Experts Agree…

I’m delighted to report that we’ve got some blurbs up for our new book, Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation.  I’m thrilled to see such great recommendations from two people who know the most about America’s evolution/creation debate.

glenn branch

You know it’s big when you have your own cartoon portrait…

First, some background.  As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I have a new book coming out in February, co-authored with philosopher Harvey Siegel.  In this book, we discuss the history of America’s modern evolution/creation debates.  We also explore the philosophical issues involved with teaching evolution and creationism.  Finally, we offer a recommendation or two for teaching evolution in a way that is scientifically credible and culturally sensitive.


Have you read it yet?

Thanks to the work of our publisher, University of Chicago Press, we now have blurbs from Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education and Ronald Numbers of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. You may know Branch’s work on the Science League of America blog.  Or you may have read his book Not in Our Classrooms.  In any case, nobody has a better sense of the issues involved in today’s evolution/creation debates than does Glenn Branch.

And nobody knows the history better than Professor Numbers.  I’m biased, of course, because Ron was my grad-school mentor and he continues to be my friend and role model.  But you can ask anyone: Ron’s book The Creationists is the first and last word on the subject.

So of course I’m tickled pink to share their blurbs for our new book:

Glenn Branch, deputy director, National Center for Science Education
“What do you get when you cross a historian and a philosopher? If it’s Laats and Siegel, the answer is Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation. Thoughtful and provocative, historically detailed and philosophically informed, this book is a must for anyone interested in understanding the conflict over evolution education in the United States.”
Ronald L. Numbers, author of The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design
Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation provides not only a readable and reliable survey of past encounters but a sensible guide to future practices. Rather than promoting public-school classrooms as pulpits for converting skeptical students to evolution (which has rarely proved an effective technique in any case), they recommend helping students to understand the arguments and evidence for evolution. This book should be required reading for all evolution educators.”


Creation, Christians, and the Deadlock Myth

Whoops! There it is again—another commentator implying that we have been trapped in an endless deadlock over evolution and creation. It’s just not true, as we argue in our new book. That doesn’t stop it from being a very popular thing to say.


Six more decades of creationist debate…

To be fair, Pastor Ryan Gear is more interested in Christian attitudes than in educational policy. He laments the fact that so many conservative Christians continue to doubt evolution and climate change. He points out that such skepticism is not necessary, from a religious viewpoint.

Fair enough. Gear goes off the rails, however, when he implies that things have not changed for Christians when it comes to evolution and creation. As he puts it, if Darwin were alive today, “he would observe that Christians have not evolved much in relation to his theory.”

Hold the phone. In terms of both education policy and religious belief, such statements woefully misrepresent the history of the evolution/creation debate.

First, as I argue in my upcoming book, co-authored with philosopher extraordinaire Harvey Siegel, evolution education has experienced radical changes across the decades. Over long decades, evolution education has made enormous advances. In the 1920s, several states banned the teaching of evolution in public schools entirely.

As I argued in my first book, the fight over evolution in the 1920s was a fight—successful in many ways—to make explicit and legally binding the traditional evangelical Protestant domination of American public life.

These days, the goals of creationists are much tamer. Even the most vociferous young-earth advocates insist they don’t want creationism taught in public schools. Intelligent-designers have scrubbed the explicit religious references out of their arguments.


Have you read it yet?

Also, the very meanings of creationism itself have changed dramatically. As our leading historian of creationism (and my grad-school mentor) Ronald Numbers has demonstrated, today’s popular young-earth creationism was itself a novelty of the mid-twentieth century. In early evolution battles, very few anti-evolutionists insisted on a young earth.

In 1927, for example, fundamentalist activist William Bell Riley insisted, there is not

an intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the earth was made six thousand years ago; and the Bible never taught any such thing.

Back then, Riley was the hard edge of creationist activism. He was the founder and leader of the World [or World’s] Christian Fundamentals Association. He founded a thriving school in his adopted home city of Minneapolis. He represented, to many contemporaries, the extreme, uncompromising wing of 1920s anti-evolutionism.

