Creationism is a surprisingly complex and diverse position that has had resurgence in the first part of the 21st century. Initially a stance taken in response to the development of evolutionary sciences in the 19th century, Creationism is usually based on three fundamental positions:
- A superior being created all out of nothing.
- The doctrine of the essentialism of species.
- A divine being creates individual human souls.
While creationism is most often cited as a position held by certain Christian groups, there are also a number of non-Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Vedic, and indigenous groups that maintain creationist positions. And, although creationism has often been reduced to a simple antiscientific stance, it is an area that actually contains a wide range of ideas and formulations. These can be divided into Christian-based beliefs, non-Christian, and “great tradition” beliefs.
- One of the oldest associations of creationists is the Flat Earth Society. While a seeming anachronism today, the Flat Earth Society maintains a lively discussion based on a literal translation of the biblical account of Noah and the Flood. Their view is that the earth is covered by a solid dome (firmament) and that attempts to “prove” the earth is round are biased, politically driven propaganda.
- Geocentric creationists have had a resurgence in the past 20 years, notably led by Tom Will’s movement to reform the Kansas school system curriculum. This version of creationism posits the earth as spherical but argues that the Earth, and not the sun, is the center of the universe. Using a literal interpretation of the Old Testament Hebrew cosmological assumption, the geocentric creationists have lobbied extensively to ban references to evolution, earth history, and scientific methods from public school textbooks and classrooms.
- A controversial but influential work by the famed English naturalist, P. H. Gosse, Omphalos, published in 1857, united Christian fundamentalism and uniformitarianism. Gosse argued that our perception of age influences the way we see the earth. Predating Darwin’s work by 2 years, Gosse maintained that the earth appears old to us but is really quite young. While he managed to affront both fundamentalists and scientists with his theories, it remains a work that is discussed in literature (Borges) and in science (Stephen Jay Gould) and by creationists.
- Restitution creationists, or “gap creationists,” interpret the two creations of Genesis (Gen. 1 and Gen. 2) to account for the age of the Earth, and the relatively recent creation of life. According to this tradition, God created the ancient world in Genesis 1, and millions of years passed. Genesis 2 is God’s recreation of the world, accomplished in a literal 6 days. This would then account for the age of the earth geologically, and for the recent arrival of human beings.
- Day-age creationists interpret the 6 days of creation as a metaphor. Rather than a literal 24-hour day, each day stands for millions of years. In this way, they account for God’s ongoing creation as well as the age of the earth.
- Progressive creationists view modern science as providing evidence of God’s power at work in the universe. The big bang theory is accepted in that it explains the Creator’s immense grandeur. However, modern biology and evolutionary sciences are viewed with extreme skepticism, and this school maintains an essentialist position concerning the development of species.
- An extremely influential book published by William Paley in 1802 has formed the basis of much creationist thought in what is termed intelligent design. In Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature, Paley laid out the nature of intelligent design in the universe, or natural theology. The work echoes elements of Thomistic theology, adding to the spiritual philosophy elements of microbiology, mathematics, and logic. This area of creation-ism is especially adroit in its attacks on evolutionary science and scientific methodology and maintains that evolutionary sciences are in fact a form of materialist philosophy. Some influential groups that argue this position include the Discovery Institute and The Center for Renewal of Science and Culture.
- Evolutionary creationism is yet another Christian-based school of thought that is based on a literal interpretation of the story of Genesis. It adds to this an acknowledgment of scientific objectivity. However, while all of nature depends on the will of God for its beingness, Creation took place before time as, we now experience it, was in place. Thus, there were biological human creatures prior to Adam and Eve, but Adam and Eve were the first spiritually aware beings.
- Theistic evolution is a Christian position that is held by the larger Protestant denominations and by most Roman Catholics. In their creationist account, God created and is present in the evolutionary process. Most of contemporary scientific method and theory is acceptable here, as these disciplines shed light on how God works in human history. The Bible is generally used as an interpretive document that needs to be explained in light of new discoveries and insights. Thus, these creationists still posit a God that is outside the realm of science, and is unknowable in some areas (e.g., the creation of human souls).
- Young Earth creationists are often referred to as “scientific creationists.” This can cause some confusion, as their methodology is not scientific. Again, they rely on a literal interpretation of the Bible and follow Bishop Ussher’s calculation of a 4,000-year-old Earth. And while they accept the concept of a heliocentric solar system, all of the Earth’s processes are reduced to (a) the result of Noah’s flood and (b) the sin of Adam and Eve.
