The Day Creationism Died

It was January 5, 1982, the day United States District Court Judge William R. Overton issued his memorandum opinion in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education. Plaintiffs challenged an Arkansas statute that required Arkansas public schools to “give balanced treatment to creation-science and evolution-science.” The Court found that “creation science has no scientific merit or educational value as science” and that “the only real effect of Act 590 [the Arkansas statute] is the advancement of religion.” As such, it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and was struck down as unconstitutional. Langdon Gilkey, a theologian who testified at the trial as an expert witness for the plaintiffs, provided an account of the trial in his book Creationism on Trial: Evolution and God at Little Rock (Winston Press, 1985).

Gilkey’s account of the trial and his insightful discussion of the scientific, religious, and theological issues it raised is helpful for Latter-day Saints trying to understand the LDS position on Creationism or, more accurately, the absence of a specific LDS position on Creationism. The first point to stress, as Gilkey is at pains to point out in the book, is that the trial was not a science versus religion contest: there were scientists on both sides of the case, and the plaintiffs included a dozen Christian ministers from a variety of denominations. The problem with Creationism as narrowly defined is that if it is science, it is bad science (which is why scientists and biology teachers oppose laws like the Arkansas statute); and if it is religion, it is bad religion (which is why many Christian ministers oppose such laws). Bad science and bad religion: Creationism certainly has little to offer modern Latter-day Saints.

The second point Gilkey makes broadens that first point. He claims that

at least since the beginning of the twentieth century, the leadership of the mainline churches and synagogues … has been well aware that scientific theories of origins do not conflict with the religious belief in creation, and all have recognized that a person can be a believing Christian or Jew and at the same time a student of the latest geological and evolutionary theories.

The problem, Gilkey continues, is that “the wider public, both those who attend church and those who do not, remains apparently quite unaware that there is no longer any such conflict between science and religion, between evolution and Genesis.” I think that historically the LDS problem went deeper, as some LDS leaders (as well as the general membership) embraced and even taught the popular form of Creationism as an essential part of the LDS gospel. But present LDS leaders do not teach narrow Creationism, and the flourishing science departments at BYU make it clear the Church does not oppose science or endorse the false science-religion conflict thesis.

A third and more general point is the commendably broad view that Gilkey takes toward the whole issue. As a theologian, he opposes what he calls “the establishment of science” as vigorously as he opposes teaching Creationism in public schools. He supports the rights of believers in a free society to believe whatever they choose and teach whatever they choose in their churches (including Creationism) while at the same time encouraging a more informed and productive approach to science, religion, and the relation between the two. That seems like the right approach to me. And I hope that’s the direction we as a church are moving in.

22 comments for “The Day Creationism Died

  1. Dave, I am rather troubled by this sentence: “Creationism certainly has little to offer modern Latter-day Saints.” The Bible describes a process of creation, with God as creator. The Book of Moses and Book of Abraham offer similar descriptions. If creationism is the belief or teaching that God created the heavens and the Earth, which is what the plain meaning of the term would seem to be, then it is an extremely important teaching for Latter-day Saints.

    Were you perhaps referring to creation-science, when you used the word “Creationism”? If so, you really should use a different word, or if you feel strongly about your choice of words, you should offer an explicit definition of “Creationism.” What do you mean by “Creationism” with a capital “C”?

  2. Ben H, my “Creationism as narrowly defined” is equivalent to “creation science.” Broadly defined would be something like Creation, and if that is how one uses the term, almost all Christians or theists will affirm it in some form or another. A problem pointed out by both Gilkey and the judge in the case was that the Arkansas statue, and narrow Creationism in general, posits only two options: evolution or a form of narrow Creationism. Obviously, there are many other views of Creation than just creation science.

  3. Yes, I agree. Creationism (to the extent that it is defined as the counterargument to evolution, which is well implied in the OP, as opposed to a simple belief that God created the world) has little to offer LDS people. Belief in evolution and belief in a God who is an active creator aren’t mutually exclusive. I can believe that God is the originator of all matter and the processes through which matter interacts and at the same time believe that evolution was a result of this grand creation.

    But the trends in the Creationist movement are such that it tries to misrepresent the theory of evolution as if it lacks evidence and is ultimately an unproven speculation, and that the idea that God created humans directly without evolving them from non-human species is valid. Of course the Creationists are dead wrong. As the OP mentions, they resort to bad science (there is mounds of evidence that living organisms have evolved over time and continue to evolve, which Creationists turn a blind eye towards; evolution is not simply ‘faith-based’ as they try to claim) and bad religion (true religion isn’t bound to the literalness of some traditional pious myth, but is an effective way of individual engagement with the material and living world).

