From the Archives: Take the Creation Museum Challenge

The Challenge: Can you tell creationism apart from mainstream science just by looking?

[Editor’s note: As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing, I’m almost finished with my book manuscript about American creationism. In this book, I’m trying to help my fellow non-creationists understand the complexities of real creationism. For example, in my final chapter I’m arguing that creationists–whether they are radical young-earthers or mild-mannered BioLogians–can’t fairly be accused of being anti-science. Yet smart, well-informed outsiders keep insisting that they are.

[As I polish up this final chapter, I stumbled across the following ILYBYGTH post from a few years back. I thought I’d run it again to see if anything has changed. So here’s the question once again: Whether you’re a creationist, anti-creationist, or other, can you tell radical creationism apart from mainstream science just by looking?

[Please…take the challenge and let us know how you fared!]

Take the Creation Museum Challenge

We can gnash our teeth.  We can pull our hair.  But no matter what we do, the Creation Museum of Answers In Genesis has pulled it off.  With its new $1.5 million dinosaur exhibit, the flagship museum of young-earth creationism has successfully mimicked the outward appearance of mainstream scientific museums.

Big Valley Creation Science Museum

It used to be easy.  Creationist museums used to be only sad little affairs.  They used to look like this one from Alberta, Canada.  The Big Valley Creation Science Museum, pictured here, may do a great job in spreading the creationism gospel.  But no idle tourist would be likely to confuse it with mainstream museums such as the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History or Boston’s Museum of Science.

It used to be easy for outsiders like me to mock the lame pretensions of the many creation museums that dotted our great land.  And Canada.  As one angry visitor noted, even the bigger creation museums used to have strange, sad displays like this one from San Diego’s Creation and Earth History Museum.

Not a Lot of Big Bang for your Buck

But here’s the new challenge: Can you tell which of the three pictures below comes from Kentucky’s Creation Museum display and which come from the Smithsonian and Boston’s Museum of Science?  As arch-creationist Ken Ham explained gleefully recently, his new display of a million-dollar Allosaurus fossil puts Ham’s Creation Museum in the same league as those mainstream museums.  As Ham put it,

For decades I’ve walked through many leading secular museums, like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and have seen their impressive dinosaur skeletons. But they were used for evolution. Now we have one of that class, and it will help us defend the book of Genesis and expose the scientific problems with evolution.

So take the Creation-Museum challenge.  Just by looking, can you tell which of these images comes from a young-earth creationist museum and which come from mainstream ones?  (Don’t cheat.  But once you’ve given it a try, you can click on each image to see its provenance.)

Field museum exhibit

Is this “real” science?

Or Is It This One?

Or Is It This One?

dinosaur hall smithsonian natural history museum t rex 550

Millions of year? …or millions of dollars?

 

This successful mimicry is important.  In creationism’s twentieth-century struggle to establish alternative educational institutions to rival those of mainstream science, young-earth creationists often wrestled with significant disadvantages.  Not least of these were questions of funding, as historian Ron Numbers described in his must-read book The Creationists and I detailed in my 1920s book.  In the case of this priceless fossil, rich creationists Michael and Stephen Peroutka donated it to help the Creation Museum with its work.

It would be nice to think that America’s public would make its decisions about the age of the earth and the origins of humanity by weighing evidence and considering counter-claims.  To people like me, the Creation Museum’s claim that this well-preserved fossil serves as proof of a worldwide flood 4,300 years ago seems absurd.

But I don’t think we need to be very cynical to guess that appearance matters.  As Dan Kahan argues, what people believe about creation and evolution usually has more to do with their cultural identity than it does with scientific evidence.  If Answers In Genesis can make their museum LOOK like the Smithsonian, many visitors will assume it is just as good.  And if Answers In Genesis can crank out peer-reviewed science publications that attest to the scientific veracity of their claims, many readers will assume their science is just as good.

So take the Creation Museum challenge.  If you can’t tell the difference, how can you expect anyone else to?

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How Roy Moore Put Jesus on a Dinosaur

It’s ugly. And weird. The accusations against Roy Moore in the Washington Post are hard to read without shuddering. It got even uglier and weirder when some evangelical leaders actually supported Moore’s alleged actions. Yet those familiar with the history of American fundamentalist institutions see a familiar pattern in this depressing story. And maybe I’m too deep in my new book about American creationism to think clearly, but it seems to me these sorts of attitudes help explain radical young-earth creationism.

