Creationism today

Contemporary creationists are a diverse bunch. Protestant Christian fundamentalists tend to be what are known as young earth creationists, who believe that the Genesis account is literally true (indeed, that only the King James Version of Genesis is literally true: all other translations, in their view, lack the divine inspiration of their preferred version) and that there was a single act of divine creation a little over six thousand years ago, during the course of which the entire universe was created in six days. Old earth creationists also believe that there was one single act of divine creation but that this occurred billions of years ago, as suggested by science, although they do not accept that species can evolve over time. Both these types of creationist are very keen on so-called out-of-place artefacts (supposedly anomalous archaeological discoveries) – though for different reasons. Young earth creationists like to use these artefacts (or pieces of evidence for modern humans in early geological strata) as proof that Adam was created on the sixth day and that humans have consequently been around since the earliest moments of earth’s history a mere six thousand years ago. To old earth creationists, they are evidence that people were created in a sixth age, millions of years ago, but shortly after all other land animals.

Day-Age creationists and Gap creationists also believe that the earth is billions of years old, but the former believe that the seven ‘days’ mentioned in Genesis were actually seven very long ages, while the latter believe that there were long gaps of millions of years between the days of creation, each of which lasted precisely twenty-four hours. These creationists also reject the evolution of living things. The former can be criticised for altering the interpretation of their religious texts to fit the evidence, the latter for failing to account for the gradual changes observable in fossil species.

Proponents of creationism often fall for the ‘either-or fallacy’: they believe that by discrediting Darwin and the theory of evolution, their alternative must therefore be true. The efficacy of evolution has no bearing on the efficacy of Christian accounts of creationism.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes trial
Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes trial

Creation vs Evolution in the US classroom: the 1925 Scopes Trial

In the USA, matters first came to a head in July 1925, when John Thomas Scopes (1900-1970), a young biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, was prosecuted for contravening the state’s Butler’s Act. This Act forbade the teaching of “any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals”. Leading the debate on the side of the prosecution was William Jenings Bryan (1860-1925), a former Secretary of State and failed presidential candidate, while the defence was in the hands of a prominent intellectual lawyer, Clarence Darrow (1857-1938). During the trial, the biblical literalist position was shown to be absurd as Darrow questioned Bryan about the Book of Genesis, but this was no defence, as Scopes had undeniably taught evolution, in contravention of state law. He was inevitably found guilty and fined a token sum of $100; Bryan died just five days after the conclusion of the trial, although his death was obviously not connected with it.

John Thomas Scopes, 1900-1970
John Thomas Scopes, 1900-1970

The Scopes trial attracted professional and public attention. Intellectual heavyweights such as H L Mencken were dismayed by the actions and thoughts of their fellow Americans. Mencken’s report for the Baltimore Evening Sun on 19 June demonstrated a pessimistic and weary disdain for the creationists. He wrote: “The so-called religious organizations which now lead the war against the teaching of evolution are nothing more, at bottom, than conspiracies of the inferior man against his betters. They mirror very accurately his congenital hatred of knowledge, his bitter enmity to the man who knows more than he does, and so gets more out of life.”

Popular opposition to evolution remained high and as a result, most American textbooks made little or no mention of evolution until the early 1960s, a situation unthinkable in Europe. By then, though, it had become apparent that if American children were to have an understanding of biology that would enable some of them to develop into mature biological scientists, then they would need to be taught evolution as part of the school science curriculum. Even so, the early 1960s also saw the beginning of a revival of creationist beliefs as part of a resurgence of fundamentalist and evangelical sects. The Genesis Flood, by John Clement Whitcomb (1927-) and Henry Madison Morris (1918-2006), sparked renewed interest in creationism and remains today a very important text among creationists.

