Local Activists Face Off in Creationism Debate

With the battle over teaching evolution in America’s schools erupting yet again, two Berkeley activists stand at the vanguard of the opposing sides on the legal, legislative, and mass media battlefields of the nation.

At the forefront of the fight to reinstate the image of a divinely created humanity in public school textbooks and the public imagination stands Phillip Johnson, emeritus professor of law at UC Berkeley. Speaking of that nationwide effort, Johnson says, “My fingerprints are on it.”

Leading the effort to keep creationism out of public schools is Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist and Berkeley resident.

Scott has headed the Oakland-based National Center for Science Education since 1987, the year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state laws mandating textbooks give creationism equal time with evolution. Four years later, Johnson entered the fray with the first in a series of anti-Darwinian books. With Darwin on Trial—“which,” he says, “has sold a few hundred thousand copies and has been translated into a few languages”—the Berkeley legal scholar established himself as the leading advocate of what he calls Intelligent Design.

Johnson’s efforts are being funded by Roberta and Howard F. Ahmanson Jr., the couple to whom he dedicated his second book (Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds). Heirs to the Home Savings of America fortune, the Ahmansons are Christian Reconstructionists, a sect who have been accused of believing that their co-religionists should impose a reign of biblical law in America that would demand death for non-Christian proselytizers, adulterers, gays, witches and rebellious children.

While the law and public policy have favored Scott’s side in recent years, repeated polling has revealed the United States as the most religious nation on earth. According to a 1991 poll of the U.S., 16 European countries, Israel and the Phillipines conducted by the International Social Survey Program, only in Poland and the Philippines were more people convinced of the existence of God than in America. Americans led in belief in miracles, hell, and the devil–and only the Irish topped the Americans in belief in heaven. In no other country besides the United States did a smaller percentage of the populace accept evolution as a fact (the now-defunct East Germany topped the list of evolutionists, followed by Great Britain and West Germany, all with more than twice the rate of America.)

Repeated polling also shows that belief in evolution rises with education and income level.

Johnson’s creationist views are being challenged by who he calls the “high priests” of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), “the entire scientific hierarchy which has a tremendous interest in maintaining belief in a naturalist, materialist creation story and who say your only source should be the mandarins of science.”

In October, 2002, the AAAS board declared that “the lack of scientific warrant for so-called ‘intelligent design theory’ makes it improper to include as part of a science education.” And in a Feb. 9 letter to Ohio state officials, NAS President Bruce Alberts declared that “Intelligent Design is not scientific because its ultimate tenet that life on earth is the result of some intelligent being is scientifically untestable and therefore cannot be invalidated through scientific means.”

Johnson’s greatest obstacle is that Intelligent Design hasn’t made the slightest headway in the scientific literature.

“Nobody is using Intelligent Design in applied science,” Scott says. “Nobody’s using it to understand scientific phenomena, which is the only purpose of a scientific theory. They’re not being accepted in the scientific community.” In addition, Scott adds, no public schools have yet mandated teaching Intelligent Design.

“They’ve had more success in getting pieces in newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post,” Scott acknowledges. “It sounds much more attractive than Young Earth creationism.”

But the real battle lines are drawn around the nation’s schools, where Scott has another ally in Berkeley.

To Molleen Matsumura, who serves on the national board of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSC), the classroom evolutionary battle is but one skirmish in a broader cultural war, in which the struggle over faith-based initiatives is an even greater concern.

While creationism remains the standard in the increasingly cash-strapped public schools, moves to implement school vouchers at the national and state levels could move more students into taxpayer-funded religious schools, where Darwin is banned and Bishop Ussher reigns. “This is the real battleground,” Matsumura says.

AUSC also worries about federal judicial nominations, “because a lot of these [church/state] issues get decided in the courts,” Matsumura said.

And it was in a courtroom, during the first great multimedia “Trial of the [20th] Century,” that the most famous battle between science and creationism was waged when Dayton, TN, public school teacher John Scopes was prosecuted 79 years ago for the “crime” of teaching Darwin.

While the law under which Scopes was convicted was revoked in 1967, it took a federal court ruling two years ago to end Bible classes in Dayton’s public schools.

For more information on the web, see the National Center for Science Education’s site at www.natcenscied.org, the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture at www.discovery.org/csc/ and Americans United for Separation of Church and State at www.au.og.

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