And he did not believe in a young earth. He did not think it mattered.

Today, of course, the religious landscape of American creationism is much different. Not only do many Christians in big conglomerations such as the Southern Baptist Convention insist on belief in creationism, but they also believe that real creationism means belief in a young earth and a literal six-day creation.

That is new.

We have not been deadlocked for generations in the same ol’ evolution/creation battles. In terms of public policy and private belief, everything has changed. Utterly.

Why does any of this matter to us? Deadlock suggests a need for drastic action. It suggests a stalemate, one that can only be broken by decisive, radical action. The truth, however, is not quite so exciting.

In the past hundred years, the evolution/creation debates have not been stymied in a go-nowhere morass. Rather, people like me who want more and better evolution education have consistently scored important victories. People like Pastor Gear, on the other hand, have been forced to argue against growing percentages of evangelical Christians who insist on a scientifically outlandish young-earth creationism.

From the perspective of public policy, the prescription is clear. We should keep going with our efforts to improve real evolution education in public schools. Evolution, and only evolution, should be taught as our best current scientific understanding of the way species came to be.

At the same time, we should adopt a determinedly neutral stance toward the creationist debates among evangelical Christians. If young-earth advocates want to square off against evolutionary creationists, so be it. Such religious debates are outside the realm of public-school policy.

This kind of nuanced, non-alarmist policy argument does not make for good headlines. That’s why we will likely continue to see every creation/evolution article and op-ed opened with a lament that things have not changed.

If we really want to move forward, however, on questions of evolution, creationism, and education, we need to get beyond the headlines. We need to get beyond the ahistorical assertion that we are trapped in a never-ending evolution/creation Groundhog Day.

Do I Need to See the Light?

Joel Carpenter is. Mark Noll is. George Marsden is. Ron Numbers is was. John Turner is. John Fea is. I’m not. Does it matter?

Many of the best academic historians of evangelicalism and fundamentalism grew up as part of an evangelical church. Indeed, among academic historians in general, since the 1960s it has been seen as a big plus to have a personal background with the group(s) we study.

It’s not universal. As far as I know, Matthew Sutton didn’t. Molly Worthen didn’t. Tanya Luhrmann didn’t. And if they did, it is not a big part of their public persona. In other words, they write as scholars of evangelical religion, not necessarily as evangelical scholars of evangelical religion.

This is more than just “PC” cliquishness. Historians are sobered and humbled by their own history. Though African American historian WEB DuBois clearly debunked the dominant but false histories of Reconstruction way back in the 1930s, white historians didn’t catch up until the 1960s.

With fundamentalism in particular, non-evangelical historians did a terrible job. Until the 1970s, mainstream historians told us that fundamentalism died after the Scopes Trial of 1925. It had done nothing of the sort, of course. A new generation of evangelical historians such as Ernest Sandeen and George Marsden knew it hadn’t, since they had grown up with it.

Having a background in the world of conservative evangelicalism gives historians an ear for the language and a feel for the connections between groups. When I was stumbling through my graduate work at Wisconsin, for example, my mentor Ron Numbers was able to point me toward super-rare creationist documents from the 1930s. How did he know about them? They were written by his grandfather!

That sort of connection is something we outsiders can never acquire.

As outsiders, though, we non-evangelical historians enjoy some benefits. For us, there are no pre-existing good guys or bad guys. We aren’t embarrassed by the rhetorical excesses of 1920s fundamentalists. They don’t have anything to do with us! We don’t feel a need to demonstrate how different such hellfire preachers are from our own intellectual roots. To us, it’s all archival material.

In short, evangelical historians will always have insights I lack. But they will also have hang-ups and assumptions I’m free from.

