Are We in Danger from the Bigots and Ignoramuses?

Are you afraid of creationists? If you’re a secular, progressive person like me, you might be. You might fret that our school boards and textbook publishers are being bullied by radical creationists who want to inject theocratic rules into our classrooms. If that’s you, I’ve got two bits of good news for you. First, you’re not alone. And second, you’ve got nothing (much) to worry about.

Don’t get me wrong: It makes sense for us to be nervous. These days, the top levels of political power are in the hands of creationists or their puppets. The Ed Secretary, the Vice President, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development…all are devoted radical creationists. So why not worry?

Darrow and Bryan at Scopes

“Are you now or have you ever been…an ignoramus?”

After all, plenty of smart people have warned us about the looming creationist threat. Back in the first years of our current creation/evolution controversy, for example, Maynard Shipley warned that creationist “armies of ignorance” were forming, “literally by the millions, for a combined political assault on modern science.” As Shipley put it in 1927,

The Fundamentalists are well organized; they are in deadly earnest, believing as they do that their particular brand of religion cannot survive and flourish together with the teachings of religious liberalism and modern science.  For the first time in our history, organized knowledge has come into open conflict with organized ignorance.

Shipley wasn’t alone back then. Perhaps most famously, attorney Clarence Darrow literally made the case against creationism at the Scopes Trial. When creationist celebrity William Jennings Bryan said that Darrow wanted to poke fun at the Bible, Darrow disagreed. His goal, Darrow said, was

preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States.

These days, science activists share Darrow’s and Shipley’s worry. The National Center for Science Education, for example, named its blog in honor of Maynard Shipley’s 1920s-era Science League of America. As the NCSE’s Josh Rosenau explained, Shipley’s fight against creationist “armies of ignorance” was “eerily similar” to the NCSE’s twenty-first century mission.

Don’t get me wrong—I agree with Rosenau and his 1920s forebears. We all need to be vigilant to maintain the true inclusivity of our public schools. No single religious (or anti-religious) group can be allowed to dictate class content. Given free rein, creationist activists would love to do just that—to purge mainstream evolutionary science from the classroom. For that matter, many creationist activists would likely want to doctor the reading lists in English class too and take history classes in theocratic directions. Just ask David Barton.

But as I finish up my book about American creationism, I’m more convinced than ever that we don’t need to freak out. Why not? Because radical creationists these days aren’t even allowing themselves to dream about organizing in their millions for a combined political assault on modern science. Rather, radical creationists are preoccupied with far more limited sorts of activism. These days, radical creationists aren’t storming scientific citadels. Instead, they are building Berlin Walls to keep their fellow creationists inside their threatened and shrinking areas of influence.

How do I know?

This week, I’m reading Ken Ham’s 2009 book Already Gone. Ham is the organizational wizard behind America’s leading radical creationist outfit, Answers In Genesis. In Already Gone, Ham reports the findings of an AIG survey by sympathetic market researcher Britt Beemer. Beemer surveyed roughly 1,000 twentysomethings who had been brought up in radical young-earth creationist homes and churches.


A leak in the ark.

What did Beemer find? Most creationist twentysomethings had stopped going to church. Many of them had ditched their young-earth beliefs. Even more alarming to Beemer, the percentages of young people who had moved from young-earth creationism to an acceptance of evolutionary theory was higher among people who had regularly attended creationist Sunday-school classes. That’s right—going to a young-earth Sunday school every week when they were kids tended to make creationists abandon radical young-earth creationism in their twenties.

In light of those scary (to them) findings, Ham and Beemer made some suggestions. Long term, yes, Ham wants to foment a true “revolution” in American society. He really does want to “change the culture.” In other words, Ham would love to organize his creationist armies in their millions for a combined assault on modern science. But “strategically,” Ham argues, radical young-earth creationists need to recognize that their armies are melting away. The goal of young-earth creationists, Ham insists, must be—for now—to turn inward, to focus on teaching their children how to remain radical in the face of overwhelming social pressure to renounce young-earth beliefs. (Quotes from page 165, sixth printing, 2009.)

