Creationism: The Last Great Awakening?

We cannot deny that an embarrassingly large percentage of Americans are creationists. Public opinion polls constantly reveal this, and there’s no point in not acknowledging it as fact. (See New Gallup Poll on Creationism.)

Rather than regarding creationism as a weird aberration, we should recognize that intense religious fervor of one kind or another has always been a powerful force in American history, starting with some of the earliest colonial settlements. It was often those with the most strongly-held religious convictions who were motivated to leave their ancestral homelands and start over again in an untamed wilderness.

If you doubt the major role that religion has played in American history, this Wikipedia article on the Great Awakening describes four spiritual upheavals that are given that name, and we think they may have missed a few. Colonization itself could be considered the first such event. The emancipation movement may be another, and the temperance movement resulting in alcohol Prohibition may be yet another. The same can be said of the Civil Rights movement.

Therefore, depending on how one defines such things, there were (at least) seven or eight Great Awakenings in American history. Indeed, the entire American experience could be viewed as one long series of such events, with periods of relative quiescence between episodes of furious religious activity. And it occurs to us that the creationism movement can be considered to be still another phase of the same continuing phenomenon.

Okay, you’re thinking, perhaps that’s true. Maybe America really is one big cauldron of religious enthusiasm that periodically boils over and then briefly subsides — until the heat builds up again. That description seems to fit; but given that most Americans have British and European roots, why don’t people in the UK and Europe display the same behavior, and why don’t polls show them to be believers in creationism as much as Americans?

Good question. We can only guess, but one possibility is that this very different behavior on each side of the Atlantic is due to the appalling number of deaths suffered during the long and horrific wars of religion which ravaged Europe from (approximately) 1524 to 1648. During the Thirty Years’ War alone it’s estimated that between three million and eleven million died (see list of wars by death toll.). That got rid of a lot of fanaticism, and many of the remaining intensely religious people sailed to the New World. So Britain and Europe may have been largely purged of such people, and the remnant — so to speak — became Americans. We may be wrong, but that’s one way to explain things.

Well, given that history, why is it that America hasn’t been ripped apart and burned to the ground by now as a result of warfare among various sects? Actually, there were problems in the colonial period, but travel was difficult and merely surviving was probably enough of a challenge in the early days. Religious disturbances did occur, but they were local events, e.g.: Anne Hutchinson‘s exile from Massachusetts Bay Colony, and also the infamous Salem witch trials.

As for later, when religious warfare would have been easier to wage, the only reason we avoided that kind of madness is the Constitution and its absolutely brilliant separation of church and state — the very thing that the craziest of the creationists now want to change.

But that raises still another question: If we were populated by most of the remaining fanatics in the Old World, then how did we end up with a generation as wise as the Founders who led the Revolution and wrote the Constitution under which we have flourished?

We think it’s because some of the colonies were exceptions to the general experience of settlement by religious extremists. Virginia, for example, was heavily influenced by the First Families of Virginia. They were English gentry — second sons, typically — who were motivated by land hunger rather than spiritual urges. This isn’t to say that such people are inherently superior — often they’re not. Rather than having any special virtues because of their noble ancestry, we think it was something else entirely that made Virginia’s leaders different from the witch-hunters in Massachusetts.

Despite the conventional (and probably sincere) religious affiliations of Virginia’s leading families, their principal motivations in coming to America were secular. Thus, the intellectual climate in Virginia was especially congenial to the rationality of the Enlightenment. As a result, many of the most influential of the Founding Fathers were from that state. Anyway, regardless of the Virginia influence, it would seem that the Enlightenment arrived and the Revolution occurred during one of those fortunate lulls between the various Great Awakenings. That is why, when we wrote Is America a “Christian Nation”?, we could answer that question with a clear “No!”

So where are we now? If we’re correct, and the creationism movement is the latest manifestation of what has thus far been a recurrent feature of American history, what can be said about it? In our humble opinion, creationism is the least virtuous of all the preceding movements. It has no redeeming qualities whatsoever (see The Infinite Evil of Creationism). For that reason it will probably fail. Then what? We don’t know, of course, but as our title suggests, creationism may be the last Great Awakening in American history.

Copyright © 2011. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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16 responses to “Creationism: The Last Great Awakening?

  1. I think the high percentages of creationists in our culture is due in large part to the growth of evangelical churches and related movements over the past half-century. Without the fundamentalist evangelical movement, the percent of creationists in the population would probably be similar to the percent found in Europe. It’s not that creationism, by itself, is popular – it’s simply part of the evangelical package, so to speak.

    If you add up the conservative religious denominations – Baptists, the small evangelical denominations or people who respond to surveys as born-again, the LDS and other sects, they total about 40%. That’s roughly the amount of YECs in the Gallop Poll.

