The evolution of Creationism

One of the great mythologies of any kind of religious fundamentalist movement is that the beliefs of that movement, and the way they choose to interpret their scripture, represent some kind of true reflection of history. This is how things always were. It's the people who believe differently who changed.

But that's not necessarily true. Take fundamentalist Christianity. A few weeks ago, the Slacktivist blog had some excellent posts recently, documenting the fact that evangelicals were once pro-choice. Another great example comes from an article in the Geological Society of America Today — the magazine of the GSA.

Written by the University of Washington's David R. Montgomery, the piece traces the birth of modern Creationism and the way it has changed since the 19th century. In general, he writes, you can really think of Creationism as a response to geology — arising as a backlash against the rise of modern geology.

The roots of modern creationism run directly back to George McCready Price (1870–1963), an amateur geologist with no formal training. In a book designed to look like a geology textbook, Price (1923) asserted that there was no order to the fossil record. Rejecting the idea of fossil succession, he argued that the succession of organisms that geologists read in the fossil record was really just a mixed-up sampling of communities that lived in different parts of the antediluvian world. He considered the fossil record too incomplete to confidently reconstruct the past, citing the occasional discovery of animals thought to be extinct and known only from fossils.

Leading fundamentalists praised Price’s book, calling it a “great and monumental” work of an “up-to-date scientist”—“a masterpiece of real science” by one of “the world’s leading Geologists,” and “the sanest, clearest and most irrefutable presentation of the Science of Geology from the standpoint of Creation and the Deluge, ever to see the light of day” (Numbers, 1992, p. 98). But even some of Price’s most ardent supporters had questions about his new flood geology. In a 1924 review in the evangelical journal Bibliotheca Sacra, the editor credited Price with throwing “a wrench into the smooth running machinery of the evolutionary theory” butwondered why it was that when fossils were found in the wrong order, they were always in exactly the reverse of that predicted by geologists (Numbers, 1992, p. 95). How could strata have gotten flipped upside down after Noah’s Flood laid them down if the Bible did not mention subsequent catastrophes? Despite such qualms, fundamentalist proponents of flood geology were inclined to assess Price’s credibility by the conclusions he reached rather than the strength of his arguments or evidence.

Read the full article online

Image: David Montgomery's photo of Siccar Point, Scotland. Montgomery writes, "the contact between the gently inclined Devonian Old Red Sandstone and vertically dipping Silurian graywacke that established a compelling case for the vast scope of geologic time. The expanse of time required to uplift and erode the two mountain ranges that were the source for the sand in these deposits was unimaginable to [James] Hutton."

Via Cort Sims


  1. Gosh, after this well-researched and methodically reasoned exposé conservative Christians will have no choice but to abandon their irrational prejudices and inconsistent ideologies.

      1. I know, I know…but I certainly don’t find anything about this history interesting; nor do I see it as being a terribly important factoid to be aware of.  There’s no lesson to learn here that people who are willing to learn don’t already know.  All we get is that disingenuous tribalist assholes have always been disingenuous and tribalist.

        To be sure, it’s not your job to keep me in my happy place on a Monday morning, but I’m still going to grumble…

    1. It’s pretty darn easy to fall into the trap of thinking that “the way it is is the way it has always been” if no one ever bothers to dig up and talk about the history.  Fundamentalists may be immune to facts, but there are a whole lot of people who just don’t know any better because no one bothered to talk about the history.

  2. Karen Armstrong has written about this in The Battle for God and The Case for God, among other works. Her argument is that historically, Christians did not consider the Bible to be a literal recounting of historical events, as fundamentalists now believe, and that Christian fundamentalism is a relatively new phenomenon that arose as a reaction to modernity rather than a perpetuation of traditional Christian belief. She argues that this is also true for fundamentalist Islam and ultraorthodox Judaism.

