Scientific and Religious Creationism: What Do We Know?

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The influential science writer Stephen Jay Gould once took solace that scientific and religious creationism was little more than a “local, indigenous, American bizarrity” rather than a worldwide movement. Gould was incorrect, however, as although creationism has indeed had a foothold in the United States, cumulative sociological research over the last thirty years shows it to be a global phenomenon. Creationist groups and activities have been reported in Turkey, Canada, Korea, Brazil, Australia, throughout Europe, and in many other locations (1).

A number of scholars have produced studies on the phenomenon of creationism. Notable are Ronald Numbers’ The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design (2006), Arthur McCalla’s The Creationist Debate: The Encounter Between the Bible and the Historical Mind (2006), Edward Larson’s Summer of the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (2006), and Barbara Forrest and Paul Gross’s Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (2007). Scholar Martin Reixinger has produced work on Islamic creationism, Abraham Flipse on Dutch Calvinist creationism, and Taner Edis on Turkish creationism.

Creationist Goals

Creationists have clear goals which include, although are certainly not limited to, influencing educational policy at a local and/or national level, demanding equal time be dedicated to creationist views that are given to evolution, and, if possible, the full removal of evolutionary theory from science education. Researcher Christopher Toumey states that,

“[T]hose who carefully follow the creation-evolution controversy know it in terms of the monthly mailings and related literature from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). From this source we recognize that another variation, known as ‘scientific creationism’ or ‘creation-science’, accounts for the most effective anti-evolutionism in our time. Here are the influential writings of Henry M. Morris, the glib chatter of Duane Gish, and the legal strategies of Wendell Bird. This is the kind of creationism that attempts to force substantive changes in policies of public education, by arguing that modern science corroborates the historical truth of certain critical Bible stories, especially those in the first eleven chapters of Genesis” (2).

This debate is not merely an academic exercise as it includes some real and practical cases of contestation. A fifteen-year-old girl and her parents, for example, filed a complaint to the court in St. Petersburg over freedom of choice. The argument was that her religious beliefs were being violated by the teaching of evolutionary theory in the classroom. Although this opposition found support from the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Minister of Education, the case was turned down rather quickly (3). Such practices cases could be multiplied but it is clear, as shall be noted below, that anti-evolutionism is one of unifying pillars across creationist traditions.

Although creationists are often dismissed and the subject of satire (see Project Steve), it is important to acknowledge that generally speaking creationists have a high view of science, or at least science according to how they define it. Creationists are convinced or have convinced themselves that modern science proves or corroborates their religious text/s and their religion’s account of creation. Toumey says that in his primary research sample of 51 creationists, “about 60% can be classified as scientific creationists. They believe very adamantly that modern science corroborates the Biblical account of creation” (4). However, the courts of law have not agreed with the creationists. In 1980 it was ruled that creation science failed to meet “the essential characteristics of science” and a similar ruling was made against the movement known as Intelligent Design (5).

Creationism is Diverse But Unified in its Opposition to Evolutionary Theory

Creationism is diverse. It might, for instance, take on a scientific outlook, as the Intelligent Design movement, or be deeply embedded within religious beliefs about the inerrancy of the Bible or some religious text. It might be regarded as a respectable religious worldview or labeled as quackery or pure lunacy. Despite its diversity, creationism’s unifying link is in its opposition to evolutionary theory. Such opposition is not limited to the Christian variety as Muslim creationists have a presence too. Anti-evolution views are high in Turkey with only 25% of respondents to a study agreeing that “human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals” (6). Other studies also suggest significant levels of skepticism of evolution among Turkish Muslims in seven Islamic countries (7). In 1990, Turks in Istanbul formed the Science Research Foundation (BAV) partly dedicated to opposing evolution. Creationism has thus also taken on an Islamic outlook although it has similarities to its American cousin; according to researchers Blancke, Hjermitslev, Braeckman, and Kjærgaard,

“[M]any of the features of contemporary Islamic creationism are directly copied from American creationism. In the United Kingdom, where there is no First Amendment to worry about, creationists tend to be less concerned with the scientific outlook of their beliefs and put forth the Bible as the source of their anti evolutionary views, again distinguishing themselves from American import” (8).

Creationism can be found in other religious traditions. Within Judaism, a group of Orthodox Jews mixed young-earth creationism with the teachings of the Kabbalah and established the Torah Science Foundation. There is a Vedic variant of creationism inspired by Maharishi Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation. Maharishi presented a so-called “Vedic science” that holds to the factual inerrancy and divine inspiration of the Vedic texts, which are believed to contain accurate scientific knowledge. Maharishi was of the view that the Vedas are more complete and accurate than modern scientific theories and that the laws of nature are in fact the gods of the Rig Veda.

Important to note is that not all creationist groups who believe God created the universe are pro-science. The Jehovah’s Witnesses endorse a view that disdains science and even produces an intense hostility against it. Also hostile is the Worldwide Church of God, a Christian denomination. Such groups believe that much of human reality, including science, is not worth knowing except for being a ruse that could seduce believers away from salvation. To them, religious and scientific creationists are like traitors for incorporating scientific values into biblical exegesis. Toumey defines this as creationism that “is extremely hostile to science”, although there are also pro-science creationists and groups that are ambivalent (9). Creationism cannot be perceived monolithically in light of this diversity.