    If you add the number of Catholics and Mainstream Protestants together, they equal about 38%, which is coincidently the number of people that believe in theistic evolution. I’m pulling these number from here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_the_United_States#Religions_of_American_adults

    Maybe it is another great awakening, but I think creationism is just coming along for the ride – the awakening is the resurgence of evangelicism. Despite the Discovery Institutes propaganda, creationism (ID or otherwise) would not exist without that religious support.

  2. waldteufel

    Thought provoking post.

    A good friend of mine in the U.K. says, when imbibing massive quantities of beer, “England is the better for having sent its criminals to Australia and its religious nuts to America.”

  3. Americans are more concerned about what other people think about them than what they think themselves.

    A mentor as a youth told me he give up religion when he learned to think for himself.

    I would be astonished if more than 1% of self-professed Christians have read the Bible cover to cover, and could name all 10 Commandments. It’s probably a much, much smaller number. How many Christians could articulate the Articles of Faith for their denomination or describe the difference between Methodists, Baptists and Episcopalians (although, as Ann Coulter famously said, “Episcopalian is hardly a religion.”)

    In a country where being a communist is better than being an atheist it’s no wonder that people answer “yes” on polls when the true answer is most likely “don’t know” or “no.” It’s not about religious beliefs, it’s about appearing to have religious beliefs.

  4. I’ve heard it argued that America has such religious participation because we have no state church. In nations where there is an official religion, that belief is either repressive or it’s ignored. Here, we’re free to do as we please, and many of us please to believe. If only the believers would leave it at that, there’d be no problem.

    One Awakening movement that you left out is the Pro-life crowd. They look a lot like the abolitionists before the Civil War and the prohibitionists of the early twentieth century.

  5. Greg Camp says:

    One Awakening movement that you left out is the Pro-life crowd.

    You’re right. I didn’t think to include them. Actually, the whole “family values” movement seems to be one big Awakening.

  6. I have to reject the notion that America was founded by fanatics seeing that most of these people fled religious and societal tyranny. Not to say that there were not groups of nutters settling here and there, but the majority were looking for religious and economic freedom.
    The men of the enlightenment were well over 100 years into the settlements here and reflected a trend among intellectuals and was a distinct minority here, even though it shaped the direction of the country.

    I don’t think Americans were any more or less religious than any Europeans until the years following WW2. I will also assert that the current rise in fundieism has been funded and perpetrated by the GOP to keep the southern democrats and the moral majority together and bonded over a common issue of faith regardless of smaller political issues.

    If not that, then there is always the usual snake oil salesmen and their mega churches, which are huge business. Never discount the profit motive when it comes to religion. It is so easy to use faith in ones god as a rally point and even an imagined victim-hood. The more you point to the evils outside who can be blamed for trying to destroy your religion, the more money the suckers throw in the collection basket.

    The evangelical leaders appear to be very good at manipulating their flocks with fairy tales and boogie men. The more these people feel their way of life is threatened, the deeper they dig in and the deeper their fingers sink into their ears.

    It’s actually a very interesting sociological dynamic. Sad and embarrassing, but still interesting.

  7. Great essay, SC. I’ve read many times that the more educated a population is, particularly where science is concerned, the LESS the population believes in religion, superstition and god(s). It is absolutely no surprise to me therefore that the US has a huge percentage of creationists, when you look at how abysmally we perform compared to other developed nations (Europe, Japan, Taiwan, China etc) where science, math and education in general are concerned. The same can be seen in Islamic nations – the more educated the people, the more secular they are and the less influence relgious dogma exerts. Which is why I think it is so important to keep creationism OUT of science classrooms here. Religions know that in order to keep a person for life, they really need to keep them uneducated, thus the proliferation of Madrassa’s in Muslim countries and the push in religious fanatic circles for home “schooling” here in the US. There are some great studies examining religiosity vs education out there, very thought provoking stuff.

  8. retiredsciguy

    Excellent, thought-provoking essay, I must echo.

    However, I doubt that creationism will be the “last” Great Awakening in American history. Latest, perhaps, but I hope not the last.

    Also, it’s difficult to accept something so anti-science and anti-reason as creationism as a “Great Awakening”. Perhaps it should be called The Stupendous Stupefaction?

  9. satchmodog says:

    I will also assert that the current rise in fundieism has been funded and perpetrated by the GOP …

    Well, that’s one I hadn’t thought of. Very original.

  10. Nice analysis MrC and very accurate. Its what we get taught in history classes.

    British history after the black days of the Cromwellian Protectorate theocracy carried on being steeped ear deep in blood care of religious warfare all the way to the last Jacobite rebellion which ended in the massacre at Culloden in 1746. The Blue Bonnets, earlier called Covenanters whether they were prods or caths, carried on reaving our North till then. The Highland Clearances saw an end to it.

    That, and the Protectorate, cured England of faith once and for all.

    We have also had the advantage of a more modern reason why religion is to be distrusted and kept out of public life. The IRA and the UDA.

