Last post I tried to offer a bit of an introduction to the world of creationist argumentation, and I tried to show a brief history of the movement, as well as provide what I saw as three of the dominant strategies used by creationists to push their rhetoric. In this post, I will take a closer look at some of the more common strands of creationist thinking, including Young Earth Creationism, Old Earth Creationism, and theistic evolution, which happens to be the brand preferred by the Catholic Church. There are also a number of sub-types of creationist rhetoric as well as several species of mutually reinforcing beliefs, such as ‘Flood Geology’, and I’ll touch on them a bit as well. I’ll start with what I feel is the least offensive of these different types of creationist rhetoric, theistic evolution.
Theistic Evolution: Pushing God Back a Step
The concept of Theistic Evolution has more than a few sub-groups and beliefs, but generally speaking, it goes something like this: There is a God. God created the material universe (and hence is the ultimate cause of everything in it). Evolution through natural selection is the mechanism by which life grows and changes over time, and is simply the process through which God brought human beings into existence. Also, the universe is however old scientists say it is (so around 14 – 15 billion years or so). Humans evolved.
Note the part that is important for our purposes; Theistic evolution believers accept evolution – the scientific definition of evolution (the change in the frequency of alleles within a genetic population over time). Where they differ (for the most part) is that they claim that God is the ultimate creator of the physical universe. That may or may not be true, but since we’re primarily concerned with creationism v. evolution at the moment, this question is irrelevant. We’re not talking about abiogenesis here, or the origins of the universe; we’re talking about whether or not theistic evolution believers accept evolution and with a few modifications, they do.
Of the three dominant species of creationism, this is the one where you would tend to find people like Kenneth Miller, a devout Catholic who is about as loud an advocate of science as one is likely to find in any camp. Miller is famous for his strident opposition to both Intelligent Design and traditional Creationism, and was a star witness for the pro-evolution side in the Dover trial. Another individual who would be found in this category is Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project. This form of creationist philosophy is the stated position of the Catholic Church, although recent statements by the current pope (and Emperor Palpatine lookalike) Benedict XVI have muddied the waters somewhat. The Church states that the physical form of humanity may have evolved, but it’s soul is the product of a special and divine creation. Well, okay, I don’t care what a person thinks about the origin of an impossible-to-detect spiritual substance.
This brand of creationism is, I believe, an adaptable one, as it has essentially internalized the ‘God of the Gaps’ argument, which allows it to reposition the location or role of God in response to the advancing frontiers of science. It still possesses many of the inherent flaws of other theistic beliefs – such as the problem of actually providing evidence for the existence of God – but in strictly practical terms (and in my opinion) they’re not the enemy. It isn’t often that one finds news articles or anti-science screeds written by or about theistic evolutionists, and more often than not, people such as Miller and Collins can be counted on to stand with atheists, secularists, and skeptics in the face of creationist legislation. In many ways, theistic evolution stands apart from its more hard-core creationist cousins.
I know many of the more vocal atheists of my acquaintance actually dislike this particular perspective the most, as they feel that by accepting evolution while placing God in a position of ‘evolution’s guiding hand’ is more sneaky and dishonest than the more blatant types of creationism. I disagree. Those theists who accept this form of evolution are doing what most skeptics and atheists want them to do: they’re agreeing with scientists about evolution! It’s true that they may think of God as a sort of ‘Prime Mover’ or the source of the first ‘spark’ of life, but those aren’t issues with evolution, are they? This is one of the problems I find with some atheist and anti-theist arguments: We demand that religious people accept the facts of evolution as science has demonstrated, so some of them do. Then we reject or dismiss their move because they still think that God is the cause of everything in the universe. This is ironically similar to one of the most hated tactics used by creationists: They demand evidence for evolution, so we provide it, only to have them then demand that we show them evidence for the origins of life – abiogenesis – even though the origins of life have nothing to do with the theory of evolution*. It’s the fallacy of shifting the goalposts. I’ll have a bit more to say about this at the end of this post. Remind me in case I forget.
Old Earth Creationism: Trying to become true by changing the meaning of the word ‘Day’
The second species of creationism – and the first of the solidly creationist philosophies discussed – is ‘Old Earth’ creationism. Again, using broad strokes, Old Earth creationism holds that humans (and all other life) are the product of a special, divine creationism at some point after the point at which God created the Earth. Yep, Old Earth creationists generally adhere to the account of creation found in Genesis. Old Earth creationists will generally argue that the Earth is hundreds of millions – perhaps even billions – of years old, and will generally agree with scientists that there is ample evidence of such an ancient Earth. Some Old Earth creationists argue that theistic evolution is merely one strand of Old Earth creationism, along with another two species called ‘Progressive Creationism’ and ‘Gap theory’.
Progressive Creationism generally holds that the Biblical account of creation is the right one, but argue that a ‘day’ according to God may in fact be millions of years as we understand them, and that a ‘proper’ reading of the events of Creation Week should be understood to have happened over the course of hundreds of millions of years. By hewing to this interpretation, Old Earth creationists feel that their beliefs are more in line with standard scientific understanding, which is apparently quite important to them. So who is Adam then? Well, according to PCs, Adam was the first modern human to exist on Earth – the first hominid to possess a soul. Previous hominid species, while having existed, were soul-less beings and therefore simply animals, like apes. The Fall of Man and the expulsion from Eden is seen as a real event, as is the Flood, although the Flood is believed to have been a local, rather than global event.
