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.

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

More strikes and the looming s-word this week. Here are some of the news stories you might have missed from the past seven days:

Denver: Teachers out on strike today, at CBS4.

Trump’s 2020 Gamble: Does anyone still tremble at the threat of ‘socialism?’

From Righting America: If there was a real global flood, why did God need to kill all the babies? All the animals?

(How) can evangelical colleges survive? With online classes? Or by getting back to what they’ve always done best? At CHE.

Christian Persecution Update: Campus Christian group scores legal win in Iowa LGBTQ case, at IHE.

Think Creationists Are Dumb?

To be fair, SOME creationists might just be ignorant. As I’m arguing in my new book about American creationism, though, there is more than enough ignorance to go around when it comes to evolution and creationism.

Jesus on a dinosaur.jpg 1

Why do creationists put Jesus on a dinosaur? Short answer: They don’t.

I recently made a short version of this case at UConn’s Humility and Conviction in Public Life blog. If we want to make any real progress in our continuing battle over creationism, we can at least start by acknowledging a few of these obvious truths.

Agree? Disagree? Click on over to H&CiPL to check it out.

Karen Pence Falls into the Scopes Trap

SAGLRROILYBYGTH have likely been following the story: Second Lady Karen Pence has taken some heat for going back to work at Immanuel Christian School, an evangelical school with explicitly anti-LGBTQ beliefs. As they rush to defend her, I’m arguing this morning, Pence’s conservative allies are actually stumbling into an old culture-war trap.

shapiro pence

…ouch.

Understandably, some of her conservative defenders are taking the path of least resistance. Opposing any sort of non-hetero, non-married sexual activity, they say, has ALWAYS been a standard Christian belief. As Ben Shapiro put it most bitingly, Pence’s critics seem to have “never heard of religious people before.”

Thanks to the Made By History series editors, this morning I’m arguing in The Washington Post that Pence’s defenders are making an old mistake in their hasty counter-attacks. I won’t give away the details–you’ll have to click over to read the whole thing–but I will say I work in some of the biggest names in twentieth-century creationist history: Henry Morris, Bernard Ramm, and William Jennings Bryan.

 

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Hello 2019! We’re starting strong with a full week of culture-war contention. Here are some of the stories that caught our eye this week:

How evangelicals can embrace evolution, at CT.

Jim Carrey I Dont Care GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

You probably heard Jerry Falwell Jr.’s odd Trumpist speech. What does it mean? One analysis at WaPo:

Like many heretics, Falwell and his fellow evangelical Trump apologists are on their way to founding a new religion, one in direct conflict with the old.

It’s not easy to be an anti-racist evangelical these days. A portrait of non-white activists in The New Yorker.

What are educational conservatives saying these days? A new speaker series hopes to restore the conservative glory days of the 1990s.

Do young-earth creationists have any answer to geocentric critics? RA says…still no.

Inclusive campuses for everyone—even Nazis. At IHE.

fuck nazis

Do Nazis deserve manners?

Stalker or romantic? At KCStar.

Will the USA extradite Fethullah Gulen? At RNS.

Update: anti-porn students find allies, at IHE.

Bad news for Trumpists: China’s Great Wall didn’t keep out invaders, at NG.

Michael Petrilli: School discipline needs to make sense, not just culture-war nonsense. At Flypaper.

The Year in ILYBYGTH

I wasn’t going to do it. I was going to try awkwardly to maintain my dignity and refrain from any sort of year-end top-ten list. But then a couple of enforcers from the WordPress goon squad showed up and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

So here it is: The eleven most popular posts of 2018:

  1. What is Life Like at Evangelical Colleges? Reflections from alumni of “Fundamentalist U.” What was it like to attend different schools in different decades? How did evangelical higher ed shape these students’ lives?
  2. Billy Graham and Bob Jones From the archives, a look at the tempestuous and angry relationship between teacher and former student.

    Billy Graham

    RIP Billy Graham, here preaching to the multitudes in London, 1954.

  3. Crisis at Moody Bible Institute From way back in January 2018, a look at the ways the history of fundamentalist higher ed in the early 1900s set the pattern for the recent leadership shake-up at Chicago’s storied Bible school.
  4. The Dilemma of the Fundamentalist Intellectual An ugly story of resume inflation is par for the course in the world of fundamentalist academic life. Why?
  5. The Myth of Evangelical Political History Just Won’t Die: It doesn’t seem to matter that historians have punctured this story completely. Journalists still love it, probably because a lot of evangelicals love it.
  6. Christians Don’t Know Christianity: Are Christians supposed to actually believe Christian doctrine? Or only hold it as a personal preference? religion as personal belief
  7. Where Were You Radicalized? A simple question on Tweeter gets people thinking, but there’s one place no one seemed to be talking about.
  8. Evangelical Colleges Aren’t Teaching Christianity A professor complains that her students don’t know Christian orthodoxy. I lay out the historical case that this is nothing new in evangelical higher education.
  9. Bad News for Creationists Science just makes young-earth creationism harder and harder to believe. What will YECs do? I have a guess…

    20171228_090906

    Because…Darwin?

