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Young Earth Creationism - Is It a Modern Phenomenon?

Note: I'd originally posted a lot of this information in a comment on Pharyngula, but I figured it was worth a blog entry, so I worked on it a bit and posted it here.

Adam & Eve with Some PterosaursI've been hearing a lot recently that creationism is a fairly modern American movement, and that Christians were more nuanced in their understanding of scripture before that. For example, there was a recent entry on Pharyngula, summarizing a lecture by Ron Numbers, describing how creationism is really the product of Ellen White, the founder of Seventh Day Adventism. I've also heard Richard Dawkins make the claim a few times that young earth creationism is something new. There are certainly quite a few Christians today who interpret Genesis figuratively or allegorically, and quite a few of those who argue that it's obvious that Genesis isn't meant to be interpreted literally.

But how true are those claims? I went to the first place that all of us lazy researchers go - Wikipedia. Granted, I'm aware with the problems of trying to use Wikipedia as a primary source, but it's usually pretty useful.

The Wikipedia article lists examples of Christian creationism going all the way back to the beginning of Christianity (as well as numerous flavors of creationism of other religions predating Christianity). Even Saint Augustine, so often quoted for telling Christians not to speak about natural phenomena of which they were ignorant, thought that pretty much all of Genesis except for the creation story was literal, and seemed to think that the Earth was still only a few thousand years old.

They are deceived . . . by those highly mendacious documents which profess to give the history of many thousand years, though reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6,000 years have yet passed. (City of God)

Sure, there were people that thought the Earth was much older, but young earth creationism doesn't appear to be a particularly new phenomenon.

I think that when people talk about creationism being a modern phenomenon, they're actually referring to a modern resurgence. By the 1800s, geologists were starting to learn enough about the history of our planet that it was pretty obvious that it was very ancient. They didn't have the techniques to pin down the age as well as we do now, but their estimates ranged from millions to billions of years. For anyone who studied the evidence, it was no longer possible to be intellectually honest and still maintain a young earth perspective. So, educated Christians who hadn't already done so switched to non-literal interpretations of Genesis. Day age and gap theories were among the popular interpretations.

It was in response to this 'liberalizing' of Christianity, as well as in response to the Enlightenment, that fundamentalist Christianity sprang up. And it was against this backdrop that young earth creationism had its resurgence, including the visions of Ellen White.

I think another point that's worth bringing up is the difference between what educated and uneducated people believe. I don't mean for this to sound condescending - merely factual. As I bring up over and over on this site, just look at the Science and Engineering Indicators put out by the National Science Foundation. One in four people in this country don't realize the Earth orbits the Sun (it's even worse in Europe), and one half don't realize that electrons are smaller than atoms. Of course, practically anybody with a good education knows those simple facts. But, consider what future historians would think about our society's understanding of those facts. If it wasn't for polls like those, all they would have to go on would be books, articles, and other written records. And it's mainly people with good educations who leave those records. Outside of polls and similar research, written records are biased towards the educated. Now, considering young earth creationism, I think there might be a similar bias going on when we try to figure out what people believed in the 1800s and even earlier. What gets recorded in books written by educated priests is not the same thing as what was believed by the uneducated population.

So, it seems a bit misleading to claim that young earth creationism is a modern phenomenon. You could get away with talking of a modern resurgence, but young earth creationism appears to be as old as religion itself. And to claim that Genesis is clearly figurative or allegorical seems a bit of a stretch, as well, considering how many intelligent people accepted it as literal before we knew enough about the history of our planet to know otherwise. It's tough to know what people were thinking thousands of years ago concerning the creation stories now recorded in Genesis, but it certainly seems possible that they were accepted at face value.


Do we know how many intelligent people accept the bible literally?

Are there numbers really so great, or is it just that they are extremely vocal?

According to a Gallup poll from 2007, around 1/3 of Americans believe the Bible is literally true, and around 1/2 believe it's the inspired word of God, if not necessarily literal (those numbers are exclusive, accounting for a total of 5/6 of Americans). As would be expected, with increased education, people were much less likely to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Gallup has also conducted a few polls specifically in regard to evolution/creationism, but the responses depend a lot on how the question is asked, and whether it's referring to people or other organisms. For example, from a 2005 poll, when asked whether creationism, evolution, and intelligent design were true or not, 55% said evolution was definitely/probably true, while 58% said that creationism was definitely/probably true (yes, that means there had to be some overlap). However, when asked about human origins that same year, 53% said exactly as described in the Bible, while only 43% said through evolution (31% guided by God, 12% with no guidance). When the question was posed as 'developed' instead of 'evolved', the numbers from 2006 shifted to 49% accepting evolution, and 46% believing creationism (those numbers are pretty consistent from year to year).

Anyway, there is definitely a large percentage of Americans who take the Bible as literally true. One third believe it's completely literally true, and another 1 in 6 take it to be literal enough that they're will to reject evolution based on the Bible. Or, to combine those two groups, around one half of Americans take the Bible to be literal enough to be creationists.

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