The Creationist Movement: A Sociological View
The current controversy over the teaching of creationism as well as evolution in school science courses threatens to result in an unhealthy and unnecessary polarization in society. As is so often the case, a small number of proponents of an extreme point of view are creating reactions that threaten an unfortunately extreme counterreaction.
Those who insist that creationism is the only appropriate teaching are a small, if vocal, minority. The threat they pose is exaggerated, first of all, because people whose world view is well within what we might call the liberal spectrum tend not to be able to recognize the sometimes subtle differences among conservative groups and, by lumping them together, assume a numerical strength for conservative extremists that is grossly inaccurate. Second, leaders of the creationist faction are given to making spurious claims about the numbers of their followers. Third, the rhetoric issuing from both sides is clouding many of the real issues involved.
On the other hand, there are in the present time conditions that may make such extreme demands more credible than they might ordinarily seem. Particularly if they evoke reactions anywhere near the opposite extreme pole, the creationists may be able to attract fellow travelers not often in full sympathy with their cause. The controversy itself is the tip of an iceberg of social unrest that we need to take quite seriously.
Subtle Differences Among Conservative Groups
The creationist position has paralleled the rise of such religio-political groups as the Moral Majority (recently renamed the Liberty Federation). As such, we may get some sort of grasp of the population espousing the creationist position by looking at the place of the Moral Majority in the spectrum of American Christians for whom it claims to speak. The definition of Christian used by such groups is far more narrow than that most commonly used in our society. It tends to omit the majority of the members of so-called mainline Protestant, or liberal churches, as well as most Catholicsthe majority of practicing Christians. This majority of church members do not consider a literal interpretation of the biblical story of creation basic to their faith. Most are quite comfortable with an evolutionary understanding of the origin of the human species.
Creationists fit within that branch of Protestantism known as evangelicalism. Recent surveys have identified evangelicals as those who give an affirmative answer to these three issues: (1) having been born again or having had a born-again conversion; (2) having encouraged someone to accept Christ as their savior; and (3) believing in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Even though the last category would seem to make all evangelicals creationists, further probing shows that their literalism is often muted, that they have learned to overlook or adapt certain portions of the scriptures in order to reduce the cognitive dissonance a completely literal interpretation tends to cause. Overrepresented among evangelicals are women, nonwhites, persons with less than a college education, southerners, older people, rural residents, and those below average on the economic scale (the Princeton Religion Research Center, Inc., 1981).
They represent a segment of the population most nearly characterized by a form of social solidarity that Emile Durkheim called "mechanical." That is, the basis of social unity for them lies in the likeness of members of the society; anyone too different becomes a threat to stability and so tends to be gotten rid of, physically or psychologically. This is the expected order of traditional, isolated, rural societies and among groups not greatly touched by modernization, such as the poor, the uneducated, and, to some extent, women. These are people who see diversity of opinion as dangerous, who cannot count as friends persons with whom they disagree.
Yet such a stance has variations. Richard Quebedeaux has found five different categories of evangelicals: the closed fundamentalists, the open fundamentalists, mainstream evangelicals, charismatics, and the new evangelical left. These are distributed in a manner somewhat like a normal bell curve, in the order given. It is the closed fundamentalists who are the primary proponents of the "scientific creationist" point of viewreally a small segment of the population. Other fundamentalists, at least, tend to follow the creationist point of view themselves but are not insistent that it be taught to others except in their own institutions.
Among other segments of the evangelical population of the country, there is much less demand for a narrow interpretation of the biblical account of creation. The primary controversy currently exercising in evangelical circles is the so-called "battle of the Bible," a battle concerning the inerrancy of scripture. Fundamentalists are here at war with other evangelicals because fundamentalists think that evangelicals have fallen into apostasy. Most evangelicals, while affirming the basic authority and truth of the Bible, accept the idea that it does not contain the direct words of God transmitted without error. Within the evangelical camp, there are many variations of this sort that are invisible to persons distant from them on the ideological scale. From that distance, as the saying goes, "they all look alike." Most evangelicals, and certainly most other Christians, do not subscribe to the demand of extremists that the Bible be treated as a science text as well as a moral guide.
Creationists are as unlikely to accept this statement concerning their small numbers as are people harassed by them and convinced of their power. For one thing, while there are representatives anywhere, the majority of this group live under relatively isolated circumstances. Persons dealing with them in those circumstances, on their home turf, as it were, may find that at the local level they have the power of a majority. Current forms of mobilization through television programs and direct-mail appeals have brought the group into the public spotlight in ways that seem to confirm their power. It is to here that we may look for the exaggeration of claims concerning numbers. We are only now beginning to find our way through the fog of numerical claims made during the 1980 campaign by such groups as Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority.
