John Richardson takes the heat out of the recent squabble over creationism and intelligent design

We all know the situation. The local church decides to change something – the seating or the colour of the carpets – and suddenly everyone has an opinion, especially those who never darken the doors from one carol service to the next.

That is rather how it feels over the issue of ‘creationism,’ which sparked several headlines a couple of months ago. Like so many things, the debate in this country is a faint echo of a rather different debate taking place across the Atlantic. In the United States, however, the picture is complicated by the way the separation of church from state is enshrined in the Constitution and interpreted by the courts. Consequently, when a Pennsylvania school board was challenged for allowing ‘Intelligent Design’ theory to be taught as an alternative to Darwinian evolution, one of the campaigning groups called itself Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

On hearing the judge’s ruling against the school board, their spokesman declared, ‘We have a federal judge ruling that intelligent design is in fact non-science and that it is religion’ – a conclusion which is itself clearly fallacious, since there is no necessary reason why, even if the universe is designed by an intelligence, that intelligence should be the object of any religious sentiment. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that since the Scopes ‘Monkey Trial’ in 1925 and the mythology created around that incident by the play Inherit the Wind, teaching about evolution in American schools touches a national nerve which is not well-understood in our own culture.

It may be for exactly this reason, however, that a certain intemperance has entered the discussion here. As an American phenomenon, creationists are placed on a par with the National Rifle Association as a peculiar example of cultural lunacy (and with much the same misunderstanding of the constitutional undercurrents). And this seems to have led to a Gadarene rush by some church members to dissociate themselves from creationism, without apparently realizing that all Christians are, by definition, ‘creationists’.

Each time we say the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds, we declare God to be the ‘Maker of heaven and earth’. And unless we believe that the physical universe somehow sprang into being other than by God’s will, we must take that statement pretty much at face value.

Of course, this does not commit us to being ‘six-day’ creationists. In this regard, we should surely take note of the words of St Augustine: ‘Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics.’ (On the Literal Meaning of Genesis)

At the same time, however, we would be equally wise to recognize not only the limitations of ‘science’ so-called, but the fallibilities of scientists. In Life’s Solution (CUP, 2003), Simon Morris complains that ‘their own understanding of theology is a combination of ignorance and derision, philosophically limp, drawing on clichés, and happily fuelled by the idiocies of the so-called scientific creationists. It seldom seems to strike the ultra-Darwinists that theology might have its own richness and subtleties, and might…actually tell us things about the world that are not only to our real advantage, but will never be revealed by science.’

In matters touching on religion, emotion is never far away. Perhaps the crucial difference between the practitioners of religion and the merely opinionated is that the former generally realize this.