Science and the Question of God, Part 2
Today’s blog is the second entry in a five-part series, which has been adapted from a new Scholarly Article found here. All references have been removed for the blog series but can be found in the full paper. In his previous entry, Randy Isaac explained how evolution has been misunderstood as “replac[ing] God in the grand scheme of the origin and development of life.” Today, Isaac outlines the rise of, and response to, Creationism in the United States.
In this blog series, the term creationism refers not to the doctrine of creation but to the extrapolation of one view of such creation into claims of science. Specifically, it refers to the idea that scientific truths can be found in the Bible and that science properly done will concord with those truths. It is most easily identified with the view that the earth is only about 10,000 years old.
A brief history of Creationism in the USA
The modern surge of creationism arose in the mid-twentieth century, about a century after Darwin published his ideas. Many factors for its rise have been articulated and three of them merit mention here. First of all, there was the rise of literary higher criticism of the Bible in the early twentieth century. Scholars who analyzed the literary structure of the text prominently called divine inspiration of the Bible into question. The inevitable backlash swung to the opposite extreme of insisting on the infallibility of the literal meaning of every word. The prospect of documenting the truth of the Bible with the authority of science was most attractive.
A second factor was a substantive shift in the scientific understanding of evolution. Prior to Darwin’s work, the concept of evolution was known but somewhat on the fringe. Darwin’s major contributions included making evolution respectable in the scientific community even though many key details were unresolved. In the mid-twentieth century came the so-called neo-Darwinian synthesis wherein the major themes stated by Darwin were connected with the modern understanding of aspects such as genetics and heredity. With that synthesis and the new insight into genetic mutations, came a renewed claim of purposelessness and random chance as inherent in evolution. In other words, the shift in emphasis in evolution made it appear more virulent in its opposition to Christian faith. Moving beyond the mutual exclusivity of scientific vs. theistic explanations, the thrust of evolution was seen to deny any role of God’s providence. The threat of evolution was growing.
The third trigger was launched with Sputnik. The Russian success in reaching space galvanized a dedicated effort of science education in the US. The Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) center was established in 1958. The BSCS series of science textbooks was published in 1963 and widely deployed. By then, evolution was well accepted in the science community but still little known and understood in the public. If it was known at all, it was viewed with suspicion. In 1968 a Supreme Court decision nullified many of the anti-evolution laws that still existed in the country. The BSCS textbooks made the teaching of evolution a priority. When the public realized that children were being taught the theory of evolution, sometimes imbued with metaphysical overtones of purposelessness and meaningless chance, the longing for a counterpunch grew rapidly.
Into this environment came The Genesis Flood by Henry M Morris and John C Whitcomb. Built on ideas by the amateur geologist George McCready Price, whose own ideas were triggered by Ellen White’s mid-nineteenth century visions, they wove a story in scientific language of a literal, inerrant Bible supported by scientific observations. Flood geology swept the Christian community like wildfire. Here was a story that could restore confidence in the truth of the Bible to counteract higher criticism, emphasize meaning and purpose through God’s providence, and provide a Christian worldview for children’s education, all with the apparent authority of science.
Responses to Creationism
The message was told in such a convincing manner that fifty years later, polls indicate that as many as 40% of Americans are persuaded by some version of it. The mainstream science community, however, would have none of it. Rather than being convinced, the response was ridicule and quick dismissal. Ultimately scientists were perplexed that the so-called creationism movement survived at all, let alone came to such prominence.
Why was the scientific community unconvinced by the arguments of creationism? First of all, creationism deduces scientific conclusions from the Bible whereas scientific methodology relies on empirical observation interpreted in a paradigm of consistent laws of nature rather than any authoritative text. Secondly, in its attempt to reconcile geological observations with specific biblical interpretations, creationists must declare that God may have modified physical constants at various times in the past. For example, the speed of light may have been much greater or the radioactive decay constants may have been hundreds of millions of times greater than today to explain the abundance of radioactivity. In stark contrast, scientists have been able to measure historical values of such constants, finding no hint of significant changes.
Creationists have spun this difference into a contrast of presuppositions. They claim to be based on a Christian worldview while mainstream science is based on an atheistic worldview. By this they mean that a Christian worldview allows for God to have changed the laws of nature and caused singular catastrophic events in order to enable the time scale in literal biblical history while atheism insists on uniformitarianism, wherein the processes, forces, and constants of nature remain essentially unchanged over time.
In sharp contrast to these claims of creationism, mainstream western science was built on the Judeo-Christian conviction that God’s faithfulness and eternal unchanging character led to constancy in nature. The physical constants could be discovered to be, in fact, constants while it was a pagan view that allowed for nature to change at the caprice of the gods. Each side thus claims a Christian basis for its foundation. Creationism therefore deviates significantly from what is considered basic science. Despite the claims of creationism, science has not affirmed the literal geological history that many people feel is written in the Bible, and it has not provided an answer to the question of God.
Isaac's series continues here.
Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of the American Scientific Affiliation.
Randy Isaac is a solid-state physics research scientist and executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), where he has been a member since 1976 and a fellow since 1996. Isaac received his bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College in Illinois and his doctorate in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He joined IBM to work at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in 1977 and most recently served as the vice-president of systems technology and science for the company.