What’s Missing from this Creationist School?

Is young-earth creationism an inward-looking fortress? …or a missionary outpost? News from Kentucky is pushing your humble editor in a new direction.

Here’s the latest: Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis (AIG) organization is partnering with Renewanation (it’s easier to read when you cut it into three: Renew-A-Nation) to open a new creationist school near the Creation Museum. Students will get free family passes to the museums. Teachers will be able to use the museum as a teaching aid.

So far, so obvious. But the announcement adds new fuel to an old debate about young-earth creationism. Is it meant to be a form of evangelical outreach? Or is it rather just a way to circle fundamentalist wagons?

Some scholars have made strong cases for the latter. In his wonderful book God’s Own Scientists, anthropologist Chris Toumey argues that young-earth creationism is not about outreach. Rather, young earth science

preaches mostly to those who are already converted, and its effect is more to sustain the beliefs of the converted than to change other peoples’ convictions.

AIG watchers Bill and Susan Trollinger, too, argue that young-earth creationism is more about protecting than witnessing. As they put it in a recent blog post,

In the end, it is all about protecting the children.

On the other hand, the language of young-earth creationism is full of missionary talk. The reason dinosaurs are such a powerful creationist weapon, Ken Ham likes to say, is because they are “missionary lizards.” The goal of his ministry, Ham insists, is to reach as many benighted people as possible with the saving gospel of Genesis.

As I wrestle with this question for my new book about American creationism, I’ve tended to think that we need to take Ham’s missionary talk at face value.

The announcement of a new AIG-partnered school, however, leaves a few things conspicuously absent. The goal of the new school, according to AIG, will be to help creationist students remain creationists. When they are confronted with mainstream ideas about science and religion, they will have convincing ways to rebut. As AIG puts it,

[Our new school] wants to help curb the trend of young people walking away from the church by equipping them—from kindergarten through their senior year—with apologetics, using logic and critical-thinking skills.

AIG’s partner, Renewanation, promises to inculcate a biblical worldview that will give students everything they need to resist the intellectual and spiritual trends of modern America.

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Safe Spaces

What are the most prevalent “myths” the school wants to disprove? You might think they’d be things such as “natural selection is our current best understanding of the ways species came to differentiate from one another.” Or something such as “the Bible is a powerful spiritual tool, but it was cobbled together over generations by fallible human editors.”

Nope.

The “myths” blasted by the Renewanation folks are much more closely focused on the insular community of young-earth creationists. They don’t seem interested in reaching non-creationists with their message. Rather, they mostly want to convince the converted that their school is the only way to keep their children safe.

What are the most prevalent “myths” the Renewanators want to debunk?

  • Christian schools are too expensive.
  • They don’t have good sports programs.
  • They aren’t really necessary, just optional.

In every case, Renewanation clearly targeted the already converted. Their argument is not about missionary fervor; it is about safety and protection for the already convinced. Most remarkably, the notion of young-earth creationism itself was not a huge part of the appeal. Rather, the goal of this new school—and of the Renewation school network as a whole—is to provide an insular educational setting in which young-earth creationist students can learn to remain young-earth creationists, no matter what.

The goal is not (only) to teach young-earth creationism. Rather, it is to teach young-earth creationists.

And, of course, there is no reason why YEC can’t be both an insular fortress and a missionary outpost. The fortress protects the missionaries as they do their work. This school announcement, though, certainly seems to be more about the “protecting” part than the “outreach” part.

But What Does Jesus Think about a Young Earth?

It has been illuminating to read the comments on my recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Some of them have been simply mean-spirited or crank-ish.  I’ve been called an idiot.  I’ve even been told how I can work at home and make $45 to $85 per hour.  Not bad!

But many commenters raised a much more profound question.  In my article, I argued that calling people ignorant simply because they believe in a young earth is incorrect, both factually and strategically.  Those who want to promote better evolution education, I believe, must start by understanding the worldview of creationists with deep sympathy and even appreciation.  That, IMHO, is just good teaching, for any subject.

Many commenters asked the obvious next question: If this strategy is wrong, what strategy is right?  Fair enough.  If calling someone stupid, ignorant, or other names is not likely to convince them about the truth of evolutionary theory, what might?

Luckily, one of the anonymous commenters posted a link to a terrific article, Joshua Rosenau’s Science Denial: A Guide for Scientists” from a recent issue of Trends in Microbiology.  Rosenau, Programs and Policy Director for the National Center for Science Education, makes a couple of solid points in this direction.

First, Rosenau suggests, evolution educators should remember that creationists will not likely be won over by specific scientific arguments. He cites the work of anthropologist Chris Toumey. Though Rosenau does not quote this part of Toumey’s book, Toumey had argued in the mid-1990s that one of the defining elements of young-earth creationism is a “quasi-religious awe of science” (p. 257).

This deep love of science means that creationists have a scientific response for every mainstream/evolutionary scientific argument out there. Of course, mainstream scientists deny the validity of these counterarguments.  Each side has a prepared response to each scientific argument of the other.  Each side denies the scientific pretensions of the other.  Reciting canned arguments back and forth will not do much to bridge the seemingly intractable cultural divide in creation/evolution debates.

Most helpfully, Rosenau argues that the most effective evolution educators will not be the angry atheists out there.  Rather, as Rosenau puts it, “The messengers most likely to break through will be those who share a social identity with the science-denying audience.”  For example, Francis Collins–eminent mainstream scientist and devout evangelical Protestant–may do more to convince creationists that their religion need not deny the evidence for evolution.

Rosenau’s argument fits the evidence out there.  Even just dipping into the anecdote pool, we hear repeated stories like that of homeschool curriculum writer Abigal McFarthing.  McFarthing tells of her religious upbringing and her hostility to all evolution education.  It was only when she got to (Christian) college, and her instructor told her,

Jesus is not going to be standing at the gateway of heaven holding a clipboard in his hand and asking, ‘Did you believe in six-day creation? Did you believe in evolution?’ He’s going to be asking the one question that matters: ‘Did you believe in ME?’”

As Rosenau points out, the message that Christianity and evolution are compatible will likely be the most effective way to increase the amount of evolution belief in the United States.  This is not a message that many mainstream scientists care about.  To some, it seems like a sell-out to the entrenched prejudices of one specific belief system.

Yet I agree heartily with Rosenau that the way to improve evolution education is not simply to insult and attack young-earth creationists.  Rather, by framing a message in a way that understands, acknowledges, and respects creationists’ beliefs, we might at least be able to have a productive cultural conversation.  We will not be stuck simply calling one another idiots, or telling one another how to work from home and earn between $45 and $85 per hour.