Creationism, the Church, and the Public School

I. Background On The Creationism Issue

Creationism is a relatively recent development in an older and on-going controversy concerning the relationship between science and religion. In the 1920's the teaching about evolution in public schools (specifically the work of Charles Darwin) was challenged on the basis of perceived conflict with biblical teaching. In Tennessee John Scopes was convicted of violating a law which made it "illegal ... to teach any theory that denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." Although the conviction was overturned on a technicality, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law which was not repealed until 1967.

The central issue in challenges such as this is the apparent conflict between scientific explanations about the origins of life, even the cosmos itself, and biblical accounts of creation. Science and religion often are perceived as being in basic conflict concerning creation.

In more recent decades, the debate has taken a new twist. While still opposing the scientific theories of evolution concerning the origins of life, a number of persons began to suggest that certain scientific data and/or approaches could 'prove' the validity of biblical accounts concerning creation. In the 1960's and early 1970's, several organizations were formed to promote the idea that the creation accounts recorded in the book of Genesis were supported by scientific data. The terms "creation-science," "scientific creationism," and "creationism" are used to describe this interpretation of scripture.

This movement took on more focused activity in 1977 when over twenty state legislatures recorded bills requiring teaching of "creation-science" when evolution was taught. This "balanced treatment" proposition was passed as model legislation by the Arkansas Legislature in 1981.

Opponents of the Act, including religious leaders, educators, and scientists, challenged the constitutionality of the Act in the federal courts (McLean v Arkansas Board of Education) and in 1982 the law was declared unconstitutional. A similar law was passed in Louisiana and litigation went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court in Edwards v Aguillard declared the law unconstitutional in 1987. the Supreme Court decision has been applied in subsequent cases involving individual teachers who chose to teach "creation-science" outside the curriculum. Federal courts declared that teaching "creation-science" was a religious advocacy and, therefore, unconstitutional. Courts have taken special care to protect the religious independence of students in the public schools.

Since the Supreme Court decision in Edwards, creationists have concentrated their efforts at the level of the local school board, where they pressure educators to teach "creation-science," omit or qualify the teaching of evolution, and/or adopt textbooks that exclude evolution. Additional terms for "creation-science," such as "abrupt appearance theory" or "intelligent design theory" are attempts to avoid the constitutional issue of religious advocacy. However, beyond the notion of "equal time" other issues are emerging. The attempts to use scientific data and methods to prove certain biblical claims are raising concerns among many educators and scientists about the integrity of scientific inquiry itself and what students may be learning about the nature and role of science. Science and scientific methods can be abused by setting out to prove certain assumptions rather than allowing even those assumptions to be open to inquiry and discussion.

The concerns over current activities by creationists touch basic affirmations about the public school made by the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries. The effort to make creationism part of the science curriculum in the public schools tests our commitments to the public school, excellence in education, the integrity of science, and academic freedom. It also tests our interpretation of the Bible and our belief in God's unlimited creative powers.

It is therefore appropriate amidst this controversy for the United Church Board to work with members of the United Church of Christ and others to understand this issue from the perspective of our religious and educational traditions. We mean to assist persons to participate fearlessly in open inquiry, debate, and action concerning the goals of education; to understand the role of science, including an appropriate relationship between science and faith; to help develop consensus in public policy issues affecting the public school; and to support academic freedom at all levels of the educational experience.

II. Affirmations

1) We testify to our belief that the historic Christian doctrine of the Creator God does not depend upon any particular account of the origins of life for its truth and validity. The effort of the creationists to change the book of Genesis into a scientific treatise dangerously obscures what we believe to be the theological purpose of Genesis, viz., to witness to the creation, meaning, and significance of the universe and of human existence under the governance of God. The assumption that the Bible contains scientific data about origins misreads a literature which emerged in a pre-scientific age.

2) We acknowledge modern evolutionary theory as the best present-day scientific explanation of the existence of life on earth; such a conviction is in no way at odds with our belief in a Creator God, or in the revelation and presence of that God in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

3) We affirm the freedom of conscience and freedom of religion set forth and protected in the U.S. Constitution, including the right of the creationists to their religious beliefs.

