Arch-creationist Ken Ham wants to train up a spiritual army of young Christian creationists. Does that count as child abuse?
I’m no creationist, but I just don’t think so.
Ham trumpeted the training of a new generation of young “soldiers” at an Answers In Genesis conference at Atlantic Shores Baptist Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. By teaching young people the truths of young-earth creationism, Ham claimed he was “preparing them for the spiritual war going on around us.”
This language of child soldiers makes me nervous. Plus, I don’t like the notion that young people are being turned away from real evolutionary science by this sort of religion posing as science. To me, this seems like another painful example of the ways faith has been tangled unnecessarily with real evolutionary science, resulting in bad science and tortured theology.
But it is child abuse?
Let’s look at both sides of this argument.
Why might someone call this child abuse?
1.) These young people are being told things are true, when they really aren’t. They are being taught, to cite just one example, that dinosaurs and humans coexisted a few thousand years ago. Worst of all, relationships of close trust between parents, teachers, and children are being exploited to promote the veracity of this false science. Loving mothers, loving fathers, caring teachers tell innocent young people that this is scientific truth. Ingenuous young people take their word for it. Such deception is abusive.
2.) In this essay, Ken Ham explicitly calls them soldiers—spiritual soldiers, but soldiers nonetheless. This seems a terrible violation. Young people should not be exploited as culture-war cannon fodder.
Why might defenders disagree?
1.) There is no threat or coercion here. Though it may come as a surprise to outsiders like me, Answers In Genesis makes it very clear that believing in a young earth and recent special creation are not required for Christian salvation. In other words, Ken Ham and his colleagues do not threaten young people with terrifying visions of hellfire if the children don’t embrace creationism.
2.) The parents and teachers seen here are apparently sincere in their belief that creationism is true. They are trying to pass that truth to their children and pupils. There’s nothing abusive in passing along the best knowledge to the next generation.
3.) Though science pundits such as Bill Nye have argued against it, believing the young-earth creationism of Answers In Genesis will not hurt the life chances of these young people. According to Gallup polls, nearly half of American adults share a belief that humanity has only been around for a few thousand years. And as I’ve argued elsewhere, careers in science-related fields do not seem thwarted by a belief in young-earth creationism. Consider the case of US Representative Paul C. Broun Jr. of Georgia. Broun is a fervent creationist, a medical doctor, and a member of Congress. Not a bad career!
Is it child abuse? No. And calling it that is irresponsible. After all, there is real child abuse out there. It is horrific and terrifyingly common. Calling this sort of science/religion education ‘child abuse’ is only an ill-considered scare tactic.
Perhaps this argument could use some illustration from another religious tradition. Consider the recent career of child abuse in the Catholic Church. As we all know only too well, the despicable actions of some priests and prelates in that church have caused untold suffering.
But the abuse perpetrated by members of the Catholic Church does not extend to its anti-scientific teachings. After all, the Catholic Church teaches young people that certain wafers and wine can magically transform into flesh and blood. And then young people are taught to eat that flesh and drink that blood. For outsiders like me, teaching children to engage in this sort of ritual cannibalism is creepy and anti-scientific. It is also demonstrably false: the wafers and wine are always really just wafers and wine. Nevertheless, it is not child abuse for Catholics to teach their children this mystery of transubstantiation. Calling such teaching ‘child abuse’ would disrespect the real suffering that real child abuse has caused within the Catholic Church.
A similar logic may apply in this case. The young-earth creationism peddled by Answers In Genesis is not true. But it is sincerely believed by its adherents. Teaching those ideas to young people is not child abuse.
Unfortunately, we can picture what real abuse might look like in similar cases. As Billy Graham’s grandson has pointed out recently, evangelical Protestant organizations have also engaged in real child abuse. They have conspired, just as did the Catholic hierarchy, to cover up that terrible real abuse. We could imagine a scenario in which a Protestant organization such as Answers In Genesis called together thousands of children and abused some of them.
But that is not the case here. This was an educational gathering. To call it ‘child abuse’ makes a mockery of the all-too-real threat of abuse.