The New York Times, December 21, 1997, Sunday, Section 4; Page 1; Column 1; Week in Review Desk

Christians and Scientists: New Light for Creationism

By Laurie Goodstein

IN a startling about-face, the National Association of Biology Teachers, which had long stood firm against religious fundamentalists who insisted that creationism be taught in public schools, recently excised two key words from its platform on teaching evolution.

"The diversity of life on earth," the group's platform used to read, "is the outcome of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process." Now the crucial words "unsupervised" and "impersonal" have been dropped. The revision is clearly designed to allow for the possibility that a Master Hand was at the helm.

This surprising change in creed for the nation's biology teachers is only one of many signs that the proponents of creationism, long stereotyped as anti-intellectual Bible-thumpers, have new allies and the hope of new credibility.

The old breed of creationists consists of Biblical literalists for whom Genesis is the ideal textbook. They believe that God created the Earth in six days a few thousand years ago a position hard to maintain in the face of carbon dating. Active in their cause, the most vocal among them are affiliated with marginal groups like the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis, and find their audiences in conservative evangelical churches and on Christian radio. And though they call their field "creation science," they have been met with ridicule by scientists, and with embarrassment by most evangelical Christian intellectuals.

The new creationists, however, are Christian intellectuals, and some of them are even scientists. They hold faculty positions not at Bible colleges but at public and secular universities. They do not dispute that the planet is ancient. But they are promoting the idea that living organisms and the universe are so impossibly complex that the only plausible conclusion is that an omniscient creator designed it all on purpose.

The concept of "intelligent design" is not new, and even predates Darwinism. But it is getting a hearing in all sorts of mainstream settings, from lecture halls to scholarly journals to a "Firing Line" debate airing this week on PBS. William F. Buckley Jr. (a Roman Catholic whose church last year issued a message from the Pope reiterating the basic Catholic approach that evolution and belief in God are compatible) argues, "A lot of monkeys turned loose over an infinite number of times could not, would not, reproduce Shakespeare." Propelling this Scopes redux is a cluster of energetic evangelical academics who have long been resentful that American academia gives religion no respect. In attacking evolution, some of them believe they are knocking out the keystone in the secular wall that they say rings America's universities.

The most unlikely of these respectable renegades is Phillip E. Johnson, who once clerked for the liberal Chief Justice Earl Warren and who now holds an endowed law school chair at the University of California at Berkeley.

An Entire Culture

Since his conversion to evangelical Christianity at the age of 37, Mr. Johnson has written three books attacking evolution. He says he is aiming to challenge not merely the secularism of universities but of an entire culture that he says rests on the scientific assumption of "naturalism" -- the idea that the natural world has no supernatural supervision. To Mr. Johnson, evolution is the linchpin to the naturalistic world view because it presupposes that creation was a chance development that life could happen without God.

"Do you need a creator, a pre-existing intelligence to get the creating done? Science has taught us you don't. You can believe in the creator as an unnecessary add-on if you want, but the process proceeds by itself."

Mr. Johnson presents as exhibits A, B and C the names of scientists who acknowledge -- or boast -- that believing in evolution has logically led them to become atheists or agnostics. In his book Reason in the Balance, Mr. Johnson says this "scientific elite" are our modern priests and evolution our "creation myth."

In a recent poll of 1,000 scientists, 55 percent said they believed that "God had no part in the process" of evolution. But 40 percent said that while they believe in evolution, "God guided the process, including the creation of man." Mr. Johnson wants to convince these "theistic evolutionists," who include many religious leaders, that their straddling is untenable. Many believers find no contradiction between the idea of a creator and evolution. For them, it is not an either-or proposition.

The biology teachers changed their statement, said Wayne Carley, the association's executive director, "to avoid taking a religious position" that could offend believers. But he said the group firmly believed "there is no evidence of any creator having a hand in the origin of any species." For years, the teachers resisted demands to amend the statement. But Mr. Carley said they decided in October to change the platform after a well-reasoned request in a letter from two distinguished scholars: Huston Smith, professor emeritus of religion at Berkeley, and Alvin Plantinga, a philosopher of religion at the University of Notre Dame.

Another ally of Mr. Johnson is Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University who contends that the molecular machinery of cells is so complex and interdependent that this is proof of purposeful design. Mr. Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, was chosen as 1997 Book of the Year by the evangelical monthly Christianity Today.

Entering the fray with a recent article in Commentary is David Berlinski, a philosopher, who asserts that after more than 140 years the Darwinists have failed to prove their case because major transitions are "missing from the fossil record."

These new creationists avoid one pitfall of their predecessors by not positing, at least publicly, the identity of the creator. "My decision is simply to put it off," Mr. Johnson said, "and I recommend that to others."

Mainstream Fire

This triumvirate has been duly picked apart by mainstream scientists. Kenneth Miller, a biologist at Brown University, argued in the "Firing Line" debate that "the intelligent designer" was "incompetent, because everything the intelligent designer designed, with about one percent exceptions, has immediately become extinct."

Mr. Miller also skewered Mr. Behe's book in a recent review. But that the book was even reviewed is progress in Mr. Johnson's view: "This issue is getting into the mainstream. People realize they can deal with it the way they deal with other intellectual issues like whether socialism is a good thing. My goal is not so much to win the argument as to legitimate it as part of the dialogue."

The danger in the new creationism, says Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in El Cerrito, Calif., is that "there are a lot of students going to be leaving college thinking evolution is in crisis." With fewer and fewer high school teachers daring to teach evolution these days, Ms. Scott said, the scientists of the next generation "are in bad shape."

Copyright © 1997 Laurie Goodstein. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 12.23.97

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