The Creation Research Society was founded in 1963 and publishes The Creation Research Society Quarterly, a peer-reviewed journal that gives an outlet for the writings of creationists who are unable to publish their papers in mainstream scientific journals. The Institute for Creation Research was founded in 1970, also to promote creationism. Thanks to their activities, which include seminars across the US and Canada, tours of the Grand Canyon, numerous publications, broadcasting a weekly radio program, encouraging local pressure groups and providing expert witnesses for court cases, creationists were able to bring a number of cases to court in the early 1980s. They were designed to challenge the teaching of evolution in science classes, demanding that equal time be spent teaching the biblical account of creation.

Thus, Arkansas State Law 590 was passed in 1981 and it made the teaching of Christian creationism (in its Protestant fundamentalist form) obligatory as part of the science curriculum in publicly funded schools, with equal time to be given to evolution. An action was mounted by concerned parents and scientists to overturn the law, which was declared unconstitutional as it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which forbids the use of public money in promoting any particular religion or religious belief to the detriment or exclusion of others. A similar Creationism Act was passed in Louisiana, which required that either both or neither evolution and creationism be taught in schools. Again, a number of parents, teachers and religious leaders challenged the Act’s constitutionality and won an injunction that was confirmed by the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court.

By the end of the 1980s, creationism therefore seemed to be a spent force. However, in the 1990s, it once again made considerable gains in the United States and Australia, thanks to promotion by fundamentalist sects, even though it made little impact elsewhere. The neo-conservative political climate of the George Bush senior administration in particular brought people with fundamentalist religious beliefs into positions of influence both in state legislatures and at a federal level. American creationists adopted a new strategy, attempting to persuade school boards to demand that equal time be given to scientific evidence against evolution rather than teaching a specifically religious account in science classes. In this way, they could claim that the motivation was not religious but scientific, encouraging critical thinking in students; it would not, therefore, violate the First Amendment. This approach worried many scientists, who were concerned that teachers and students might well be unable to recognise that many supposed pieces of evidence undermining the theory of evolution by natural selection are pseudoscience or even deliberate falsifications, and are easily refuted. Another technique has been to persuade teachers to describe what they see as inadequacies in the theory of evolution, such as the supposed lack of transitional species and the improbability of living matter evolving out of non-living matter. Needless to say, the former argument is false and there are numerous transitional forms in the fossil record, whilst the theory of abiogenesis (how life can develop from dead matter) is irrelevant to the truth or fallacy of evolution.

Pope John Paul II, 1920-2005
Pope John Paul II, 1920-2005

In 1996, the conservative Pope John Paul II (Karol Józef Wojtyła 1920-2005; Pope 1979-2005) sent a formal statement to the Pontifical Academy of Science stating that “fresh knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis”. As a result, it is now official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church that evolution has taken place and that it is part of the divine order of the universe. Developments in the Roman Catholic Church, of course, do not affect fundamentalists…

In 1999, Christian fundamentalist members of the Kansas state school board voted to change the state’s science education policy so that there would no longer be a requirement to test students on their knowledge of evolution. The purpose was to stop evolution being taught in that state, as teachers are disinclined to teach topics that their students will not be tested on. The state Governor criticised the decision, which was widely ridiculed by many in the media and sciences. The election of autumn 2000 saw most of the school board members who had supported the creationist agenda replaced and in 2001, the board overturned its 1999 decision. Nevertheless, creationists continue to lobby school boards and state legislatures, with well organised and well funded institutions to provide literature and expert testimony.

Intelligent Design and the Dover trial

During the 1990s, another attempt was made by creationists to ensure that their views would be taught in American science classes through a ruse called Intelligent Design. According to its proponents, this is a purely scientific hypothesis that uses information theory (among other things) to demonstrate that various aspects of the universe are so complex that they could not have arisen by accident. The only alternative, according to Intelligent Design theorists is that there is a Designer, operating outside the laws that govern either life on earth at the small scale or the operation of the cosmos on the large scale. At the time of a high profile Creationist case (Edwards v Aguillard) in 1987, the Foundation for Thought and Ethics was working on an early draft of Of Pandas and People and quickly appreciated that it could no longer be published as an overtly creationist textbook. A simple word-processor was used to replace all references in the text to ‘creationism’ with ‘intelligent design’ and shamelessly pretended that Intelligent Design was a completely new hypothesis, deriving from scientific work rather than religious authority.