If you haven’t seen the story, it’s grim. The Washington Post shared allegations by women that Roy Moore had groped and kissed them back in the 1970s, when they were young teenagers and he was a thirty-something lawyer. To complicate things, Judge Moore has always been a controversial figure, insisting on keeping a 10-commandments monument in his courtroom even when ordered to remove it. Moreover, Moore just won a contentious GOP primary election in the US Senate race. He’s facing a tough battle with his Democratic opponent.

That history helps explain the continuing support for Moore among conservatives. Almost 40 percent of Alabama evangelicals say they are MORE likely to support Moore after these accusations. Only 28 percent say they’re less likely to do so.

We might be understandably tempted to see the whole thing as just another episode in today’s bare-knuckled political free-for-all. Judge Moore defended himself in those terms, after all. He claimed the whole story was just a cynical smear campaign against him. Real conservatives, he tweeted, needed to see through the fake news. In his words,

The forces of evil will lie, cheat, steal — even inflict physical harm — if they believe it will silence and shut up Christian conservatives like you and me. I believe you and I have a duty to stand up and fight back against the forces of evil waging an all-out war on our conservative values!

From Liberty University, President Jerry Falwell Jr. took Moore at his word. The accuser, Falwell intoned, was not as “credible” as Moore. The same thing happened to President Trump, Falwell noted, yet Trump heroically triumphed.

The story, according to Moore and Falwell, is one of brave conservatives fighting false accusations. In today’s climate, it makes some sense to me that people on both sides would rally around someone who they thought was falsely accused by the “forces of evil.”

But nitty-gritty politics don’t really explain the way some evangelical leaders seem to actually condone Moore’s alleged actions. They don’t just deny the allegations. They deny that there’s anything wrong with them. Alabama State Auditor Jim Ziegler noted that Joseph and Mary had a similar age difference when they married.

Jesus on a dinosaur

If mainstream science says it couldn’t have happened, it must be true.

“Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter,” Ziegler told the Washington Examiner. “They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”

Other evangelical leaders rushed to disagree. At Christianity Today, for instance, Ed Stetzer emphasized that evangelicals are not okay with Moore’s alleged actions. As Stetzer put it,

Christians don’t believe the message that is coming from some of Moore’s supporters. Actually, most of us find it really creepy.

Those of us who live outside of the charmed circle of American evangelicalism might have a difficult time understanding why Stetzer even needs to make such a statement. Of course it’s creepy!

As I finish up my book manuscript about American creationism, I can’t help but see enormous parallels between Ziegler-style rationalizations and radical young-earth creationism. As I detail in the book, by the late 1950s America’s conservative evangelicals faced a difficult situation. Unlike their fundamentalist parents in the Scopes generation, by 1960 evangelicals had to cope with the fact that mainstream scientists had generally agreed on the outlines of modern evolutionary theory. They had a few options: Reject creationism altogether along with their evangelical beliefs; accept the scientific strength of mainstream evolutionary thinking but claim that it didn’t change their evangelical religion; or reject mainstream science utterly.

Following the lead of theologian John Whitcomb Jr. and engineering professor Henry Morris, thousands of earnest evangelicals chose the third option. They believed Whitcomb and Morris that mainstream scientists had followed Satan’s red herring and abandoned true science. As Whitcomb and Morris put it in their 1964 preface,

extrapolation of present processes into the prehistoric past or into the eschatological future is not really science.

In order to have true biblical faith, Whitcomb and Morris argued, Christians needed to reject radically the claims of mainstream science. There was a better science out there, a biblical science, that insisted on a young-earth and a literal interpretation of the “days” in the Bible’s six-day creation story.

genesis flood 1961 ed

Why would (false) scientists lie?

Before the 1960s, not many evangelical Christians believed those things. After that, however, young-earth creationism became a mainstream belief among conservative evangelicals.

What does any of this have to do with Alabama’s Senate race? Then and now, conservative evangelicals have nurtured a unique sense of persecution, of their role as a beleaguered minority, unfairly ejected from their rightful role as America’s conscience and moral guardians, usurped and despised. A mainstream society that can treat good Christians that way, the thinking goes, must be following a false trail. When challenged or threatened, then, it is not very difficult for some evangelicals to reject huge swathes of mainstream thinking. Such mainstream thought, after all, had been led astray by the “forces of evil.”