Recent discussions on this blog have pointed out the continuing importance of these questions. When I noted the recent visit of Bob Jones University President Steven Pettit to the scenic campus of Wheaton College, I was mostly interested in the turbulent historical relationship between the two schools. At least one commentator, however, accused me of trading in “guesswork and gossip.” I didn’t mean to suggest that BJU was somehow “moving toward neo-evangelicalism.” Many readers within the world of fundamentalism and evangelicalism have very strong feelings about such things. I don’t.

As I plow forward with my new book about conservative evangelical colleges and universities, I need to keep these issues in mind. I need to remind myself that I might be missing out on subtleties of tone or implication that are obvious to those raised within this tradition. I need to watch for connections that are not made explicit to outsiders, but are nevertheless glaringly obvious to those in the know.

Yearnin’ for the Good Ol’ (Earth) Days

How old is the planet? For some creationists, it may seem like an ancient bit of Christian orthodoxy that God created the whole thing less than ten thousand years ago. But we see more proof today that the idea of a young earth is a relatively novel idea among conservative Christians.

Anyone who has done their homework knows the story. As historian Ronald L. Numbers outlined in his definitive book The Creationists, most conservative Christians believed in an ancient earth until the 1960s. Even in the hottest days of anti-evolution controversy in the 1920s, fundamentalist leaders usually felt no need to believe in a young earth.

As 1920s fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley put it in 1927, there was not

an intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the earth was made six thousand years ago; and the Bible never taught any such thing.

As I make my way through Bradley Gundlach’s excellent book Process & Providence, I came across a similar example from the 1800s. Back then, Princeton Seminary was the redoubt of thinking creationists. In 1856, the school’s journal offered a short review of a new book by David N. Lord, Geognosy, or the Facts and Principles of Geology against Theories.

In his long book, Lord argued that mid-nineteenth-century geologists often missed the boat. Such foolish pseudo-scientists, Lord wrote, mistook the boundaries of their own science and slid into both scientific and theological error when they suggested that the earth must have existed for millions of years.

Antique appreciation...

Antique appreciation…

Today’s conservative creationists might think that any self-respecting creationist would applaud Lord’s work. And the guardians of orthodoxy at Princeton did, to an extent. They described Lord’s goal as “elevated and holy.” His conclusions, however, did not sit well with the Old Princetonians.

In a way that might be surprising to today’s young-earth creationist crowd, the theologians at Princeton assailed Lord’s attempt to defend Scripture by attacking emerging geological science. Why? Not because they doubted the inerrant nature of the Bible. No, the Princetonians instead refused to allow their religion to be bound and hampered by any possible scientific discovery.

They “dissent,” the reviewers wrote, from Lord’s

Fundamental position, and deny his right to embark the whole hopes of Christians in one boat, and make the salvation of men through Jesus Christ, depend on the success of his argument against geologists.

Lord had argued that the new geology threatened to disprove Genesis. It was imperative, Lord wrote, for thinking Christians to disprove geology instead. Balderdash, huffed the Princetonians: “There is not a true Christian in the world, who really believes this.”Good old days 2 PRIME

Instead, the old-earth creationists at Princeton insisted that creation was an established fact, whichever way the scientific winds might blow. “If science,” they concluded,

Should succeed in demonstrating that the earth is millions of ages old, then we will with the utmost alacrity believe that the days of the creation were periods of indefinite duration.

A Brazillion Creationists Out There

How powerful is creationism worldwide? Some pundits have suggested that creationism is unique to the USA. But recent news from Brazil indicates that global creationism may be gaining steam.

The latest report from Brazil comes to us from the National Center for Science Education. Proposed legislation in that country would introduce US-style creationism to Brazilian public schools. My Portuguese is no good, but according to the NCSE report, this bill insists that schools include creationist science, including “the ideas that life has its origin in God, the supreme creator of the whole universe and of all things that compose it.”

Why? Because, in the words of the bill’s sponsor, “the creationist doctrine is prevalent throughout our country.”

Is it? Some science pundits, such as Bill Nye, contend that this sort of creationism is “unique” to the United States.