The new movement focused around four individuals: the lawyer Philip Johnson, the mathematician William Dembski, the biochemist Michael Behe and the philosopher of science Stephen Meyer. It came into existence formally in 1993, following a conference at Pajaro Dunes (California, USA), which unusually required no profession of faith, unlike similar creationist conferences. It was at the conference that Michael Behe first presented his hypothesis of ‘irreducible complexity’, the idea that certain biological features could not have evolved in stages because each piece needs to be in place for the structure to function – the creationist’ tired argument about “what use is half an eye?”. Behe’s 1996 Darwin’s Black Box then launched the idea of Intelligent Design and around the same time, the ultra-conservative Discovery Institute, based in Seattle (Washington, USA), established a new division, known as The Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (it soon dropped ‘the Renewal of’ as it was too obviously religiously inspired) to promote Intelligent Design.

Although the work of the Center for Science and Culture is supposed to be non-religious, it is largely funded by religious organisations, its members are mostly fundamentalist protestant christians and in the leaked 1998 ‘Wedge Document’, its religious aims are made explicit. The stated aims in the field of evolution, though, are to present challenges to Darwin’s hypothesis of common descent with modification by natural selection for all living things. To do this, the Center began persuading activists to petition local school boards to (in its own phrase) “teach the controversy”; in other words, to bring evidence into the classroom that would undermine Darwinian natural selection and indicate special creation for certain biological features (and, indeed, life itself). In 2004, the Dover (Pennsylvania, USA) school board passed a motion that students “will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design”. In December, a group of concerned parents mounted a legal challenge to the board’s amendment to the curriculum.

The trial took place during the autumn of 2005 and the shambolic performance of the expert witnesses for Intelligent Design did much to discredit the movement. Worse for them, it was abundantly clear throughout the trial that their motivation was purely religious, that the school board had understood Intelligent Design to be a synonym for creationism and that by requiring science departments to teach Intelligent Design in biology lessons violated the constitutional amendment preventing the state from sponsoring a particular religious viewpoint.

One of the expert witnesses was Steve Fuller, a professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. His involvement in the Dover Trial presents something of a challenge to those denouncing Bad Archaeology. Fuller’s work predominantly examines social epistemology from an overtly post-modernist standpoint. Social epistemology may seem like a complicated piece of academic-speak but it really relates to how and why knowledge is created and ratified. Some scientific theories, methods and individuals are legitimised by the powerful establishment in academia and politics. Social epistemology seeks to understand how knowledge can be legitimised or marginalised. Fuller’s involvement as an expert witness for the creationists (here is a PDF of his submission) actually worked in favour of the scientists. This could be because the judge was incapable of comprehending the difficult philosophical principles at stake. Alternatively (and more plausibly), he could well have dismissed it as a load of rubbish!

As a result of the trial, Intelligent Design is now seen for what it is: a poorly disguised attempt to re-brand creationism. It has also made the movement appear ridiculous and it remains to be seen if it will ever recover from this deserved ignominy.

