Are We in Danger from the Bigots and Ignoramuses?

Are you afraid of creationists? If you’re a secular, progressive person like me, you might be. You might fret that our school boards and textbook publishers are being bullied by radical creationists who want to inject theocratic rules into our classrooms. If that’s you, I’ve got two bits of good news for you. First, you’re not alone. And second, you’ve got nothing (much) to worry about.

Don’t get me wrong: It makes sense for us to be nervous. These days, the top levels of political power are in the hands of creationists or their puppets. The Ed Secretary, the Vice President, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development…all are devoted radical creationists. So why not worry?

Darrow and Bryan at Scopes

“Are you now or have you ever been…an ignoramus?”

After all, plenty of smart people have warned us about the looming creationist threat. Back in the first years of our current creation/evolution controversy, for example, Maynard Shipley warned that creationist “armies of ignorance” were forming, “literally by the millions, for a combined political assault on modern science.” As Shipley put it in 1927,

The Fundamentalists are well organized; they are in deadly earnest, believing as they do that their particular brand of religion cannot survive and flourish together with the teachings of religious liberalism and modern science.  For the first time in our history, organized knowledge has come into open conflict with organized ignorance.

Shipley wasn’t alone back then. Perhaps most famously, attorney Clarence Darrow literally made the case against creationism at the Scopes Trial. When creationist celebrity William Jennings Bryan said that Darrow wanted to poke fun at the Bible, Darrow disagreed. His goal, Darrow said, was

preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States.

These days, science activists share Darrow’s and Shipley’s worry. The National Center for Science Education, for example, named its blog in honor of Maynard Shipley’s 1920s-era Science League of America. As the NCSE’s Josh Rosenau explained, Shipley’s fight against creationist “armies of ignorance” was “eerily similar” to the NCSE’s twenty-first century mission.

Don’t get me wrong—I agree with Rosenau and his 1920s forebears. We all need to be vigilant to maintain the true inclusivity of our public schools. No single religious (or anti-religious) group can be allowed to dictate class content. Given free rein, creationist activists would love to do just that—to purge mainstream evolutionary science from the classroom. For that matter, many creationist activists would likely want to doctor the reading lists in English class too and take history classes in theocratic directions. Just ask David Barton.

But as I finish up my book about American creationism, I’m more convinced than ever that we don’t need to freak out. Why not? Because radical creationists these days aren’t even allowing themselves to dream about organizing in their millions for a combined political assault on modern science. Rather, radical creationists are preoccupied with far more limited sorts of activism. These days, radical creationists aren’t storming scientific citadels. Instead, they are building Berlin Walls to keep their fellow creationists inside their threatened and shrinking areas of influence.

How do I know?

This week, I’m reading Ken Ham’s 2009 book Already Gone. Ham is the organizational wizard behind America’s leading radical creationist outfit, Answers In Genesis. In Already Gone, Ham reports the findings of an AIG survey by sympathetic market researcher Britt Beemer. Beemer surveyed roughly 1,000 twentysomethings who had been brought up in radical young-earth creationist homes and churches.


A leak in the ark.

What did Beemer find? Most creationist twentysomethings had stopped going to church. Many of them had ditched their young-earth beliefs. Even more alarming to Beemer, the percentages of young people who had moved from young-earth creationism to an acceptance of evolutionary theory was higher among people who had regularly attended creationist Sunday-school classes. That’s right—going to a young-earth Sunday school every week when they were kids tended to make creationists abandon radical young-earth creationism in their twenties.

In light of those scary (to them) findings, Ham and Beemer made some suggestions. Long term, yes, Ham wants to foment a true “revolution” in American society. He really does want to “change the culture.” In other words, Ham would love to organize his creationist armies in their millions for a combined assault on modern science. But “strategically,” Ham argues, radical young-earth creationists need to recognize that their armies are melting away. The goal of young-earth creationists, Ham insists, must be—for now—to turn inward, to focus on teaching their children how to remain radical in the face of overwhelming social pressure to renounce young-earth beliefs. (Quotes from page 165, sixth printing, 2009.)

