Creationism and Evolution are Competing ‘Myths’

The Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority voted unanimously to grant the tax incentives for [Ark Encounter], the $172.5 million project. Answers in Genesis, which built Kentucky’s Creation Museum, is behind the theme park. Gov. Steve Beshear defended the tax incentives because plans say it will create 600 to 700 jobs, almost assuredly just for Christians, and contribute $250 million to the region’s economy in the first year. Americans United for Separation of Church and State blasted the decision. —Lauri Lebo, RD, May 20, 2011

Against the backdrop of nearly a century of pitched battles for the minds of American schoolchildren between proponents of creationism and defenders of evolution, the announcement of a plan to build Ark Encounter, the latest venture connected to Answers in Genesis (AiG), was guaranteed to generate media buzz. Featuring a full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark (among other Bible-based attractions), the proposed theme park fits neatly into AiG’s larger mission to show that their brand of biblical literalism, far from being antagonistic to science, is actually supported by it.

As AiG’s president Ken Ham put it at the 2007 opening of the Creation Museum, AiG’s monument to young earth creationism, “belief in every word of the Bible can be defended by modern science.” The concerted efforts of national science organizations to refute such claims seem to have had little effect on many middle Americans—not surprisingly the exact demographic targeted by AiG. The Ark Encounter’s planned home in northern Kentucky will situate it, like the Creation Museum, within a day’s drive of two-thirds of all Americans, some 40% of whom, according to the latest Gallup poll, affirm the creationist view that God created humans sometime in the past 10,000 years.

Opponents have framed their dissent largely on legal grounds, arguing that Kentucky’s provision of generous tax breaks for the project violates the separation of church and state and that the statement of faith required of all AiG employees constitutes discriminatory hiring. While serious, these concerns are often raised in a tone of bemused derision and thinly-veiled scorn among commentators unable to resist the project’s comedic potential, from Jay Leno and Rachel Maddow to the myriad pundits of the blogosphere.

Admittedly, it is hard to resist poking fun at statements like the one issued by AiG’s senior vice president Mike Zovath, explaining to a reporter that the live menagerie planned for the Ark will not include fully grown animals, since “God would probably have sent healthy juvenile-sized animals that weren’t fully grown yet, so there would be plenty of room.” But cynicism can easily slide into contemptuousness, feeding into conservative stereotypes about elite liberals who, smugly assured of their own superiority, disdain the values of “real” Americans.

Rather than ridicule or dismiss the Ark Encounter and its theme park sibling the Creation Museum, it’s useful to see them as examples of mythic discourse, using the definition that historian of religions Bruce Lincoln proposed in his book Discourse and the Construction of Society. Myth, Lincoln contends, is most productively understood not as a false story, but as a narrative that has both authority and credibility for a particular audience, for whom it functions as a paradigmatic truth. A particular type of discourse, myth constructs and naturalizes its authority by appealing to some sacred or transcendent realm that is ostensibly beyond the petty interests of individuals. Unlike most other types of discourse, myth is able to engender shared feelings of belonging and purpose among its audience, making it an effective sociopolitical instrument. Hence we ought to assess myth not only in terms of its particular content but also in terms of its ability to successfully evoke feelings of affiliation (or estrangement) among its audience—the root sentiments from which social groups are constructed and through which they can be mobilized.

Such an approach helps address why AiG and its sympathizers continue to insist that their literalist interpretation of the biblical creation account is scientifically accurate, despite the fact that any claim about supernatural agency, by definition, can be neither proved nor disproved by science. Indeed, part of the reason that scientists (and other supporters of evolution) have been loath to publicly challenge such assertions is that creationist claims so clearly lie beyond the purview of science that to respond to any suggestion otherwise would dignify an absurdity. So, then, why do Ken Ham and his colleagues persist in advocating the seemingly untenable position that the Genesis story of creation is science and not theology? This is precisely where Lincoln’s notion of myth is helpful in understanding how narratives function, not only as explanatory frameworks but as ideological mechanisms that construct certain kinds of social relations by eliciting powerful sentiments of affiliation or estrangement.