In this case, The Science Guy is flat-out wrong. Creationism—even if we limit it to just the Christian kind—is a global phenomenon. And the reasons for that globalism matter.

Pundits like Bill Nye might assume that creationism thrives in those corners of the globe that have not yet been incorporated into the global conversation. In some isolated regions, this theory goes, the obvious truths of evolution have not yet penetrated.

But that explanation gets it backward. The reason for thriving creationism in Brazil is not due to ineffective science education. It is due, rather, to explosively effective religious education. That is, Brazilian creationists are not simply religious primitives who have been isolated from the gospel of evolution. Instead, they are religious innovators who have been connected to a global gospel of creationism.

As usual, historian Ron Numbers—my grad-school mentor—put it best. In his book The Creationists, Ron captures this experience with a pithy chapter title: “Creation Science Floods the World.”

A growing force in Brazilian politics...

A growing force in Brazilian politics…

Throughout the twentieth century, conservative evangelical Protestants have successfully spread their religion throughout Latin America, finding a particularly congenial home in Brazil.

As a recent study from the Pew Research Center for Religion & Public Life makes clear, US-style evangelicalism has aggressively moved into Brazil, courting the country’s Catholics and converting them in large numbers.

For a hundred years, evangelical groups have spread via missionary organizations into Brazil. As Andrew Chestnut of Virginia Commonwealth University explains, groups such as the Assemblies of God have been particularly successful in Brazil. With this Pentecostal denomination, at least, Brazilian locals have taken over and made it their own. And they are now asserting their power politically.

For instance, the author of the recent creationist legislation, Marco Feliciano, is an Assemblies of God pastor. And he insists that Brazilians are on his side. Poll numbers back him up. According to the NCSE report, fully 89% of Brazilian respondents think creationism should be taught in Brazil’s public schools. Nearly that many, 75%, think ONLY creationism should be taught.

I’ve argued in the past that evolution educators often have a missionary zeal to spread the truth about evolution. This news from Brazil suggests that evolution’s missionaries are just not as good as the creationist types.

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.

The Creation Debate We Need

Ken Ham, creationist debater extraordinaire, has again thrown down the gauntlet. This time, Ham has challenged conservative evangelist Pat Robertson. More than watching Ham battle Science Guy Bill Nye, America needs to hear this debate between conservative evangelical Protestant creationists.

Apparently, according to Mr. Ham and the folks at Right Wing Watch, Robertson has been taking pot-shots at young-earth creationism lately. On his television show The 700 Club, Robertson recently announced, “You have to be deaf, dumb and blind to think that this Earth that we live in only has 6,000 years of existence.”

As he has done recently with other conservative colleges such as Calvin and Bryan, Ham wondered pointedly if Robertson’s colleagues at Regent University really support Robertson’s old-earth position. Ham asked if the school followed Robertson in “compromis[ing] the Word of God with the pagan ideas of fallible men.”

Ham offered to debate these issues with Robertson. As Ham put it,

I wonder if Pat Robertson would be prepared to discuss these issues with me or one of our AiG scientists on the 700 Club? Or maybe in some sort of debate format at Regent University? We are certainly willing to do that…. I wonder if Pat Robertson, who is allowed to state these things so publicly through CBN will agree to have his statements publicly challenged and tested!

Both conservative religious folks and outsiders like me would benefit from such a debate. We outsiders would learn more about the issues that matter to creationists. None of us were particularly surprised by the arguments Bill Nye put forward. But many of us would be enlightened to hear the reasons for and against belief in a young earth, since both sides would be arguing from a relatively similar religious perspective. We outsiders could learn about the kaleidoscopic world of creationism. For some people, this might be the first time they heard that not every creationist embraces the idea of a young earth.

