There is no dispute that we live in a highly technologically advanced society. Our understanding of and ability to manipulate the natural world for our benefit is greater by far than any other civilization that has ever existed on this planet – including the civilizations that gave birth to the major world religions of today. We regularly perform feats that, though they seem routine to us, would likely have been viewed by the ancients as nothing short of magical.
However, despite all our advances, there are still some areas of science in which the shadow of religious literalism lingers. Evolutionary biology is chief among these, of course, though religiously inspired anti-evolutionary attacks often touch on related fields such as paleontology, geology, physics and cosmology as well. This is an astonishingly broad sweep of attack, and one that requires either extreme confidence or extreme foolhardiness; nothing else, it would seem, could motivate a person to challenge virtually all the tested theories of modern science. How can the creationists be so sure of themselves; or, to put it another way – why creationism?
Given the obvious and indisputable fact that creationism arises from religion, the first and probably the most important reason why it exists is for the purpose of evangelism, something which is naturally of primary importance to its fundamentalist backers. Answers in Genesis’ Statement of Faith, for example, says plainly that “The scientific aspects of creation… are secondary in importance to the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” The Discovery Institute’s Wedge Document similarly admits that one of the intelligent design movement’s “Governing Goals” is to “replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God”. Arguing that the natural world proves the existence of the arguer’s God beyond scientific doubt is a very valuable tool to proselytizers – especially when used against an audience insufficiently informed about how science works, which most people are.
Still, this alone does not explain why creationists are so prone to use arguments that severely distort the process of science, or that are just plain false. An additional reason is needed to explain this, and a less charitable interpretation would be that some creationists see nothing wrong with telling lies for God, since saving souls is an end so important that it justifies any means, and besides, they are forgiven. (A few of them have admitted to doing exactly this, unfortunately. Others, such as Duane Gish, continue to promulgate arguments so plainly lacking in substance that it is difficult to interpret their behavior in any other way.) A more charitable, though hardly an exonerating, interpretation would be that creationists are so certain that they are correct that they feel it would be superfluous to check the facts. This kind of immovable faith may be a praiseworthy trait in religion, but it is the polar opposite of the way science works.
Both these hypotheses go a long way toward explaining why so many creationist arguments continue to be recycled long after they have been decisively disproven. However, there are other reasons that can contribute to explaining why creationism persists.
First among these reasons must surely be the state of scientific understanding among the public. To judge by surveys such as those of the National Science Foundation (see also this summary), an astonishingly high percentage, in some cases an outright majority, of people do not know many basic facts about how science works or what it has discovered. Nearly half of Americans, for example, do not know how long it takes the Earth to revolve around the Sun, or that electrons are smaller than atoms, and over two-thirds cannot adequately define the scientific method. It is hardly going out on a limb to say that there is probably significant overlap between these groups and people who express creationist sympathies. Clearly the state of science education among the public is inadequate and could stand to be improved, regardless of how that reform is brought about. When scientists do not devote sufficient effort to communicating their ideas to the public, the scientific illiteracy that flourishes as a result makes it far easier for creationist beliefs to take root. Worse, when the general public does not understand what scientists do, creationists can step in and sow suspicion and misunderstanding, painting the scientific community with negative stereotypes (such as that scientists are all atheists) that make the task of education much more difficult. People are curious to learn and to understand, which makes it all the more important to provide them with good information; otherwise the peddlers of pseudoscience will be sure to step in.
Another factor, related to the last, must be the fact that science is difficult and complex, while creationism is simple. Though the growth of our scientific understanding has brought unparalleled improvements to our way of life, it has also revealed that the universe is in some respects a deeply strange and counterintuitive place, overturning many old common-sense notions about the way things seem to work. Einstein’s theory of relativity, for example, shows that there is no “absolute” or “universal” time against which all things can be measured, and that different observers can record the same event happening at different times without either being wrong. Even more strange is the theory of quantum mechanics, which states that some objects literally do not have a well-defined position until an attempt is made to measure them, along with many other bizarre and paradoxical claims. Both these theories have been tested and borne out by countless experiments, but do not at all fit with everyday notions about the world.
