WHAT ARE CREATIONISTS?
Popularly this is used to describe those who believe that Creation occurred 6 to 10 thousand years ago in 6 solar days, just as Genesis “literally” says. This self-designation was adopted in the 1960s to gain the theological high ground against those “compromisers” who accept the conventional scientific view that the universe is billions of years old. It is better to describe them as Young Earth Creationists (YEC), as all Christians, by definition, must believe in Creation and are thus CREATIONISTS.
As well as holding a “young earth” some 6 to 10,000 years old, YECs also believe that all or most sedimentary rocks were laid down in the year of Noah’s Flood, that evolution (except for minor changes) has not occurred, that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans and went extinct after the Flood and that no animals died or suffered before Adam fell (Genesis 3). YECs argue that evolution (what they call the standard scientific view of the history of the universe) is fundamentally flawed and wrong and that real scientific evidence supports the belief that the earth is about 10,000 years old.
THE SCIENTIFIC PICTURE.
Putting together all the findings of astronomy, geology and evolutionary biology, the scientific picture is very certain in its broad outline. The Universe began with the Big Bang about 13 billion years ago (estimates have varied between 8 and 20 billion years during the last 20 years due to the uncertainty of the value of the Hubble constant), with the earth and solar system being formed 4.55 billion years ago (there is no uncertainty on this figure and it has not changed since 1946), the first minerals have been dated at 4.1 b.y., and there are a cluster of rocks from Greenland dated at 3.64 to 3.8 billion years. Among these rocks is some carbon, which may well indicate life. Recently stromatolites (algal mats) were found in Australia dating from 3.4 b.y. to the present day. A little less than 600 million years ago there was extensive glaciation and some scientists suggest that the whole earth was covered with ice. The late Precambrian fauna of Ediacaran age were deposited a little later and then about 550 m.y. ago there was a great proliferation of life over 20 million years, sometimes called the Cambrian Explosion. Animals with backbones date from then, and about 400 m.y. ago the first plants and animals appeared on land and so we continue on up to Homo sapiens about 100,000 years ago. Dinosaurs went extinct 65 m.y. ago, possibly due to a meteorite. The best explanation of the succession of life is evolution, but there is much controversy on how it happened between the Ultra-Darwinians like Dawkins and others such as Stephen Gould or Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge.
(A readable survey is Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.)
THE ROOTS OF CREATIONISM
It is often alleged that until the rise of geology in the 18th century all Christians believed in a six day creation and only “stretched Genesis like an elastic band” to placate geologists. In fact, the early church were divided on the issue, though the majority of Reformers accepted a six-day creation, as there was no evidence otherwise. However from 1600 most theologians did not affirm a literal Genesis preferring to accept that God created first Chaos and then re-ordered creation in six days (but varied on the day’s duration). From 1770 when geological evidence for a vast age was widely held, the opposition from the church was minimal and it was only after 1817 that some British Christians argued for literalism. By 1860 the number of literalist Christian writers scarcely tops double figures. From my research I found that 10-20 % of Anglican clergy were literalist in 1820-30, I found none after 1860 to 1970, except for W.H. Griffith Thomas in 1919, and in the noughties the figure is 10%.
The roots of “Creationism” are to be found in the Seventh Day Adventist Church following the visions and teaching of Ellen White. From about 1900 the Adventist George McCready Price, who had a year of college science teaching, began to write books like The New Geology and Evolutionary Geology, in which he argued all geology was wrong and that all strata were laid down in Noah’s Flood. His works had a limited impact in the USA, but paved the way for the future.
In the fifties a hydraulics engineer (Henry Morris) and a theologian (John Whitcomb) were concerned on how evangelicals were beginning to accept evolution and collaborated to write The Genesis Flood, (1961). In part, this was an un-acknowledged re-hash of McCready Price. It was this book and the work of Henry Morris that gave rise to the new “Creationism”. At first it grew slowly but after 1970 took off, resulting in a plethora of creationist organisations throughout the world, and the many attempts to change science teaching.
THE APPEAL OF YEC.
It is essential to understand and empathise with the sheer appeal of YEC to many evangelicals.