The term scientific creationism is derived from the work of George McCready Price, a Seventh-Day Adventist who was deeply influenced by the visions of the prophetess, Helen White. Gaining a wide audience in the 20th century by melding science with Biblical interpretations, Price remains an important icon long after his death (ca. 1963). The basics of scientific creationism are similar to the above schools; that is, God created the universe, and biological life was created in its essential form. The first humans were a special creation at a certain point in time. Again, the evidence of geological history is proof of the Great Flood of Genesis. And while nature must obey fixed laws, the Creator can intervene at any time. The science of this form of creationism is essentially a study of teleology; humans are supposed to study creation in order to understand our ultimate destiny. In most cases, this is posited as a finite Earth and an apocalyptic ending.
Summarizing the major points of most Christian creationists, the following points are pertinent:
- Creation is the work of a Trinitarian God.
- The Bible is a divinely inspired document.
- Creation took place in 6 days.
- All humans descended from Adam and Eve.
- The accounts of Earth in Genesis are historically accurate records.
- The work of human beings is to reestablish God’s perfection of creation though a commitment to Jesus.
Christian creationism was most infamously displayed in the Scopes Trial of 1925. Clarence Darrow defended John Scopes, the high school biology teacher, from the fundamentalist position of William Bryan. The national attention that this brought to evolution is usually overshadowed by the fact Scopes was convicted and fined for teaching evolutionary theory. The political nature of the creationist position continues today in numerous constitutional challenges to scientific teaching in public schools. Most often cited in recent debates in the Schemp Opinion (1963, Abington School vs. Schemp), which ruled that evolutionary teaching could represent overt antagonism to religious ideals. The revival of creationist efforts to influence public education in the 21st century has been seen in challenges in Georgia and Oklahoma school systems.
It would be a mistake to classify all creationists as Bible-based or Christian-based positions. For example, methodological materialists argue that while God did start creation, God does not actively interfere with evolutionary process. Agnostic in a sense, this school uses scientific methodology for explaining the creative influences in natural developments and denies the activity of a supernatural entity in natural processes.
Other examples of non-Christian creationists are Raelians, who claim life came from another planet. They attribute alien scientists and UFOs for life that we have on earth. The Panspermians claim that bacteria and other microorganisms were carried here from other solar systems by meteors and other naturally occurring phenomena. And catastrophic evolutionists maintain that evolution was quick, driven in quantum leaps by extreme conditions in the very recent past. Each of the above theoretical positions has produced cultlike followings, such as Heaven’s Gate and Solar Temple, that lie outside most organized religious creeds.
Great Traditions Creationism
Other major world religious traditions exemplify a wide spectrum of creationist thought. While Christianity has dominated the arena for some time in the West and has used its political power to influence public discourse on theory, science, and evolution, Islam, Judaism, Hindi, and indigenous religions also have commented on, and are concerned with, creationist ideals and discussions.
In the Hebrew tradition, a strict literal interpretation of the Torah is difficult to maintain. Unlike the fundamentalist translations that are part of the Christian tradition, Hebrew tradition maintains the importance of four levels of interpretation. Referred to as “PRDS” (garden, or paradise), creation in the Hebrew tradition is viewed as a complexity of
(a) Pshat, the literal meaning and intent of the verses;
(b) Remez, the particular grammar, spelling, syntax, and sentence structure that indicates deeper meaning;
(c) Drash, the homiletical level of interpretation (on this level the metaphorical potential of the verse for each individual life is important); and (d) Sod, the secret, mystical level of interpretation. Therefore, in the Hebrew tradition of creationism, a weaving of theology and philosophy can coexist with pure science in a manner that does not explicitly deny evolutionary explanations. Still, the explanation for all life is attributed to Yahweh and to the special relationship of Yahweh to the Hebrew people. Creation, then, took place outside of ordinary time, and the Genesis story exists to relate a story about relative values.
For the Islamic community, Genesis does not have the moral ascendancy as does the Koran. So, while Islam can tend to a more literal tradition of scriptural interpretation, it is not as rigid as Christian creation-ism. The Koran accounts of creation are quite vague, allowing a representation of diverse interpretations. The essential notion is that Allah created all, and Allah is all-good. Thus, the Islamic creationists exhibit a wide spectrum, from literalistic to the more liberal, especially depending on the area where the particular Islamic tradition is practiced.
