"Creation versus Evolution": Is This a Real Issue?

School boards in an uproar. Parents protective of their children. Teachers defensive. Students confused. The furore over creation versus evolution has been going on for almost a century and a half since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859).

Recently, Gallup reported that a quarter of Canadians continue to believe that God created human beings in our present form within the last 10,000 years and referred to that belief as “creationism.” And more than a third of Canadians think that creationism should be taught in schools.

Uh, oh.

The crucial thing to get straight here is that the apparent battle of “creation versus evolution” is, in most respects, nonsense.

Belief in creation means simply to believe that a deity, or several deities, brought the cosmos into being. It is a core belief of many religions: Judaism, Christianiy, and Islam, of course, but also certain varieties of Hinduism and Buddhism and of tribal religions around the world. That God (or the gods) created the world is what ought to be meant by “creation” and “creationism.”

How God (or the gods) did this creating is the open, scientific question.

Nowadays, however, many people assume that belief in creation (= “creationism”) means a very particular set of beliefs: that the Biblical God created the world in six 24-hour days; that the earth is less than 10,000 years old; and that the planet appears older because a global flood in Noah’s time laid down the deep layers of sediment that evolutionists think took billions of years to accumulate.

These beliefs are not, in fact, traditional Christian beliefs, but a particular, and recent, variety of Christian thought, properly known as “creation science” or “scientific creationism.” Creation science was popularized in a 1923 book called The New Geology by amateur U.S. scientist George McCready Price. A Seventh-Day Adventist, Price learned from Adventism’s founder Ellen G. White that God had revealed to her that Noah’s flood was responsible for the fossil record.

Price didn’t influence the popular mind much, however. It remained for a 1961 book called The Genesis Flood, largely an academic dressing-up of Price’s work by engineer Henry Morris and theologian John Whitcomb, to disseminate the creation science scheme. A variety of organizations (such as the Institute for Creation Research in Texas) have so energetically propagated these ideas that some polls show they are believed by more than 40 per cent of the American population and, as Gallup recently confirmed, by a considerable fraction of Canadians.

This version of creation, however, is but one of four different understandings of creation held by Bible-believing, church-going Christians.

The second popular view among conservative Protestants has been that there was a huge interval between an original creation described in Genesis 1:1 and the “formless and void” earth described in Genesis 1:2, out of which God then created the present world. This “gap theory” was promulgated by the Scofield Reference Bible (1909) and has since been accepted by millions of Christians the world over.

A third version understands the six “days” of creation to be metaphors describing “ages” of time, any of which might have been millions of years long. This was the view of McGill University’s distinguished scientist Sir J.W. Dawson in Darwin’s day. More surprisingly, it was also the view of William Jennings Bryan, the famous defender of creation at the Scopes “Monkey” Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925.

Finally, there are those Christians who believe that God used (and uses) the process of evolution. Actually, even many creation science people believe God used evolution to produce minor changes within species (so-called micro-evolution) but intervened directly to produce each significantly new form of life. Belief in micro-evolution is compatible also with the “day/age” theory such that minor evolution takes place during the long ages of the latter creation “days” when life emerges on the planet.

Some Christians restrict God’s special intervention, however, to the creation of humankind. Such believers feel that there are key theological reasons to maintain belief in a particular creation of a first (fully) human pair, Adam and Eve, whose transgression helps explain the subsequent history of humankind and particularly of God’s economy of redemption. Without an actual Adam and Eve, so this theo-logic goes, much of the Bible’s teaching about sin and salvation doesn’t make (as much) sense (Gen. 3; Rom. 5; I Cor. 15).

So-called Intelligent Design (ID) is compatible with either of these last two views. ID basically says that some natural phenomena are best explained—particularly because of their complexity and what we might call the interdependent complexity of their components, but perhaps also because there is no other way to explain the appearance of some new thing—by positing the direct creative action of an intelligent designer.

And some Christians believe in full-fledged “theistic evolution”: that God used evolution to produce all life on earth.

