Dishonest, cynical and coming soon to a school near you!

Of all the forms of Bad Archaeology, creationism is perhaps the worst: its practitioners are frequently not of the honest-but-deluded category but are cynical manipulators whose principal interest is in the power they wield over their disciples and congregations. It’s not the creationist Bad Archaeologists who are confused, but their deluded followers. Creationism was the first hurdle that developing Good Archaeology overcame, back in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The time has come to expose the dishonest charlatans who promote it for the evil frauds they really are.

The first humans, Adam and Eve, from Deacon’s Synchronological Chart of Universal History, 1890

The first humans, Adam and Eve, from Deacon’s Synchronological Chart of Universal History, 1890

Contemporary Creationism

Creationism is the easiest of the Bad Archaeologies to deal with, as it has been around since the very earliest archaeologists. It has consequently been refuted many times. Creationism, in its broadest sense, is the belief that the entire universe was created by a divine being rather than by processes that can be explained by the laws of physics. The term covers a wide range of convictions, although it is most often used in a restricted sense to refer to the beliefs of fundamentalist Christians, especially in the United States of America.

The full gamut of creationist beliefs cannot be described here and most are mutually exclusive (it is a peculiar arrogance of the protestant fundamentalist Christian creationists that they have set the agenda for the debate to be between their narrow version of creationism and their somewhat unusual view of science). Creationist beliefs range from the frankly bizarre (one example of ancient Egyptian cosmogony has the creation of the world proceeding from the masturbation of the god Atum) to the charmingly naive (a Finnish legend has it that a teal built her nest on the Mother of the Primeval Water’s knee; when one of her eggs fell to the ground and broke after the Mother twitched as she slept, the earth formed from one half of the shell, and the sky from the other). There are few, if any, people today who would demand that these sorts of accounts ought to be taught in schools as part of a science lesson, yet the Christian fundamentalists have occasionally been able to persuade various American state legislatures to accept that their particular creation story should be taught in this way. Elsewhere in the world, they campaign to have their beliefs taught in state schools and, where this is not possible, set up their own schools to promote their beliefs as with various religious schools set up in the United Kingdom since the late 1990s under a scheme first promoted by Tony Blair’s government.

Protestant fundamentalist Christian creationism is the most prominent form in the western world (and in particular, the so-called ‘Bible Belt’ of the USA), because of the privileged position held by the numerous different forms of Christianity in these states. In some Middle Eastern states, fundamentalist Islamic creationism is also a major force (in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, for instance, it was the only permitted account of the origins of the world, and there are extreme Jewish or Hindu fundamentalists amongst others whose religious schools teach their particular versions). Outside the USA, creationism was not an important phenomenon or even widely debated until the early twenty-first century, something that may surprise many Americans, for whom the debate has been long running and often acrimonious.

Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656), by Sir Peter Lely

Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656), by Sir Peter Lely

The more extreme creationists believe that divine creation took place as little as 6000 years ago (following the chronology established by James Ussher (1581-1656; Archbishop of Armagh, 1625-56), who in 1650 published his calculation of the date of creation as nightfall preceding Sunday 23 October 4004 BC); so-called ‘scientific creationism’ (developed from the 1960s on) is an attempt to provide evidence that this chronology is correct. Other creationists are more subtle; some allow the earth to be considerably older than 6000 years, even as old as 4.3 billion years – which is what conventional science says – and restrict their beliefs to a denial that the universe can exist without a creating god.

