Imagine believing that the world is less than 10,000 years old and that God created us as described in the Genesis account.
Crazy as it may seem, and despite science showing us that the Earth is around 4.5 billion years old, as recently as 2014 it was a view held by nearly half of Americans.
A 2017 poll has the figure at a new low, but it’s still believed by 38% of Americans.
This got me thinking. After Trump there have been a whole bunch of think pieces desperately trying to explain why people voted for such a ludicrous candidate, and explanations have varied from economic anxiety to the idea that white people have faced discrimination as a result of political correctness (which is, of course, nonsense.)
But given that, up until recently at least, nearly half of Americans believed in Young Earth Creationism, where were all the think pieces defending them against the ‘intellectual elite’?
So, as someone who has escaped the clutches of the intellectual black hole that is creationism, I thought now was a good time to look at why exactly such a mad view is held by so many.
It all begins with Genesis
To those who don’t come from a Christian upbringing (and to many who do), it seems fairly obvious that the Genesis account is mythological in nature. By the time you come to the talking snake it’s a given we’re not dealing with something any of the writers ever considered history.
But, what if you believe the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God? How do you make sense of the opening chapters of Genesis?
The answer for more progressive, less-fundamentalist Christians has been to largely view Genesis as metaphorical or allegorical. Perhaps, some may say, the ‘days’ of creation are actually millions of years. Or, perhaps, this is not history at all, but instead a poetic account which captures some spiritual truths about creation, but not any scientific ones.
To the Young Earth Creationist though, these answers are unsatisfactory. Not necessarily because a literal interpretation is always preferable, but for a more sophisticated reason – to relegate the Genesis creation account to divine myth is to rob it of everything it has to say.
Let’s back up for a second. What exactly are the first few chapters of Genesis trying to convey? If it was just that God created, that’s done within the first verse – ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ – no-more needs to be said. But that’s clearly not all the early chapters are saying.
Whilst Genesis 1-3 might be addressing many questions, the most explicit one is not ‘How did God create us?’ but ‘If God created us, why is there suffering?’ The answer provided by Genesis is it’s because of man’s disobedience. This is vital to understanding the creationist worldview.
The Genesis account paints the picture of a perfect creation free from death, where both animals and humans are entirely vegetarian (Genesis 1:29-30). It is not until Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, against God’s explicit command, that death and suffering enter the world.
Evolution is obviously hugely problematic to this reading of Genesis because it entails millions of years of death and suffering occurring long before humanity ever existed. In fact, by the time humanity came about nearly all of the species that had ever existed were extinct.
No-matter how allegorical or metaphorical you make Genesis, by accepting evolution you are disagreeing with its primary thesis, namely that God made the world good and sin is responsible for all the bad. In this way it’s weirdly the creationists, not the progressives, who have the ‘deeper understanding’ of what Genesis is saying. Prominent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins says a similar thing, that there’s almost something to be respected in creationists recognising the fundamental tension between their worldview and the image of the world evolution presents, in contrast to the moderates who are largely blind to it.
And so there are really three options. The first is, as discussed, to say there is divine truth in Genesis but it’s allegorical/metaphorical and doesn’t contradict science. Yet as we’ve seen, it’s not entirely clear what ‘truth’ Genesis has left when robbed of its main point.
The second option (and the most rational) is to simply see the Genesis account as one creation myth among many. This doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can learn from it. After all, I don’t believe in the Greek myths but they are fundamentally fascinating and insightful. It simply means that there is no ‘divine truth’, just human contemplation.
However, Young Earth Creationists choose the third option. They insist the Bible is the word of God, recognise it’s incompatible with the scientific consensus, and so reject the scientific consensus. After all, scientists can be wrong but God can’t be, right? I want to argue this reasoning, more so than scientific illiteracy, is the place where creationists take a wrong turn down a road that’s very hard to backtrack on. But first, let’s look at how creationists make sense of the facts.
What do they do with all those fossils?
The reason most people assume creationists are, well, idiots, is because it seems obvious the facts don’t support their theory. Of course the world isn’t 10,000 years old, just look at the fossil record, explain the dating methods etc.
The cliché understanding of a creationist is someone who simply doesn’t know much about these fossils or who says something stupid like ‘the devil put them there to mislead us.’ But actually, this rather underestimates the logical misdirection creationists use (and are trapped in!) to support their views.
So, imagine you meet a creationist and you’re feeling pretty confident you can put this fool in his place:
You: If the Earth is only 6,000 years old, how do you explain all the fossils?
Creationist: Easy, there was a global flood (Geneis 6 – 9) which would provide perfect conditions to preserve the fossils.
You: OK…but how do you explain the pattern of fossils? We don’t see humans buried below trilobites.
Creationist: Isn’t it obvious? In a flood, of course the most intelligent creatures are going to last the longest. The sea creatures will be buried first, as we see in the fossil record, but intelligent creatures like apes and humans can last longer. Humans were probably clinging on to floating trees and things like that.
You: But…well, we know the Earth isn’t really young. Just look at the Grand Canyon, that took millions of years to form.