Evolution may not be as strange as these theories, but it is still an idea that requires adopting a substantially different perspective – the perspective of geological time – than the one we are used to. On human timescales, species do indeed seem to be fixed, not mutable. (As creationists never tire of reminding us, no dog has ever given birth to a cat.) But this intuition is deceptive, and it requires a great deal of evidence to overcome, which is why it took a naturalist as patient and diligent as Charles Darwin to build a convincing case for it. Though the process itself is simple enough to explain, to truly understand how and why evolution works requires comprehending evidence from a wide variety of scientific disciplines.
Creationism, on the other hand, requires no such burdensome study, no amassing of evidence, no mastery of complex concepts. Its ideas are so simple, they can be and have been summed up in Sunday school sermons for children. It is not hard to see why many people would gravitate toward the option they can understand more easily, particularly in light of the generally poor understanding of the scientific method.
Finally, creationism’s persistence can be accounted for by noting that creationists tend to isolate themselves from other ideas in a way that scientists do not. As already stated, creationism springs from religion, and in most religions doubt is considered an evil act, the sign of a lack of faith. By contrast, the cardinal virtue of science is the opposite, a healthy skepticism that is always ready to reevaluate an idea, to test everything one more time. Science requires bending over backwards to account for all possible sources of error and admitting the ones that cannot be conclusively ruled out. These are very different approaches, and lead to different reactions in the two communities. When confronted with outside criticism, creationists tend toward a “circle the wagons” response in which they defend their own at all costs. It is not hard to see how this insular, “us vs. them” view, resisting all outside correction, would create an environment in which ideas could persist long after the evidence shows them to be false.
There is one more possible reason for why creationism survives to this day, and though this one is more speculative, I cannot help mentioning it. For all that it is held and defended by religious fundamentalists, whose faith may outwardly seem to be the strongest of all, I believe that creationism is the position taken by those of weak, fragile faith.
There is no disputing that creationists, like other religious people, place great value and importance on their beliefs. However, a great many believers are entirely comfortable with the idea that religious scripture teaches spiritual and not scientific truths, and if a literal interpretation of their text turns out to be incorrect, they can modify their understanding of that text and still hold to the deeper meaning. But creationists do not seem to be like this. Instead, they believe that the Bible (or whatever scripture) must stand or fall as a whole, exactly as they originally interpreted it, and if their beliefs turn out to be wrong in even a single particular, their entire belief system and everything that goes along with it will be destroyed. Indeed, many of them have said as much. (For example, from former creationist Glenn Morton‘s story, creationist John Morris: “If the earth is more than 10,000 years old, then Scripture has no meaning.”)
This, then, may be the ultimate purpose of creationism: to provide validation to believers who desperately require it. They want God to have worked in a specific way – their way – because that is what they have been taught to believe, and because their faith is so weak that their entire belief system collapses if they find out that reality differs from it in even one aspect. When confronted with contrary evidence, it is no surprise that such people will cling tenaciously to their beliefs and rationalize the upsetting facts away. The structure of their belief is too weak to accommodate change, and they fear – because they have also been taught this – that without it, there can be nothing but a bleak life of nihilism and meaninglessness.
However, a faith that could not accommodate such discoveries without crumbling probably was not worth being held anyway. By contrast, there is no reason why a person of strong faith should be threatened by a simple statement of how life as we now see it came to be. Any faith worthy of being held would not shatter when encountering a single piece of contradictory evidence, but could accommodate the hard-won truth of how the world really works while retaining whatever laudable moral guidelines are derived from that faith. There is indeed grandeur in this view of life – the grand sweep of billions of years of Earth history, the magnificent unfolding of life’s family tree, encompassing countless millions of living species in a complex web of unparalleled intricacy and beauty – and it is a shame that there are some people who still live in the shadow of the past, and who are still afraid to accept it.