Contesting Mosaic Geology

In the April, 1824 issue of the British Critic—a popular quarterly journal, founded in 1793 by conservative and High Churchmen, and supported by the Anglican orthodox group known as “Hackney Phalanx”—there is an anonymous and blistering review of Granville Penn’s A Comparative Estimate of the Mineral and Mosaical Geologies (1822) and A Supplement to the Comparative Estimate of the Mineral and Mosaical Geologies: relating chiefly to the Geological Indications of the Phenomena of the Cave at Kirkdale (1823). Penn, fluent in several languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and French, was known as a “scriptural geologist” and early biblical literalist. In the Critic review, the introductory comments are worth quoting at length:

We have always doubted the expediency of connecting the speculations of science with the truths of revealed religion; and the work now before us has fully justified all our scruples on this head. It is sufficient to observe, as the ground of our opinion, that the Holy Scriptures were not meant to convey to mankind a system of philosophy [i.e., “science”]; and that consequently every attempt to derive from them a species of knowledge which they profess not to contain, will not only be attended with complete failure, but will also, in most instances, call forth the scorn of the sceptic and the regret of the sincere believer. The book of Genesis ought never to be resorted to as a manual either of astronomy or of geology. The objects contemplated by its Inspired Author were much more sacred and important; and accordingly through he was skilled in all the learning of the Egyptians, he uniformly abstained from obtruding upon the attention of those whom he wished to instruct in heavenly things, the crude notions of priests or magicians, however ingenious or however popular.

My italics. This was a High Church periodical. In the second edition of A Comparative Estimate (1825), Penn responded specifically to this “distempered flagellant”: “This ardent critic,” he wrote, “should have lived at least three centuries ago, when reviews ad excommunicationem might have acquired some measure of power. In the fervid zeal with which he appears to copy the proceedings of the Pontifical College of 1622, he thus fulminates his Inquisitorial sentence against this Work.” Penn is of course referring to the trail of Galileo. In other words, Penn is portraying himself as a new Galileo.

This episode in the history of science reveals, to my mind, two things. First, the use of the Bible as a “science text-book” was contested, not only by liberal theologians, but also by conservative ones, even High Churchmen. Modern Young-Earth creationists may have had some precedent in nineteenth-century scriptural geological tradition, but clearly it was contested terrain. Second, writers such as Penn reveal a fear that science was being taken away from the clerical-scientist. Here the professionalization of science becomes clear. What is most interesting, however, is the imagery of Galileo. It seems that both sides, the literalists and the new geological, professional elite, used the Galileo myth against what each side perceived as a struggle against bigotry.

New Harris Poll on Evolution

Those surveyed were given a list of topics—including God, miracles, heaven, Jesus as God or the son of God, angels, survival of the soul after death, the resurrection of Jesus, Hell, the virgin birth, the Devil, “Darwin’s theory of evolution,” ghosts, creationism, UFOs, astrology, witches, and reincarnation—and asked, “Please indicate for each one if you believe in it, or not.” For evolution, 47 percent of respondents indicated that they believed in it, 29 percent indicated that they don’t believe in it, and 25 percent indicated that they were not sure.

The results also varied dramatically based on political affiliation or generation: 36 percent of Republicans, 52 percent of Democrats, and 51 percent of independents indicated that they believed in “Darwin’s theory of evolution,” while 49 percent of Republicans, 30 percent of Democrats, and 34 percent of independents indicated that they believed in creationism; 49 percent of Echo Boomers (18-36), 48 percent of Gen Xers (37-48), 45 percent of Baby Boomers (49-67), and 43 percent of Matures (68+) indicated that they believed in “Darwin’s theory of evolution,” while 33 percent of Echo Boomers, 35 percent of Gen Xers, 38 percent of Baby Boomers, and 37 percent of Matures indicated that they believed in creationism.

(Harris Interactive)

Myths about Science and Religion – That Creationism is a Uniquely American Phenomenon

Continuing the discussion from the previous post, Cohen’s tenacious assumptions about creationism and the Scopes trial undoubtedly arises from the notion that the movement is geographically contained. His examples of Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas are no accident, and the underlying political assumptions are plain. But as Ron Numbers has made quite clear in a number of works, creationism has spread—and is spreading—beyond the confines of the United States.

According to Numbers, during the century or so following the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) most conservative Christian antievolutionists accepted the evidence of the antiquity of life on earth while rejecting the transmutation of species. Only a small minority, founded largely among the Seventh-Day Adventist followers of the prophet Ellen G. White (1897-1915), insisted on the special creation of all life forms 6,000 to 10,000 years ago and on a universal flood at the time of Noah that buried most of the fossils.