And evangelicals would benefit enormously. After all, belief in a young-earth as creationist orthodoxy is a very recent phenomenon. As historian Ron Numbers demonstrated so powerfully, until the second half of the twentieth century, belief in a young earth was restricted to a relatively small percentage of conservative evangelicals. At the time of the Scopes trial in 1925, for example, leading fundamentalists differed in their beliefs about the age of the earth. At that time, no one looked askance at anti-evolutionist leaders such as William Jennings Bryan who believed in an ancient earth. Only with the publication of Henry Morris’ and John Whitcomb’s creationist blockbuster The Genesis Flood did young-earth creationism become a dominant theme in conservative American evangelical thought.

Many young evangelicals these days don’t know this history. They often assume they must either accept the doctrine of a young earth or abandon their religion entirely. A debate between two conservative evangelical leaders would demonstrate the possibilities.


Introducing: Shelfies!

What’s on your shelf?  What do you read to help you figure out questions about conservatism and American education?

I Love You But You’re Going to Hell is happy to introduce a new feature: Shelfies.  Readers are invited to send pictures of their bookshelves with annotations.  You can send them to the editor:  Make sure the titles are legible.

Here’s a shelfie from our editor’s office:

What's on your shelf?

What’s on your shelf?

This is one of my go-to piles in my current work.  Here’s the breakdown:

1.) George Marsden’s Fundamentalism & American Culture.  It was this book (in an earlier edition) that first got me interested in the culture and activism of conservative evangelical Protestants.

2.) Arthur Zilversmit’s Changing Schools.  I refer to this book regularly.  It looks at the slippery nature of “progressivism” in American schools in the crucial period of 1930-1960.

3, 4, & 5.) The Ron Numbers Collection: Ron was my mentor in grad school at Wisconsin.  His work on creationism has been the bedrock reference for my historical research.

6.) James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me.  I use this book regularly with my students who are going into history education.  Loewen’s tone is always a little too strident for my tastes, but this book is always good for those who are thinking about teaching history for a living.

7.) Clarence Karier, The Individual, Society, and Education.  This is a good book.  Not enough people seem to read it these days.  Karier looks somewhat idiosyncratically at the long history of education in the United States.

8.) Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 1935.  In this volume, historian Richard Niebuhr (brother of theologian Reinhold) offers an early and skewed definition of “fundamentalism.”  Niebuhr concluded, without much evidence, that fundamentalism was a rural phenomenon, an outgrowth of ignorance and isolation.  Though this definition doesn’t match the historical record, it proved enormously influential.  For decades, non-evangelical scholars accepted Niebuhr’s slanted definition without demur.

9.) Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters. This well-known civil-rights history is there because I needed something to cover the gap in my bookshelves.  I can’t say I’ve ever read it, though I’ve always meant to.

So how bout it?  Send in some shelfies, tell us about what you’re reading.

Why Do Evangelicals Doubt Evolution?

For outsiders like me, it can seem an utter mystery why intelligent, informed American adults remain skeptical about the truths of evolutionary science.

The BioLogos Foundation recently re-posted a 2010 video by evangelical scientist Jeffrey Schloss to help people like me understand evangelical skepticism.

Professor Schloss offers two main reasons why evangelicals oppose evolution.  The video is short and worth watching.  But the message is misleading.

Schloss argues that evangelical faith depends on the reliability of Scripture.  Accepting any ideas that challenge that reliability, he points out, would force evangelicals to make profound changes in their core religious beliefs.

Also, Schloss notes that some visions of evolution force evangelicals to doubt the omnipotence and benevolence of God.  If evolution implies a purposeless development of life, it must be rejected by evangelicals.

Such insights are important, but in the end they suggest misleading conclusions.

The vast majority of evangelicals who reject evolutionary science do not do so primarily for theological reasons, as Dr. Schloss suggests.  Rather, evangelicals who doubt evolution mostly do so due to their complex cultural identities as members of communities who doubt evolution.  In other words, evolution skepticism should not be understood as one rational decision among others, made by evangelicals (and others) based on reasoned theological considerations.  Rather, those who doubt evolution do so as members of communities reliant on authoritative statements about the theological impossibility of evolution.

