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
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
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:-
- The Bible is the Word of God, (e.g. quoting 2 Timothy 3:16).
Well yes, as a Christian I agree that it is, even though I don’t
know how He caused it to be written. I still need to decide how each
part of it embodies that Word though. Doing this will require me to use
the knowledge and understanding God has given me, under the
illumination of His Spirit. And with the reformers I claim the right to
interpret scripture myself; I don't have to follow anyone else’s
- If I doubt the literal truth of Genesis chapter 1, how can I
be sure of what the gospels say about Jesus Christ? Well, those are
entirely different books; we mustn’t be misled by the fact that
we can now buy them bound together in one handy volume. The gospels are
narrative reportage; they are true or false according to whether the
events in them actually took place as described. Genesis 1, though,
clearly isn’t. Yes, I have problems arising from that: what about
Noah, Abraham or Joseph? When do later parts in the book of Genesis become history? I
admit I don’t know the answers to all those questions, but the general situation is clear.
- Some Christians, acknowledging the need to find out which
parts of the Bible are literal narrative, use a false “argument
from exhaustion”. They list a number of literature types (e.g.
narrative, poetry, parable, philosophy) and ask which one the start of
Genesis falls into. Eliminating the others one-by-one, they conclude
that it’s narrative. The flaw here is that they have started with an
incomplete list of possible genres. I like reading ancient mythology
and I can recognise a primordial creation myth when I see one! Every
ancient culture had that category of literature, so why isn’t it ever
in the list? (By the way, I find that taking Genesis 1 as an inspired
creation myth shows me much more about God and His creation than taking
it as narrative does).
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:-
- I’ve been told that, if only we could establish the
truth of creationism, atheists would have to give up and believe in
God. Failing to insist on it, however, leaves them a refuge.
Shouldn’t I support this noble Christian endevour? I find this
suggestion hard to respect: here I’m being explicitly asked to
believe something because it’s convenient for an agenda rather
than because it’s supported by evidence! Both Christians and
scientists should always have more regard for the truth than this.
- Some want a simple set of beliefs and an easy way to read
the Bible; they fear complexity and uncertainty. Believe me, I can
identify with that. I like ideas to have simple elegance. But we must
always put truth first; it’s better to struggle after reality
than to accept a comfortably simple but wrong idea.
- Some latch on to creationism as a simple way to seemingly
“disprove” atheism, showing the lack of regard for truth
which I referred to above. I simply can’t share that agenda. (I
also find that being a Christian but not a creationist is annoying to
some atheists! They don’t want me to escape the trap of having to
believe something which they can then show me is wrong).
- Contrarianism: there are unfortunately people who feed their
pride and self esteem by convincing themselves they are
“right” about a subject when most of the scientific establishment (or
christendom) has it “wrong”. They can be the angriest.
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.
- Profit: it’s apparently possible to gain considerable
wealth, power and prestige by running a “creation science”
organisation supported by the donations of Christians. I see that
as an evil deception.
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
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.