Evolution Proves Creationism

It’s difficult for people like me to understand. How is it possible in this day and age that so many of my fellow Americans deny a basic fact of modern science? How is it possible that a significant proportion of American adults—even college-educated adults—think that our species was created de novo about 6,000 years ago in an Iraqi garden? A recent review of the psychology of denialism offers one challenging suggestion: Human brains evolved to remain creationist.

Denialism better

I may disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death my ability not to hear it…

As I’m arguing in my new book, the usual explanations just don’t hold water. The Richard Dawkinses of the world tend to think of creationism—at least the radical young-earth kind—as a kind of simple deficit. As Dawkins famously opined in 1989, creationists would have to be

ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

For those of us who understand the history and nature of America’s radical young-earth creationists, Dawkins’ dismissal doesn’t fit the evidence. Even if we are staunchly anti-creationist, if we’re paying attention we can’t help but notice that plenty of creationists know a lot about evolutionary theory. They are clearly intelligent and in possession of their mental faculties. And they might be wicked, that doesn’t seem to be a primary factor in their creationism.

A recent review article in The Economist points in a more promising direction. Studies show that people will usually accept a financial penalty rather than listening to arguments from the other side. They often compare the experience of listening to opposing viewpoints to “having a tooth pulled.”

enigma of reason

The evolution of creationism…

Why? Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argue that human reason is not the engine of pure enlightenment it is often considered. Instead, reasoning evolved as a way to encourage group cooperation. In their words,

What reason does . . . is help us justify our beliefs and actions to others . . . and evaluate the justifications and arguments that others address to us.

What does this have to do with the durability of radical young-earth creationism? In spite of the accusations of angry Oxonians like Richard Dawkins, creationists have not abandoned their ability to reason and weigh evidence. Rather, if these cognitive psychologists are correct, human reasoning ability will tend to lead to greater in-group cohesion.

The brains of radical creationists tend to favor evidence that supports the dominant views of their group. They tend to dismiss evidence and arguments that go against them. This isn’t something unique to creationists. All our brains work in similar fashion. We don’t weigh facts evenly or dispassionately. We don’t even hear them that way. Rather, our brains seem hard-wired to accept facts that help us fit in with our groups.

In short, why are so many Americans creationists? Because they evolved that way.


Pearl Harbor

Teaching Pearl Harbor today? Or just interested in finding out more about the attack?pearl harbor ng attack map

If you haven’t yet seen it, I recommend checking out National Geographic’s “Remembering Pearl Harbor.” It has a lot of great features for students of any age, including videos from Japanese attack planes and searchable maps of the islands.

Sorry, I Didn’t Catch Your Name

What do we call them? When we want to talk about white, American, conservative evangelicals, is there a better, shorter, catchier term? Otherwise we either have to keep saying “evangelicals” when we don’t really mean ALL evangelicals, or keep repeating the whole too-long description.



I’ll plead guilty. In Fundamentalist U I often talked about “evangelicals,” when I really usually meant white, American, conservative evangelicals from the 20th-century interdenominational fundamentalist tradition. In a book, I feel like I can get away with using “evangelicals” as a short version of that long mouthful, because in context (I hope) it was clear what kind of evangelical I was talking about.

In other formats, though, I would like a better term. For example, in talking with journalist Trey Kay today of Us & Them fame, I kept wanting a better, clearer term. We kept talking about what “evangelicals” thought about the supposed War on Christmas. And I kept having to pause and specify that it wasn’t really evangelicals as a whole we were talking about. We were only talking about that specific subgroup: white American conservative evangelicals.

It is not a nitpick or a quibble. It is a vital and important distinction.

us and them war on christmas

Why are the evangelicals so mad? …they aren’t.

But to my knowledge, there is not a convenient, catchy, everyday term out there to capture what we mean. Is there one out there already? Or can we invent one?

Some of the options out there are no good. I’m not okay with “Christian Right” as a label. It can be useful in some cases, but if we’re talking specifically about conservative evangelicals, then it doesn’t fit. Sure, many evangelicals WANT to claim the right to speak for all Christians, but it doesn’t really do justice to the diversity of conservative Christianity.

Or, how about John Fea’s term “court evangelical?” Since 2016, it has been a great term to understand the kind of evangelical who has jumped on the Trump train. For these purposes, however, “court evangelical” is too specific to our current time and place.