9 Replies to “Creationism today”

  1. I find it ironic that your site is dedicated to the inadequacies and failures of archaeologists, yet you seem to have no problem with inadequate and inaccurate explanations. Your dismissal of every anomaly, often based solely on your opinion that it simply can’t be true, amuses me. But since that is not the point I wish to make here, I will leave that for another time. At this time, I would like to address your statements about Protestant Creationists. Though I know that there are young-earth creationists who take a “King-James only” approach, the fact is that many do not. Many creationists, young-earth or other, prefer to look at the texts from which the KJV and other translations were made. The evidence against evolution (and the enormous lack of evidence for it – can you say “intermediate fossils”) is far from pseudo-science. Pseudo-science is claiming that a fossil is a transitional creature (like the Tiktaalik) while living examples of similar species exist (walking catfish and northern snakehead). And you should also be aware that there is a growing number of scientists who embrace a young earth belief. And yes, they are real scientists, from nearly every field of science, and many (most?) have degrees from secular universities which neither embrace nor teach the Bible as truth. Many of them work in traditional (secular) settings, and have papers published in secular scientific journals (of course, not papers giving evidence for creation – the secular scientists would not allow that [Richard Lewontin has admitted that parts of evolution are absurd, but must be adhered to because “we cannot allow a Divine foot in the door.”]) How’s that for “real” science? So to re-cap – you are being hypocritical when you insist that archaeology be without flaw while your own arguments are riddled with flaws. It is inconsistent to claim that creationists are guilty of pseudo science while denying the glaring anti-scientific statements made by secular scientists. Please, do some homework before writing, or be prepared to be corrected frequently.

    1. Heather

      Thanks for your comments: I appreciate even negative comments, as they help me explain things when I respond to them, as I am responding to you.

      When you write “I find it ironic that your site is dedicated to the inadequacies and failures of archaeologists”, it tells me that you really haven’t understood what the site is about. My biggest problem is with people who are not archaeologists yet feel confident to pronounce on archaeological matters without a proper knowledge of the subject. Would you trust a surgeon who had never bothered to undertake the necessary training? Of course not.

      Am I meant to be insulted by your amusement that I apparently dismiss “every anomaly, often based solely on your opinion that it simply can’t be true”? I can assure that I’m not insulted. Instead, it tells me about where you’re coming from. My analyses of various anomalies are based on examining the evidence (or lack thereof) for the claims being made. You clearly don’t understand the idea of looking at evidence and weighing it against other data: you are more concerned with authority, which you perceive me to be wielding. My opinions count for nothing. It is the evidence, the data about the past, that is important. Those who proclaim various bits of data as evidence for anomalies in our understanding of the past are not authorities and should not be regarded as such.

      Nevertheless, you tell me that your principal complaint is in regard to my “statements about Protestant Creationists”. Okay, let’s deal with them.

      Your first complaint is that “[t]hough I know that there are young-earth creationists who take a “King-James only” approach, the fact is that many do not”. I have no dispute with this. I say, quite clearly that “ Protestant Christian fundamentalists tend to be what are known as young earth creationists, who believe that the Genesis account is literally true (indeed, that only the King James Version of Genesis is literally true: all other translations, in their view, lack the divine inspiration of their preferred version). Notice that little word “tend”? I do not deny that there are those who do not, but if you look at the statements of belief of the major Creationist outfits (such as Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research) or Fundamentalist universities (such as BIOLA or Bob Jones University), they stress the use of the King James Version as the only authoritative English version of the Bible. Those who “prefer to look at the texts from which the KJV and other translations were made” are in the minority.

      But now we progress to the real point of your comment, “[t]he evidence against evolution”. This is a concept that puzzles me. Evolution is a concept based on the acquisition of data – the evidence – and an overarching theory to explain that data set. “Evidence against evolution” is a clearly ideological concept: it would impress me more if you had “evidence for creation” or “evidence for Intelligent Design”, but you don’t. Creationists seem to believe that if they attack the evidential basis for evolutionary theory, the whole edifice tumbles and their beliefs will then become the default position. That isn’t how the world works, especially not the world of science. Science is evidence based. Without evidence, ideas are worthless.