In the 1960s, there was something of a “creationist revival” taking place in America, led largely by the Texas engineer Henry M Morris (1918- ). A thorough study of the Bible following graduation from college convinced him of its absolute truth and prompted him to reevaluate his belief in evolution. In the late 1950s, he began collaborating with theologian John C. Whitecomb Jr. (1924- ). While working on a book project together, Morris had earned a PhD in hydraulic engineering from the University of Minnesota and began chairing the Civil Engineering department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

In 1961 they published The Genesis Flood, the most comprehensive contribution to strict creationism since the 1920s. 1963 they established the Creation Research Society (CRS). Of the 10 founding members, five possessed doctorates in biology; a sixth had earned a PhD degree in biochemistry; and a seventh held a master’s degree in biology.

New societies would continue to spring up in the 1970s, in the form of Creation Science Research Center (CSRC) and the Institute of Creation Research (ICR), which, according to Morris, would be “controlled and operated by scientists” and would engage in research and education.

This new brand of creationist did not appeal to the authority of the Bible. Rather, they consciously downplayed the Genesis story in favor of what they called “scientific creationism.” In short, they competed for equal scientific status. And unlike the anti-evolution crusade of the 1920s, which remain confined mainly to North America, the revival of the 1960s rapidly spread overseas. By 1980, Morris’s books alone had been translated into Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, and Russian. Strict creationism was becoming an international phenomenon.

Few countries outside the United States gave creation science a warmer reception than Australia. Morris had visited Australia in 1973, inspiring Ken A. Ham to organize the Creation Science Foundation (CSF) in Brisbane, quickly becoming the center of antievolutionism in the South Pacific.

Similar developments occurred in New Zealand. In 1992 New Zealand creationists set up an “NZ arm” of the CSF, called Creation Science. In 1995 the New Zealand Listener announced that “God and Darwin are still battling it out in New Zealand schools.”

The same can be said for Canada. In 2000 it was claimed that “there are possibly more creationists per capita in Canada than in any other Western country apart from the US.” A public-opinion poll revealed that “even though less than a third of Canadians attend a religious service regularly…53% of all adults reject the theory of scientific evolution.”

Before 2002 few people in Great Britain except evangelicals gave much thought to creationism. That year, however, the British press drew attention to a creationist “scandal” in Gateshead, where, as one reporter put it, “fundamentalist Christians who do not believe in evolution have taken control of a state-funded secondary school in England.” By late 2005 antievolutionism in the United Kingdom had grown to such proportions that the retiring president of the Royal Society devoted his farewell address to warning that the “core values of modern science are under serious threat from fundamentalism.”

Elsewhere in Western Europe creationists were making similar inroads. A poll of adult Europeans revealed that only 40% believed in naturalistic evolution, 21% in theistic evolution, and 20% in a recent special creation, while 19% remained undecided or ignorant. The highest concentrations of young earth creationists were found, remarkably, in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany.

In Italy antievolutionists formed a society in the early 1990s dedicated to introducing “into both public and private schools the biblical message of creationism and the scientific studies that confirm it.” Most Italian academics ignored the threat until early in 2004, when the right wing political party began dismissing evolution as a fairytale unlinking Darwinism to Marxism.

Almost immediately after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union two years later, conservative Christians began to flood the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe. Within a few years creationist missionaries had successfully planted new societies in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Russia, and the Ukraine.

After a very slow start in Latin America, creationists witnessed an explosion of interest, paralleling that of evangelical Christianity generally. According to a survey taken in Brazil in 2004, 31% of the population believed that “the first humans were created no more than 10,000 years ago” and the overwhelming majority favored teaching creationism.

In Asia, Koreans emerged as a creationist powerhouse, propagating the message at home and abroad. In the 1980s creationists established the Korea Association of Creation Research (KACR), and by 2000 its membership stood at 1,365, giving Korea claim to being the creationist capital of the world.

But it’s not merely Christians who are creationists. According to Numbers, in the mid-1980s the ICR received the call from the Muslim minister of education in Turkey, saying that “he wanted to eliminate the secular-based, evolution only teaching dominant in their schools and replace it with the curriculum teaching the two models evolution and creation.” In 1990 a small group of young Turks in Istanbul formed the Science Research Foundation (BAV), dedicated to promoting “immaterial cosmology and opposing evolution.” Also, in 2000 a group of Jewish antievolutionists in Israel and United States formed the Torah Science Foundation (TSF), whose head member, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, advocates “Kosher evolution,” that is, accepting microevolution while rejecting macroevolution.

Contrary to almost all expectations, geographical, theological, and political, “civilized opinion” has failed to contain what had begun as a distinctively American phenomena. Evidently, creationism is not merely a Southern predilection.