An Introduction to Christian Creationism
You’ve might have heard about the creationism/evolution debate at some point in your life, either in the paper, on the television or on the radio. You might have caught a glimpse of a furious back-and-forth about the rights of Christian private schools to teach what they want to their students before the news cycle flipped to another more interesting topic. A fundamentalist preacher might have even targeted you as you were walking along the street, waving tracts about Jesus and pamphlets containing Biblical “truths”. But it is more likely that you don’t know much about the issue at all.
In Australia, a land relatively free of religious extremism, we are lucky not to be caught up in the maelstrom of contention that the teaching of either creationism or evolution generates in more faith-packed nations like the US. Over there, greater than 50% of the population believes in some form of Biblical creationism, as opposed to a far less impressive statistic of 27% accepting the theory of evolution. This creates all sorts of trouble in public schools, where fundamentalist parents and creationist organizations feel that they have the right to push Biblical literalism into biology classes in place of, or at the very least beside, evolutionary theory. Such controversies have come to a head in various court cases, the most famous of which was the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial brought forward in US federal court in 2005.
In the trial, eleven parents of school children in the Dover, Pennsylvania school district (a governing area which controls the curriculum of all public schools within it) sued the school board for making ninth grade science teachers read this statement to their biology classes:
“The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin’s theory of evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.
Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.
Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People is available for students to see if they would like to explore this view in an effort to gain an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves.
As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the origins of life to individual students and their families. As a standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on standards-based assessments.”
As you can see, the statement contains no use of the term “creationism”, but instead calls it “intelligent design”. Before I explain the differences (or lack of) between the two, let me define creationism for those who don’t know what it is.
Creationism is simply a belief system that claims that the Universe was supernaturally created, but this can refer to a lot of things, so for now I’ll restrict it to the fundamentalist Christian definition: the one that poses the greatest threat to the scientific community. Fundamentalist Christian creationism espouses that the Christian God created the Universe roughly 6000 years ago as described in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament. Someone who believes in this type of creationism is also quite likely to be a Biblical literalist: a person who believes that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and that a literal interpretation is the only correct interpretation. Such an interpretation of Genesis as literally correct leads a fundamentalist Christian creationist to reject the theory of evolution and most of cosmology, archaeology, geology and physics out of hand: if it contradicts the Bible, it cannot be true.
But how does evolutionary theory and all those other areas of science clash with Genesis? Can’t the science and the holy book co-exist, both equally correct? Well, no.
Genesis describes God creating all the varieties of animals and plants together, fully formed and genetically separate from each other, while the theory of evolution proposes that all living organisms share a common ancestor and have since evolved away from each other over time.
Genesis says that the Earth was formed whole and complete, while modern geology suggests that the current state of our planet is a product of gradual changes via physical processes.
Genesis declares that the Universe was created whole and complete like the Earth, yet Big Bang cosmology states that it began as a singularity and that the Universe has been expanding ever since that point.
A calculation of the time at which the events in Genesis supposedly took place using genealogies contained within the Bible puts the age of Universe and the Earth at 6000 years, but physics dictates that radiometric dating puts the that date at 13.7 billion years for the Universe and 4.6 billion years for the Earth, while archaeology digs up evidence that humankind has been on this planet for a lot longer than 6000 years.
It’s clear by looking at the clashes between the Bible’s first book and the current scientific position that there is no middle ground position: both cannot be true. This is why most creationists you hear will be actively attacking and denying certain areas of science that disagree with them.
There’s a reason why modern science disagrees with the Biblical view of the world and it’s that science is an evidence-based approach to knowledge, with theories and hypothesises being supported or rejected through any evidence that can be brought to bear, while the Bible relies on authority and an application of faith to generate answers to questions about the Universe. It is because of this uncritical method of gaining knowledge that makes creationism unscientific.
Many creationists have realised that the public (and the courts) are getting wise to the fact that creationism is not science, and have started using the term “intelligent design” to describe their beliefs in a bid to make it appear to comply with the rules of science. A brief definition of intelligent design can be found at the Discovery Institute’s website (The DI is a pro-intelligent design organization based in the US):
The theory of intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.
Unfortunately for the guys at the Discovery Institute, intelligent design is not a scientific theory, as it cannot be falsified. Falsification, the ability for an idea to be able to found incorrect, is a necessary part of every scientific theory or hypothesis, as if something cannot possibly be shown to be false, how can you know if it is true? Saying that an intelligent cause designed life is unfalsifiable because it is able to fit any evidence: evidence for evolution could simply be dismissed by saying that the intelligent cause wanted it to look that way. Thus, no evidence could possible be presented that would show that such a concept it not true.
However, even though intelligent design is inherently unscientific, many people in the US and around the world are being fooled by its supposed scientific appeal and allowing it to be taught in public schools alongside, or even instead of, genuine science.
This is worrying, and many people who love science are now standing up and fighting back against the flood of misinformation that fundamentalist Christians and others like them are injecting into the US education system. Young people who love science also need to take a stand against this creationist movement, for one of its tactics is to get into science education under the radar.
So now you know about creationism and its scientific problems, take notice the next time you hear about it in the media. If we’re not careful, Australia could soon be in a position similar to the US, and your school might teach science out of a 2000-year old book.