Missing the Boat on Creationism at the New York Times

It’s more than just a couple of minor goofs. A recent “retro” report about creationism and evolution education in the New York Times makes the usual huge mistakes in its description of American creationism.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH know I’m no creationist myself. I want more and better evolution education in America’s public schools, as I argued recently in my book with philosopher Harvey Siegel. But we won’t achieve that goal as long as we keep telling ourselves these comfortable/scary myths about creationism. If we want to fight the political influence of creationism, it is far better to understand creationism as it really is, instead of the clumsy monstrosity we usually imagine.

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Kicking ass for creation.

Let me start with the positives. The report did a good job of describing the basic history of anti-evolution legislation and court battles from the 1920s to today. As they describe, anti-evolution laws have been struck down by SCOTUS and other courts time and time again. They also did well to include the voices of both the smartest pro-evolution pundit—Brown’s Kenneth Miller—and leading creationists, including Answers In Genesis’s Georgia Purdom and a panel from the intelligent-designing Discovery Institute.

The problems with the report are not mere details or minor interpretative mistakes. No, the danger is that too many of us non-creationists woefully misunderstand the world of American creationism. As with this report from the New York Times, we will repeat misleading notions to ourselves and think we have a better picture of creationism. The real danger, of course, is that we will traipse off with our non-knowledge to make plans and policies, without a whiff of a sense that we are building on the wrong foundation.

As I’m arguing in my current book about American creationism, the first goof most non-creationists make is to treat creationism as a large, scary, undifferentiated mass. In the NYT report, for example, the young-earth Georgia Purdom is cited alongside the intelligent-designing Stephen Meyer as if there is not an enormous difference between their two beliefs.

Why does it matter? For one thing, the suggestion that a huge army of creationists are massing to take control of public schools is scary. But the idea of a fractured and disputatious set of cranky creationists isn’t. And that’s much closer to the truth. Consider, for example, Dr. Purdom’s criticism of intelligent design. While some evangelicals might like the notion at first, Purdom has argued, in the end, in an ID universe,

God appears sloppy and incompetent, if not downright vicious.

For the young-earthers at Answers In Genesis, ID is not an ally but rather another danger to be confronted. In the end, there is no such thing as “creationism”—at least not the way the New York Times article suggests. Rather, there are many creationisms. And those different visions of science and religion often fight one another far more viciously than they fight against mainstream science.

Here’s my second beef. As always, this article and its expert talking heads refer to creationism as “anti-science.” It’s not. All of us love science. As anthropologist Chris Toumey put it in his underappreciated book, God’s Own Scientists, creationists are like all Americans. We all have deep faith in the

plenary authority of science; that is, the idea that something is more valuable and more credible when it is believed that science endorses it.

In other words, whether people are shilling toothpaste, NASA budgets, or creation science, they always dress up in lab coats to make their pitch.

Why does that matter? If there are two simple sides to these culture war fights—science on one side and anti-science on the other—then we would have a much simpler time convincing the antis to get on board. Instead, as we saw so excruciatingly in the Ham-on-Nye debate a while back, what we end up doing instead is wasting time with each side trying to prove just how much it loves science. We don’t need to have that talk again. If we all love science, we can have more productive conversations—even if we disagree—about how to teach science in public schools.

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Read this!

Last and most important, we need to acknowledge the false and misleading myths about creationism’s history. This article is especially egregious in suggesting that creationism is making a bold new political advance, that fundamentalist armies are sweeping state legislatures in a frightening new show of creationist strength.

For example, the NYT report says that creationists haven’t scored a victory since the Scopes trial in 1925, until now. It describes menacingly that a “growing skepticism about science has seeped into the classroom.” I understand the reasons for alarm, but the notion of a huge uptick in creationist political power simply does not match the historical record.

The career of anti-evolution agitation has been one of steady decline in ambition and reach. For nearly a century now, anti-evolution activists have fought for a set of ever-shrinking goals. As I found in my first book, anti-evolution laws in the 1920s wanted nothing less than the imposition of theocratic rule on American public schools. In Kentucky, for example, a 1922 bill would have banned not only evolution, but atheism and agnosticism. An amendment would have pulled any book from a public library that might lead a student to question her religious beliefs.

Compare those bills to creationists’ efforts today. Please don’t get me wrong. I am in full agreement with Kenneth Miller and Zack Kopplin; today’s anti-evolution laws are terrible. But that doesn’t mean that they represent a bold new surge of strength for anti-evolutionism. They don’t. Rather, they are just the latest strategic grab at scraps of influence and power by anti-evolutionists.

Why does it matter? Well, I think I probably don’t need to spell it out, but I will. If creationism is 1.) united, 2.) anti-science, and 3.) surging to greater and greater power, those of us who oppose religious imposition in public schools need to take drastic action. We’d need a wholesale reorganization of the decision-making process in public-school curricula. We would need to come up with radical ways to intervene in local educational decisions, as the US did with racial segregation to such mixed results.

If, on the other hand, creationism is shrinking, fragmented, and in agreement about the fundamental intellectual power of capital-S science, we face a much different environment. It won’t generate as much attention, but it would be better policy to simply continue our efforts. We should continue to do what we’ve been doing: Advocate tirelessly for more and better evolution education; explain and explore the real contours of American creationism; repeat that evolution is not a religious idea—it won’t hurt students’ religious faiths.

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Creationists: We Don’t Want Creationism in Public Schools

We don’t push creationism on America’s public schools.  That’s the word from two very different ends of America’s creationist spectrum.