For example, while Falwell was happy to let the claim of 50 million viewers of the "Old Time Gospel Hour" go unchallenged, Arbitron, one of the standard television ratings organizations, found his actual audience to be about 1.5 million. Other televangelists had audiences ranging from less than half a million for James Robison to 2.5 million for Rex Humbard and Oral Roberts. Since many of the viewers of one also watch others of these television preachers, estimates of the unduplicated audiences of all the programsincluding a sizeable slice for Robert Schuller, who has not been known to push the creationist position, run from 10 million to 14 million. In spite of Falwell's claim to have high percentages of adherents across the country, the polls show that most are in the locations of the traditional Bible Belt, the South and the Midwest. They range from about two-thirds to three-fourths over fifty years of age, with approximately the same proportion female (Hadden and Swann, 1981).
The Fundamentalist World View
Thus, claims for national political dominance are simply spurious. At the same time, the zeal with which they pursue their position and its unambiguous certainty give their proclamations a public power that is undeniable. Their rhetoric makes it clear that anyone who disagrees with them is a threat to Christianity, to the American way of life, and to the future of humankind. Their world is one in which the social order of their childhood, as well as the visible order of nature in our time, are taken as givens, as expressions of divine law. Categories are firm and fixedwhether they be physical species, human races, social classes, or national boundaries. The order of all things is to them a moral order, and patterns of behavior given by their tradition are a part of that moral orderGod-ordained and permanent. Modern social change, diversity, and pluralism are experienced by them as a falling away from the divine plan.
In such a world view, the purpose of education is to impart to children the knowledge of the divine order of things so that they will come to structure their behavior and aspirations according to the clear paths of divine dictates. Theirs is an orderly world, and the primary learning task, as they see it, is to come to comprehend that order in all its beauty and complexity. Those who would question the order, whether of legal or parental authority, of natural law or of religious principles, are as foolish as the person who would question that four is the sum of two and two.
Since the modern world is complex and fluid, people continue to raise questions and to be read out of the community of the righteous as heretics or apostates. It is for this reason that the numbers of dedicated closed fundamentalists remain small and that I would predict any political coalitions they form to be short-lived. But this is also the reason that they insist that books, teachers, programs, and the like must be carefully screened to prevent the distortions of truth they understand to be the natural effect of questions or contrasting views.
Such a world view takes it for granted that any contrary point of view must come from an equally well-structured ideology that represents the opposite pole. In religious terms, the values of the fundamentalists are assumed to be God's values, while any that would question them are Satan's. In the 1950s, the shape of satanic ideology was taken to be atheistic communismthe adjective was always attached. Today, the enemy is "secular humanism," again always with the adjective that identifies the position as anti-God. Writes Tim LaHaye, founder and president of Family Life Seminars: humanism boasts five tenetsatheism, evolution, amorality, autonomy, and a socialist one-world view (1980). It is taken for granted that a person who subscribes to one of these points accepts them all in the specific form that LaHaye uses as his definitions.
Just as it is hard for liberals to tell conservative Christians apart, the distance of these fundamentalists from liberal thought and life-styles causes them to lump most of the variety of modern life into a single, monolithic enemy. They see secular humanists in control of the Supreme Court, federal and state governments, public education, colleges and universities, textbook publishers, and the major foundations: Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie. They assume humanist control of commercial and public television, radio, newspapers, movies, magazines, and the porno trade. Humanist organizations they target include the ACLU, the NEA, SIECUS, NOW, and unions, along with the American Humanist Association (LaHaye, 1980). From their distance, they see no differences between these groups, other than that they are in positions to launch different forms of satanic attack upon God's truth and a Christian style of life as they understand it.
The Response to Fundamentalism
The primary danger of this ideological polarization is that their shotgun attack might invoke a response that gives credence to the creationists' claim that secular humanism is a specific religion involving without variation all the facets they depict. If educators, government agencies, media executives, and others mobilize against the threat of creationists in ways that mirror their lumping together of enemy groups, they are likely to alienate groups ordinarily highly critical of the creationist position.
