Creationists are fighting the right battle, but on the wrong front.

Because a number of people have asked about my participation in the “creation-science” trial in Arkansas, I want to clarify the issues involved. In fact, one of my motives in testifying was to provide an opportunity for conservative Christians to discuss these questions more considerately and cautiously. There are some factors that may not appear on the surface of the issue to which Christians ought to give careful consideration.

Such consideration is particularly important if your initial reaction was like mine: that it probably was unwise for me to get involved in the matter—or even that I might be getting involved on the wrong side. Specifically, I was asked by the attorneys for the plaintiffs in Arkansas who oppose the law to testify as an “expert witness” on the history of fundamentalism. Only after carefully reviewing the law and reflecting on its implications did I conclude that not only would it be right to offer my expertise as a service to the court, but that it could also be a valuable service to the Christian community. Following are some of the considerations that led to the conclusions.

1. This law is not, as commonly supposed, one that places creationists all on one side, with only evolutionists on the other. In fact, most of the plaintiffs in Arkansas who opposed the law were creationists. For instance, my testimony was preceded by that of one of the plaintiffs, the Methodist bishop of Arkansas, who affirmed his deep commitment to the doctrine of creation as revealed in Genesis. Though not all the plaintiffs were religious people, most of them were.

Moreover, there are many views of divine creation—and that is just the point: creationists of almost every sort have been divided on the wisdom and the constitutionality of this law. As an expert witness for the plaintiffs, then, I was neither coming in on the side of evolution, nor standing against creation.

2. The law establishes, in fact, or gives a privileged position to, the arguments concerning science offered by only one group of the defenders of the Genesis account of creation—those associated with the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego and related agencies. These “creation scientists” defend the most conservative of the literal interpretations of Genesis 1, insisting that the “days” of that chapter refer to 24-hour periods, that the earth is likely no more than about 10,000 years old, and that most of the apparent geological data is explained by the worldwide flood.

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The Arkansas law requires that whenever the question of the origins of man, life, or the universe is discussed in public schools, the scientific evidence for “creation-science”—defined to include “a relatively recent inception of the earth and living kinds” and “explanation of the earth’s geology by catastrophism, including the occurrence of a worldwide flood”—be given “balanced treatment” with the scientific evidence for naturalistic evolution.

3. The law institutes a false choice. As evangelicals are well aware, there is a variety of views, even among conservative, Bible-believing Christians, relating the biblical and the scientific accounts of origins. For instance, one of the views that for all practical purposes is left out by this law is that of Davis Young, professor of geology at Calvin College. He is author of Creation and the Flood: An Alternative to Flood Geology and Theistic Evolution (Baker, 1977) and Christianity and the Age of the Earth (forthcoming from Zondervan). He had hoped to write Creation and the Flood with his late father, Edward J. Young, well-known conservative Old Testament scholar (and one of my former teachers) at Westminster Theological Seminary. Davis Young shares his father’s conservative interpretations of Genesis 1, but argues at length that the scientific evidence presented by the so-called creation scientists is both bad science and bad interpretation of Scripture.

Other views are often offered by conservative evangelicals, including the long-standing view that limited elements of evolution are perfectly compatible with the biblical account, presenting only the method of divine creation of species. For example, this view was represented in The Fundamentals of the earlier fundamentalist movement, or in conservative evangelical Bernard Ramm’s The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Eerdmans, 1954), which was praised by Wilbur M. Smith in Moody Monthly as “the best our evangelical world has yet produced in our days.”

None of these views, which would include my own and those of many other Bible-believing Christians, is represented by the Arkansas law. The choice is therefore a false one even for conservative Christians. I am convinced that it is a great disservice to evangelical Christianity to identify it with one very narrow argument from science—especially when such conservative geologists as Davis Young say it is bad science. For evangelical Christianity to be tied to bad science in Arkansas is a great disservice to the people of Arkansas if it is allowed to pass unopposed. Many young people who do not see the subtleties of the issue will come to the conclusion that one must believe bad science in order to believe the Bible. Such an impression, regardless of how one arrives at it, is likely to become for many a stumbling block to Christian faith.

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It seemed very important for me, then, as an evangelical Christian, to help resist a law that created such a false choice and false impression. This was the basic thrust of my testimony.

In sum, I pointed out that historically, fundamentalism was a movement marked by its militant opposition to modernism or secular humanism, and that biological evolution had become an important symbol in their battles. Fundamentalists typically reduce the options to two: God or Satan. Their interpretations of the Bible are put on God’s side, and all other views are of the Devil. I quoted a leading creation scientist to that effect.

Accordingly, fundamentalists had a very direct hand in formulating the Arkansas law so that it set up the choice as though there were only two views. The law, for instance, says that it is designed to ensure “neutrality.” One could suppose that such a law ensured “neutrality” only if one also supposed that there were two and only two options. But if there are 6 or 10 or 20 or whatever number of options, one could not suppose that “neutrality” was established by giving just 2 a special privilege.