Since much of the Islamic world remains an area where the theory of evolution has not yet taken hold, traditional Islamic beliefs regarding creation remain dominant. As more Western influences penetrate traditional areas, however, elements of intelligent design creationism are allied to Islamic teachings and science. Some fundamental Islamic groups have attached themselves to the Turkish writers Harun Yahya and Fethullah Gulen, who criticize Western evolutionary sciences as leading to moral corruption. Areas that illustrate particular allegiance to more Koran fundamental creationist ideals are Indonesia and Malaysia, citing the decadence of Western culture and society as evidence of the dangers of evolutionary thought.
According to the Hindu Vedic texts, the Earth is ancient, undergoing periodic transformations lasting billions of years. While the science of evolution and the Vedic teachings of creation appear to be conflicting, actually, the Avatars of Vishnu are viewed as close to Darwin’s theories of evolution. The theological/ philosophical basis of Hindu cosmology is based on a cyclical notion of time, with periodic creations, rebirths, and deaths. While the above major religions have shown evidence of sometimes quite volatile reactions to the concept of evolution, the creationism of Hindu is accepting of the theories within their own traditional way of knowing.
Various indigenous groups voice a strong challenge to the sciences of evolution today. In North America, the contemporary Native American movement criticizes the scientific community as being racist and biased toward a Eurocentric explanation and worldview. Calling upon their own tribal traditions of creation, many Indians maintain that they have always been in North America and were specially created to care for the Earth. In particular, many Indians discard the out-of-Africa notion and the spread of human beings through Asia, Europe, and the Pacific as an example of European control and domination. Along with this critique are arguments that the Ice Age and Beringia theories are scientific myths. For Native Americans, in general, the Great Spirit created the first people here, and they have always been here in order to care for the world. Vine Deloria Jr. has been particularly vocal about what he views as the ongoing colonization of thought by Western science and the abuse of indigenous epistemologies of creation.
Creationism, then, is a multifaceted epistemology that seeks to find the roots of human existence and the Earth’s existence in a spiritualized, nonscientific milieu. The strength of the movement has been particularly strong in the West, where scientific-style analysis of the Bible has taken place in the last 100 years. For while many denominations had for centuries viewed the Bible as the literal, unerring word of God, the critical analysis opened the door for a more systematic interpretation of the documents. This, in addition to the ascension of the scientific paradigms, brought concern about cultural changes and the seemingly atheistic turn to secularism. Among indigenous peoples, the influence of Nativistic movements has raised consciousness about their own traditional ways of knowing and skepticism about the ability of Western paradigms to provide essential answers to their ways of life. The creationists are united in their common cause to keep a sense of the mystical, nonscientific explanation for existence in the public discourse.
Creationism beliefs can also be viewed as reactionary movements to maintain a place within the rapidly shifting cultural environments today. As noted above, many Christian-based creationists are returning to a literal interpretation of Scripture and a call to return to older sets of biblically based values. Similarly, the creationist movements in Islam and Judaism tend to be fundamentalist reactions to the secularization of world cultures. And in the case of indigenous peoples and their need to maintain sovereignty and to maintain a critical place within a globalized culture, the recalling of creationist myths establishes their unique place in world history.
Creationist studies can be appropriate to the field of anthropology on several levels. For one, the examination and analysis of creation stories have consistently been an important area of folklore scholarship. Understanding the cosmology and cosmogony of a culture provides an insight into the way a society structures its institutions. In addition, the literary nuances of creationist concepts provide scientists with alternative ways of examining the merits of evolution over a wide spectrum. For example, Native American criticism of the ice-free corridor and the Clovis-first theories have continued to bring about alternative theories to new evidence of very ancient human occupation of the Americas. On the other hand, the scientific theoretical models that are integral to evolutionary sciences do not attempt to answer the same sorts of questions that the creationists are concerned with, such as the existence of God and a spirit world. Thus, while science is a powerful paradigm for explaining facts, it remains very important for anthropologists to be aware of and conversant with creationist accounts of existence, as well. This will enable the discipline to adapt to alternative worldviews and to continue to be sensitive to a wide spectrum of cultural phenomena.
- Deloria, V. Jr. (1995). Red earth, white lies: Native Americans and the myth of scientific fact. New York: Scribner.
- Eve, R. A. (1990). The creationist movement in modern America. Boston: Twayne.
- Kaiser, C. B. (1991). Creation and the history of science. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Moore, J. A. (2002). From Genesis to genetics: The case of evolution and creationism. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- National Academy of Sciences, Committee on Science and Creationism. (1984). Science and creationism: A view from the National Academy ofSciences. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
- Zabilka, I. (1992). Scientific malpractice: The creation/evolution debate. Lexington, KY: Bristol Books.