An intelligent observer might be forgiven for feeling a little confused.  If creationists don’t want creationism in America’s schools, what do they want?

Seen from this outsider’s perspective, this creationist plea demonstrates the important fact that America has not hit a wall with evolution/creation controversies; we are not trapped in a timeless deadlock; evolution and creation are not grappling in an endless, changeless battle.

Evolution is winning.

Don’t believe me?  Consider the recent statements of two leading creationists, two creationists with very different anti-evolution ideas.

Our first creationist voice for keeping creationism out of public schools comes from the leading proponent of intelligent design, Seattle’s Discovery Institute.

According to the conservative Christian World Magazine, the Discovery Institute’s Stephen Meyer has called recently for intelligent design advocates to stop pushing ID on public schools.  In a New York talk about his new book, Darwin’s Doubt, Meyer insisted it would be “imprudent for our side to be pushing intelligent design into textbooks.”

There was no need for such forceful public advocacy, Meyer argued.  Instead, growing doubt among mainstream scientists should be allowed to bubble over into public-school science curriculum.  According to Meyer, “There are too many scientists doing science from this perspective to keep it out of schools.  I’d prefer for it to happen organically.”

At the other end of the creationism spectrum, Ken Ham has called for a similar hands-off policy concerning public schools.  Ham, the founder of the leading young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, has insisted recently that his group does not push young-earth creationism into public schools.  Why not?  Because mandated creationism, Ham argued, would “likely be taught poorly (and possibly mockingly) by a teacher who does not understand what the Bible teaches. . .”

On the other hand, Ham does hope that public schools will teach a greater variety of ideas about evolution, including young-earth creationism.

For those of us non-creationists hoping to understand American creationism, what lessons can we take out of these statements?

At first glance, such arguments seem merely strategic.  My hunch is that both Meyer and Ham would prefer to see more intelligent design or young-earth creationism in America’s public schools, respectively.  Insisting that they do not push such notions seems nothing more than an attempt to play the role of innocent bystander in creation/evolution fights.

But we can take other lessons from these creationist statements as well.  First of all, both statements demonstrate a recognition that ID or YEC are not currently dominant in America’s public schools.  Dr. Meyer says he does not want to push ID, since that will leave the decisions in the hand of a judge, as happened in the Dover trial.  Mr. Ham worries that mandatory creationism would lead to withering critiques of the creation curriculum by the vast numbers of anti-creationist teachers.

As I’ve argued in my 1920s book, such creationist attitudes represent a wholesale revolution in anti-evolution politics.  In the 1920s, anti-evolution campaigns wanted more than to have creationism included in public schools.  Back then, anti-evolution politicians hoped to ban evolution wholesale.  Not only that, in the 1920s politicians and activists insisted on banning all sorts of ideas that might have challenged traditional Protestant culture.  Consider the “anti-evolution” law that passed the US Congress in 1924.  That law specified that no teachers could engage in “disrespect of the Holy Bible.”  But the law also insisted that DC teachers could not teach that the USA had an inferior form of government.

The sort of “us-too” strategy engaged in by Ham and Meyer demonstrates a very different goal.  Even if they are being duplicitous in their insistence that they do not want to push creationism on public schools, the very fact that they choose to disavow such insistence speaks volumes.

In the 1920s, anti-evolutionists wanted evolution out.  All the way out.  With all its attendant theories of atheism, socialism, sloppiness, and bad manners.  Anti-evolutionists went out of their way to show their vehement condemnation of all things evolutionary.

In the 21st century, in contrast, anti-evolutionists claim only to want a place at the public-school table.

This revolution in anti-evolution strategy demonstrates that there is no long-term deadlock in the evolution/creation struggle.

I’ll say it again: Evolution is winning.

It only appears to be a deadlock if we restrict ourselves to a short historical perspective.  Yet, for understandable reasons, many of the smartest voices in the evolution/creation debates have implied that we are in fact stuck.

Randy Moore, for example, has long been the smartest guy in the room when it comes to the struggle over creationism and biology education.  Yet even he allows himself to imply that evolution/creation has bogged down.  In a recent essay in the BioLogos Forum, for example, Moore opens with the following assertion: “the evolution-creationism controversy has been one of the most abiding controversies in America during the past several decades, public attitudes about evolution and creationism have changed relatively little during that time.”

True enough, but he restricts himself to a relatively short timeline.  Opinions since the 1980s may have congealed, but that does not imply a longterm freeze.

Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, too, open their wonderful study of evolution and creationism battles with the assumption that these battles have changed little.  They do not ask IF creation/evolution fights have deadlocked.  They only ask WHY such fights have been so durable.

Today’s statements from Stephen Meyer and Ken Ham demonstrate the dangers of these assumptions.  From an historian’s perspective, attitudes that have stayed the same since the 1980s are not proof of deadlock.  Rather, they appear only to be recent trends.

The fact that leading creationists insist that they do not want to push their theories into public schools tells us a lot.

It doesn’t tell us, of course, exactly how sincere such protestations might be.

But it does tell us that the evolution/creation controversy has changed dramatically over the past century.  Whereas the first rounds of this battle saw anti-evolutionists pound evolution education into the ropes, more recent decades have seen that trend reversed.

It is now creationists who insist they don’t want to push their ideas into public schools.

“Why can’t creationism be included?” is a vastly different question than “Why should schools include evolution?”