Every religion in the world has its own version of the origins of life and matter. In Abrahamic religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam, these explanations rest on the premise that God created the universe and everything in it. This is the basic tenet of creationism in the West.
In the United States, the public debate between Christian creationism and evolution, once considered dead in the wake of the Scopes Monkey trial, is back on its feet. Most people see evolution and the theory of natural selection as scientific staples; now, many supporters of creationism want their views to be accepted as a scientific theory known as creation science. In this article, we'll examine the different forms of Christian creationism, touch on creationist views in other religions and find out what's fueling the controversy.
What is Creationism?
Creationism is a blanket term incorporating all beliefs that the origins of the universe and life are attributable to supernatural or miraculous means. In Christianity, creationism states that God (the Christian deity) created the world and everything in it out of nothing. Creationists believe that the account of the beginning of the world offered in Genesis, the first volume of the Old Testament, is the true account of the origins of all that we see around us. The opening of Genesis states:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
The creation of the universe and all that it contains took a total of six days. On the first day, God created light and dark. On the second, He created the heavens, and on the third, He created the Earth's dry land and vegetation. God created the Sun and the Moon on the fourth day, fish and birds on the fifth day, and land animals and humans on the sixth day.
While the account of creation in Genesis is the basis for all Christian creationism, there are actually many different types of creationists within Christianity. A flat-earth creationist, for example, believes not only that God created the world out of nothing, but also that the Earth is flat, immobile and only about 6,000 years old. A progressive creationist, on the other hand, accepts the views of modern astronomy and geological dating methods that determine the Earth to be billions of years old, but does not accept the finds of modern biology: He believes that a species can only evolve under the direction of God.
We can roughly place the most well-documented types of creationism on a continuum from most literal to least literal interpretation of the Bible:
In the following sections, we'll address each of these varieties of creationism and find out what their proponents believe.
Types of Creationism: Flat-Earth and Geocentric
At the strictly literal end of the spectrum, the flat-earth creationists and the modern geocentrists reject practically all of modern science. In addition to a reading of Genesis as a factual account of the origins of the world, flat-Earthers and geocentrists also retain some of the ancient Hebrew conceptions regarding the structure of the Earth and the solar system, citing particular Biblical passages as the source of their beliefs.
Flat-Earth creationism states that the Earth is flat, immobile and the center of the universe. It is covered by a solid, dome-like sky, most likely referring to the second day of creation, when "God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament ... And God called the firmament Heaven" (Genesis 1:7-1:8). The stars, sun and moon are embedded in this rigid dome.
Addressing the topic of Christopher Columbus's apparent trip around a spherical Earth, The Flat Earth Society's mission statement says, "Using an elaborate setup involving hundreds of mirrors and a few burlap sacks, [Christopher Columbus] was able to create an illusion so convincing that it was actually believed he had sailed around the entire planet and landed in the West Indies. As we now know, he did not." When confronted with scientific and technological evidence of a spherical Earth and a non-rigid sky in such forms as global circumnavigation, humans walking on the moon and satellite photos from space, Charles Johnson of the Flat Earth Society explains in this Flat Earth Society flyer:
... technology is not in any way related to the web of idiotic scientific theory. ALL inventors have been anti-science. The Wright brothers said: "Science theory held us up for years. When we threw out all science, started from experiment and experience, then we invented the airplane." By the way, airplanes all fly level on this Plane earth.
Modern geocentrists believe the Earth is spherical, not flat; but they reject almost everything else in modern astronomy, viewing the Earth as the center of the universe and immobile. According to geocentrists, the sun rotates around the Earth in 24-hour periods, and all other planets rotate around the sun. More mainstream geocentrists point to the theory of general relativity in physics to back up their Biblical belief, noting, in essence, that all positions are the result of frame of reference, and no frame of reference can be disputed. Radical geocentrists refer only to the Bible and reject all of modern astronomy, physics and cosmology. Like flat-Earthers, many geocentrists believe the sky is a solid dome surrounding the Earth.
In the next section, we'll examine young-Earth creationism, which accepts most of modern astronomy but rejects much of modern biology. Young-Earth creation is the primary source of the "creation science" movement that pushes for the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in U.S. public-school science classes.
