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Separating Religious Fundamentalist "Science" from Science

Tim M. Berra


Evolution is attacked by religious fundamentalists, a small minority, who:

  • refute scientific evidence using Scripture as their sole argument
  • use political lobbying to force their beliefs on the general public
  • promote confusion and science illiteracy to mask their intentions

January 2001

Note: Because some of the information in this article may be outdated, it has been archived.

“Creation science” adversely affects the integrity of science education.

The Devil in Dover: An Insider’s Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-town America by Lauri Lebo follows the proceedings of Kitzmiller v. Dover, a case tried in 2005 in Harrisburg, PA that concluded Intelligent Design was a form of creationism, and therefore, unconstitutional to teach in American public schools.

Religious fundamentalists want us to believe that the evolution/creation debate is ostensibly about science for they have a great deal at stake. The goals of “creation science” have far more to do with religion, politics, law, and education than science. To whatever extent the scientific trappings of “creation science” are accorded credence by the schools or by the courts, much will suffer: freedom of thought; an informed, open minded American public; the vitality of science and technology; and the fate of our society in an increasingly competitive, increasingly educated world.

The state of science education

Research shows that Americans need better science education.
Grade eight students in the U.S. did not do well compared to students in other nations.
U.S. high school seniors rated lower in 1999 than in 1995 on science achievement tests.

That Americans are, in general, poorly educated in science and mathematics is not news. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS),5,13 conducted in 1995, supported that fact:

  • This study dealt with the educational systems of over 40 countries. Cross-national comparative testing was done for third and fourth graders (9-year-olds), seventh and eighth graders (13-year-olds), and 12th-graders (high school seniors).

  • U.S. 9-year-olds were near the top in science, second only to Korea, and were average in mathematics. That is the end of the good news.

  • There was a drop in relative standings from third/fourth grades to seventh/eighth grades. American 13 year-olds were just above the cross-national average in science, and below average in mathematics. Twenty-four nations (topped by Japan, Singapore, Korea and Hong Kong) had significantly higher average scores at grade eight than did the U.S. Only four countries (Iran, Kuwait, Colombia and South Africa) had scores significantly lower than U.S. average scores at grade eight. Ten countries had scores not significantly different from the U.S. average at grade eight.

  • Tests of high school seniors showed even lower comparative rankings with U.S. students near the bottom of the international distribution in both science and mathematics.

  • Results of a 1999 repeat of the TIMSS revealed that the U.S. eighth and twelfth graders were the only students to show a significant drop in both science and math achievements as students advance.6

Our younger citizens, taken as a group, may be learning less than their parents or grandparents did!

Science and the public

Less than half of Americans understand the history of human evolution.

Results of the 1996 public opinion survey of the National Science Board demonstrates the public’s lack of knowledge about science.14

  • When presented with the statement “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” 40% of the adult Americans polled disagreed, 16% “didn’t know” and only 44% agreed.
  • When given the statement “The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs,” 32% agreed and 20% didn’t know.

Many opinion polls have revealed a public sympathy toward teaching creationism along with science at both the high school and the university level.1

But all is not completely bleak. A 1999 national public opinion survey of 1,500 Americans conducted for People for the American Way by DYG, Inc. (founded by opinion researcher Daniel Yankelovich) showed that:16

A large majority of Americans want evolution to be taught in school.
  • 83% want evolution to be taught in public school science classes.
  • Only 13% of Americans want creationism taught with evolution as competing scientific theories. But 66% wanted creationism taught: outside school (20%), outside science class (17%), or identified as a “belief” not a scientific theory like evolution (29%). Only 16% supported teaching creationism and excluding evolution in schools.
  • About two-thirds of those polled felt that there should be national standards for the teaching of evolution rather than leaving the decision up to individual states or local school boards.
Kansas is an example of religious politics influencing education.

That the American public is more accepting of evolution than the religious fundamentalists would have us believe is demonstrated by what happened in Kansas.