- It is a counterblast to the atheism of Richard Dawkins et al.
- It challenges the perceived reductionism of modern science.
- It seems to defend Biblical authority.
- It supports the Gospel, by upholding the atoning death of Christ which is seen as meaningless if death did not come in at the Fall.(Romans 5. 17, I Cor 15.21) then the work of Christ is void and the Gospel wrong. (This is the strongest objection to the scientific picture as it is seen as inconceivable that even animals died before Adam fell.)
- It defends the moral teaching of the Bible and upholds marriage etc.
- It is an integral part of the Culture Wars between secular humanism and Christianity. (This is largely American but has migrated over here.)
A CATEGORY MISTAKE?
In April 2006 the Archbishop of Canterbury made some passing remarks about YEC in an interview and described it as a category mistake. By this he meant that the Bible is not meant to teach science, which, though it needed saying, goes back to both Augustine and Calvin!
YEC is dependent on a literal interpretation of early Genesis, which is considered to be straightforward history. This is expounded in many writings e.g. The Genesis Flood, Genesis for Today and the websites of AIG, ICR and BCS. This results in the rejection of “billions of years” and the insistence of a short time-scale. In this YECs reject the interpretations of most Biblical scholars, past and present. The more liberal scholars (Speiser, von Rad, Westermann etc) see Genesis as myth and the more conservative and evangelical avoid the word myth and may see it as primal history. Evangelical exegetes who accept a long geological timescale include Wenham, Kidner, Hamilton, Walton, Blocher. Waltke and Atkinson. Very few are literalist and only Currid and Aalders come to mind.
I do not have space to discuss genre etc. but a few words are needed on accommodation. For hundreds of years, scholars have realised that Genesis is written in the thought-forms of its day and thus commentators like Calvin and most since have emphasised that God through Moses accommodated His revelation to what was then known. Calvin is most forthright and wrote, “He, who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere”. (Commentary on Gen 1.6). Calvin considered this accommodation to be concerned with astronomy (as Genesis does present a flat earth etc), but later writers, both Protestant and Roman, extended this to geological time. This was the consensus long before Darwin and critical Old Testament scholarship in the 19th century.
To insist that Genesis is straight history is to ignore its literary nature, and is thus a category mistake.
The vast corpus of YEC literature (books, articles, websites) put forward arguments, frequently presented as scientific, why the evolutionary picture is wrong and why “proper” science supports a young earth. In their critique of evolution of cosmology, geology and biology are found wanting and this is the substance of YEC books, e.g. McIntosh. All geological evidence for great age is rejected and it is claimed that radiometric age-dating is flawed as it is based on false assumptions. This attack on conventional science has been the mark of YEC since Morris published The Genesis Flood in 1961. Time and time again, the inaccuracies of these attacks have been publicised by evangelical and humanist alike, but to no avail. The Talkorigins website itemises many of these. I could spend pages discussing the so-called objections to “evolution” but suffice it to say that no substantial criticism has ever been made. Of course, there are the usual red herrings like Piltdown Man (a superb practical joke which was rumbled by an evolutionary palaeoanthropologist), Nebraska man, Haeckel’s doctored diagrams, peppered moths, etc, etc. Even if they were all true, which they are not, it still leaves the remaining 99.99% of scientific evidence for the vast age of the universe untouched.
YECs also try to demonstrate that “true” science supports a young earth and thus a literal Genesis. Their literature is full of such arguments, which can seem plausible to the uninitiated, but are simply based on bad science. Some is risible as the order of fossils in the geological column is explained by the difference in victim mobility as animals more fleet of foot could escape the engulfing flood more successfully only to be interred in the higher strata. However that does not explain why the speedy velociraptors of Jurassic Park fame are found in much lower strata than sloths! Perhaps the most amusing is Woodmarappe’s Noah’s Ark; a feasibility study, in which he suggests that Noah trained the animals (including dinosaurs) to poop on command to ease the work of mucking out. Even so, the head of science at Emmanuel College, Gateshead reckons this book should be used in science teaching. Philip Bell formerly of AIG reckons that pictures of animals on Bishop Bell’s tomb (d1496) in Carlisle Cathedral are of dinosaurs, indicating that they were alive and well in Cumbria 500 years ago. Perhaps the good bishop had a pet dinosaur!