So, if you’re a secular person, should you be nervous about the political influence of theocratically minded creationists? In one sense, you should. Activists like Ken Ham don’t pretend they don’t want to move America back toward an imagined golden age of fundamentalist dominance. But in a day-to-day sense, you don’t need to worry. Radical creationists these days are on the defensive. They might fuss and fume about changing laws and SCOTUS decisions, but in fact they are preoccupied with patching holes in their own sinking ship.


Is the Creationist Purge Coming?

You’ve heard the hype: Mainstream colleges are fanatically biased against dissenting academics, especially conservative religious ones. The reality seems to be a little more complicated. News from a few mainstream schools seems to show that many institutions really do protect the academic freedom of conservative dissenters, but there seem to be fuzzy and inexact lines professors aren’t allowed to cross. Is creationism one of them?

If you asked George Yancey or Mary Poplin, you’d hear that mainstream higher education is blinded by “Christianophobia” or “secular privilege.” You’d think that conservative academics, especially religious ones, are common targets of institutional purges.

EPSON DSC picture

First they came for the communists…

Recent reporting from Inside Higher Ed, however, shows a more complicated picture. Virginia Tech is under pressure to fire a teaching assistant who has been accused of harboring white-supremacist feelings. Northwestern, meanwhile (my Evanston alma mater, that is, not the Minnesota fundamentalist redoubt), refuses to fire a professor for denying the Holocaust. In both cases, from what I can tell, the politically abhorrent ideas seem to have nothing to do with the accused academic’s teaching. In other words, neither of the teachers taught anyone white supremacy or Holocaust denial.

If they did, I bet the situation would be different. Consider, for example, the case of Crystal Dixon at the University of Toledo. Dixon argued publicly that discrimination against homosexuals might be acceptable. Toledo said such notions weren’t in line with Dixon’s job as a human-resources administrator. She was out.

As far as your humble editor can discern, the awkward and unclear rule of thumb seems to be that the right of professors, administrators, and students to harbor extremely unpopular ideas will be defended. Unless those ideas interfere with the written job description of the person involved. Or unless the person doesn’t have tenure protection. Or unless the idea is really really unpopular.

Where does that leave academic creationists?

I can see how the average non-creationist might think it would be a no-brainer. It might seem that protecting professors who disagree with central tenets of their own discipline would be absurd. How could a young-earth creationist teach a mainstream geology class? How could someone who disbelieves in “macroevolution” teach a mainstream biology class?

Yet in case after case, dissenting creationist scientists keep their jobs. Consider Eric Hedin at Ball State. He was granted tenure even after being accused of pushing creationism in the classroom. And what about Michael Behe at Lehigh? The prominent intelligent-design proponent has kept his job, even though his colleagues posted a disclaimer against Behe’s work on their website.

For what it’s worth, I think those strategies are correct. Purging professors for their opinions sets a terrible precedent. But I won’t be surprised if the alleged white-supremacist at Virginia Tech loses his job. For one thing, he doesn’t have tenure. For another, white supremacy is such a despised idea that I’d be hard pressed to imagine any administrators fighting too hard to defend it.

So here’s the ILYBYGTH prediction: The Virginia Tech TA will lose his job, in spite of the fact that he should seemingly enjoy the protection of academic freedom. And creationists will continue to wonder if their institutions are scheming to replace them. I don’t blame them. Ask Scott Nearing—all too often, academic freedom is only granted to those with whom we already agree.

What’s Wrong with Princeton?

Why is young-earth impresario Ken Ham mad at Princeton University? It doesn’t have anything to do with creationism…unless we really understand creationism.

You’d think Ken Ham wouldn’t give a fig about the goings-on at elite Princeton University. After all, Ham—the brains behind Kentucky’s Creation Museum and Ark Encounter—won’t even recommend evangelical colleges such as Wheaton. You’d think he’d have given up on no-longer-evangelical colleges like Princeton a long time ago. Yet Ham is furious at Princeton.

What’s Ham’s beef?

