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INCOMPATIBLE VIEWS OF HOW LIFE BEGAN

I probably shouldn't get back into this. But the last time I wrote about evolution and creationism, I got an awful lot of folks praying for my soul. So I'm probably still safe.

Last month, when the Kansas school board decided to dump evolution off the science curriculum, I rued the survival of the fittest creationists. Giving credit where it's due, this is a movement with a remarkable staying power. I was inundated with letters and e-mails calling me a "godless atheist," an "agent of Satan" and -- as a change of pace -- a "witless crone." In the words of one reader, "I can only assume you are in an extremely challenged mental state or suffered a serious head injury."

A lot of the writers assumed that the best defense of creationism was a good offense against evolution. They attacked the scientific holes in evolution without, of course, applying the same criteria to the creation story. But never mind.

The strength of the creationist movement was never in its science. Indeed, there is one way to make sense of the tenacious and sincere fight against teaching evolution in the schools. It's to understand that the anxiety about the origin of human life is really anxiety about the meaning of human life.

A reader from Gray, Maine, states this view of the problem forthrightly, "The real issue is not creationism vs. Darwinism. The real issue is 'Does God exist?' " He then adds, "We cannot sit idly by and let the children of our nation and world end up in the flames of hell because of evolutionists."

Someone from Dayton, Ohio, has his own logic, "If there is no God and the Bible is not His Word, then we are just 'animals.' So if we are just animals, why are we shocked at murders, rapes, robberies?"

And a woman from Pine River, Wis., echoes this sentiment: "Where does this plague of low self-esteem come from? Straight from the atheistic evolutionary view of man with which society has indoctrinated our young people."

Among my correspondents, there are missing links of logic but not emotion. Many in the creation movement start with a stark and troubling choice. They state that you can believe in God or in evolution. Of course, this would be news to many, many religious leaders including, for example, the pope.

Eugenie Scott, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, has been fighting against creationist takeovers long enough to be respectful of the power of their appeal. "Their view is that God created the whole universe for humankind and therefore humans are very special to God. What evolution tells us, regardless of who dunnit, is that we're part of the same process that created liverworts and musk oxen.

"The idea is out there that unless you believe you were specially created by God in our present form, life has no meaning. Unless you believe you were created by God, you have no reason to behave. You will go out and rape and pillage and mutilate."

Or as a writer from Meridian, Idaho, warned, "Hitler also believed the theory of evolution."

Now I am neither a theologian nor a scientist. But in the debate over school curriculum, it seems clear that the supporters of evolution often end up arguing about science, while the creationists are really arguing about meaning and value. Is it any wonder that the argument remains stuck?

If the choice between God or evolution is a false one, so is the notion that only believers can find meaning or behave morally. The world is full of religions with different stories of creation. It's full of people, secular and religious, who search for and find meaning in their lives.

Until we get to the heart of this debate, we'll go on wrangling over the teachers and textbooks. We can't teach children religion in the schools. But we can teach them about religion -- it's role in American life, politics, history, and the search for meaning. That's the real place for a unit on creationism. Take it, if you must, from a witless crone.

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