We need a term that captures what we really want to talk about, without having to say “white American conservative evangelical” every time. And without having awkwardly to correct everyone who says “evangelical” when they really mean “white American conservative evangelical.”

It has to be pronounceable. And short enough to use regularly.

How about CAWE? Or WACE? CWAEP? (pronounced see-wape, with the “P” from Protestant) CAWEP? I don’t like any of those, but I prefer them to our current muddled practice. Any better ideas out there?

Thanksgiving, ILYBYGTH Style

Ah…Thanksgiving. The holiday that brings us together to yell at each other and watch football. How can one Thursday fire up so much culture-war angst? How can it help explain both Rush Limbaugh and creationism?


This year, as your humble editor prepares to head to an undisclosed location somewhere in Ohio to avoid any hint of culture-war histrionics, we stumbled across the ILYBYGTH Thanksgiving archives. Check out some of the ghosts of ILYBYGTH Thanksgivings past:

First, how does Thanksgiving help us understand the way schools really work? For everything from sex ed to evolution, Thanksgiving dinners can serve as metaphors for the real reasons why it is so hard to get schools to dive into controversial issues.

Second, were the Pilgrims really communists? And why do conservative pundits say they were? It seems to me conservatives would want to defend the tradition of friendly buckle-wearing Pilgrims.

Next, how does Thanksgiving play a role in climate-change culture wars? Some advice from the folks at National Center for Science Education.

Finally, some bad Thanksgiving advice on how to outsmart your crazy right-wing (or left-wing) uncles.

Fundamentalist U at HES

Maybe I should have taken a quantitative turn at Albuquerque! I was honored and delighted to have a group of top historians discuss Fundamentalist U at the recent History of Education Society meeting in sunny Albuquerque. They raised some tough questions and we had a great discussion about the need for a better historical understanding of evangelical higher education.

The panel was put together by Professor Andrea Turpin of Baylor University. She invited academic heavy-hitters AJ Angulo, Milton Gaither, and Katrina Sanders. The inestimable Jonathan Zimmerman served as our chair.

HES 2018

Professors Sanders, Gaither, Angulo, and Turpin. Yours truly in the back.

All of the panelists had nice things to say about the book, which was great to hear. But they also raised insightful questions. For example, why doesn’t the book include a clearer description of the numbers of institutions involved? It would have been fairly easy to do and it would have helped readers get a sense of the scope of the evangelical-college movement over time.

Also, the book claims to examine the history of evangelical higher education, but it leaves out large swathes of evangelical schools. Where are the Pentecostals? The Peace-Church schools? It’s a fair point and one I readily acknowledge. The focus of my book is on a subgroup of the evangelical tradition, schools that called themselves “fundamentalist” at some point in time.

We talked about the top-down focus of the book, too. Yes, I tried hard to include student experiences as much as possible, but the central theme of the book, as Professor Gaither pointed out, was

the narrow channel administrators had to navigate between the Scylla of angry fundamentalists watching their every move for signs of creeping secularization and the Charybdis of parents, students, and accreditation bodies who wanted to make sure that the education being provided was respectable.

Last but not least, we discussed the challenges of my sources. In some cases, I was only given access to small parts of archival collections. I wasn’t allowed at all into some archives, like at Bryan College. How did this curated set of papers influence my ability to draw fair conclusions?

All fair questions. And, as I particularly appreciate, questions that demonstrate a keen understanding of the book and my goals. Even given these limitations, I consider the book to be worthwhile. (To be clear, the panelists agreed on this point as well.)

First of all, for historians and others interested in American higher ed, we absolutely must include this family of institutions in our considerations. Too often, we hear pundits and policy-makers talk about the ideological draft of “American higher ed” in ways that seem willfully blind to the true diversity of the higher-ed landscape.

Second, though this wasn’t the focus of these educational historians, we will never understand religious bodies and religious identities if we don’t do a better job of studying affiliated educational institutions. As I argued in Fundamentalist U, too often observers and historians have assumed that we should understand fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism on theological grounds. That’s useful, but it’s not enough. If we really hope to get a handle on what it has meant to be an evangelical, we need to see what evangelicals have done with their schools. And we need to ask why.

[Oh, and I also saw a roadrunner. I guess they’re like pigeons down there…]

HES 2018 roadrunner

meep meep.

