Consider the following story:
Denomination 1 takes as their text Exodus 22:18 “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
Denomination 2 takes as their text Matthew 19:21 “Jesus said unto him, ‘If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.'”
Denomination 3 takes as their text Genesis 1:27 “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”
As a fair-minded person you decide to spend a little time with each group before you commit yourself, so on the first Sunday evening as advised you phone ahead for a password and head out to the concrete-lined back alley church run by Group 1. As you enter, some of the congregation are already heading off to execute a Wiccan in a nearby town. Luckily for her the police intervene, and before the night is over four of the members of Group 1 are in jail charged with conspiracy to murder. This seems to happen a lot, but as the pastor explains in his sermon, sometimes you just have to suffer for your beliefs.
On the second Sunday you make your way to the run-down slum building that a local businessperson has donated to Group 2. Most of the congregation are shabby; some are unwashed and a few are downright smelly. At the conclusion of the sermon most of the congregation head back out to the streets to beg for food and money to pay for a bed for the night, while the remainder hang around you for an uncomfortably long time, asking unsettling questions about your income, bank balance and personal assets.
On the third Sunday you turn up at a clean, prosperous church run by Group 3. There is a short sermon in which the pastor makes a reference to God, who created all things and then a brief discussion afterwards which soon moves on to sport, TV and cooking. You are relieved to find that most of the people there are bright, articulate, reasonably sensible and happy to accept you into their midst. It is really no contest; Group 3 has your vote. Sure, their beliefs are a little weird, but compared to the alternatives…
Christian Creationism (and Intelligent Design, which amounts to the same thing) is a huge phenomenon. Large numbers of people in the US, a proportion generally estimated at 40-45% of the population, claim to believe that humans were created in a special process by God. The belief usually extends to animals and plants too, and involves denying the process of evolution. Most, if not all, Creationists would also ascribe the creation of the Universe to God as well. There are numerous books, films and DVDs defending these beliefs and putting forward what purports to be evidence for them. Support for Creationism has become much more public and vocal over that time. (Islamic Creationism also exists but is not yet a major movement. I have omitted it from this analysis.)
The reaction of many atheists and moderate Christians to this apparent growth has been horror and dismay. Millions of words have been written attacking Creationism as if it were an intellectual movement. Millions more have been written defending it as if it were an intellectual movement. The point I hope to make is that most of these attacks and defenses are irrelevant. Creationism is not an intellectual movement; it is a badge belief. It is a convenient way for Christians to identify and relate to each other in an increasingly hostile and confusing world. Attacking it as if it were a genuine scientific theory simply misses the point. And I hope with the aid of the story I began with to explain why.
Christians in the West today are in a precarious position. Fifty years ago a moderate Christian could happily take part in a whole range of religious activities, supported by a vigorous and active group. There was missionary work, Bible readings, prayer groups, outreach work to the disadvantaged, Sunday School and Scripture classes, concerts, fetes… a look through the program of a typical suburban church in the 1950s usually reveals a large and busy self-sustaining community. One could readily find an activity which suited one’s inclinations and abilities.
But now church attendance in the West has declined to all-time lows. Churches are closing and priests are aging. More people identify themselves as ex-Catholics than as Catholics. Anglicanism is on its last legs, and even with massive immigration from Latin America churches in the U.S.—the last major outpost of Christianity in the Western world—are gradually losing numbers. The causes are many and varied, but they include the exposure of more and more people to more and more information via the Internet and other media, the relentless attacks on religious belief made by prominent atheists and rationalists across the world, a move to public rather than private welfare, and the increasing range of secular activities available on Sundays and other days.
Whatever the reasons, when interest groups shrink they invariably lose their moderate members first. People leaving Christian churches are mostly mild, wishy-washy, semi-agnostics who were happy to help out but didn’t want to make a fuss, and who would contribute a little of their money and time without feeling any particular commitment to the cause. As they pull out, those who remain are going to be more committed, more determined to stand up for themselves and make a difference. We can see this in the Sydney Anglican Church, for instance, which has abandoned its ecumenical approach and adopted a hard line on homosexuality and abortion, and in the Catholic election of Joseph Ratzinger, “God’s Rottweiler,” as Pope Benedict. As Christian groups continue to dwindle in size and number those that remain will inevitably become more activist and polemic.
But the loss of moderates and the adoption of a polemic stance also creates isolation. The local and global networks of committed people which connected Christian denominations and sects are breaking down. To be a Christian in the western world today is to find oneself constantly in retreat. The sense of community that used to be found in a local church is vanishing.
A natural reaction to this is to adopt what I call a badge belief: an attitude that one can adopt in order to reach out to and identify oneself with fellow-believers across the world. Creationism has become that badge belief. Creationism is an expression of solidarity with fellow-believers across the world. On this analysis, Creationism is not the growing threat many atheists and moderates believe it to be, rather it is a sign of a religion in retreat. As I hope to show, if the only thing Christians can agree on is Creationism then they are not much of a threat to anyone.
Readers interested in a technical analysis of what I have called a badge belief can be found in “Group beliefs and the distinction between belief and acceptance” by Raul Hakli from the University of Helsinki. This was published in Cognitive Systems Research in 2006, and an abstract can be found on the Web at . The issue is also explored by Raimo Tuomela in an earlier article called “Group beliefs” in Synthese (1992); see . But the terminology “badge belief” is my own.
So why choose Creationism? Out of all the rules and beliefs in the Bible, why should this one function as a kind of Masonic handshake? Here are the characteristics of a belief which primarily exists to identify members of an in-group:
- A badge belief is quite distinct from what out-group members believe. This minimises the possibility of mistaking outsiders for in-group members, or vice versa, and helps to identify those who are serious about joining.