For example, most evangelicals as well as nearly all liberal church people have no desire to put power in the society into the hands of Christian extremists. The moderate Christian position on the creation-evolution controversy is that it rests upon a spurious distinction. They accept the evolutionary pattern as a relatively accurate description of our understanding of the origin of current species, rejecting only the claim that the process was the result of ultimately blind chance. The biblical account is held to be a presentation of an understanding of the whole process as intentional, related to forces beyond our comprehension, to a divine actor who is called God. Sophisticated Christians and sophisticated scientists are coming together in a more fluid understanding of the world of nature and of culture. Even as we come to understand through the social and behavioral sciences that much of the way we comprehend our religion comes out of our experience in society, so we have come to understand that our science is also conditioned by the culture. Scientists on the frontiers of their disciplines can no longer afford to make dogmatic statements about reality or the laws of nature, as they take seriously the prevalence of the principle of indeterminacy. Consequently, it becomes possible for both the religious person and the scientist to view evolution as a description of the activity of a creator God and to claim this to be an expansion of our understanding of divine greatness in that the acts of creation are extended through aeons and are still continuing, as compared with the limited idea of a six-day creation.
Controversies demanding that they choose between an understanding of origins as a sudden and complete creation and one positing the universe as a cosmic accident make most Christians uneasy, if not angry. Should the response of groups targeted by the creationists demand such a choice, many moderate Christians could be pushed closer to the creationist position than they would really like. Similarly, some scientists may be pushed to defend their fields with a dogmatism unsupported by their research.
The Need for Meaning and Order
Part of the uneasiness that exists is rooted in the observation of current social conditions. It is not just a Christian proposition but a general observation that people need some sense of meaning in human life, some appreciation of the corporate nature of civilization, in order to live together in any constructive way. Without that, people are reduced to the Hobbesian world of "each against all," to a life indeed likely to be "nasty, brutish, and short." Human beings need some understanding of their nature and destiny that has the power to entice them to put aside some private gratifications for the good of the whole. They need somehow to be motivated to the task of culture-building. Without that, there is no reason to resist attacking the weak or the old to take their goods, however pitiful; to resist looting and burning an apartment house in order to collect insurance; to refrain from dipping into the company till or from beating one's spouse; or to prevent beginning a nuclear holocaust.
Today our daily news brings us reports or threats of all these things. We are obviously going through a period when the mechanisms of generating commitment to the culture are functioning poorly. The creationists have found a simplistic solution to that by laying it all at the feet of those who cast doubt on the existence of a divine creator who has a plan for human existence and who has established firm guidelines of behavior to fit that plan. A response to their charges that insists on a totally secular definition of the nature of the universe and of human life, that demands a definition of human freedom indistinguishable from irresponsible, socially destructive behavior, may push the great majority of moderate Christians and others in the direction of the creationists who are now considered extremist zealots.
Most Americans are firmly committed to our historic values of freedom of thought and speech, individual liberties, and tolerance. But they also recognize that these cannot be protected in the absence of public order. If they should become convinced that the teachings of "secular humanism," rather than reflecting the proper pursuit of those values, represents a distinct religion that would destroy the public order, they could be influenced by the rhetoric of the creationists. If those who promote values of individual liberty are unable to promote as well any sense of public morality that allows our public life to be dependable and safe, the natural protective mechanisms of any social order are likely to give rise to movements that destroy them or replace them in positions of public responsibility.
I am convinced that the current creationist controversy is only a small eddy in the larger stream of social change that is leading us toward a broad restructuring of modern civilization. We appear to be at a historic juncture similar to that which witnessed the transition from a feudal society in western Europe to the modern industrial culture. At that time, a social class of capitalists and entrepreneurs moved from obscurity into social dominance. They did not fit into the pattern of feudal estates and so were not part of the system of public morality of the time. It took the Protestant Reformation to provide them with legitimacy and with an ethic sufficient to guide their social leadership. In the so-called First World, we are now passing out of that period of economic development and industrialization. The old Protestant ethic, secularized and somewhat strengthened by the frontier experience to become the foundation of the American way of life, is now under fire. The assumption of exploitative dominance over nature as working out one's righteous vocation is coming into question as we face ecological crises and the limits to growth. We live in an uncomfortable tension between the old ethic's demand that we live simply and save surplusso functional in a developing economyand modern demands that we consume more goods in order to keep the wheels of production turning.
In the meantime, we are entering a culture dominated less by entrepreneurial activity and industrial production than by the management of information and human systems. Coming into dominance in that culture is a new class of people whose capital lies not in goods but in their expertise (Gouldner, 1978). The basis of that expertise is the educational institution, often the higher reaches of higher education. The tradition of higher education lies in a small group of intelligentsia that historically has been free to attach itself to any appropriate social class or to stand free to criticize the various vested interests from the heights of disinterested concern for the public good. It is impossible for a group of people as large as this new class of experts to remain above the pull of vested interest and certainly impossible for it to remain disinterestedly distant from a society they are coming to dominate. At the present time, like the capitalists of late feudalism, they are coming to dominance without clear legitimation from the culture and without a grounded and legitimized ethic to guide their influence on political leaders.
