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.



What If Stories: Creationism and World War I

Much Less than 6,000 Years Ago

Much Less than 6,000 Years Ago

What if World War I had never happened? As the centenary of the start of that cataclysmic war nears, the National Center for Science Education has asked a group of eminent historians (as well as yours truly) to speculate how things might be different.

The first post in the NCSE series was penned by the Dean of Creationism History, Ronald L. Numbers.* Numbers, the author of the definitive history The Creationists, argues this morning that World War I was central to the shape of the creation/evolution struggles that emerged in the 1920s. As Ron notes, this sort of “counterfactual” game is tricky for historians. There are so many factors at play, such a varied interplay of contingencies and possibilities, that academic historians tend to shy away from guessing what might have happened. Nevertheless, Ron makes a strong case that the 1920s would have looked very different—in terms of creationism—had there been no big war. But does Professor Numbers think there would still have been a creation/evolution battle in the 1920s without a war? You’ll have to read his full post to find out.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the posts in this series. My own humble offering will come at the end of the series, I’m told.

* Full disclosure: Ron was my PhD mentor at the University of Wisconsin and is still a personal hero and friend of mine.


Barton and Evolution

You might be tired of hearing about David Barton.  I know I am.  But how about just one more point?  This morning, History News Network ran an essay of mine asking a new question about Barton.  In the essay, I ask what might happen if Barton was defending the notion of a young earth, rather than the notion that Thomas Jefferson was a devout Christian.

Thanks to the History News Network for running that piece.  Since I submitted to their editor, the Barton story has developed in ways that make me even more intrigued in the comparison between (some) conservative Christians’ views of history and creationists’ views of biology and geology.

In a piece that ran in the August 13 online edition of Glenn Beck’s Blaze newsletter, Barton defended his work.  According to the Blaze article,

“Barton seemed anything but shaken by the controversy when he spoke via telephone with TheBlaze. He freely answered questions about the controversy and explained that he’s prepared to respond to some of the critiques, while dismissing what he believes is an ‘elevated level of hostility that’s not really rational in many ways.’

David Barton Responds to Jefferson Lies Controversy and Warren Throckmorton

“While he stands by his central arguments about Jefferson, Barton isn’t pretending to be immune from error. The historian said that the book has already gone through three or four printings and that there have been word and text changes based on spelling or grammar errors along the way. Also, he addressed a willingness to amend historical items, should they be pointed out and proven wrong by other academics.”

What’s intriguing to me in this defense is the way it echoes the challenges posed by 1920s creationists.  Note the phrase “other academics.”  Barton here defends his position as one academic historian among others.

It has been a very long while since scientific creationists insisted that they were part of of the mainstream scientific establishment.  As Ron Numbers described in his classic The Creationists, after the Scopes trial in 1925 leading creationist scientists still fought for creationism’s acceptance in mainstream science.  But they quickly learned that such debates did not offer a real chance to convince mainstream scientists of creationism’s superiority.  Seventh-day Adventist George McCready Price, for instance, left one debate in London shocked and demoralized by the reaction of the crowd.  “Do not confine your reading wholly to one side,” Price pleaded in response to one scornful outburst from the audience.  “How can you know anything about a certain subject if you read only one side of the case? There is plenty of evidence on the other side, and this evidence is gradually coming out.”  After this debate, Price left the stage feeling humiliated, and he never engaged in another public debate. (Numbers, ed. Creation-Evolution Debates, pg. 186).

This does not mean, of course, that creationists gave up.  No, it demonstrates that creationists moved in the 1920s, in fits and starts, away from fighting for acceptance by mainstream scientists.  Instead, they built their own powerful institutions: schools, publishers, and research organizations.  By 2012 no politician needs to retreat from creationist belief.  Similarly, no creationist feels a need to prove his or her claims to an audience of mainstream scientists.