As Ham laments on his blog, Princeton’s Office of Religious Life co-sponsored an event supporting Planned Parenthood. As he puts it,

When universities like Princeton back Planned Parenthood, they abandon a commitment to dialoguing about healthcare or women’s rights. Rather they show a commitment to the violent ending of a life—the life of the unborn. And that is a commitment that harms women, families, and children. We need to stand up for those without a voice and encourage women to choose life for their babies. Abortion is nothing less than the sacrifice of children to the god of self.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but some folks might be wondering what any of that pro-life stuff has to do with creationism. Isn’t creationism about the ways humans came to be? Why are creationist activists talking about abortion, much less the activities of a purportedly untrustworthy university like Princeton?

As I’m arguing in my current book, if we really want to understand creationism, we have to come to grips with a couple of points highlighted by this story.

First, creationism as a whole doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with abortion. There are plenty of people out there who believe that God created humanity AND support the work of Planned Parenthood. When we talk about the tight connections between creationism and anti-abortion activism, we’re only talking about one type of creationism, the sort of creationism on offer at Ham’s Creation Museum.

foundations AIG

The REAL battle, as seen from Kentucky.


Second, as Ham is fond of pointing out, evolutionary thinking is not only about science, but about an all-enveloping worldview that undercuts true Christian belief. Creationism, as Ham sees it, is about more than young-earth science. It is about a deeply conservative sort of faith, one in which same-sex marriage, abortion, drug use, premarital sex, and a host of other social ills are the flowers of a poisoned evolutionary seed. For Ham and his young-earth creationist allies, the issues of abortion and evolution are intimately joined, even if they are not for other types of creationist.

Seen in this light, it makes perfect sense for Ken Ham to be mad at Princeton. For Ham, abortion IS a creationism question.

The Real Face of Radical Creationism

Smart people keep saying it, but it’s just not true. And for people like me who want more and better evolution education, the news gets even worse.

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again. Even the best-informed science pundits think radical creationism is somehow uniquely American.

If we needed any more evidence that radical creationism is not at all “unique to the United States,” as Bill Nye asserts, we see news this morning from the besieged nation of South Korea. United Press International reports on the confirmation hearing of Park Seong-jin. Like many of his compatriots, Mister Park believes that this planet was created by divine fiat at some point about 6,000 years ago. Park is an engineering professor and nominee for the ministry of small businesses.


Park’s creationism is a complicated post-modern affair.

Park is not alone in his beliefs. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, Turkey’s government has passed some radical anti-evolution laws in the recent past. Even here in the US of A, our leading radical creationist is an Australian import.

So don’t listen next time someone tries to tell you there is something uniquely American about radical creationism. It’s just not true.

And the news for secular people like me gets worse.

You’ll also hear people tell you that radical creationism is a vestige of ancient hypocrisies, destined to wither in the face of modernity and the march of science.

Turkish education minister cuts evolution

Durmus’s is a little more straightforward.

Alas, also not true. Radical creationism is profoundly modern, only really emerging into its own in the 1960s. And, though we might gnash our teeth and pull our hair about it, radical creationism is actually a very reasonable response to the changes in church and society that went on in the 1960s.

Let me be clear here: I don’t think radical creationism is true, or based on good evidence, or anything like that. But I am convinced that radical creationists often (not always) have decent reasons for their beliefs, at least as reasonable as most non-creationists’ belief in the truth of evolutionary theory.

Ken Ham

Only Ken Ham’s includes ziplines…

As I argue in my upcoming books (you’ll be able to get Fundamentalist U sometime soon. Why Is Jesus on a Dinosaur is still simmering), conservative evangelicals faced a tough choice in the late 1950s, and even if you don’t agree with it—I certainly don’t—the choice of radical young-earth creationism makes perfect sense.

That’s why it is not confined to hillbilly hollers and Kentucky amusement parks. Radical creationism is a global phenomenon, unintimidated by its lack of mainstream scientific credibility. It is not an ancient truth clinging on in pockets of know-nothingism, but a reasonable (if false and unnecessary) way to make sense of life in our modern world.

