Why creationism matters

Why creationism matters January 5, 2015

When I started writing Leaving Fundamentalism, I didn’t intend to talk about creationism as much as I do. On a list of damaging things about my Christian past, creationism would not have been particularly high. I was more interested in abusive fundamentalist child-rearing manuals and the damage my sheltered upbringing had done to my social skills. I pretty soon discovered that people are not interested in reading blogs about those things though, whereas a post about creationism can get thousands of readers. Since I wanted to get people on board with my anti-ACE campaign, writing about creationism was the obvious vehicle.

Now I’ve come to think that actually, the public is right. We should be worrying about creationism. But everyone is worried about it for the wrong reasons. Yes, creationism is false, and young-Earth creationism is particularly ridiculous. But with thousands of false beliefs in circulation, why should we particularly care about creationism? It doesn’t make much difference to my daily life whether or not I accept that all life on Earth shares a single common ancestor, or that the planet is 4.54 billion years old. Even in science, there are limited areas where the fact of common descent is immediately relevant.

The trouble is that the areas of fundamentalism which are truly oppressive— the denial of women’s rights and bigotry against LGBTQ people, for example—are intimately bound up with creationism. You’ll notice that, amid its busy schedule of producing pseudoscience, Answers in Genesis has found time to oppose gay marriage. There aren’t a lot of copies of The Selfish Gene in Quiverfull homes, either. These facts are not coincidences.

To explain why, we need a brief detour.

The first two chapters of Genesis contain two different creation accounts. The first is Genesis 1:1-2:3; the second begins with Genesis 2:4. If you take each in isolation and answer the question “What order did God make things in?” you get two lists. In Genesis 1, God makes plants, then water-dwelling animals, then birds, land animals, and finally humans (male and female). In Genesis 2, God makes plants, then man (male only), then all animals and birds, and finally woman. In the first chapter, God speaks things into existence; in the second, he forms them from the ground.

Creationists do not accept that these are contradictory accounts, and you can find attempts to reconcile them online. I am not going to comment on the success of these attempts. Instead, we need to answer one question: why are they even trying? Under any other circumstances, faced with contradictory narratives like this, you would simply shrug and accept that they differ. You wouldn’t bother trying to make them fit unless you had some prior belief that they must be a single unified account.

For creationists, that prior belief is that the Bible is the Word of God, and therefore every part of it must be infallible. But that still doesn’t solve the riddle. If we assume that Genesis 1 and 2 are mythical, they could still reveal truths about God or the world while having discrepant details. For creationists, then, unless there is an explicit indication otherwise, the Bible must be literally true. It is the combination of literalism with the idea that the Bible is God’s Word (not human ideas about God) that makes creationism so dangerous.

Creationists like Ken Ham argue that ‘creation science’ gives us evidence that the Bible is true, and confidence to believe in it. Creationism is sometimes used to prop up belief in the Bible in this way, but actually the assertion is mostly backwards. In reality, the non-negotiable belief is that the Bible must be wholly and literally true, and this is the rationale for creationism. So when you meet a creationist, you’re meeting someone who claims that every word of the Bible comes directly from God. When you read about a creationist school, they’re teaching that to children.

In creationism, you’ve encountered the belief that all of the verses of the Bible are the perfect eternal words of God. So all the verses that justify homophobia, misogyny, and child abuse: these aren’t just the words of men in an earlier age attempting to understand the nature of God. These are divine absolutes.

There is simply no reason to be a creationist unless you think the Bible is inerrant and literal. Once you realise that creationism is wrong, this entire approach to the Bible collapses. In the process, you at least open up the possibility that the Bible reflects the knowledge of the people who wrote it. It becomes necessary to consider context, the possibility of allegory, and the possibility of error. With creationism, however, you have the entire Bible as a solid, non-negotiable mass. And ideas that can’t be questioned are antithetical to rational thought.

Of course, nobody does believe the Bible wholly and literally in its entirety, however much they may claim to do so. That’s impossible, because the Bible is not internally consistent. Before they reach the end of the second chapter, creationists are choosing which parts to believe. As an aside this is another problem with fundamentalism—it claims to be take the Bible at face value, and doesn’t. It’s just as reliant on church authority and tradition as any other religion, but it won’t admit it.

So in theory, yes, creationists could cherry pick and continue to believe the Earth is 6000 years old, while accepting (say) marriage equality. There are a couple of reasons why I think that’s unlikely.

The first is that, in point of fact, the Christian groups that most vocally oppose gay marriage and women’s rights tend also to be the ones that emphasise creationism. While they could overlook or reinterpret verses like Ephesians 5:22-33 and Romans 1:26-27, in practice they don’t. It’s even debatable whether the New Testament verses used to justify homophobia actually refer to homosexuality at all, but creationists usually insist that they do.

The second problem is that the worst bits of the Bible often seem really unequivocal. Commands to stone gays and beat children might take up only a tiny fraction of the text, but they’re still there. Christians who support gay rights and prefer not to engage in bouts of parental pugilism point to other parts of Scripture which encourage more loving attitudes, but there is no verse that says “And behold, Jesus spake unto them and said ‘Actually, don’t hit your children, that’s a terrible idea’.” Nor is there one that says “Thou shalt treat gay, bi, trans, and gender nonconforming individuals equally, because they are people, thou fuckheads.” So if you’re assuming that the Bible is the literal Word of God with no contradictions, the nasty verses clobber all others.

In sum, here’s my argument about why creationism in schools is a major problem, leaving aside the scientific problems:

  • Creationism requires that the Bible is entirely and (for the most part) literally true
  • That means that creationism is inextricably linked with enthusiastic acceptance of the ugliest parts of the Bible: child abuse, wifely submission, hating gay people, eternal damnation for non-Christians, women submitting to men, and opposition to abortion, for starters.
  • Further, it means there is a huge body of received wisdom which cannot be challenged, because questioning it is questioning God. This is the opposite of education.

I’m sure some anti-creationism campaigners won’t thank me for saying this. They like to say it’s only about science, and not about attacking religion. I’ve phrased my argument in a way that won’t offend non-fundamentalist Christians, but let’s not pretend that the problems with creationism are purely scientific. Creationism is terrible science, but that might be the least of its problems.

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