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Contents: July/August 2002
Surprise! Even creationism evolves
by Rosemary Bray McNatt
Who made the world? If you thought the question of evolution was settled with the Scopes Trial of 1925, or if you imagined that most people in the United States believe in biological evolution the Kansas and Ohio school boards being notable exceptions you'd do well to think again. So-called creation science has done a little evolving of its own since the early, unsophisticated days of anti-scientific Biblical literalism. But we liberal religious folk may be stuck in our own version of the past, believing creationists to be irrational, illiterate, and ill-informed. Even a cursory look at the Web sites, publications, and interviews from the new crowd of men (and a token woman or two) who have embraced what is now more craftily known as the "intelligent design" movement reveals a group of well-educated, well-financed, and deeply serious Christians who see their work as part of God's salvific plan to reclaim humanity from the sin of evolution.
Pennock is a professor of philosophy at the University of Texas in Austin. His interest in biology, however, goes back to his undergraduate dual major in biology and philosophy. "I studied biology under the guidance of a superb group of professors who made sure we understood, whether we were studying ecology, plant taxonomy, genetics, or dung beetle behavior, how everything fit into the framework of evolutionary theory," he writes. "When I subsequently encountered creationist arguments, I could recognize easily that they were mostly based on ignorance or misunderstandings."
In the opening chapters of his book, Pennock offers a field guide to the varieties of creationism. Most of us will recognize and quickly dismiss the beliefs of old-style creationists. They say the Bible is the direct, literal, and inerrant word of God; that God made the world in six days; that every species alive today had ancestors aboard Noah's ark; and that we have no biological relationship whatsoever to monkeys, or any other animals, for that matter. It is this view that has made creationists the butt of so many jokes, but Pennock believes it's time to stop laughing. Creationism has been taking new forms as factions in the creationist movement have refined and adapted arguments to meet objections from theologians, scientists, and state courts where the real battle has played out in recent years over the science curriculum of public schools.
There are "young earth" creationists, the six days and six thousand years crowd, and "old earth" creationists, some of whom accept evidence for the big bang. There are also progressive creationists, who accept most of the scientific explanations for life on earth, but who maintain that God must have intervened at particular points in the earth's development. They argue that God didn't create the world in six consecutive days, but in stages over millions of years. And there's a group of theistic evolutionists who believe in both God and evolution, although Pennock notes that they are largely vilified by creationists as "accommodationists" who have betrayed their faith. But for all their differences, the various factions have one thing in common: "When different factions do confront one another, each side quotes its favored biblical passages and marshals its exegetical forces . . . and attacks the opposing side as being ignorant, misguided, or damaging to the Faith."
It is the new, lively, and insidious group known as intelligent design creationists that fascinates Pennock, however, for "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." He introduces and describes intelligent design proponents such as Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe, Baylor University philosopher William Dembski, and, most notably, Berkeley law professor Philip Johnson. Pennock is especially interested in Johnson, who is more adept than most at presenting a calm and reasoned explanation for intelligent design as a theory at least as plausible as evolution. But Johnson's "minimalist" version of creationist thought hides a broader intent: He aims to discredit and dismiss evolutionary thought as inherently atheistic.
For creationists of every stripe, to believe in evolution is to believe in processes that are mindless, mechanistic, and ultimately meaningless. If there was no meaning behind our creation, then there can be no purpose to our lives. As Pennock writes, "Creationism tells of a world that God planned with us in mind, in which we have special roles to play that, properly understood and followed, will fill our lives with meaning. . . . Creationists fear that if evolution is true, then the only basis for value, the only source of purpose . . . would be lost." The enemy is what Johnson and others call scientific naturalism, and its continued ascendancy, in their view, is the root cause of our modern malaise a world replete with abortion, homosexuality, feminism, atheism, and other horrors of life without religion. This scientific naturalism must be destroyed and replaced with a view of creation that is Biblically centered and distinctively Christian. Pennock quotes Johnson: "If the universe was created by God for a purpose, the truth claims of Jesus Christ may well be credible and meaningful. Those claims are not even conceivably credible or meaningful if the universe is a meaningless chain of material causes."
Pennock challenges the stark formulations of intelligent design proponents as false dichotomies. Even more fascinating, Pennock uncovers the postmodern and deconstructionist roots of the intelligent design creationists. "The IDCs are in lockstep with postmodernism's skeptical contention that human truths, including scientific truths, are merely subjective narratives. . . . Postmodernists accept relativism and seem happy to dispense with the notions of objective truth, embracing instead the rich plurality of subjective human viewpoints. Creationists, however, . . . believe that although human reason by itself is impotent, there remains one way to get a 'God's eye view' of the world, namely, from God himself. God's divine revelation saves us from relativism by providing us with absolute truth in Scripture."
Are these our only choices: a meaningless and relativistic universe or a universe defined by God through Biblical truth? Of course not, and Pennock does a masterful job of unpacking the arguments used by intelligent design creationists to present such stark and false alternatives. Tower of Babel draws parallels between creationists and other enemies of modernity as we now live it, people who seem preoccupied by an all-or-nothing approach to the pluralism of the modern world. We liberal religious people, who have our own issues with modernity but are hardly prepared to abandon it, are well served by Pennock's calm and thoughtful view: "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, natural creatures have yet discovered for finding our way around this natural world."
But how might we religious liberals enter this conversation? We hold within our religious communities a host of responses to the question of life's meaning, so we're not easily swayed by arguments that posit all-or-nothing choices. We experience the life of faith as a process, not as an event; theological evolution is our norm. Yet our willingness to hold in tension both the clarity of the scientific method and the mystery of existence seems to have left us without a voice in this debate. As the attacks on science by ever more cunning theocrats grow in frequency and complexity, Robert Pennock's Tower of Babel may prove an especially instructive guide as we seek our place in the conversation about science, faith, and human values.
The Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt is a contributing editor for UU World and minister of the Fourth Universalist Society in New York City.