      You seem to be under the misapprehension that there are no “intermediate fossils”. You are just plain wrong. There are so many, I’m not even going to bother listing them. I’m sure that you’re aware of the TalkOrigins archive, which has a good list of the fossils that Creationists claim don’t exist. When you say that “[p]seudo-science is claiming that a fossil is a transitional creature (like the Tiktaalik) while living examples of similar species exist (walking catfish and northern snakehead)” just shows how little you understand of evolutionary theory. You’ve basically used the ”if humans evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?” argument, which is utterly worthless and only highlights your ignorance. Even Creationists say that this is not an argument that should be used against evolution! Using Tiktaalik as an example is also a very silly move on your part: palaeontologists had predicted what a creature intermediate between bony fishes and early amphibians ought to look like and where fossils of it might be preserved, went out into the field and found remains that confirmed their predictions. One of the hallmarks of a robust scientific theory is that predictions arising from it will be confirmed: this is exactly what fossils of creatures like Titaalik or Ambulocetus have done for evolutionary theory.

      You then repeat the lie that “there is a growing number of scientists who embrace a young earth belief”. I’m calling it a lie, because that’s what it is. No matter how many of this small group “are real scientists, from nearly every field of science, and many (most?) have degrees from secular universities which neither embrace nor teach the Bible as truth”, the evidence does not support their belief in a young earth. There are so many convergent lines of evidence for the age of the earth, our solar system and the universe as a whole, that to deny it is nothing more than delusional, a willful refusal to acknowledge the evidence. And, anyway, what does it matter how many there are? This is nothing more than the logical fallacy of argumentum ad populum.

      Your concluding remarks that I am hypocritical to “insist that archaeology be without flaw” while my “arguments are riddled with flaws” is just plain silly. Nowhere do I “insist that archaeology be without flaw”: my whole purpose is to point out some stupidities that are passed off as archaeology when they are nothing more than misunderstandings at best, lies at worst. Archaeology, the actual study of human societies through their material culture, can never be “without flaw”, whatever that might mean (and I suspect that it’s a concept that only makes sense to someone whose entire world view is predicated on the alleged flawlessness of a collection of ancient writings that still holds ultimate authority for a thankfully dwindling proportion of people in the western world).

      Your final plea for me to “do some homework before writing, or be prepared to be corrected frequently” I find quite ironic!

      1. Slow clap….followed with slow standing…..
        I stumbled upon this site, fulfilling my curiosities on ooparts, and I have read about 45% of the entries thus far. I am not in the field of science, but I am an analyst. I very much like the way you set up the topics, explain some detail, cross reference, and then deliver sound conclusions (I’ve noticed they often end with questions.) This, in the Intel field, means you are confident in what you write, but are smart enough to accept you don’t have all the answers.

        I think the above (lamb) is confused as many if not all, scientists do have the ability to “believe” in a “higher power”…and this is very clear in example: A scientist can clearly explain why a rose is red, but he may still ponder “why” a rose is red..

        I firmly believe no matter what level of education anyone might be; they still are going to wonder “why are we here?”

        Unfortunately, some get their answer from an old book…while others search for the answer with open thought only bound by “evidence”

        I can’t help but ask, yet it’s more of a statement, Could it really be that it took 4.5 billion yrs. to get to where we are? I’ve been reading a lot now, and I have been leaning on the thoughts of “civilizations” or “humanoids” come and gone…It just seems plausible? I, mean to say, a billion yrs. should be enough time to erase humanity..
        Keep up the great work, makes my only want to become an archaeologist..


        1. I think that the whole idea that we ought to have reached our present level of civilisation a long time ago (and, according to people like Hancock, actually did) is a result of thinking of evolution (biological and social) as a linear process, going from simple to complex. In that way of looking at things, we are the pinnacle of civilisation. I believe that is quite wrong. We are a civilisation of a very particular type, one that has developed its technology in unusual ways that no other society has done. There is no inevitability about how our society has turned out: it’s dependent on so many historical accidents.