In Moore’s case, we see how quickly some supporters wrapped Moore’s alleged actions in a sheaf of pages from Scripture. And in the case of rejecting mainstream science, it was relatively easy for thousands of evangelicals to believe outrageously radical scientific ideas.

When you assume that mainstream thinking is from the devil, it becomes very easy to accept ideas that the rest of us find bizarre. It becomes easy to think that sexual predation has Gospel roots, or that Jesus could have cavorted happily with Brontosaurus.

HT: MM

Creating Jobs

Is it worth it? Ken Ham says heavens yes. John Oliver says hell no. This week on Last Week Tonight (5:42-8:12) Oliver rips into tax incentive schemes in general, and the Kentucky uber-creationist Ark Encounter project in particular.

 

Oliver’s accusations aren’t new. Critics such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State have long criticized Kentucky’s willingness to forego sales tax revenue as part of an incentive program for the huge Ark project.

After all, as AU points out, Kentucky’s goal is the creation of “jobs, jobs, jobs.” To work at Ark Encounter, though, potential employees must be conservative evangelical Christians. And not just any sort of evangelical. They have to embrace Answers In Genesis’s specific vision of true creationism. They are encouraged to love non-fundamentalist Christians, but they must agree that all non-fundamentalists are going to hell forever. Ark employees can’t be gay. And if they’re single, they must agree to a chastity clause in their contracts. AU thinks such beliefs should never be supported with tax incentives.

John Oliver, as always, is more interested in zingers. As he points out, Ark Encounter includes some stuff that is just pure wackiness, such as a section devoted to the question of manure. Where did all the poop go?

Moreover, Oliver skewers the notion of signing a chastity pledge when the entire purpose of the Ark was to encourage sex, sex, sex, among the animals. As Oliver puts it, they didn’t get on the Ark two-by-two so that every animal would have a “swim buddy.” I’m too embarrassed to repeat Oliver’s most hilarious name for the Ark (it rhymes with “duck boat”), but if you watch to the end of his clip you’ll see how he ties together the Ark Encounter, the Entourage movie, zebras drowning in feces, and masturbation.

It’s hilarious, but it raises important questions. Should religious groups enjoy tax privileges? Ken Ham’s answer is that saying no would be pure discrimination. He points out that his group is not receiving any money from the state, but is rather simply not paying some taxes that would never have been paid in the first place if he didn’t bring hordes of creationist tourists to the area.

Oliver says no. He thinks ALL tax-incentive programs need to be held to higher standards.

Americans United says no, too, but for different reasons. They argue that tax money and tax incentives should not be allowed to fuel divisive, sectarian religious programs.

What do you think? Should creationists be allowed to profit from tax programs that other groups use? Or should tax incentives be restricted to less-controversial organizations?

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.

already-gone

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.

What’s Wrong with Princeton?

Why is young-earth impresario Ken Ham mad at Princeton University? It doesn’t have anything to do with creationism…unless we really understand creationism.

You’d think Ken Ham wouldn’t give a fig about the goings-on at elite Princeton University. After all, Ham—the brains behind Kentucky’s Creation Museum and Ark Encounter—won’t even recommend evangelical colleges such as Wheaton. You’d think he’d have given up on no-longer-evangelical colleges like Princeton a long time ago. Yet Ham is furious at Princeton.

What’s Ham’s beef?

As Ham laments on his blog, Princeton’s Office of Religious Life co-sponsored an event supporting Planned Parenthood. As he puts it,

When universities like Princeton back Planned Parenthood, they abandon a commitment to dialoguing about healthcare or women’s rights. Rather they show a commitment to the violent ending of a life—the life of the unborn. And that is a commitment that harms women, families, and children. We need to stand up for those without a voice and encourage women to choose life for their babies. Abortion is nothing less than the sacrifice of children to the god of self.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing it, but some folks might be wondering what any of that pro-life stuff has to do with creationism. Isn’t creationism about the ways humans came to be? Why are creationist activists talking about abortion, much less the activities of a purportedly untrustworthy university like Princeton?

As I’m arguing in my current book, if we really want to understand creationism, we have to come to grips with a couple of points highlighted by this story.

First, creationism as a whole doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with abortion. There are plenty of people out there who believe that God created humanity AND support the work of Planned Parenthood. When we talk about the tight connections between creationism and anti-abortion activism, we’re only talking about one type of creationism, the sort of creationism on offer at Ham’s Creation Museum.

foundations AIG

The REAL battle, as seen from Kentucky.

