Twice a week Ore Phillips sets up shop at the University of Minnesota’s Coffman Union to spread his message on where humans came from.
Phillips is the president of Maranatha Christian Fellowship — a student group promoting creationism to students on campus. For decades, the group, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, has worked to spread its message at one of the largest scientific research institutions in the country.
As students progress through their college careers, religious beliefs change drastically, according to a 2010 Gallup poll. The polls showed only 22 percent of postgraduates nationally believe in creationism, compared to 47 percent of high school students.
Phillips believes it’s up to him and his group to maintain students’ faith in creationism throughout college. The volume of information about evolution compared to that about creationism on campus, he said, can overwhelm the beliefs of students.
“We like to get the discussion going,” said Grant Buse, Maranatha’s adviser and a University graduate, adding he wanted “students to openly consider alternatives to evolutionary theory.”
The topic of creationism versus evolution is a “very popular” one among students, Buse said.
Maranatha uses grant money to periodically hold seminars at Coffman with guests who speak about challenges to evolutionary theory.
Hundreds of students — skeptics and supporters alike — attend these seminars and drag group discussions on for hours into the night, Buse said.
“A lot of secularists and atheists attend to debate us,” he said.
The initial student reactions to creationism and intelligent design are often negative, Buse said, but discussions usually progress into constructive debate — something he welcomes.
“We want to give students a fighting chance to see another side,” Phillips said.
Most Mondays and Thursdays, Maranatha has an information table set up in Coffman where students visit to talk about evolutionary theory and creationism.
The group’s flyers, some detailing alternative views on the history of the dinosaurs and creationist challenges to evolution, are popularly requested both by students who find them “silly” and those who are genuinely interested, Buse said.
Buse doesn’t want to see creationism taught in the science classroom since he views that as a place meant exclusively for “empirical evidence,” but he does support teaching the “scientific challenges” to aspects of evolutionary theory on campus.
“How did we all get here? Where does that answer lead us? These questions are fair to ask,” he said.
He sees professors and science instructors as marching in “lockstep” on evolutionary theory and wants to bring alternative views to the campus outside the classroom.
“It’s an important discussion,” he said.
Phillips said it’s difficult to discuss creationism in science classes, since few students are bold enough to respectfully challenge a professor in class and also because the subject is rarely addressed.
“Coming from a creationist perspective, there’s not a lot of tolerance for any kind of challenge [against evolution] whatsoever,” he said.
The University’s College of Biological Sciences includes creationism and intelligent design into its curriculum — both in introductory science courses and entire classes dedicated to the subject. The classes focus on the history of the concept and its scientific rebuttals.
But other student groups — like Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists — frequently sponsor debates on topics related to science and religion, and some members have attended Maranatha seminars to engage in discussion.
“They attempt to promote biblical literalism at a well-respected research university by cloaking [creationism] in scientific-sounding words,” said Chelsea Du Fresne, co-chair of CASH.
“The scientific community here does not feel obliged to give them a second glance,” she said.