Is Creationism Racist?

I grew up reading copious amounts of literature from Answers in Genesis and attending conferences where Ken Ham and other leading creationists were speakers. I’ve been to the Creation Museum, and I’ve been reading Answers in Genesis’ Answers Magazine for close to a decade now. And one thing that was drilled into me over and over again is that racism is rooted in the theory of evolution and that creationism, which teaches that all humans are descended from Adam and Eve, is the antidote to evolution.

One Blood: The Biblical Answer to Racism is Ken Ham’s contribution to efforts to mend racial prejudice, and I do think Ham is genuine in his efforts. He believes that the understanding that all humans are descended from Adam and Eve, and ultimately from Noah’s three sons, is what is needed to curb racism. He also believes that the roots of racism are found in the theory of evolution, and that it was this theory of the races that inspired such atrocities as the Holocaust. Ham’s ideas – that racism stems from evolution and that creationism is the antidote – are echoed by other prominent creationists, including creationist heavyweight Henry Morris. I grew up reading this literature and firmly rejecting both (overt) racism and the theory of evolution.

Here is an image from the Creation Museum, an image which describes a theory of human origins that I accepted as gospel truth until college:

I was taught, and Answers in Genesis teaches, that Africans are the descendants of Ham, that Europeans are the descendants of Japheth, and that Asians and Middle Easterners are the descendants of Shem. I’m not surprised, then, to learn that some public school classrooms in Texas are using creationist textbooks that contain the following image:

Growing up in a Christian homeschool family, the textbooks we used for subjects like history and science were suffused with religion, and this theory of racial origins is exactly what I was taught – and what Answers in Genesis teaches. What I didn’t realize, and what Answers in Genesis seems weirdly oblivious to, is that this biblical theory of racial origins is actually, well, racist. Somehow this flew over my head growing up – which is weird, given my familiarity with the Bible – but the story of Noah’s three sons is not somehow equal or without preference or value judgment.

Genesis 9: 18-27

The sons of Noah who came out of the ark were Shem, Ham and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) These were the three sons of Noah, and from them came the people who were scattered over the earth.

Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard. When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s nakedness. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father’s nakedness.

When Noah awoke from his wine and found out what his youngest son had done to him, he said,

“Cursed be Canaan!

The lowest of slaves

will he be to his brothers.”

He also said,

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem!

May Canaan be the slave of Shem.

May God extend the territory of Japheth;

may Japheth live in the tents of Shem,

and may Canaan be his slave.”

“The curse of Ham” was used by antebellum Americans as a justification for slavery. Africans, after all, were descended from Ham, and Ham was cursed by God and ordered to serve his brothers Shem and Japheth. (For more background, I highly recommend Sylvester Johnson’s The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity: Race, Heathens, and the People of God.) In other words, in spite of what Answers in Genesis maintains, racism both long predates the theory of evolution and has frequently sprung from the Bible and from the creation account itself.

Am I saying that the theory of evolution has never been used to justify racism? Of course not. Am I saying that modern creationists are of necessity racist? Not at all. What I am saying is that Answers in Genesis’ insistence that racism stems from the theory of evolution and that creationism is automatically anti-racist is both overly simplistic and factually incorrect. While I am very glad Ham wants to combat racism, I don’t think he completely understands that he is working to do so by promoting a theory of origins – that all men descend from Shem, Ham, and Japheth – that has long been seeped in racism. While this idea may hold no racist implications for him, it does for many others, especially in the American South.

(After writing the above I read this excerpt from One Blood, and I suddenly wonder if I am giving Ham too much of the benefit of the doubt. I clearly need to reread the book. Ham argues that “the curse of Ham” was actually only meant to be a curse on Canaan, but he somehow does that without making things much better at all.)

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Tracey

    It sounds then, like racism stems from racism, and people just use the verses they like to become the metaphor they want. I never got any racial messages at all from religion growing up. More on this topic would interest me. For example: I’ve been told many of the verses about light and darkness are/were taken to refer to skin tone.

