When I was little, my favourite bedtime book was The Fantastic Dinosaur Adventure by Gerald Durrell. Mum enjoyed reading it too, but whenever the story mentioned how many millions of years ago the dinosaurs actually lived, she skipped over those words. When I asked her what she wasn’t telling me, she said something like “We don’t believe that.”
At the same time, Mum was quite keen on what creationists call “Gap Theory”. Genesis 1:1 says “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” but the next verse says “The earth was without form and void.” Gap Theorists argue that God would never make anything less than perfect, so something must have happened between those two verses which the Bible never explains. Into that ‘gap’ they squeeze deep time, dinosaurs, and every other part of history not in the biblical timeline.
Now, dinosaurs living 175 million years ago are compatible with Gap Theory, even though they’re not compatible with young-Earth creationism. You can see that my mum’s creationism was not carefully thought out or internally consistent. She was what I call a Jelly Creationist (or, for US readers, Jello Creationists).
(I should add, because my mum sometimes gets a bad rap on this blog, that she now accepts evolution and will probably cringe hard while reading this post.)
Creationism is way less important to most people who believe in it than creationism’s critics realise. I am guilty of putting far too much emphasis on creationism on this blog, and now I’m going to explain why attacks on creationism can miss their targets.
The name ‘Jelly Creationism’ is inspired by A.C. Grayling, who writes in The God Argument:
Contesting religion is like engaging in a boxing match with jelly: it is a shifting, unclear, amorphous target, which every blow displaces to a new shape.
You could sum up Jelly Creationism with the sentence, “I don’t know or care how it happened, I just know that God did it.” Hardcore young-Earth creationism is rigid and inflexible, and easy to disprove. It’s not easy to get its adherents to admit you’ve disproved it, because they engage in all kinds of ad hoc rationalisations, but eventually many young-Earth creationists run out of these rationalisations and are forced to change their minds. Jelly Creationism, by contrast, is compatible with almost anything short of evolution by natural processes, and so almost nothing you say will change its adherents’ minds.
I don’t include theistic evolutionists in ‘Jelly Creationists’. Anyone who accepts the mainstream scientific consensus is not a ‘creationist’ for my purposes, even if they think God started the process or guided the outcome. Creationism requires at a minimum the rejection of the common descent of all modern animals.
Creationism is largely motivated by the fear of the Bible being disproved. For young-Earthers, Genesis 1-3 has to be literally true or it is worthless. Jelly Creationists aren’t so sure. It matters that the Bible isn’t wrong, but it doesn’t matter how it’s right. Adrian Hawkes, the headteacher of a private Christian school in London, took a Jelly Creationist position in Richard Dawkins’ documentary The Root of All Evil Part 2: The Virus of Faith. Asked by Dawkins why his school used science textbooks that included Noah’s Ark, Hawkes said:
“Do you think the Genesis story was true and that God created the world in seven days?” That’s what you would really like to ask me, right? My answer to that is, “I don’t know”. Having said that, do I think that if God wanted to do it seven days he could? Yeah I think he could … so it’s sort of an academic question which, actually, I don’t care about the answer very much really.
At the extremes, Jelly Creationists will even entertain evolution, as long as they feel it doesn’t threaten their belief that humans are specially created in the image of God, and that God is in control. This means that if you confront the Jelly Creationist with strong evidence of evolution (Darwin’s finches, tiktaalik, Lenski’s bacteria), in the moment they will probably accept it (especially because even young-Earth creationists can and do rationalise those are mere micro-evolution). But because confirmation bias means that we are more likely to selectively remember evidence that supports our position, they’re less likely to recall or endorse this evolution evidence later.
When I recently spoke to a creationist friend of mine, he said “Who’s to say God didn’t use evolution to make things?” Not in the mood for an argument, I just agreed with him. A little while later, I shared an article about evolution with him, and he attacked it as vague and inconclusive. For whatever reason, he perceived that article (or my sharing of it) as an attack on creationism, so his earlier openness to evolution evaporated.
In this context, the work of creationist ministries like Answers in Genesis and the Institute for Creation Research just serves to make Jelly Creationists feel that there is a genuine scientific debate. That’s all the Jelly Creationist needs. They are interested in what Ken Ham says, and would be happy if it were true, but they don’t need it to be. The Jelly Creationist doesn’t much care about science. Creationist propaganda implies that evolution is very much in doubt, and that lots of scientists reject it. That’s fine by the Jelly Creationist. This means that if I launch a devastating attack on a particular claim Ken Ham has made, the Jelly Creationist does not care, but if Ken Ham says something that seems compatible with their beliefs, they welcome it.
Jelly Creationists are aided and abetted by the mainstream media’s abysmal reporting of science, which gives the impression science is constantly changing its mind and contradicting itself. This fits neatly with the all-purpose Jelly Creationist fallback “science doesn’t know everything.” This makes Jelly Creationists vulnerable to pseudoscience and climate change denial. Jelly Creationism is compatible with everything except a sustained, honest engagement with science. If you want to promote science literacy among the general public, or you advocate scientific evidence informing public policy, Jelly Creationism is a formidable opponent.