Gap Theory, on the other hand, holds that the creation events of Genesis took place in during a period of consecutive 24-hour days but that there is a gap between the events of Genesis 1:1 and 1:2. In other words, the Earth was specially created at some point in the distant past, and that after the world was created there was a long period of time between its formation and the beginnings of life – a period known as ‘the Chaotic Earth’. After an indeterminate period of time, God again touched the earth and began the events of the ‘Creation Week’, during an age known as ‘the Restored Earth’.
By having this mysterious ‘Chaotic Earth’ period, Gap Theorists are able to have a cushion where they can argue that ‘even science’ has shown that there was a gap between the creation of the world and the origins of life. By keeping the length of chaotic time vague and hence fluid, Gap Theorists don’t really have to worry all that much about being contradicted by new scientific discoveries about the early Earth.
Whatever their stripes, Old Earth Creationists seem to be sincere in their attempt to harmonize their literalist beliefs with scientific understanding, but their inability or unwillingness to drop the literalism is ultimately what dooms their particular set of beliefs to failure. It is ironic that in order to remain true to their literalist traditions, OECs actively reinterpret the Bible in order to ‘make it fit’ with modern science, an act which, by definition, undermines their desire at literalism. Such sloppy – yet rigid – thinking is lamentable, because it seems as though some in the OEC movement honestly do want to accept scientific principles, unlike the next group of religious folk.
Young Earth Creationism
By far the most common of all of the creationist groups, Young Earth Creationists (YECs) ignore and are often outright hostile towards the advances of science – and scientists in general. According to some surveys, over 40% of all Americans are YECs of one form or another. Here in Canada, we’re doing a bit better, with only 22% of Canadians who believe in one form of YEC or another (although the same poll shows over 40% of Canadians believe that humans and dinosaurs co-existed… is this problem with the survey design, or a serious problem with Canadians’ basic understanding of our planet’s history?). Regardless of which country (Canada) has fewer creationists (sorry!), there are a number of core beliefs which set this species of creationism apart from the others and, I would argue, make it by far the most dangerous of the group, and the one that must be opposed more than any other.
YECs believe in a literalist interpretation of the Bible, specifically in a literalist reading of Genesis. Not only did God create the world and everything on it in six twenty-four hour periods, but that the genealogies present in Genesis are the true lineages of early humans, incredible life-spans and all. Any and all evidence which disagrees with this narrow interpretation – no matter how indirect the disagreement may be – must be discarded as it is by definition false and anathema. In fact, this very sentiment can be found explicitly stated in the statement of faith of one of the largest clearing houses of YEC material online, Answers in Genesis (Section 4, Part 6). According to YEC advocates, the Earth is six to ten thousand years old, and it and all life on it is the product of a special divine creation. There is no acceptance of evolutionary theory – although some will agree to the scientific definition that I gave earlier, but they label that ‘Micro-evolution’ which they argue is qualitatively different than – and divorced from ‘macro-evolution’. It’s important to note here that from the YEC perspective, this micro-macro split is necessary in order to maintain the belief in a young earth. Large-scale evolutionary change (most speciation, for example) requires a fair amount of time in order to occur, and YEC simply cannot accept that the earth has been around that long.
If a person believes in Flood Geology, then chances are good that they are also a Young Earth Creationist as the two often go hand in hand. When faced with the overwhelming evidence that the Earth is older than they believe it to be, YECs simply invent laughable explanations that manage to convince almost no one who isn’t already desperate to believe it. Need an explanation for how the Flood happened? How about a giant water vapour canopy in space? Oh, you need evidence that the Flood happened at all? Well, how about that there are stories from all over the world about floods; clearly they’re all talking about the same Biblical Flood, even if they contradict each other at every turn? If any form of creationism deserves the title of ‘Most Dishonest’, it’s Young Earth Creationism, hands down. I’ll have a bit more to say about this particular brand of Creationism in the third (and final) segment of this blog, but for now, I think I’ll stop here.
Conclusion of Part Two:
Earlier I mentioned that I’d have more to say about a particularly annoying habit many atheists and anti-theists have when it comes to opposing Creationism. So here it is: If you’re going to oppose some idea or belief, it’s best to know what type of belief you’re countering in the first place. If someone tells you that they’re a creationist and you immediately begin mocking them for thinking that the world is young, you might be in for a bit of an embarrassment if it turns out that they are a theistic evolutionist. Arguing from a position of ignorance is like bringing a knife to a gun fight; you might win, but it’s unlikely. Each species of creationism is a complex web of beliefs and premises, and not all of them may be wrong. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the old saying goes.
A second issue I have is if you are going to discussing evolutionary theory with a creationist, and that creationist agrees with you that humans evolved, but that God was the ultimate cause, acknowledge that they have agreed with your premise that evolution is true! Don’t simply reject or dismiss this acknowledgment because you and they disagree on first causes; evolution has nothing to say about origins, so if it’s wrong for a creationist to link the two, it’s wrong for you too. If, after coming to an agreement about the validity of evolutionary theory, the two of you wish to move on and debate first causes, then great, but make sure to separate the two – for the creationist and for yourself.
That’s it for this segment. In the final segment, I’ll dig deeper into Young Earth Creationism and highlight some of the possible reasons why it’s so popular – and dangerous. I’ll also highlight a couple of the linkages to other fringe theories such as Flood Geology. Stay tuned.
*It really doesn’t. Even if it were the case that God actually created the first primordial forms of life, such forms could still evolve through naturalistic processes. That’s why Abiogenesis and the Theory of Evolution are two separate things!