Righting America

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Creationism U.S.A.: An Interview with Adam Laats | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Book cover for Adam Laats’ forthcoming Creationism USA: Bridging the Impasse on Teaching Evolution (Oxford University Press, 2021)

Adam Laats has established himself as a brilliant and prolific scholar who has produced such noteworthy works as Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), The Other School Reformers (Harvard, 2015), and Fundamentalist U (Oxford, 2018). He has now added to his oeuvre with Creationism USA: Bridging the Impasse on Teaching Evolution (Oxford, 2021). As I blurbed, “Creationism USA is classic Adam Laats—breezy and inviting writing style combined with excellent scholarship. This book matters, and it is refreshing to read a book that has ideas for getting us beyond the culture wars.” 

Creationism USA is very much worth reading, and we here at rightingamerica are delighted that Adam was willing to be interviewed about his book. 

  • In the introduction to Creationism USA you write that “as a non-creationist, non-scientist . . . I’m not the usual suspect for a book about creationism.” So, why the book?

A few years ago, my late sister-in-law asked me about creationism. The two of us were fairly similar in our backgrounds: secular, left-ish, and confused. How was it possible, she wanted to know, that there were still so many Americans who doubted central ideas of mainstream science? I set out to write a book that would help explain creationism to people like us, people to whom creationism seemed absolutely bonkers. 

I wanted this book to be something different. 

There are a lot of great books out there for secular people that explain creationism, but mostly they explain its problems from a scientific point of view. That’s important, and I’ve learned a lot from scientists such as Jerry Coyne, Bill Nye, and Richard Dawkins. But asking a biologist to explain creationism is like asking a cardiologist to explain heartache. 

There are also plenty of books out there that make convincing cases from a religious point of view. I’ve learned a lot from them, too. But as a non-religious person, I don’t really care what the Bible says about a historic Adam and Eve. I’m not really interested in whether or not a faithful reading of Genesis requires a belief in a literal six-day creation. 

I wanted a different kind of book, a book that could join titles such as Righting America at the Creation Museum and Jason Rosenhouse’s Among the Creationists. I wanted to write a book for people who were not invested in the science or religion of creationism, but who were curious about the rest of it. I wanted to answer my sister’s question.

  • Can you explain why you say that most Americans are creationists, and what distinguishes “radical creationists” from other (and more numerous) creationists?

If we want to make sense of American creationism, we have to break it down a little. By any reasonable measure, almost all Americans believe in some form of creationism. That is, most Americans think that some sort of divine force had something to do with the way humans happened. It is easy–far too easy–to conclude that such widespread religious belief is the reason for America’s continuing war over evolutionary science. It is not. Though most Americans hold some sort of creationist belief, most of them also trust in the findings of mainstream science. 

In order to get a clearer understanding of American creationism, we need to start with the recognition of the fact that “creationism” as a whole does not stand in stark opposition to “science” as a whole. Instead, there is only a shrinking fraction of creationists who actively dispute the findings of mainstream science. 

In order to separate out this fraction of creationists from the rest, I use the term “radical” creationism. These days, evangelical Christian young-earth creationists like the activists at Answers in Genesis are America’s leading radicals, but over time there have been different radicals. Back in the 1920s, for example, the fight against teaching evolutionary science was led by old-earth creationists. In the future, it might be led by different types of creationists, such as Islamic creationists or some kind of creationism we haven’t seen yet. 

The religious distinctions between types of creationists are very important to creationists themselves, but the primary distinction that matters to the rest of us is different. For the public as a whole, the most important type of creationism is the type that gets involved in public policy, the type that tries to limit the influence of mainstream science. The public as a whole doesn’t care about the differences between Christian creationists, Islamic creationists, old-earthers, young-earthers, or anything else. 

I use the term “radical” creationists to include any group that disputes the mainstream science of evolution and that gets involved in public policy to push creationist ideas. 

  • As with everything, radical creationism has a history, which you lay out in Creationism USA. Can you briefly lay out this history, and can you say why radical creationists like Ken Ham hate your telling of this story?

Creationists like Ken Ham rely on a historical fudge. They insist that they are holding fast to the ancient orthodoxies of the Christian religion. They insist that their belief in a young-earth is mere fidelity to the ancient truths of the Bible. 

They may be sincere, but they are also wrong. The kind of young-earth creationism embraced by today’s young-earthers is a space-age novelty. It is newer than Sputnik and M&Ms. 

Yes, there have always been Christians who believe in the Genesis account of creation as a literal description of how humanity came to be. And yes, those ideas were dominant in the ancient world. But by the turn of the twentieth century, they were no longer dominant. 

By then, mainstream Christian thought had evolved to accept some scientific advances. The notion of an ancient earth was no longer controversial. There were a few groups, such as the Seventh-day Adventists and Missouri Synod Lutherans, who insisted on a literal six-day creation, but they were in the minority, even among very conservative evangelical Christians.

What happened? In the 1950s, the science of evolution had solved many of the problems in Darwin’s theories. It had become much more convincing, much more confident in its claims. 

