CREATIONISM IS NOT DEAD
by Frederick Edwords
In the second half of 1987 and the first half of 1988,
"scientific" creationists suffered three major court defeats in a
row, their most significant legal losses in a battle that has
raged continuously since 1964. First, they lost their battle in
defence of the Louisiana "equal time for creationism" law when the
U.S. Supreme Court voted 7-2 against them in June of 1987.
Second, Pat Robertson's National Legal Foundation decided to cut
its losses by intentionally missing its December 1987 deadline for
filing its appeal of the Eleventh Circuit Court's ruling against
Judge W. Brevard Hand's ban of forty-four "secular humanist"
textbooks in Alabama. And, third, the U.S. Supreme Court refused
in February of 1988 to hear the Tennessee Mozert case, thereby
upholding a lower court ruling against a group of fundamentalist
parents who wanted alternative textbooks for their children.
You'd think then, that with all this, creationism would by
now be a dead issue in America's public schools. But it hasn't
left us yet, and here's why.
Right after the Supreme Court's ruling in the Louisiana case,
creationist attorney Wendell Bird issued a press release that
. . . the Court Ruling was narrow and did not say that
teaching creation-science is necessarily unconstitutional if
adopted for a secular purpose. In fact, the Court said the
"Teaching a variety of scientific theories about the
origins of humankind to school children might be validly
done with the clear secular intent of enhancing the
effectiveness of science instruction."
The Supreme Court recognized that teachers "already possess"
a flexibility . . . to supplant the present science
curriculum with the presentation of theories, besides
evolution, about the origin of life, and are "free to teach
any and all facets of this subject" of "all scientific
theories about the origins of humankind."
From this, attorney Bird concluded:
The majority opinion leaves open at least two alternatives
. . . (1) the right of teachers to teach "a variety of
scientific theories" and to bring Scopes-type lawsuits if
punished or prohibited, and (2) the right of schools, school
districts, and perhaps legislatures to encourage or require
teaching of "all scientific theories . . . about origins."
That Bird's hopeful view of the future wasn't just so much
hot air to make his supporters feel better was made clear in March
of 1988 when an Illinois social studies teacher sued his school
district and superintendent in federal court for opposing his
"right" to teach creationism. He claimed that his freedom of
speech was violated. And even though he ultimately failed to win
the day, the Institute for Creation Research and other leading
anti-evolution organizations continue to promote such "scopes
trial in reverse" test cases by encouraging existing Christian
fundamentalist teachers to present arguments against evolution in
their science classes. And not only are the teachers responding
favorably to this appeal, there is evidence that they were
cooperating even before being asked!
In 1986 Dr. Michael Zimmerman, professor of biology at
Oberlin College in Ohio, conducted a survey of high school biology
teachers in his state. Not only did he find that 37.6% of the
teachers responding favored teaching creationism in public schools
(25% favored doing it in the science classroom), but he
discovered that creationism was actually being taught in 19% of
the public high school biology courses. When he added data that
indicated creationism was being taught in 40% of such courses in
non-sectarian, private schools and in 67% of such courses
in sectarian schools, he found that 22% of all Ohio high school
students were studying creationism in the science classroom!
Zimmerman also found that when teachers offer creationism,
they devote less time to material on evolution. As a result, an
average of only 7.5 class periods are were devoted in 1986 to
evolution, as compared to 10 class periods in 1949. In the light
of this, it is small wonder that U.S. high school students
continue to come out on the bottom of the list in biology in
comparisons of industrialized nations. Students in the major
European and Asian countries tend to score much higher.
And this carries over to college. According to a November
1986 poll of liberal arts majors, conducted by Francis Harrold,
professor of archaeology at the University of Texas, 30% of
college students believe that dinosaurs and humans lived at the
same time! (We are witnessing the rise of what might be called
"the Flintstone generation.") To provide a little perspective,
one article reporting the story opened with the sentence, "The
good news is that only 15 percent of 1,000 college students polled
in three states said they had faith in astrology."
So, despite a long line of court victories against
creationism, creationist ideas are gaining in acceptance among the
general population. Furthermore, creationists don't recognize
defeat. They just regroup and launch another offensive.
