Cartoon by Steve Cardno, from Ken Ham, The Lie: Evolution (1987), p. 92. In later versions of this cartoon (two of which are found below), we find significant differences in the foundations of both castles and the contents of the balloons. These reflect changing emphases in Ham’s ministry that Ham has talked about, not changes in basic beliefs. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.
Understanding Creationism: Introduction to the Series
Today I begin a short series devoted to understanding creationism. The young-earth variety of creationism (YEC) will be my primary focus, but other types of anti-evolution (including OEC and ID) can have much in common with YEC, especially when we consider social and political aspects. They will be discussed where appropriate. This column discusses culture wars as the context in which creationism thrives, with evolution being blamed for myriad social ills.
The image on the front cover of the original edition of Ken Ham’s book, The Lie: Evolution (1987), suggests that the idea of an evolving Earth is the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Christians eat from it at their own peril. This is a book about culture wars. As Ham says (p. 13), “The creation/evolution issue (is God Creator?) is the crux of the problems in our society today. It is the fundamental issue with which Christians must come to grips. The creation/evolution issue is where the battle really rages.”
The Context for Creationism Is Culture Wars—and Satan is just around the corner
The image at the top of this column is the signature icon of Ken Ham’s organization, Answers In Genesis, without question the most influential YEC group in the world today. They are motivated by a commitment to Scripture which is laudable, and our disagreement with them on its proper interpretation does not prevent us from recognizing them as dedicated brothers and sisters in Christ. The image of warring castles skillfully conveys Ham’s overall message about the enormous danger that evolution poses, both to Christianity and to each and every Christian—and what Christians should do about it. The castle of Christianity, founded on creation and Christ, is starting to collapse under fire from the castle of Humanism, while the Christians’ guns “are either aimed at each other, aimed nowhere, or aimed at the issues of humanism [the balloons], but certainly not aimed at the foundation called evolution,” whose ultimate source is Satan (The Lie: Evolution, p 93).
At first glance, the composition of the cartoon might seem slightly incongruous: racism, abortion, homosexuality, and divorce have all been prevalent since biblical times, millennia before anyone believed in Darwinian evolution. When Ham’s book appeared in 1987, however, it was standard creationist teaching that evolution might actually have originated with Satan at the Tower of Babel. The person described by Ham’s organization as “the ‘father’ of the modern creationist movement,” the late Henry Morris, suggested this in his influential work, The Troubled Waters of Evolution (1974), for which his friend Tim LaHaye wrote the preface. This isn’t trivial. We can’t fully understand the YEC view without understanding their wide-angle view of the history of evolution, which mainly comes from Morris.
Morris painted Darwin as an almost inconsequential figure in the larger story, someone who simply happened to live “at just the right time to catalyze an explosive reaction” against the biblical worldview. His generally accepted status as “the founder of the modern theory of evolution,” according to Morris, “is largely an artificial and manufactured identification” of great symbolic force, but “his actual scientific accomplishments are rather ordinary and unimpressive by modern standards.” Thus, “in no sense could Charles Darwin be said to be responsible for the theory of evolution” (The Troubled Waters of Evolution, quoting separate sentences on pp. 53-54 and 58 but not out of context).
According to Morris, evolution predates Darwin by thousands of years, going back to the materialists and “evolutionary pantheists” of the Greco-Roman world, including Lucretius (p. 64). That’s true as far as it goes—though Darwin’s theory was immensely more sophisticated and far more plausible than any ancient theory—but Morris goes much further. It quickly gets complicated, as he tells a convoluted story connecting evolution also with Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian thought. The lynchpin in Morris’ story is Enûma Eliš, the Babylonian creation myth, which he sees as just one more “evolutionary system” and “certainly infinitely inferior to the true record of creation as given in the first chapter of Genesis. The idea that Genesis could have been derived from such as this is incredible” (pp. 70-71).
Thus, Morris traces the origin of evolution “right back to Babylon—not the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar (though it was prominent there) but to the original Babylon founded by Nimrod (Genesis 10: 8-10).” In his view, evolution was “part and parcel of the system of pantheistic polytheism which constituted the universal religion of the ancients, which was also derived from Babel” (p. 71). Connecting evolution with astrology, idolatry, and the worship of fallen angels in Nimrod’s Babylon, Morris said, “It is therefore a reasonable deduction, even though hardly capable of proof, that the entire monstrous complex was revealed to Nimrod at Babel by demonic influences, perhaps by Satan himself.” If so, “then Satan himself is the originator of the concept of evolution.” Satan has deceived the world and blinded our minds, and evolution is “the world-view with which the whole world has been deceived” (pp. 74-75).
That’s why the foundation of Ham’s humanism castle connects evolution with Satan—and why evolution gets blamed for social ills that plagued us long before Darwin was born and would still be prevalent today even if Darwin had never existed. Evolution becomes the scapegoat for many sinful behaviors, to such an extent that it is virtually equated with sin itself, or even seen as inherently Satanic. This is a profoundly unhelpful way of approaching historical and cultural aspects of evolution, and it fails entirely to explain why many people who utterly reject evolution commit the very sins that Ham connects with belief in evolution.