  • Bre

    Seems like a pretty big fuss over drinking a bit too much wine and falling asleep with your pants off. I mean, seeing your father’s nakedness doesn’t seem like such a big deal to me; most kids see their dads getting out of the shower or barge into their parents’ without knocking once in a while. Cursing and slavery seems a little harsh- I’d have advised only having two glasses of wine and reminding your sons to knock next time.

    • ki sarita

      Note that as off as the biblical version is, color is never mentioned.

    • Ahab

      Some have interpreted Ham seeing Noah’s nakedness as a euphemism for sexual abuse, so Noah’s anger in the story could have stemmed from his son violating him while he was incapacitated. Still, it makes no sense to punish Ham’s descendants (who did nothing wrong) for something Ham did.

      • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

        Um. The entire Biblical story is about punishing Adam and Eve’s descendants for something that they did.

      • Stony

        But let’s be a KJV literalist for this argument, since it’s fitting…. All that occurred per the text is that Ham saw his father uncovered. That’s it, full stop. So few words, so much damage.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Well yeah, ancient Middle Eastern societies had vastly different social taboos than 21st century Western ones. (Surprise!) I’ve read that seeing another person fully naked really WAS a big deal in that place and time and, actually, this is still somewhat true in a lot of Middle Eastern cultures. The first time I was in Israel, another American woman I knew there was dismayed and embarrassed to get a major tongue-lashing from a bunch of old Palestinian ladies in the locker room at the Dead Sea–she had stripped completely naked while changing and didn’t realize that, to these women, that is something you NEVER do, even though she had thought nothing of it, since she was with all women. So it’s not surprising that, in these stories, people would make a big, big deal about things that don’t seem like that big a deal to us. What’s silly is acting like these social taboos that are specific to certain cultures at certain times need to be maintained for all people in all times.

      • Anat

        Revealing nakedness is the standard biblical expression for having illicit sex. The standard Hebrew term for incest translates literally as ‘exposure of nakedness’ -that’s how it is used to this day.

        Still, even if Ham raped his father or castrated him or whatever, there is no reason to punish anyone but Ham himself.

  • The_L

    I just noticed a major flaw with the charts that is equally racist: Unless “Oriental races” is somehow supposed to include more than just Asian people, those charts consistently leave out the aboriginal peoples of Australia and the Americas. The phrase “Oriental races” is also pretty racist in itself–what’s wrong with just “Asian peoples?”

    • Ahab

      You stole my thunder. I was just about to comment on how the chart leaves out a lot of racial and ethnic groups: Australian aboriginal people, Pacific Islanders, Ainu, Native Americans/First Nations, etc.

      I too disliked how the chart lumps “oriental” people into one homogenous category, ignoring Asia’s dizzying diversity. India and China alone have dozens of different ethnic groups.

  • TheSeravy

    So because Ham saw his father naked or didn’t cover his father like his two other brothers did he is cursed? Petty much? And this is supposed to be the most righteous man on earth pre-flood?

  • Eamon Knight

    I once saw an ICR video in which Henry Morris, having spouted the usual evolution-causes-racism line, continued (not verbatim): “Some people will blame racism on Southern fundamentalism, but no, it was really evolution….”. Talk about historical revisionism!
    More on Henry Morris et al w.r.t. racism here:

  • Sean

    Darwin was highly motivated by abolitionist thought. He never owned slaves and hated the practice after seeing it on his Beagle journey. One of his hopes was that racism and slavery would end when people realized that everyone on the planet was related. Here’s a good article on it:

    • Lucreza Borgia

      Darwin often gets blamed for the work of the idiots who were influenced by him. The rise of nationalism and imperialism didn’t help either.

  • smrnda

    The problem is that evolution also teaches that we are all descended from a common ancestor, and has led us to realize that ‘race’ is a social construct and that biologically, ‘racial differences’ are not that significant.

