What About Creationism?

As a Christian working in a science-related field I often find that I have to make clear that I’m not a creationist before my witness for Christ is taken seriously. It seems that this has become a key issue. I suspect that’s because the main ideas of Christianity are not really well understood in our society, but a basic disagreement about origins is easy to latch on to. Some groups of Christians have chosen to overstress the issue. Some atheists try to use it as a handy trap: first convince us that to have any faith we have to believe a particular thing, then show us from science that the thing we believe is actually false.

So I’ll set out what I think about it here, with the caveats that I don’t think it’s as big an issue for Christians as it’s made out to be, and I don’t know everything and haven’t got all the answers.

First a definition. From the origin of the word, “creationism” should just be the idea that the world and the living things in it have been created. Actually, for anyone who believes in God that’s uncontroversial: it would be contradictory to believe in a Creator and then not accept that He created everything. But I need to refine this definition slightly; in modern usage creationism also carries the idea that the information about origins which we seem to have from science is wrong. Usually this is based on a completely literal reading of the first chapter of the book of Genesis, which describes God bringing the world and its contents into being over a period of six days set a few thousand years ago. It would be more precise to call this “young-earth creationism”, but I’ll now follow common usage and call it simply “creationism”.

At one time I was a creationist. This didn’t last long, but after my conversion from atheism to Christianity in 1976 I was still thinking out the implications. I remember that the night I believed, I turned to the early chapters of the Bible because I had heard that Genesis said the world was flat. If it did, my new belief would be quickly rejected. But I found no such craziness and thinking now that the gospels were reliable history I decided to take the same view of Genesis.

This wasn’t immediately a big issue to me because I was studying mathematics, but I remember the horror it caused in a friend who studied the physical sciences. This was my first experience of the destructive effect of creationism on witness among scientists, and when I thought over the body of evidence I had started glibly ignoring I realised that he was right, and my Bible interpretation needed to be more careful. My knowledge of astronomy and its proof of the great age of the universe was key in this decision.

So I had to think more carefully about what I was reading in the Bible and how to interpret it. I realised that, since the Bible is actually a library of books from many times and situations, there’s no obvious justification for using the same method of interpretation for every part of it as I had started doing. In fact, there are obviously parts which are poetic and non-literal. “The trees of the field clap their hands” is a nice description of all of nature rejoicing, but it needn’t be taken to mean that trees actually have hands. Every part of the Bible needs to be examined to see what genre of writing it is before deciding what meaning it carries. The gospels are clearly historical narrative and must stand or fall on the question of whether the events they record actually happened, but it’s not reasonable to look at all the other books of the Bible in this way.

One thing that led me to this outlook early in my Christian experience was actually something I found in creationist literature. Someone showed me a booklet that discussed fossil evidence and purported to show a photograph of a human footprint squashing a trilobite. Even I, with no knowledge of fossils, could see that it simply wasn’t a human footprint. There was a missing piece of rock, roughly the shape of a modern shoe sole, including a modern heel! Was the creationist movement so short of scientific evidence that it had to clutch at such straws, and was it so uncaring about truth? (Over the years since I’ve concluded that the answer to both questions is
unfortunately “yes”).

I’ve found that my viewpoint greatly irritates some other Christians. I’ve noticed that the reasons they put to me for accepting creationism fall into just a few categories. Here they are, with my usual responses to them:-
I’ve noticed that these responses can make people angry. When a discussion about facts leads to anger it’s always a sign that something else is going on and hidden motivations are at work. What might those motivations be? Where is the source of the anger? Now I’m speculating, but I think that at various times I’ve identified the following motivations:-
As I've indicated, I have a lot of sympathy with the first of those motivations and at one time I shared it. But the others are ignoble and uncaring about truth; they don't allow a scientific, or even a particularly polite discussion, and they sometimes lead to clear dishonesty. In 2005 I was horrified when supporters of "intelligent design" were found to have actually perjured themselves in a Kansas court case about the school science curriculum. The judge expressed astonishment that people who claimed to have deep religious convictions would lie in court, and I shared his astonishment.

I’ve kept clear of discussing evolution because biology isn’t my specialism, but I’ll conclude by mentioning the evidence from astronomy which was a key influence for me back in 1976.  Basically, the big problem for young-earth theories is the vast distances of stars and galaxies. If an object is millions of light-years away, the light from it needs that many millions of years to reach us, and since we can see it this must have already happened. Creationists have tried various ad-hoc ways of getting round this, but none have been successful.

A suggestion that light travelled much faster in the past than it does now has no foundation in observations. Measurements of the speed of light on earth in the last few centuries show no perceptible variation, (I would know; it's important for me to be accurate about the speed of light in my work). Observations of “light echo” from distant supernovas, in which light reflects from gas near the nova, show light travelling at the same speed in the distant past as it does now. And if the speed of light had been higher in the past than it is now we should observe pulsar periods and double-star orbits speeding up, but we don't.

Others take the view that God created the whole universe entirely as a "going concern" with distant stars and the light from them already in place. This is a possibility that science alone can't discount. It's not a scientific issue at all; this idea leads to no differences in astronomical observations between young-universe and conventional theories. But it raises bad theological problems: it implies that God is deceiving us and it conflicts with scriptures telling me that I can learn about God from what He has created. It also suggests crazier possibilities, for example that the whole universe might have been created only a minute ago with us having memories already in place, including memories of what we've read in Genesis - that way lies madness! This is clearly a desperate kind of suggestion.

Touching on evolution, I’m not an expert on biology or paleontology so I don’t know whether some creationists are right to criticise particular features of the fossil record. But I would note that evolution only depends on having creatures which inherit characteristics from their parents with slight variations, plus enough time. We know that inheritance works in that way, so once I’ve accepted the lengths of time shown by astronomy there’s nothing mysterious about evolution. It’s just a natural process, inherent in the world as God has made it, and it would actually be an amazing miracle if it failed to happen.

If you’ve read this far, I’m guessing that you have one of two reactions. I hope you agree with me. If you don’t agree with me, my experience has led me to expect that you’re probably now angry with me! In that case I ask you to consider where that anger comes from and set it aside. Let’s just deal in facts, supported by evidence, and try to find as much of the the truth as we can even if it’s more complex than we can easily deal with. I enjoy discussions about various kinds of scientific evidence but I don't like getting into arguments.