The creationist controversy is the result of a nativistic movement seeking to hold back the flow of change, to reestablish the dominance of the old ethic and the classes it legitimated by reinstating in unambiguous form its underlying myth. To that extent, the creationists speak for the uneasiness of those who sense a vacuum of ethics in the bureaucracies, research institutions, and information centers of public life. The criticism is far broader than the bounds of fundamentalist creationism. The ethic which has appeared to dominate the new class has been one of self-actualization, with a moral duty to self-development that demands individual autonomy. Yet, in his most recent book, Daniel Yankelovich points out how the isolated, individualistic search for the self cuts off the possibilities of discovering the social dimensions of human nature, thus foreclosing the very actualization which is sought (1981). He cites national surveys by his firm that indicate a movement toward what he calls an "ethic of commitment," which seeks an inclusive ideology grounded in human associations to which a person may commit him- or herself.
The schools may indeed be an institutional base for the new class of information and systems managers, but only educational professionals can make them a permanent focus of commitment. The times indicate a demand for education to attempt to provide a grounded sense of meaning and purpose that can serve as a basis for defining an appropriate public ethic for the social leaders who are being trained in the schools. While its character must transcend the narrow limits of any sectarian religious forms, mainline churches are in a position to cooperate with educators in what has been the American pattern, whereby the churches flesh out a general world view, sometimes called American civil religion, with more specific variations on the theme out of their own traditions, and the schools inculcate that general sense of meaning at the point where all the major religious groups and secular orientations overlap.
The danger of creationist rhetoric is that it will alienate the secular sources of meaning from those that would provide strength for a new world view and ethic through communal involvement, affective practices, and supramundane roots available in the religious institutions. The evidence of this alienation of educational from religious institutions at the present time is mixed. Surveys of church attendance have shown a consistent pattern of higher involvement in the churches by those whose education is beyond the high school diploma than those who are less well educated, at least since the early 1950s (Roozen, 1979). However, other studies have shown rather consistent patterns of decreased involvement in institutional religion among those who move on through graduate school, particularly among those who identify with intellectualism as a value (Caplovitz and Sherrow, 1977). The idea of the educational system as an alternative religious base is neither a fact to be accepted nor an unfounded idea. Unified reaction against all religion because of the pressure of creationists could make their charges in this matter a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Creationism, united with the power of modern television evangelism and direct-mail communication can mobilize much of the discontent that exists in the public perception of the dominance of bureaucrats and information managers over our lives. This may be particularly true in those areas of the country where the old ethic still worksplaces, for example, where entrepreneurs and capitalists are profiting from the energy boom and seek the dominant position usually granted them in such circumstances. There is little doubt that the lines are drawn clearly in these cases, as developers square off against environmentalists and contests heat up concerning land use and life-styles.
If the threat of the creationists engenders a direct counterattack, there will be further threat of social disorder. We could be faced with a period of revolutions and counterrevolutions reminiscent of the unrest that accompanied the Protestant Reformation and the rise of industrial society. We might hope that we can learn from that history and from our knowledge of social and cultural processes. If indeed we are moving toward a society dominated by information and human systems specialists, we should be able to develop rational patterns of change. If the forces of moderation can begin to develop a world view and an ethic to fill what seems to be a genuine vacuum in our culture, the power of the creationist protest will most likely shrink to its natural base in a small group of isolated people unable to adjust to the positive possibilities of a post-industrial society. Those moderate forces, I suspect, will require both the educational and the religious institutions of this country to serve as a base while maintaining very carefully the separate spheres of each. It will be an interesting prospect!
Caplovitz, David, and Sherrow, Fred. 1977. The Religious Drop-outs: Apostasy Among College Graduates (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications).
Gouldner, Alvin. 1978. The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class (New York: Seabury), p. 21.
Hadden, Jeffrey K., and Swann, Charles. 1981. Prime Time Preachers (Reading, MA: Addison Wesley), pp. 47-62.
LaHaye, Tim. 1980. The Battle for the Mind (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Co.), pp. 59-78.
Religion in America 1981 (Princeton: The Princeton Religion Research Center, Inc., 1981), pp. 57-58.
Roozen, David A. 1979. "The Efficacy of Demographic Theories of Religious Change: Protestant Church Attendance, 1952-68," in Understanding Church Growth and Decline, 1950-1978, edited by Dean R. Hoge and David A. Roozen (New York: Pilgrim Press), p. 139.
Yankelovich, Daniel. 1981. New Rules: Searching for Fulfillment in a World Turned Upside Down (New York: Random House).