  • In August 1999 the Kansas State Board of Education, dominated by a right-wing majority, removed evolution, the age of the earth, the Big Bang Theory, and other things they did not like from topics that would be tested for state standards.15 This drew a great deal of national and international attention and ridicule on Kansas.
  • Scientists, educators, and parents mobilized and defeated three of the anti-science board members including the board president in August 2000 elections. This assures that the new state board will rewrite the education standards to include evolution and related topics.2

Science, creationism, and philosophy

Eugenie Scott, Director of the National Center for Science Education, pointed out an interesting difference between the views of the general public about evolution and the views of scientists.14

Despite evidence of Earth being billions of years old, too many Americans think its age is only 10,000 years.
  • The standard Gallup poll question about whether humans were created in their present form 10,000 years ago elicited a shocking 47% agreement from Americans but only a 5% agreement from scientists.
  • A comparative study of the religious views of leading scientists in 1914 and a random sample of scientists listed in American Men and Women of Science showed an amazing constancy over these 80 years. Belief in God among scientists was 40% in 1914 and is 40% today.7 However, less than 10% of the scientists elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS) indicated a belief in God and only 5% of NAS biologists claimed to be believers.

Scientists have taken a variety of philosophical stances when it comes to the debate between science and religion.

Many scientists believe that science and religion can co-exist without conflict.
  • Stephen J. Gould, a prominent evolutionary scientist, argued for the mutual co-existence of science and religion as non-overlapping magisteria,4 while Richard Dawkins, an equally prominent evolutionary biologist, wrote that claiming that religious beliefs are outside the domain of science is intellectually dishonest.3
  • Ernst Mayr, a father of the modern evolutionary synthesis, simply and clearly explained the differences between science and religion.8

    • Science does not invoke supernatural explanations or rely on revelation to understand how the universe operates. Religion does both.
    • Scientific explanations are open to change when the data support a revision. Religions are hesitant to revise lest a theological change spawn a new religion.
  • Florida State University Philosopher of Science Michael Ruse asks the question “Can a Darwinian be a Christian?” Ruse answered it “yes.”11 Philosopher and historian W.B. Provine sees it quite differently.10

  • The scientifically literate citizen should understand both viewpoints.
Scientists are not explaining evolution well enough to the public.

A great deal of misinformation has been propagated in the public media about the evolution/creation controversy. For this the scientific community must accept some blame.

  • We have done a very poor job of explaining our work to the public, to the press, and even to biology students as dismaying surveys have shown.1
  • Scientists are usually deeply involved in research, and do not feel moved to spend time popularizing their work. Some scientists cherish the isolation of their ivory towers, and it is in any case difficult and time consuming to explain elaborate technical theories in a way easily understood by the public.

By failing to explain our research, however, we invite its misinterpretation at the hands of unqualified spokespersons.

Science and religion reconciled

Science and religion are concerned with different spheres of human activity, and for the great majority of people — believers and non-believers alike — there is no basic conflict between them.

Catholics accept evolution as a viable theory.
  • In an encyclical in 1950 entitled Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII stated the Catholic position on evolution: a Catholic is free to accept any scientific theory about human origins provided it is acknowledged that, at some stage, God infused an immortal soul into the human body. This requires an act of faith, but not a denial of science, because science has nothing to say about gods and souls.

  • Pope John Paul II, speaking to an audience of scientists and theologians in April 1985, echoed this position and urged continued scientific study, which he termed “serious and urgent.” In a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in October 1996, John Paul said “fresh knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis.”12

  • Many evolutionary biologists are Catholic priests or nuns. Others are members of many of the world’s other religions. They see evolution as God’s plan, not as a denial of their belief in God, a view called theistic evolution.

Other religions also acknowledge evolution’s role.
  • Most of the mainstream Protestant denominations such as Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists have also accommodated evolutionary theory. That they have done so without compromise to basic beliefs or principles is reflected in the fact that the biology departments of the university’s operated by these religions teach the same evolutionary theory as the major state universities.

  • In liberal theological circles it has become a cliché to state that, “the Bible was written to show us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” This rather comforting view of theistic evolution has been disparaged by a Cornell University professor of the history of biology, William M. Provine, who claimed that theistic evolution is no different than the Deism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.10 But this is the playground of the philosophers, and I shall leave it to them.

Separating the religious fundamentalists

Religious fundamentalists, a small minority, refute evolution on biblical grounds.