- A badge belief is easy to adopt because it does not commit the holder to any particular effort or action. It merely indicates one’s membership of the group.
- A badge belief is one that emerges fairly quickly in any conversation or written communication with possible allies.
In other words, it should be an narrowly-held belief that is easy to display but does not require the holder to do anything.
As the story I started with indicates, many of the beliefs and rules advocated by the Bible fail as badge beliefs. Most of them require the holders to do things which are uncomfortable, illegal or embarrassing—sometimes all three—and are no longer acceptable to educated Westerners.
On the other hand, some are just too rational, and fail the first criterion; a cult which based itself solely on the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” would find itself with nothing to do, and soon merge back into the population. Some aren’t generalizable enough: Leviticus 19.27: “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard” —is not going to be much help in identifying female coreligionists, for instance. And some are not obvious enough; is a church that bans seafood from their prayer breakfasts actually following Leviticus 11:10-11, or just being allergy-sensitive?
But Creationism is perfect for a badge belief. It’s sufficiently silly to mark it as a deliberate choice, it comes up readily in conversation, and best of all it doesn’t commit the believer to any type of action whatsoever. Creationists can go on investing in the stock market, driving gas-guzzling cars, chasing the opposite sex, coveting their neighbor’s ox… it’s all good, because Creationism has no behavioral implications. If you feel like it you can write to a school board protesting against the teaching of Evolution, but there is no obligation to make even this small effort. For most believers, Creationism simply doesn’t interfere in any way with the comfortable Western life they choose to lead. Unless and until Creationists are called upon to teach a science class or award a research grant, they can cherish their belief and enjoy the sense of solidarity it gives them in perfect security.
This, in my view, is why Creationism has become so popular among Western Christians; because it imposes no duties or obligations other than mouthing a mildly bizarre belief, and the rewards are social inclusion and a feeling of brotherhood. In this way it functions like an initiation rite or a Masonic handshake to mark out a line between “us” and “them.” The content of the belief is almost immaterial; it is the effects that are important.
I am not suggesting this represents a series of deliberate decisions. I don’t think any Christians have set out to deliberately choose a consequence-free belief, in order to show their solidarity. But out of all the beliefs that are available to Christians, Creationism is the one that has survived and prospered because it meets those criteria. Other ‘badge beliefs’ filling a similar role are an opposition to abortion, to women priests, or to homosexual marriage. But none of them are as fully-developed and widespread as Creationism. Embracing any of these beliefs gives you some dangerous enemies; by and large, embracing Creationism doesn’t.
And the success of Creationist beliefs among otherwise quite rational people may even be partly due to the success with which atheists and secularists have attacked the notion that there is a rational basis for religion. If your religion can’t be rationally justified, then the need to rationally justify your other beliefs weakens as well. Once you realize that you only believe in God because you want to, the barriers come down; you can go on to believe in anything else including Creationism because you want to, as well. And in the unlikely event that Creationism should ever be proven to be true and rational, Christians will simply have to adopt some other irrational belief to mark themselves out from the herd.
If this analysis is correct, what are the implications? What can we predict about the future of Creationism in the Western world?
- There will never be more Creationists than Christians. If Creationism exists merely as a way to identify Christians, then as Christianity declines, so will Creationism. In the unlikely event of a major Christian revival in the West, Creationist numbers may grow, or may actually decline as more moderate believers return to active participation in the church. But Creationism is not an intellectual movement, and it will never gain converts outside religion.
- For that reason, attacking Creationism as if it were an intellectual movement will never have much effect. The attraction of a badge belief is that “normal” people don’t hold it. Showing it up as nonsense may actually increase its attractiveness to people who want to display their level of commitment. Like parents who yell at their kids about the dangers of smoking, atheists and moderates who criticize Creationism may end up making it even more appealing to people who want to demonstrate how committed they are. This also means that most of the the effort used to try and provide “evidence” for Creationism is also wasted. Creationists don’t want evidence: they want a flag to wave. Atheists who want to make an impact are far better advised to attack the logic of an underlying Christian belief than its manifestation as Creationism.
- For some atheists Creationism is a scary prospect because they mistake it for a serious belief with behavioral implications. My advice to them is relax. Creationism is unlikely to have any impact on the state of the planet or the future of civilization. Creationists have chosen a belief which requires no active pursuit, so it’s highly unlikely that they will ever adopt radical tactics to promote it. Creationists per se will have no death lists, no fatwas, no revivalist missions, no terrorist training camps, no crusades, no invading armies, no interviewers dragging confused people off the streets for “personality tests.” Nobody is going to kill anyone for Creationism. Creationists like to lead normal lives; that’s why they have chosen a belief that doesn’t require them to do anything. Of course there are exceptions; but these will be a tiny minority. And any attempt to militarize Creationism will simply result in widespread defections.
Creationism is wrong. Creationism is silly. We should resist attempts to establish Creationist doctrine, especially among children and the less well-educated. But it is misguided to regard the growth of Creationism as a major threat to Western civilization. On the contrary, Creationism is exactly what we can expect to see from a collapsing religion. It’s last-ditch defensive behavior—the equivalent of a hedgehog rolling into a ball. It’s what’s left of Christianity when all the behavioral precepts have been discarded. It is belief for the sake of belief. When it finally dies it won’t be because it was killed off by nonbelievers; it will be because there are no believers left who need to demonstrate their support for each other.
So if you’re an atheist, please don’t waste too much energy on Creationism. There are far worse aspects of religion to worry about.