Luke Douglas examines how creationist education starts young and is effective in shaping that persistent dogma, through a gradual inoculation against critical thought.
I was a new atheist, still closeted, at the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter with my fundamentalist family, trying not to crack. It wasn’t my first visit, granted, but my experiences as a convinced young-earth creationist at 15 and then as a self-taught science enthusiast at 23 could not have been more different.
To Luke at age 15, Ken Ham’s Creation Museum was a beacon of truth to the world that had rejected the Word of God for Darwin. To Luke at age 23, it was a pseudo-scientific propaganda mill that drove the invisible wedge ever deeper between myself and my family as I did everything in my power to play the role a little longer. Because, as much as I would have liked to come out, my wedding was on the line.
Yes, my wedding. I’m from the west coast and my wife is from the east coast. At that time, I was working in Colorado and I accepted the offer to save the price of a plane ticket and ride with my family on their way there, the only caveat being that I didn’t object to stopping at the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter en route through Kentucky.
This isn’t to say there was some explicit quid pro quo, but the stakes for being outed were unthinkably high. The best conceivable outcome would be a falling out that overshadowed the wedding. More likely, they would have boycotted it entirely. Not being ready for all that, I kept quiet.
In the time since that last visit to the Creation Museum, I’ve come out to my family and made the cultural and ideological 180 in every way I could. The devastation to family has been palpable in a way that my fellow nonbelievers, who were never religious or who left more moderate versions of Christianity, can hardly imagine.
I want to help people understand some of the tactics that go into creationist education because I believe my years of experience on both sides of its message give me a certain insight that is not unique among anti-creationism activists but can nonetheless add something to the dialogue.
I was homeschooled in deep blue Oregon, and I can remember three creationist organizations there that existed to promote creation “science.” We attended events where speakers debated the semantics of Genesis 1 and which precise version of a literal interpretation should be foundational to our understanding of the universe. We went fossil hunting and heard all about how the fossilized clams we discovered were made in the 24th Century B.C. We took the creationist alternative guidebooks on our family vacations to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon so we could learn about these sites from the “Flood Geology” interpretation that cemented these natural wonders in our minds as proof of God’s maniacal obsession with human adherence to His commands.
Creationist dogma is most effective in the form of a gradual inoculation against critical thought. Start with young children and present the creationist message as fact without reference to any opposing viewpoint.
As an active culture warrior to whom creationist dogma was a necessary cornerstone in my social and political views, the polarization of the movement was exhilarating. The compromises and ambiguity of the Intelligent Design argument were waning in the movement. Organizations like the Discovery Institute that had convinced some creationists that an incremental approach would lead the way to gradual acceptance had been devastated by the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision in 2005. The defeat of Intelligent Design in the courts was just enough of a defeat to enrage the millions of Americans who wanted to see their creationist views validated by the education system while discrediting the argument that leaving Christ and biblical literalism out of the message would help us win court cases. This was the time to take decisive action.
I was in law school and active with a far-right legal advocate for religion in the public sphere. When Ken Ham came to speak at the school of law, I introduced him. When he debated Bill Nye, I hosted a debate watch party for our creation activists to watch and root for him. As a true believer, I was devastated when he lost the debate in a spectacular show of persuasive incompetence. Although I walked away from that night simply wishing my position had been represented by a better communicator, it went on to be the turning point in my deeply internalized doubts about the anti-scientific worldview that was the foundation of my entire identity. It was the milestone in my journey between the two Lukes who visited the Creation Museum.
Creationist dogma is most effective in the form of a gradual inoculation against critical thought. Start with young children and present the creationist message as fact without reference to any opposing viewpoint. As they reach late elementary or middle school, introduce straw man references to evolution and deep geological time but refute them summarily with creationist arguments that are more sophisticated than the straw men. As the students reach high school, flush out the evolutionist position with clips from an angry anti-theist or an elitist British tone and refute them with a creationist counterpoint that is still more sympathetic than the version of evolution to which the student has been exposed.
In the end, creationist education works and will likely be passed on to the next generation as long as the student is prepared with “answers” to contrary views that appear more sophisticated than the references to evolution and deep time that they will encounter in daily life. A child growing up with a thorough creationist education is not likely to be fazed by a TV science documentary or by reading signs at national parks because their version of the story appears more comprehensive than how they perceive the opposing view.
It is up to us to push the level of scientific literacy in the culture to a higher level where this becomes impossible. Even by marginally raising my scientific literacy, the creationist dogma fell apart under its own weight.
I want to encourage my fellow secular activist to remember that engagement is not futile because, while tens of millions of dedicated fundamentalists are closed off from changing their views, their children are within reach. And we need to work with them first at an education level, then provide the support network they need to untangle the social and political web that is inseparable from the forces that drove the creationist movement to entrap them in the first place.