May 21 2015

Creationism – Are We Winning The Battle and Losing The War?

One of the major ambitions of my life is to promote science and critical thinking, which I do under the related banners of scientific skepticism and science-based medicine. This is a huge endeavor, with many layers of complexity. For that reason it is tempting to keep one’s head down, focus on small manageable problems and goals, and not worry too much about the big picture. Worrying about the big picture causes stress and anxiety.

I have been doing this too long to keep my head down, however. I have to worry about the big picture: are we making progress, are we doing it right, how should we alter our strategy, is there anything we are missing?

The answers to these questions are different for each topic we face. While we are involved in one large meta-goal, it is composed of hundreds of sub-goals, each of which may pose their own challenges. Creationism, for example, is one specific topic that we confront within our broader mission or promoting science.

Over my life the defenders of science have won every major battle against creationism, in the form of major court battles, many at the supreme court level. The most recent was Kitzmiller vs Dover, which effectively killed  Intelligent Design as a strategy for pushing creationism into public schools. The courts are a great venue for the side of science, because of the separation clause in the constitution and the way it has been interpreted by the courts. Creationism is a religious belief, pure and simple, and it has no place in a science classroom. Evolution, meanwhile, is an established scientific theory with overwhelming support in the scientific community. It is the exact kind of consensus science that should be taught in the classroom. When we have this debate in the courtroom, where there are rules of evidence and logic, it’s no contest. Logic, facts, and the law are clearly on the side of evolution.

Despite the consistent legal defeat of creationism, over the last 30 years Gallup’s poll of American public belief in creationism has not changed. In 1982 44% of Americans endorsed the statement: “God created humans in their present form.” In 2014 the figure was 42%; in between the figure fluctuated from 40-47% without any trend.

There has been a trend in the number of people willing to endorse the statement that humans evolved without any involvement from God, with an increase from 9 to 19%. This likely reflects a general trend, especially in younger people, away from religious affiliation – but apparently not penetrating the fundamentalist Christian segments of society.

Meanwhile creationism has become, if anything, more of an issue for the Republican party. It seems that any Republican primary candidate must either endorse creationism or at least pander with evasive answers such as, “I am not a scientist” or “teach the controversy” or something similar.

Further, in many parts of the country with a strong fundamentalist Christian population, they are simply ignoring the law with impunity and teaching outright creationism, or at least the made-up “weaknesses” of evolutionary theory. They are receiving cover from pandering or believing politicians. This is the latest creationist strategy – use “academic freedom” laws to provide cover for teachers who want to introduce creationist propaganda into their science classrooms.

Louisiana is the model for this. Zack Kopplin, who was a high school student when Bobby Jindal signed the law that allows teachers to introduce creationist material into Louisiana classrooms. He has since made it his mission to oppose such laws, and he writes about his frustrations in trying to make any progress. Creationists are simply too politically powerful in the Bible belt.

This brings me back to my core question – how are we doing (at least with respect to the creationism issue)? The battles we have fought needed to be fought and it is definitely a good thing that science and reason won. There are now powerful legal precedents defending the teaching of evolution and opposing the teaching of creationism in public schools, and I don’t mean to diminish the meaning of these victories.

But we have not penetrated in the slightest the creationist culture and political power, which remains solid at around 42% of the US population. It seems to me that the problem is self-perpetuating. Students raised in schools that teach creationism or watered-down evolution and live in families and go to churches that preach creationism are very likely to grow up to be creationists. Some of them will be teachers and politicians.

From one perspective we might say that we held the line defensively against a creationist offense, but that is all – we held the line. Perhaps we need to now figure out a way to go on offense, rather than just waiting to defend against the next creationist offense. The creationists have think tanks who spend their time thinking about the next strategy. At best we have people and organizations (like the excellent National Center for Science Education) who spend their time trying to anticipate the next strategy.

The NCSE’s own description of their mission is, “Defending the teaching of evolution and climate science.” They are in a defensive posture. Again, to be clear, they do excellent and much needed work and I have nothing but praise for them. But looking at the big picture, perhaps we need to add some offensive strategies to our defensive strategies.

I don’t know exactly what form those offensive strategies would take. This would be a great conversation for skeptics to have, however. Rather than just fighting against creationist laws, for example, perhaps we could craft a model pro-science law that will make it more difficult for science teachers to hide their teaching of creationism. Perhaps we need a federal law to trump any pro-creationist state laws. It’s worth thinking about.

I also think we need a cultural change within the fundamentalist Christian community. This will be a tougher nut to crack. We should, however, be having a conversation with them about how Christian faith can be compatible with science. Faith does not have to directly conflict with the current findings of science. Modeling ways in which Christians can accommodate their faith to science may be helpful. And to be clear – I am not saying that science should accommodate itself to faith, that is exactly what we are fighting against.


As the skeptical movement grows and evolves, I would like to see it mature in the direction where high-level strategizing on major issues can occur. It is still very much a grassroots movement without any real organization. At best there is networking going on, and perhaps that is enough. At the very least we should parlay those networks into goal-oriented strategies on specific issues.

Creationism is one such issue that needs some high-level think tank attention.

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