Ever since John Scopes’ last stand, it seems creationists have been on the run. Frequently portrayed as flat-earth-believing science deniers, they’ve been forced into the academic shadows, fearful of a carpet-bombing by Richard Dawkins if they stay above ground for too long.
Therefore, having long since been expelled from the Ivory Tower, the last place you’d expect to see creationists disseminating their beliefs would be at a university seminar. But that’s exactly where one creationist organization hosted a one day event on the first of November. The group, which goes by the name Creation Summit, managed to reserve rooms at Michigan State’s business school to host an event called “Origin Summit.”
Not only did they take their beliefs straight into the lion’s den, but they also directly poked one of those lions with a sharp stick while they were there. One of the eight workshops during this day-long event included a direct critique of the work of Michigan State’s own Richard Lenski, a prominent evolution scholar.
They didn’t pull any punches in their other workshops either. One, enchantingly titled “Hitler’s Worldview,” was every bit as provocative as the title suggested. Guess whose worldview was compared to Adolph Hitler’s? Hint: it wasn’t the creationists’.
No, the argument was that Hitler’s belief in evolution directly influenced his worldview. The group’s website gives a taste of the kind of ear-grabbing language that was heard at the event: “You might say [Hitler] caught the ‘survival of the fittest’ ball and ran with it, declaring the Aryan race to be ‘the fittest.’” At least no one will accuse this conference of being too focused on boring scientific minutiae.
The purpose of Origin Summit was, at least ostensibly, to foster debate—something the group claims academia has long denied their movement. In fact, their main beef, and seemingly their motivation for scheduling such an event at Michigan State, is that their opinions have been unfairly silenced by the exclusion of creationism in public school curriculum. Origin Summit seemed to be their way of trying to get back into the classroom, albeit in a roundabout fashion.
In the spirit of inclusivity, they did invite several Michigan State professors to engage in a debate. Richard Lenski politely declined to defend his work while evolutionary biologist Robert Pennock (who testified in Kitzmiller v. Dover that intelligent design was unscientific) didn’t even respond to the invite, according to the group’s website.
So who did respond? The event certainly generated a lot of buzz on the Internet but according to the organizers fewer than 100 MSU students showed up. We can probably thank the steely silence of MSU’s faculty for that. A group of science students set up a booth near the conference to promote their own message: that debating evolution is “like debating the existence of Canada.”
The way Creation Summit sees it, Pennock, Lenski, and their ilk are just scared to encounter any opinion that disrupts their worldview, contradicts their “research,” and, in turn, threatens their livelihood. But it’s much more likely that Pennock and Lenski simply didn’t want to lend them any hints of legitimacy by engaging with them in public debate.
It’s clear that creationists are fighting a losing battle in the halls of academia. While they claim not to be outright evangelicals, they do “hope to pave the way for evangelism by presenting the scientific evidence for intelligent design. Once students realize they’re created beings, and not the product of natural selection, they’re much more open to the Gospel, to the message of God’s love & forgiveness.”
Then there’s the problem that for some, casting ourselves as creations relieves us of our responsibilities as stewards of this planet. Indeed, many of the same people who deny evolution also deny climate change. God created the world, the logic goes, and so we cannot take a course of action that would interrupt His divine workings. It’s a fallacy, plain and simple, to suppose that the world is unknowable and cannot be influenced by mere mortals. The proof of this can be found in every human-caused disaster, whether they happen in our shared oceans or much closer to home.
The fact that we can influence the world—for better and for worse—does not make the natural world any less divine, if you want to cling to the language of theology. If anything, it should strengthen our resolve to be better stewards of what we’ve been given.
For those who do want to see an actual evolution debate and somehow missed Bill Nye’s debate with Ken Ham, I’d recommend watching it. It’s not a debate, per se, but rather a merciless, though admirably polite, deconstruction of creationism. In other words, it’s a case study in what evangelicals can expect any time they try to legitimize creationism by debating an articulate, knowledgeable scientist.