When I first read YEC books in 1971, while studying under Francis Schaeffer at L’Abri, I soon spotted most of the geological errors. I was more concerned by the frequent misquotation and misrepresentation of scientific sources by Henry Morris and other writers. Since then this has been documented innumerable times and I cannot think of one YEC writer, American, Australian or British, who does not do this. Further, writers do not correct their misrepresentation when it is pointed out. If this were at the level of the occasional misquote, it could be put down to incompetence. However, it is systematic and continues to be repeated, even when the misrepresentation was pointed out over a quarter a century ago. To give an example, in 1974, Henry Morris in Scientific Creationism stated that radiometric determinations on lavas which erupted in 1801 on Kilauea in Hawaii gave dates between 160 million years and 3 billion. In the early 80s Brent Dalrymple of the U.S. Geological Survey, pointed out that the paper giving the 3 billion year old results were, in fact, on inclusions in the lava, which came from the mantle, and not from the lava itself. (I have a copy of this 1968 paper and found it supported Dalrymple.) Yet the same false argument is repeated by McIntosh (p195) writing in 1997. This is one example of hundreds that I discovered. More are on http://www.talkorigins.org
This raises a very serious moral question. Are YEC writers plain incompetent, totally deluded, or are they dishonest? It is a question I have asked myself since 1971. I can accept that a well-meaning YEC, who has no scientific training, could misunderstand scientific writings and in their enthusiasm to uphold the Bible misquote inadvertently. The problem comes when the author has a Ph.D., or even a D.Sc. in science or engineering. Then there is simply no excuse.
I have dealt with this at length, as it is the most contentious aspect of YEC and is also the main reason why the whole issue of “Creationism” causes more heat than light.
DENIGRATION OF FELLOW CHRISTIANS
Christians who will not accept YEC are often unlovingly criticised and charged with denying the Bible etc. Special vehemence is often reserved for Evangelicals who regard YEC as wrong. Jonathan Sarfati of Answers in Genesis simply speaks of all who do not accept YEC as “compromisers” and his book Refuting Compromise is a vitriolic attack on the American Hugh Ross, who accepts the vast age of the universe but not evolution. Others are described as “supposedly evangelical” and examples are not hard to find.
One of the most recent examples is the YEC/ID proponent Paul Nelson, who in a debate in California on 14 May 2006, both grossly misrepresented a Christian geologist, Keith Miller, and also said of the Anglican theologian Peacocke, “Arthur Peacock (sic) I’m not sure would call himself a Christian, he has a rather heterodox theology”. That is bigotry.
INFLUENCE IN EDUCATION
Since the early seventies, YECs and now IDers have been active in trying to change the way science is taught in schools. In virtually every state attempts have been made to teach an alternative to evolution. So far none have succeeded. The most significant cases were Arkansas (1981). Louisiana(1988), Kansas 1999-2006, Ohio (2002) and Dover, PA (2005). Before 1995 all attempts were made by YECs but this decade there has been a coalition of both YEC and ID. So far, whenever a case has gone to court, YECs lose, yet it seems that whenever YECs debates an “evolutionist” they always win the debate, whether against Polkinghorne or myself!
YEC has also impacted home schooling and evangelical colleges in the USA. The vast majority of home schooling material on science YEC, and is of a poor standard. The college situation is complex. Since 1970 there has been immense pressure on evangelicals to teach “Creation Science”. Some do e.g. Bob Jones, Cedarville, and others. AIG has listed what colleges teach and is very critical of places like Wheaton, Messiah, Gordon, Calvin and others for not teaching YEC. Some colleges, like Taylor Univ, IN, are split between faculties with geology out on a limb. Evangelical colleges have to be careful as many students come from YEC homes. This was my experience when I taught a geology course for Wheaton College. Lecturers are sometimes asked if they teach creation (one I know simply replies “Yes”!), but even electronic engineers in state universities (Kansas) are asked by worried parents if there is any evolution in the course.
