Is This the Creationist Conspiracy?

Anti-creationists have warned about it for generations: Creationists are joining forces to sweep away reason and science. A growing conspiracy of dunces threatens to upend centuries of progress. But a recent tiff between leading American creationists demonstrates just how fractured and divided creationists really are.  And it demonstrates the ways hysterical anti-creationism may do more harm than good.

The threats of a creationist conspiracy go back to the roots of America’s evolution/creation culture wars. In his 1927 book, The War on Modern Science, Maynard Shipley warned that the fundamentalist “forces of obscurantism” threatened to overthrow real learning. As Shipley put it,

The armies of ignorance are being organized, literally by the millions, for a combined political assault on modern science.

Ever since, science writers have warned of this impending threat. Isaac Asimov, for instance, warned in 1981 of the “threat of creationism.” Such unified anti-scientists, Asimov believed, had made great strides toward setting up “the full groundwork . . . for legally enforced ignorance and totalitarian thought control.” Like Shipley, Asimov noted that not all religious people are creationists, but also like Shipley, Asimov failed to notice the differences between creationists. The only religious people one could trust, Asimov wrote, were those “who think of the Bible as a source of spiritual truth and accept much of it as symbolically rather than literally true.”

What Asimov missed was the crucial fact that many creationists DO endorse real science; many folks who think of the Bible as more than just symbolic also accept the ideas of an ancient earth and human evolution.

This is more than just a quibble. When leading scientists and science pundits lump together all creationists as “armies of ignorance,” they needlessly abandon and heedlessly insult potential allies in creation/evolution debates. When science writers such as Jerry Coyne attack all religious discussion as “accommodationism,” they unnecessarily alienate creationists who want to teach more and better evolution.

A recent interchange between leading creationists demonstrates the way international creationism really works. Creationism in practice is not a horde of Bible-believing fanatics, relentlessly unified on the age of the earth and the origins of humanity. In practice, rather, creationism is a splintered and fractious impulse, fighting internal foes more viciously than external ones.

The “evolutionary creationist” Deborah Haarsma, leader of BioLogos, recently reached out to young-earth creationist leader Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis. Haarsma was “troubled” by Ham’s angry polemic about a third creationist, Hugh Ross of the old-earth Reasons to Believe.

We all have our differences, Dr. Haarsma said. But why can’t we come together over our shared Biblical faith? About our shared concern that young people are leaving the church? Why can’t we at least sit down together for a cordial dinner and talk over our differences?

Ken Ham publicly rebuffed Haarsma’s efforts. Ham agreed that his animus toward Ross was not at all personal. As Ham explained, “I don’t consider Dr. Ross a personal enemy . . . he is actually a pleasant person.” But Ross was also an “enemy of biblical authority.” And Haarsma was no better. “People like Dr. Haarsma,” Ham wrote,

make it sound like they have such a high view of the Bible, whereas in reality, she has a low view of Scripture and a high view of man’s fallible beliefs about origins!

There will be no dinner. There will be no grand alliance of creationists. Instead, we see the ways some creationists will tend to isolate themselves into smaller and smaller like-minded communities.

This story spreads beyond the borders of the United States. As historian Ronald Numbers described in The Creationists, in the mid-1980s the minister of education in Turkey wrote to the San-Diego based Institute for Creation Research. Turkey’s schools, the minister wrote, needed to “eliminate the secular-based, evolution-only teaching dominant in their schools and replace it with a curriculum teaching the two models, evolution and creation, fairly” (pg. 421). And Islamic creationism, much of it based in Turkey, has thrived. However, Numbers concluded, “the partnership between the equally uncompromising Christian and Muslim fundamentalists remained understandably unstable” (425). Numbers cited the rhetoric of American creationist leader Henry Morris: “Mohammed is dead and Jesus is alive!” As Numbers noted acerbically, such talk was “hardly calculated to win Muslim friends” (425).

There will be predictable tensions between different types of creationists. Though some conservative religious voices will work to spread evolutionary theory among evangelicals, others will focus on what Ken Ham called “rebuilding a wall” (Nehemiah 6:1-3).