In other words, people doubt evolution because they come from churches, families, towns, and denominations that doubt evolution.  They explain their doubt in theological terms, and such explanations are immensely important.  But they are not the primary reasons why people doubt evolution in the first place.

Perhaps this problem will make more sense if we try an analogy.  Historically, some economists suggested that people tend to make rational economic decisions.  By plotting a rational economic forecast, the thinking went, economists could predict the ways homo economicus would behave.  Unfortunately, real people don’t act often enough like homo economicus to make those predictions useful.  Some people do, naturally, but not enough to make homo economicus a useful explanatory tool.

I suggest that Professor Schloss is crafting a similarly misleading picture of homo theologicus.  Professor Schloss suggests that American evangelicals deny evolution due to two important theological considerations.  Doubtless there are some American evangelicals who have done so.  But more people make decisions for other reasons.  The theology is important, but it is not the place to start if we want to understand evolution skepticism.

Professor Schloss is doubtless fully aware of these sociological and cultural reasons for evolution skepticism.  He notes the many factors that go into evolution skepticism.  But by describing two theological ideas as the most important reasons for opposing evolution, he grossly mischaracterizes the nature of American evolution skepticism.

For those of us who hope to improve evolution education, this matters.  If we think of evolution skepticism as a rational theological belief, then we may decide that the best way to spread evolutionary theory is to explain evolutionary theory rationally and repeatedly.  We may be led to believe that reasonable independent actors have chosen evolution skepticism, and may thus be open to rationally and reasonably changing their minds.

That’s not how it works.  As my grad-school mentor Ronald Numbers has shown, the boundaries of acceptable “creationist” belief among evangelicals and other creationists have changed over time.  Such boundaries have not been something each individual evangelical creationist has reasoned out for him- or herself.  Rather, the meanings of evolution skepticism have themselves evolved.  And, as David Long’s ethnographic studies have demonstrated, personal commitments to evolution skepticism are not often changed by exposure to evolutionary theory.

Evolution skepticism is a complex cultural identity.  Americans do not choose to believe in either evolution or creationism in a sort of cultural cafeteria.  Rather, they are born (or adopted) into communities of belief.

Those of us who hope to spread the acceptance of evolutionary science must begin with a thorough and nuanced understanding of evolution skeptics.  Professor Schloss’ overemphasis on homo theologicus does not do that.




An Age of Denial—of History

Attention, fellow followers of the evolution/creationism controversies!  Want to read

  • Hysterical exaggerations?
  • Misleading claims?
  • Willful ignorance?

Then look no further than the pages of the New York Times.

These aren’t the ravings of a fringe Bible-thumping creationist, nor are they the feverish exhalations of a Dawkins wannabe.
Rather, the New York Times recently ran a sadly mistaken opinion piece by physicist Adam Frank of the University of Rochester.

Professor Frank and I are on the same side of these debates.  We both want better evolution education in America’s schools at every level.
But Professor Frank engaged in some terrible punditry that even his allies must protest.  Frank made the tortuous claim that

Narrowly defined, “creationism” was a minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century. But in the years since I was a student, a well-funded effort has skillfully rebranded that ideology as “creation science” and pushed it into classrooms across the country. Though transparently unscientific, denying evolution has become a litmus test for some conservative politicians, even at the highest levels.

Creationism is not Professor Frank’s only concern.  He also blasted America’s growing—or at least durable—disdain for climate-change science and vaccination science.  For those notions, Frank may have a point.  But his claims about creationism don’t pass the smell test.

Even on his own terms, Professor Frank muddles things.  He opens by acknowledging the fairly flat lines of American creationism illustrated by Gallup polls.  Since the 1980s, about 42-44% of respondents have agreed that God created humanity in pretty much its present form at some point in the last 10,000 years.

How, then, does it make any sense for Frank to conclude that his “professors’ generation [in the 1980s] could respond to silliness like creationism with head-scratching bemusement”?  Creationism in the 1980s was a roaring lion, pushing “two-theory” laws onto the books in states such as Arkansas.  Indeed, President Reagan swept into the White House based, in part, on his ardent support for creationism.