Since the early 1990s, a variant of creationism known as Intelligent Design has grown up in the USA, ostensibly a non-religious and scientific movement aiming to demonstrate that the complexities of the universe cannot be explained without recourse to a Designer existing outside the natural world. However, it is obvious from the writings of Intelligent Design proponents as well as their institutional affiliations that they belong – for the most part – to the same protestant Christian tradition as the Scientific Creationists. Moreover, in the 1990s, the Center for Science and Culture (formerly The Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture) circulated an internal memo that has come to be known as the ‘Wedge Document’ that claims that the Center “… seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies… To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God” (archived here). This makes it abundantly apparent that the aims of the Intelligent Design movement are not scientific but religious. Use of the term God (the capitalisation implies the Judaeo-Christian god) rather than, say, Allah, Brahman or simply ‘a divinity’ is a good indication of the origins of the strategy in protestant fundamentalism, precisely the source of Scientific Creationism. Indeed, it is now known that the seminal work of Intelligent Design – a textbook intended for schools, Of Pandas and People (Davis & Kenyon 1989) – was drafted as a work of creationism, only to be changed after a legal ruling in the USA during 1987 that creationism could not be taught in public schools. The question of creationism is something that has exercised American educators for many years, with numerous controversies about what can and cannot be taught in schools; it is not taken quite so seriously on the eastern side of the Atlantic but there is a growing trend in the UK towards the establishment of ‘faith-based’ schools. The particular version of divine creation espoused by those individual faiths would be taught as literally true (not in science classes, one would hope). This is a dangerous trend and one that ought to concern archaeologists, educators and parents in Britain.

A brief history of Christian Creationist belief

Early history

By the end of the Middle Ages, the Christian church had established a single belief system throughout Europe, in which Jehovah or Yahweh, the god of the Jewish and Christian Bible, had created the ancestors of all humanity and all animals in one place, the Garden of Eden, a few days after the creation of the earth. Using data such as the ages of various Hebrew patriarchs, Biblical historians estimated the date of creation in a number of ways; their suggestions had included 3761, 3928 and 4456 BCE, although the most well known date today was that calculated by Archbishop James Ussher, 4004 BCE. Creationism remained the dominant belief of Europeans about the origins of the world until geology developed as a systematic science and demonstrated that the earth was immeasurably older than a literal interpretation of the Bible would suggest. By the late eighteenth century, it was recognised that most geological processes were exceedingly slow and must have occurred over incredibly long periods; a creation date of 4004 BCE was therefore impossible if geologists were to explain worldwide patterns of deposition and erosion. Moreover, the recognition that rocks contained the fossils of plants and animals that looked increasingly different from modern plants and animals as the age of those rocks increased suggested that living things had not been created in a couple of days, either.

Ellen G White (1827-1915), the Seventh Day Adventist prophetess

Ellen G White (1827-1915), the Seventh Day Adventist prophetess

Of course, there was opposition to these new ideas from many religious organisations and from conservatives. For example, Ellen White (1827-1915), a Seventh-day Adventist prophetess, suggested that fossils were the remains of creatures killed in the Flood of Noah, a view that is still repeated in Creationist literature. Naturalists found it increasingly difficult to believe that fossil animals that were very different from animals alive today could have died as recently as c 2340 BCE, when the Biblical Flood was supposed to have occurred. Even worse from the creationist viewpoint, the deepest and oldest layers contained the highest proportion of strange animals, while the highest and most recent contained animals resembling those alive today. Most problematic of all, the early layers were quite devoid of human remains.

Progressive creation

Gradually, most people began to accept that the earth was much older than a literal reading of Genesis would suggest. Instead, they wondered if the Biblical account of creation might be intended in a symbolic way, that the “days” of creation were instead unimaginably long periods of time. After all, the Bible itself says that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter III.8; see also Psalms XC.4). In this way, it was possible to accommodate traditional Christian beliefs within a scientific framework that precluded a six thousand year old earth. The appearance of new species in the fossil record could be put down to later acts of creation by god. This is what is known as ‘progressive creation’ and it remains a popular option for those who wish to reconcile their religious beliefs with the discoveries of science.