We Need More Wax in America’s Ears

Jonathan Zimmerman says let her talk. When we defend academic speech we disagree with, we defend ALL academic speech. Jonathan Haidt says let her talk, because she’s right. Stable marriages and “bourgeois culture,” Haidt agrees, really do help people improve their economic conditions. We here at ILYBYGTH want Professor Wax to have her say for different reasons. We’ll make our case this morning and we’re going for bonus points by working in both creationism and the Green Bay Packers.

aaron rodgers jesus

I don’t think St. Aaron attended Penn Law…

If you haven’t been following the frouforole emanating out of Philadelphia, here it is in a nutshell: Professor Amy Wax of Penn Law and Professor Larry Alexander of UCLA penned a provocative piece at If we really want to ease the burdens of poverty, they reasoned, we should encourage more people to embrace “bourgeois culture.” Such ideas have gotten a bum rap, Wax and Alexander said, but the notions of deferred gratification, stable two-parent households, and patriotic clean living are of enormous economic value.

The outcry was loud and predictable. Penn students rallied to shut down such “white supremacist” notions. Wax’s colleagues denounced her ideas in more nuanced form.

Any progressive historians in the room surely share Professor Zimmerman’s concern. After all, when academic speech has been banned and persecuted in this country, it has been progressive and leftist scholars who have borne the brunt of such punishment.

There is a more important reason to allow and encourage a frank and open airing of Professor Wax’s arguments. As recent polls have reminded us, Americans in general are profoundly divided about the meaning of poverty. For argument’s sake, we might say there are two general sides. Lots of us think that the most important cause of poverty is a social system that defends its own built-in hierarchies. Rich people stay rich and poor people stay poor. Lots of other people disagree. Many Americans tend to blame individuals for their poverty, to assume that personal characteristics such as grit and gumption are enough to solve the problem of poverty.

Professor Wax’s argument tends to support the latter view. And if you disagree with her, you might be tempted to try to shut her down.

That’s a mistake.

Why? Because her arguments just don’t hold water. And because the more often we can get discussions of poverty on the front pages, the more chances we’ll have to make better arguments, to explain that America’s anxiously held Horatio-Alger notions don’t match reality.

In other words, when it comes to tackling the problem of poverty in America, the biggest challenge is that people simply don’t want to talk about it. They want to rest in their comfortable assumptions that the system is fundamentally fair even if some people don’t have what it takes to get ahead.

I’m convinced that the truth is different. Personal characteristics matter, of course. Far more important, however, is the whole picture—the social system that puts some kids on a smooth escalator to riches and others in a deep economic pit with a broken ladder.

Because I’m convinced that the best social-science evidence supports my position, I want to hear more from people like Professor Wax. I want to encourage people who disagree to make their cases in the front pages of every newspaper in the country.

Sound nutty? Consider a couple of examples from near and far.

Radical creationists like Ken Ham want to protect children from the idea of evolution. They fear, in short, that students who hear the evidence for evolution will find it convincing. With a few prominent exceptions, radical creationists want to cut evolution from textbooks and inoculate students against evolution’s powerful intellectual allure.

Those of us who want to help children learn more and better science should welcome every chance to put the evidence for mainstream evolutionary theory up against the evidence for radical young-earth creationism. Mainstream science should never try to shut down dissident creationist science. That’s counter-productive. Rather, mainstream science should encourage frank and open discussions, knowing that exposure to the arguments on both sides will convince more and more people of the power of mainstream thinking.

Or, for my Wisconsin friends, consider another example.

If a Bears fan wants to clamber up on the bar and insist that her team is better than the Packers, it would be the height of folly to try to stop her from speaking her piece. Those of us who know the true saving grace of St. Aaron will instead happily let her slur through her argument, smiling and waiting for Thursday night. The more games we play, the more often the Packers will win.

When the evidence is on our side, it is always better to encourage all the debate we can get.