Frank’s personal experience with self-satisfied academic scientists in the 1980s who looked at creationism with “head-scratching bemusement” demonstrates the surprising cultural isolation of academic scientists more than it does any weakness of creationism in the 1980s.  As sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund has argued, many scientists in elite academic settings these days show a surprising ignorance about conservative religion in America.  That may have been true of Frank’s teachers in the 1980s as well.  If they thought 1980s creationism posed no threat to mainstream science and science education, they certainly misunderstood the nature of American culture and politics.

More startling is Frank’s bizarre claim that creationism was a “minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century.”  Such a statement reveals a breathtaking ignorance about the career of American creationism, indeed about American culture in general.

I don’t suggest that physicists such as Professor Frank need to take the time to read the excellent academic literature out there, such as Ron Numbers The Creationists, Michael Lienesch’s In the Beginning, or Jeffrey Moran’s American Genesis.  Though it wouldn’t hurt, especially if one is planning to spout off about the history of creationism in the pages of the New York Times.

But even if Frank only scanned through the Wikipedia entry on the Creation-Evolution Controversy, he would see that creationism has never been a “minor current.”  Creationism has always been embraced by leading figures; creationism has always had powerful political support.

So what could the good professor have been thinking?  How could an intelligent, informed commentator really believe that creationism has grown from inconsequential to insuperable between 1982 and today?

Perhaps Professor Frank believes that his claims are true if we look only at creationism “narrowly defined.”  That is, one could make the case that today’s sort of creationism did not exist for most of the 20th century.  This could hold some water.  After all, the sort of creationism we’re used to today is very different from that of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.  The 1961 publication of Morris and Whitcomb’s Genesis Flood heralded a new sort of creationist thought and belief.

If this is what Professor Frank meant, good for him.  But I don’t think it is.

After all, Frank does not claim that creationism has become powerful since the 1960s.  He seems to believe that creationism has escalated in political intensity since 1982.

Also, if he hopes to argue that creationism’s political power is stronger now than it has ever been, he can’t hide behind his faulty “narrow” definition of creationism.  In the first half of the 20th century, creationism—not the same creationism as today, but recognizably the same cultural and political impulse—ruled the ballot box in states across the country.  It did so far more powerfully than it has done since.

The claims of “early” creationism were far more strident than the claims of latter-day “creation scientists.”  Since the 1960s, most creationists have fought to include creationism alongside evolution in public-school science classes.  Earlier activists had much greater ambitions, hoping to ban evolution entirely.

So what can we make of Professor Frank’s anxious tut-tutting?

Frank’s misleading conclusions, I believe, result from a disturbing willingness to ignore the historical record and rely on flawed personal experience to make sweeping charges about the way America has changed over time.  The goal is to create a sense of hysteria, a sense that we are now approaching a crisis worse than any we have seen.

Such antics may make for good politics.  But they make for very bad policy-making.  Our thinking about creationism, education, and culture should be based on clear-heading thinking, not on false claims.

So, to set the record straight, let’s look at a few simple facts:

  • Is America in 2013 ferociously creationist?  Yes.
  • Do politicians truckle to creationists?  Yes.
  • Has America become more ferociously creationist since Professor Frank began his college career in 1982?  No.

It may be politically expedient to skew the history this way, but it doesn’t do justice to the facts.  In the end, this kind of misrepresentation hurts the cause of evolution education.  It depends on a false sense of crisis; it gives readers a misleading depiction of our current cultural situation.

America is not facing the strongest creationist surge in our history.  Education policy should not be based on hysterically misleading claims.  Rather, creationism today is powerful, just as it has been since before America landed on the moon, just as it has been since before America landed on Omaha Beach.

American creationism, in short, is not a sudden new challenge to mainstream science, but rather a durable tradition.  Science pundits such as Professor Frank must recognize this.