Types of Creationism: Young-Earth
The primary supporters of the creation-science movement that strives to define creationism as a scientific theory, young-Earth creationists (YECs) believe that the Earth is a sphere and that it rotates around the sun, but they reject modern biology in favor of a literal reading of the Genesis creation account.
Young-Earth creationists believe that God directly and miraculously created the universe, the Earth and all life on Earth in the course of six 24-hour days. They calculate the age of the Earth to be in the area of 6,000 to 10,000 years old as opposed to the 4.5 billion years calculated using radiometric dating and other scientific dating methods -- thus the "young-Earth" designation. This calculation comes from information in Genesis, which includes data on the lifespans of Biblical patriarchs from Adam to Abraham, including how old they were when each of them had a son. If you add up those ages and then add six days for the period of creation (God created Adam on the sixth day), you end up with approximately 6,000 to 10,000 years.
YECs reject the theory of evolution in its entirety. They also reject a great deal of scientific understanding in areas of geology, genomics and astronomy. For instance, young-Earth creationists do not believe that geological strata were formed over billions of years; instead, they believe that almost all geological formations are the result of a single, worldwide flood in which all life on Earth was wiped out with the exception of Noah and his family and the animals he saved on his ark.
Many people raise the topic of dinosaurs when it comes to YEC: What about evidence of dinosaurs in the fossil record? Evidence shows that humans and dinosaurs lived millions of years apart. Wouldn't that mean that Earth must be more than 6,000 years old?
The Young Earth Creation Club responds to the apparent discrepancy with the claim the humans and dinosaurs actually existed at the same time. Supporters point to evidence that includes writings of "several well-known ancient people," ancient artwork depicting dinosaurs and humans together and fossilized footprints of humans and dinosaurs in the same place [ref]. Citing eye witness accounts, the Young Earth Creation Club states that humans and dinosaurs may still interact today in the African Congo.
Young-Earth creationism has a large following in the United States. It is probably the most radical form of creationism supported by a large group of people today. Old-Earth creationism is less radical and more widespread in the United States, accepting parts of modern scientific analysis while maintaining that Genesis is a literal account of the beginning of the world.
Types of Creationism: Old-Earth
Old-Earth creationists accept scientific proof that the Earth is much older than 6,000 years. There are a variety of ways in which old-Earthers reconcile this timeframe with the accounts of the Bible.
Gap Creationism holds that there is a huge, unmentioned temporal gap between some two events of the Bible. There are several hypotheses about where this gap might be. A couple of possibilities are:
- Between the first sentence and the second sentence of Genesis This means that after Genesis 1:1, which states, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth," millions or billions of years pass. During this period, some catastrophic event sends Earth into decay. Then Genesis 1:2 occurs: "And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." At this point, the six days of creation -- or in this case, re-creation -- begin.
- Between the seventh day of creation (the day of rest) and when Adam eats the apple, causing the Fall of Man This means that Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden for millions or billions of years before the Fall.
Day-age creationism addresses the time problem from a different angle. This explanation states that since God did not create the sun and moon until the fourth day of creation, the concept of the 24-hour day did not exist when creation began and when the word "day" was first used. Therefore, a "creation day" can be any period of time. Day-age creationists view each "day" of creation as a period of millions or billions of years, accounting for the scientifically determined age of the Earth within the framework of the Bible.
Progressive creationism is the most common form of creationism in the United States today. This type of creationist accepts some aspects of evolution -- for instance, he believes that microevolution (evolution within a species) can occur under the direct guidance of God. However, he rejects macroevolution (evolution between species) and the theory of natural selection. A progressive creationist believes that God created each type of organism out of nothing.
Young-Earthers and old-Earthers comprise the majority of Christian creationism in the United States, with flat-Earthers and geocentrists making up only a very small percentage of creationists. Some tenets of creationism are not at all compatible with the findings of modern science, while others allow for a reinterpretation of the Bible in view of what some perceive as scientific proof. But in the end, creationism and evolutionism are aspects of personal belief systems that seem to have little to do with politics. And until recently, the debate between the two had receded almost entirely from the public forum. So what happened to bring it back?
The Controversy: Religion or Science?