4. That the law considers only two views is also important as a question of civil rights. If there are more than two views among conservative evangelicals, there are vastly more views of the relation between science and creation among the general populace. Many other people from other religions who might not think (as I do) that purely naturalistic evolution is an adequate means for explaining the origins of life or the universe would not have their opinions represented by either of the two views. Such people have civil rights, too, as well as the fundamentalists who believe in creation in six 24-hour days. One ought to recognize this as a point of justice, regardless of whether one thinks the “creation-science” version is correct. Whatever else one might think on questions of church and state, it would be clear that it is unconstitutional for the state to give one particular religious view a privileged position.

The Arkansas law is almost exactly analogous to a requirement that, say, dispensationalism should be taught in the public schools as an alternative view of history. It is difficult to see why Christians should think the law ought to be used to give such a special position to the views of one group.

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In my opinion, the American Civil Liberties Union, which played a major role in this case, holds many incorrect views on the separation of church and state. Nonetheless, in this case they are, even by a very conservative construction of the implications of the First Amendment, on the right side constitutionally. If the ACLU should happen to be on the right side of an issue, that should not oblige Christians to stay away from that side.

5. There is, then, the question of what views Christians should advocate concerning the issue of creation and evolution as taught in the public schools. Though I was not asked to testify on this subject since it is not the area of my professional expertise, my view is that the “creation-science” law is an attempt to address a real problem. I am convinced it is an instance of fighting the battle at the wrong point—at a position untenable both religiously and constitutionally. Nonetheless, I admire the creation-scientists for attacking a real problem. Often evolutionism is taught in public schools as though it were an alternative to religious belief, as though it settled questions about the ultimate origins of the universe, life, or man.

In fact, evolutionism does none of these things. The false claims that are made by some (by no means all) scientists and teachers of science on such subjects should be challenged. Such negative religious teachings in public schools should be balanced by more positive approaches. The rights of minorities (or even of majorities in some communities) who do not share such antireligious views should be protected. Religious people should not have to have their children exposed to such views—especially as they are falsely equated with “science” (they are really philosophical or religious opinion)—in order to share in the educational programs of the state.

I am not entirely sure how this problem should be resolved. However, a major step toward solving it would be for the states to adopt something like a voucher system for the support of Christian education and education by other groups who do not share secular stances. Such a system would provide an important avenue for resolving the religious and constitutional issues raised in this case. These issues are discussed well in Gordon Spykman, et al., Society, State, and Schools: A Case for Structural and Confessional Pluralism (Eerdmans, 1981).

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Dear Heavenly Father:

I’m working on a puzzle,

Pure and simple.

It is I.

Dear searching child:

Here’s the answer

to your puzzle,

pure and simple.

It is I.


6. There are some people who have suggested that this law should not have been opposed. They say the law challenges the assumption that evolutionary science as typically taught in public schools is neutral. In fact, there is a good case (with which I agree) that secularism, as it often appears in public schools and in much evolutionary teaching, is a species of religion. Some thought this law might provide a test case on that issue, and I agree that the point should be tested in the courts. I think it would be a great tactical blunder, however, to try to do so in the context of a law such as this, which contains so many other glaring constitutional weaknesses. Christians who wish to test this point should do so by carefully framed legislation or litigation that seeks to balance the religious aspects of such teachings with some acknowledgement of the equal legitimacy of a multiplicity of alternative religious views. Such a test would take the most careful framing to have a chance constitutionally. The Arkansas law lacks such framing on this critical point.

Even if the Arkansas law were a good test of this point, the value of what might be gained for Christians constitutionally would have to be weighed against what might be lost constitutionally by favoring fundamentalist Christian teachings over all other traditional religions. It should also be weighed against the potential damage to Christian witness involved in institionalizing the false choice discussed in the third point.

7. The Arkansas law would fail to provide a solid Christian response to secular humanism in the public schools even if it had none of the defects described. This law not only requires that naturalistic evolution be taught whenever the subject of origins is considered, it also mandates that the teaching of either evolution-science or creation-science “must not include any religious instruction or references to religious writings.” At most, this would institute a sort of deism by forbidding teachers, even when asked, from referring to the Bible or the God of the Bible as the true authorities on which we ground our belief in Creation. Positions derived from the Bible, while implicitly presented, could not then be fully or adequately defended.

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In my opinion, this is a superficial solution, though well intended, to a most serious problem. It is like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. The problems of secularism in our culture are far too important and serious for Christians to concentrate their energies on such misleading and token responses. Therefore, while I sincerely applaud the good intentions of those who propose such solutions and share their central concerns, I am convinced they are hurting their own cause.

I am sure not everyone will be convinced by all these considerations, but perhaps at least it may be acknowledged that they provide sufficient grounds for a plausible approach to the question from a perspective of evangelical Christian commitment.

George M. Marsden is professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is the author of Fundamentalism and the American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925 (Oxford, 1981).

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