The Accidental Creationist Conspiracy

We didn’t mean to. But those of us who fight for more and better evolution education have occasionally unwittingly teamed up with radical creationists to promulgate a false myth about the nature of American creationism. We should stop.

Pew Creation eighty one

I’ll take those odds…

Here’s what we know: Most Americans know—or admit—that humans evolved. You may have heard the old Gallup poll results, the ones that keep finding almost half of Americans think God created humans in pretty much their present form at some time within the past ten thousand years.

More careful survey questions—it’s all about the questions—reveal much different numbers. The folks at Pew Research have found that about four in every five Americans accept human evolution. The numbers of die-hard evolution deniers is much smaller than you might have thought.

Why is that? Why do so many of us think that there are many more radical creationists out there than there really are?

For one thing, it might be because of the publicity. Whenever a high-profile radical creationist gets anywhere, it attracts a lot of attention. Consider the ill-starred campaign of Mary Lou Bruner in Texas. She didn’t win her race for state school board, but when she told her facebook friends that there had to have been dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark, and that Obama had put himself through law school as a prostitute, it attracted international attention to her campaign.

But there’s another reason, too. Radical creationists like Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis have an obvious interest in inflating the numbers of followers they have. When it comes to the attendance figures at AIG’s Ark Encounter in Kentucky, for example, Ham seems fond of exaggerating the number of people who trickle through his gopher-wood gates.

There’s a less obvious angle, too. Not only do Ham and other radical creationists exaggerate their own influence, so do Ham’s fiercest opponents. For instance, Americans United campaigns vigorously for secular public schools. They fight against any whiff of religiously inspired creationist curriculum. In doing so, however, they unintentionally promote the myth of vast creationist armies massing outside the schoolhouse door.

Now, to be clear, I personally support their work, and that of other anti-creationist groups such as the National Center for Science Education. Nevertheless, when AU rightly condemns the creationist activities of lawmakers such as Indiana’s Dennis Kruse, AU tends to imply that Kruse is not part of a desperate, go-nowhere radical creationist rump, but rather part and parcel of what they call elsewhere a

a coordinated national effort to codify a far-right, evangelical Christian America. [Emphasis in original.]

A casual reader might be forgiving for thinking that a “coordinated national effort” is scarier than what we might more appropriately describe in other terms. Instead of inflating the influence of radical creationism, what if we called it by more appropriate labels? How about “desperate?” How about “disappearing?” How about “shrinking and increasingly isolated?”

As I’m arguing in my new book about American creationism, the vast majority of Americans don’t really disagree about evolution. Not in ways that really matter. Instead, most of us are friendly to the mainstream science of evolution. We’re also friendly to religious ideas about divine involvement in the origins of life. Few of us agree with the radical positions on either side of the creationism culture war.

shipley war on modern science

“Vast armies?” or sad little cliques?

Instead of harping on the threat of radical creationism, it will be better strategy to emphasize the out-of-step nature of radical creationism. Instead of warning incorrectly—as NCSE godfather Maynard Shipley did in the 1920s—that “the armies of ignorance are being organized, literally by the millions, for a combined political assault on modern science,” we should be celebrating and publicizing the fact that only a small and shrinking band of out-of-touch radicals still deny the essentials of mainstream science.