So, if you’re a secular person, should you be nervous about the political influence of theocratically minded creationists? In one sense, you should. Activists like Ken Ham don’t pretend they don’t want to move America back toward an imagined golden age of fundamentalist dominance. But in a day-to-day sense, you don’t need to worry. Radical creationists these days are on the defensive. They might fuss and fume about changing laws and SCOTUS decisions, but in fact they are preoccupied with patching holes in their own sinking ship.


Mixing It Up with Pope Francis

Confused by the incessant culture-war back and forth on the issue of climate change? Usually, it’s pretty easy to pick a side. Since, as Yale Law School’s Dan Kahan argues, what we “believe” about issues such as evolution, vaccinations, and climate change tells us more about who we are than what we know. Usually, those of us who consider ourselves progressives push for more and faster action on climate change. Those who consider themselves conservatives pooh-pooh the urgency of the issue. Yesterday, Pope Francis threw a St.-Peter’s-size monkey wrench into the works with his encyclical about the environment. In this searing statement, the pope challenged all of us to take a stronger stand about the changing climate.

Is THIS what conservatives should drive? . . .

Is THIS what conservatives should drive? . . .

Now, I admit, I have not read the full document. It weighs in at 184 pages and I’ll be sure to put it at the top of my reading list. Analysis by the New York Times paints a picture of a fairly radical stand by the Argentinian pope. In short, Pope Francis went further than tut-tutting the bromides of climate science. The pope blamed affluent throwaway culture for the dangerous changes that have already begun. What are we to do? Not just consume smarter, but change our feelings of entitlement and our endless apotheosis of appetite.

Climate change, the pope wrote, is nothing less than “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.” It is not enough for us to merely cap-and-trade carbon emissions. It is not enough for us to merely “grow” our way out of the dilemma. The pope’s message is clear, and rather startling in its Greenpeace-scented tones. Those of us who follow culture-war-related developments are more accustomed to the Vatican as a world headquarters for staunchly conservative thinking on issues such as abortion and gay rights.

The new Popemobile?

The new Popemobile?

What does this mean for our climate-change culture wars? It will certainly mess up any bright lines between “conservative” and “progressive” orthodoxies. Of course, we’ve seen conservative intellectuals at places such as Front Porch Republic and The American Conservative who have long promoted this sort of less-is-more conservatism. But by and large, American conservatives might be more likely to agree with Richard Viguerie, who called Pope Francis’ statement a “confusing distraction.”

As Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education has pointed out, American Catholics have been divided on the issue of climate change. “Traditional” Catholics in the USA have tended to be split on the issue and generally have been more interested in preserving traditional religious practices than in environmental activism. Could Pope Francis’ statement push them to action?

More broadly, might the pope’s statement encourage American conservatives to consider tackling climate change as a conservative mission? What about conservative Christians who are not Catholic? Some American evangelicals have openly attacked environmentalism as a “green dragon.” Others have talked about an evangelical environmentalism, calling it “creation care” or respect for the “doctrine of dominion.” Still others have voiced more complicated positions. American creationists, for example, have wondered about their theology of climate change. At the young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, for instance, readers are told that climate change is certainly a real phenomenon. But should we worry? Here is AIG’s advice:

should we be alarmed about climate change? Not at all. Yes, climate change is real, but according to the true history book of the universe, we should expect it as a consequence of the cataclysmic Flood. Also, Earth—and Earth’s climate—was designed by the all-knowing, all-wise Creator God. He built an incredible amount of variety into the DNA of His creatures so that they could survive and thrive as Earth’s environments change. Surely the God who equipped life to survive on a changing Earth also designed Earth with the necessary features to deal with environmental changes.