    1. Ok..if the Bible shouldn’t be taken literally, then why did Jesus?  He spoke of Adam as if he were a real historic person (see Mark 10:6-9, Matthew 19:4-6, and Luke 11:48-51 where He talks about their son).  Also, He–Jesus–talks about Noah’s flood as if it were a real historic world-wide event (Matthew 24:38-39)

      By the way, it is a logical fallacy to conclude that just because some “christians” may believe in evolution or not take the Bible literally (regardless of how great a percentage).  See 

      1. “By the way, it is a logical fallacy to conclude that just because some “christians” may believe in evolution or not take the Bible literally ” where’s the rest of your sentence?

        1.  I think that sentence was meant to be read “… it is a logical fallacy to conclude that (beat) just because some “christians” may believe in evolution …”. It’s a complete sentence methinks.

      2. So, you’re saying that….Because a heavily-edited and re-written collection of myths wrote one of it’s mythical characters as saying that “Everything in this book is true”, then we’re supposed to just take that as evidence that said collections of myths is historically correct and accurate.

        And: ” just because some “christians” may believe in evolution or not take the Bible literally (regardless of how great a percentage).” – Just because WHAT ? You should try finishing your sentences if you intend them to make some sort of point.

        Methinks that you may not the best person to be trying the “logical fallacy” argument, with logic skills as sub-standard as yours.

      3.  “He–Jesus–talks about Noah’s flood as if it were a real historic world-wide event”

        Well, I guess that means Jesus was wrong. This so-called Noah’s Flood was quite obviously *not* a real historical world-wide event, as should be apparent to anyone with even the most cursory understanding of biology, geology or *maths*. Our world would look *radically* different today if such an event really did happen in the recent (or not-so-recent) geologic past. Also, it would be completely devoid of any form of life more complex than simple bacteria, for that matter.

        So there you have it. Either you accept that the bible is not, in its’ entirety, literally true. *Or* you can choose to reject reality and substitute your own.
        If you prefer the latter, that’s fine – but please, don’t insist on pushing your absurd delusions on other, more real-world-based people. Keep them to yourself.

        1. “Also, it would be completely devoid of any form of life more complex than simple bacteria, for that matter.”

          What about fish? 

          1.  Fish are incredibly sensitive to salinity, oxygen levels and temperature. A global flood would, at the very least, cause a massive extinction event at least at the level of the Permian-Triassic event (which wiped out 96% of all marine species). You don’t just dump an entire firmamentful of fresh water in the world’s oceans without killing off all the fish.

        2. On top of that, many civilizations and cultures (all over the world, ancient to more recent) have very similar flood myths. It’s a common theme of creation myth. Noah’s flood seems like it was just cribbed from earlier ‘pagan’ flood myths anyway. Not a particularly strong choice of bible verse if you’re trying to argue the historicity of The Bible…

          I suppose that if you’re ancient man and you find 140 million year old seashells and fossils in the middle of the desert your mind tries to square it somehow.

          1.  Or it could be perhaps related to some massive flood event that affected a large population, who then went on to found/affect most other cultures. Or it could have been a globe-spanning mega-storm caused by a volcanic eruption.

          2. A long time ago where was a big freshwater-lake in Egypt including fresh-water whales etc.

            I could see the flood thing originating from there.

      4. Religions are defined by their followers.They fit the social convention exception in the wikipedia article you linked. Religions are large organized, or sometimes small or disorganized, social conventions.  Unless you believe that some version of some religion is the real truth. 

        A particular church may be defined by its leaders, Catholicism being a prominent example. But if a bunch of people say they practice a religion, they are practicing a religion.  A religion just is a set of beliefs and/or practices.

        It works the same way as a game.  If a few people agree on the rules, it’s a game.  And if they call it the same thing as someones else’s game, they are not wrong, there are just two games with the same name now.

      5. Actually, looking at those verses, Jesus wasn’t necessarily using those statements because he believed them, but because he was trying to say, “You believe (p) is true, therefore you should understand (q) to be true as well.” 

