Creation/Evolution Journal

Linguistic Tendencies in Creationist Texts

Those who present creationist arguments often do so in a traditional way: this is the hypothesis I propose and suggest ways to test. Here I mean tradition in the folkloristic sense—a common set of ideas, or worldview, communicated through a common set of linguistic techniques.

I want to explore briefly some ways in which folkloristic studies can assist in the understanding of the creationist movement. This is not a Bible-as-folklore paper, as valid as that approach might be: rather, it is an analysis of creationist styles of presentation from the viewpoint of a student of folklore. The behavior defining a group of people, such as creationists, is appropriately studied by folklorists; folk traditions are normative, seeking to maintain conservative social values, and folklore studies have accrued a large body of knowledge about this process. My guiding viewpoint is that the linguistic folk tradition of creationists creates, maintains, and signals a group tradition through the use of language.

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This approach leads to many promising comparative and cross-cultural avenues of analysis; however, here I wish only to suggest a way to begin by outlining some ways to categorize creationist language and by citing some examples from creationist texts. This analysis formulates hypotheses to test in a more thorough project. In this spirit, I will draw my examples in the fashion of a case study, focusing on some pamphlets published between 1988 and 1990 by the Institute for Creation Research, including Acts & Facts and its appended pamphlets Impact and Back to Genesis. Certainly, future research should include a wider sampling of texts, including books, articles from other magazines, conversations, and performances.

There are several definitions of folklore and folk tradition ranging from the most limited, which requires strictly oral performance in small groups (see BenAmos, 1972:12), to the broad, which includes examples drawn from written texts and which I use here (see Limon and Young, 1986, for a review). Narrower definitions may blind us to overlaps, analogs, and distant kinships between various human behaviors, and so I am in the school of the broad definitions and consider printed texts as fit subjects for folklore studies. What does unite textual and oral studies is the concept of the folk group—the idea that a definable group of people use an identifiable tradition of language with its supporting themes and elements. Dundes (1980:6) interprets a folk group as any group that shares at least one common factor, such as occupation or religion.

Bauman (1972:38) discusses how folklore can be used by a folk group, either esoterically (to define the group from within) or exoterically (performed "at" other groups in order to enhance cultural differences); he reminds us that folklore can be "as much an instrument of conflict as a mechanism of contributing to social solidarity." These definitions explain both the traditional speech used in creationist texts (building social cohesion) and the themes in the texts that suggest an embattled group held at bay by outsiders (the mainstream establishment, perceived as antireligious by "insiders").

Alan Dundes introduces the most embracing and useful definition of folk traditions, which I adopt in this paper. He writes:

The genre divisions often artificially limit research. For example, a scholar may write about themes in mythology or even in a single myth and pay no attention to the occurrence of the identical themes in other genres.


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He approaches such a difficulty by defining the folk idea. To illustrate the idea, Dundes cites related utterances in American speech expressing materialistic philosophy. Such phrases as "money talks," "money isn't everything, but it helps," and "you get what you pay for" are common, traditional expressions, although they are not fixed enough in phrase to qualify as proverbs. "To the extent that such premises or ideas are traditional, I believe they are part of folklore and that they should be studied by folklorists" (1972:95).

The framework of the folk idea permits us to move between various normative linguistic behaviors to gain a larger view. Folklore is not only the behavior of small groups or a strictly oral behavior or a behavior serving entirely to build cohesiveness in society. Instead, folklore is also a linguistic behavior of large groups which share a specific idea, may present ideas for either cohesiveness or division, and can appear as either oral or textual performance.

Folklore Themes

Themes are groupings of ideas, not necessarily of specific words, and their structure can vary in the amount of richness in detail (Foley, 1988:42). For a modern example, picture the protagonist of a novel or film sitting in a bar, where he or she meets someone unexpectedly or someone who has information to impart. This must be a useful theme, because its basic structure is replicated endlessly in American literary and cinematic tradition, even if the details vary. So, too, are many other themes endlessly replicated in folklore and anecdote. "Themes" are successful organizing principles cross-culturally.

In many folk tales we encounter the theme of the isolated hero—one who is vulnerable but able to triumph over many difficulties (Luthi, 1987:128, 135). Isolated heroes are often young (an isolation of age) or socially isolated (a person of low or unusual status) (1987:136); for example, Cinderella, a young orphan, has both attributes. Heroes can be physically isolated from the comfort of their communities as well, such as an exile or a spy. We need not leave our own culture to find the theme of the isolated hero; we need only search through a few television channels or the paperback book rack for James Bond, Philip Marlow, Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter), or Ishmael (Moby Dick).