  4. I think the term “Creationism” has been adopted by anti-evolutionists to such an extent that it no longer refers to just the creation of the diversity of life, but unfortunately also refers to the manner of that creation.

    The tactic of trying to get Creationism and Creation “Science” into public schools failed, and so evolved into “Intelligent Design.” The Utah Legislature had their own version of this anti-evolution stuff a few years back, which they called “Divine Design.” I was finishing up a biology teaching program in Utah, and this anti-evolution bill would have had a huge impact on what I would be teaching. It passed the Senate but then Governor Huntsman promised to veto it if it got to him. It ended up failing in the House.

    Interestingly enough, the National Center for Science Education, which closely follows this kind of legislation, asked those who were concerned about the legislation to get in touch with a BYU biology professor in order to help fight the bill, while also stating that students are often taught some form of Creationism in LDS seminary classes.

    I know evolution was certainly downplayed in my honors and A.P. biology classes in Utah, and it was certainly disparaged in my Utah seminary classes. Thank goodness for the science departments at BYU.

  5. Would that it were so. Creationism is like the blob in the horror films: it just keeps coming back to life. It threatens scientific progress, risks dumbing down our nation, and Mormons should be as concerned about this as anyone. Our God is eternal which means he is not threatened by evolutionary thought or such things as age of the earth. Creation, creationism, creation whatever you call it is not science, never was science and never will be science.

  6. Here in TN, they have taken steps though new legislation to allow creationism back into the classroom. This law turns the clock back nearly 100 years here in the seemingly unprogressive South and is simply embarrassing. There is no argument against the Theory of Evolution other than that of religious doctrine. The Monkey Law only opens the door for fanatic Christianity to creep its way back into our classrooms. You can see my visual response as a Tennessean to this absurd law on my artist’s blog at with some evolutionary art and a little bit of simple logic.

  7. Of course, we are eager in this thread to bash creationists for assuming that creation and evolution are incompatible, but happy to leave unmentioned the way that evolution is routinely used to attack belief in God. If evolution were consistently presented as something that poses no problem for traditional theism, I suspect we would get a very different response from creationists. The post presents these issues as though the case is clear-cut on several loaded and controversial points. If things are all so clear, then what is the need for a post? If they are not, then a post that treats all the key issues as settled is not helpful.

    For now, let me just explicitly challenge one cluster of points. Dave, you say that “the flourishing science departments at BYU make it clear the Church does not oppose science or endorse the false science-religion conflict thesis.” There are several problems with this statement. First, the presence or absence of X, Y, or Z, at BYU tells us very little about the relationship between X, Y, and Z, and church doctrine. The fact that a certain BYU professor merrily teaches repugnant, racist ideas for years, for instance, in no way implies that the church endorses those ideas. Similarly, a course on Marxist, or Platonic, or Buddhist thought, in no way implies that the church endorses Marxist or Platonic or Buddhist ideas or teachings. The fact that caffeinated sodas are or are not available in BYU vending machines or eateries says nothing reliable about the church position on caffeinated soda.

    Second, the fact (which I embrace as a fact) that the church does not regard science as opposed to religion does not imply a position regarding any particular scientific claim. Science as an activity is a matter of forming, testing, and criticizing theories, so endorsing science as an activity is just as much an endorsement of challenging theories as it is of maintaining them. The fact that BYU has a flourishing physics department does not mean that when someone claims to have achieved cold fusion, the church believes in cold fusion. The fact that BYU scientists achieve professional success in atmospheric science does not imply that the church takes any position for or against theories of global warming or climate change. And the presence of a flourishing biology department does not imply anything about the relationship between evolutionary theory and theology.

    I could go on and on. I don’t expect you to actually establish any of the controversial points you raise in this post, Dave, but I object to a post that somnolently announces, without argument, that all these things are settled.

  8. “And the presence of a flourishing biology department does not imply anything about the relationship between evolutionary theory and theology.”

    Sure it does. The fact that the school owned and operated by the LDS church not only teaches evolution in biology courses, but has entire courses on evolution where evolution is taught as fact, and in fact has a graduate program in Evolutionary Ecology, implies that evolution and the theology of the LDS church need not be at odds with each other.

    This isn’t some rogue professor or philosophy course. This is a multitude of professors, students, and courses, all pointing in the same direction.