    If you believe that it matters a great deal who you are descended from because of some blessing or curse, then you’ve got a recipe for racism right there – the idea that people should be judged not as individuals but as part of groups, and collective guilt and punishment of races of people and their descendants is an idea that’s all over the Bible.

    • ecolt

      Not only that, but we are descended from an original population that lived in Africa. If anything, evolution teaches that racism is absurd because all populations originally came from Africa.

  • Sam

    Here’s a flaw in the Creationist thought process that I never really thought of before. If humanity split because the languages are confused at Babel, why do these charts always show them splitting based on family? Why assume that the descendents of Shem all ended up with the same language, or the descendants of Ham, or of Japheth? Did they migrate based on language, or on family identity?

    • “Rebecca”

      This never made sense to me either. Shem, Ham, and Japheth split off with their families after the flood… then got back together at Babel and split off again?

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Is there any way he can really NOT know that? That seems like pretty well-known historical fact to me. I learned it in 8th grade English class, reading Frederick Douglass’ autobiography! I can see it being the kind of thing that homeschooled kids would be sheltered from but is that his personal background? Reeks of intellectual dishonesty to me. He is write that early evolutionary science was frequently used to justify racism, especially in America. (“Polygenism” anybody?) But to follow up that assertion by referencing the belief about Africans being descended of Ham? I really could not believe my eyes. That is some chutzpah.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      er, he is RIGHT. My brain’s not working today.

    • Eamon Knight

      Creationism in toto reeks of intellectual dishonesty, and Ken Ham is one of the worst offenders.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Yeah, but that really takes the cake. It is just such blatant revisionism of very recent, well-documented history.

    • Emma

      Polygeny? IIRC, isn’t that the idea that non-white people weren’t descended from the the Biblical Adam and Eve, and instead had some other ancestor(s)? That’s really an example of Biblical interpretations justifying racism, not evolutionary theory.

      A much, MUCH better example of evolutionary theory being used to justify racism would be social Darwinism and eugenics.

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Polygenism is simply the belief that the different races have different origins and don’t share a common ancestor. Strains of this belief HAVE been present in Christianity for a long time (although not mainstream) but there have also been secular versions. I was referring to scientific polygenism, which was mainstream in the American scientific community in the mid-19th century and became very influential in the international scientific community. (USA! USA!) The theory was that there were 4 “races” and that they were actually different species.

        Social Darwinism and eugenics are, of course, also great examples of evolutionary (ish) theory being used to justify racism but I just wanted to bring up an antebellum example because it was contemporary with the “curse of Ham” idea being used to justify slavery.

      • Ed Darrell

        “Social Darwinism” isn’t based on Darwin’s work or theory. It was first propounded by the sociologist Herbert Spencer, and it actually pre-dates Darwin by a significant chunk of a decade. Darwin himself regarded Spencer’s claims, that the poor are poor because they are inferior, and the rich, rich because they are superior, as blasphemy on religion, science and common sense. Darwin never subscribed so “social Darwinism.”

        Racism is similarly a distortion of Darwin’s theory and, as someone so nicely pointed out, completely contrary to Darwin’s personal beliefs and actions, and his extended family’s actions. So is eugenics. While Darwin’s nephew joined in the 19th century eugenics movement, Darwin didn’t. Darwin wisely noted that nature seems to do better on most issues without human interference.

        Racism and class bigotry existed long before Darwin was even born. Racists and bigots constantly strive to find some scientific basis for their bigotry. That does not reflect badly on the underlying science, or shouldn’t.

        I’ve written about the racism, Darwin and creationism issues at my blog:

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        I don’t think anybody is arguing that social Darwinism is a misunderstanding and a misapplication of the idea of evolution. But it is an example of a scientific idea being exploited to support racism.