    Try a dose of 25 years of ongoing domestic terrorism and see how popular it is to profess a faith. Now, after we finally get the Irish to pack in blowing up our high streets we have replaced one auld enemy with a new and yet even older one….Islamic extremists.

    America, as you say, was unfortunate in that it became the dumping ground for Europes religious fanatics, seekers and snake oil salesmen. Its something for which we owe you an apology.

    On behalf of my fellow Brits Id like to say a big heartfelt sorry 😉

    Still, there is one silver lining. At least we wont be exporting you the Islamic madmen. Your DHD should stop that happening.

  11. The single biggest cause of the difference between the USA and Europe on this issue is history, particularly the bits that involve men waving long pointy bits of steel, things that go ‘bang’ and ‘boom’, and Xyklon-B. What this has impressed very deeply into European consciousness is that things get messy when ideologies collide, either with each other or with reality. Appeals to Golden Ages or miraculous solutions (“All these problems will simply vanish if we have Small Government”) tend to be greeted with weary cynicism. Our Communists sit on the boards of companies, and Margaret Thatcher was a firm believer in the NHS.

    In contrast, the American Cult of America is an article of faith that candidates for public office may never question. The exact content of the mythos may vary depending on context, but the almost supernatural nature or ‘mission’ of the USA is taught and reinforced in your schools and public discourse – does any country (apart from China or North Korea) give such reverential treatment to its “Founding Fathers”? And (ignoring the matter of the Previous Inhabitants), the USA is seen as the creation of its inhabitants, an act of will and vision. If the USA had to live beside countries with which it had a history of invasion and counter-invasion, the need to temper ideology with the pragmatic need to just get along might bring out a different view.

    And no, this isn’t an anti-American rant. I only mean to point out that the evangelical (in the lower-case sense) culture is very deeply ingrained in US discourse. It’s not surprising that it produces such strong religious outbursts.

  12. sorry for the double whammy….itchy “post” finger.

    There is an excellent book on the rise of US religiosity and the madass right wing GOP axis. Its called American Facists by Chris Hedges. Good read, if a little repetetive in its arguments.

    One final point. The UK may have a “state religion” in the CofE, but it is a nominal one. The CofE is seen here as a quaint tradition, but one that is now via the Lords Spiritual a liability that must be stamped out. There are moves afoot to remove that last vestige of theocracy from our political system. The UK is a strong secular nation, and its getting ever more secular.

  13. Gabriel Hanna

    The problem with SC’s idea about the Founding generation is that it is too simplistic. All the states sent delegations to the Continental Congress and to the convention that wrote the Constitution. The Founders most prominent in the history books–Madison, Jefferson, Franklin, the Adamses, Washington–didn’t get their way in everything, as the records of the deliberations and ratifactions show. For example, we like to cite Jefferson and Madison on “separation of church and state”, but the people who ratified the Constitution and adopted the Bill of Rights explicitly rejected their opinions and opted for a compromise where states would be free to establish or not, and disallow atheists from office.

    History is more complicated than we want it to be.

  14. … creationism may be the last Great Awakening in American history

    I doubt it. Not as long as the mystical view prevails of America as a cross between The Promised Land and (to bastardise Kipling) the bearer of The Democratic Man’s Burden. When you have a Divine Mandate, you cannot refuse to denounce and oppose the evil du jour.

    Faith trumps Reason every time.

  15. I’m not so sure that Creationism is quite so destructive or dangerous as you claim (though I abhor it too) simply because it is politically impotent and has to try to sneak its way in. Polls should not be trusted because they don’t measure how deep or shallow support for Creationism really is. How many people are really willing to actually do anything to get Creationism into Public School science classrooms? Too many, sure, but only a tiny fraction of those who claim to believe in literal Creationism.

    In comparison, other religiously motivated movements have been far more destructive. Abolitionism (and the Southern reaction to it) helped spark a very bloody war which could have been avoided if religious fervor had not been injected into the issue in the first place. Creationism doesn’t have a body count in the hundreds of thousands yet and there is no reason to think it ever will.

    Likewise, alcohol Prohibition was a religious crusade that was extremely damaging to our national character and respect for law and empowered and enriched organized crime who otherwise would have remained small time thugs at best. Say what you will about Creationism but it hasn’t fueled organized crime yet and there is no reason to think it ever will.

    Yes Creationism is bad for science, but we produced a lot of very good science in the 20th century even when science education was in fact still hampered by Creationist laws (the bad guys won in the Scopes Trial, remember). Now Creationism has been banned from science class and although it is annoying and needs to be fought, the Creationist movement is pretty pathetic now, compared to the way things used to be.

  16. Meh:

    I agree with most of what you say, however, I also think that creationism should be fought tooth and nail b/c it doesn’t take much for such indoctrinal ideas to spread far and wide. We’d all be a lot better off if cool logic were to prevail in our educational system. The sooner we shine the light of reason into all the dark corners of the human psyche the better off we will all be.