Folks like me who want to see more and better evolution education will be wise to reach out to those conservative religious folks who also believe in evolution. Instead of copying the tactics of Ken Ham, as Jerry Coyne is prone to do, science promoters should embrace allies and make friends. Instead of shrieking about the “armies of ignorance,” science promoters will do well to look closer at the creationist population. There are plenty of friends there.


Creation Debate Update: Squeezing Out the Middle

Forget the Super Bowl.  Next Tuesday, February 4th, at 7 PM New York time, we’ll all be watching the debate between young-earth creationist Ken Ham and science popularizer Bill Nye.  It looks as if Nye and Ham agree on their goals: squeezing out the middle.  Both debaters want to draw attention to young-earth creationism, and their agreement threatens to exacerbate the divide between evolution and creationism.

The debate host, Answers In Genesis’ Creation Museum, will be streaming the action live for all of us to see.

Ken Ham has suggested that the debate might be a perfect learning opportunity for teachers and students in public school science classes.  From Ham’s point of view, this debate might be a chance to reach students who might not otherwise be aware that mainstream evolutionary science is full of holes.

Bill Nye, too, has explained his reasons for engaging in this debate.  In these pages and elsewhere, evolution-education mavens have wondered if this debate only legitimizes the dead science of the young-earth creationists.  As “The Science Guy” explained, “I don’t think I’m going to win Mr. Ham over.”

So why debate?  Nye says, “I want to show people that this belief is still among us. . . . It finds its way onto school boards in the United States. . . . I’m not going in as a scientist as such . . . I’m going in as a reasonable man.”

So it seems both debaters have the same goal.  Both men want to make people aware of the claims of young-earth creationism.  From Ham’s perspective, such awareness will help keep smart young Christians from leaving the faith.  From Nye’s point of view, if people know what creationism is, they will help fight against it politically.

With such agreement, it seems likely both debaters might succeed.  This debate might elevate the profile of young-earth creationism.  One casualty, it seems, will be other visions of creationism.  Ken Ham’s brand of young-earth creationism, after all, is only one extreme form.  Many religious people believe that humans and life were created at some point by God.  But they do not believe that they must discard the findings of modern science.  The folks at BioLogos, for example, insist that fervent Biblical Christianity can go hand-in-hand with mainstream evolutionary science.  And “old-earth” creationists such as Hugh Ross agree that God did it all, but they don’t insist that he did it only 6,000 years ago.

If this debate succeeds—at least according to the goals of both Ken Ham and Bill Nye—those “other” creationist belief systems will likely get squeezed even further out of the conversation.  That’s a shame.  Too many observers already equate “creationism” with young-earth creationism.  It may make for more lively debates, but it makes for less productive and civil conversations.


Inconsistent Christians Don’t Need a Young Earth

If you don’t really understand it, you can still go to heaven.  But if you are logical, you can’t.

That’s the message about creationism and salvation recently from the young-earth creationist Institute for Creation Research’s Jason Lisle.

Lisle debated “old-earth” creationist Hugh Ross at the National Conference on Christian ApologeticsBoth men spoke with The Christian Post after their debate.

It’s possible to still go to heaven if you don’t embrace a young earth, Lisle said.  But that is only true if you are willing to embrace illogic and ambivalence.  In order for the Bible to make sense, Lisle argued, Christians need to insist on its obvious meaning.

One problem, Lisle noted, was that children tend to reject illogic.  “Some people,” Lisle told the CP,

will say they can live with the inconsistencies. They’ll tell me: ‘Well, it’s just Genesis that I allow the scientists to tell me what it meant.’  But, what we’ve found is that children will see that inconsistency, and they will be more consistent, they will reject all of the Bible. They’ll say, ‘Well, mom and dad don’t really believe in the Bible because they don’t believe in the first few chapters. Why should I believe in the Gospel?’ We’ve seen that happen. The statistics are just alarming. We see the students walking away from church in droves.

