Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
A Civil Conversation About Creationism and Evolution | Righting America

edited by William Trollinger

Bill Nye, dressed in jacket and red bow-tie, looking at Ken Ham, who is speaking into a microphone.
Bill Nye – Ken Ham Debate. February 4, 2014. (Photo by Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Two weeks ago we ran an interview with Adam Laats about his new book, Creationism USA. In response we received a set of questions for Adam from David B (he did not divulge his last name). Given that the tone of David’s questions was quite civil (this is not always the case when we hear from creationists!), and given that David nicely summarized many of the standard questions posed by creationists to those who accept mainstream evolutionary theory, we asked Adam if he would be willing to respond.  Adam graciously agreed. Below is their dialogue.

Dear Professor Laats,

You say in your interview that you learned a lot from scientists such as Jerry Coyne, Bill Nye, and Richard Dawkins.

As far as I know, all three are atheistic evolutionists. Do you consider yourself an atheistic evolutionist as well? (Other types of evolutionists include: agnostic evolutionist, deistic evolutionist, and theistic evolutionist). 

You mention mainstream science 11 times in the interview. Keep in mind that sometimes mainstream science gets it wrong. For example, mainstream science once said the coelacanth fish went extinct about 65 million years ago with the dinosaurs, until one was caught in a fishing net off the coast of South Africa in 1938.

In the 1960s, millions of children had their tonsils unnecessarily removed because evolution predicted tonsils were “vestigial organs” and had no useful function. Today, we know the tonsils are involved with immune response.

Mainstream science used to say biochemicals can’t exist in fossil bone for tens of millions of years. Yet soft tissue was found in a T-rex fossil bone by Mary Schweitzer in 2005. Since then, Schweitzer has been vindicated, and bacterial contamination in her samples was ruled out. 



Soft tissue has been found in other fossils besides dinosaurs:

Published Reports of Original Soft Tissue Fossils

Does your new book focus only on young-earth creationists, or do you also mention the intelligent design movement — the “big tent” group that includes young-earth creationists such as Paul A. Nelson, John Mark Reynolds and David F. Coppedge, but also people such as biochemist Michael Behe and Stephen C. Meyer (PhD in Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge)

A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism





* * *

Dear David,

Thanks for asking. In all these debates, it is far too common for us to get pushed onto one side or another, away from any middle ground. That’s too bad. Especially when it comes to questions about evolution, science, religion, and schools, it’s important to hear a fuller story. It’s important to note that most people are, like me, somewhere in the middle. We agree on the things that really matter, even if we might disagree here and there on other things.

I’ll give you a little bit of my story so you can get a better sense of where I’m coming from. I’ll start with your question about “atheistic evolutionism” and then consider what we should do about disputes among mainstream science. 

When it comes to “atheistic evolutionism,” we should start by having Ken Ham send Richard Dawkins a muffin basket. No one has benefited more from Prof. Dawkins’ brand of “atheistic evolutionism” than Ken Ham and other radical creationists. After all, Dawkins and Ham agree on the most basic falsehood about evolution—they agree that there are only two starkly divided truths out there: evolution or the Bible.

This myth was the true genesis of radical young-earth creationism. As John Whitcomb Jr. and Henry Morris wrote in their 1961 book The Genesis Flood, they honestly believed there were “really only two basic philosophies or religions among mankind.” One of them was Christianity. Real Christianity. The kind that took the Bible seriously and insisted on the radical idea that the book of Genesis be read at face value. The other was evolutionary theory. As Whitcomb and Morris saw it, evolutionary theory wasn’t just a scientific idea; it was an ancient evil, the temptation that lured Eve in the Garden. In their words, evolutionary theory must have its origin “in the pride and selfishness of man and ultimately in the pride and deception of the great adversary, Satan himself.” 

Professor Dawkins doesn’t agree with Professors Whitcomb and Morris about much. But he does agree that evolution and religion are stuck in a bitter standoff. As Dawkins wrote in his 2006 book The God Delusion, there are only two sides, the “God Hypothesis” or the scientific “alternative view.” One side is correct, and the other is nothing but a “pernicious delusion.” 

God or evolution, Jesus or the double helix…since the 1960s, the simplistic myth of either/or has dominated debates about creationism and evolution. It might be a good way to get more Twitter followers, but it is a very bad way to understand either science or religion. Nevertheless, it drives the work of today’s leading radical creationists like Ken Ham. Ham will happily debate people who represent the “other side” like Bill Nye. But he won’t even sit down to dinner with other Christian creationists—creationists who agree with him about the Bible but disagree with him about the myth. 

Ham knows where his bread is buttered. He knows that he needs to be able to warn his followers that “atheistic evolutionists” are out to get them, that they are out to get their children. It makes things easy to think that there is a simple choice to make, either Jesus or atheism, evolution or creationism. 

Things aren’t that simple. 