Creationist Strategies to Promote Creationism and Responses

Creationist strategies are broad. First, they have used a wide range of mediums to promote their views, which include books, films, documentaries, graphic media, websites, debates, journal publications, museums, theme parks, and conferences. In the United States, for example, one can visit the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter theme park, both linked to the Answers in Genesis (AiG) organization. There was a 2014 debate between AiG’s CEO Ken Ham and public intellectual, the so-called Bill Nye “the Science Guy.” We know of the peculiar and anomalous science department at Bob Jones University that is fully dedicated to young-Earth creationism and anti-evolutionism. In 1983, Norwegian and Danish anti-evolutionists launched the journal Origo while in 2008 AiG founded the Answers Research Journal. In 2006, a creationist pressure group Truth in Science published and promoted two DVDs on intelligent design, which were distributed to every secondary school in the United Kingdom. There is also the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), located in Dallas, and Creation Ministries International with branches in several countries across the world.

Creationist activists, particularly within the West, have put much effort into cultivating moral, social, and political concerns over evolutionary theory. They claim that the acceptance of evolution and secularism will be accompanied by moral degradation and the corruption of society (10). By tapping into people’s fears, creationists not only attempt to expose evolution for its supposed moral bankruptcy but also try to present their own views as the ideal remedy to society’s cultural and political ills. In Russia, creationists attempted to associate evolution with the Communist regime and its evils. Similar associations have been made by creationists in the United States where belief in evolution will allegedly result in one becoming an atheist or rejecting the Christian religion. Evils that have resulted from social Darwinism, such as racism, eugenics, and social inequality, have been associated with evolutionary theory by creationists.

Responses to Creationism

Creationist strategies have not been left unattended. The British Centre for Science Education was founded to monitor and respond to creationist claims and activities. A similar organization in the United States, the National Center for Science Education, exists to promote accurate scientific information and teaching on evolutionary theory and climate change. They keep a close eye on creationist groups and founded the Creation-Evolution journal which ran from 1980 to 1997 and can still be accessed online. There are religious think tanks, such as Biologos, that seek to promote evolutionary theory, as well as affirm its scientific accuracy and consistency with Christianity. Scientific education appears to erode creationist views. According to H. Wade Seaford Jr., who attempted his best to facilitate an impartial and unbiased classroom environment, students provided with both scientific and creationist materials tended to accept evolutionary theory by the end of the semester. In his case study, the lecturer adopts a neutral role and communicates to the class the motivations of creationists and scientists and exposes them to their theories. The students are then to make up their own minds as to which position seems more compelling. Although a few class members were impressed with the apparent evidence for the creationist perspective, most “moved in the direction of supporting evolution by the end of the semester. All of mine did” (11).

Beyond a handful of countries, creationism does not make much impact within the classroom (12). Among teachers, creationism is quite high in some North African countries, such as Morocco and Tunisia, and are not uncommon in Romania (45%), Cyprus, and Portugal (between 15% and 30%). In Finland, Hungary, and Italy, around 15% to 18% of non-biology teachers hold creationist beliefs, but this prevalence reduces to 3-6% for biology teachers, and there are almost no creationist teachers in France and Estonia. Analyzing the results from their study, Pierre Clement and Marie-Pierre Quessada explain that,

“Creationist beliefs were more likely in those with greater belief in God or greater religious observance, regardless of religion. Biology teachers were more evolutionist than their colleagues in only half of the countries surveyed. The longer a teacher trained at a university, the greater the acceptance of evolutionist ideas” (13).

Two scholars, James Williams and Simon Locke, have suggested that compulsory religious education in the United Kingdom is one reason why creationist views and activism has not gained as much support as it has in the United States (14). It is also because that most European education is under state control that creationist beliefs have not grown as much as in the United States (15). Evidence suggests that creationism is declining in North America and western-European environments, particularly where it has had a strong foothold.

References

1. Numbers, Ronald L. 2006. The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

2. Toumey, Christopher. 1991. “Modern Creationism and Scientific Authority.” Social Studies of Science 21(4):681-699. p. 682-683.

3. Georgy, Levit., Hoßfeld, Uwe., and Olsson, Lennart. 2006 “Creationists Attack Secular Education in Russia.” Nature 444(265).

4. Toumey, Christopher. 1991. Ibid. p. 683.

5. Numbers, Ronald L. 2006. Ibid. p. 373.

6. Miller, Jon., Scott, Eugenie., and Okamoto, Shinji. 2006. “Public Acceptance of Evolution.” Science 313(5788):765-766.

7. Hassan, Riaz. 2007. “On Being Religious: Patterns of Religious Commitment in Muslim Societies.” Muslim World 97(3):437-478.

8. Blancke, Stefaan., Hjermitslev, Hans Henrik., Braeckman, Johan., and Kjærgaard, Peter. 2013. “Creationism in Europe: Facts, Gaps, and Prospects.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 81(4):996-1028. p. 1018.

9. Toumey, Christopher. 1991. Ibid. p. 686.

10. Blancke, Stefaan., et al. 2013. Ibid. p. 1014.

11. Seaford, Jr, HW. 1990. “Addressing the Creationist Challenge.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 21(2):160-166.

12. Blancke, Stefaan., et al. 2013. Ibid. p. 1007.

13. Clement, Pierre., and Quessada, Marie-Pierre. 2009. “Creationist Beliefs in Europe.” Science 324(5935). p. 1644.

14. Williams, James. “Creationist Teaching in School Science: A UK Perspective.” Evolution: Education and Outreach 1(1):87-95; Locke, Simon. 2004. “Creationist Discourse and the Management of Political-Legal Discourse.” In The Cultures of Creationism: Anti-evolutionism in English-speaking Countries, edited by Simon Coleman and Leslie Carlin, 45-65. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

15. Szerszynski, Bronislaw. 2010. “Understanding Creationism and Evolution in America and Europe.” In Science and Religion. New Historical Perspectives, edited by Thomas Dixon, Geoffrey Cantor, and Stephen Pumfrey, 153-174. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University.

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