Who's Responsible for the Evolution/Creation Controversy? It's Not As Simple as Some Would Have You Believe

07/10/2012 07:36 am ET | Updated Sep 09, 2012

As the latest legislative season wound down with a large number of creationist bills introduced around the country and as the latest Gallup poll came out showing that creationism continues to enthrall many Americans, there were a flurry of articles discussing how to apportion blame for this sorry state of affairs. Oddly enough all seem to have missed some critically important aspect and thus the explanations offered explain very little.

The discourse began with a piece in The Atlantic by Robert Wright. His hypothesis is as simple as it is wrong! He argues that creationists and scientists agreed to a détente two decades ago and all was well until the "new atheists" came along to upset the status quo.

A few decades ago, Darwinians and creationists had a de facto nonaggression pact: Creationists would let Darwinians reign in biology class, and otherwise Darwinians would leave creationists alone. The deal worked. ... A few years ago, such biologists as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers started violating the nonaggression pact. ... I don't just mean they professed atheism -- many Darwinians had long done that; I mean they started proselytizing, ridiculing the faithful, and talking as if religion was an inherently pernicious thing. They not only highlighted the previously subdued tension between Darwinism and creationism but depicted Darwinism as the enemy of religion more broadly.

Jerry Coyne, in his blog, "Why Evolution is True," rightfully took him to task for this position asking, among other things,

Is Wright unaware of the many court cases in which creationists didn't let Darwinians reign in biology class? The National Center for Science Education lists ten major court cases in which creationists tried to insinuate their filthy camel noses into the public-school tent. All of those took place between 1968 and 2005.

Beyond the court cases, stretching back for decades, there's no evidence of the peaceful coexistence claimed by Wright. Indeed, creationists have regularly lain virtually every one of society's supposed ills at the feet of evolution. And, at times, they even manufactured evils and attributed them to evolution. Consider the following five examples.

  1. In 1923, fundamentalist preacher T.T. Martin wrote, "The German soldiers who killed Belgian and French children with poisoned candy were angels compared with the teachers and textbook writers who corrupted the souls of children with false teaching and thereby sentenced them to eternal death."
  2. In 1977, the Creation Science Research Center argued that the teaching of evolution has led to "the moral decay of spiritual values which contributes to the destruction of mental health and ... [the prevalence of] divorce, abortion, and rampant venereal disease."
  3. In 1987, Ken Ham, now the head of the Creation Museum-cum-theme-park in Kentucky, asserted, "We are not experiencing an AIDS crisis -- but a morality crisis. The spread of AIDS can be stopped -- by simply rejecting false evolution and trusting in the Creator, the Lord Jesus Christ, and by obeying the laws he gave us."
  4. In 1999, then Congressman Tom Delay (now a convicted felon) argued on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives that Columbine happened "because our school systems teach our children that they are nothing but glorified apes who have evolutionized (sic) out of some primordial mud."
  5. In 2007, John D. Morris, president of the Institute for Creation Research pontificated on the cause of the tragic shootings on the Virginia Tech campus. "Virginia Tech has been a bastion for evolution teaching. While it is not possible to claim that evolution teaching itself was responsible for the recent actions of a madman, one can't help but wonder if a distorted view of man as an evolved animal played a part in the deranged killer's actions."
Simply put, there's no evidence that there has ever been a time when fundamentalists have accepted the status quo and opted not to challenge evolution. That being said, it doesn't mean that there's absolutely no truth to Wright's argument that the "new atheists" have played a role in shaping America's view of the evolution/creation controversy.

This is a point that Coyne disputes both vehemently and graphically, if less than persuasively, when he says "Wright is talking out of his nether parts." He goes on, more reasonably, to say, "The reason people choose religion over evolution is not because New Atheists tell them they have to make that choice. It's because their faith tells them they have to make that choice."

As head of The Clergy Letter Project, an international collection of religious leaders and scientists who promote evolutionary teaching, I have good reason to believe that the rhetoric of people like Coyne, Dawkins and Myers have, in fact, moved people away from a pro-science, pro-evolution perspective and toward religious fundamentalism. I've interacted with tens of thousands of clergy members over the years and I've been depressed by how many of them have pointed to the position of the "new atheists" saying that if they're the spokespeople for evolution, they want nothing to do with it. Have these clergy members actively promoted creationism? I have no way of knowing, but what they haven't done is promote evolution as have the thousands of their colleagues who have joined The Clergy Letter Project.

More perniciously, the "new atheists" have aligned themselves with biblical fundamentalists by consistently arguing that people must choose between religion and science. In fact, however, the goal of The Clergy Letter Project has been to demonstrate to religious people around the world that no such choice is necessary. Religion serves a very different purpose than does science and when religion makes no scientific claims there is no conflict between the two. There's good reason to believe that if people feel they must choose between the two, religion will more often come out on top.

Michael Ruse, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, makes much the same point that I just did. He goes on, however, to lay some of the blame at the feet of mainstream, rather than fundamentalist, denominations.

But when did you last hear the Catholic hierarchy holding forth about the need to teach evolution in schools and to expel biblical literalism? And I am not sure that a lot of the Protestant Churches are much better.

In this, he is every bit as wrong as Wright and Coyne. The Clergy Letter Project does exactly what Ruse claims needs to be done. Consider just this segment from The Christian Clergy Letter:

We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as "one theory among others" is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. ... We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

It's hard to imagine a stronger statement in support of evolution being endorsed by anyone! And, it's important to note, the clergy of The Clergy Letter Project are not acting in a vacuum. Voices for Evolution, published by The National Center for Science Education, presents numerous doctrinal statements in support of evolution from a host of religious denominations.

Are the "new atheists" responsible for creationism in America as Wright argues? Of course not! But neither should they be immune from the criticism that their inflammatory language and derision of religion keeps many from more fully understanding science, in general, and evolution, in particular.

Are religious people responsible for promoting the continuing battle between evolution and creationism? Of course! But that does not mean that ALL religious people are playing this role. Religion is not synonymous with fundamentalism any more than Muslim is synonymous with terrorist. Indeed, thousands of religious leaders have become some of the most articulate and most outspoken supporters of evolution -- without compromising their religious faith.