Creationist: Wrong again! You believe it took millions of years to form because you subscribe to uniformitarianism, but a sudden catastrophic flood could create such a feature in no time at all.
I could go on, but you should begin to see how the creationist in this discussion isn’t being overwhelmed by ‘facts’. If you’re not particularly scientific literate, and therefore don’t have a detailed understanding of the geological formation of the Grand Canyon, it can be hard to argue with. It’s obvious there is a flaw in the logic, but far harder to articulate precisely what it is.
The best breakdown I’ve come across is in a book I reference quite often, ‘Believing Bullshit’ by Stephen Law. He explains that what creationists engage in is ‘making the facts fit.’ A creationist simply looks at the evidence in front of him and absorbs it into his worldview. He makes the facts fit whatever he already believes. The argument that the devil put the fossils there to deceive us is an example of such reasoning in an obvious form. Scientists, however, simply speaking, let the evidence speak for itself, allowing them to form a hypothesis which they can then test.
Unfortunately the two approaches can look pretty similar, and to the non-critical mind ‘making the facts fit’ is indistinguishable from the scientific method. One of the big differences is the ability of the approach to be falsified. In the ‘making the facts fit’ approach, nothing can prove it wrong. Anything that comes along will simply be explained away. On the other hand, the Theory of Evolution is pretty easy to falsify. All it would take would be, say, a human fossil in one of the earliest geological stratas. The fact that it could easily be disproved and yet hasn’t been makes it a far stronger explanation.
So, here’s my point, scientific illiteracy probably isn’t the main problem here. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure creationists are, on average, any more scientifically illiterate than the rest of the population. Of course if we all became scientists then creationism would probably die a quick death (for example, when I learned about dessication cracks in multiple layers of rock in A Level Geology, it was pretty clear to me that the flood model couldn’t possibly account for that.) But actually, it would be best to target the logic that gets creationists to the point of trying to argue for such a position in the first place. Unfortunately, our society is often on board with such logic…
What leads someone to become a creationist?
The most fundamental flaw in creationist logic is assuming that the Bible is the word of God in the first place. It’s a belief held by many Christians of all different persuasions, but when you think about it, it’s a ludicrous starting place. How on Earth do you come to the conclusion that a selection of texts, most the authors unknown, is the word of God? How do you even begin to justify that position? I could write a whole blog on that alone, but I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer.
Yet our society totally permits that logic, creating an artificial barrier between faith and reason. In matters of religion and spirituality, blind faith is positively encouraged (a phenomenon I have argued is extremely stupid here.) If we don’t hold religion to a standard of proof, then of course big claims like ‘this book is the word of God’ will go unchallenged.
We could equally understand creationism by seeing it as a conspiracy theory. I’ve argued at some length how I hate conspiracy theories here, and creationism bears many of the familiar hallmarks. Not just the logical sleight of hand discussed earlier, but also in the way they understand the scientific community. After all, how can a creationist make sense of nearly every scientist accepting evolution and an old Earth? Their reply is that there must be a ‘secular’ or ‘atheist’ agenda to keep biblical explanations out of scientific journals. This is, of course, nonsense. The reason they are rejected is because either the science is poor, or it is fairly assumed that starting with the assumption a collection of texts is divinely inspired is not good practice. Unfortunately a defining trait of fundamentalists is the belief that their religion is under attack, so that line of thinking lends itself to the conspiracy approach.
Yet our society fosters an environment where this line of paranoid logic can grow. We’re increasingly rejecting experts and encouraged to have our own opinions. Somewhere along the line we replaced ‘everyone is entitled to an opinion’ to ‘everyone’s opinion is equally valid.’ They are two very different things. Scientific consensus matters, particularly when most of us haven’t got the time, let alone the capacity, to make informed conclusions for ourselves. We need to start listening to experts again and recognise most of our opinions for what they are – uninformed, ignorant nonsense.
Putting all this together – the belief in the divine word of God, the ‘it fits’ line of reasoning and the conspiratorial mindset – Young Earth Creationism becomes an intellectual prison from which it’s incredibly difficult to escape. It’s a much more sophisticated and problematic trap than the ‘God done it’ simpletons we often imagine.
It’s OUR fault
So, in a way, I have some sympathy for Young Earth Creationists. When you look at their beliefs, they differ in degree but not in type to a whole bunch of nonsense a lot of our society believes. And so, creationism is mocked by the same culture that cultivates its existence. I wonder how many astrologers, spiritualists and wholistic healers have laughed at creationist beliefs? How many conspiracy theorists and religious inerrantists have sniggered at their stupidity?
I’m not making the case for creationists here, far from it. I simply want to highlight that their beliefs are probably not as stupidly founded as you might believe, and rely on logic that you are, statistically speaking, likely to be using to support some of your own views.
Hopefully by reflecting on how these logical fallacies are employed to support a position most consider untenable, it will both encourage us to have a degree of sympathy for the creationists and prompt us to challenge the way we use these fallacies ourselves in the future.