        But yeah, of course racism predates Darwinism. If anything is responsible for racism, it’s probably greed. Cultural chauvinism, demonizing the “Other”,and in-group/out-group thinking are certainly nothing new to the human condition but the actual idea of “race” as we know it today pretty much developed with the rise of the African slave trade. (Slave societies had existed everywhere for thousands of years, but not the idea that a specific type of people had an innate slave nature that you could see by looking at them.) There needed to be SOME ideology to justify all the piles of money that the ruling class was making and they enlisted anything they could in that justification–religion, science, whatever worked. (That’s a very simplistic re-telling but close enough.)

  • Shira

    OK, I’ll admit I’m being petty and juvenile here but… has Ken Ham considered changing his NAME???

  • Hilary

    And may I add the observation of a side order of anti-semitism? Jews are a race – hnuh? Every other group listed on that chart are at least distinct ethnic groups, ie it’s possible for Western Euros, Africans and Orientals to all be Chrsitians, but Jews are seperated from all that. I know it’s not advertised much, but people can convert to Judaism, and deconvert and leave, I’ve got both in my family.

    There’s something hinky here – I’m going to come back to this later. How come Jews aren’t part of ‘semetic people’?


    • Charlotte

      I suppose you could consider Jewish people an “ethno-religious group”, that’s not the same as a race though.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Well, “races” are social constructs anyway. Considering the vast number of ethnic groups in Africa, even just sub-Saharan Africa, (hell even just relatively small regions within sub-Saharan Africa), there really isn’t any more of a case for Africans being a “race” than there is for Jews. The case, for both, would be that they have historically been considered to be a race and treated as one. People decided that they constituted a “race” and that’s the only thing that makes any group a racial group, since race is something people made up anyway. I would personally say that Jews CAN be considered a race, in the sense that they can and have be victims of racism although, for Jews, this isn’t nearly as true as it used to be. (I think now it would be more correct to refer to us as an ethnic group, since ethnicity is a more complex mixture of ancestry, culture, shared history etc. and is actually somewhat based on self-identity not externally applied labels) Races change over time, depending on where people decide to draw the lines in the sand in their own societies.

      Of course, this is my perspective from studying the philosophy and sociology of race, which I’m just guessing that Ken Ham has not. He is, of course, actually completely buying into the social construction of race by setting aside the Jews as a separate race. My mom is 100% Ashkenazi Jewish, so I guess that make her a child of Shem. Except Ashkenazim are actually a mix of Semitic, Slavic and Germanic ancestry. So that would technically make them descendants of Shem AND Japheth, although they are most definitely Jewish and the Jews are most definitely not descended from Japheth, according to account. Where are we supposed to put them! lol. Where do we put all the other groups that are also frequently of very mixed ancestry? (Chicanos etc.)

      Trying to use ethnic and racial labels to discuss genetic ancestry, and then trace it to only 3 sources, is an inherently stupid task. There’s no way to do it without being reductionist and offensive.

      • Rilian

        My dictionary says that an ethnic group is a group of people who share a common language, culture, race, or national origin. Soo.. it’s basically just any group of people who choose to identify as a group of some kind. Or maybe don’t even choose. whaaa.
        What does “white” mean anyway? I am really light-skinned, but not everyone in my family is. Does it mean you’re from europe? Because I’m from america and I have no idea where my ancestors are from.
        When some form asks for my race, I decline to answer. I don’t know if that’s really the best thing or not.

  • Sarah-Sophia

    Racism was present before Darwin wrote the Origin of the Species, so it is wrong to blame evolution for causing racism. It actually a culture of white males twisting the Bible and/or science to justify why they are the ones who should automatically to be the leader and make all the decisions.

  • Bob Jase

    Funny, from reading the bible I got the idea that ‘chosen people’ were special races long before Darwin was born.

  • alexf801

    I can’t help but notice how the cursed son is the primogenitor of the supposed lesser races.
    And that there are far more linguistic-ethnic groups in the world then are listed.
    Western Eurpoeans? What does that even mean? Are Germans western? I thought the germanic tribes invaded around the fall of Rome. I assume that Eastern European ethnic groups don’t count or he considers them to be the result of mixed breeding.