Creationism and Culture Wars in the 1920s
Creationism has been closely linked with culture wars for a long time. The image below comes from the 1920s, when defenders of biblical authority in America called themselves “fundamentalists,” a label worn proudly by William Jennings Bryan, a Democrat from Nebraska who failed to win the presidency three times but was considered by many the greatest political orator of his day. Bryan used his political connections to campaign for the passage of state laws banning the teaching of evolution in publicly-funded schools (including public universities), and he partly succeeded.
Like their spiritual descendants today, conservative Protestants in the 1920s also saw themselves in the midst of a great culture war, with the Bible (depicted here as the Rock of Gibraltar) coming under fierce attack by “battle-ships of unbelief.” Left to right, the ships are labeled “culture,” “liberal theology,” “modern thought,” “science,” “hypothesis,” and “atheism.” Contemporary readers would have understood “hypothesis” as a stand-in for evolution. This cartoon by an unidentified artist (whose monogram has the letter “M” inside the ship’s bell in the lower right corner) comes from the December 1927 issue of The King’s Business, the official magazine of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (p. 800). At that time, the Dean of the faculty at BIOLA was Reuben A. Torrey, who had helped edit The Fundamentals, the famous set of essays that in 1920 gave rise to the word “Fundamentalist.” Photograph by Edward B. Davis.
Why did Bryan do this? For starters, he didn’t think evolution is true. It’s just “millions of guesses strung together,” as he said immediately after the Scopes trial. I’ll return to this important aspect of creationism in a subsequent column. For the time being, let me emphasize that Bryan and his followers saw evolution as much more than just bad science that didn’t deserve to be taught in schools. In their view, it also had disastrous social, political, and religious consequences. Bryan believed that evolution was inextricably linked causally with cutthroat capitalism, German militarism, and atheism—any one of which was sufficient in his view to warrant its removal from public schools.
Bryan’s opposition to the “robber baron” economics rampant around the end of the nineteenth century is very well documented. Like Bernie Sanders in our own day, Bryan championed the economic interests of ordinary working-class Americans against wealthy bankers and industrialists. For example, his first nomination for president in 1896 (when he was just one year older than the Constitutional minimum age of thirty-five) resulted from a stunning speech, in which he coupled his support for changing from the gold standard to the silver standard with specific references to the crucifixion. Adopting what was called “bimetallism” would increase the money supply, making it cheaper for (say) farmers to obtain bank loans.
Finding examples of capitalistic excess on all sides, Bryan blamed Darwin’s theory of natural selection. As he stated in his book, The Prince of Peace (1904), which was based on a lecture of the same name that he delivered worldwide, “The Darwinian theory represents man as reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate—the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak.” Decades later, historians unhelpfully called such things “social Darwinism,” but it was actually promoted mostly by followers of Herbert Spencer, not Darwin (see Numbers, cited below, for more). Interestingly, Bryan stated his political attitude toward evolution most clearly in a letter he wrote to the first American known to have used the term “social Darwinism” (in 1903), the famous sociologist E. A. Ross. The evolutionary “conception of man’s origin,” Bryan said, “would weaken the cause of democracy and strengthen class pride and the power of wealth” (quoted by Gould, cited below, p. 22).
This powerful cartoon by Ernest James Pace, “The Descent of the Modernists,” was first published as the frontispiece to Bryan’s book, Seven Questions in Dispute (1924). Bryan himself suggested the iconography of three men descending a staircase to Charles Trumbull, editor of the Sunday School Times, in January 1924. Photograph by Edward B. Davis.
Like Ken Ham, Bryan also believed that evolution inevitably undermined Christian faith. In his view, it led first to the liberal, unbiblical beliefs of the Protestant “modernists” of his own day and then ultimately to atheism. This sad trajectory is brilliantly depicted in an image envisioned by Bryan. As I state elsewhere, Bryan imagined a cartoon showing evolution as “the cause of modernism and the progressive elimination of the vital truths of the bible.” It would have “three well-dressed modernists,” a student, a minister, and a scientist, all descending a staircase on which “there is no stopping place”—that is, a slippery slope, ending at the bottom with “a scientist stepping from Agnosticism to Atheism.” In other words, for Bryan evolution occupied the center of the culture war then raging between “fundamentalist” Christians like himself and the “modernists” who had sold their birthright for pottage in the name of evolution.
Even though Bryan had held these opinions for decades, he did not actually campaign politically against evolution in the schools until after the Great War. The catalyst was a widely influential book by Stanford biologist Vernon Kellogg, a pacifist who was sympathetic with neo-Lamarckian ideas about evolution. Prior to America’s entry into the war, Kellogg followed his former student Herbert Hoover (who had come from a pacifist Quaker family) to Europe, where he helped bring humanitarian aid to beleaguered civilians in worn-torn Belgium and Northern France. Kellogg’s conversations there with German officers, some of whom had been university professors before the war, formed the basis for Headquarters Nights (1917), which presented views linking Darwinian evolution with German militarism—views that shocked Kellogg out of his pacifism and shocked Bryan into political action.