No one doubts the pope’s credentials as a smart, earnest, conservative Christian thinker. Might his encyclical spark a dialogue between conservative Catholics and other conservative Christians about the issue of climate change? Could an inter-Christian, inter-conservative dialogue move conservative Christians towards the pope’s position?

Creationism in the Land of the Bible

Quick: When I say “creationist,” whom do you picture? Ken Ham, the Australian-American creationist impresario of Kentucky? Or Arye Dary of Israel’s Shas Party?

Is THIS the face of creationism?

Is THIS the face of creationism?

As Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education pointed out recently, the question of Palestinian statehood received the lion’s share of attention after the last round of elections in Israel. But those elections could also have significant impact on the teaching of evolution in Israel’s schools.

In a nutshell, the new government will likely be dominated by conservative parties. In Israel, that means a significant political presence for the more conservative religious factions. Many of those groups oppose the teaching of evolution.

...or is THIS?

…or is THIS?

As Rosenau relates, the topic of evolution only recently became a required part of the middle-school curriculum in secular Israeli public schools. Arye Dary of the Shas Party, a likely government partner, made no bones about his opposition to evolution education. “As an ultra-orthodox party,” Dary explained,

that believes that our forefathers were Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and that our holy matriarchs were Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, we refuse to teach our children that they originated from apes.

For those few who continue to believe that creationism is uniquely American, or peculiar to conservative Protestantism, this serves as a healthy reminder of the truth.  Creationism as a political and educational impulse is strong worldwide.  Conservatives of many backgrounds in many countries insist that there is more to “truth” than can be divined by human scrabblings.

I Don’t Know What to Believe…

I don’t even know what to know, or what knowing means, or what believing might mean.  The good news is that I’m not alone.  No one seems sure of these things, especially not when it comes to touchy subjects like evolution. But I’m still confident of our argument that the best approach to teaching evolution is to encourage a separation in science classrooms of the need for students to KNOW evolution from the need for students to BELIEVE evolution.

It’s a tricky distinction, and I’m sympathetic to criticism that it may not make a real difference.

Some recent survey results make me wonder if this distinction might not even be a workable one in public schools. In the blog of the National Center for Science Education, the prolific Josh Rosenau notes the results of some survey work from the University of Alabama. In short, the researchers found that the more college students accepted evolution, the more they knew about it. Now, this confounds claims by cultural-cognition guru Dan Kahan that “knowing” evolution says more about who you are than about what you know. It is more a measure of belief than of knowledge.

For a mild-mannered historian like me, these conflicting survey results leave me scratching my head. Not only are we not sure if people need to “believe” evolution to “know” it, but we’re not even sure if we “know” that “believing” and “knowing” go together!

But I can’t just throw up my hands and go back to the archives. This question of knowledge and belief is central to all of us who care about evolution education. In my upcoming creation/evolution book with talented and stylish philosopher Harvey Siegel, we argue that public schools must teach evolution, but they must teach it in a way that separates claims of knowledge and belief.

Because there is one thing I do know, as a historian: Creationism is a religiously driven belief system. It is not exactly science, but this whole foofaroll about evolution education stems from the fact that creationism is a religiously driven belief system with claims to scientific legitimacy.

When it comes to educational policy, we have to make a delicate distinction that is usually lost in all the hot air. Creationists’ claims to scientific legitimacy do not carry any weight outside of their own religious circles. But that does not mean creationists do not have a right in the public square to believe in their own scientific legitimacy.  It means creationists have a right to public schools that do not force them to perform religious acts. Since affirming the truth of mainstream evolutionary thinking would be a religious act for many creationist students, public schools need to be more careful about insisting on such things.

In practice, in public schools, this means we face a situation that makes everyone unhappy. Creationism has no legitimate claim to a place in public-school science curricula, since it is derived from religious beliefs. But public-school science classes (and history classes, and math classes, and literature classes and gym classes) have no right to push creationist students to engage in religious acts, either.