 

Second, as Ham is fond of pointing out, evolutionary thinking is not only about science, but about an all-enveloping worldview that undercuts true Christian belief. Creationism, as Ham sees it, is about more than young-earth science. It is about a deeply conservative sort of faith, one in which same-sex marriage, abortion, drug use, premarital sex, and a host of other social ills are the flowers of a poisoned evolutionary seed. For Ham and his young-earth creationist allies, the issues of abortion and evolution are intimately joined, even if they are not for other types of creationist.

Seen in this light, it makes perfect sense for Ken Ham to be mad at Princeton. For Ham, abortion IS a creationism question.

The Real Face of Radical Creationism

Smart people keep saying it, but it’s just not true. And for people like me who want more and better evolution education, the news gets even worse.

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again. Even the best-informed science pundits think radical creationism is somehow uniquely American.

If we needed any more evidence that radical creationism is not at all “unique to the United States,” as Bill Nye asserts, we see news this morning from the besieged nation of South Korea. United Press International reports on the confirmation hearing of Park Seong-jin. Like many of his compatriots, Mister Park believes that this planet was created by divine fiat at some point about 6,000 years ago. Park is an engineering professor and nominee for the ministry of small businesses.

Moon-Jae-in-nominee-sparks-uproar-over-creationist-views

Park’s creationism is a complicated post-modern affair.

Park is not alone in his beliefs. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, Turkey’s government has passed some radical anti-evolution laws in the recent past. Even here in the US of A, our leading radical creationist is an Australian import.

So don’t listen next time someone tries to tell you there is something uniquely American about radical creationism. It’s just not true.

And the news for secular people like me gets worse.

You’ll also hear people tell you that radical creationism is a vestige of ancient hypocrisies, destined to wither in the face of modernity and the march of science.

Turkish education minister cuts evolution

Durmus’s is a little more straightforward.

Alas, also not true. Radical creationism is profoundly modern, only really emerging into its own in the 1960s. And, though we might gnash our teeth and pull our hair about it, radical creationism is actually a very reasonable response to the changes in church and society that went on in the 1960s.

Let me be clear here: I don’t think radical creationism is true, or based on good evidence, or anything like that. But I am convinced that radical creationists often (not always) have decent reasons for their beliefs, at least as reasonable as most non-creationists’ belief in the truth of evolutionary theory.

Ken Ham

Only Ken Ham’s includes ziplines…

As I argue in my upcoming books (you’ll be able to get Fundamentalist U sometime soon. Why Is Jesus on a Dinosaur is still simmering), conservative evangelicals faced a tough choice in the late 1950s, and even if you don’t agree with it—I certainly don’t—the choice of radical young-earth creationism makes perfect sense.

That’s why it is not confined to hillbilly hollers and Kentucky amusement parks. Radical creationism is a global phenomenon, unintimidated by its lack of mainstream scientific credibility. It is not an ancient truth clinging on in pockets of know-nothingism, but a reasonable (if false and unnecessary) way to make sense of life in our modern world.

Creationist College History, Part II: Parting the Waters

I know, I know, it has been hard to sleep for the last couple days. With the cliff-hanger ending of my last guest post about evangelical colleges at Righting America at the Creation Museum, I’m sure it has been difficult to wait for the sequel.genesis flood 1961 ed

Well, wait no longer: Today at RACM you can read the second half of my argument about the way evangelical higher education influenced the career of American creationism.

Do YOU Hate Science?

We all know the stereotypes: Conservatives love God and hate science, vice versa for progressives. But it’s utterly untrue, and every once in a while we see new evidence to prove it. These days, the frouforale over James Damore’s gender/diversity manifesto at Google has us asking the question again: Who hates science?

We’ll get to Damore’s story in a minute, but first, a necessary reminder. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing this, but I’m not interested in attacking or defending Damore. If I have to pick a side, I’ll generally stick with my progressive roots. Luckily, I don’t have to pick a side, so today I’ll bring up more interesting questions. I’m working these days on a new book about American creationism. One of the vital points to understanding creationism, especially the radical young-earth variant, is that creationists are not anti-science. Creationists LOVE science.

As anthropologist Chris Toumey puts it in his terrific and under-appreciated book God’s Own Scientists, radical creationists are just like the rest of America. They don’t dispute the authority of capital-s Science. In Toumey’s words, radical creationists 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.