    Of course Caucasian as a term for whites is also horribly incorrect. Gerogians, Armenians don’t speak an indo european language. If anything in the US they would be mistaken for hispanic or arabic although they certainly are not.

  • ButchKitties

    Evolution is descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s an observable fact that nature is red in tooth and claw, but that doesn’t mean people should be.

    I never really got how biological evolution supports racism. A master race would lead to a homogenous society, and excessive homogeneity is weakness. Cavendish bananas are all pretty much genetically identical to each other, and they’re so prone to disease and infestation that they might become unfit for widespread cultivation in just a few decades. Genetic disease is rampant in purebred dogs. Traits that are adaptive in one environment could be maladaptive in another. There’s no guarantee that a trait that’s maladaptive now will always be so, excepting for the ones that kill you before maturation. The best safeguard against all these vulnerabilities isn’t a master race; it’s genetic diversity. The more diversity, the better.

    • Ed Darrell

      “Red in tooth and claw.”

      Nasty view of nature? Perhaps. Either way, it’s not Darwin. Tennyson.

      This has the sound of a proverbial phrase which might come from the Bible or from Shakespeare. Search the Bible for ‘tooth’ and you’ll find little other than ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’. Shakespeare comes a little closer and refers to ‘an adders’ tooth’, ‘a serpent’s tooth’ and even to an animal with claws – ‘a mad dog’s tooth’. The line is in fact much more recent than either of those sources and comes from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H., 1850. The quotation comes in Canto 56 (it is a very long poem) and refers to man:

      Who trusted God was love indeed
      And love Creation’s final law
      Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
      With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

      A phrase from poetry, not Darwin, and predating Darwin’s publication of Origin of Species by nine years.

      • ButchKitties

        I never said it was a Darwin quote.

  • Sue Blue

    I never understood where they got the idea that all the different “races” descended from Noah’s sons. Nowhere in the bible are any “races” other than Africans (Nubians), and Semitic caucasians ever mentioned (a tell-tale indicator of the provincial nature of the Bible’s authors); furthermore, this idea implies evolution in that all of Noah’s sons would have been the same as Noah with regard to inherited ethnic traits. For their descendants to end up with all of the varying appearances people have today in just a few thousand years, natural and sexual selection (eeevilution!!!!) had to be working overtime!
    No matter what these creationist idiots do, they just can’t get away from the fact that change – drastic change – has happened over time to all species, including humans. I’ve never understood why they think it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that all 5 to 10 million species extant today descended from a few animals on a boat within a few thousand years, but it’s ridiculous to assert that the same changes took over hundreds of millions of years. In the case of human “races”, it’s well-established from archaeological and fossil evidence that at the purported time of Noah’s Flood, humans were well-established on every continent and that racial characteristics were already present.

  • Plunderb

    I’ve always found the argument that racism had its origins in the theory of evolution bizarre. Like there was no racism before the 1850s? Bonkers.

  • Kate

    Wait, I thought the “curse” of dark skin came from the Mark of Cain?

  • Joy

    “Ham argues that “the curse of Ham” was actually only meant to be a curse on Canaan, ”

    Now there’s some fine name confusion. I was wondering why Ham was arguing about his own curse. And now I’m hungry.

  • Rilian

    I don’t get it. What did ham do?

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      It made it really hard to stop eating it once you’ve started. Duh, the Curse of Ham!

  • mostlylurking

    So the evolutionary theory that all humans, indeed all life, are descended from a common ancestor = racism, but dividing humans i three “races”, one of them cursed with slavery = no-racism? ooookay… Nope, I really, really don’t buy that.

    And eugenics and social-Darwinism has absolutely zero to do with the theory of evolution. As mentioned above, evolution is descriptive, not prescriptive. It is simply a natural process. Eugenics is the opposite of natural selection, and quite often its proponents were staunchly opposed to the theory of evolution. Darwin most certainly is not to blame!