At present it is not legal to teach any form of “Creationism” in the USA, but it has been taught in the UK since the early Nineties in the city academies sponsored by the car salesman Sir Peter Vardy. Vardy denies this, but is contradicted by public lectures given by his headteachers McQuoid and Burn, chairman of the Christian Institute (“Clearly also schools should teach the creation theory as literally depicted in Genesis.”) and Steve Layfield the head of science of Emmanuel College, who says, “we may well consider the historical fall to explain effects such as lunar craters…” Yet all connected with Emmanuel College claim to teach the National Curriculum. These schools have attracted much criticism since 2002, but the churches’ response has been muted in contrast to strident criticisms from Dawkins et al.
Part of the fallout of all this is that secular groups are using Vardy’s academies to argue against any type of faith schools, Anglican, Roman Catholic or Muslim as well as fundamentalist. They have a point, and the Church of England needs to address this.
The influence of YEC in the USA is immense and probably the majority of American evangelicals, both pastors and laity, accept YEC. More and more churches are writing a six-day creation into their statement of faith. Churches are often hostile to those who will not accept YEC and there have been several high profile examples of Christians pilloried, charged with heresy or losing jobs because of their refusal to espouse YEC (e.g. Terry Gray, Howard Van Till and Daniel Wonderly). There are innumerable lesser examples of Christians made unwelcome in YEC churches. Very often there is considerable acrimony directed at non-YEC Christians. Needless to say there is fallout and some reject the teachings of their church and adopt a more “liberal” position or lose their faith. I will never forget a delightful young evangelical lady from Wheaton College complaining to the head of geology that she was brainwashed by the youth pastor in her church. The strident nature of some YEC church leaders, e.g. Pat Robertson adds to the Culture Wars in the USA.
In Britain the influence is not so marked, but it seems some 10% of Anglican clergy are YEC, and possibly one archdeacon. Further most non-Anglican evangelical churches are YEC, whereas they were not 30 years ago. University Christian Unions are becoming more YEC in contrast to 30 years ago.
Part of this is due to continual round of YEC speakers from a variety of organisations who visit many churches with their “creation message”. The main ones in Britain are AIG, the Biblical Creation Society, and every year or so John Mackay from Australia. “Creation” i.e. a Six Day Creation is portrayed as the fundamental belief and is seen as an integral part of evangelism. In one sense it is highly successful.
Since 1990 another creationist player has appeared – Intelligent Design (ID). This has had wide appeal at it challenges Darwinism (whatever that is!) and avoids problems over Genesis. It thus gains support from conservative Christians who wish to avoid YEC. The main proponents are Philip Johnson (a lawyer), Bill Dembski, Michael Behe (author of Darwin’s Black Box) and Steve Meyer. ID is often criticised (justly in my view) for putting forward a God-of-the-gaps argument and for mispresentation of standard evolutionary science. Further the choice of Chance or Design is often put over in a simplistic way, which is totally divorced from scientific findings, especially on the age of the earth. Two of the worst offenders on misrepresentation are Johnson and Jonathan Wells author of Icons of Evolution. Frequently YECs try to play the ID card first, as that is less offensive to many, and then bring in young earth arguments.
Despite massive funding from the Discovery Institute and claims that they will replace “Darwinism” they have very little to show for it. In the 90s ID appeared to be separate from YEC but recently YECs have worked with ID over various education cases in the USA (Kansas, Ohio and Dover), and the genetic link between them has become apparent.
TRUTH IN SCIENCE.
At the end of September 2006 every head of science in secondary schools has received a pack of two DVDs from Truth in Science. In their words Truth in Science was “launched this week with a website [ www.truthinscience.org.uk] and a mailing to all Secondary School and College Heads of Science in the United Kingdom. TiS provides resources to assist teachers in allowing students to critically examine Darwin’s theory of evolution. Whilst accepting that changes in gene frequencies occur over time, and that limited evolution occurs in nature, TiS encourages a rigorous examination of whether or not this can explain the origin of life and its huge diversity.” On the surface this seems promising but it is simply Young Earth Creationism repackaged in opaque plastic.