The Myth of Evangelical Political History Just Won’t Die

It happens sometimes. Academic historians think they have consigned a myth safely to long-deserved oblivion, only to see it pop up again and again. This time, New York Times journalist Clyde Haberman repeats the tired old falsehood that conservative evangelicals only got into politics in the 1970s. What do we have to do to get rid of this misleading but popular timeline?

Gods own party

Read a book…

Here’s the story the way it is often told: White evangelicals had always steered clear of politics, but when Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, conservative white evangelicals rallied against him. Jerry Falwell Sr. led them out of their churches and into polling booths to elect Ronald Reagan and become a political force.

It’s a compelling timeline, but it’s just not true.

So why do intelligent journalists keep taking the myth at face value? As Haberman puts it incorrectly,

American evangelicals had long steered clear of politics, but with the advent of Moral Majority that was no longer so.

It just didn’t happen that way. Even the celebrity historians Haberman talks to could have told him that. For example, in the long video, Dartmouth’s Randall Balmer gives the real story. In the late 1970s, Balmer explained,

For really the first time in any significant way, evangelicalism becomes interlocked with the Republican Party.

Getting into bed with the GOP is not at all the same thing as getting into politics. I thought historians such as Daniel K. Williams had long made this point clear to everyone. As Williams put it in God’s Own Party,

evangelicals gained prominence during Ronald Reagan’s campaign not because they were speaking out on political issues—they had been doing this for decades—but because they were taking over the Republican Party. It was an event more than fifty years in the making.

Similarly, Matthew Sutton underlined the point that white evangelicals had never really been out of politics. As Professor Sutton put it in American Apocalypse, the “rise-fall-rebirth” story of evangelical involvement in politics was beloved by fundamentalist leaders such as Jerry Falwell Sr., but it doesn’t match the historical record. As Sutton explained, fundamentalists’


…for Christ’s sake!

agenda was always about more than correct theology; it was also about reclaiming and then occupying American culture.

I told a similar story in Fundamentalist U. Especially at Bible Institutes, the long-held and cherished myth that evangelicals were above politics is just not true. Even at the other-worldliest of schools, Moody Bible Institute, leaders in the 1920s such as James M. Gray always considered themselves ardent political operatives. Sorry to quote myself, but as I wrote in Fundamentalist U, in 1928,

When MBI’s radio station came under political pressure . . . Gray came out swinging. “The time for fighting has begun,” Gray intoned ominously. If MBI’s lawyer was not powerful enough to protect the school’s rights, Gray insisted, then the school should enlist the political support of allies such as Missouri senator James M. Reed. There was no doubt in Gray’s mind that his institution must engage with mainstream politics. Retreat and withdrawal, Gray reasoned, would compromise his school’s missionary testimony.

As the savvy historians quoted in the NYT piece are very well aware—leaders in the field such as Randall Balmer and John Fea—there has never been a time when white evangelicals were really out of politics. Rather, unique among American religious groups, America’s white evangelicals have always considered themselves both outside the world and, in America at least, the proper people to be in charge of it.

It has been white evangelical leaders who have promoted this myth that they were once outside of politics, and only reluctantly got involved in the scary secular seventies. If we really want to understand American history and politics—let alone the enormous support for Trump among white evangelicals—we need to stop re-telling this convenient evangelical myth as if it were true.

Love Letters from Unexpected Quarters

There aren’t a lot of heroes in Julie Schumacher’s new novel. SAGLRROILYBYGTH will be able to imagine my surprise when I discovered Schumacher’s surprising exception. It wasn’t really the main character, a crusty and cynical novelist and chair of the English Department. It wasn’t even the out-of-touch Shakespeare scholar who insisted on keeping the liberal arts in a liberal arts college. No, the only character that came out as truly sympathetic didn’t come out of the world of elite higher ed but rather from the closed-off world of evangelical home schooling. And it leads us to a bigger question: Do the conservative skeptics have more allies in mainstream higher-ed than they realize?

shakespeare requirement

We’re (almost) all adrift…

I don’t want to give away too much of Schumacher’s plot, so I’ll tell my own story instead. When I first took my current job, a friend in the English Department of the high school at which I worked gave me a copy of Richard Russo’s Straight Man.

“Read it,” my friend said. “You’ll need it.”