You were kind enough to ask if I consider myself an “atheistic evolutionist.” The short answer is no. When it comes to my personal religious beliefs, there’s no good single label for me. I’m a bad candidate for atheism, though. I wasn’t raised in any particular church, but as an adult I worked for many years in a Catholic school. I attended Catholic church every week. I like church. I have a ton of respect for the religious people I’ve known who work every day to make the world a better place.

More important, do people like me want to push more and better evolution education into schools for “atheistic” reasons? That is, do science teachers out there scheme to take away the religion of their students by introducing them to evolutionary theory? There might be a couple of middle-school Richard Dawkinses out there, but by and large, the answer is no. By and large, as political scientists Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman found, most science teachers are from the communities in which they teach; they share the values and ideals of their communities. They teach the way their communities want them to teach. Plus, as Gallup polls find again and again, most parents trust their kids’ teachers, even if the parents are suspicious about evolutionary theory.

In the end, we all need to stop trying to push people to the fringes about religion and science. There may be some “atheistic evolutionists” and “radical creationists” out there, but they do not fairly represent the way most Americans view these questions. Like me, most Americans aren’t sure they know God’s plan better than their neighbors do. Like me, most Americans want their children to learn the best knowledge in school. Like me, most Americans do not want public schools to insult the religious beliefs of children. 

You also wisely noted the many important disagreements among mainstream scientists. Shouldn’t children learn in school that scientists disagree about many things? That scientists don’t know for sure how to interpret evidence such as ancient DNA? Certainly, “mainstream science” has made huge blunders in the past. Shouldn’t students learn to be skeptical about it?

In fact, one might ask, don’t court rulings such as the one in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover case say more about anti-creationist prejudice than anything else? In that case, Judge John Jones III ruled that Intelligent Design theory could not fairly be considered science, because it was motivated by a desire to spread a particular religious idea. Creationists complained. They complained that Judge Jones’s ruling slammed the door shut to any unorthodox scientific ideas, that Jones, in fact, is the one who is anti-science with his rigid insistence on a closed intellectual world. In the end, some creationists insist, their only desire is for students and teachers to have “academic freedom” to include all scientific ideas in their classes, not only mainstream evolutionary science.

Seems plausible, right? Well, not really. Maybe a story from my first days of high-school teaching will help illustrate my beef with this line of creationist argument. Back in the 1990s, when the internet was young (anyone else remember AltaVista?), I used to ask my high-school students to research topics for our unit on the history of the Civil Rights Movement. At first, I was surprised when multiple students reported that the first thing they discovered was that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had plagiarized his doctoral dissertation. At first, I was surprised. How had so many students stumbled across that fairly minor historical debate?

Turns out, a white-supremacist group had manipulated the fledgling internet to promote the story of Dr. King’s academic misdeeds. They had publicized the historical debate about Dr. King’s PhD work in order to malign the legacy of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement.

What does any of that have to do with soft tissue in dinosaur fossils? 

Just this: There were real debates among academic historians about the evidence for Dr. King’s plagiarism. But the white supremacists did not really care about teaching students to value academic debate. They were not really hoping to help students understand that historians had disagreements about evidence and interpretation. No, they only wanted to manipulate an existing debate among historians to discredit Dr. King and smear the reputation of the Civil Rights Movement as a whole.

Here’s the analogy: Of course students should learn that mainstream science sometimes makes mistakes. Of course they should learn that mainstream scientists disagree with one another. But groups hoping to promote a religious idea should not be allowed to manipulate those scientific controversies to fool children into believing a falsehood. 

The controversies that exist among mainstream scientists are a vital part of a good public-school education. But they need to be taught in proper proportion. When interested parties push for “academic freedom” laws to teach both mainstream evolutionary theory and its critics, both sides need to be represented in their true light. 

Are there controversies among mainstream scientists? Absolutely. But those controversies are not about the fundamental importance of mainstream evolutionary theory. That theory is a basic building block of modern scientific understanding, and the debates among mainstream science take place within its framework. Anyone who pushes a different understanding—one in which both “evolution” and its “critics” get equal billing—is pushing a curriculum that would harm children. 

No one wants that. 

The good news is that most Americans can agree on the basics: 

  1. We all want teachers that care for their students and are devoted to helping them learn and grow.
  2. We all want schools that nurture critical thinking.
  3. We (almost) all want public schools that keep their hands off of children’s religious ideas. 
  4. We (almost) all want children to learn the very best modern ideas about science.

It’s not that Americans don’t have disagreements about the details involved, but when it comes to science and religion, there is far more agreement than disagreement.

Thanks again for the questions. I appreciate your willingness to talk about difficult issues. From my perspective, here are the big takeaways: First, the disputes among mainstream scientists are real and important, but their intellectual importance should never be misrepresented to students in order to push a religious idea. And second, there are a few “atheistic evolutionists” running around out there, but they are a rare and unusual breed. The idea that students must pick between evolution and religion is simply not true.