Thank God You’re Wrong

When in doubt, look to the heavens.  These days, your view might be blocked by a billboard from the young-earth creationist outfit Answers In Genesis.

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

From Times Square. Image Source: Answers In Genesis

If you look closely enough, you might see a clue as to why the creation/evolution debates have been so divisive for so long.

According to their press release, yesterday AIG rented billboards in high-visibility sites in New York’s Times Square and San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.  Soon similar billboards will hit the skies in Los Angeles.

The billboards announce, “To All Our Atheist Friends; Thank God You’re Wrong.”

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

San Francisco. Image Source: Answers In Genesis

AIG leader Ken Ham described the choice of wording.  AIG wanted to be “cordial and engaging,” he explained.  Though these high-profile billboards were an explicit response to Christian-bashing billboards posted by atheist groups, Ham said he wanted to take the high road.

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

An Atheist Billboard. Image Source: Answers In Genesis

“We are not angry at the atheists at all,” Ham wrote.  Instead, AIG feels “burdened” by atheists’ separation from God.

For those new to the creation/evolution debates, it might seem surprising that this latest publicity stunt does not mention creationism, dragons, or zip lines.  After all, AIG has had some success in the past with such creation-focused billboards.

But as Ken Ham repeats, creationism is not the main interest of his organization.  Rather, salvation is the point; creationism is merely the vital theme.

For those of us interested in conservative themes in American education, this distinction matters.

Many non-creationist commentators on the creation/evolution issue assume that if readers can be convinced of the scientific truths of evolution, the debate will be over.  Even the insightful philosopher Philip Kitcher seemed to fall into this trap in his book Living With Darwin.

These AIG billboards demonstrate the difficulty of the issue.  The young-earth creationists at AIG care a lot about creationism, but that is not their central concern.  Their central concern is salvation.  As long as evolution is seen as a threat to salvation, it will never be open to discussion and compromise.

More perspicacious religious minds understand this.  Francis Collins and the BioLogos Foundation set out to prove not only that evolution is true, but that evolution does not threaten salvation.  Without that focus on salvation, creation/evolution discussions will get nowhere.

These AIG billboards do more than attract attention in America’s big cities.  They demonstrate the true heart of the evolution/creation controversy.


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.