For radical creationists, the problem isn’t science. The problem, rather, is that benighted false scientists have hijacked science and replaced it with ideologically driven materialism.

Of course, to the rest of us, creationists’ preference for their own bizarre “zombie science” makes their claims to love science hardly credible. To the rest of us, radical creationists seem to insist on their own outlandish scientific beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence from real science.

Are Damore’s opponents guilty of the same thing?

If you haven’t followed the story, Damore was a Google engineer who was fired for a leaked ten-page memo. In the memo, Damore opined that Google’s diversity policy was deeply flawed. The goal of hiring equal numbers of male and female engineers, Damore wrote, didn’t match reality. In fact, Damore wrote, there are biological differences between men and women that make men—as a statistical group—more interested in engineering.

Like Larry Summers before him, Damore was fired and vilified for his words. And like ex-president Summers, Damore insisted he was only citing scientific data.

At least one scientist agrees with Damore. Writing in the Globe and Mail, Debra Soh argues that

the memo was fair and factually accurate. Scientific studies have confirmed sex differences in the brain that lead to differences in our interests and behaviour.

I’m no scientist, of gender or anything else. But conservative pundits have latched onto Soh’s comments to howl that progressives are just as blind to real science as are radical religious folks. As Benedictine pundit Rod Dreher frothed wordily,

Gender non-essentialists are the young earth creationists of the Left.

Maybe, maybe not. But in one thing, at least, Dreher is exactly right. Just like young-earth creationists, the anti-Damorists insist they have real science on their side. When it comes to culture-war issues—whether it’s the nature of gender or the origin of our species—everyone insists they are the side of true science.

The Real Intelligent Designer

Does it matter? Who cares if a gold-medal-winning engineering breakthrough came from a young-earth creationist? When it comes to understanding our creation/evolution debates, I think it matters a lot, especially for those of us who want more and better evolution education in our public schools.

Here’s what we know: Recently, young-earth impresario Ken Ham has crowed about the accomplishments of Professor Stuart Burgess. According to Ham, Prof. Burgess helped design a bike chain that was used by a gold-medal-winning UK cycling team. And, guess what: Professor Burgess is a committed young-earth creationist.

team-great-britian-olympic-bicycle-display

Reducible Complexity

SAGLRROILYBYGTH and others who share my obsession with all things creationist may wonder why we have to bring up this old chestnut yet again. We all know the script here. Young-earthers will trumpet the few engineers and doctors who hold young-earth beliefs. Mainstream scientists will point to the National Center for Science Education’s Project Steve. If there are a few science-y creationists, there are bajillions more science-y non-creationists.

We’ve all been around and around this debate before, but I think it’s worth bringing up again. As I’m arguing in my current book, if we really want to understand American (and UK) creationism, we have to abandon the satisfying but false notion that creationism is a product of mere ignorance.

Or, to be more precise, we need to wrap our heads around the fact that there are vastly different forms of ignorance. In some cases, people simply don’t know things. In other cases, though, some types of knowledge are blocked by competing types of knowledge.

Creationists can certainly display both sorts of ignorance. Some of them might just have never heard the arguments of mainstream evolutionary science. But the fact that there are any young-earth creationists who have scored big successes in science-y fields helps prove that the real difficulty results from the second type of ignorance. Creationists can be very successful in society, even in science-related fields, even if they “know” that mainstream evolutionary theory is bogus. Even if we don’t want to admit it, Ken Ham is correct in boasting that “Professor Burgess is definitely both a real scientist and a creationist!”

We don’t need to tangle with the endless debate about whether creationism is real science, dead science, or zombie science. We don’t need to gnash our teeth and exclaim that Burgess’s scientific accomplishments happened in spite of, not because of, his creationist beliefs. The point here is different. The fact that engineers like Dr. Burgess are both successful mainstream practitioners and convinced young-earth creationists matters for different reasons.

Why does it matter? Because it reminds us that creationism is not simply the product of isolation from modern knowledge. Creationists aren’t people who simply haven’t heard about evolutionary theory or modern science. Since that’s the case, we won’t spread knowledge of evolutionary beliefs merely by making it available. We won’t successfully teach evolutionary theory to Americans unless and until we recognize the fact that creationism is more than a deficit hoping to be fixed, an emptiness waiting to be filled, a naïve lack of knowledge seeking the best modern knowledge.