The only Christian religious groups that have problems with evolution are the Protestant fundamentalists, who insist on a literal interpretation of the Bible, much as Muslim fundamentalists insist on a literal interpretation of the Koran. This group is trying to infuse their brand of religion, taught as science, into public school classrooms. Having failed in the past to have evolutionary theory banned from the classrooms, the fundamentalists have adopted a patchwork enterprise they call “creation science.” In spite of a pretense to scientific language, these creationists ultimately are reduced to using supernatural explanations to answer scientific questions. This is a profound contradiction and an anti-science view since the scientific method by definition cannot deal with the supernatural.9

The position of this minority has no scientific substance.

Regardless of what they call themselves, the goal of the religious fundamentalist is to have the biblical version of creation taught alongside evolution; and to disguise the essentially religious nature of creationism, they have dressed it up in scientific terminology. Since they have no persuasive arguments of their own, or even intuitively satisfying suggestions, their plan is to attack selected particulars of science and pretend to have a science of their own.

A principal advocate of “scientific creationism” is a group of fundamentalists called the Creation Research Society (CRS).

The Creation Research Society claims to be scientific but members must forsake any scientific evidence for religious tenets.
  • To be a voting member of the CRS one must have an advanced degree in some field of science and sign a statement of faith.
  • This belief statement begins as follows:
  1. “The Bible is the written word of God, and we believe it to be inspired throughout, all of its assertions are historically and scientifically true in all the original autographs. To the students of nature, this means that the accounts of origins in genesis is a factual presentation of simple historical truths.”
  2. “All basic types of living things, including man, were made by direct creative acts of God during the Creation Week described in Genesis. Whatever biological changes have occurred since Creation Week have been accomplished only [by] changes within the original created kinds.”
  3. “The great flood described in Genesis, commonly referred to as the Noachian Flood, was an historic event worldwide in its extent and effect.”
  • The membership of the CRS consists mostly of engineers, chemists, aerospace workers, technicians, computer specialists, and such. Few legitimate biologists, geologists, or anthropologists are willing to sign such a statement of faith; and a degree in engineering, chemistry, or computer science scarcely qualifies a CRS member to speak with knowledge and authority about biology, geology, astronomy, or anthropology.
  • The aim of the CRS is nonetheless to force the scientific evidence into compliance with the literal interpretation of the Bible. The arguments of these fundamentalist missionaries often involve tortured logic, a stubborn denial of evidence, a shallow understanding, or a reckless disregard for the truth.
Religious fundamentalists will create wide-ranging science illiteracy since they reject the objective scientific method.

The arguments of the religious fundamentalists are not only anti-biology but also anti-physics, anti-astronomy, and anti-geology. In short, they reject all scientific knowledge that does not fit their view of the world. They do not question the methods or philosophy that yield, say, the science of flight, for who could doubt that airplanes fly? But when the same methods and philosophies are put to the study of life and human origins — a subject the Bible does address — they question the integrity of science. The religious fundamentalists fight a desperate, rear-guard action, seeking to increase their numbers while refusing to accept the obvious.

Intelligent design

For a recent critique of the intelligent design movement, read Robert Pennock’s 1999 book Tower of Babel.9 [ Editor’s Update: To read the views of proponents of Intelligent Design and responses to their views by evolutionists, see the 4/02 _Natural History article “Intelligent Design?” at

Conclusion: Science and religion should not be at odds since each function in a different realm.


The scientific method is the most successful approach for discovering how the natural world operates. Scientific hypotheses are continually tested and re-tested before theories are presented to explain the workings of nature. Science does not try to explain God or the supernatural. Such matters are outside the realm of science. Science’s domain is the natural world and the scientific method has been spectacularly successful at discovering knowledge about this world.

Tim M. Berra, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology at Ohio State University in Mansfield. He is a a two-time Fulbright Fellowship recipient and the author of over 50 scientific papers and five books, most recently Freshwater Fish Distribution (Academic Press). Dr. Berra received his Ph.D. in biology from Tulane University in 1969.

Separating Religious Fundamentalist "Science" from Science


Understanding Evolution

Your one-stop source for information on evolution. Learn the facts in Evolution 101, browse the resource library, read about evolution in the news, or discover a wealth of materials to help educate others about evolution and related concepts—it’s all right here!

Trends In Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)

Find out about the largest international study of student achievement in 40 countries, including the United States, that was discussed in Tim Berra’s article.

