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.


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.