The lone hero appears also in creationist literature. One example from a news item about California's denial of the ICR's application to run its "graduate school" as a licensed institution demonstrates the rhetoric:

Having been forced into the legal arena after specializing in the academic arena for years, ICR and its scientists have become painfully aware of the ruling humanist "elite" who seemingly are bent on complete control of education.

[Acts & Facts, 1990c:l; emphasis added]

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The same pamphlet gives tribute to a deceased ICR member and participates in the language of heroism:

We will miss "Granny" for her encouragement through her own difficulty, yes, but more than that, for being a prayer warrior who faithfully took us before God's throne and did mighty battle against the powers of darkness.


Obituaries often extoll the virtues of the deceased, highlighting "good works" rather than illuminating failings, but nonreligious obituaries cite accomplishments, not "God's throne" and battles against the "powers of darkness." The appeal of the lone hero fighting against great establishment odds may be a theme characterizing the oral and literary performances of cult movements in general; I have observed similar themes in "cult archeologist" texts. The theme invokes at the same time our sympathies (aren't we all "little people" in certain contexts?) and the confidence imparted by old, proven folk tales, which in the end shows the lone hero triumphing in spite of odds—marrying the prince, slaying the monster, or finding the grail. While lone heroes are deficient creatures—parables of humanity in general (Luthi, 1987:137)—through their travails they gain help from supernatural and unlikely sources, proving that the very structure of the world is on their side. Certainly, this is a powerful theme to invoke by creationists, "witnessing" before a self-defined hostile world.

Another creationist theme concerns the way in which conflicts between hero and foe turn out. This theme often appears in "chronological" events of a verbal conflict between debators. The technique portrays one of the debators as having the "last word" in the argument. The reporter of the event tries to cite examples of arguments in which a clear winner emerges in a dramatic way, silencing foe and spectator alike with the weight of a pronouncement. (The traditional folklore genre of the proverb is designed to do this and is often a key feature in verbal disputes worldwide.) The "winning" of the debate depends more often upon the mental filter of the summaries than upon empirical data. Creationists appear to summarize debates one-sidedly. When live arguments are truly won in front of the public with thunderous (and quotable) pronouncements, such instances are retold with pleasure, becoming part of anecdotal canons. But I suspect that the "last word" is just as often a construct of narrative art, and it appears in demonstrably traditional tales. For example, the "flyting" is a literary theme in early medieval folk narratives: two people engage in ritual verbal dueling, and the winner has the last word in the argument while the loser falls conspicuously silent (Clover, 1980).

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In four pamphlets, usually in the context of reporting a debate between an ICR spokesperson and a university scientist, the pro-creationist debator is depicted as having the last word in the debate (Acts & Facts, 1988:5, 1990b:3, 1990c:4; Back to Genesis 1990b:c). In Back to Genesis, the writer recounts asking questions of an opponent; however, the opponent's answer to the last question is not recounted, and the writer closes the segment with "It was fruitless to continue the conversation, as people can justify anything, using (or misusing) the Bible, if they really want to, by taking verses out of context and applying their own interpretation, etc." If the opponent had a last word, I wonder where it went? Perhaps it was fruitless to include it (1990b:c)? A counter example to this appeared in Back to Genesis (1990a:3), where the opponent's rebuttal finishes the item.

Creationist depictions of debate are clear in the ICR pamphlets. The question is: how did the debates end in actuality? Did they indeed end as reported, with the pro-creationist debator having fairly won the position to make closing rebuttals in the majority of the debates? Or were the articles written to depict the creationist as having the traditional last word? If so, I accuse the writer of no falsehood; if only the more positive or flattering aspects of the debates were reported, no lie has been necessarily told, but the creationist writer cannot assume the mantle of neutral objectivity.

I propose that people seldom ever have the last word in a real argument. We must artificially define a cut-off point at which we say, "The argument is done. Now let's tally up the points and declare a winner." The debators might well have continued the argument after the formal session or during a question-and-answer period or at a reception. But folklore performances can be selective, presenting only a portion of a real event and a portion that potentially leads us in a less than objective direction.

One creationist theme that I find particularly interesting may indicate that the power of myth is being invoked when "founding fathers" and national origins are mentioned. For example, Impact (1988:ii) includes a discussion of teaching evolution in public schools. Among the arguments is the statement, "Science was developed largely by creationists (Newton, Kepler, Galileo, Boyle, Pascal, Ray, Maxwell, etc.). . . ." This statement may well be true, but it is also formulaic—the formula being a reference back to famous people in order to support a claim, regardless of any extenuating circumstances (for example, that the society of earlier famous men was broadly traditional and offered few socially approved opportunities to diverge from religious tradition). We might call these men founding fathers of science whose children (evolutionists?) have strayed from the certified straight and narrow path of their forefathers. This is the creationist theme, but might we not imagine that Darwin would be pleased that his ideas are still current a century after his death? Newton might take greater pleasure could he know that Einstein, among others, used his research as a foundation rather than as an end wall.

