by Glenn Branch
Glenn Branch is deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit organization that defends the integrity of American science education against ideological interference. He is the author of numerous articles on evolution education and climate education, and obstacles to them, in such publications as Scientific American, American Educator, The American Biology Teacher, and the Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics, and the co-editor, with Eugenie C. Scott, of Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design is Wrong for Our Schools (2006). He received the Evolution Education Award for 2020 from the National Association of Biology Teachers.
Lionel Dahmer, the father of the notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer – the “Milwaukee Monster” who killed and dismembered 17 men and boys (mostly African Americans) – died on December 5, 2023. Lionel was the author of A Father’s Story, a memoir of his son’s youth first published in 1994. According to the obituary in The New York Times, “Mr. Dahmer described himself in his book as ‘almost totally analytical’—a chemist, comforted by the scientific predictability of his work, whose emotional life resembled a ‘broad, flat plain.’” But in fact, Lionel underwent a conversion experience in 1989 that affected not only his conception of the relation between religion and science, but also how his son is remembered.
Interviewed by Dateline NBC’s Stone Phillips in 1994, Jeffrey characterized evolution as the idea that “we all just came from the slime,” described it as “a complete lie … [with] no basis in science to uphold it,” and contended that “the whole theory cheapens life.” Implicit in his rambling remarks is the following argument: evolution entails that there is no God to whom we are morally accountable; only if there is a God to whom we are morally accountable is there reason for us to behave morally; therefore, accepting evolution robs us of any reason to behave morally.
For the benefit of any reader inclined to take their scientific or philosophical pointers from a college drop-out like Jeffrey, it should be noted that the scientific consensus on evolution is overwhelming, with over 98 percent of American scientists accepting human evolution in a 2014 survey; that evolution, like science in general, is typically regarded as intrinsically silent on the existence of God; and that there are a plethora of philosophical accounts of morality in which God is not central. It’s also not clear why slime is supposed to be a worse origin than the Biblical alternative, the dust of the ground.
Yet creationists are disturbingly fond of invoking Jeffrey Dahmer. To take a few examples at random: the creationist ministries Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International discuss Jeffrey in virtually identical terms, reflecting their common ancestry; a professor of philosophy at a fundamentalist university paraphrased the Dateline NBC remarks while participating in a three-way internecine creationist debate; and Jeffrey is credited by IMDB as appearing in “Kent Hovind: An Atheist’s Worst Nightmare,” a 2006 self-promoting film from a flamboyant creationist and convicted felon.
Sometimes these invocations reach a broader audience. In 2009, for example, as the Texas state board of education was conducting a revision of the state science standards, members of the radical Christian right were hoping for the retention of “strengths and weaknesses” language that was invoked as a pretext to undermine the teaching of evolution. The Texas Freedom Network reported at the time on a lobbying email with the unsubtle all-caps subject line “JEFFREY DAHMER, SERIAL KILLER, BELIEVED IN EVOLUTION—WHY ‘WEAKNESSES’ NEEDS TO STAY IN TEXAS SCIENCE STANDARDS.”
But is Jeffrey’s claim that he formerly believed that evolution licensed his ghastly crimes actually evidence of anything? Even if he was sincere and accurate, it would be unwarranted to generalize from his single case, as Lionel conceded in the appendix to the 2021 edition of A Father’s Story. And while he may have been sincere—Roy Ratliff, who ministered to him in prison, reported similar remarks from him in his book Dark Journey Deep Grace: Jeffrey Dahmer’s Story of Faith —there is no reason to regard him as insightful about his own twisted psyche, and no evidence that he was interested in evolution before his imprisonment.
Moreover, there is a plausible source for Jeffrey’s claim independent of his own murderous career: creationism itself. In the appendix to the 2021 edition of A Father’s Story, Lionel revealed that from 1989 onward he was sending “tapes and articles” espousing creationism to his son, who (according to Lionel) ignored them until after his imprisonment. Roy Ratliff reported that while in prison Jeffrey continued to receive material from his father discussing “the creation of the world and how evolution is untrue,” which Jeffrey credited with bringing him to God.
It is inevitable that the creationist materials that Lionel plied Jeffrey with, before and after his imprisonment, contained a hefty dose of the claim that acceptance of evolution causes moral bankruptcy. Indeed, the idea that accepting evolution is connected to religious apostasy, moral turpitude, and social decay is among the so-called pillars of creationism, the main rhetorical themes used by creationists hoping to influence the public. Subsisting on such a doctrinaire diet, it is hardly surprising that Jeffrey was primed to repeat the claim during his Dateline NBC interview.
But why was Lionel sending creationist materials to Jeffrey? In the initial edition of A Father’s Story, Lionel was circumspect about his own attitude toward evolution. He wrote that while in prison in 1992, his son used $130, anonymously donated, to purchase thirteen creationist books, neutrally adding,
It amazed him that a scientific theory that had been received as an unarguable scientific fact during all the years of his education might rest on questionable assumptions. It seemed to delight him that so thoroughly accepted an idea could be questioned, that nothing stood on truly solid ground.
In the appendix to the 2021 edition of his book, however, Lionel disclosed, “In 1989, I myself ‘returned’ fully to God, being influenced by the urging of my son, Dave, and profoundly affected by a seminar presented by a scientist from Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. Bert Thompson.” Thompson was indeed a scientist, earning a Ph.D. in microbiology from Texas A&M University in 1975, but he spent the bulk of his career “spread[ing] young-earth creationism throughout the Churches of Christ,” as the historian Ronald L. Numbers wrote, including through a ministry called Apologetics Press.
Inspired by Thompson, Lionel was briefly active in organized creationism himself, presenting a poster at the 1990 International Conference on Creationism and publishing a 1991 paper in the conference’s proceedings. The research purported to challenge the scientifically ascertained dates of dinosaur fossils from the Cretaceous:
Our radiocarbon dates of dinosaur bones and the other information in this report should be alarming to the evolutionary community and should be given serious study considering our preliminary results.
Spoiler: the “evolutionary community” was unmoved (PDF, pp. 72-79).
Ironically, in light of the proclivity of creationists to quote Jeffrey’s Dateline NBC interview to illustrate the claim that accepting evolution causes moral bankruptcy, the career of the second author of Lionel’s paper—Dmitri A. Kouznetsov, then a superstar of Russian creationism—imploded in the mid-1990s owing to accusations of scholarly dishonesty. According to the historian Ronald L. Numbers, Kouznetsov then reinvented himself as a supposed expert on the Shroud of Turin, “using fake samples from nonexistent museums,” and subsequently served time for passing bad checks in Connecticut.
It is similarly ironic that Bert Thompson, whom Lionel credited with his return to God, was fired from Apologetics Press in 2005, amid accusations of sexual misconduct. According to a story in The Christian Chronicle, which serves the Churches of Christ, a member of the church alleged that “Thompson started sending him cards and letters when he was 13, then pressed him to go out to dinner after he turned 16, the legal age of consent in Alabama.” After dinner, Thompson took the youth to his home and “lured him to a bedroom, disrobed and touched him inappropriately.” It was not the only such accusation.
Whether or not Lionel was aware of or troubled by the alleged moral failings of his collaborator and his inspiration is unclear. In any case, he seems not to have been active in organized creationism after 1991, which is not surprising given the disruption of his life by his son’s arrest, trial, conviction, imprisonment, and murder. But he continued to harbor doubts about the scientific bona fides of evolution, judging from the appendix to the 2021 edition of his memoir, and he still appears in propagandistic lists of scientists who accept creationism, including the list put out by Creation Ministries International.