The Hidden Tribes of Creationism

Care a lot about the age of the earth? The origin of humanity? The actual historical existence (or not) of Adam & Eve? If so, you’re an oddball. According to a new report, however, you’re an oddball who probably gets a lot more attention than you deserve.hidden tribes chart 1

In their study of culture-war polarization, the folks at More In Common didn’t ask directly about creationism. In their survey of 8,000 adult Americans, though, they came up with a bunch of categories into which Americans divide themselves. Instead of using the usual demographic categories of race, class, gender, age, religion, and so on, they split respondents into seven major groups:

  • Progressive Activists
  • Traditional Liberals
  • Passive Liberals
  • Politically Disengaged
  • Moderates
  • Traditional Conservatives
  • Devoted Conservatives

Time and time again, they found, the loudest voices on the margins dominated public debates, in spite of the fact that a large “Exhausted Majority” hoped for more compromise. As the report puts it,

Public debates are often dominated by voices that come from the furthest ends of the spectrum and who are the least interested in finding common ground. This makes it much harder to make progress on these issues, deepening the frustration felt by many in the middle.

On most issues, the people on the edges have diametrically opposed views and hold them very strongly. That is not the case for most people on most issues.

hidden tribes chart 2They didn’t ask specifically about creationism, but their findings translate well. As I’m arguing in my new book about creationism, Americans don’t really disagree as much about creationism and evolution as we’d think if we only read the headlines.

For example, when most people think about “creationism” these days—IF they think about creationism—they tend to think of the extreme young-earth creationists who make the most noise. Pundits such as Ken Ham dominate the headlines about “creationism,” even though their beliefs represent only a tiny fraction of the real landscape of American creationism.

Think about it: if we define “creationism” as a basic belief that some sort of higher power had something to do with the way life has come to be, then almost ALL Americans would fit into that category. Even leading “evolutionists” such as Ken Miller would fit. Professor Miller is one of America’s leading explainers and promoters of evolutionary theory, yet he is also a believing Christian. When it comes down to it, Miller wrote in his 1999 book Finding Darwin’s God,

God is every bit as creative in the present as He was in the past.

Is Prof. Miller a “creationist?” By any reasonable definition, of course he is. But when Americans fight about “creationism” vs. “evolution,” we don’t make room for the vast middle ground that includes religious scientists like Miller.

As the Hidden Tribes report states, most Americans

are going about their lives with absurdly inaccurate perceptions of each other.

Radical creationists think they are the only ones who care about God and creation. Radical atheists warn that creationist armies are scheming to turn public schools into madrassahs. In the vast middle ground, people think “creationism”  must include a radical belief in a literal world-wide flood or a literal special creation in the Garden of Eden.

It doesn’t. There are plenty of ways to be a “creationist” while still accepting the explanatory power of mainstream evolutionary theory. In reality, there isn’t a flat-out culture war between creationists and the rest of us. There can’t be, because in reality almost all Americans are creationists of one sort or another. And almost all Americans want their children to learn evolutionary science.

You can be excused for not believing it, though, because the loudmouths on the outer edges distort all of our discussions.