  10. How Did Christian Colleges Become Racist? I made the case for an under-suspected culprit behind the racism of white evangelicals: mainstream higher education.
  11. Is Creationism Hate Speech? Can–SHOULD–mainstream universities ban radical young-earth creationism because it is hateful to non-heterosexuals?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Even in the holiday week, stuff kept happening. Here are a few stories that caught our eye:

ILYBYGTH Prize for Hilarious Hack: Florida billboard’s cute puppy delivers Satanic blessing, at FA.Satan is the one true god billboard

The past and present of Liberty football, from Paul Putz. It’s about more than prostitutes:

Will protests and activism follow? Will risk-averse administrators at major college programs decide that a game against Liberty is not worth the trouble? Will elite black high school athletes decide they don’t want to play for Trump University?

Other People’s Children: Walmart heirs push charters for African American students, at AP.

What happens to teachers’ unions after the Janus decision? At EWA.

Christmas 1924: When the Klan marched in Fort Worth, at ST.Fort worth KKK

Do young-earth creationists have any rebuttal for their flat-earth critics? RA says no.

Zoiks: Legislation to keep teachers from talking politics, at Curmudgucation.

Should teachers exhort their students to vote for a particular candidate? No. Do teachers have the right to discuss controversial political issues in their classroom, without being forced to present opposing views? Of course they do– imagine a class a teacher must explain how Nazis and slave owners had valid points of their own.

Evolution Proves Creationism

It’s difficult for people like me to understand. How is it possible in this day and age that so many of my fellow Americans deny a basic fact of modern science? How is it possible that a significant proportion of American adults—even college-educated adults—think that our species was created de novo about 6,000 years ago in an Iraqi garden? A recent review of the psychology of denialism offers one challenging suggestion: Human brains evolved to remain creationist.

Denialism better

I may disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death my ability not to hear it…

As I’m arguing in my new book, the usual explanations just don’t hold water. The Richard Dawkinses of the world tend to think of creationism—at least the radical young-earth kind—as a kind of simple deficit. As Dawkins famously opined in 1989, creationists would have to be

ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

For those of us who understand the history and nature of America’s radical young-earth creationists, Dawkins’ dismissal doesn’t fit the evidence. Even if we are staunchly anti-creationist, if we’re paying attention we can’t help but notice that plenty of creationists know a lot about evolutionary theory. They are clearly intelligent and in possession of their mental faculties. And they might be wicked, that doesn’t seem to be a primary factor in their creationism.

A recent review article in The Economist points in a more promising direction. Studies show that people will usually accept a financial penalty rather than listening to arguments from the other side. They often compare the experience of listening to opposing viewpoints to “having a tooth pulled.”

enigma of reason

The evolution of creationism…

Why? Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber argue that human reason is not the engine of pure enlightenment it is often considered. Instead, reasoning evolved as a way to encourage group cooperation. In their words,

What reason does . . . is help us justify our beliefs and actions to others . . . and evaluate the justifications and arguments that others address to us.

What does this have to do with the durability of radical young-earth creationism? In spite of the accusations of angry Oxonians like Richard Dawkins, creationists have not abandoned their ability to reason and weigh evidence. Rather, if these cognitive psychologists are correct, human reasoning ability will tend to lead to greater in-group cohesion.

The brains of radical creationists tend to favor evidence that supports the dominant views of their group. They tend to dismiss evidence and arguments that go against them. This isn’t something unique to creationists. All our brains work in similar fashion. We don’t weigh facts evenly or dispassionately. We don’t even hear them that way. Rather, our brains seem hard-wired to accept facts that help us fit in with our groups.

In short, why are so many Americans creationists? Because they evolved that way.

The Hidden Tribes of Creationism

Care a lot about the age of the earth? The origin of humanity? The actual historical existence (or not) of Adam & Eve? If so, you’re an oddball. According to a new report, however, you’re an oddball who probably gets a lot more attention than you deserve.hidden tribes chart 1

In their study of culture-war polarization, the folks at More In Common didn’t ask directly about creationism. In their survey of 8,000 adult Americans, though, they came up with a bunch of categories into which Americans divide themselves. Instead of using the usual demographic categories of race, class, gender, age, religion, and so on, they split respondents into seven major groups:

  • Progressive Activists
  • Traditional Liberals
  • Passive Liberals
  • Politically Disengaged
  • Moderates
  • Traditional Conservatives
  • Devoted Conservatives

Time and time again, they found, the loudest voices on the margins dominated public debates, in spite of the fact that a large “Exhausted Majority” hoped for more compromise. As the report puts it,

Public debates are often dominated by voices that come from the furthest ends of the spectrum and who are the least interested in finding common ground. This makes it much harder to make progress on these issues, deepening the frustration felt by many in the middle.