As well as the discovery that remains of certain species alive today are not found in the lower parts of the geological record, while many that were there no longer exist on earth, it was also found that some fossil species were only found in certain parts of the world. The fossils that most closely resemble living animals tend to be found only in those parts of the world where the living forms now occur. Belief in a single act of creation in the Garden of Eden cannot account for this and it was proposed that there might instead have been as many as six separate centres of creation; it also raises the questions of how those animals migrated to Mesopotamia to be loaded onto Noah’s ark and how they (or their descendants) migrated back to the areas in which they had previously lived without leaving traces of their presence along the way. Divine magical teleportation is not a solution: it’s a way of ducking the question.

Progressive creation poses innumerable problems. Not only does it go way beyond the accounts given by Genesis, but it also showed the biblical god making only small changes whenever one species became extinct and another took its place. By the early nineteenth century, naturalists were deeply troubled by this, and several had concluded that what the fossil record showed was not a series of new creations but the gradual development of one species into another. So, long before Charles Darwin (1809-1882) ever set foot on the Beagle, some scientists were already convinced that species could change over immensely long time periods. The French naturalist Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829) suggested that these changes were purposeful and that the giraffe, for instance, had developed a long neck because one of its ancestors had wanted to reach the more succulent leaves on the tops of trees. Many also accepted that these slow changes accounted for the similarities between various species, supposing that they must once have shared a common ancestor.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) in 1840 by George Richmond

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) in 1840 by George Richmond

Evolution and an ancient earth

When Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection in 1859 and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex in 1871, debate about the development of life on earth intensified. Most scientists had long since accepted that the earth was millions of years old and liberal theologians even accepted that parts of the Old Testament were meant to be understood allegorically rather than literally. Only the more conservative branches of Christianity maintained that the entire Bible was literally true.

However, Darwin’s publications brought the debate about evolution to a much wider audience. His contribution was not to propose the theory of evolution (which is an error that creationists and many others generally believe) but to suggest a mechanism to explain how it might work. The concept of evolution was based on observation of the empirical evidence for the change of species through time; it was the accumulation of data that showed that these gradual changes in plant and animal species required a theory to explain the phenomenon. Darwin sought to explain the observed changes by the hypothesis of natural selection in relation to sex, in other words, that those individuals within a species showing random mutations that make them better able to survive in a particular environment have a greater chance of surviving and reproducing than their fellows. In time, the original, unmutated variant of the species may die out as those fitter examples produce more descendants. Eventually, the changes that accumulated over generations of the mutated versions are enough to make a new species. It is important to recognise that the original species need not have died out (the old creationist claim that if humans are descended from apes, then there ought to be no apes left is ignorant and vacuous).

This was the most difficult intellectual change for the religious traditionalists to accept. For one thing, it meant that a god was no longer needed for the steps of progressive creation; worse, it meant that humanity, as a relative of other living things, but a latecomer, was not a special creation of god made in his image (and thus, in some sense, closer to the divinity than the rest of creation) but also proceeded step by step from earlier ancestors. In his first book, Darwin had avoided stating this, but twelve years later, there was no dodging the issue, causing the inevitable – if brief – furore that followed. Brief, that is, in all but fundamentalist religious circles and in the USA.

Many theologians quickly saw that the discoveries of the previous century or more showed beyond doubt that the creation account of Genesis could not be upheld as a literal account of the origins of life on earth. As the civilisations of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia were rediscovered and their literature translated, it soon became obvious that not only did Genesis fail to match the history of the region, but it also borrowed important elements of its narrative – such as Noah’s Flood – from these cultures. It was, they suggested, an attempt by the ancient Hebrews to account for the origins of their world that was no more scientifically true than the ancient Greek or any other creation stories but which contained divinely inspired spiritual truths about the relationship between their god and his creations. By the 1870s, the Church of England had accepted that evolution by natural selection was the best way to account for the diversity of the natural world; the Roman Catholic Church formally accepted it by the late 1990s. It is only in fundamentalist circles that the question is still widely debated by those who identify as Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu or any of the many religions practised in the modern world.