Evangelical Christians were in a bind. Some of them, such as the theologian Bernard Ramm, found ways to accept the tenets of mainstream science in broad outline, while at the same time retaining their evangelical faith. 

Ramm’s modern thinking created today’s young-earth creationist backlash. In response to Ramm’s 1955 book, John Whitcomb Jr. and Henry Morris offered a simple alternative. Instead of wading through the complex world of modern science and finding ways to adjust and accommodate scientific truth, Whitcomb and Morris insisted that true Christians could simply turn their backs on mainstream science.

In their 1961 book The Genesis Flood, Whitcomb and Morris created something new. Unlike the ancients who took the Book of Genesis at face value, The Genesis Flood insisted on taking the Book of Genesis at face value in spite and defiance of mainstream science. Being a young-earth creationist in 1961 was not the same thing as being one in 250 AD. It was a modern creation, a defiant response to the way science was causing thoughtful Christians to question their assumptions.

Today’s young-earth creationism is not about fidelity to Biblical truths. Rather, it is a protest against a changing culture. 

  • You repeatedly make the argument that the battle between creationists and evolutionists is not about science or religion. Why do you say this, and what then is the battle about?

American creationism is a puzzle, because it is a culture war fought in the language of science and religion, yet it cannot be won or lost by religious or scientific arguments. 

Consider a parallel: After the 2020 election, ex-President Trump claimed widespread election fraud. His claims were repeatedly debunked, yet they sparked a violent attack on the Capitol and may linger in American politics and culture for years. Trump’s claims are not about election fraud, though they are expressed in the language of election fraud. The Trumpist revolt is about other things: angry nostalgia, white supremacy, and a bitter sense of being kicked out of a privileged position. 

All the evidence in the world about the election cannot disprove Trumpist beliefs, just like all the science in the world cannot convince radical creationists. Radical creationism expresses its ideas in the language of science and religion, but its true power comes from the same sources as Trump’s. Radical creationists feel kicked out. They feel disrespected, powerless. Most of all, they feel that they have a fair claim to cultural influence. They feel they have a right, for example, to insist on saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” Like Trumpist rioters on January 6, 2021, radical creationists want to express their disgust at the vast conspiracy that has thwarted their rightful influence.

  • In Creationism USA you suggest there is an approach – an obvious, commonsensical approach – we can take to get us beyond the creation/evolution wars, at least when it comes to public education. Can you explain this approach, and are you hopeful?

I am hopeful. I am optimistic that the vast common ground among Americans about evolutionary theory can overcome the lingering defiance of radical creationism. Allow me to give three reasons:

  • Even the radicals now want their own children to learn mainstream evolutionary theory. Organizations such as Answers in Genesis advocate teaching evolution in private Christian schools, and advocate against teaching creationism in public schools. To be sure, there is still plenty of room for disagreement. Radical creationists DO want public schools to water down evolutionary theory, which is not acceptable to the rest of us. And they want their children to learn about mainstream science in order to know what is wrong with it, which is not what public schools should try to do. But focusing on the differences ignores the obvious similarities. Vast majorities of Americans want their children to learn evolutionary theory. We can agree on that and move forward.
  • Surveys show movement in the right direction. Public-school teachers are teaching more and better evolution. They are feeling more comfortable with mainstream science and more comfortable with their role as friendly, trusted science ambassadors. 
  • History is going in the right direction. It might not seem like it, from headlines these days and from the number of radical creationists in leadership roles in the Republican Party. However, taking the long view, the public-policy claims of America’s radical creationists have dwindled radically. In the 1920s, anti-evolution activists hoped–and sometimes succeeded–at legally banning the teaching of evolution outright. These days, the fondest hope of radical creationists is only to have evolution taught critically, so that creationist students might have a chance to maintain their skepticism. Radical creationists no longer dream of legislating theocracy, they only plead for a seat at the public-school table. 
  • In your experience, have you had any luck having meaningful dialogue with radical creationists? (If I were asked this question, I would have to say: Not so much!)

Not really. I receive plenty of email from radical creationists who have read my book or commentaries. In a way, they give me some confidence that I’m on the right track about creationism. Here’s why: many of them offer long, elaborate explanations that use the language of science or religion to prove that mainstream science is a sham. However, they all rely on assumptions that are not shared outside of the insular intellectual world of radical creationism itself. They have no power to convince me or others, because although they use the language of science and religion, they rely on things such as disaffection and bitterness. They count on people desperate for a scientific-sounding confirmation of beliefs they would like to hold on to. 

  • Will you continue to focus on creationism, or are you heading in another direction? That is to say, what is your current scholarly project or projects?

I started a new book about evangelical K-12 education but I put it on hold. I hope to return to it someday, but now I am working on a project that I began almost twenty years ago back at the University of Wisconsin. Before I met Ron Numbers and began my study of creationism and conservative evangelicalism, I planned a dissertation about the first systematic attempt at urban school reform in the USA. Now I’ve returned to that project. It is a lot different from my work with creationism, and I’m enjoying it a great deal. I’m tentatively calling the book The Narcissist and the Schoolroom: Joseph Lancaster and the Roots of America’s Public Schools, 1800-1840

Thanks Adam!