Why does it matter that mainstream science contradicts religious views of the origins of life? In most cases, it doesn't -- one person may base his understanding of the origins of life on the teachings of the Bible, while another may base his understanding of the origins of life on the teachings of science. Each is simply a framework for understanding what we see in the world. But the movement in the United States to teach creationism in public-school science classes (where students learn about the scientific framework) makes the contradiction relevant, because theories developed through the scientific method defy arguments set forth in what has become known as "creation science."
This raises the question: What makes a theory "scientific"?
According to Jose Wudka, Professor of Physics at the University of California, Riverside, the scientific method works like this:
- Observe some aspect of the universe.
- Invent a tentative description, called a hypothesis, that is consistent with what you have observed.
- Use the hypothesis to make predictions.
- Test those predictions by experimentation or further observations and modify the hypothesis in the light of your results.
- Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there are no discrepancies between [hypothesis] and experiment and/or observation.
When consistency is obtained, the hypothesis becomes a theory and provides a coherent set of propositions which explain a class of phenomena. A theory is then a framework within which observations are explained and predictions are made.
The scientific framework hinges on observability and "falsifiability" -- in science, falsifiability is the possibility of observing something that would prove the theory false. For instance, the statement "Plants can only survive if they have access to sunlight" is falsifiable because someone could observe a plant surviving in total darkness, which would prove the statement false. The statement "God created plants to require sunlight" is not falsifiable because there is no possibility of someone making an observation that would prove the statement false.
Scientific evidence -- that is, evidence obtained using the scientific framework -- in favor of the theory of evolution and an "old earth" includes:
The code used to translate nucleotide sequences into amino acid sequences is essentially the same in all organisms. Moreover, proteins in all organisms are invariably composed of the same set of 20 amino acids.
According to the scientific community, there is no scientific evidence in favor of creationism; there is a Biblical record and there are holes in the theory of evolution. However, scientists note that citing holes in the theory of evolution is setting forth negative as opposed to positive evidence: The holes in evolution are proof only of holes, not of any particular competing theory. There is nothing to test for in "creation science" -- it is impossible to prove or disprove the presence of God or miraculous occurrences using the scientific method. Most scientists believe this makes creationism a metaphysical or philosophical theory, not a scientific one.
To learn more about creationism, evolution, intelligent design and related topics, check out the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- National Academy of Sciences: The Origin of the Universe, Earth, and Life
- ReligiousTolerance.org: Beliefs of World Religions About Evolution & Creation
- Talk.Origins: What is Creationism?
- Young Earth Creation Club
- The Flat-out Truth -- an interview with Charles K. Johnson, president of the International Flat Earth Research Society
- "The Origin of the Universe, Earth, and Life." National Academy of Sciences. http://books.nap.edu/html/creationism/index.html
- Isaak, Mark. "What is Creationism?" Talk.Origins. http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/wic.html
- The Flat Earth Society http://www.alaska.net/~clund/e_djublonskopf/Flatearthsociety.htm
- "What is the 'scientific method'?" Relativity, Space-Time and Cosmology at University of California, Riverside. http://phyun5.ucr.edu/~wudka/Physics7/Notes_www/node6.html#SECTION02121000000000000000
- Young Earth Creation Club http://www.creationists.org/
- "Young Earth Creationism." AbsoluteAstronomy.com. http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/encyclopedia/y/yo/young_earth_creationism.htm
- "Gap Creationism." AbsoluteAstronomy.com. http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/encyclopedia/g/ga/gap_creationism.htm
- "Day-Age Creationism." AbsoluteAstronomy.com. http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/encyclopedia/d/da/day-age_creationism1.htm
- "Modern Geocentrism." AbsoluteAstronomy.com. http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/encyclopedia/m/mo/modern_geocentrism.htm
- "Progressive Creationism." AbsoluteAstronomy.com. http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/encyclopedia/p/pr/progressive_creationism.htm
- "Evolutionary Creationism." AbsoluteAstronomy.com. http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/encyclopedia/e/ev/evolutionary_creationism.htm
- "Islamic Creationism." AbsoluteAstronomy.com. http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/encyclopedia/i/is/islamic_creationism.htm
- "Beliefs of World Religions About Evolution & Creation." ReligiousTolerance.org. http://www.religioustolerance.org/ev_denom2.htm