We find a second instance in the same article quoted above; the formula is more overt in this case: "The founding fathers of our country and all of our first schools were also creationist in belief." This argument fails as evidence against evolutionist thinking, but the founding-father formula—extended even to their first schools (note the quality of "firstness" in this folk idea)—is a reference back to national origins, one might say sacred origins. Thus, the formula may be associated with the power of placing mythic validity in the argument against evolution.

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Another Acts & Facts reports the success of creation seminars: "Many commented that they had never realized before the direct connection between the creation/evolution battle and the future of their family and nation" (1988:1). This is a more attenuated variation of the "mythic origins" theme, invoking family and nation, perhaps linking creationism and fundamental social structure—all related to sacred origins.

The sacred origins of a people are associated with a time of stability—the unspoiled land or "golden age" of which myths so often tell. As Abrahms writes:

Myths commonly give a framework for discussion of the contradictory elements within both the natural and social realms. To be sure, most myths attempt to provide some sense of reunification in terms of cultural or social balance. But to assume that this balance is any kind of real equilibrium is to ignore the very reason why myths must be recited periodically—because the group senses the presence of a disequilibrating force.


This is a common creationist concern: the erosion of traditional Christian values in modern society and the need to restore them. Functionally, the use of myth performances and some creationist themes are comparable. If it is supportable that founding-father formulas and associations of religion, family, and nation bring to mind sacred origins (ultimately associated with the dominant Christian underpinnings of Western society), then creationist texts may indeed share the function that mythologizing has performed throughout human culture.

Formulaic Utterances

Formulaic utterances are building blocks of tradition. They are tools for rapid and convenient composition, especially during oral communication, during which speakers must "think on their feet." Formulas live up to their name because they are systems or recipes for producing standard kinds of phrases (see Fry, 1967, discussing formulas in analogous Old English texts). The study of these building blocks is a sophisticated specialization in studies of epic oral poetry such as The Iliad and Beowulf (see Lord, 1960; Foley, 1981, 1988). However, formulas occur in less structured (at the sentence level) prose folk tales (O'Nolan, 1968), and, indeed, in everyday anecdotes and conversations. "Have a nice day" is one such formula.

Formulas occur in a great variety in human speech, but in all cases they allow modules of speech to come rapidly to the lips (or typewriter) and ease the creation of traditional texts because formulas are themselves capsules of culturally shared philosophy. The observation of formulas in a text is another step toward defining the traditional speech of cult groups, such as creationists.

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Table 1

ICR pamphlets reveal examples of apparent formulas in the creationist tradition. I have selected here related phrases that occur more than once. Interestingly, such phrases seem to be more common in news items describing debates between scientists and creationists and in items of sermonistic tone. Items that more directly present basic information, such as upcoming conventions, are devoid of these phrases. Also, items that are, or pretend to be, scientific articles seem devoid of the formulas (these articles use traditional scientific voice—that is, the passive voice). The sources of the phrases, as well as additional phrases occurring only once but in the same tone (one can use them as targets during future searching), are listed in Table 1 (see also Table 2).

Note that the formulas are not usually word-for-word copies of each other. Some amount of variation can exist as long as the major concepts are collocated to form a traditional system. Further studies of formulas will enable us to characterize better the building blocks of "cult" language to compare with other cult groups and to general conversational and journalistic styles. This approach can be both taxonomic and semantic, because the phrases themselves are capsules of meaning, signaling dominant strands in a text.

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Table 2

I have mentioned a few of the many possible topics that a folkloric approach to creationist texts involves. My research has just begun but already suggests several areas of comparison between creationist texts and folk tradition. Besides development of topics outlined here, the relation between creationist texts and specific genres of folklore should be explored. For instance, the genre of the legend is known worldwide and cuts across many areas, even within multifaceted American society. One of the traits of legends is the inclusion of pseudoscience to explain strange events; we might liken this trait to the flawed use of science in some creationist arguments. I also urge comparisons with other cultural movements, such as the "cult archeologists" (see Cole, 1980; Harrold and Eve, 1987), whose use of language is in many ways similar to that of creationists. Such comparisons will help us define the general traits of cult language and understand better the forces that move a group of people to define themselves against a mainstream society. Such a study will serve as a microscope—a special kind, one that we can use from either end. Cult groups are certainly not the only groups with traditions; so-called establishment society has its own traditions and folklore and can learn about itself from the people who set themselves apart from or challenge it.

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By Wade Tarzia
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