Essay Review      God's Scientists Under the Microscope

J.W. Haas, Jr.

Chemistry Department
Gordon College
Wenham, MA 01984

God's Own Scientists: Creationists in a Secular World  by Christopher P. Toumey. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994. 280 pages, index; hardcover, $45.00; paperback, $15.00.

This interesting work seeks to open up the mind of modern creationism to those who stand outside conservative Christianity. ASA readers, while knowledgeable concerning the religious faith and the history of the movement, can also profit from this "outsiders" sociological analysis of creationism's roots and the detailed case study of a creationist study group based in the North Carolina research triangle. Openly Catholic and evolutionist, anthropologist Christopher Toumey gained a remarkable rapport and understanding of these creationist activists who welcomed him to their meetings, freely opened themselves to his questions, and asked him to offer prayer. Toumey's evenhanded report provides a needed corrective for the stereotypes that generally accompany the movement. His work complements Ron Number's magisterial The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (1992).

Toumey argues that modern creationism is a system of cultural meanings about both immorality and science that helps conservative Christians make sense of the realities, anxieties, changes and uncertainties of late 20th century American life. Creationism links these feelings to the problem of evolution. The point is aptly made in a cover graphic which depicts biological evolution as a tree trunk linking roots of sin and unbelief with limbs of philosophical evolution whose fruits include hard rock, inflation, abortion, crime, secularism, dirty books, feminism, etc. Scientific creationism is depicted as an ax cutting through a tree trunk to destroy this evil influence. Scientific creationism is more than a debate over the interpretation of early Genesis in spite of the fact that the immediate response of anti-evolutionists is to point to ways that evolution undercuts the Bible. Toumey's picture accurately portrays the national oracles of creationism and grass-roots Christian thinking.

The author argues that modern creationism has turned earlier anti-science fundamentalism on its head by using the authority of science to support creationism - as God's own scientists. He offers a picture of the changing American Protestant views on science during the 19th and early 20th Centuries which ended in estrangement from any link with science. By the late 1930's science and religion were seen as separate spheres engaged in philosophical conflict. The ASA (1941) emerged as the sole evangelical group willing to grapple with science-faith issues - but "with troubled ambivalence." 

Toumey identifies the publication of Whitcomb and Morris's The Genesis Flood (1961) as the point at which conservative Christianity invoked the authority of science to support young earth creationist claims. The rebirth of an activist anti-evolution movement, its organizations, leading figures, political and legal struggles and, finally, the counterattack of the scientific establishment in the 1980s are a familiar story to ASA readers. Toumey notes that in a 1981 nationwide poll response 76% of adults felt that both the "theory of evolution" and the "biblical theory of creation" should be taught in high schools - a major creationist triumph. Other triumphs were later muted by legal challenges based on the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. One vexing problem lies in the lack of serious interest on the part of most conservative Christians. Although they are anti-evolution to the core, the complexity of science and more emotionally held issues such as abortion, values, and school prayer have forced evolution from their center stage. Creationists have great influence in Christian academies and among home schoolers.

North Carolina activists saw little success in projecting creationism into the public schools in spite of a plurality of Baptists in the region. Baptist diversity and a lack of effective leadership were major factors preventing political action.

The creationist group that Toumey studied met at the home of a science professor at a major university. Most of the group were employed in science or medicine. They were led by another science professor who faithfully promoted the line of Henry Morris. The meetings generally involved packaged presentations of the Institute for Creation Research which received little critical evaluation. Toumey found the individual members to be flexible in their private judgements and even in group discussion yet adamantly supportive of Morrisonian orthodoxy in public. Typically the scientists in the group worked on projects that were devoid of creationist/evolutionist implications. Toumey details evidence that two of their number underwent job discrimination because of their creationist views.

Toumey makes many apt statements about the beliefs of the creationists he interviewed. He was amazed by their diversity of views in spite of public support for Morris. He found little understanding of the philosophical and historical roots of the creation-evolution controversy.

