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The evolution of creationism.



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Perspective

Friday 2 December 2005

Nathan Zamprogno, social commentator

 

The Evolution of Creationism  

 

The debate about humanity's Origins is resurgent. Our Federal Education minister has given qualified endorsement [since withdrawn] to the teaching of Intelligent Design. In the United States, (where else?), Intelligent Design is back in the Courts, and the Vatican has come out strongly to attack Intelligent Design as being both bad science and bad theology. What's going on? 

 

Some say Intelligent Design merely peddles old arguments with a new vocabulary, or that they abuse a sense of "fair play" by insisting on "teaching the controversy". So is "Intelligent Design", Intelligently Designed? 

 

I work in an environment that is a crucible for such questions, at a large Christian, non-denominational school west of Sydney. We do not teach literal 6-day, 6-thousand year ago Creationism, although our acceptance of an "intelligent designer" in the Universe is axiomatic. Our school policy says, in part 

"The balance of physical evidence does not appear to support a young earth. We do not believe that scripture helps us to decide how old the earth is". 

 

At first glance, Intelligent Design, without the stigmas and inconsistencies of Young Earth Creationism, seems like a good fit for what we and many other Christian Schools teach. So what's the problem? 

 

Intelligent Design advocates claim they have proof that certain mechanisms could never evolve into the form we see today if only undirected, natural processes were at work, even if given millions of years. Common examples quoted include the bacterial flagellum, the immune system, or the vertebrate eye. In pure "ID", Natural Selection and billion-year timescales are readily accepted, although the identity of the putative "Intelligent Designer" is left for the listener to speculate. There are a lot of people who start winking and nudging at you with their Bibles when that point comes up. 

 

Young Earth Creationism holds that not only was the Judeo-Christian God Yahweh responsible for the Universe, but that it all happened in six days, 6000 years ago. It also asserts there were vegetarian Tyrannosaurs and funnel web spiders in the Garden of Eden, and that once, two koalas swam to Australia from Turkey, without eating along the way, to establish Australia's breeding population. 

 

Such Young Earth Creationists have done a lot of harm to the Christian cause when they torture both the Bible and Science to evangelise. Smart, spiritually questing people who might respond to the message of the Gospel tend to get the giggles when they're told that most of modern biology, geology and astronomy is a monstrous humanist conspiracy that leads to homosexuality, communism, terrorism and dancing.  

 

And it's not a new problem. St Augustine had the gist 1600 years ago when he said "Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth. But 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; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn." 

 

Young Earthers are the big losers in the emergence of Intelligent Design because sensible debate has moved beyond their specious arguments forever. Intelligent Design has eaten their demographic whole. But although Intelligent Design is comparatively benign, to see its danger, consider history, replete with pitfalls when we misuse Science as a pillar for Faith. 

 

The geocentricity of the universe was once held as proof of our special place in creation. Then came Galileo. The notion of biological "vitalism" has yielded to Biochemistry. Calvinists who found solace in Newton's description of a clockwork, deterministic universe, blanched at the revelations of Quantum theory. 

 

These theories were regarded as self-evident, even Scriptural in their day. The temptation, then as now, is to invoke the "God of the Gaps" as a proof for faith. But when scientific knowledge advances, those counselled into such a foundation, founder. 

Perhaps the last word belongs to old Charlie Darwin himself, who confided to a supporter: "I cannot be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance.”