The Instrumentality of Myth: Genesis and Evolution

There are two contrasting accounts of the cosmos and its multitudinous life forms that are widely disseminated in American culture today: the “creationist” narrative and the “evolutionist” narrative. Each of these accounts makes distinct epistemological claims, authorizing a radically different vision of the world, the place of human beings within it, the relationships between humans and other life forms, and the nature of time and history. Despite their differences, however, both accounts function as authoritative narratives that have the power to mobilize communities—that is, both are examples of Lincoln’s mythic discourse.1      

Each of these narratives offers a different paradigmatic model: a prototype of and for reality. Central to the creationist version is a divine power whose creative acts have transcendent purpose and meaning. At the pinnacle of the created order are human beings whose subsequent disobedience estranges them from an imperial God and results in the subordination of women to men. Nevertheless, this God maintains a personal relationship with humankind who, according to Genesis 1:27 are made “in the image of God.” By contrast, the evolutionist narrative posits a universe governed by impersonal processes. Its model of the world does not encode the kinds of hierarchies between and among species that are central to the creationist narrative. Each narrative offers a divergent conception of time and human history and the forces that shape them. And each privileges a different method for obtaining knowledge about the world: either revelation or empiricism, and, by implication, a different set of specialists who claim mastery of that knowledge.

Since myth is more than just a coding device through which important information is conveyed but is also an act by which social groupings are constituted, at stake in the debates among defenders of each narrative are not only these structural conflicts but the different social arrangements that each narrative invokes and authorizes. The fact that most people align themselves with one or the other for reasons that they often cannot articulate beyond the vague assertion that “it makes sense” to them suggests myth’s ability to produce strong feelings of affiliation or estrangement. Here “making sense” does not mean that the individual has subjected each account to a rigorous intellectual process, but that he or she finds it consistent with their basic values and experience of the world. The ability of these narratives to elicit a visceral response is especially evident in battles about curricula in the public schools and in equally polarized, albeit less dramatic, conflicts such as those waged on the bumper stickers of automobiles.

Consider two examples much in evidence on American roads today: the schematic outline of a fish, known as the ichthys symbol or “Jesus fish,” favored by proponents of the creationist account (and evangelical Christians in general), and its nearly identical twin inscribed with the word “Darwin” and two tiny legs.2 The latter, of course, is meaningful only in reference to the former. What is being communicated through these symbols is more than just a worldview, but the owner’s public affirmation of membership in a community that sees itself as battling the proverbial barbarians at the gate. In the war between faith and science, those who invoke one or another of these mythological narratives position themselves as guardians of certain fundamental values. Among other things, at issue is the character of the American nation-state itself: are we primarily a secular and religiously diverse nation where faith is a private concern and ought play a limited role in civil society, or are we primarily a Christian nation where faith has been excluded unjustly from statecraft and the public realm?

Contesting Myth: The Creation Museum

AiG’s Creation Museum offers an instructive example of the sociopolitical dimensions of this mythic discourse. Inside the $27 million monument to young earth creationism, sophisticated and often visually arresting exhibits not only assert that the Genesis account of creation is factually true, historically accurate, and scientifically valid, but that other viewpoints lead to chaos, hopelessness, and human suffering. To this end, the museum maintains that the world and all its life forms were created over a six-day period approximately six thousand years ago, although the earth itself only assumed its present geological form after the global flood described in Genesis 7-8, the story of Noah’s ark. For the present discussion, one of the most interesting aspects of the museum is its efforts to discredit evolution as a false story while promoting the creation account in Genesis as both authoritative and scientifically credible. 

According to Lincoln, there are several ways that mythic discourse can be deployed in movements to alter existing beliefs. Young earth creationists, including those behind AiG and its affiliates, have focused their collective efforts on two of them: the struggle to deprive an established myth of its credibility or authority and attempts to elevate a lesser narrative to the status of myth. They seek to deprive evolution of its authority by casting aspersions on its scientific merits, suggesting that there is considerable disagreement among scientists, and insisting that it is “just a theory” rather than a well-substantiated principle confirmed through observation and experiment—all while simultaneously blaming evolution for various social problems.

At the same time, they also try to elevate the status of their preferred model by presenting its claims as compatible with science, a discourse that currently enjoys a level of authority, credibility, and prestige that was formerly the exclusive prerogative of religion. Simply put, the evolutionist narrative functions as an established myth while the creationist version holds a lesser status—although it may be authoritative for some, it is not generally accepted as a credible account of past events. AiG’s goal is to reverse this relationship in order to reconstruct American society along the lines that its members find more congenial.

The tension between these two strategies produces some of the Creation Museum’s more baffling moments. In certain galleries, creationist assertions are presented as legitimate equivalents to scientific explanations of biological, geological, or cosmological phenomena. In others, the creationist worldview is not only inimical to one based on “human reason” but morally superior. Still other exhibits appeal to human reason, appropriating the language of science to argue that the creationist narrative is a scientifically credible account of origins. As the visitor progresses through the museum—and unlike most museums, there is only one way to proceed through the exhibits—they are led inexorably along this unidirectional flow of assertions.   

