In The Creationist Debate, Arthur McCalla provides a well-written and well-documented background for one of the hot button issues of our time: the debate about what public schools should teach regarding the origins of the earth and humanity. He places the roots of that debate in the Protestant rejection of symbolic interpretation of Scripture in favor of a “plain-sense” reading that looked only to the literal meaning of the text. The turn to the literal with regard to Scripture inspired a similar rejection of symbolic interpretation of the other “book” that had always been read as pointing to God: nature. It was the “literal” reading of nature that gave rise to science as we know it today, and it is science that has in turn challenged the literal reading of Scripture.
This book is an excellent resource, with clear references to primary texts, for anyone interested in the ways that both scientists and religious professionals responded to the mounting discrepancies between what had been the dominant understanding of our origins (i.e. the biblical account that said the earth and everything on it had been created about 6000 years ago) and the growing body of evidence regarding those origins being discovered by scientists. The last four chapters, in which McCalla describes the development of the Fundamentalist movement in the United States, its particular method of interpreting Scripture, and the genesis of the Intelligent Design theories, are especially valuable for understanding the contemporary debate over what should be taught in America’s schools.
“[D]riven by faith in the inerrant Bible and an overwhelming desire to subject the modern world to its authority” (198), Fundamentalists attempt to discredit contemporary sciences such as archeology, paleontology, geology and anthropology in the eyes of the general public and to convince people that Intelligent Design is just as valid as any theory from those sciences. Their primary tactic is to claim that because no one was present to observe the evolution of the planet and the various species and because the process of evolution cannot be reproduced in the laboratory, evolution is not scientific truth, but merely a theory based on speculation and guess work. Their own theory, on the other hand, not only explains the origins of life, but is also backed by God’s own revelation of truth in Scripture. Fundamentalists, according to McCalla, are not bothered by the failure of Intelligent Design as science (i.e. using a particular method of evaluating observed phenomena in order to arrive at a conclusion rather than picking and choosing among bits of data those things that support a pre-determined conclusion). “The Intelligent Design movement is driven by the conviction that the only acceptable model for human life is that given by an inerrant reading of the Bible” (197).
As informative as the last chapters are, McCalla’s discussion betrays a bias against Fundamentalism that is only hinted at in the first chapters. He is correct to argue that the push to teach Intelligent Design as science is a thinly disguised attempt to impose a particular religious perspective on the whole nation; however, comparing the Fundamentalists’ project with Wile E. Coyote’s ineffective attempts to catch the Road Runner and then adding a swipe at the Bush Supreme Court for good measure does little to advance his argument. “Looking back at almost a century of legal battles over creationism one feels something akin to watching episode after episode of Road Runner cartoons. Wile E. Coyote’s endlessly ingenious schemes never succeed in catching Road Runner, but he always returns to the drawing board full of faith that the next design will be the one to succeed. . . . [O]f course, the ground rules may change – the animators may allow Wile E. Coyote to catch the Road Runner or a Supreme Court dominated by Bush appointees may decide that creationism is science after all” (198).
The Creationist Debate reads well and pulls together many of the factors that have shaped the contemporary debate over human origins. Still, at the end, there are two questions that have not been answered and that might prove a fruitful avenue of investigation in the future. First, one wonders whether the three possible responses to the dilemma in question (reject religion for reliance on science alone, reject science for faith in Biblical inerrancy, or accept the Liberal Protestant accommodation) named by McCalla are really the only options. Is there no “middle way” for a Christian between the extremes of Fundamentalism and Liberal Protestantism? Second, McCalla understandably concentrates on Protestant Europe because the contemporary debate is essentially a Protestant one; still, one wonders what was going on in Catholic Europe during these centuries. Was the anti-modernist stance of the early twentieth century that McCalla notes briefly merely a continuation of the attitude that condemned Galileo, or were there attempts in the Catholic world to deal with the scientific challenges to the traditional understandings of human origins?