Christians CAN be saved if they don’t accept a young earth, Lisle concluded. However, it doesn’t make any logical sense for them to do so.  As he explained,

If you believe in millions of years, if you believe the fossils are millions of years old, you have death before Adam sinned, in which case death cannot be the result of Adam’s sin if it was already there for millions of years. If death is not the penalty for sin then why did Jesus die on the cross?

As astute observers from both sides have noted, this is one idea on which atheists and young-earth creationists agree.  Jason Rosenhouse, for instance, an atheist mathematician and student of American creationism, agrees with young-earth creationists that evolutionary science is a fundamental challenge to traditional Christian faith.

Those who hope to maintain faith—especially a faith built around a belief that the Bible is God’s inerrant Word—while embracing evolutionary science or the idea of a very old universe have a tougher case to make.  As Hugh Ross, the old-earth creationist, explains, “God’s revelations in Scripture and nature do not, will not, and cannot contradict.”

Bridging the worlds of creation and evolution may make intuitive sense to Ross and many more Bible-believing Christians out there.  But the logical case for a rigid choice between either atheism or young-earth creationism remains compelling.  For those who believe in an inerrant Bible, the choice can seem all-or-nothing.


Required Reading: Assemblies of God on Faith/Science

Can Pentecostals embrace science?  Can they find a way to love both God and Gould?

For those of us trying to understand the conservative vision of education from the outside, the newest edition of the Assemblies of God’s Enrichment Journal is a treasure trove.  This edition offers a series of articles for the denomination’s readers about the proper relationship between faith and science.  As General Superintendent George O. Wood explains, the dangers for young people in the church are stark.  He quotes “Mike,” who declared, “I knew from church that I couldn’t believe in both science and God, so that was it.  I didn’t believe in God anymore.”  Wood hopes that this volume will help Assemblies of God members negotiate a more profound and religious relationship between science and faith.

For those unaware of the distinctions among conservative Bible-based Protestant groups, the Assemblies of God, very briefly, is the largest denomination of Pentecostal believers, claiming 65 million members worldwide.  Pentecostalism, also very briefly, is a form of conservative evangelical Protestant belief that came into existence in the early 20th century.  It combines conservative Bible-based theology with an emphasis on baptism by the Holy Spirit.  Pentecostal services are typically vibrant, dramatic events that can include speaking in tongues and divine healing.  As historian Grant Wacker argued in Heaven Below (2001), the attraction of early Pentecostal churches derived from their combination of a powerful “primitivist” theology with a comfortable cultural “pragmatism.”

In an opening piece, Amos Yong of Regent University encourages Pentecostal readers to “work to overcome the history and culture of anti-intellectualism that persists in some segments of the Pentecostal church.”

Perhaps the most interesting section of this issue for those of us outside the conservative tradition is its forum on the variety of evangelical positions for the age of the earth.  Kurt P. Wise makes the case for a young earth, Hugh Ross for six long ages, and Davis A. Young for an old earth.

With each article, we see the very different intellectual playing field for evangelical intellectuals.  Among mainstream scientists, the first question is usually whether any new approach offers better insight into the natural world.  Among evangelical thinkers, the first question is whether any scientific approach offers better insight into the natural world while allowing Christians to maintain an authentic faith.

As Kurt Wise argues in his pitch for a young earth, “believers” enjoy a more promising guide to the natural world.  Wise insists, “We should look at the eyewitness account from God before we begin inferring the meaning of circumstantial evidence.”

Everyone interested in the creation/evolution debate will be well served by reading through these articles.  Some of the most fervent young-earth creationists such as Answers in Genesis’ Ken Ham have condemned such forums.  Any consideration of an old earth, Ham blasted in a blog post, results in a “dogmatic, intolerant stand against those who take the position we do at AiG.”

But for those of us outside of evangelical circles, an understanding of both the different evangelical views of science and the ways evangelicals construct their scientific arguments will go a long way to decoding the stubborn controversy over evolution and creationism.