The box office failure of Expelled, the 2008 pro-creationist documentary, is an indication, according to researcher Gregory Paul, of the erosion of creationism in the US by spreading Western secularism.
BEFORE IT WAS RELEASED, the mainstream scientific community feared that Ben Stein's pro-intelligent design documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed would be a transforming Michael Moore/Al Gore moment for the creationist cause, with a large portion of the American populace packing the theaters to see how Darwin's Dangerous Idea led to the Nazis gas chambers, along with a host of other evolution based lies and deceptions that reject the truth of a creator. It would be yet further evidence of the growing power and influence of creationism. Outside of Cleveland, for instance, the $30 million Answers in Genesis Museum is drawing in a couple hundred thousand evangelicals a year to teach them that humans rode dinosaurs before the flood. It is a popular idea, almost half of Americans tell pollsters that God created humans just a few thousand years before the pyramids were built.
Expelled was screened in over a thousand venues, the widest initial release for a documentary. Marketed by the same folks who handled The Passion of the Christ that many thought heralded a revival of theocon themed entertainment, they made sure that the conservative media, including Rush Limbaugh, enthusiastically promoted the production. Conservative churches were encouraged to organize audiences to see the breakthrough film as they helped make motion picture history. Schools were even offered rebates for sending students to see the "science" documentary. The movie was heavily advertised with the line that it would be the most controversial film of the year, in tune with its producers' prediction that it would match the Moore and Gore films in popular success. Everything was set up for yet another major victory for the right in the culture wars.
It did not work out that way. Box office receipts on the first weekend were just $3.2 million, placing it at number eight — behind Dr. Suess' Horton Hears a Who after its sixth week. Expelled further dropped to thirteen through fifteen the second and forth weeks as the number of theaters running it dropped sharply. It only made a few hundred thousand dollars the last two weekends for a cumulative take of 7 million. That's respectable for an ordinary documentary, and there are always DVD sales, but Expelled has been effectively exiled to the right wing media ghetto. In comparison Fahrenheit 4/11 did 24 mil its first week despite appearing in fewer theaters. While those of us on the side of modern science can celebrate what is probably the abortion of the creationist documentary genre upon its birth, those who created and backed the flick must be disappointed and a little embarrassed. The vision of a culturally defining moment that was dancing about in the heads turned out to be but a quickly forgotten whimper. It must be particularly perturbing that even the church groups did not turn out in a major way. So what went wrong?
There will be a tendency to blame the film itself. The droning Stein is no Moore or even Gore, and the production and entertainment values were not the highest according to movie critics, but if the quality of the film were the key problem then it should have done well at the start and then faded. Creationists will blame the liberal media and scientific community for obstinately refusing to acknowledge the cutting edge scientific evidence that shows there must be a Lord Creator. That too is off the mark. The real problem with Expelled is its audience, which is not all it is cracked up to be.
The demographic truth is that the creationist movement, although it has long been and remains a lot more popular than it should be, is not doing all that well these days. We can tell because Gallup has been asking a consistent set of questions on the subject for decades that allow opinion on the subject to be tracked over time. They report that those who think Adam and Eve were created a few thousand years ago has held fairly steady since the early 1980s at 43-47%. But the 43% low first occurred in 2007. Here's something that's more interesting. Those who agree with the scientific consensus that evolution occurred without a god involved in the process were 9-11% prior to the turn of the century, rose to 12-14% afterwards, and first reached the 14% high in 2007. Those who believe in human evolution either with or without the assistance of God have edged into majority status twice in the last few years. Although these statistics do not record strong trends, the Gallup surveys show that creationism is not gaining, and if anything is losing some ground to modern science. It must be all the more galling to advocates that this erosion is occurring despite their strenuous efforts to promote the pseudoscience.
Pro-Darwinian evolution is the group who think that humans evolved without the involvement of a God. The pro-human evolution cohort think that humans evolved from animals whether a God was involved or not. Young earth creationists think that humans were created by God less than 10,000 years ago by God in broad accord with the Genesis story.
Further Gallup results show some unambiguous trends, trends that have been ignored despite their astonishing sociological implications (neither Gallup or the media has done much to spread the word). In the 1970s Americans who took the Bible literally were about four in ten, nearly matching those who favor its Genesis story. Those who thought the Bible is a mixture of history and fiction were just a tenth of the general population, and only a fourth the Bible literalists. Since then the literalists have steadily sunk to between a third and a quarter, while the skeptics have risen to about one fifth of the population, nearly closing the once fourfold gap. The highest level of skepticism, 21%, occurred in 2007. At this pace Bible disbelievers should match and then outnumber literalists in the next few decades.