    The mis-named philosophy of social-Darwinism has nothing to do with evolution either, but is rather a vile ideology based on a complete misunderstanding of what the theory of evolution actually say. “The survival of the fittest” is a quite misleading summary of evolution. It is all about leaving descendants, who go on to have descendants, not about being the strongest, fastest or prettiest necessarily. Variety is indeed the spice of life.

  • Ed Darrell

    To anyone familiar with the history of Charles Darwin, the idea that racism is rooted in evolution theory is not just erroneous, but completely bolluxed up. Indeed, one could more easily and more accurately construct the real history, which suggests strongly that Darwin’s anti-racism played a huge role in his understanding of nature and development of theory.

    A rule of thumb I have found to work well over the years: If a creationist claims it, it’s wrong.

  • Steve

    The Mormons also used the “curse of ham” to discriminate against non-whites. Then they wanted to expand in Southern America and realized that this wouldn’t go over so well there and suddenly the “prophet” had a revelation from god

  • MNb

    I’m not sure if all creationists are racists, but it’s obvious that lots of racists are creationists. Take a look:

  • Sue Blue

    I’ve never been to Ken Ham’s ridiculous “Creation Museum” but I’ve seen pictures and video – and it appears to me that all the humans displayed in his Garden of Eden are pretty Caucasian-looking. This struck me as racist right away – Ham appears to be saying that the first humans were Caucasian (white), thus implying that all other races came later as a result of sin. Oddly, nobody seems to be bothered by this implication in any of the videos or commentaries that I’ve seen. Is such racism so common among creationists that it’s not even noticed?

    • Libby Anne

      You’re right, they are fairly Caucasian-looking. Technically, they’re supposed to be mixed. The argument is that they have diverse genes, and that all the races descended from them as people lost certain of the genes. Except that this makes no sense. Diverse genes exist in diverse populations, not an individual person or couple. I guess they just haven’t figured this out yet. :-P

      • Christine

        Of course they’re Caucasian-looking. They’re not supposed to be any one race, so how else coudl you make them look, without them having a race? See also the Canadian $100 polymer bill…

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Um, white isn’t a race?

      • Christine

        And that was the source of most of the controversy and head-shaking over the new $100 note. The official reaction was to replace the Asian-looking scientist with a “generic” woman (because scientist = Asian sparked worries about stereotypes in the focus groups). Said “generic” woman looked Caucasian. It makes sense, given that Canada is mostly Caucasian, so that would be seen as “normal”, therefore neutral. But it’s a good example of not checking your privilege. I really doubt that sort of thing was on the radar when the Creation Museum was designed.

      • Sue Blue

        It reminds me of the northern European-looking Jesus picture that always hung in my childhood church – as if God had decided that a Scandinavian Son would be just the thing for Iron Age Palestinian society. All the characters in my childhood Bible story books were light-skinned with European features too – even the Midianites, whom the Bible describes as noticeably darker than the Hebrews, were just depicted with dark hair. All the “bad” characters were swarthy-looking; Mary the mother of Jesus was light-skinned, fair-haired and blue-eyed while Mary Magdalene was much darker…until she started hanging with Jesus and pals. Then she suddenly looked a lot “whiter”. And, as if that wasn’t enough racist indoctrination, I also got the full “sons of Ham” and Tower of Babel stories from the earliest Sabbath school days. What I can’t believe is how normal it all seemed and how nobody questioned it. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I really noticed it.

  • Brian Forbes

    For as famous as he is, you’d think that at least one person in this thread would have read Josephus. He explains all of this in his work. From the settling of tribes in their specific locations to the separation of languages by families (it was God’s doing)… it’s all there. Read it.

    As to diversity, it was greater with the first generation than with the second. As families became secluded, the inbreeding did its work. Believe it or not; it’s your choice. Esau had hair like a goat on his arm.

    • Anat

      There are better ways of investigating the origins of modern languages than relying on folk tales.