Why Does Creationism Endure?

There’s no news to post about today — not yet — so this will be a bit of a diversion. We’re trying to sort out our thinking about an old problem.

We have all wondered why, long after a totally rational, evidence-backed theory like evolution has been developed, an obviously silly belief like creationism manages to persist. The same question can be asked about other zany beliefs like astrology, and the same considerations are probably applicable, but we’ll focus on creationism.

We’ve seen various attempts to provide psychological reasons for creationism, but we never find that stuff satisfactory. Your Curmudgeon doesn’t imagine that he has the perfect answer, but we herewith offer a few thoughts that might help to explain the perseverance of such a bizarre belief.

One might justifiably think that when an obviously faulty belief exists and is countered with a clearly superior explanation, the wrong belief should fade away. This routinely happens in science — see Wikipedia’s list of Superseded scientific theories. But people trained in science, who appreciate the concept of a disproved hypothesis, are far from a majority of the population.

When people have no understanding of or appreciation for evidence and logic, we might still think that the rational force of the better theory would be persuasive, but that’s obviously not how people behave — except in very limited fields of endeavor. For example, a military commander who has crazy ideas about how to win battles won’t last very long, nor will his army. Also, in the business arena, offering faulty products will end one’s career, and it may even doom the entire company. War and business are relatively rare activities with immediate feedback from the real world, where errors are self-correcting because they result in swift and devastating consequences.

But even in war and business, reality is benign. When a military commander or business executive is competent at his occupation, he might also be a creationist. Assuming he is sufficiently sane that his beliefs about Adam & Eve or Noah’s Ark don’t interfere with his career decisions, he may be successful. He may even attribute his success to his belief in creationism. That doesn’t matter, as long as he keeps making rational decisions.

Some crazy beliefs are fatal, however. We’ve all seen examples of cults that destroyed themselves — e.g., the Heaven’s Gate cult and the Jonestown suicide of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple. But other cults with potentially fatal beliefs — like faith healing — don’t necessarily destroy the whole cult, only those who become sick with a fatal disease. Such cults can survive (in the absence of a plague), but they don’t seem to attract millions of followers.

Creationism exists on safer ground than suicide cults or immediate feedback occupations like the military. Its beliefs are objectively absurd, but they’re not suicidal. To the extent that they provide fellowship for similarly minded people, they may even be beneficial — albeit only emotionally. Also, creationism is continuously encouraged by charlatans. That’s sufficient not only for such beliefs to survive, but also to achieve popularity.

So there you are, dear reader. Our tentative conclusion is that creationism endures because, although it’s senseless and useless, it isn’t fatal — as long as its adherents don’t become aggressive and try to destroy their more rational brethren. In evolutionary terms, it’s like a harmless feature that can persist in a species, although it serves no significant survival purpose.

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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19 responses to “Why Does Creationism Endure?

  1. The short answer is that the adherents of silly ideas are not actually consistent in their lives. Bertrand Russell has this pegged a century ago.

  2. One belief which persists, even though it is repeatedly falsified – obviously falsified even to its believers – and which is often disruptive – is the belief in the imminent end of the world. To be sure, the details about exactly when, those change. But The End Is Nigh is the subject of a whole genre of humor, the man with the sandwich board. And the Bible explicitly warns us against knowing when it will happen – I don’t know how more clearly it could be said. And yet people continue to believe that this time, this guy, has finally figured it out. Even if this same guy was wrong just recently. There are thriving religions today based on The End Is Nigh announcements: Seventh Day Adventism and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    Compared to The End Is Nigh, creationism seems almost rational.

    My own private understanding of creationism is that it is just “pithecophobia” – the disgust at the concept of being physically related to the rest of the world of life, especially where it is most obvious, particularly because it is most obvious, the primates. IMHO YMMD

  3. “To the extent that they provide fellowship for similarly minded people, they may even be beneficial — albeit only emotionally.”
    That’s a psychological explanation – didn’t you think that stuff dissatisfactory?

  4. mnb0 says: “That’s a psychological explanation – didn’t you think that stuff dissatisfactory?”

    It could be a factor, but it certainly isn’t sufficient.

  5. There’s always the bell curve, albeit possibly skewed towards the dumber end.

  6. Creationism persists because it is explicitly stated as truth in the Bible.

    In Fundamentalist churches, the kiddies are taught from the earliest age that the Bible is True, that its teachings must be followed if you wish to get to heaven, and if you don’t believe the Bible, you’re going to Hell.

    Pretty powerful effect on young minds. And whatever is taught from a young age as true is very difficult to dislodge. Trust me on this — 27 years teaching Earth Science at the junior high level has given me much insight on the subject.

    If Holding the Line in Florida is reading this, I’m sure he would agree. He’s teaching the same subject at the same grade level, and he’s in an even more fundamentalist region than where I taught.

  7. Tom S offers

    My own private understanding of creationism is that it is just “pithecophobia”

    Agreed, I think that is a huge factor and very common, in just the same way that most folks find their own parents frequently embarrassing.

    We’re not comfortable with the simian visage peering back at us from the mirror and would prefer to see therein an angel instead.

    Which is ironic when you consider that no other primate is capable of such barbarous acts of wholesale murder and other acts of flat-out insanity as our own dearly beloved species.

  8. @retiredsciguy-
    There is nothing in the Bible which treats of things which are of interest to evolution – populations, taxonomy, genetics, … The cultures of the Ancient Near East, and indeed up until the beginnings of modern science, did not have the concepts necessary to treat of evolution. (Excepting the belief in a “young Earth”. And that was mostly fading away in favor various “old Earth” readings of the Bible, in the 19th century.)