Let's mull this over for a moment. The religious right is supposed to have been on the rise the last few decades, and hard core creationism is supposed to stem from a literal reading of the Biblical creation story in Genesis. Yet many who tell pollsters they believe in the Adam and Eve story no longer think the Bible is absolutely true. This peculiar and growing gap is a looming disaster for creationism. Tens of millions are not deeply committed to their proclaimed belief that humans really first dwelled in the Garden of Eden circa 4000 BC — even they may sense its become rather a stretch imagining that humans were riding dinosaurs like The Flintstones. Instead creationism is for many a superficial protest against modernity. Because it is shallowly held by tens of millions, popular creationism is vulnerable to rapid collapse.
That creationist opinion can implode too much lower levels to the benefit of pro-evolution sentiment is shown by the parts of the United States where the latter is already markedly more popular than the former, such as the northeast and west coast, as well as all other advanced democracies where human evolution from animals is always supported by solid majorities. Basically, the creationists have already lost most of the western world, the only major regions they still have a strong grip on are the American Bible Belt, as well as part of western Canada. They are desperately trying to hold on to what they have left.The core reason western creationism is in trouble is the rise of nontheism. In 1st world nations higher levels of nonreligion are logically correlated with lesser levels of creationism. Although the US remains the western nation with the highest levels of creator belief, the data indicates that this is changing as America undergoes a delayed version of the process of western secularization. What survey data is available suggests that in the 1950s atheists and agnostics numbered a couple of million. Two recent Harris polls designed to overcome American's reluctance to tell pollsters they are not godly found that 60 million, a fifth of the population, now reject or doubt the existence of a supreme being. The nonreligious doubled in the last dozen years. The enormous growth of the nontheistic component explains why millions of books denouncing the hypothesis of a supernatural creator have flown off the bookshelves in the last few years. Of course, people who do not believe in a creator do not creationists make.
Meanwhile, the religious right that is the home of creationism is showing evidence that it has peaked and is waning. The largest pro-creationist church, the Southern Baptists, report that "evangelistically, the denomination is on a path of slow but discernable deterioration." This makes sense in view of the sharp and swift decline of the Bible literalism that is the core of fundamentalist thinking. Some leaders of the pro-creator right sense that they are not winning the war for the last great bastion of western creationism. Philip Johnson, the law professor who devised the "wedge strategy" intended to make creationism a powerful force in academe and in society has lamented that he no longer expects the campaign to succeed in his lifetime.
Many have tried to explain the seeming mystery of American creationism — why do so many educated folks believe in such nonsense? Actually, this is not so surprising. Gallup finds that three quarters of American's believe in something paranormal like ghosts and haunted houses, speaking to the dead, psychic powers, alien visitors and so on. The fact is that most do not care all that much about the scientific method. Never have, probably never will.
The lackadaisical attitude most Americans have towards science belies the common assumption that the culture war between creationism versus evolution is a great ideological struggle, or at least an intense public relations contest. There is a lot of hand wringing in the scientific community, for instance, that so many Americans believe in creationism because the nation's scientists are less PR savvy than creationists who are more skilled at talking to the masses. But European scientists are no better than ours at communicating with the public at large, yet in some nations across the pond up to and over 80% of the population are proevolution. What people really care about is not what those egg head scientists think. What most influences majority opinion on the existence and nature of supernatural powers is the mundane grind of people getting through their daily lives.
The causes of US creationism and its decline in the west are not mysterious. As I and other researchers are showing, the level of popular religiosity, and it follows creationism, are largely determined by long term social and economic trends and circumstances. For one thing, the materialistic corporate-consumer culture is eroding religious devotion here in the states (Energygrid.com/society/2008/01gp-religiousright.html; www.dissidentvoice.org/2008/03/buckleys-big- mistake). Even more detrimental to popular faith is the secure middle class prosperity that has been achieved in all of the politically progressive western nations (Pitzer sociologist and myself discuss this at www.edge.org/3rd_culture/paul07/paul07_ index.html). Much more vulnerable to financial disaster due to overwhelming medical bills or loss of a job, many Americans subscribe to the Prosperity Christianity whose Bible based world-view promotes creationist thinking. The effect is statistically measurable. Lower levels of income disparity are associated with the progressive socio-economic policies that increase middle class security. It follows that lower levels of income disparity are also associated with lower levels of creationist opinion. Check out the plot. It shows that the uniquely creationist US has the highest income disparity, while the most financially equitable western nations are the most in tune with modern science.
Australia, AustRia, Canada, England, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Ireland, ITaly, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, SWeden, SwitzerLand, United States.
The level of American creationism is not permanently fixed at a high level, it is subjective to radical change. Surveys by PEW and other pollsters indicate that Americans increasingly support progressive policies such as universal health coverage and job security that favor secularization over creationism. If Bible literalism continues its downwards slide as nontheism rises, then belief in an intelligent designer cannot avoid going into a strong decline. A core reality is that whatever happens socio-economics will do more than anything to determine the future level of popular creationism versus acceptance of Darwinian science, so the latter is largely beyond the control of the activities and propaganda of partisans on both sides of the culture war. And efforts like Expelled cannot change that.
Copyright © 2008 Gregory Paul