David Barton, on the other hand, is giving us what might be a new Scopes moment.  Forced to endure the public humiliation of having his book withdrawn, Barton has taken a defiant posture.  He has insisted, like Price in 1925, that readers do more than “read only one side of the case.”  He continues to claim his credentials as one academic historian among others.  I wonder if soon historians like Barton will embrace their outsider status.  If so, as I argue in the History News Network piece, we might be seeing another sort of 1925.

Required Reading: The Big Tent of Creationism

Creationism ruffles feathers.  As the belligerent atheist Richard Dawkins memorably quipped, those who do not believe in evolution must be “ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).”  There is comfort in Dawkins’ dismissal.  An insightful article in the most recent Christianity Today, however, probes deeper into the complexities of creationism.

I still remember my first introduction to the world of creation science.  I was a staunch outsider, having had little interaction with creationism until my mid-30s.  In graduate school, reading Ron Numbers’ The Creationists, I was astounded to learn that nearly 50% of American adults agree with a young-earth creationism, according to Gallup polls.  And one-quarter of those creationists have college degrees.

Much of my academic research has been devoted to puzzling out how such a thing is possible.  Since the 1920s (my Scopes book now available in paperback!), creationism has entrenched itself in schools, colleges, and alternative scientific organizations.  It has become a viable way for millions of Americans to understand the origins of life on Earth.

Glib dismissals like those of Richard Dawkins do not help us understand this cultural phenomenon.  What will help are thoughtful, sympathetic explorations like that of Tim Stafford in July’s Christianity Today.  In “A Tale of Two Scientists,” Stafford explores the lives and careers of two evangelical scientists, Darrell Falk and Todd Wood.  Falk is an evolutionary creationist, Wood a young-earth creationist.

Falk describes his falling away from his upbringing in the Nazarene Church.  As a graduate student, he had fallen in love with the beauty of genetics, and soon found himself estranged from the church.  When he watched his two daughters growing up, he knew he wanted to find them a church home like the one he had known.  He was worried about a cold reception from church members, but as a tenure-track scientist at Syracuse University, he looked for a church he could join.  At first, he was nervous.  As Stafford tells the story,

“Falk went alone, like a spy, into the church for a worship service.

“After the service, he found himself surrounded by friendly faces. They seemed delighted that he was a professor at Syracuse. Falk went home and told his wife, ‘We might have a church after all.’

“So it proved to be. Though the church certainly didn’t believe in evolution, and came to know that Falk did, they never bothered about it. ‘That church, God’s gift to us, built a bridge to us and welcomed us just as we were, gradual creation perspective and all.’ The pastor helped Falk as he found his way to a fuller, more robust faith, eventually asking him to teach a Sunday school class for young adults.”

Wood had a very different upbringing and career.  As he explains in the article, he never moved away from the assumption that the Bible’s description of a six-day creation tells the real story of the origins of life.  But that did not mean that he was somehow ignorant of evolution.  As Stafford writes,

“The first human genome sequence was published the year that Wood began graduate school, providing strong evidence for evolution. The DNA for chimps and humans was virtually the same. Traces of common origins were everywhere: Humans even possessed a broken version of the gene that lizards and birds use to produce eggs. Wood remained fully committed to a six-day creation—he says he never doubted it for a minute—because he saw no other way to read the Bible. But that didn’t keep him from recognizing that evolution had powerful attestation.”

The two men have very different ideas about the origins of life.  Yet they can both describe themselves as “creationists.”  And, unlike the harsh denunciations of critics like Dawkins, neither scientist is stupid, insane, or ignorant.  Rather, their relationships to mainstream science have been profoundly shaped by their religious beliefs.  This does not mean they have been brainwashed or indoctrinated.  Nor does it mean they are anti-science.  Rather, they came to very different conclusions about the need to reconcile science and religion, all within the big tent of creationism.

We do not have to agree with their conclusions in order to recognize the intellectual complexities of their positions.  If we hope to understand Fundamentalist America, it will help to dig deeper than Dawkins’ brand of simplistic denunciation.