  9. The sheer fact that people who derive their incomes indirectly from tithing paid to the LDS church aren’t disciplined or edged out for teaching evolution says something; namely, the LDS church doesn’t believe that the theory of evolution, in spite of past leaders denouncing the theory, to inherently conflict with its religious teachings. I can’t imagine the LDS church sanctioning professors who routinely taught that the Book of Mormon was full of anachronisms or that denying gays to right to marry was unethical. Only 20 years ago the LDS church disciplined several individuals for talk of a heavenly mother. So right there we have evidence that the LDS church does closely monitor what is taught at BYU and does draw a line.

  10. Oh yes, and the fact that people have used the theory of evolution to attack the idea of God and people who believe in God doesn’t make the theory inherently anti-God. I think people who believe in evolution have by and large left creationists alone (here I’m talking mainly about part of the globe that remained capitalist post-WWII). They aren’t going around knocking on peoples’ doors trying to proselytize them and convert them to atheism or Darwin’s ideas.

    I think the best way to explain creationists’ reactions to evolution isn’t that they feel directly attacked by evolutionists (indeed they sometimes are, but I don’t think that it quite originated that way), but that the influence of evolution seeps into their congregations causing their core members to question and doubt their truth claims. The fact of the matter is that many creationists belong to organizations that derive their income and success from a more literalist interpretation on the Bible and the theory of evolution has gradually and subtly been undermining their business model, forcing their leaders to make some rather embarrassing qualifications about how literal the Bible is. Hence they have poured money into the construction of a counterargument to evolution, which is laughed at by the vast majority of scientists, but has been effective enough to keep in their flocks and make the questioners think twice before finding in evolution a legitimate reason to doubt their religious organizations. The creationist-evolution debate appears to be more of a reflection of believers trying to cling to some sort of explanation that makes themselves not have to experience a painful cognitive dissonance.

  11. Perhaps people who feel their belief in God is threatened by the concept of evolution have a limited view of the omnipotence and omniscience of God. It is natural to look for “gaps” in science as proof of divine intervention. I believe in a God of such wisdom and power that His creation is so perfect that there aren’t any seams. His creation is fully self-consistent and self-contained. The perfect order isn’t evidence of a lack of God, but rather evidence of His perfection. Not scientific evidence, mind you, but spiritual evidence. Any scientific evidence of God would again be a defect in the creation and the plan of salvation, where we are to walk by faith. But the lack of scientific evidence of God doesn’t lessen the awe, wonder, and gratitude that we can feel towards the Creator as we admire His creation.

  12. Ben H, thanks for being willing to make your points. Spot on.

    I don’t have the time or inclination this month to get into a heated discussion where people aren’t directly attacked while simultaneously being called uneducated backwoods religiously fanatical science deniers whose faith is threatened by reason.

    I’m not a “creationist” in the way this post is using the term, but I’m also not bowing at the throne of holy science. Suffice it to say I believe in science as far as it is translated correctly. Science changes and IS faith-based. (Deal.) God is constant. I’m cool with however that works out and suspect we’re about as stupid about the whole thing as most other generations have been, in our own special way.

    I’d be willing to bet the damn-sure-of-myself-that-today’s-version-of-science-whoops-the-trash-of-creation-crazies folks will be looking more foolish at the great reveal than those who just said, “God did it.” Let’s get together and compare notes.

    Even Dawkins is willing to admit that there might have been a “higher intelligence”— a generation or two removed — as long as it came about inexplicably and wasn’t called “God.” Or something. If the self-proclaimed rabid über atheist (who, apparently, isn’t aware of the meaning of that term) can go that far, maybe self-proclaimed intellectual Mormons can, too?

  13. You’re missing the point Alison, as is Ben. If science were a faith like unto organized religion, then the two would clash. But science is not faith-based. While imagination and intuition are important and indispensable parts of developing hypotheses in science, reason and evidence play just as important roles and are to be used in tandem with intuition. Science is about asking questions, making hypotheses, using evidence to back up hypotheses, and carefully defining how we know, what we can know, and what we don’t and can’t know.

    Please stop that trying to make the point that science is invalid by the fact that new discoveries are made that invalidate older theories and beliefs in science. The marvelous thing about science is that it is not bound to any sort of unquestionable tradition, but is free to question and disprove. There are no central doctrines in science. For instance heliocentrism isn’t an unquestionable theory that all scientists must accept to be considered a valid scientist, but to this day, no one has disproved it. So not everything changes as you claim; some theories stand the tests of scrutiny over time better than others.

