Creationism: That (Not So) Old Time Religion

I don't pay much attention to creationism for the same reason that I don't watch much television -- it's boring. Real science, history, philosophy, theology, etc., is far more interesting than an amateurish knockoff.

My inattentiveness has meant that until now I had only a vague notion of the origins of this nonsense. That has been largely dispelled by Karl Giberson's book "Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution" (2008, HaperCollins), where he traces out a clear history of American Fundamentalism and its dopy offspring -- creationism.

Giberson is actually a physicist, but history heavyweights Edward Larson and Ronald Numbers have given him their blessing, so I'm fairly confident he's got his story straight (for another good succinct history see Numbers' chapter "The Creationists" in the volume "God and Nature"). While it's unsurprising to find that today's fundamentalism departs from traditional Christian roots, it is surprising to find that it departs from its own fundamentalist roots.

In 1909, a distinguished group of Protestant academics converged to articulate what they considered to be the core non-negotiables (fundamentals) of Christianity. Among the participants were such notables as C. I. Scofield of the well-known "Scofield Reference Bible," Benjamin Warfield of the Princeton Theological Seminary and George Frederick Wright of Oberlin College in Ohio. They produced a four-volume series of essays (published between 1910-15) called "The Fundamentals" -- and with it the original Fundamentalist movement was born.

The major impetus for "The Fundamentals" was not evolution, but "higher criticism" -- the critical historical and literary analysis of the New Testament. Higher criticism raised troubling questions about the historicity of the Gospels. This in turn produced a liberal theological reaction where in some Christian quarters a "Jeffersonian"-type de-supernaturalizing of Jesus was in full swing. This, in the eyes of some, threatened to gut Christianity of its very soul. Against this backdrop, evolution seemed far more manageable, as Wright tersely put it in his essay "Hume is more dangerous than Darwin" (see Giberson p. 60). Not that "The Fundamentals" entirely ignored Darwin -- about 20 percent of the essays addressed the subject. Virtually none of them, however, adopted a creationist's position as we understand it today. Instead, most "Fundamentals" authors were committed to finding ways of reconciling Genesis and science.

The most impassioned Christian voice wailing about the evils of evolution was Ellen White, the prophetess of the then quite marginal Seventh-day Adventists. One of her visions revealed that Noah's flood was a world-wide cataclysm which had entirely reshaped the earth's surface. In 1923, a self-trained Adventist geologist named George McCready Price took White's vision and turned it into a 700-page magnum opus called "The New Geology," where he set the standard for all the muddle-headed creationist pseudo-science that was to follow. Though Price's arguments and "evidence" fell easily to professional refutation, his ability to feign authority and breezy common-sense logic were convincing to many of the unwashed. Price enjoyed some initial success (helped in part by William Jennings Bryan's antievolution crusade during the 1920s), but his outsider status ensured that his impact on mainstream Protestantism would be limited. But that changed in the late '50s and early '60s, initiated, oddly enough, by someone about as far removed from the American religion scene as one could imagine -- Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

Sputnik shocked America and forced a new emphasis on science education in public schools. As part of this push, evolution took on increased prominence as the central theoretical concept in biology. Alarm bells began ringing among some conservative Christians with long-standing but heretofore muted misgivings about Darwin. Among them was a devout Southern Baptist engineering professor named Henry Morris. Unlike Price, Morris hailed from a prominent denomination and had a solid academic pedigree -- a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, teaching positions at Rice and later Virginia Polytech, where he served as Department Head.

In 1961, Morris teamed up with conservative biblical scholar John C. Whitcomb to produce a game-changer: "The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications." In terms of "science," the book was mostly re-heated Price. But its genius was in linking supposed scientific evidence for a young earth and a global flood with an aggressive assault on liberal theology -- a lethal creation-science bullet aimed at higher criticism. In conservative Christian biblical exegesis, the literal interpretation takes precedence over more nuanced ones forced by external circumstances such as scientific findings. If "science" actually reinforced a more literal reading of the Bible, then liberal theology lost its credibility. Indeed, it lost its very reason for existing.

The result "was intellectually disastrous on two fronts," Giberson tells us (p. 138). First, it convinced many evangelicals in the existence of an alternative science that aligned neatly with Biblical literalism, thus, abruptly delegitimizing efforts of Protestant academics to reconcile evolution with scripture. Second, it made minor theological issues -- a young earth and a global flood -- essentials of genuine faith. Evolution, of course, was ruled out by both these essentials.

Morris went on to establish the Institute for Creation Research in the hopes that Creation Science would one day become respected as real science. It never happened. The ICR became a joke among practicing scientists and its more recent equivalent -- Intelligent Design's Discovery Institute -- has warp-speeded itself to the same dark closet of scientific irrelevancy.

It's been a half-century since Morris and Whitcomb recast fundamentalism as creationism -- a good time to assess its legacy. In place of science or insightful theology, creationism's primary achievement is a waist-deep rubbish pile of misrepresentation and deceit. In his decision in the infamous Kitzmiller vs. Dover intelligent design case, Judge John E. Jones openly chastised the creationist side for its "repetitious untruthful testimony" (p. 131), "flagrant and insulting falsehoods" (p. 132) and noted how the people of Dover were ill-served by creationist school board members who "staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public" only to "time and again lie to cover their tracks..." (p. 137). All this because they fear science.

What a far cry from Christianity's intellectual heritage! Augustine and Aquinas never stooped to churlish antics when faced with scholarly challenges. Theirs was an expansive, muscular Christianity that eyed pagan knowledge head-on. How pathetically puny creationists are in their shadow. However noble the creationists may perceive their ends to be, their shameful means remain unjustified.