This initiative has been a year or two in the planning and is well-thought out, with considerable financial backing. They have a Board of Directors, Council of Reference and a scientific panel. Prominent is Andy McIntosh, Professor of Thermodynamics and Combustion Theory at the University of Leeds and author of Genesis for Today, which is largely about the value of Genesis for ethics. It contains several scientific appendices which are full of scientific errors and distortions. Another director is Steve Layfield, head of science at Emmanuel College, Gateshead, who fervently supports teaching YEC in schools, even suggesting that the Fall of Adam resulted in lunar craters and thus should be taught as science. Two others are John Blanchard, evangelist and author of Evolution: fact or fiction? Has Science Got Rid of God? and Does God Believe in Atheists?, which are full of scientific distortion, and George Curry, Vicar of Elswick Parish Church, Newcastle, on the board of the Christian Institute and Chairman of Church Society. All the fifteen mentioned on the website are YEC, and connected variously with Biblical Creation Society, Answers in Genesis and other groups. This is not apparent in the website materials as any reference to YEC is avoided in preference to “teaching the controversy” and presenting that “Alternatives to Darwinian evolution as a theory of origins can be taught in Key Stages 3 and 4 under the topic of Ideas and evidence in science. These topics give pupils some understanding of the nature of scientific enquiry and how modern scientists work. … Darwin’s theory of evolution has been highlighted in KS4 as an example of how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence.”
There is an air of superficial plausibility about this, which is apparent in four lesson plans on Irreducible Complexity (Intelligent Design’s catchphrase), the Fossil Record, Homology and Natural Selection. As a geologist I will only comment on the Fossil Record Lesson Plan, where “Pupils are introduced to the three theories currently used to interpret the fossil record: Phyletic Gradualism, Punctuated Equilibrium and Phyletic Discontinuity.” These three are, of course, Darwinian gradualism, PE and essentially Six Day Creation, and it is disingenuous to present the last as a scientific theory. It claims that “Some scientists suggest that the standard ‘geologic column’ is itself flawed…”, whereas none do. This is not the place to argue why the third option just aint science. Some of the geology presented is simply mistaken.
The material on the website is carefully packaged and its YEC roots, and thus its scientific worthlessness, may not be immediately apparent to the undiscerning. Though the “Cambrian Explosion” is mentioned (the “sudden” explosion of life forms spread over 10 million years some 550 million years ago), any reference to the vast age of the earth is carefully avoided. All the “committee” believe the earth to be 6000 to 10,000 years old and not 4.6 billion. In fact one cannot make any intelligent comment about the Cambrian Explosion without accepting its vast antiquity or its 10 million year long bang.
It is not possible to predict the outcome of this exercise. Some teachers have already used the DVDs to scare birds from their vegetable patch! However it will give a way for the increasing number of YEC science teachers to introduce YEC into the classroom, despite the fact that it is scientific nonsense and dependent on the gross misrepresentation of standard science. It is a concern that the authors are sure that OFSTED will not object to their ideas. Results will be to confuse students, and to increase the antagonism of atheists and the opposition to faith schools of any kind.
One result of Truthinscience has been opposition from atheistic scientists, who can rightly point out the bad science, but also use it as an argument for their mantra “faith is contrary to reason”, and opposition to faith schools. Some of this is coming out on the web forum of the British Council for Science Education, which seems to have no leading scientists among its members.
Dawkins is the most outspoken exponent of atheistic science and has published a string of books trying to show that Darwin delivered the death blow to God. His latest is The God Delusion, which stands or falls by his definition of faith as contrary to reason and following Dennett that Darwinism is the “universal acid” that destroys any religious belief. It is easy to contradict his arguments BUT he has many followers and is the most widely read popular scientific writer. He also reflects what Joe Public thinks, especially from the naïve RE taught in Sunday School and school which focuses on Adam and Eve, and Noah’s Ark with two lions, two polar bears and two kangaroos hopping aboard!
This also results in the whole issue being polarised between biblical creation, either in six days or by Intelligent Design OR atheistic evolution. Those with some science are inclined to choose the latter and Christians, especially evangelicals, will choose the former. This is a false choice.