        Or, in the case of the blood of Abel, “Those who persecute and kill these prophets of God will be responsible for all the blood of all the prophets spilled, going all the way back.” Back “to the beginning of time,” or “to the beginning of the world,” sounds cool and gives the curse more heft.

        Or, in the case of the flood quote, “As you know, these legendary people in their legendary wickedness continued to act as thus until the day they were destroyed. And so it shall be when the Son of Man appears.” 

        They work as figurative rhetorical devices, in other words. It might do you some good to understand how people argued in antiquity, as well as how they used myth — the stories of their people, thus the stories of their collective identity — to bolster their arguments. 

        You should also understand that history, back then, was as much a good story as it was a telling of events that had occurred. If you doubt me, give Herodotus a read sometime.

        Much of the cherry-picking that occurs in scriptural “interpretation” reminds me of this meme:

        Take a statement out of its dialog or out of its context and blammo! You can make that statement mean whatever you want. You can assert that Person X believes Y, because you pulled a fragment that _could_ allude that out of their sentence. Very easy to do, too, if that person has been dead for a while. Just like those Rosicrucians who claim Socrates was one of their own all along, based on fragments of quotes provided second-hand by Plato.

      6. Thanks for pointing out I didn’t finish my sentence.  It was supposed to say:

        By the way, it is a logical fallacy to conclude that just because some “christians” may believe in evolution or not take the Bible literally that defines Christianity.

        The main point is:  “christians” don’t define what Christianity is…the God does in the Bible.

          1. Lots of folks other than christians interpret what’s in the bible.

            It’s just that the christians get all bent out of shape when other people’s interpretations conclude that the bible is a compendenum of fairy tales.

        1. “By the way, it is a logical fallacy to conclude that just because some “christians” may believe in evolution or not take the Bible literally that defines Christianity”

          STILL doesn’t make sense. Give it the ol’ Divinity School try there, maxson.

          1. I’m struggling too. My best guess:

            “It is a logical fallacy to define Christianity only by looking at Christians who believe in evolution or who don’t take the bible literally.”

            It still doesn’t really make sense, because no one is defining Christianity this way.

      7. None of these passages depend on a literal belief in the stories Jesus refers to.

        Mark 10:6-9 actually makes more sense if Jesus is referring to the cultural narrative than to the original story, because of the differences in two parts of the original story, which have been interpreted as references to Lilith and Eve respectively.

      8. Thats nice. Have any peer reviewed scientific research papers supported by data in credible science journals  that prove Flood “Geology” explains the stratigraphy seen in the earth’s layers or the fossil assemblages from oldest to youngest? 20,000,000 Library of Congress tabs say there aren’t any. Might I suggest a geology 101 or 102 textbook?
        Also perhaps you might visit the NCSE website and read up on creationism and flood “geology” as opposed to science. It might help clear up some of the creationism pseudoscience myths you’ve been exposed to, That is, if you’re a logical person. If you’re not a logical person capable of absorbing information rationally, it won’t help.
        There doesn’t have to be a conflict between your faith and science and reason. Most mainstream denominations accept evolution and reject YEC and flood “geology”.
        Its credibility scientifically died around 1780 with Hutton and Lyell.
        Good luck
        Lutheran, Scientist, Conservative

    2.  I think she’s wrong about that. There certainly would not have been so many earnest attempts to pinpoint the date of creation (à la Bishop Ussher) nor so much hell to pay when anyone suggested the Bible was not completely accurate (remember Galileo?) if the Bible was not regarded as reliable and accurate.

      1. The trick is that most christians – And jews, at least concerning the old testament – _do_ believe that the bible is an accurate historical record; Their arguments are on how to interpret the “data” contained within it’s pages. And, with that, they were all off to the races….

        1. “Most” is certainly not accurate. There are a billion Catholics (give or take) around the world. As a matter of Catholic theology none of them are taught that the Old Testament is historically accurate. I am very confident that there are not a billion plus one fundamentalists out there.

