creationist debates among evangelical Christians. If young-earth advocates want to square off against evolutionary creationists, so be it. Such religious debates are outside the realm of public-school policy.
This kind of nuanced, non-alarmist policy argument does not make for good headlines. That’s why we will likely continue to see every creation/evolution article and op-ed opened with a lament that things have not changed.
If we really want to move forward, however, on questions of evolution, creationism, and education, we need to get beyond the headlines. We need to get beyond the ahistorical assertion that we are trapped in a never-ending evolution/creation Groundhog Day.