A fairly recent development in this controversy is the
reentry of Paul Ellwanger into the fray. In case the name doesn't
ring any bells with you, he is the respiratory therapist from the
South who drafted the "model creationism bill" that became the
basis of the "equal time" laws passed in Arkansas and Louisiana
before the courts overturned them. Well, now he has a new "model
bill," called the "Uniform Origins Policy," that he believes will
get around the constitutional problems of the old one. And he's
encouraging creationists everywhere to seek its passage both as
state legislation and as a local school board resolution.
Ellwanger also offers a "powerful" 19-page paper "containing
36 easily understood scientific weaknesses of evolution" which he
feels should accompany the Uniform Origins Policy. This
combination, he believes, "would make crystal clear to
[legislators] exactly why this Policy is urgently needed in our
The Policy itself calls for "disclosure of relevant
scientific information that makes classroom presentations more
objective by including both the strengths and weaknesses of
concepts on origins presented by the public school teacher or
textbook." On the face of it, this doesn't sound too threatening.
It even sounds laudable, which could make the Policy popular.
However, keep in mind that there is no such subject matter as
"origins" except in the lore of creationism. Since creationists
consider evolution to be an "origins" theory, this Policy would
require that pseudoscientific anti-evolutionism be presented every
time evolution is discussed. And fundamentalist teachers who use
class time to actively "debunk" evolution would be protected under
the Policy's provision that no teacher "acting in good faith to
carry out the intent and provisions of this Policy" could be fired
The only plus would be that staunchly pro-evolution teachers
could devote considerable class time to debunking creationism.
But this is scant consolation when one realizes that few teachers
will want to brave criticism from fundamentalist parent groups in
a conservative political climate. When it comes to taking a
stand, it will more often be fundamentalist teachers who enter the
lists. Most of the rest will quietly avoid the subject of
evolution altogether, which is how creationists today continually
succeed in suppressing evolution even when the courts are against
them. They make evolution "controversial" and thus win by
"Evolution," in fact, has become a dirty word. A headline
over an article covering Alabama's science curriculum declared,
"New science curriculum dodges the 'E' word." That says it all.
And this Alabama science curriculum, which will be in effect
into 1994, is worth noting. The word "evolution" appears nowhere
in it. Sometimes the term "species modification" is used as a
substitute, which gets the state down to some serious waffling.
Such a term can easily be interpreted to mean mere changes within
an existing species (which creationists accept) rather than the
replacement of old species by new ones.
Furthermore, when this science curriculum was approved in the
late 1980s, local school superintendents were notified in an
official letter that teachers may supplement the curriculum with
various theories of the origin of life. That opened the door to
the introduction of creationism. As a result, we continue to hear
from Alabama's creationists.
And so it goes. Even with an astonishing array of victories
chalked up by the evolution side, creationism still flourishes and
grows. Whether the newspapers daily report it or not, the
creation-evolution controversy rages on. Creationism is not dead.
It is not even dying. What is dying is American science
education. We are graduating a generation of scientific
illiterates who will be the voters of tomorrow. It is they who
will determine how we fare in international technological
competition. And, given that the high stakes issue of the future
could be biotechnology, we may be moving toward a particularly
This is the updated text of a paper that, since 1988, has been
presented in slightly varied forms both orally in public forums
and in print in local and national periodicals. Its author,
Frederick Edwords, is the executive director of the American
Humanist Association and founder and former editor of
(C) Copyright 1994 and 1988 by Frederick Edwords
Permission to reproduce this material in toto in electronic or
printout form is hereby granted free of charge by the copyright
holder. Free permission to reprint the essay is granted to
nonprofit Humanist and Freethought publications. All others must
secure advance permission of the author through the American
Humanist Association, which can be contacted at the address at the
end of this file.
For further information on how you can become active in the effort
to counter the effects of "scientific" creationism, please contact
NATIONAL CENTER FOR SCIENCE EDUCATION
PO BOX 9477
BERKELEY CA 94710-0477
Phone: (510) 526-1674
Since 1977, the American Humanist Association has been active in
the defense of church-state separation specifically applied to the
creation-evolution controversy. For more information, please
AMERICAN HUMANIST ASSOCIATION
PO BOX 1188
AMHERST NY 14226-7188