        2.  The ‘Bible as literal spoken word of God’ question is Very important to some religions and has caused schisms in the past, such as the one that caused huge numbers of Germans to leave their homes and farms and end up in Australia, where my ancestors come from.

      2. I have questions about Armstrong’s conclusions, but it’s been awhile since I’ve read the books and I’m not an expert in her field. But you’re talking about events from the 16th and 17th centuries, which is relatively recent in the grand scheme of things, although obviously those events didn’t involve fundamentalism as we know it today.

        1. That people were obviously taking the Bible seriously in the 16th Century would tend to work against the argument that Bible-believing is some spontaneous 19th century phenomenon.

          1. It’s not the believeing in the bible that’s a recent development – It’s the crack-brained, murderous MILITANCY of those who do, that is a fairly new phenomenon.

          2. Sorry, tynam & robcat – I couldn’t respond anywhere else.

            I should’ve phrased that better; What I SHOULD have posted was, “It’s the GLOBAL ORGANIZATION, via the internet, the uniting of the crack-brained murderous militancy that’s fairly new.”

      3. IIRC, some early Christian theologians criticized others for thinking the earth had *any* creation-time. I think it was one of the attacks on Eunomius of Cyzicus, but I can’t find the exact text.

    3. Also, Armstrong’s The Great Transformation, detailing the roots of Jaspers’ “Axial Age” (ca. 900-200 BCE) — think nascent philosophies/traditions of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, and Jeremiah. Excellent baseline for studying fundamentalist revisionism around the world.

    4. Q. Should the Bible be considered a literal recounting of historical events?
      A. Yes. 

      i.) Praying to God, and referring to Scripture, Jesus said:
      John 17:17 – “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.
      ii.) What Does The Catholic Church Teach about Origins?
      – Genesis does not contain purified myths. (Pontifical Biblical Commission 1909)
      – Genesis contains real history – it gives an account of things that really happened. (Pius XII)…
      – All the Fathers who wrote on the subject believed that the Creation days were no longer than 24-hour-days. (Consensus of the Fathers of the Church)
      References:1. John 17:17 …
      What Does The Catholic Church Teach about Origins?

      1. Genesis had the order of appearance of the animals wrong.  It claims water, air, and then land when we know it was water, land and then air.  This is just one of literally thousands of errors, inconsistencies, and outright myths in the bible.

  3. fundamentalist proponents … were inclined to assess … credibility by the conclusions … reached rather than the strength of … arguments or evidence.

    Republican party voters in a nutshell.

    1. Eh, this is probably Human thinking across the board. If you present me with an argument that says my strongly-held beliefs are right, I’m sure as heck going to think those arguments are better than the ones that say my beliefs are wrong.

      It’s an unfortunate Human bias.

        1. To be really precise, the problem is authoritarians, who tend react to all examination of ideas with hostility.  The bias is there in all humans, but there’s a proven correlation between modern conservatism and authoritarianism.  To summarise a lot of research: all humans are prone to that error, but conservatives actively embrace it.

  4. I remember reading a comment a few posts ago, how anytime that particular reader found a really great article – catchy headline, well written body, easy to understand – he’d inevitably find it to be Maggie’s work. I’m beginning to notice the pattern myself …

  5. Mythologies are one means of coming to terms with what is immediately knowable, potentially knowable or never knowable.
    The modern age also corresponds with the development and rise of the novel and the final abandonment of the creation of new myths. Neither science fiction nor movements like magic realism quite seem to fill the void.
    There is a space which has been vacated by modernity and which lets the fundamentalists in.
    Religion is just one manifestation of the human tendency to misuse texts.

  6. The best account of the evolution of creationism is the book by Ronald Numbers,  which Montgomery cites twice in the short passage excerpted by Koerth-Bake. If I recall correctly, the first sentence of Numbers’ book is “Creationism is evolving”. [ed. I might be mixing that up with the first sentence of Robert Pennock’s book]   But Numbers makes  larger, and deeply important, points missed (or at least skipped) by Montgomery.  Chief among them is the obscured Adventist origins of young earth creationism.  George McCready Price was a Seventh Day Adventist, not a fundamentalist.  Adventists were considered apostates to fundamentalist Christianity, and a large part of the acceptance of Price’s “flood geology” by fundamentalists involved obscuring its Adventist roots.