          1. Historical accidents? I call them conflicts and war. Our “technical” advances have developed much faster during times of conflict. I do like the way you think, I closer to understanding the “linear process” as you describe it. If everyone believed that life evolves from simple to complex, then micro-organisms found on mars per say, would indicate a “new world” and not an ancient planet…? Which thinking nonlinear allows the concept that those same micro-organisms have existed for billions of years without the need to evolve making them the pinnacle “civilization” ?
            I need to take some classes on this…so interesting the way people think and the way things are.

            Thanks for responding to my comment! I have been reading more and more on this site every day. Some confuses me a bit, and I have to do some off-site reading to get a grasp, but, so far I think I’m getting it!


            1. Micro-organisms on Mars would not necessarily be evidence for a “young” planet (or for the relatively recent development of life, for that matter). They would be evidence that there have been no environmental pressures on those organisms to adapt since they first developed. That’s all evolution is: an undirected process of slow adaptation to environmental change. The environment of Mars seems not to have undergone much in the way of environmental change for billions of years: since it lost its magnetic field, surface water evaporated and the atmosphere thinned more than three billion years ago according to current estimates, it has been pretty much the same inhospitably cold and dry desert. Now as for Venus…

      2. Bravo! I admire how you handled that comment with maturity and scholarship rather than getting into an internet firestorm! You might have done better than I might have in reacting! Don’t worry, you still have plenty of supporters standing up for science! You show a lot more intellect in your reply than many creationist fundimentalists who go the low road with ad-hominem attacks!

  2. Claiming that we “ought to” have reached the current level of civilisation long ago is bullshit! The present-day human species just happened to arise about 200,000 years ago. Before that there was simply no humanity in the present-day sense. Also, the current high-teach civilisation resulted from a series of coincidences which just did not happen before. During an ice age I don’t think it would be possible to build a civilisation. Climate changes considerably in just a few decades every 2,000 – 5,000 years during ice ages. This does not give sufficient time for a civilisation to develop. So why are there no signs of civilisation during the period between the last two ice ages? Because there was no agriculture back then! There are no obvious benefits with agriculture:

    During the period 10,000 – 8,000 BC proto-agricultural practices where beneficial in seven small areas of the world. However, becoming dependant on agriculture meant dependence on a small number of life-forms. This multiplied the risk of starvation which had previously been a limited problem. At least in the Old World new diseases also evolved due to increased contact with animals. (It must have taken millennia to adopt to them.) These two factors meant that life expectancy plunged. But the birth rate almost fourfold as a by-effect of agriculture. Periodically, it exceeded the death rate leading to a slow and spasmodic population growth. Societies have a tendency to become more complex over time as a reaction of higher population density. Yet there are many recoded cases of societies collapsing resulting in a population decrease. This can be due to several factors such as natural resource depletion, climate change and epidemics as well as combinations of these. Regardless of the cause(s) there will be a less complex society afterwards.

    There is much talk about technological development. However, technology will only be widely used if people see a need for it. In order to start Industrialization very specific socio-economic condition had to be present. These conditions existed for the first time ever in England around 1750 AD. With people seeing an opportunity to rise their standard of living it gradually spread to the rest of the world. Once Industrialization has started nothing can stop the development of a society without pretty much destroying it.

    The current state of civilisation is definitely not a “pinnacle”. Unless it stagnates for decades before that I expect our global civilisation to continue developing until it collapses. No civilisation can last forever so it is going to collapse sooner or later anyway. Hopefully I can contribute to preventing it from happening in my lifetime by setting a good example. I am not talking about Christianity here which comes in several flavours anyway. Instead I try to practice a sensible Environmentalist down-shifting.

  3. I have thought some of the absence of agriculture before the last ice age. The ice age before that ended 130,000 years ago. Maybe the temperature curve for the end of that ice age was too different? Maybe our ancestors where not fully cognitively modern back then? With the 25-year generations used by human genetic researchers 130,000 years equals to 5,200 generations. This is sufficient time for significant evolutionary changes unlike the time since the end of the last ice age.

Agree or disagree? Please comment! If you've never commented before, you may have to wait until I approve it: please be patient.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: