It was mid-April, 1543. In a darkened room in Frauenburg, Poland, the renowned polymath, astronomer, and monk Nicolaus Copernicus lay dying. A few weeks previously, Copernicus’s confidant and only pupil, Georg Rheticus, had sent a copy of Copernicus’s final treatise, De revolutionibus orbium coelstium, or On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, to a printer in Nuremberg. It was published just before Copernicus died on May 24. It would become his most influential work.
Copernicus had delayed publication of De revolutionibus because it contained a startling discovery. Copernicus’s astronomical observations at his Frauenburg observatory had led him to the inescapable conclusion that the Sun’s apparent motion around the Earth is an illusion caused by the Earth’s rotation—in reality, the Earth revolves around the Sun. More important, the Sun, not the Earth, occupies the center of the universe. Hence, Copernicus’s discovery challenged the ancient and revered religious belief that Earth and its human inhabitants occupied the center of the universe. Displacing humanity from its cherished central position would most certainly subject Copernicus to the wrath of the powerful Catholic Church and its fearsome Inquisition.
Copernicus’s caution was prescient, as the church cracked down viciously on followers of his “heretical” theory—the monk Bruno was burned at the stake, and the esteemed Galileo was forced to renounce his belief. Still, “the genie was out of the bottle,” and many consider Copernicus’s discovery as marking the beginning of modern science.
Later successors to Copernicus’s heretical discovery would demonstrate unequivocally that Earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old and was created by a slow accumulation of material over millions of years, much to the discomfiture of literal readers of Genesis.
Biblical creationism remains dismayingly popular. Eleven Gallup Polls taken between 1982 and 2010 found that ancient religious beliefs, including creationism, remain widely held by average Americans. Gallup’s question ran as follows: “Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings? 1) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so; 2) Human beings have evolved over millions of years from other forms of life and God guided this process; 3) Human beings have evolved over millions of years from other forms of life, but God had no part in this process.” Over eighteen years, between 40 and 53 percent of the respondents—an average of 45 percent—accepted the first statement, while approximately 43 percent accepted the second. Just 12 percent accepted the third.
Although Gallup does not label the three options, the first statement clearly represents creationism, while the second represents intelligent design (ID), a variant of creationism. The third statement represents evolution, which sadly only 12 percent accept.
For a scientist, the uniformity of the responses from 1982 to 2010 is a bit discouraging. After almost five hundred years of scientific advancement, approximately half of the American public still accepts creationism. Of particular concern is that a major feature of creationism is opposition to evolution and particularly the teaching of evolution in public schools.
Most Americans would probably concur with the following definition of creationism, based upon the Christian religion: creationism is the religious belief that humanity, life, Earth, and the universe are the creation of (an undetectable) supernatural being, most often the Abrahamic god described in the (Christian) Bible. But creationist beliefs are not exclusive to Christianity. They are found in many of the world’s religions. Though Christianity and Judaism are truly separate religions, they share the Book of Genesis, the basis of both religions’ creationist beliefs. Creationism also abounds in the Muslim culture, which follows the Islamic religion, founded on the Qur’an. In a two-part FREE INQUIRY interview published in 2012, Professor Johan Braeckman illustrated both the persistence of Islamic creationism and its extent.*
The picture of Muslim creationism Braeckman painted is of a relatively unstructured belief system, based partly on Muslim rejection of Western science, particularly evolution, and partly on “a brand of Muslim creationism coming from a man called Harun Yahya.” Yahya is the author of a book called The Atlas of Creationism.
The book contains thousands of pictures of fossils. It says, “Well, if you look at these two pictures of the fossil and the contemporary organism, you’re going to see no difference, so evolution just didn’t happen.” . . . What Muslim creationism is all about is that there has been no such thing as evolution, period. . . .
[In addition] there are lines or parts in the Qur’an that make it possible for Muslims to accept that the Earth and life is really old, that Allah created life and the universe a long time ago . . . they [definitely reject] Young Earth Creationism . . . the huge majority doesn’t believe that evolution is in the Qur’an . . . they feel . . . that Allah created man in the form he is now.
Regarding the extent of Muslim creationism, Braeckman stated that “As far as I can tell, the majority of Muslim people worldwide are now really in line with creationism. Some surveys confirm this: in Saudi Arabia, for instance, over 90 percent are creationists. In Turkey, which is a secular country with great universities, it is over 60 percent. Creationism is also influential in migrant communities coming from northern Africa and Turkey and living in Europe [furthermore] Most Muslim people in Indonesia are creationists.”
He also discussed the difficulty in combating Islamic creationism: “There are a few examples of Muslim people who have spoken up for evolution, but it hasn’t worked out well for them. For instance, one London-based imam said he accepted evolutionary theory, and he got death threats. So it’s tough, and there’s not going to be a solution within one generation.” [For more on Yahya and Islamic creationism, see Stefiano Bigliardi, “Harun Yahya’s Islamic Creationism: What It Is and Isn’t,” Skeptical Inquirer, January/February 2014. —Eds.]
Hinduism, perhaps the world’s oldest living religion, displays a stark contrast to Christian and Muslim creationism. Hinduism includes a range of viewpoints about the origin of life, creationism, and evolution. Accounts of the emergence of life within the universe vary in description, but classically the Trimurti (English: “three forms”) captures the essence of the concept of creationism in Hinduism. On this view, the universe was created by the god Brahma, maintained for some unknown period by the god Vishnu, and then destroyed by the god Shiva. This cycle has occurred an uncountable number of times already.
At the opposite end of the creationism spectrum lies Buddhism. Gautama Buddha explicitly denied that the universe had its start in the act of a creator deity. He refused to endorse any views on creation and stated that questions on the origin of the world are worthless. The nonadherence to the notion of an omnipotent creator deity or a prime mover is seen by many as a key distinction between Buddhism and other religions. There is no specific story about the creation of the universe in Buddhism.
Finally, Native American religions had a large component of creationism, as described by Jeremiah Curtin in Native American Creatio
n Myths: “The physical universe was for the [Native American] myth makers of the old time in America the same in principle that it is for us today, the visible result and expression of unseen power and qualities.” In general, New World belief systems belong to a widespread system known as “animism,” discussed below.
In view of the considerable diversity of creation beliefs, creationism itself is clearly a universal belief system that meets the apparently deeply felt human need for an explanation of ourselves and our surroundings. The diversity leaves us with only one possible area of agreement among the various creationist beliefs—a modified version of the Christian creationism definition given earlier: creationism is the religious belief that humanity, life, the Earth, and the universe are the creation of (an undetectable) supernatural being. This definition of a generalized creationism raises two questions: How did the belief in an undetectable supernatural creator develop? And who developed the concepts that were assembled into the book of Genesis and other creationist texts, such as the Hindu Vedas?
The answers to these two questions will lead to the answer to the fundamental question posed by this article: With all the scientific progress over the last five hundred years, why is the belief in creationism so persistent?
In response, allow me to offer two novel conjectures:
1. Creationism’s origin is key to understanding why it is so persistent.
2. Creationism’s origin can be traced to the time when the human mind had evolved sufficiently to attempt an explanation of ourselves and our surroundings.
While it is obviously not possible to determine exactly when the mind had evolved enough to exhibit this ability, an estimate adequate for our purposes can be made. It is now understood that the mind is the product of electrochemical interactions among the billions of neurons in the brain. Accordingly, my conjecture also rests on the assumption that the mind evolved in concert with the brain’s physical development.
The brain is the skull’s principal occupant, and modern paleoarcheologists have successfully assembled numerous measurements of skull sizes—and therefore, brain sizes—from various members of our family, the Hominidae. These measurements inform the chart shown below, which displays the increase in brain size from A. afarensis, one of the earliest members of our family, to modern humans.
Figure 1. Increase in brain size over time.
As the chart illustrates, brain size has increased almost linearly; moreover, mental ability (as evidenced by, say, continuing improvement in toolmaking) has also increased linearly. This affirms the conjecture that the mind developed in concert with the brain. The chart also reveals that modern humans arrived on the scene approximately two hundred thousand years ago.
Clearly, explanatory ability must have developed sometime after modern humans appeared. The noted curator of the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, Ian Tattersall, provided a reasonable estimate for this time in this excerpt from his recent book, Masters of the Planet:
The secret to the particular kind of success our species enjoys today lies in the very unusual way in which our brains handle information and it is becoming increasingly clear that the acquisition of this uniquely modern ability was an abrupt and recent event. Although it is in Africa that we find the earliest stirrings of the modern mind, the vagaries of the record are such that it is only when we contemplate the astonishing cave art of Ice Age Europe that we encounter the first evidence of human beings who not only thought as we do, but who left behind an overwhelmingly powerful body of evidence to prove it [such as the Lascaux and Chauvet caves]. The raw power and sophistication of this ancient art is somehow magnified by the knowledge that its painters lived in an unthinkably remote epoch of modern human history. For, despite their brilliance in color and concept, these extraordinary works were the product of hunter-gatherers who lived around the peak of the last Ice Age, between about 35 Ka and 10 Ka.
For the purpose of this article, I will use 30 Ka ago (“Ka” stands for one thousand years) as the approximate time when the mind had finally achieved the ability to develop an explanation of ourselves and our surroundings; moreover, I doubt that humans were any less curious then than now, and today we are certainly extremely curious. Accordingly, as soon as the ability had evolved, humans must have attempted to gain an explanation of themselves and their surroundings.
Unfortunately, five illusions, not understood as illusions 30 Ka ago, completely misled early humans in their first attempts to construct such an explanation. Those illusions are:
1. The apparently solid Earth: an illusion produced by the human eye’s inability to “see” the atomic structure of matter.
2. The apparent motion of the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars around the Earth: an illusion produced by the Earth’s rotation, something undetectable unless one knows how and where to look.
3. The apparent same size and closeness of the Sun and Moon: an illusion produced by one’s inability to judge distances beyond a few feet without a reference to known objects. For example, a car more distant than another appears to be farther away because it “appears” smaller. We know, of course, that the smaller size is an illusion because cars cannot shrink. However, when observing objects such as the Sun and Moon, we have no proper reference.
4. Earth’s apparently unchanging physical features: an illusion produced by the glacial pace of the physical processes that shape them when compared with human lifetimes. Two such processes are plate tectonics, which makes mountains, and erosion, which tears them down. These processes operate over vast time intervals; hence, their action is imperceptible, even over centuries.
5. Earth’s apparently unchanging animal and plant structures: an illusion produced by biological processes that modify animal and plant structures, principally evolution. The process of evolution likewise operates over vast time intervals, and thus its action is also imperceptible within human lifetimes.
Misinterpretation of the illusions described above apparently led the first investigators to the incorrect conclusion that we live on a very young, unchanging “world” at the center of a relatively small universe that revolves around us. This belief/conclusion that the world is very young but clearly inhabited by many types of plants and animals raised the obvious question: How could all we observe been created, especially in an apparently very short time?
As mentioned above, the humans of 30 Ka ago were mostly hunter-gatherers. Everything they had—clothing, weapons, cooking tools, and so on—they either made themselves or obtained from their surroundings. Because they had created everything they had, the only plausible explanation for the creation of all the things they could observe was that beings similar to themselves but with vastly greater powers had created everything in a remarkably short time. In order to account for rainfall, the growth of plants and animals, and other phenomena, it followed that these beings had the ability to control anything they wished. Finally, because these beings could not be observed doing things like making it rain, they also had the power to remain invisible.
This belief in extraordinarily powerful, undetectable supernatural beings has apparently been passed down through the centuries; today we term these beings either
spirits or gods. Accordingly, a succinct conjecture of the explanation of ourselves and our surroundings that arose 30 Ka ago is that all-powerful but undetectable supernatural spirits or gods created everything in a short time, then exerted control as needed.
Comparison of the conjectured 30 Ka belief system with creationism reveals a close resemblance between them; moreover, another ancient belief—animism, currently extant and widespread—also has many of the elements of my postulated thirty-thousand-year-old belief system.
The first Westerner to discover and articulate animism was the British anthropologist Sir Edward Bennet Tylor. Tylor “borrowed” the term animism, derived from anima, Latin for the soul, from the German chemist and physician Georg Ernst Stahl (1659–1734), who once “hypothesized that all matter had a vital force, or a soul of sorts.”
Following advice to spend time in warmer climes, Tylor left England in 1855 and traveled to Mexico and Central America, where he conducted in-depth studies of the many “primitive” cultures he encountered. When he returned, never to leave England again, Tylor continued to study the customs and beliefs of tribal communities, both existing and prehistoric, based on published archaeological finds. His exhaustive studies led to the 1874 publication of his most influential work, Primitive Culture, an exceedingly thorough study of human civilization that contains his explanation of animism. In particular, Tylor considered animism to be the first phase in the development of religions; however, archaeology had not developed sufficiently for Tylor to determine the origin of animism.
Animism is not, as some have purported, a type of religion in itself. Rather, it is a belief similar to shamanism, or to the polytheism that is found in several religions such as Shinto, Serer, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Pantheism, paganism, and the Inuit religions.
Can we assume that animism had a single origin? Tylor thought so, and it is at least provocative that a contemporary New Age website offers the following: “Animistic gods are often immortalized by mythology explaining the creation of fire, wind, water, man, animals, and other natural earthly things. Although specific animistic beliefs vary widely, similarities between the characteristics of gods and goddesses and rituals practiced by animistic societies exist.” Such similarities would be easily explained if there were a common origin.
Further support for my conjectures is provided by Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941), often considered one of the founding fathers of modern anthropology. Fraser averred that human belief progressed through three stages: primitive magic which is replaced by religion and is in turn replaced by science.
Thus, logic strongly suggests that the belief in a supernatural creator developed approximately thirty thousand years ago, based upon incorrect explanations of those five misinterpreted illusions. This postulated belief from long ago and creationism as we know it today are so similar as to suggest that creationism is the modern form of that ancient belief system.
Furthermore, the similarity between creationism and the creation-related portion of religious beliefs establishes religion as a thirty-thousand-year-old belief system, one whose explanations are, unfortunately, incorrect. For example, the Earth is not six thousand years old and was not created in six days, as claimed in the Christian Bible.
The divergence in details among the various religions most logically reflects the ingenuity of the human mind to devise answers to exceedingly difficult questions when one “mind” is geographically separated from other minds.
Having established the origin of religion as basically due to misinterpretation of illusions that led to incorrect explanations of ourselves and our surroundings, we can now show that the science originated as a reaction to these incorrect religious explanations, an approach I’ve never seen employed. Beginning about 2,500 years ago, a few astute observers, primarily Greek philosophers, equipped with improved observational techniques, began to realize that the ancient and revered but erroneous religious explanations conflicted with their improved observations. Soon they began to formulate more correct explanations. One Greek philosopher, Aristarchus, correctly deduced the essentials of the heliocentric solar system. Unfortunately, the discoveries of the early Greeks were submerged under numerous conquests and lost until about five hundred years ago, when investigators such as Copernicus rediscovered the conflict between scientific observations and religious beliefs.
Slowly, through perseverance, dedication, astute observations, and inspired interpretations, some of our species’ most brilliant investigators eventually formulated proper explanations of the ancient illusions. For example, astronomy and astrophysics resolved the illusion that all celestial objects orbited the Earth, while quantum mechanics resolved the solid-Earth illusion. Eventually all five illusions were resolved, accumulating into the body of knowledge we now call “science.”
Of particular interest to the creationism-persistence issue, two optical instruments invented about fifty years after the publication of De revolutionibus deserve mention. The first was the microscope, developed ca. 1590 by Dutch fabric merchant Anton van Leeuwenhoek, which enabled the observation of objects too small for the unaided human eye. The second was the telescope, developed ca. 1608 by the Dutch spectacle-makers Zacharias Janssen and his son Hans. This enabled the observation of objects too distant for the human eye—beginning with four of Jupiter’s moons, which exacerbated Galileo’s precarious position with the Inquisition even as it initiated the field of astronomy.
The development of these two instruments significantly undermines the veracity of any sacred book, because microbes and the moons of Jupiter could not have been known to the sacred text writers; hence, they are not mentioned in Genesis, the Qur’an, or any other sacred text. This seems strange, because these books are considered the “Word of God,” and clearly the creator of the universe would have known about the moons and microbes, plus a great deal more. Hence, there are not many “Answers in Genesis,” as one website claims it offers.
So again, with all the scientific advances, why does creationism persist? With regard to this question, I will address the answer principally from the Christian viewpoint, which is more familiar to most readers. However, considering the great similarities among the various religions, the reasons for creationism’s persistence in other religions would logically be similar.
Attempts to disprove Christian creationism have been generally and conspicuously unsuccessful. For example, the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science devoted its entire 1985 meeting to the subject “Evolutionists Confront Creationists.” The proceedings totally discredited the creationist concept, but as the Gallup poll discussed earlier reveals, the meeting appears to have had little impact on creationism’s persistence. No surprise, as few creationists are aware of meetings like this, pay attention to them, or would believe their conclusions if they did.
Presentations of mountains of evidence have likewise been unsuccessful. Books by evolution experts, such as Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution and Mark Isaak’s The Counter-Creationism Handbook, have been well received. However, as with attempts to disprove creationism, there is no evidence that these volumes have had much impact, because creationi
sts—as explained below in the brief biographical sketch of Stephen Godfrey—probably don’t read these kinds of books; moreover, if they did, it is well known that creationists cherry-pick the evidence and invent canards such as “Evolution violates the second law of Thermodynamics.”
One of the intriguing puzzles regarding creationism’s persistence is the number of scientists who profess a belief in God. One of the more notable is Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Dr. Collins states, “I am a scientist and a believer, and I find no conflict between those world views. As a believer, I see DNA . . . as God’s language and . . . a reflection of God’s plan.”
Another reason for the apparent inability of science to counter creationism appears to be America’s ambivalence toward science. Americans seem to have a considerable respect for science but, oddly, seldom agree with science’s findings. For example, as disclosed by the Gallup polls, relatively few accept evolution as the explanation for human origins; moreover, about 60 percent of Americans believe there is an autism-vaccination link. Numerous epidemics of totally preventable diseases such as whooping cough attest to the danger of the latter irrational belief.
Thus, numerous attempts have been made to thwart creationism, but all have had little impact—why? The answer, unfortunately, is rather straightforward and is incorporated in a boast supposedly attributed to a Jesuit priest: “Give me the child till the age of seven and I will show you the man.” In short, any indoctrination along the line of creationism that is begun early and reinforced regularly can last a lifetime. For many, creationist indoctrination begins in the cradle. After all, a child’s first teachers are its parents, and if the parents have strong religious convictions that include creationist beliefs, they will impart these beliefs to their children. Because child-rearing is broadly similar in all cultures, this indoctrination would appear to account for the persistence of creationism in other religions.
Regarding reinforcement, creationist indoctrination is supported by: religious practices at home, such as daily prayers and study of sacred texts; attendance at church and Sunday school where Genesis is the textbook; such social cues as, in the United States, the motto “In God We Trust” on all our money and the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance; highway billboards with messages such as “Puzzled? God has Answers” and “In Despair? Jesus Is Your Hope”; and everyday conversations in which people make statements such as “I thank God for providing something apparently miraculous.”
Thus, early creationist indoctrination, regularly reinforced, appears to explain its persistence. However, there is another aspect of religious belief that also contributes to creationism’s persistence: the belief in the afterlife, which all religions seem to incorporate in some form.
The powerful influence of the belief in the afterlife compounds the difficulty of moving from creationism to acceptance of evolution. This is superbly recounted in an article in Science magazine (February 22, 2008) titled “Crossing the Divide.” Writer Jennifer Couzin encapsulates the life of Stephen Godfrey, who was raised as a devout creationist but eventually became an ardent evolutionist. I have selected the most pertinent excerpts from Couzin’s article to capture the essence of Godfrey’s story and, in particular, to emphasize his transition from creationist to evolutionist.
Godfrey was raised in a fundamentalist household with all the features of creationist indoctrination listed above. He was very bright and eventually entered college “still convinced that scientists were engaged in a vast conspiracy to promote evolution.” Godfrey finished his education in graduate school, majoring in paleontology. As Couzin explains,
. . . In 1989, [Godfrey moved to] Drumheller, Alberta, dubbed the “dinosaur capital of the world” because of its diversity of fossils. Godfrey often drove southeast to Dinosaur Provincial Park, passing through a landscape of sediments laid atop one another: deposits from freshwater and terrestrial environments in one, marine organisms and mollusks in another, and a third that mimicked the first, a mix of fossils from fresh water and land. “These animals were living here in this same place, but they couldn’t have all been there at the same time,” he says, a fact that was irreconcilable with flood geology. It was then that “the rest of the young-Earth creationist ideas kind of exploded.” . . .Godfrey ran through bitterness, anger, and disappointment about having been deceived for so many years. He sought out creationists and confronted them.
How did Godfrey’s family respond to his changed beliefs?
Christopher Smith, Godfrey’s brother-in-law [remarked], “I do remember a discussion [of evolution] one year at Christmas; the tone quickly turned angry,” Smith says. Godfrey’s father eventually asked that he [Godfrey] stop mentioning evolution, as the topic was too upsetting to the family, who believe that their afterlife depends on embracing creationism. . . .
Like many creationists-turned-evolutionists, Godfrey is conflicted about how, and how forcefully, to press his case. In 2005, he and his brother-in-law Smith published Paradigms on Pilgrimage, a book describing their own transition and making the case for evolution. His father prayed that it would not be published, and Godfrey did not send his parents a copy. He thought his book would change minds among creationists but isn’t sure it has.
Summarizing, Godfrey’s biography provides three revealing insights into creationism and the possible transition from creationist to evolutionist.
1. It demonstrates that it is possible, under the proper circumstances, for a devout creationist to become an ardent evolutionist.
2. It is an example of the extreme difficulty associated with making that change. Godfrey’s transformation from creationist to evolutionist entailed agonizing reappraisals of deeply held beliefs when faced with incontrovertible evidence of creationism’s wrongness. Such reappraisals can lead one to abandon creationism for evolution, if one is able to deal with the considerable emotional penalty one pays after taking that fateful step, including loss of ties to family and friends.
3. It shows the connection between creationism and the belief in the afterlife, spotlighted when the text notes that “their [Godfrey’s family’s] afterlife depends on embracing creationism.”
So we come to the overriding question: Can creationism ever be eliminated, or at least successfully confronted? Before you answer, consider the following features of creationism. Creationism is a thirty-thousand-year-old belief system that:
• is well entrenched and well supported, especially by religious parents and religious organizations;
• is simple to understand, as opposed to science;
• answers basic questions (Q. How was everything created? A. “In the beginning . . .”);
• provides considerable comfort—a “warm-fuzzy feeling” for those who believe, a feeling “difficult to part with”;
• is not deterred by direct confrontations and presentations of mountains of evidence; and
• is very difficult to leave, as demonstrated by Stephen Godfrey’s painful transition.
To all of these features, add the all-important belief in an afterlife. No wonder creationism persists!
Still, the p
resence of atheistic and secular organizations such as the Center for Inquiry—which appear to be growing, albeit slowly—offers hope. As a member of a local atheist organization, I have counseled members who have recently “come out” from religion, including many who held creationist beliefs. They generally have sufficient understanding of the true origin of the Earth to detect the conflict between what they know and what creationism teaches. People like these succeed in abandoning creationist beliefs; creationism is vulnerable after all. Education sufficient to overcome the initial indoctrination can be effective. In fact, it can trigger awakenings that are quite emotional; witness this short Facebook post from a new convert to atheism, which echoes Stephen Godfrey’s experience: “I’VE BEEN LIED TO ALL THESE YEARS!!! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.”
The elimination of creationism might be possible, but as suggested above, it will be difficult.
* Chris Mooney, “The Rise of Islamic Creationism.” “Leading Questions,” FREE INQUIRY, August/September 2012 and October/November 2012.
Lawrence Wood is a retired engineer and physicist who now writes on the history of science. He is the author of Evolution and the Future of Mankind (iUniverse.com, 2010). He presented a paper on “Confronting the Anti-Evolution attack on Public Education” at the 2007 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Pacific Division.