In such a far reaching work it is easy to dispute individual observations. In the main this is an accurate and enlightening achievement. I feel that it would have been improved by attention to the writings of David Livingston and Jim Moore on the earlier history of the debate. Morris and company were hardly the first to argue for a biblical view of creation on scientific grounds. The abdication of intellectual responsibility by conservative Christianity in the early decades of this century cut off what had been an earlier, albeit modest, scientific debate.

I doubt that one can make the generalization that The Genesis Flood singlehandedly "reversed the popular painful assumptions...since the Scopes trial...that science and conservative Protestantism stood against each other in philosophical conflict." This appeal to the conflict theory does not stand up to the rhetoric of those who opposed evolution in that period or explain the absence of evangelicals in academic science in the second quarter of this century. The experience of young Irwin Moon in responding to a call to the ministry rather than enter a career in science was characteristic of many talented Christian youth who felt it more important to 'go into full-time Christian work' than become a historian, an economist, or a scientist. Moon's later career change to establish the Moody Institute of Science (and influence the founding of the ASA) was part of an evangelical mid-century move to re-enter the cultural main-stream.

While The Genesis Flood would articulate the gospel of modern creationism, the emergence of the movement owes much to the increasing openness to evolution that was taking place in the ASA in the early 1950's. The willingness of Larry Culp, Frank Cassel, and Russ Mixter and a "brash young [Walt] Hearn" (Numbers, p. 178) and other Ph.D's to discuss the unthinkable and the publication of the Darwin Centennial volume, Evolution and Christian Thought Today (1959) edited by Mixter, precipitated the split that led some ASA members to form the Creation Research Society for which The Genesis Flood became a confession of faith.

The issue for Whitcomb and Morris lay not in the interpretation of science "but simply what God has revealed in His Word concerning these matters." (Numbers, p. 207) The pages of Perspectives amply demonstrate the passion with which the place of scripture and science in the question of origins continues to be discussed.

Author Toumey seems a bit overimpressed by the scientific credentials of the Research Triangle group and other creationist activists. The relation between the scientific backgrounds of Creationism's leadership and the fields they seek to critique is weak. Creationism is caught in a strategic bind in arguing its scientific case. The cost and time required to mount a serious research program forces the movement to primarily argue alternative interpretations of existing data or attack the philosophical foundations of evolution. The need for quick results to serve a fickle support network inevitably results in rash statements which not only do disservice to their cause but embarrass the greater cause of Christ.

One fuzzy part of Toumey's approach is found in his attempt to link order in engineering, order in creation, and moral order in society under a premillenial rubric where sin is equated to entropy. For these engineers God's creation is a closed system flawed by sin; their denial of a difference between open and closed thermodynamic systems is thus based on theology rather than science. Toumey's attempt to deconstruct the creationist mind on thermodynamics is interesting but unsupported by any literature citations. First, not all creationists are premillenial. Secondly, creationists do not openly tie their thermodynamics with theology; in fact they seek to state their case on scientific grounds alone.

Toumey's generalizations about protestant attitudes and social groupings suffer from his outsiders stance. This is seen in his attempt to lump conservatives into Southern Baptist, Moral Majority, Evangelical and Seventh Day Adventist groupings. There is a huge group of independents and baptists of many stripes as well as confessional conservatives who don't fit comfortably into these pictures. The complex variety of social and cultural factors in American Protestantism defies analysis.

The author effectively explodes the fallacy that modern U. S. anti-evolutionism is but one story or and that its exponents base their case exclusively on biblical grounds. However, we must not forget that the creationist movement is founded in religious belief and the ancient notion that the books of God and nature will tell the same story when each is properly understood. Current strategies combining science, philosophy, and political action are the most recent of several centuries of apologetic approaches designed to promote the Gospel. Toumey has done a service in opening up the North Carolina group to view. Further, he has accomplished his goal of contributing to comprehension rather than condemnation, yet in holding up the inconsistencies of the movement he offers believers one more chance to repent of their ways.

A recent Christians in Science conference on creation and evolution closed with one observer noting that "the conclusive right answer still eludes us." This continues to be the case for many in the ASA community. In the end it was the Christian character of the North Carolina creationists that most impressed observer Toumey; that is as it should be!

Toumey's work deserves space on ASA shelves.