  7. To expand on Koerth-Bake’s point about creationism being a response to (then) modern geology: that’s true, but it’s so much richer.  Fundamentalism itself was a response to  19th century biblical interpretation. The publication of “The Fundamentals”, from which fundamentalist drew their name, was in response to what was considered liberal biblical interpretation.  As with so much reactionism, their narrowness was a prison of their own making. They required *some* form of young earth creationism.  Seventh Day Adventists had already  committed to a six day creation (obviously), but because Adventism was considered heterodox there was no way to tap that well.  McCready Price’s “flood geology” provided the bridge for fundamentalists, precisely because Adventism wasn’t  needed to explain it.

  8. It probably made sense in the 19th century for creationists to try to debunk geology to support their beliefs, but in the 21st century I’d like to know how they explain cosmology.  Here are my questions for creationists:

    1. Do you believe the earth orbits the sun at a distance of roughly 93 million miles and that it takes 8 minutes for light from the sun to reach earth?
    2. Do you believe that Alpha Centauri is the closest star to us and that light takes 4.3 years to reach us from there?
    3. Do you believe that our solar system sits in one of the radial arms of the Milky Way galaxy, a galaxy that is 120,000 light years across which contains 200-400 billion stars?
    4. Do you believe that we are able to observe other galaxies that are millions or billions of light years away from earth?
    5. Can you explain how light has been able to reach us from billions of light years away in the roughly 6000 years since the creation of the universe? 

    1. Q. 5. Can you explain how light has been able to reach us from billions of light years away in the roughly 6000 years since the creation of the universe?

      “How can distant starlight reach us in just 6,000 years?
      (partial quote)
      Time dilation – An experimentally verified prediction of Einstein’s General Relativity Theory is a phenomenon called gravitational time dilation. It has long been established that gravity affects the rate at which time flows in any particular location in the universe.

      Distant starlight and the biblical timescale – … The days of the Creation Week were recorded from the point of view of an observer on the earth so the time reference in Genesis is Earth time.

      On Day 4, as God commenced stretching out the heavens, the mass of the universe (presumably including the ‘waters above’ which were separated out on Day 2) would have been confined to a much smaller volume of space than is the case today.

      Assuming the Hartnett–Carmeli theory is correct, the Universe rapidly expanded with massive time dilation as a result of very rapid acceleration of the fabric of space on Day 4. The Humphreys model on the other hand, also based on General Relativity, has clocks at the outer edge of the cosmos running much faster than earth-bound clocks because of gravitational time dilation.

      By the end of Day 4, when God completed his work of creating the sun, moon and stars, and had stretched out the heavens to their vast extent, billions of years of cosmic time could have elapsed at the outer edges of the cosmos in just one 24 hour earth day. There would have been more than enough time for the light from distant stars to have reached the earth so that when Adam gazed at the night sky on that sixth night he would have seen much the same as what we see today.

      6,000 years have passed since the Creation Week. If the models outlined above are correct, the light from any star that is greater than 6,000 light years away from the earth will have originated on Day 4 itself. This would include most of the visible stars, all of which are part of the Milky Way galaxy. We are effectively looking at God’s creative activity on Day 4 as we gaze into the universe!”


      How can distant starlight reach us in just 6,000 years? by Mark Harwood

      Genesis 1-11 (NIV1984Bible)
      “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth …”

      1. Oh C’mon!  This time dilation explanation has no backing whatsoever in the physics community.  It is actually a misunderstanding of Lorentz transforms.  This is more “magic” and nothing else.

        The YEC movement is the worst and most destructive active cult in the US.  In countries without our free speech protections, the YEC movement would be banned for lying to the public.

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