“Okay, okay,” she said. “But why do they put Jesus on a dinosaur?”
My sister-in-law and I were a lot alike. We were both pretty secular folks. We were both pretty progressive voters. And we were both flummoxed by American creationism. For the past few years, I had made a habit of studying the history of American creationism, fundamentalism, and conservatism. So out there on the porch one night, Liz asked me about it.
Why, oh why, she asked, do so many bizarre images pop up when you do an internet search for Jesus on a dinosaur? How can something like creationism that seems so crazy to me seem so obvious to so many of my fellow Americans? And most important, why are we still arguing about it? How is it possible in this twenty-first century that we still can’t agree about evolution?
In my new book, I’m trying to answer those questions for all the people out there like Liz and me. In some ways, once we get to know it, American creationism is even weirder and more outrageous than we might have thought. In other ways, though, our ideas about it are really more about ourselves than about Jesus or dinosaurs.
If we want to understand creationism, we have to start with a few difficult truths. First and foremost, we need to look in the mirror and realize that we might be profoundly ignorant about both creationism and evolution. If we think we are simply on the side of enlightenment and education, pouring knowledge into a vestigial pool of antiquated ignorance, we are guilty of putting too much faith in our own press releases.
Second, we need to recognize a few things that creationism in America is not. It is not a holdover from an older, stupider America. Today’s sort of creationism is a profoundly modern thing, newer than space travel and rock ‘n’ roll. Creationism is not holed up in hillbilly hollers and other outposts of Deliverance-style Americana. Every big city, university, and government building is full of creationists of one sort or another. And, most important, creationism is not a result of simple ignorance about science. Creationists aren’t people who just haven’t yet heard the news about Darwin and his finches.
Finally, we have to come to terms with the difficult idea that we don’t disagree about evolution as much as we might think. Yes, there are radicals on both sides who keep telling us that we do. But once we spend time getting to know our creationist neighbors, it’s impossible to dispute the fact that we have a large and productive middle ground. Our disputes are not really even about science or religion, but about something else. Once we recognize this fact, we’ll be able to see a clear two-point recipe for a better way to talk about creationism and evolution education.
This book will help bring my academic research about creationism—and that of my many mentors and colleagues—to a wider audience. In seven chapters, I will examine key elements of American creationism in an attempt to help people like me understand what creationism really is. Chapter one will lay out the vast variety of creationism in the United States. Chapter two explores its twentieth-century history. In chapter three, I look at the ways creationists often view evolution as more than just a scientific theory. Next, I examine the fact that most people don’t know much about evolution, whether or not they say they believe it. In the following chapter, I look at creationist schooling. How is it possible, I ask, for someone to be educated and aware, yet not accept evolution? In the last two chapters, I make the argument that too much of our ongoing creation/evolution debate has been stymied by the language of religious conversion, an either/or proposition that pushes both sides into unhelpful positions. If we can avoid apocalyptic thinking, we’ll be better able to take advantage of the obvious fact that we don’t really disagree all that much about evolution. Even radical creationists want their kids to learn about evolution. And even radical secularists want public schools to teach evolution without preaching any religious doctrine.
I’m happy to report that this work has been funded by a generous fellowship from the Humanities Institute at the University of Connecticut. Their program in Humility and Conviction in Public Life has funded me for full-time work on this project.
When will it hit the shelves? Hard to say, but not for a while yet. I have a draft of the manuscript in hand and I’m tinkering with it. I still need to find a publisher and all that will take some time. I’ll keep you posted.