Further Dawkins and friends feed on YEC and ID and vice versa.
As this controversy comes over as a polarised choice of “evolution” or “creation”, other Christian understandings are often overlooked or ignored. Until 25 years YEC was almost unheard of and most Christians, evangelicals or not, accepted the standard evolutionary picture, though some accepted the long ages of geology but not evolution. These views represent the majority among scientific Christians. Christians in Science is made of many evangelical scientists, the vast majority of whom reject YEC, with several FRSs and science professors. These include leaders like Sir John Houghton and others. Their website is full of good material and members have written some useful books e.g. those by Alister McGrath and Denis Alexander in particular. Very useful are the many books of Sir John Polkinghorne. The literature is vast.
One also needs to consider the scientific Christians of the past and especially the many in the 19th century who had no problem with geology or evolution and some who were leading scientists of the day. Northern examples include the geologist Adam Sedgwick of Dent, H.B.Tristram of Durham who was the first to use Darwin’s ideas in 1858, Richard Owen of dinosaurs. Darwin’s popularisers in the USA were both evangelicals – Asa Gray and James Dana.
In this short paper I have given a brief summary of all types of creationist views and why I consider them both wrong and dangerous to education and the life of the church. Often I have had to give conclusions without supporting evidence. This I have in plenty. However I have studied the various forms of creationism for 35 years and am acquainted with many proponents both in Britain and the USA.
Neither YEC nor ID has any scientific credence whatsoever and are based on a poor theology and a wayward Biblical hermeneutic. The positive scientific arguments for YEC and ID are fallacious, but perhaps the most serious criticism is the fact that most YECs and to a lesser extent IDers misquote and misrepresent orthodox science. It is this misquotation, which causes the acrimony and is the most serious flaw in any form of “creationism”, and there are no signs that “creationists” are willing to correct their faults. This is a great tragedy as most YECs are very fervent in evangelism and the proclamation and teaching of the Gospel, but truth in all its forms is at the heart of our faith.
I rest my case that YEC and ID are disasters for education and the church. Today there are so many good scholars writing on Science and Religion, e.g. John Polkinghorne, Alister McGrath, and many more you can find on the Christians in Science and American Scientific Affiliation websites.
Andy McIntosh Genesis for Today.(A good example of British YEC)
Miller, Ken, Finding Darwin’s God, Harper/Collins £8, pbk
LUCAS, E. 2001 Can we believe Genesis today? Intervarsity Press Leicester.
NUMBERS, R. L. 1992 The Creationists. A. A. Knopf, New York
ROBERTS, M.B.2008 Evangelicals and Science. Greenwood Press
WHITCOMB, J.C. & MORRIS, H. M. 1961, The Genesis Flood. Presbyterian and Reformed, New Jersey.
DEMBSKI AND RUSE (eds) Debating Design 2004, Cambridge Univ Press. Essays both favourable and critical of ID
GIBERSON & YERXA, Species of Origins, Rowman and Littlefield
WALTON, J.H., Genesis (NIV application commentary). A wise and very conservative commentary.
Dembski and Ruse (eds) Debating Design, 2004 Cambridge University Press
- cis.org.uk Christians in Science (Especially 18 March 2006 conference on Design)
http://www.talkorigins.org A useful technical anti–Young Earth Creationist site. Comprehensive. Anti-christian at times!
- asa3.org Site of an American evangelical science and religion site, varying in perspective from evolutionary to creationist. Very useful, much good stuff, some dross. Some good links.
http://www.ncseweb.org/ National Center for Science Education, Oakland. Very useful. http://graphite.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/Seminars.php The Faraday Institute
Young Earth CreationistWebsites
- answersingenesis.org Answers in Genesis
- icr.org Institute of Creationist Research
- pages.org/bcs/ Biblical Creation society (UK)
- creationresearch.net John Mackay’s website.
 I have presented the arguments for this in The Genesis of Ray, Evangelical Quarterly, 2002, volLXXIV p 143-63 and in a chapter in Myth and Geology in Special Publication 273 of the Geological Society of London, (2007)
 see Ron Numbers The Creationists