I’m Like a Creationist (and You Are Too)

SAGLRROILBYGTH know I’m no creationist. But this week I had an experience that I think is similar to what some thoughtful creationists go through. When it comes to questions of religion and public life, that is, sometimes the issue is not really the issue. I’m wondering this morning if everyone—creationist or non-creationist—has had similar experiences.

Here’s what I’m talking about: A new bill in Iowa’s state legislature would allow public schools to teach Bible classes. I’m all for public schools teaching about religions, including Christianity. It is clearly constitutional, as long as the teachers aren’t preaching any particular religion. And it is IMHO a vital part of a comprehensive education. How can we expect to teach US History, for example, without teaching about Puritan values? How can we teach literature without reading the Bible? Yet in spite of the fact that I support religious ed in public schools in theory, I oppose this bill and others like it.

Why?

My beef is not directly about Bibles. It’s really a question of trust. When it comes right down to it, I don’t trust the bill’s backers. I think they are hoping to sneak some old-fashioned Protestant devotion into their public schools. They SAY they want students to learn about the historical and literary impact of the Bible, but when they talk about their proposed classes, you can almost smell the revival-tent sweat.

According to the Des Moines Register, for example, one of the bill’s ardent supporters insists the Bible class would help students be better Christian Americans. As he put it,

foundational and historical American values did not spring from the cornucopia of ‘world religions,’ but specifically from the Judeo-Christian scriptures.

To my secular ears, that sounds a lot like a Wallbuilders-style evangelical power play.

Do I want more education about religion in public schools? Yes!

But this bill is not-so-secretly intended to preach a specific, conservative-evangelical religion. It is intended to have a religious impact on students, which public schools should never attempt.

How does this make me like a creationist? Simple. Many creationists have had similar experiences. Throughout the twentieth century and today, even the most radical young-earth creationists often want their children to learn about evolution. But they distrust the motives of public-school types who teach it. Many creationists worry less about evolutionary science than about the sneaky atheistic teachers who they think want to use evolutionary theory Dawkins style, to prove the ridiculousness of religious faith.

I found over and over again in the research for my new book about evangelical higher education that creationist schools promised to teach evolution, but to do it safely.

At Liberty University for example, in 1985 founder Jerry Falwell promised that all Liberty students would learn about evolution. As Falwell explained to potential enrollees,

You’ll learn all about evolution, but you’ll learn why you don’t believe it. . . . To our knowledge, we’ve never graduated an evolutionist.

Closer to home, right here at ILYBYGTH we’ve heard from creationists who are eager to teach their kids about evolution, if they can do it without cramming atheism down their throats.

Beyond these anecdotes, there seems to be solid sociological evidence that creationists like evolution, but worry about something else. In their study of religious people’s attitudes toward science, Elaine Howard Ecklund and Christopher Scheitle found that evangelicals tended to have more positive attitudes about science than the general population. But evangelicals also tended to think more often that scientists were out to get them. In other words, evangelicals—some of them, at least—like science itself, but they are suspicious of people who call themselves scientists.

So here’s my hunch: We’re all the same when it comes to these questions of religion and public life. Even when we support an idea in principle, we don’t support it in practice because we distrust its supporters.

For me, that means opposing Bibles in public schools, even though I ardently desire better religious education in those public schools.

For creationists, that means opposing the teaching of mainstream evolutionary theory alone in public-school science classes, even when they really want their children to learn evolution.

  • For all you creationists out there, am I off the mark?
  • And for my fellow non-creationists, have you had a similar experience?
  • Is the central issue not really Bibles or evolution…but TRUST?