On most issues, the people on the edges have diametrically opposed views and hold them very strongly. That is not the case for most people on most issues.

hidden tribes chart 2They didn’t ask specifically about creationism, but their findings translate well. As I’m arguing in my new book about creationism, Americans don’t really disagree as much about creationism and evolution as we’d think if we only read the headlines.

For example, when most people think about “creationism” these days—IF they think about creationism—they tend to think of the extreme young-earth creationists who make the most noise. Pundits such as Ken Ham dominate the headlines about “creationism,” even though their beliefs represent only a tiny fraction of the real landscape of American creationism.

Think about it: if we define “creationism” as a basic belief that some sort of higher power had something to do with the way life has come to be, then almost ALL Americans would fit into that category. Even leading “evolutionists” such as Ken Miller would fit. Professor Miller is one of America’s leading explainers and promoters of evolutionary theory, yet he is also a believing Christian. When it comes down to it, Miller wrote in his 1999 book Finding Darwin’s God,

God is every bit as creative in the present as He was in the past.

Is Prof. Miller a “creationist?” By any reasonable definition, of course he is. But when Americans fight about “creationism” vs. “evolution,” we don’t make room for the vast middle ground that includes religious scientists like Miller.

As the Hidden Tribes report states, most Americans

are going about their lives with absurdly inaccurate perceptions of each other.

Radical creationists think they are the only ones who care about God and creation. Radical atheists warn that creationist armies are scheming to turn public schools into madrassahs. In the vast middle ground, people think “creationism”  must include a radical belief in a literal world-wide flood or a literal special creation in the Garden of Eden.

It doesn’t. There are plenty of ways to be a “creationist” while still accepting the explanatory power of mainstream evolutionary theory. In reality, there isn’t a flat-out culture war between creationists and the rest of us. There can’t be, because in reality almost all Americans are creationists of one sort or another. And almost all Americans want their children to learn evolutionary science.

You can be excused for not believing it, though, because the loudmouths on the outer edges distort all of our discussions.

Fundamentalism’s Retreating American Horizon

It’s not about Darwin. It’s not even about Jesus. We see again this morning that radical young-earth creationism—at least Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis brand—is built on a vision of American history in which fundamentalists are always under more and more attack.ken ham on the moon

Here’s what we know: This morning Ham tweeted a nostalgic video about Apollo 8. On that mission, astronauts circled the moon for the first time on Christmas Eve, 1968. In a live broadcast, astronauts read the opening verses from Genesis.

We can ignore the obvious stuff, like the fact that Ken Ham misdescribed this 1968 moon circling as the 1969 moon landing. We’re more interested this morning in Ham’s take-away from the video itself. What lesson did Ham draw?

2: The culture has changed–NASA sadly would not allow this today

Of course, as historians and SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, back in the 1960s, Ham’s predecessors were articulating very similar laments about the dangerous trends in American culture. In early 1963, for example, Samuel Sutherland of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) warned of the dangerous effects of the recent SCOTUS ruling against Bible-reading and teacher-led prayer in public schools.

What would happen now? Sutherland warned the SCOTUS decision might

Make our country an atheistic nation, no whit better than God-denying, God-defying Russia herself. . . . in prohibiting the name of God to be used in any form of prayer, [SCOTUS] are in effect advocating that the children be taught atheism.

Sutherland wasn’t alone in warning that 1960s America had gone to the atheist dogs. In 1965, for example, in the pages of Carl McIntire’s Christian Beacon magazine, one writer warned that the banishment of teacher-led Christian devotions from public schools

will mean the division even more sharply of this nation into communities of the secular and the Church, which will inevitably lead to more expression of the secular and more repression of the Christian. When this happens, repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution will be the natural course to follow in secular opposition to Christian witness.

In the glorious 1960s, then, Ken Ham’s predecessors were making the same kinds of warnings that Ham is making today: Things used to be better for conservative evangelical Protestants. Public schools and public policy used to speak in the tones of evangelicalism.

Over and over again, across the decades, fundamentalist Cassandras have articulated a similar historical vision. The past was always better. The present–no matter what year–is characterized by a bitter sense of loss, by a grief for a glorious Christian past stripped away by scheming secularists and soft-minded false Christians.

It doesn’t have much to do with actual creationism, of course, or with evolutionary science. But this relentless alarmist nostalgia does a lot to help us understand why some evangelicals yearn to Make America Great Again.