Straight Man was my introduction to the field of higher-ed satire. In the novel, a bumbling hero fights to keep college less insane. As the imagined traditions of liberal-arts education crumple in the face of careerism, credentialism, and ruthless bottom lines, Russo’s straight man can only offer ridiculousness in protest.

More recently, one of my current colleagues recommended Schumacher’s fantastic higher-ed satire, Dear Committee Members. Schumacher offered a witheringly on-point send-up of today’s higher-ed scene, with embittered English professor Jay Fitger revealing through a series of recommendation letters his dwindling influence at Payne University. Hilarious and bitterly accurate.

So it was with a lot of eagerness that I finally got my hands on The Shakespeare Requirement. In this novel, Jay Fitger is back, and Payne University is still wallowing in the unenviable position of a small liberal-arts college. In a nutshell, the plot revolves around an attempt to bring the school—and its wacky English Department—into the contemporary world of mainstream higher education.

External funding rules the campus, and notions such as knowledge for knowledge’s sake are out the window. Under pressure, the English Department eliminates its requirement of a Shakespeare class for all English majors. Antics ensue.

All told, I’m pretty disappointed by the novel. It does not capture the wit and weariness that made Dear Committee Members so good. But it does include a curious celebration. Few of the characters or types come off well in the novel. Students are lazy and selfish. Professors are either grasping or clueless. The administration is, at best, pathetic.

Given the bleak landscape, I was surprised to find Schumacher’s ray of hope. One character shines. Angela Vackrey is a freshman, from a family that didn’t want her to come to Payne. She had been homeschooled in a rigorously conservative evangelical household. Angela wanted to find out more about the world than

The pile of paperbound workbooks (Broad Horizon: A Christian’s Historical Perspective) next to the chicken-and-egg-shaped salt and pepper shakers on the maple table where she had completed her schoolwork at home.

Angela is not at all typical of Payne students. For one thing, Schumacher tells us, she still dresses as if she were at church:

Unlike most of the young women in the room, who dressed as if stopping by class on their way to a nightclub, she wore a homely denim skirt and white buttoned blouse.

Also unlike most Payne students, Angela takes her school work seriously. As Professor Fitger discovered, Angela’s writing

Evinced a startling ability to think clearly, express original ideas, and write.

At Payne University, in any case, such abilities make Angela stand out. Her modesty, temperance, and hard work are a stark and startling contrast to the rest of the student body, and even to the debauched faculty.

Indeed, if this novel were to some from some of the usual conservative suspects—higher-ed critics such as Rod Dreher or Peter Wood—it wouldn’t be very interesting at all. But as far as I can tell, Professor Schumacher is no conservative. The yearnings of her characters are not for a purer, Christian society. Rather, Jay Fitger is utterly adrift, and at times, sympathetically so.

In the end, The Shakespeare Requirement is, like Professor Fitger, rudderless. Yet even from that position of cynical drift, Schumacher seems to yearn for a better world, one that can only be maintained by fundamentalist strictures that no one can abide.

I Am Out of Whack

I’m absolutely flummoxed. New poll numbers reported in The Economist make me wonder how I got so out of whack with what most people are thinking. Am I missing something?metoo backlash economist

Here’s what we know: According to The Economist,

this year-long storm of allegations, confessions and firings has actually made Americans more sceptical [sic–wacky Brits] about sexual harassment.

With only one categorical exception, it appears the respondents in the Economist poll tend to feel more suspicious today about women who complain about sexual harassment than they did last year. Only Clinton voters, that is, are more likely today to think that twenty-year-old harassment accusations are worth acting upon. And even those Clinton voters are more likely now to think that false accusations are a bigger problem than unreported assaults, and that women’s complaints cause more problems than they solve.

Can I really be this out of touch with majority opinion? In my imagination, at least, the last year has provided a public coming-to-terms with the dangers and demons of sexual harassment. It has forced all of us to reckon with old demons of frat-boy antics and glib sexual aggression.

But unless I’m reading this wrong, my sense of how my fellow Americans are feeling is not even close to reality. Can someone please explain this to me?

1.) How is it possible that more people are more suspicious of women’s accusations than of men’s aggressive actions? And

2.) What was it in the past year that made people feel this way?

Admissions of Guilt

I don’t know anything about the Harvard lawsuit. But there is no doubt that America’s elite universities have a long tradition of elaborate systems of admissions meant to keep out certain categories of student. For a century now, schools like Harvard have scrambled to set up ways to eliminate academically talented students who didn’t fit the Ivy-League mold.