The first part of the museum is dedicated to the project of presenting creationism and science as equally legitimate “starting points” for understanding the world and human history. A diorama of two paleontologists hard at work unearthing the skeleton of an ancient raptor is the setting for an exhibit comparing “human reason” and “God’s word.” On a nearby video screen, the older paleontologist, an affable fellow possessed of a reassuringly avuncular manner, informs us that while he and his colleague both have similar credentials and work with the same empirical facts (namely the skeleton at their feet), “that doesn’t mean we agree on what happened here.” He goes on to explain that where his colleague relies on human reason and thinks that the skeleton is millions of years old, he himself puts his faith in the Bible, which leads him to believe that the skeleton is 4,300 years old and was deposited in its final resting place by the Great Flood. “Same facts,” he cheerfully concludes, “different starting points.”

This theme of same facts/different starting points continues in the adjacent room, where several large posters compare various phenomena (the galactic universe, plants, animals, human knowledge itself) as seen from the perspective of “human reason” and “God’s word.” Lest one conclude that both perspectives are equally valid, however, the next part of the museum contends that they are not equally beneficial for human flourishing.  In a room inhabited by several animatronic Biblical characters, placards labeled “Attempts to Question,” “Attempts to Criticize,” “Attempts to Discredit,” “Attempts to Replace,” and “Attempts to Destroy” chart the continuous efforts (inspired, it’s implied, by the forces of Satan) to compromise the literal truth of God’s word.

Here human reason, especially as embodied in Enlightenment philosophy, is clearly at odds with Biblical truth. The “latest attack,” according to the room’s final placard, is to question the time frame of Genesis: “The philosophers and scientists of the Enlightenment suggested that the universe was not created in six days about six thousand years ago. Christian leaders, not wanting to appear foolish and unscientific, tried to reinterpret the Bible to add millions of years into history.” The very attempt to reconcile science and scripture is here tantamount to a second fall—only this time, science has replaced the serpent as the adversary of God. 

According to the historical trajectory proffered by the museum, the heresies of the Enlightenment led directly to another pivotal moment: the Scopes Trial of 1925. While creationists may have won that particular battle, they lost the larger war: at the hands of Clarence Darrow and H.L. Mencken, creationism was humiliated before the American public and eventually displaced by evolution as the authoritative explanation of human origins. The consequences of the Scopes Trial are depicted in a wall-size mural of four tombstones inscribed “God is Dead,” “Truth,” “God’s Word,” and “Genesis,” which segues directly into a menacing alleyway lit from the pulsing strobe of a red XXX sign.

Plastered with articles torn from Time and Newsweek about the Columbine massacre, gay rights, the battle over Terri Schiavo, and stem cell research, among other contemporary controversies, the passageway depicts America’s ensuing state of moral decay as an urban badlands. A graffitied sign underscores the message: “Scripture abandoned in the culture leads to relative morality, hopelessness, and meaninglessness.” Exiting the alley, one confronts a series of video tableaux illustrating the results for American youths: an adolescent male rolling a joint while trolling for internet porn, an unmarried teenager seeking an abortion. On the opposite side of the room a giant wrecking ball labeled “Millions of Years” has shattered the foundation of a church and the resulting cracks undulate across the uneven floor to the video screens.

Where the museum’s first few galleries depict human reason as a credible alternative to God’s will, implying a superficial equivalence between them, the strategy of argumentation abruptly shifts as the visitor progresses. The Scopes Trial marks a decisive turning point, vividly symbolized by the wrecking ball: the evolutionist narrative (and its time frame) has profoundly compromised the authority of the Bible. The result of humanity’s preference for reason (i.e., science) over God’s will (i.e., a literal reading of Genesis) is moral dissolution and the destruction of the church. In its efforts to deprive the evolutionist narrative of its authority, the museum blames it for a variety of social ills, from pornography to pre-marital sex and abortion. The heavy-handed symbolism and moral hectoring are intended not to persuade the uncommitted but to rally the faithful and generate the shared sentiments of recognition and group cohesion necessary for social action. And since a primary goal is to elicit this emotional response, the various discrepancies of logic and specious claims make little impact: although the museum’s narrative frame may not be intellectually or historically persuasive, it nonetheless provides an explanatory framework for its intended audience’s frustrations and concerns about contemporary American life.