As I’ve argued in my recent book (co-written with philosopher Harvey Siegel), if we really want to teach evolution in this creation nation, we need to start by understanding this central fact about American creationism.

The fact that creationist engineers like Dr. Burgess can have outstandingly successful technical careers serves as more proof that creationism is something other than a lack of knowledge about evolution. When we’re designing bike chains, it doesn’t really matter how old the earth is. It doesn’t matter that mainstream evolutionary theory offers by far the best current explanation of the ways species came to be different from one another.

What does matter—at least for those of us who are trying to understand creationism as it really is—is that creationism is not a leftover from hillbilly isolationism. Creationism isn’t the result of a lack of exposure to modern ideas. Creationism, rather, is a different way of being modern.

Created in Nothing Flat

Okay, I’ll bite: What is the difference? News from Denver brings us back to an old chestnut: What is the difference between young-earth creationists and other dissident-scientists such as flat earthers? Certainly, there are differences in political power—we have a young-earther in the White House these days—but is there anything more than that? Or is it all just an accident of history?

The story from Denver’s flat-earth community points out some of the obvious superficial differences. At least in Denver, flat-earthers tend to be far more about government conspiracies than biblical hermeneutics.

And prominent creationists have always insisted that their beliefs have nothing to do with a flat earth. Back in the 1920s, for example, fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley fumed and fussed that his anti-evolution activism had nothing to do with “‘a flat earth’ . . . ‘an immovable world’ . . . [or] ‘a canopy of roof overhead.’” Those outdated scientific ideas, Riley insisted, were only used to poke fun at people who rejected the false science of evolution.

These days, too, young-earth creationists at Answers In Genesis insist that their scientific ideas have nothing to do with a flat earth. AIG’s Danny Faulkner admits that there are some similarities between the two views, since both have been ridiculed by people who don’t understand them. In the end, though, Faulkner concludes that most flat-earthers are either kooks or insincere.

Officially, AIG contends that since the spherical nature of the earth can be observed directly, the question of the earth’s shape belongs in the realm of “observational science.” That is, we can trust the mainstream facts in this case, even if we can’t trust scientists who speak ignorantly about “historical science.”

For those who know the history, though, the idea of a flat earth has had a remarkably similar history to the notions of a literal worldwide flood and a six-day creation.

As creationist-history guru Glenn Branch has described, in the 1920s the two movements had enormous similarities. Back then, most anti-evolution activists did not believe in a literal six-day creation. They did not insist that the earth was only about 6,004 years old. But a vocal minority did. Spearheaded by the indefatigable activism of George McCready Price, the ideas of a young earth and “flood geology” grew until they became in the 1960s key litmus tests for fundamentalist faith. (For more on that story, check out Ron Numbers’s masterpiece, The Creationists.)

As Branch describes, back in the 1920s flat-earthers also represented a small minority of the anti-evolution crowd. Like the young-earthers, flat-earthers could claim an energetic and charismatic spokesperson, Glenn Voliva. Voliva crusaded against the notion of a spherical earth. Like George McCready Price, Voliva insisted that he had the Truth, a truth evolutionists and round-earthers were too prejudiced to admit.

At the time of the Scopes Trial, Voliva hustled to Dayton, Tennessee to help prosecute John Scopes. Voliva’s hope, according to author Christine Garwood, was to “eliminate the twin heresies of evolution and a spherical earth.”flat earth garwood

But that’s where the two ideas went their separate ways. Whereas the outlandish notion of a literally young earth came to be accepted as true by large minorities of Americans, the outlandish notion of a flat earth became an internet quirk adopted by basement-dwelling conspiracy theorists.

So I ask again: What is the difference? I have a few ideas that I’m including in my current book about American creationism. In short, I think the answer lies not in dissident science, but in the mainstream world. By the 1960s, fundamentalist Protestants faced a new choice: Embrace mainstream evolutionary thinking and find a way to reconcile it with evangelical belief, or reject mainstream evolutionary science utterly and create a new creationist science.

When it came to evolution, the choice seemed simple, to many fundamentalists at least. Either kowtow to secular science or remain steadfast to young-earth beliefs.

Flat-earthers, though, never offered such a stark and simple choice. Belief in a flat earth (or a geo-centric solar system, for that matter) had always been embraced by some Biblical conservatives, but it never became a litmus test of orthodoxy.

At least, that’s the argument I’m trying to make in my new book.

What do you think?