4) We believe that the nurturing of faith and religious commitment is the responsibility of the church and home, not of the public school. No person or group should use the school to compel the teaching or acceptance of any creed or to impose conformity to any specific religious belief or practice. Requiring the teaching of the religious beliefs of creationists in the public school violates this basic principle of American democracy. We concur with judicial rulings that the teaching of the religious beliefs of the creationists in the public school science curriculum is unconstitutional.

5) We assert that the public school science curriculum is not the proper arena for the expression of religious doctrine. However, we believe that the public school does have the responsibility to teach about religion, in order to help individuals formulate an intelligent understanding and appreciation of the role of religion in the life and culture of all people and nations. In this context, it is fully appropriate for the public school to include in its non-science curriculum consideration of the variety of religious literature about the creation and origins of human life.

6) We reaffirm our historic commitment to the public school, and declare that each student has the right to an education which rests firmly on the best understandings of the academic community.

7) We affirm our historic commitment to academic freedom in the public school; in that context, the open and full search for truth about all issues in science including creation must proceed in the light of responsible scholarship and research, subject always to the process of peer review, and of factual and logical verification, and of scientific replication.

8) We reject any modification of science textbooks to include the point of view of the creationists or that weakens scientific teachings, and we support publishers who resist this effort. To do otherwise would abridge both academic freedom and the customary practices of careful scholarship.

9) We affirm the responsibility of professional educators to make final decisions about the public school curriculum. These decisions should be based on sound scholarship, competent teaching practices, and policies of local and state school boards which are accountable to the public and in keeping with judicial decisions upholding Constitutional values.

III. Recommendations

1) That through study and discussion we, as church people, become informed about issues of creation raised by both science and religion, including the "creation-science" controversy.

2) That we urge pastors and teachers to preach and teach about issues of creation, particularly the ways of understanding the first eleven chapters of Genesis, the first chapter of the Gospel of John, and other relevant Scripture passages. We further urge pastors and teachers to teach about the problems of biblical literalism in blocking creative dialogue between the faith community and contemporary educational, scientific, and political communities.

3) That we support the determination of schools, school boards, and textbook publishers to retain their professional integrity in treating the creationism issue, carefully recognizing the distinction between promoting religion and teaching about religion.

4) That we make all efforts to resist any viewpoint which would maintain that belief in both a Creator God and in evolutionary theory are in any way incompatible. Confident in our conviction that God is the ultimate source of all wisdom and truth, we encourage the free development of science and all other forms of intellectual inquiry.

5) That clergy and laity exercise their civic responsibility to monitor the work of state legislatures, taking care that any discussion of proposed "creation-science" legislation include educational and constitutional questions, and affirming that such legislation is a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

6) That informed persons, including clergy and laity, in each community monitor the work of local school boards and state departments of education, so that issues of 'creation-science" may be discussed fully and openly if and when they come to their agendas. In communities being divided by the creationism controversy, we ask our people to be both a source of reconciliation and a community of support for those who oppose efforts to present creationism as a science.

7) That concerned educators and citizens work with teachers to support their efforts to teach their disciplines with integrity, rather than omit subjects such as evolution as a way of avoiding controversy.

9) That the church renew efforts to understand and relate to science and technology, not only to comprehend and respond to issues of controversy, but also to discover new ways of appreciating and expressing God's creative and redeeming activity.

IV. For Further Reading

Ronald S. Cole Turner, An Unavoidable Challenge: Our Church in an Age of Science and Technology, a Foundation Paper on science and technology as a lifelong issue for education, available from the Division of Education and Publication, UCBHM, Cleveland.

Langdon Gilkey, Creationism on Trial: Evolution & God at Little Rock, Harper & Row, 1985.

Betty McCollister, ed., Voices for Evolution, the National Center for Science Education, Inc. (P.O. Box 9477, Berkeley, CA 94709

October 1992 (This statement supercedes the 1983 statement printed in the first edition of Voices for Evolution)

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