The Hidden Tribes of Creationism

Care a lot about the age of the earth? The origin of humanity? The actual historical existence (or not) of Adam & Eve? If so, you’re an oddball. According to a new report, however, you’re an oddball who probably gets a lot more attention than you deserve.hidden tribes chart 1

In their study of culture-war polarization, the folks at More In Common didn’t ask directly about creationism. In their survey of 8,000 adult Americans, though, they came up with a bunch of categories into which Americans divide themselves. Instead of using the usual demographic categories of race, class, gender, age, religion, and so on, they split respondents into seven major groups:

  • Progressive Activists
  • Traditional Liberals
  • Passive Liberals
  • Politically Disengaged
  • Moderates
  • Traditional Conservatives
  • Devoted Conservatives

Time and time again, they found, the loudest voices on the margins dominated public debates, in spite of the fact that a large “Exhausted Majority” hoped for more compromise. As the report puts it,

Public debates are often dominated by voices that come from the furthest ends of the spectrum and who are the least interested in finding common ground. This makes it much harder to make progress on these issues, deepening the frustration felt by many in the middle.

On most issues, the people on the edges have diametrically opposed views and hold them very strongly. That is not the case for most people on most issues.

hidden tribes chart 2They didn’t ask specifically about creationism, but their findings translate well. As I’m arguing in my new book about creationism, Americans don’t really disagree as much about creationism and evolution as we’d think if we only read the headlines.

For example, when most people think about “creationism” these days—IF they think about creationism—they tend to think of the extreme young-earth creationists who make the most noise. Pundits such as Ken Ham dominate the headlines about “creationism,” even though their beliefs represent only a tiny fraction of the real landscape of American creationism.

Think about it: if we define “creationism” as a basic belief that some sort of higher power had something to do with the way life has come to be, then almost ALL Americans would fit into that category. Even leading “evolutionists” such as Ken Miller would fit. Professor Miller is one of America’s leading explainers and promoters of evolutionary theory, yet he is also a believing Christian. When it comes down to it, Miller wrote in his 1999 book Finding Darwin’s God,

God is every bit as creative in the present as He was in the past.

Is Prof. Miller a “creationist?” By any reasonable definition, of course he is. But when Americans fight about “creationism” vs. “evolution,” we don’t make room for the vast middle ground that includes religious scientists like Miller.

As the Hidden Tribes report states, most Americans

are going about their lives with absurdly inaccurate perceptions of each other.

Radical creationists think they are the only ones who care about God and creation. Radical atheists warn that creationist armies are scheming to turn public schools into madrassahs. In the vast middle ground, people think “creationism”  must include a radical belief in a literal world-wide flood or a literal special creation in the Garden of Eden.

It doesn’t. There are plenty of ways to be a “creationist” while still accepting the explanatory power of mainstream evolutionary theory. In reality, there isn’t a flat-out culture war between creationists and the rest of us. There can’t be, because in reality almost all Americans are creationists of one sort or another. And almost all Americans want their children to learn evolutionary science.

You can be excused for not believing it, though, because the loudmouths on the outer edges distort all of our discussions.

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  1. Time and time again, they found, the loudest voices on the margins dominated public debates, in spite of the fact that a large “Exhausted Majority” hoped for more compromise.

    This is a huge frustration. It make the nation look far more divided than it is.

    This appearance of division is mostly a creation of the media, including Internet social media, which amplify the extremes and pay little attention to the middle.

    As for creationists — yes, every theist is some sort of creationist, or should be some sort of creationist. But most of them to not cause problems. When people talk of “creationists” they are often referring to “vocal outspoken creationists”. But there are few of those, although they do make a lot of noise.

    Well, okay, the term “creationist” is often also applied to outspoken vocal anti-evolutionists, even though their own creationists beliefs might not be as extreme as their anti-evolutionism.

  2. Agellius

     /  November 20, 2018

    Yeah, that’s why I don’t follow the news. When you do, you get the feeling that Americans are constantly at each other’s throats. But when I go about my daily routine I see people getting along just fine, whether white or black, gay or straight, Christian or atheist. I’d rather live in that world.

  3. Agellius

     /  November 20, 2018

    Having now had a chance to look more closely at the graph that you posted, I noticed something. Maybe it was an error, but the “wings” are identified as the left-most column on the left, and the two right-most columns on the right. The remainder are called the “exhausted middle”. But why are “traditional conservatives” included the right “wing”, whereas “traditional liberals” are part of the “exhausted middle”?

    I love the finding that “tribal membership predicts differences in Americans’ views on various political issues better than demographic, ideological, and partisan groupings.”

    I noticed that on page 2 of the report, Progressive Activists are shown to be more uniform in their opinions than the opposite extreme, Devoted Conservatives. PAs’ ratios of agreement to disagreement on the given issues are 99:1, 99:1, 97:3 and 91:9; whereas the DCs’ ratios on the same issues are 10:90, 12:88, 18:82 and 12:88.

    • Yeah, I noticed that imbalance between the one group on the left wing and the two on the right. I’m not sure how they came up with that balance, but I’m planning on spending more time with the report this weekend and maybe I can find their explanation. And when it came to the biggest knock on the Progressive Activist identity, I thought it was in the following (pg. 74):

      Pressure to conform: The segment that reports feeling the most pressure from
      individuals of their own political ideology is the Progressive Activists, at 42 percent
      (compared to 29 percent average). Progressive Activists also feel more pressure
      from their party than others (41 percent v. 30 percent average). Sixty-one percent of
      Progressive Activists feel that Americans pressure each other to think and talk a certain
      way about issues, while only 37 percent of Devoted Conservatives felt the same way.


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