Intelligent Design?

On our web site, this special report is reprinted from Natural History magazine. Intelligent design position statements by Michael J. Behe, William A. Dembski, and Jonathan Wells; Evolution responses from Kenneth R. Miller, Robert T. Pennock, and Eugenie C. Scott.

Science and Religion

An interview with Christian scientist Kenneth T. Miller.

Exploring the creation/evolution controversy

This page on the Talk.Origins website offers numerous links to the controversy.

Separation of church and state quiz

How much do you know about the separation of religion and government in the United States?

“15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense”

Scientific American article (7/02) that examines and answers creationist arguments against evolution. =000D4FEC-7D5B-1D07-8E49809EC588EEDF&catID=2

The Ground Rules of Science” online video Robert T. Pennock, the scientist, philosopher and author of “Tower of Babel, The Evidence Against the New Creationism” speaks on the controversial movement to include intelligent design creationism in the curricula of public schools. Watch the video using RealPlayer.
University of California Television ID #12066 ; 58 minutes; 12/11/2006.

Read a book

To learn more about why some people embrace anti-science beliefs or fail to recognize the difference between “science, nonscience, and nonsense,” read Massimo Pigliucci’s Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and the Nature of Science (2002, Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, MA) and books by Sagan (1995), Zimmerman (1995), and Shermer (1997) — see article references section below.

Coalition for Excellence in Science and Math Education (CESE)

Become a member of CESE, a non-partisan coalition of scientists, clergy, educators and concerned citizens working to improve science education.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State

This group is working to keep religious matters separate from government decisions, including educational issues. You can click on their “become an activist” or “activist email alerts” to help them in their cause.

Online course for teachers: Teaching Evolution

An eight-session professional development course, where you’ll examine major evolutionary concepts, explore teaching methodologies, and address obstacles to teaching evolution. Produced by WGBH Educational Programming and Outreach and WGBH Interactive.

  1. Berra, T. M. 1990. Evolution and the Myth of Creationism. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA. 198 p.
  2. Dalton, R. 2000. “Kansas scientists help to oust creationists.” Nature 406: 552-553.
  3. Dawkins, R. 1999. “You can’t have it both ways: Irreconcilable differences.” Skeptical Inquirer 23(4): 62-64.
  4. Gould, S. J. 1999. “Non-overlapping magisteria.” Skeptical Inquirer 23(4): 55-61.
  5. Greenwood, M. R. C. and K. K. North. 1999. “Science through the looking glass: Winning the battles but losing the war?” Science 286: 2072-2077.
  6. Holden, C. 2000. “Asia stays on top, U.S. in middle in new global rankings.” Science 290:1866.
  7. Larson, E. J. and L. Witham. 1999. “Scientists and religion in America.” Scientific American 281(3): 88-93.
  8. Mayr, E. 1999. “The concerns of science.” Skeptical Inquirer 23(4): 65.
  9. Pennock, R. T. 1999. Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. 429 p.
  10. Provine, W. B. 1987. “A review of Trial and Error: The American Controversy over Creation and Evolution.” Academe 73: 50-52.
  11. Ruse, M. 2001. Can a Darwinian be a Christian? Cambridge University Press, N.Y., NY.
  12. Tagliabue, J. 1996. “Pope bolsters church’s support for scientific view of evolution.” New York Times 25 Oct: 1.
  13. Schmidt, W. H. and C. C. McKnight. 1998. “What can we really learn from TIMSS?” Science 282:1830-1831.
  14. Scott, E. C. 1997. “Antievolution and creationism in the United States.” Annual Review of Anthropology 26: 263-289.
  15. Scott, E. C. 2000. “Not (just) in Kansas anymore.” Science 288: 813-815.
  16. People for the American Way press release of 3/10/2000, “Public wants evolution, not creationism, in science class, new national poll shows” at Accessed 1/01.

General References

  • » Sagan, C. 1995. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Random House, N.Y., NY. 457 p.
  • » Shermer, M. 1997. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of our Time. W. H. Freeman and Co. N.Y., NY. 306 p.
  • » Zimmerman, M. 1995. Science, Nonscience, and Nonsense: Approaching Environmental Literacy. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD. 220 p.


Understanding Science