    Religion, by contrast, is about a personal way of living. Since what constitutes the Moral, the Just, and the Good is objectively unverifiable, we have only our intuition to establish that. Religion helps us orient ourselves towards the Good. It asserts that a Good does indeed exist, but that its existence cannot be proven. Instead the Good can only be acknowledged, sensed, experienced, and lived.

  14. ” Science should be about asking questions, making hypotheses, using evidence to back up hypotheses, and carefully defining how we know, what we can know, and what we don’t and can’t know.”


    Sadly, science very much is a replacement for faith when people who don’t understand it make faith-based claims because of it. When they assume that certain things in science ARE “central doctrines” that are meant to answer questions about who we are and how we should behave.

    Religion is NOT just “a personal way of living.” That is the fallacy that so many who think they are wise make. Religion answers questions about who we are and why we are here, questions that science never can answer. Science answers how and what. The problems come when people assume they can answer one half without also seeking answers to the other half.

  15. Certainly, scientists are affected by bias and ideology, and can espouse a number of passionately stated but unsubstantiated a priori beliefs. These issues may sometimes cloud their vision. People, also try to invoke science to back up their beliefs and often claim ideology in the name of science. But science in its pure form is in no way, shape, or form faith-based for it has proven itself to be a progressive endeavor. The technological progress that humanity has achieved over the last few centuries has been a testament to that. So science really isn’t changing all the time, as Alison suggested.

    “Religion answers questions about who we are and why we are here, questions that science never can answer.”

    The definition of religion as a “way of living” encompasses having a moral purpose to life. But I will say that science can answer a lot of those questions that you posed just fine. Science can tell us what our bodies consist of and how they function. The social sciences have given us a fairly good idea about different psychological and social phenomena that drive our behavior. Science also gives us a good idea about the physical origins of humans, at least back to quite a distant point. Of course, science has its limitations. It can’t tell us the origin of all matter, time, and space. It also can’t prove the existence of the Good, the Just, the Moral, the Beautiful, etc. But we as humans know those forms exist even if we can’t pin down the exact parameters of where they are. Hence we attempt to inform ourselves of what the forms are through religion, be it simply personal religion or organized and collective. Humans are religious animals.

    The problem is when religion is so firmly rooted in a tradition (i.e. we humans literally sprang from Adam & Eve 6,000 years ago) that it tries to stamp out anything that challenges those notions. That’s not true religion. That’s none other than arrogant confirmation bias.

  16. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Ben H (#7), I think the last paragraph of my post makes it clear Gilkey did not endorse using evolution or science to bash religion. I don’t either. That is a separate issue from opposing statutes requiring the teaching of Creationism or creation science in schools (wrong for a variety of reasons) or the merits of Creationism or creation science compared to other theological approaches to God’s relation to the universe.

    I am inclined to think the strong science departments at BYU say something about LDS support for science because there are accounts of policy disagreements (some opposed teaching evolution) but the decision was to support it. With the Bott episode, it was made very clear teaching those ideas was unacceptable and that was expressly stated.

  17. I think it helps to remember that the groups at the extremes — scientists and sympathizers who use science to bash religion and believers who use religion to bash science — perpetuate the conflict thesis (that religion and science are locked in conflict). They do this to furtherr their own agendas. But historians of science and religion are pretty much agreed that the conflict model is simply wrongheaded. It misrepresents history and the facts. Gilkey emphasizes this in his book, as do many other scholars in their work. The discussion we should be having (including within the Church) is how science can inform religion and vice versa. Because some prior and perhaps current LDS leaders still embrace the conflict model (and most CES folks) we can’t have that discussion within the Church yet. But that is the right discussion to have and we will get there sooner or later.

  18. Tim,
    I can tell you for sure that evolution was not downplayed in any of my Biology classes in Utah, and was not disparaged in any of my seminary classes. I asked my siblings and their spouses, and all of them have said likewise.

  19. For my sister, evolution was mocked in her Old Testament seminary class – including in the course materials. In her health class at BYU (this was around 1996) the instructor said no one who believes in God can support the idea of evolution.

  20. Let’s see–Utah seminary–yep (just once I remember, although if I remember correctly we were the year that skipped the Old Testament and did something else twice–I imagine I may have gotten even more anti-evolution stuff had we done the Old Testament). In Utah public school biology classes, we spent maybe a week or two on it when, according to the curriculum guidelines, it should’ve been almost two months. And that was two different biology classes and two different teachers…

    At BYU, it was dismissed in one of my GE classes (World Civilizations, or something like that). A good friend of mine at BYU had a religion professor who gave her a big stack of Creationist-type garbage–fortunately my religion professors were more professional, for the most part–but I do remember one popular one who mentioned evolution once or twice with disdain.