According to Kellogg, “The creed of the Allmacht [omnipotence] of a natural selection based on violent and fatal competitive struggle is the gospel of the German intellectuals; all else is illusion and anathema.” They saw “bitter, ruthless struggle” among “different human groups” as just the “cruel, inevitable” result of “natural law,” thus justifying (in their minds) the triumph of “that human group which is in the most advanced evolutionary stage” (pp. 28-9). Unquestionably, several leading American biologists at the time echoed Kellogg’s perception of a close link between Darwinism and German jingoism, but much of that noise might indeed have been an echo. It’s not clear to historians now just how widespread such a link actually was in Germany (see the works by Mitman and Kelly, cited below). As I’ve already pointed out, those who see necessary historical connections between Darwinism and dangerous social attitudes or policies can easily find themselves in sinking sand. But the foreword to Kellogg’s book was a ringing endorsement by none other than former president Theodore Roosevelt, and Bryan swallowed it whole.
What if Bryan had designed a cartoon like Ham’s castles? In that case, evolution might still have been linked with Satan (since Bryan believed it had wicked consequences), but the balloons would probably have been different. Instead of referencing racism and sexual immorality, they might instead have been labeled “atheism,” “modernism,” “jingoism,” “class pride,” and “the power of wealth.” Regardless, Bryan surely would have agreed with Ham that Christians ought to aim their guns at evolution.
The Evolution of Ham’s Warring Castles
This full-color version of the warring castles dates from 2002 (image source). The balloons are basically unchanged (with “divorce” relabeled “family break-up”), but the foundations have changed entirely to emphasize that non-YEC interpretations of the Genesis “days” undermine the divine authority of the Bible.
Ken Ham’s warring castles have undergone a certain evolution since their first appearance in 1987. In the original version, the foundations of each castle were “Evolution (Satan)” and “Creation (Christ).” Although Ham has surely not abandoned the beliefs conveyed by that image, a later version that circulated for many years replaced the original foundations with literal creation “days” versus “millions of years.” Ham has always believed in the importance of literal days, so the later version represents a change in emphasis, not a change in fundamental viewpoint. As the foundations indicate, Ham insists on literal days because he believes that any other interpretation undermines biblical authority. In fact, the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of his book is now subtitled Evolution/Millions of Years.
This version of the warring castles dates from 2010 (image source). Abortion and euthanasia are still flying over the castle of humanism, but the other balloons have changed, with “moral relativism” now dominating. The foundations are no longer creation vs evolution or six days vs millions of years, but “autonomous human reasoning” vs “revelation/God’s word.”
Although Ham’s signature icon is still very much alive, it has evolved into a more sophisticated new species that is better adapted to twenty-first century culture wars, in which biblical faith is increasingly seen as contrary to science and reason. Ironically, Ham’s ministry itself is a primary cause of that perception (I will say more about this in subsequent columns), since he so strongly urges Christians to reject the validity of reasonable scientific conclusions about Earth’s past. In any event, Ham does admit some change in approach since he began his ministry decades ago. “Over time, I began to emphasize that believing in the creation account in Genesis means accepting God’s Word as the ultimate authority, and believing in the secular idea of evolution is to accept man’s word as the ultimate authority.” Nevertheless, he still thinks it is “vital for Christians to understand” that a literal six-day creation remains essential:
when Christians reinterpret the days of creation to fit with millions of years, reinterpret Genesis 1:1 to fit with the big bang, or adopt other positions that add Darwinian evolution to the Bible, they are undermining the very Word of God itself. And this is the issue—this is why we have lost biblical authority from the culture.
As it was in Bryan’s day, so it still is today: the context for creationism is culture wars. The central message of the warring castles is unmistakable. Ham sees a culture war between contrasting worldviews, and he believes the opponents of Jesus Christ are using evolution to their advantage. I don’t entirely disagree with him—we do find ourselves in the midst of a culture war, and some do use science as a weapon against Christian beliefs—but I respond differently. I too believe that Christians should defend our faith against sceptics, but we must tread carefully, because in culture wars the truth is all too often one of the first casualties. Seeking truth is fundamental to who we are as followers of the Truth Incarnate, and in our zeal to be faithful to Jesus we must always take care not to let our own biases or opinions obliterate the truth. While we cannot claim to be pure and unbiased observers, BioLogos consciously seeks to provide an alternative to the prevailing “culture warrior” model. When truth-seeking becomes subservient to winning cultural battles, our judgment is all too easily clouded. If there are lessons we can learn from the origins debate, this is surely one of the most important.
In the next installment, I show how creationism links with apologetics, evangelism, and concerns about religious doubt.