Rather, to be more precise, public schools may teach ideas that tend to denigrate religious ideas. Schools shouldn’t do so casually or glibly, but if there is an important reason, they may do so. However, public schools may not force (or even encourage) students to engage in the (possibly) religious act of denigrating creationism themselves. In short, public schools CAN expose students to ideas students find religiously offensive. But public schools CAN’T ask students to do religious acts. If affirming the truth of evolution is a religious act, then public schools cannot insist upon it, or even imply that such an affirmation is desirable.

Creationists may hate this conclusion. Since the 1920s, anti-evolutionists and creationists have insisted that their beliefs are better science, true science. In court case after court case, however, experts have demonstrated the intellectual paucity of this belief. Creationists may not admit it, but they might recognize that their claims to scientific legitimacy don’t convince people outside of their own religious circles.

And for public education, that’s enough. My religious beliefs do not carry weight—as religious beliefs—in public schools. Even if my religious beliefs insist that they are better science. Or history. Or literature. Or physical education.

But traditional science-ed types will also hate this conclusion. As a set of religious beliefs, creationism is entitled to special consideration in public schools. Though the case law is somewhat mixed on this point, the moral case is compelling: Children of any religious or cultural background must be made welcome in every public school. Their beliefs may be challenged by the curriculum, but students cannot be asked to perform religious acts in those public schools. And acts that might not seem religious to me might be religious to religious people, or even to an imaginary “objective observer.”

Conservative Christians have had mixed results trying to make this case in court. Perhaps most famously, in 1987’s Mozert v. Hawkins, an appellate court ruled that conservative parents could not ban curricular materials they found offensive. The conservative parents had argued that textbooks with references to occult practices, evolution, and impolite children infringed on their rights to religious liberty. The books, the parents believed, hurt their children’s ability to freely practice their religion.

The constitutional complexity in this case was demonstrated by its tortuous path through the court system. One district court judge agreed with the parents on one point: textbooks that say there are multiple ways to worship God really are teaching religious content. In the end, the appellate court disagreed.

Other federal courts have made this difficult point. In another case from Tennessee, Wiley v. Franklin (1979), the court decided that

if that which is taught seeks either to disparage or to encourage a commitment to a set of religious beliefs, it is constitutionally impermissible in a public school setting.

The rub in these cases, it seems to me, is that courts have trouble defining the boundaries of religion. The final ruling in Mozert relied on the fact that the conservative children didn’t have to do or say or affirm anything about religion. They were only exposed to ideas that their parents considered offensive.

And that seems telling for our case here. Though I may find it a simple statement of fact, the notion that there are many paths to religious salvation has profound religious implications for many people. And though I may find it a simple statement of fact, the notion that the earth is bajillions of years old has profound religious implications for many people. Public schools should expose students to these ideas. But public schools cannot force creationist students to engage in the religious act of agreeing with these ideas.

The fact that affirming evolution is not a religious act for me does not mean it is not a religious act for anyone. For many creationist students, saying that evolution is true is a religious act. Schools can’t insist upon it. But understanding the basic concepts of evolution is not. Public schools must insist upon that.

Though this post is already too long, let me add one caveat. This argument does not agree with creationists’ insistence that evolution is a religion. Rather, it simply says that evolution is an idea that some religious people consider religious. This is a hugely important distinction.

Public schools cannot force students to do religious things. For many students, affirming that evolution is true would be a religious act.

At the same time, public schools must teach the best available knowledge. In science classes, the modern evolutionary synthesis is an example of that sort of knowledge.

So here is our goal: Separate out our demands on students. It is not as complicated as it may seem. Adding two or three little words can do it. Instead of asking students to say, “The earth is millions of years old,” we ask students to say, “Scientists say the earth is millions of years old.”  Instead of asking students to say, “Humans evolved from other forms of life,” we ask students to say, “According to scientists, humans evolved from other forms of life.”

Do I know that this will work? No, but I believe it will help.