Thus the Genesis account is seen by many believers to be God’s Word telling us crucial truths, but it is highly figurative about the mechanics of creation. Its message is not about how God created the world, but that the world is an ordered and interdependent whole; that human beings are to care for the earth as gardeners care for a garden; and especially that it was God, not impersonal processes or other deities, that brought all else into being

There are only two respects, therefore, in which “creation versus evolution” makes sense. First, when certain Christians—and pollsters!—insist that “creation” or “creationism” must mean “creation science” and thus any divine use of (macro-)evolution is ruled out of the definition, then, yes, it makes a certain, very particular and quite restricted, sense. But it’s very unfortunate, even misleading, since that definition excludes a very large number of Christians who believe in God the Creator.

Second, “creation versus evolution” makes sense from the other extreme: when certain evolutionists insist that “evolution” must mean only what Darwin thought it meant, namely naturalistic or atheistic evolution. For then, of course, “creation versus evolution” really amounts to “theism versus atheism.” Put this way, however, we should recognize that we are dealing now with a religious and philosophical issue, not a scientific one. Science cannot, in the nature of the case, rule out God as somehow supervising evolutionary processes.

To be sure, science might conclude that “we have no need of the hypothesis” that God created the world (Laplace). We should be honest enough and knowledgeable enough to recognize, even as scientific laypersons (among which I, of course, must be numbered) that science is a long way from proving that we don’t need such a hypothesis—whether regarding the origin of the universe (the “something from nothing” problem); or the immensely improbable cosmological “fine tuning” necessary for life on Earth; or the currently inexplicable arising of multicellular organisms; or the persistent problem (noted by Darwin himself) of the absence of “transitional forms” in the fossil record (the many “missing links”); and so on. It may not be so preposterous, that is, to believe in a “God of the gaps” when the gaps look more like canyons.

Still, maybe evolution, theistic or otherwise, can explain all these things–as Christian Francis Collins believes just as firmly as atheist Richard Dawkins believes. But we must allow that evolution has not yet done so. And that’s a pretty important set of allowances to make—as the ID proponents, as well as the creation science people, rightly insist. Indeed, the late evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould himself agreed, sufficiently so that he and Niles Eldredge postulated “punctuated equilibrium” as a theory to explain the last problem on that list. The creation science and ID people cannot be dismissed as wrong about everything!—and their opponents would do well to heed their criticisms, even if they hate their alternative theories.

So what should we do about the vexed questions about origins and evolution?

First, we should teach science as a method, as an adventure of discovery and debate, not as a dull, fixed set of indubitable facts to be indoctrinated. We should teach students what science really is. As the late Neil Postman pointed out, and he was no friend of theism or Intelligent Design, what better opportunity could textbook writers and teachers have to demonstrate how science actually works than to plunge students into a controversy like this one?

Second, we ought to keep clear what is science and what is religion. When scientific creationists move beyond positing some vague supernatural force behind the Big Bang (a circumspection ID proponents try to maintain), to proclaiming Jesus Christ as Saviour from sin, then boundaries have been transgressed. Exactly in the same way, however, when certain notorious scientists start saying that science teaches atheism, then we’re not talking about science anymore.

Third, let’s all appreciate that human beings don’t know everything about anything. Scientific creationists sometimes sound as if they know exactly what the Bible says, and so they know how science must work out. But no one knows for certain just what Genesis 1 and 2 really say about the origins of the world. We can only give interpretation our best shot and try to stay open to improving our interpretation in the light of fresh insight or evidence.

Similarly, some scientists sound as if they know exactly what the natural record says, and so they know how religion and philosophy must work out. But no one knows for certain how life really began and developed on our planet: we can only give interpretation our best shot and try to stay open to improving our interpretation in the light of fresh insight or evidence. This is the way both theology and science have proceeded historically, and this is the way they ought to be conducted and taught today.

Darwin’s main defender–his “bulldog”–T. H. Huxley, coined the term “agnosticism” to describe his lack of certainty about God’s existence. A little agnosticism, or at least a little humility, about our science as well as our theology would help us all make our way better through this needlessly polarizing controversy over what is fundamentally a false choice, “creation versus evolution.”

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).