Beginning with the brightly lit “Wonders Room,” the museum shifts its strategy yet again. By selectively appropriating the rhetoric of science, it attempts to bolster creationism’s credibility using, for example, television screens mounted around the room’s perimeter showing loops of “Amazing Science Videos” intended to prove that the Genesis account of creation is both literally true and scientifically credible. Some of the museum’s more questionable contentions are featured in an adjacent walk-through diorama of Eden: a plaque proclaiming that all animals were peaceable herbivores before Adam and Eve disobeyed God, for example, cites as evidence a line from Genesis where God gives to all the beasts of the field and air “every green herb” for food (Genesis 1:30). Likewise, because God said creation was very good (Genesis 1:31) there were no venomous animals or poisonous plants before Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. According to the museum, the fossil record supports all of this.

Such assertions, along with charts, timelines, and graphs help foster the illusion that this is actually science—despite the fact that the scientific method relies on naturalism, empiricism, and the principle of falsifiability, none of which can be used to prove supernatural authorship. Instead, by selectively invoking the language of science through references to the fossil record and other ostensibly empirical “facts” while ignoring the actual method of science, the museum attempts to legitimize its own claims even as it seeks to discredit and replace science as authoritative narrative and paradigmatic model. As noted earlier, its efforts have provided rich material for commentators and denunciations of its supporters as “Christo-fascists” bent on establishing a totalitarian state.

Rather than dismiss the museum’s efforts as ridiculous or condemning it as a fascist threat, we could also see it as an example of a strategy whose goal is not only to persuade its core audience but to elicit among them a compelling sense of collective identity and shared purpose. By exploiting a salient divide among the American people, the museum, as those critics who accuse it of fascism have rightly perceived, attempts to mobilize a social grouping that longs for the material power and cultural influence that they believe Christians have progressively lost since the Scopes Trial. And yet in attempting to present the creationist narrative as both authoritative and credible, the museum is forced to adopt the awkward strategy of rejecting science’s authority while simultaneously appropriating its language, effectively alienating (and alarming) a significant faction of the American populace. 

Stories about the past, as Lincoln showed, can be powerful sociopolitical instruments when deployed for the purposes of the present. The battle over human origins and the age of the Earth is about much more than the past—it is, of course, also about the shape of American society in the present. The forthcoming Ark Encounter and the presence of other creationist museums in Arkansas, Texas, California and Florida suggests that the war is far from over. It remains to be seen whether the leaders of the creationist movement will be able to effectively mobilize enough American voters to bring about the kinds of sociopolitical changes for which their paradigmatic model provides a superhuman charter. It is clear, however, that supporters of evolution would do well to implement a new strategy if they wish to counter these challenges to their preferred narrative’s authoritative status.


1 One could legitimately object that by treating evolution as a myth I effectively concede one of the major claims of the creationist movement: that evolution and creationism are equally persuasive and thus are equally valid understandings of the natural world. To this I would argue that insofar as science itself does not mystify its claims by appeal to a superhuman realm it is not a mythic discourse in the same way as creationism. However, the popular understanding of evolution and the kinds of claims that proponents make about it invest evolution (and by extension the scientific method) with a set of transcendent moral values that, strictly speaking, lie outside of science proper. For example, some argue that because science, as a discipline of logic, empirical investigation, and rigorous testing, is superior to blind faith, evolution teaches the moral imperative to think and question rather than simply accept the claims of received tradition. This claim invests evolution with a set of values that have sociopolitical implications and that mobilize sentiments of affiliation (among proponents of evolution) and estrangement (from proponents of the creationist narrative). In what follows, I hope to show how treating what I am calling the “evolutionist narrative” and the “creationist narrative” as examples of myth (as Lincoln defined it) is useful for thinking about the ways that specific groups appeal to these narratives in practice.

2 I recognize that not all evangelical Christians support the creationist narrative that I have described, but the two factions overlap significantly. While initially the ichthys symbol may have simply conveyed the owner’s identity as a Christian, the popular circulation of the Darwin variant seems to have narrowed the original’s semantic range in such a way that it now signifies a commitment to the creationist narrative over and against the evolutionist narrative. Thus one finds the ichthys symbol inscribed with the word “truth,” as well as other modifications, including designs that show the Darwin fish eating the Jesus fish and vice versa.'

Kelly E. Hayes is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Her most recent book is Holy Harlots: Femininity, Sexuality, and Black Magic in Brazil (UC Press, 2011).