Creation, Evolution, and College Marketing

Bryan College is having a rough time.  The school is experiencing angst as it wrestles with a new policy about the origins of humanity.  The leadership is insisting that members of the school community must adhere to a newly rigid position on origins.  All members of the college community, it seems, will be asked to sign off on a doctrinal statement recognizing that Adam & Eve represented the real, historical ancestors of all humanity.  Traditionally, faculty and students had been encouraged, or at least permitted, to embrace a relatively wide scope of Biblical opinions about the age of the earth and the historicity of Adam & Eve.

Some commentators have argued that this represents a false dilemma for Christians, or even that Bryan’s misery proves the failure of religion in the modern world.  But there is a simpler explanation.

Those familiar with the history of Bryan College can’t help but note the ironies here.  As I point out in my 1920s book, the founding of Bryan College was stymied by William Jennings Bryan’s unorthodox brand of conservative evangelical Protestantism.  Not only did the original Bryan not embrace the notion of a young earth, but Bryan was loud and proud about his postmillennial interpretation of Scripture.  For the growing fundamentalist movement in the 1920s, Bryan’s old-earth position was not remarkable or problematic.  Many leading fundamentalist thinkers in the 1920s had “liberal” positions about the age of the earth.  But Bryan’s postmillennial beliefs caused some worry.  Could “fundamentalists” be postmillennialists?  Such debates threatened to derail the funding of the new university in the 1920s.

Such arguments based on the history of Bryan College are relevant in today’s disputes.  The current leadership of the school insists that their new statement of faith is really only a clarification of their traditional creed.  Indeed, it would have to be, since part of that original charter stipulated that the creed could never be altered.

Faculty members at Bryan differ, however.  As we’ve noted in these pages, faculty members such as Bryan Eisenback have crafted innovative school curricula that hope to teach evolution to Christians in a Christian way.  As described in a recent article in Chattanooga’s Times Free Press, Eisenback has been accused of teaching both evolution and creationism.  As Eisenback described to the TFP,

In my view, God gave us science to learn about the physical world.  When people embrace that, science is our way of understanding God’s handiwork, so to speak, then science isn’t threatening. It becomes exciting.

As usual, Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education offered a sensible argument in the pages of the TFP.  Bryan’s leadership, Rosenau noted, seemed to be staking out a hard-line position unnecessarily.  “The evangelical position,” Rosenau argued, “doesn’t have to be an outright rejection of human evolution. There are ways to be a Bible-believing literalist without being at odds with science.”

Less convincing was the cackling triumphalism of science pundit Jerry Coyne.  In the pages of The New Republic, Coyne argued that the mess at Bryan College resulted from a necessary clash between advancing science and retreating religion.  “Bryan is fighting a losing battle,” Coyne crowed,

but it will be a long battle. These vestiges of superstition, and of blind adherence to it, will eventually disappear as America becomes more secular. There will always be Biblical literalism, but I’m confident it will slowly wane. But it will wane not with the changing of minds, but over the corpses of its adherents, as the older generation dies off and the younger, exposed to secularism and doubt on the internet, begins to ask questions.

I’m an avid reader of Coyne’s blog, but I don’t see how his argument makes sense.  The “older generation” he refers to is many generations derived from the founders of Bryan College.  A pile of the corpses of adherents to Bryan College’s conservative theology would be too high for any young people to climb over!

Corpse imagery aside, there’s a more important point to be made here.  College presidents want most of all to see their institutions thrive.  As the Chattanooga TFP article makes clear, the problem at Bryan College started when prominent young-earth creationist Ken Ham accused the college of falling away from Biblical orthodoxy.  The leadership of Bryan College faces a worrying prospect.  What if conservative evangelical parents no longer trust the orthodoxy on tap at Bryan?  What if they no longer agree to send their children and their tuition dollars to the school?

More than nuances in Biblical scholarship or evolutionary theory, college presidents must consider such things.  The dangers to the bottom line from the condemnation of Ken Ham are real and substantial.  Unless the leadership acted to shore up the impression of orthodoxy, they must have worried that their institution would become just another failed small religious college.