    There are plenty of things which the Bible does treat of – for example, geocentrism – which the creationists have, almost universally, accepted the modern scientfic account.

    The creationists have no hesitation to manufacture beliefs with no Bbilical warrant – such as the hyper-micro-evolution after the Flood.

    Modern creationism is not a continuation of a long-held tradition in conservative evangelical Christianity. It is not “that old-time religion”. We cannot explain creationism by adherence to traditional understanding of the Bible.

  9. I’m not sure it is harmless. Creationism’s hostility to science as it has been understood and practiced for 400 years is potentially a direct threat to scientific and even technological progress. If you believe the universe came into being by supernatural means and that life did so too, and if you believe that even the modern universe operates by supernatural law rather than by natural law, how are you going to discover anything useful, except perhaps by accident?

    If creationism were to become the dominant belief taught to schoolchildren, the props would be knocked out from under just about all of the natural sciences. And to enforce creationism’s dominance would probably require doing away with the separation of church and state–which aggressive fundamentalists have already said is their goal. Thereafter, welcome to the American Inquisition.

  10. I have heard this story about Islamic civilization. I have also heard that it is a misrepresentation. If true, it is a cautionary tale. The story goes that the philosopher Al Ghazali argued that it is contrary to Islam to believe that the natural world works according to natural laws which we can discover, rather than it all being the direct will of God. This doctrine, according to the story, had the effect of making an end to all “secular investigations” by the Islamic world, and eventually, let that open to be developed by Western Christian world.

  11. Eric Lipps, what you say is true, but only if religion has the power of government. That’s always dangerous. For the moment, despite what some fanatics wish for, it’s not very likely in the US.

  12. Charles Deetz ;)

    The persistence of creationism is easy to understand as a talisman required to be a bible-believer, as retiredsciguy points. out. What isn’t easy to understand is the denial of facts, science, and persuasive arguments against it. And even more unintelligible is the the twisting and ‘disproving’ of science and facts to obviously support their cognitive dissonance. It is folly, but for the most strident, it is all they’ve got to keep their faith alive.

  13. michaelfugate

    Creationism is like circumcision – a sign of devotion to a certain creed.

  14. But there are other things in the Bible which could be talismans for one’s true belief in the Bible.

    1) There is nothing in the Bible about genetic changes in populations, nothing about common descent with modification, nothing about taxonomy, biogeography, or paleontology. All the necessary concepts are anachronistic for the culture of the Ancient Near East.

    2) The acceptance of “micro”evolution, baramins, and a whole lot of other add-ons are hardly any signs of one’s cleaving to the Bible.

    3) On the other hand, geocentricism has proven to be accepted as a Biblical doctrine up until the rise of modern science.

    The question is why this particular constellation of beliefs. This mishmash of this but not that, rejection of old doctrines and making up new ones.

    And particularly why rejection of the Big Bang, when that could well turn out taken to be scientific confirmation of the universe having a beginning in time, contrary to the atheistic eternity of things?

  15. Dave Luckett

    Following Michael Fulgate, I think there is a form of ticket entry going on here. Christian fundamentalist young-earth creationists – the largest single demographic in the US, I think – have entry to local church communities which provide social connections, integration, cohesion and personal, mutual and political support. It’s a little like the (mainly legendary) Mason’s secret handshake.

    As has been said before, it is very difficult to argue a believer out of a belief when that person has a personal and pecuniary reason to believe it.

  16. SC says ” In evolutionary terms, it’s (creationism) like a harmless feature that can persist in a species, although it serves no significant survival purpose.”
    Creationists have the support of like minded organizations and groups of people. Misery loves company.

  17. DickVanstone

    In most of these comments creationism is interchangeable with government. They endure because of greed, idiots, and intellectually lazy followers among other things I’m sure.

    What do you call that which only needed 50% of the vote to enact yet demands 75% to amend, is enacted in the name of We The People yet debated in secrecy(windows closed, drapes drawn, no minutes taken), and simultaneously being the foundation for while ignored by the Federal Government?
    A) Hypocrisy.
    B) A Power Grab.
    C) A Blueprint for a Peoples Slavery.
    D) The U.S. Constitution(read:bible).
    E) All of the Above.

  18. Quite honestly? Slavery, racism and bigotry is what got it started, and the perpeptuation of bigotry is what keeps the modern creationist movement alive.

    I don’t mean that all creationists are racists and bigots, but the same tools – the same hermeneutical legerdemain, that was used to dredge up creationism from its watery grave are the ones that were/are used to explain why Those Others deserve ill treatment at the hands of Christians.

    Right now, the new hotness in this branch of Christianity is hating on gay people and using the same techniques, but we see from Ken Ham and various others that they’ll use it for anyone who crosses their path.

    It’s what you’re always on about, Curmy – 1. State what you believe to be true. 2. Find a part of the Bible that supports what you believe to be true. 3. When challenged on 2, return to step 1.

    If this branch of Christianity is to give up on hating those icky Others, they’re first going to need to give up on seeing the Bible as a set of proof-texts. And until they do that, there will be creationists. And thus, there will always be creationists.

    The people I feel most sorry for are the people who were raised in the church, homeschooled and who are trained to keep themselves separate from the rest of the world. How terrifying it must be to have only your paper-thin belief in your church leaders to keep you safe from falling into the hell you imagine.

  19. Why Does Creationism Endure? Because it absolves creationists of having to think and learn things that are too difficult for them to comprehend. Plus it takes a certain amount of courage to admit you’ve been bamboozled by the world’s oldest con.