Creationist College History, Part II: Parting the Waters

I know, I know, it has been hard to sleep for the last couple days. With the cliff-hanger ending of my last guest post about evangelical colleges at Righting America at the Creation Museum, I’m sure it has been difficult to wait for the sequel.genesis flood 1961 ed

Well, wait no longer: Today at RACM you can read the second half of my argument about the way evangelical higher education influenced the career of American creationism.

What Goes on at Creationist Colleges?

Thanks to Bill and Sue Trollinger, the wizards behind Righting America at the Creation Museum, I’ve had a chance to share a few of my ideas about the vital role played by higher education in the evolution of American creationism.

Gustafson chimes cartoon bible a myth at many colleges

Evolution has always been forbidden fruit, but not always in the same ways. This cartoon came from Biola University’s student paper, c. 1939.

This morning RACM has kindly published the first half of my argument about the tangled and troubled history of creationism at America’s evangelical and fundamentalist colleges and institutes. As you might suspect, even though fundamentalists all agreed that evolution was bad, they didn’t agree on much more than that.

Check out the full two-part argument at Righting America at the Creation Museum.

What Is the REAL Deal with Fundamentalists and the Big Eclipse?

As Bart Simpson put it best, “The ironing is delicious.” Secular folks like me blast kooky fundamentalists for their wacky ignorance of science, while we ourselves show a curiously stubborn ignorance about what fundamentalists really believe. Tomorrow’s big eclipse gives us another example of the way most outsiders don’t understand conservative evangelical culture.

What are fundamentalists thinking about tomorrow’s eclipse? It might be tempting to agree with the right-wing watchers at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The AU folks stumbled across a blog post from Billy Graham’s daughter Anne Graham Lotz. Lotz worried that the eclipse is meant as a warning of God’s impending judgment on the USA. Foolish Americans, Lotz warned, are blithely

preparing to mark this significant event with viewing parties at exclusive prime sites. The celebratory nature regarding the eclipse brings to my mind the Babylonian King Belshazzar who threw a drunken feast the night the Medes and Persians crept under the city gate.  While Belshazzar and his friends partied, they were oblivious to the impending danger.  Belshazzar wound up dead the next day, and the Babylonian empire was destroyed.

At Americans United, Rob Boston warned that this sort of blather proved the sad truth about “fundamentalist Christians these days.” Folks like Lotz, Boston wrote, wallow in their

utter repudiation of science. It’s not that they can’t understand it – they choose not to try. Furthermore, they often heap disdain upon it.

Now, I’m no fundamentalist and I’m not worried that the eclipse is a fulfillment of Joel 2:31 or Ezekiel 33:1-6. In fact, I don’t really care what the Bible says about eclipses or anything else. But as I work on my new book about American creationism and my soon-to-be-released book about the history of evangelical higher ed, I can’t help but protest that Boston’s viewpoint is astoundingly ironic. Secular anti-fundamentalists like Boston (and me) need to do more to understand the real relationship between conservative evangelical religion and mainstream science. Too often, it’s not that we can’t understand it, it’s that we choose not to try. And then we often heap disdain upon it.

…oh, the ironing!

In fact, even the most conservative radical creationist institutions in these United States are acting remarkably similar to mainstream institutions in their embrace of tomorrow’s eclipse as a way to bring science to the masses. To be sure, it’s a very different sort of science, what ILYBYGTH calls “zombie science,” but it is nearly the opposite of an “utter repudiation” of science. Radical creationists LOVE science; they engage in endless missionary outreach to bring their vision of real Biblical science to the benighted secular and moderate-evangelical multitudes.

At Answers In Genesis, for example, radical creationist missionaries are falling all over themselves to help curious people view the eclipse and draw the correct scientific lessons from it.

At fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, administrators are pulling out all the stops to use the eclipse to spread the word. Located right in the path of totality, BJU is hosting a huge party, with speakers explaining the proper way to understand the relationship between the Bible and science.

bju eclipse

Belshazzar at BJU?

Bryan College, too, another creationist stalwart, is throwing a viewing party on campus, with faculty experts offering lectures on the proper fundamentalist way to understand eclipses.