Non-WASPs need not apply…

Here’s what we know: As Politico reports, the Harvard lawsuit has been dragging on. The school is accused of discriminating against Asian-American applicants. Based on test scores and other numerical data, it appears that Asian-Americans have a higher bar for admissions.

Harvard’s chief admissions officer has made some embarrassing admissions (pun intended. Sorry.) It’s no big surprise to anyone, but students from families of big donors tend to get a better chance. One applicant was added to a list mainly because of input from the fundraising department. As that department chair wrote to the admissions chief in an email, the donor

“has already committed to a building” and “committed major money for fellowships … before the decision from you!) and all are likely to be prominent in the future. Most importantly, I think all of these will be superb additions to the class.”

It’s not only big bucks that give some students preferential treatment. The litigants accuse Harvard of harboring social prejudice against Asian-Americans. Even with great test scores and stellar applications, some students were given poor scores after personal interviews, in which alumni rated the applicants as less likeable. Allegedly.

As historian Roger Geiger has shown, this sort of social scale has always weighed heavily in elite college admissions. Schools such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale did not start holding competitive admissions processes until the 1920s.

Back then, the schools struggled to find a way to admit desirable students and a fair-sounding way to exclude the undesirables. Back then, according to Prof. Geiger, most of the undesirables were brilliant, hard-working Jewish students. At the time, these Jewish students were derided as “grinds,” students who worked too hard and didn’t fit it with the genteel college culture of the day.

At Princeton, admissions officers in the 1920s had an official social scale. Any student—based purely on their family background and the accompanying personalities—was graded on a four-point scale. The “ones” were automatic admits. Even without looking at messy data such as high-school transcripts, those students from elite families were in. At the other end, students from working-class or non-WASP backgrounds were likely to be branded a “four.” They were automatically barred without any consideration of their academic merit.

Maybe the ugliest example of this genteel anti-Semitic tradition was at Yale. Yale worked closely with the Scholastic Aptitude Test to derive an evaluation that was tightly linked to the curriculum at a few elite prep schools. Students from those schools would do well and earn admission. Students from other schools wouldn’t, no matter how talented or hard-working.

This system allowed Yale to claim an objective, numeric measure for rejecting Jewish applicants, without making the Yalies seem prejudiced or biased.

Are things any different today? The Asian-American plaintiffs say no. They say Harvard is trying to limit the numbers of Asian-American students and using biased, prejudicial standards to do so. I have no idea if they’re right, but elite schools certainly have a long history of doing exactly that.

Penn Puzzles

Can anyone REALLY teach students how to know and understand something without believing it? That’s one of the questions that sharp students brought up yesterday at the University of Pennsylvania.penn gse logo better

Some context: I headed down to Philadelphia yesterday to talk about evolution, creationism, and the goals of public education. My friend and hero Jon Zimmerman had asked his class to read Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation.

As usual, readers were generally more interested in the philosophical arguments of my co-author Harvey Siegel than with my historical chapters about evolution education. Is it really possible, students wondered, to teach students to know evolutionary theory in a deep way, to understand it, without insisting that they believe it?

Harvey and I make the case that it is, but as yesterday’s lively seminar proved, it is a difficult distinction to imagine in many cases.

For example, think about the reverse. What if a public-school history teacher wanted to teach students that American history should be understood as the triumph of “JudeoChristian” values? What if the teacher assured secular parents that he was not trying to force students to “believe” in any particular religious values, but only to “know” and “understand” the importance of Christianity in the forming of United States government and society?

Or consider the challenge for any person—especially a young person—of separating out her desire to please an authority figure from her personal religious beliefs. Is it really practical to tell teachers that they don’t want to influence students’ religious beliefs? That teachers should somehow be able to separate out such closely related concepts?

Most challenging, we considered yesterday other sorts of student belief that teachers DID want to challenge. What if a student in history class, for example, argued that her racist beliefs were acceptable, because they were her personal beliefs? Could a teacher really not challenge them?

I think a teacher not only can, but must. And I think a teacher can do that without therefore insisting that he must challenge every student belief with which he disagrees. As Harvey and I argued in TECN, and as I’m elaborating in my new book about creationism, even though such real-world challenges are intense, it is still vital to clarify our goals and our mission when it comes to creationism and evolution education.