Let me be clear: I have no inside knowledge of the goings-on at Bryan College.  But it seems as if the simplest explanation here is probably the right one.  Beyond keeping the faith true, college presidents must worry about keeping the lights on.  In today’s climate, a bad review from the likes of Ken Ham could easily spell the end of any conservative evangelical school.




The Missionary Supposition

Is evolution a religion?  Are its teachers missionaries?

That has long been the accusation by some conservative religious folks.  The godfather of today’s young-earth creationist movement, Henry Morris, insists that it is.

Given that history, it is with trepidation and full humility that I’ve argued recently in the pages of the Reports of the National Center for Science Education that evolution educators might learn something from religious missionaries.

I want to be as clear as I can about this: I do not think that evolution is a religion.  I do not think evolution educators should consider it their job to “convert” young people to an evolutionary worldview.

But I do think evolution educators have been plagued historically by an attitude that creationism is simply an absence of something, a lack of knowledge about evolution.  To be sure, thoughtful evolution educators have long avoided that trap.  The folks at the National Center for Science Education, for instance, have made a strong case that we need to understand creationism if we want better evolution education. 

The attitude of many evolution educators throughout history, however, has been that creationists must simply not know enough about evolution.  Once creationists hear the truth, according to this line of thinking, they will hop on board the evolution train.

Ironically, that understanding of creationism and evolution teeters perilously close to the attitude among many early religious missionaries.  The Bible, many Protestant missionaries believed, contained such powerful, supernatural power that it would be instantly embraced by heathens worldwide.  All missionaries had to do was spread the Word.  Indeed, this faith in the transformative power of Gospel text remains strong among groups such as the Gideons and the American Bible Society.

But most religious missionaries these days understand that conversion needs more than just the Gospel.  Many conservative Protestant missionaries insist that the home cultures of local groups must be studied thoroughly and lovingly by would-be Bible missionaries.  Without that sort of preparation, real missionaries insist, evangelization is a waste of time, and may even be what one missionary writer called “evangelical toxic waste.”

What do I suggest?  I argue in my RNCSE essay that evolution educators need to spend more time understanding creationism.  If we really want to teach evolution in the United States, we need to do more than just spread the word.  We need to spend time learning about the cultures that refuse to believe evolutionary theory.

We need to study history, anthropology, and religion in addition to biology, geology, and genetics.  Awkward as it might be to admit, one “-ology” that evolution educators have ignored to their peril is missiology.


Wrong Not Crazy

Are creationists crazy?  Dumb?  Ignorant?  Guilty of child abuse?

Of course, some creationists might be all or any of those things.  But in spite of the overheated accusations of some science advocates, creationists are not dumb or crazy BECAUSE of their creationism.  More to the point, assuming that creationists can only be crazy stops any authentic attempt to understand creationism.  In the long run, that sort of ignorance on the part of evolution educators hurts the cause of evolution education itself.

This is not a popular thing to say.  Creationists don’t like it because it suggests that many people think of them as idiots.  Many anti-creationists don’t like it because they take the idiocy of creationism as an article of faith.

When I made this simple point in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education a few months back, I was called an idiot and worse.

Recently, Josh Rosenau, Policy Director of the National Center for Science Education, emphasized this important idea in a talk to an audience at Santa Clara University.  Rosenau has argued this unpopular position before.

In his recent talk, Rosenau pointed out (minute 15 of the 45-minute video) that “Science Denial” may be wrong, but it is not irrational, nor is it antiscience.  People who do not believe in evolution often know about it.  People who do not believe in evolution have their own consistent, internally logical, socially supported intellectual community.  As Rosenau noted, creationism is often “driven by personal identity and deep, real, important concerns.”

Continuing kudos to Rosenau and the NCSE.  This message is often politically unpalatable, but it is the only way to make progress in these depressingly durable creation/evolution battles.  Name-calling and point-scoring only deepen the culture-war trenches.