Are these radical-creationist institutions saying the same thing as secular institutions about the eclipse? Of course not. No secular scientific experts care much about the Bible’s explanation of eclipses. But just as secular scientific organizations are using eclipse mania to attract attention to their programs, so too are these creationist groups crowing about their scientific expertise and their many scientific resources.

So, even though some conservative evangelicals are warning people away from viewing parties and eclipse-related hubbubbery, many more are using the eclipse as a way to explain their vision of the proper relationship between God and science.

Do YOU Hate Science?

We all know the stereotypes: Conservatives love God and hate science, vice versa for progressives. But it’s utterly untrue, and every once in a while we see new evidence to prove it. These days, the frouforale over James Damore’s gender/diversity manifesto at Google has us asking the question again: Who hates science?

We’ll get to Damore’s story in a minute, but first, a necessary reminder. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing this, but I’m not interested in attacking or defending Damore. If I have to pick a side, I’ll generally stick with my progressive roots. Luckily, I don’t have to pick a side, so today I’ll bring up more interesting questions. I’m working these days on a new book about American creationism. One of the vital points to understanding creationism, especially the radical young-earth variant, is that creationists are not anti-science. Creationists LOVE science.

As anthropologist Chris Toumey puts it in his terrific and under-appreciated book God’s Own Scientists, radical creationists are just like the rest of America. They don’t dispute the authority of capital-s Science. In Toumey’s words, radical creationists have deep faith in the

plenary authority of science; that is, the idea that something is more valuable and more credible when it is believed that science endorses it.

For radical creationists, the problem isn’t science. The problem, rather, is that benighted false scientists have hijacked science and replaced it with ideologically driven materialism.

Of course, to the rest of us, creationists’ preference for their own bizarre “zombie science” makes their claims to love science hardly credible. To the rest of us, radical creationists seem to insist on their own outlandish scientific beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence from real science.

Are Damore’s opponents guilty of the same thing?

If you haven’t followed the story, Damore was a Google engineer who was fired for a leaked ten-page memo. In the memo, Damore opined that Google’s diversity policy was deeply flawed. The goal of hiring equal numbers of male and female engineers, Damore wrote, didn’t match reality. In fact, Damore wrote, there are biological differences between men and women that make men—as a statistical group—more interested in engineering.

Like Larry Summers before him, Damore was fired and vilified for his words. And like ex-president Summers, Damore insisted he was only citing scientific data.

At least one scientist agrees with Damore. Writing in the Globe and Mail, Debra Soh argues that

the memo was fair and factually accurate. Scientific studies have confirmed sex differences in the brain that lead to differences in our interests and behaviour.

I’m no scientist, of gender or anything else. But conservative pundits have latched onto Soh’s comments to howl that progressives are just as blind to real science as are radical religious folks. As Benedictine pundit Rod Dreher frothed wordily,

Gender non-essentialists are the young earth creationists of the Left.

Maybe, maybe not. But in one thing, at least, Dreher is exactly right. Just like young-earth creationists, the anti-Damorists insist they have real science on their side. When it comes to culture-war issues—whether it’s the nature of gender or the origin of our species—everyone insists they are the side of true science.

The Dog That Didn’t Bark

Heading for the beach? Be sure to take along some classic beach reading: Chapter Three of our Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation!NCSE TECN excerpt

The National Center for Science Education has posted an excerpt from our book on its website. I hope this brings in some new readers.

Now all you cheapskates out there can get a taste of our book without plunking down twenty bucks to read the whole thing.

In this chapter, I make my case that the crucial period in our twentieth-century battles over creationism and evolution education was not the 1920s with its Scopes Trial, or the 1960s with its flood of young-earth creationist activism. Rather, if we really want to understand the creation/evolution debate, we have to understand what happened on both sides between 1930 and 1960, when the battle moved out of the headlines.

At least, that’s the argument I try to make in this chapter. It’s no surprise to SAGLRROILYBYGTH, but I firmly believe that both sides in our current creation/evolution debate will benefit from understanding a little bit more about each other and about the history of their disagreement. And now, thanks to the National Center for Science Education, maybe a few more science geeks and teachers will check out our book.