What's Wrong With Creationism?

by Mary Taylor

from Signs of the Times, No. 39 - Oct 2010

"Creationism" is a joyous, positive-sounding word for a destructive ideology. Creationism is Judeo-Christian biblical literalism concerning the origin of the universe with the intention or the result of limiting rational thought and/or imagination.

But this is only one of its meanings. Even this narrow definition covers a range of beliefs - not only flat-earth-ism and impossibly-young-earth-ism. And there are many ways of believing. We can consistently believe several creation myths, countless other myths, and evolutionary science.

Scriptural literalism is a hazard in the hands of the powerful, especially when it gets into the classroom. Neither six-day wizardry, nor turtles, elephants, giant eggs, nor any other creation myth should be taught as fact. Nor should the Last Supper, the Ramayana, the Prophet's Night-Journey, the wanderings of Ulysses, Wagner's Ring Cycle, the Monkey King's adventures, Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp any other story in the world's vast archive. Why? Because literary works - whether divinely-inspired or human - whether enacted or simply read out - are not factual. That does not mean they are lesser than factual works. They may be much greater. But they are different. So, apart from interfering with the science curriculum, what else is wrong with creationism?

The literalist version is destructive to those adults who purport to believe it. I say 'purport' because I doubt they have thought deeply about belief. The proclaiming comes before the pondering - if pondering comes at all. Their religious beliefs are reduced to a set of fact-mimicking statements alleged to cancel out scientific discoveries. Their scientific/rational world is topsy-turvy, and their religious/artistic world a decaying stump.

Adults in a liberal society may freely choose to stunt their own imaginations and damage their reasoning powers. But there is another danger which affects us all. It concerns our response to creationism and other religious literalisms. Religious statements are frequently discussed and evaluated as if they were factual statements. By allowing this to continue, we assist in entrenching a false and pernicious separation between religions and the arts.

The act of creation is fundamental to our existence. Beginnings - births and rebirths - are the subject of much myth and ritual, and emerge repeatedly in artworks. The same is true of endings. Death is a major theme in religions and the arts. Destruction is not only the opposite of creation: it is an intrinsic part of it. Creation, religiously and artistically, is not a past event to be investigated. It is something eternal, in which we all take part, using words and music, prayer and dance, drama and colour. Expressions are infinitely variable, and always incomplete. Belief is itself an act of creation.

To treat a creative response as factual - whether or not it concerns the origin of the universe - is to misunderstand it. Such misunderstandings are difficult to avoid. A literary sentence can be structured like a scientific statement. An artistic photograph may be indistinguishable from a journalistic one. Often we rely on authority to keep us on the right track. This is not a fail-safe method. If we do not know to which category a statement belongs, how can we know which authority to consult?

Fortunately, some statements belong to a system. The world has an established process for seeking, testing and systematising statements that can reasonably be regarded as fact, and that process is called science. Religions and the arts form an unsystematic cluster of formations, some internally coherent, some linked to others, but as a whole, unstable. Despite any resemblance to science, they belong to a different category and are not continuous with science.

Religion is not science. Why do we confuse these categories? Creationism is only one aspect of the widespread and deeply insidious practice of treating religion as fact. And creationists are not the only sinners in this respect. Many atheists evaluate religious statements as if they were literal. While we carelessly allow religion and science to mingle, we foolishly and needlessly keep art and religion apart. Religions and the arts belong together.

Many have understood this. A few have written about it. Most are reluctant to disturb existing power-bases within the arts and the religions. But to equate religion with art does not diminish either of them: it doubles their realm. A vast inheritance is ours; it lives within us, and pervades the world around us. What are the characteristics of this living legacy? It is a creative activity in which human beings throughout history have participated. It expresses feeling through language, image, symbol, sound, drama and dance. It is infinitely diverse as to style, content, texture and depth. It adapts to endure. It is an inexhaustible source of inspiration and renewal. It combines healing and ennobling qualities with profound truth.

This amazing cultural activity lacks a name. Or rather, it has two inadequate and confusing names, "religion" and "art". It needs a new name. What shall we call it? What a pity the word "creationism" has become distorted, temporarily.

Mary Taylor is a freelance writer on religious affairs. She lives in Belfast, N Ireland.