God's Own Scientists:
Creationists in a Secular World

Author: Christopher P. Toumey
Date: 1994
Publisher: Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey
ISBN: 0813520444
Reviewed by: Allan H. Harvey, steamdoc@aol.com


The Author

Christopher P. Toumey is a lecturer in anthropology at the University of North Carolina.

Preliminary Comments

The cover of God's Own Scientists shows "The Evolution Tree," a diagram that captures the mindset of much of the creationist movement. Produced by a Pennsylvania creationist, it depicts "Sin" nourishing a tree whose trunk is "Biological Evolution." The tree produces 21 fruits, including "Communism," "Hard Rock," "Abortion," "Dirty Books," "Sex Education," "Terrorism," and "Inflation." "Scientific Creationists" are shown chopping at the trunk.

Why is a scientific theory blamed for all these ills (many of which predate Darwin)? What forces have shaped and driven modern creationism? These are ultimately questions for the social sciences, and anthropologist Christopher Toumey attempts to answer them in this book. Toumey does not try to assess the scientific merit (or the theological merit) of the movement. Instead, his efforts are devoted to understanding it, particularly the social and cultural factors that attract people to it, bind its adherents together, and determine its directions.

Summary of the Book

Toumey begins by discussing the authority of science in modern (particularly American) society. He talks of the early dominance of the "Protestant model" of science, in which nature was seen as a revelation from God in harmony with the Bible. A second model, which grew in influence in the 19th century, is the "secular model" that emphasizes human reason. Toumey contends, however, that society's view of science is now dominated by the "trivial model," which has no coherent structure but only values science for the things it can produce. The shallowness of this model makes it easy for the forms and symbols of science to be borrowed to give credence to things with no scientific content. One need not draw examples from creationism to see that there is some truth to this; it is evident every time a company uses an actor playing a doctor or scientist to sell a product.

The next five chapters describe the origins of the U.S. creationist movement (Toumey uses "creationist" specifically to refer to the views exemplified by Henry Morris et al.; I will do the same). While a fair amount of historical information is given, the focus is more on creationism's interaction with societal forces and with other movements in the Christian church.

A consistent theme is the connection between evolution and immorality. Creationist rhetoric is not always clear as to whether evolution is a cause or an effect of the moral decay in society, but the association is always made. Often this is connected with the concept of "secular humanism." A good description is given of how, starting in the late 1970's, secular humanism was elevated from obscurity to a perceived pervasive conspiracy that became the chief enemy in the eyes of many Christians.

The historical material in these chapters includes a description of development and stances of the various creationist organizations. An interesting contrast is drawn between those creationists who wish to win the battle on scientific grounds and those whose focus is on lawsuits and political action.

One interesting observation is the shifts in emphasis in the creationist movement since the time of the Scopes trial. Much of the focus is now on the age of the Earth and Noah's flood; in the 1920's the only important issue was human origins (many leading anti-evolutionists of that day, such as William Jennings Bryan, accepted an old Earth). This change is attributed to the influence of Henry Morris, who made "flood geology" the centerpiece of his world view. A second change is in the creationist critique of evolution. In the 1920's, evolution was decried as deterministic and therefore dehumanizing. Now, the emphasis has reversed so that the "randomness" of evolution is the major target of creationist rhetoric. This is seen to be a consequence of the view that society's moral decay (associated with secular humanism) is characterized by chaos and abuse of human freedom; the caricature of evolution as "random" serves to connect it more closely to that decay.

The next six chapters are a case study, examining the creationist movement within the state of North Carolina. The history of creation/evolution controversies in North Carolina is surveyed from the 1920's to the 1980's. Several factors are mentioned which have kept creationism from having as big an impact as in some other states. These include moderate influences in the state's Southern Baptist population and some effective policies for handling controversial issues before local school boards. A main reason the issue has never "caught on" is that other issues, such as abortion and school prayer, are considered more important by the conservative Christians in the state.

Toumey then profiles, both statistically and in some cases specifically, the people who make up the creationist movement in North Carolina. This information was gained through attending creationist lectures, through personal interviews, and through regular attendance at a local creationist study group. This last bit of anthropological research makes for interesting reading; one must commend both Toumey for being honest with the study group about what he was doing, and the group for treating him with respect and Christian love.