    On the other hand, I took a non-biology AP science class my senior year of high school, and my teacher had a biology degree from BYU and was, at the time, a bishop in his ward. For some reason we spent a day or two talking about evolution, and that short time–where I realized that I could believe in evolution and still be a faithful member of the church–was more useful to my accepting of, and ultimately understanding of, evolution than anything else. The biology program at BYU continued to strengthen that, to the point where I aced the Evo/Eco section of the Biology GRE (unfortunately I performed below average on the other two sections).

  21. Dave, I think the status quo at BYU regarding the study of evolution is suggestive that the leadership think evolutionary theory can be compatible with LDS beliefs and scriptures. However, it is no more than suggestive, and we need to be very careful about triumphalistically reading the strength of the suggestion after the Randy Bott problem has been brought to light and addressed. The fact is, Randy Bott was teaching those ideas for decades, with no serious effort by the institution to correct them. And I suspect if you go back to the 90s you would have found he wasn’t the only one teaching that sort of thing. So, a rather similar argument to the one you are making about evolution could have been made regarding his ideas, up until a year ago. If you don’t want to accept the conclusion of that argument, you should be skeptical of the one you are making, too. Or did your argument only become logically valid since May 2012?

    Personally, I think it’s clear that there are a lot of details not spelled out in the scriptural accounts of creation, and presumably there are a number of ways one could imagine those details getting filled in, that are consistent with what is given. The “days” of creation could have been quite a lot longer than 24 hours. God might have created various life forms through an indirect process. Maybe he messed around a lot along the way, experimented, wiped out a lot of species, or let them die out in the course of events. Maybe he set forces in motion which to some extent took their own course. A prolonged and somewhat indirect process of creation is compatible with the fossil record and DNA evidence. But what is the theory of evolution you are saying is compatible with our beliefs?

    As I understand it, the central idea of Darwinian evolution is that the diverse and complex life forms we see today came to exist through a random process. Genes mutated, molecules rearranged and recombined, and “successful” new forms survived. Random is the opposite of intentional. If creation is intentional, then evolution in this sense directly contradicts creation. I don’t see any serious way to read LDS scriptures that doesn’t include creation’s being an intentional process.

    Is the idea that life came about through a random process part of what you mean by “evolution”? If not, what do you mean, and what would you suggest doing with that idea, which is so commonly associated with it?

  22. One of the unfortunate aspects of how the interaction between science and religion is reported in the news media is that most reporters have little education in either science or religion, and the standard templates used by reporters require strong conflict and lots of ad hominem commentary, because even if the reporters could thoughtfully analyze the arguments, most do not expect that their audience (on YouTube as much as in written stories) could follow it, because the reporters’ ignorance is representative of the public. Most stories are akin to sports reporting: the out of town team plays dirty, bribes the referees, and is “desperate” because they know that they would lose in a fair fight.

    The most extreme and strident voices tend to get more coverage. Thus, Dr. Richard Dawkins is like the Dennis Rodman of evolutionary biologists, who bites the heads off religious believers even if they are fellow evolutionary biologists like textbook author Kenneth Miller. The people who run theme parks showing dinosaurs drowning because they won’t fit on Noah’s Ark are at the other end of the spectrum, and they always promise a great show of Nacho Libre style wrestling against the atheist team. The extremist teams are notorious for having little grasp on the details.of the other team’s specialty.

    Most of the audience are in the middle, where the last time they read a full chapter of the Bible and thea last time they read a full chapter of a serious science book cannot be recalled. They tend to let other people do the hard thinking. That includes letting a judge, with no particular expertise in either science or religion, tell them which of two caricatures should be enforced as the conventional wisdom adopted by government, and taught as such in public schools.

    This framing of science v. Religion debates treats science as if it is a body of orthodox, unassailable knowledge, which cannot be criticized without dire consequences to the heretics. The people on the Creationist extreme team already claim that status for their own views, even though they are innovations no older than Darwin’s Origin of Species.

    The vast majority of verbiage in this contrived contest has no more importance than most of the color commentary about sports events. The public is entertained, their emotions stirred, feeling either triumph or vowing revenge in a rematch. Few people make the investment of intellectual effort to learn enough science and enough religion to understand the issues, and to recognize what are not issues.

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