Toumey has some interesting observations about the creationists he interviewed. He notes the relatively large participation of engineers in the movement, and speculates that engineers who see themselves as bringing order to problems are inclined to see the immorality of society as the same sort of disorder they overcome in their professions, leading them to embrace the idea that "random" evolution is associated with immorality. As one with a background in engineering, this analysis rings true to me. He also speculates that the "entropy" argument against evolution is so popular because it resonates with the popular "everything will keep going downhill until the Second Coming" version of premillenialism. I, too, have noticed the unscientific tendency to connect sin and the decay of society to the thermodynamic entropy, but the connection to premillenial theology was a thought-provoking new twist. A final observation was that, in private conversation, many creationist activists showed surprising willingness to deviate from the party line on issues such as the age of the Earth.

In a closing chapter, Toumey reflects on what he sees as the main driving forces of the creationist movement. He sees it as primarily driven by moral concerns, which he summarizes this way:

[C]reationism has two overriding themes, namely: an unquenched hostility to the idea of evolution, based on the belief that evolution is intimately involved with immorality (even if cause and effect are unclear); and a quasi-religious awe of science (which creationists share with so many other Americans), so that creationism will be made more viable by the sanctification that supposedly flows from the plenary authority of science. [p. 257]
While these are two major forces, I believe Toumey missed a third that is of comparable importance. Much of modern creationism seems to be driven by the desire to defend the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Toumey mentions inerrancy briefly in the context of morality, in the sense that it is embraced by Christians wanting to point to the Bible as the source of clear moral truth. But in my experience, most advocacy of the inerrancy doctrine is not driven by a desire to support Biblical moral teaching, but rather by a desire to have a "perfect book" on which to base one's faith. While there are many advocates of inerrancy who are not young-Earth creationists, the creationist movement has managed to position itself as the defender of the Bible in some circles. The "If the first chapter of the Bible isn't true, how can we believe any of it?" argument is a major part of creationism, and Toumey misses it in his otherwise insightful analysis.

Evaluation

Anyone who deals with science/faith issues regularly needs to understand the creationist movement. My first book recommendation for someone seeking such understanding would be Ronald Numbers' history The Creationists. The second would be God's Own Scientists. The two books are complementary; Numbers does an excellent job on the history of the movement while Toumey analyzes "what makes it tick." This anthropological perspective is as important as the historical perspective in gaining true understanding of any social movement, and this book does a good job of providing that perspective.

The anthropologist Toumey does reasonably well at understanding the culture of evangelical Christianity he is studying, but there are a few things that I think he didn't get quite right. He occasionally lumps the American Scientific Affiliation with "creationist" organizations, though in other places he seems to be aware of its officially neutral position. Another example comes in his discussion of categories of Christians who are sympathetic to creationism. He lists "inerrancy Baptists," and gives a good summary of the division on that issue in the Southern Baptist Convention. But he shows no awareness of the fact that inerrancy is a divisive issue in several other denominations. Overall, however, his characterizations of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians were as fair and accurate as one could hope for from one who is not a part of the culture.

One shortcoming of God's Own Scientists is that it is somewhat out of date. Though it has a 1994 publication date, it appears to be mostly the author's 1987 Ph.D. thesis. Almost all of the material is drawn from the early and mid-80's. While most of the insights from that era are still valid, some recent changes in the creationist world are not covered. For example, the book talks about creationist legislative efforts as though they were dead, when they have again picked up strength in the 90's in the form of proposed laws against teaching evolution as "fact." It would also have been interesting to see the author's analysis applied to the Intelligent Design movement, or to the "appearance of age" position that seems to be growing in popularity among creationists who recognize that science is not on their side.

Overall, these shortcomings are minor compared to the positive contribution Christopher Toumey has made. Creationism is a major movement in American Christianity, and this book will help the reader understand it better.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this review are the opinion of the author of this review alone and should not be taken to represent the views of any other person or organization.

Review originally written December 1996.
Page last modified September 2, 2000