Creationism In Europe

Stefaan Blancke

Many people regard creationism as a North American phenomenon. Indeed, polls over the past three decades have invariably shown that creationism is immensely popular in the United States. Between 40 and 50 percent of the American population endorses the belief that God created the Earth (and life on it) more or less as it is today. The rest accept the fact of evolution, but the large majority believes that God has guided the process. Only 10 to 15 percent accept the scientific, naturalistic account of evolution. If we compare these numbers with the few figures that we have on Europe, it becomes immediately clear how exceptional the American situation really is. In some Northern and Western European countries, such as Iceland, Denmark, and France, the acceptance rate of human evolution is higher than 70, sometimes even 80, percent. In Eastern European countries the acceptance rate is much lower, but it is still at least ten percentage points higher than in the United States (Miller et al. 2006). The only exception is Turkey, where no more than 30 percent of the public accepts evolution. Furthermore, American creationists actively battle the (exclusive) teaching of evolution in public schools—politically, in the courtroom, and on school boards, which has made them highly visible in the media. So it seems only reasonable to associate creationism with the United States.

Nonetheless, recent research in the historical and sociological sciences indicates that creationism is spreading across the globe. Historian Ronald Numbers has documented creationist activities from Australia to Canada, from Brazil to Korea (Numbers 2006; 2009). Incidents in various European countries have suggested that creationism is gaining a following on that continent as well. As a result, an increasing number of European scholars developed an interest in the phenomenon, and some published on creationist activities in the countries where they resided. However, most of this research was scattered across various magazines and scientific journals. Two Danish researchers—Hans Henrik Hjermitslev and Peter C. Kjærgaard—and I thought it would be a good idea to bundle everything we know about the recent history of creationism in Europe to get a good understanding of what exactly is going on in Europe. We joined forces with Ronald Numbers and invited experts from various countries to contribute. These efforts resulted in a recently published edited volume with the Johns Hopkins University Press: Creationism in Europe (Blancke et al. 2014).  The book contains ten chapters discussing the situation in different countries or regions, plus four topical chapters; this article offers a sampling.

What Is This Thing Called ‘Creationism’?

What do we mean by creationism? People tend to associate it exclusively with young-Earth creationism: the belief that God created the Earth six to ten thousand years ago as told in the Book of Genesis. However, this is only one type of creationism, and it has become the dominant view among American creationists only since the 1960s. There is also old-Earth creationism, which reconciles the fact that the Earth is millions of years old with the biblical account of creationism. The most recent creationist variety is intelligent design (ID), a movement that purports not to be connected to a particular interpretation of the biblical creation story. It merely claims that the world clearly bears the marks of an intelligent designer, without explicating the exact identity of that designer. This strategy is designed to circumvent the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” By avoiding signs of explicitly religious commitments, ID proponents aim to introduce their beliefs in biology classes as a viable alternative to evolutionary theory. At the same time, ID is also intended to function as “a big tent” where creationists can put their theological disputes about the age of the Earth aside because they all believe that an intelligent being created life on Earth.

Phillip Johnson, professor emeritus of law at the University of California and godfather to the ID movement, wants to expand the tent even further. He defines a creationist as someone who believes that God creates. As if by magic, he makes every religious person a creationist, and atheism becomes the only alternative. Many people would resist such a depiction of their religious beliefs. Moreover, to understand the phenomenon of creationism, Johnson’s definition is far too broad. It would be quite a stretch to put a deist, who believes that God created the universe but has not actively intervened since, or a theistic evolutionist, who accepts the scientific account of evolution, on the same footing as a fundamentalist who endorses a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Because it comes in various shapes and sizes, creationism is not easy to define. Pragmatically, however, each variety of creationism shares two features. First, a creationist believes that God (or an ambiguously defined “intelligent designer”) actively and directly intervenes in the world and that we can find traces of these divine activities in nature. Biological adaptations such as the human eye are typical examples. For creationists, these instances of functional complexity constitute irrefutable evidence of the existence of a divine intelligence. In other words, this is the old design argument. Second, creationism is characterized by antievolutionism. Creationists oppose evolution because they believe it has terrible consequences for mankind and society, and they want to defend their traditional norms and values, which they believe are divinely ordained. Practically, this entails that women should stay at home and take care of the family, that there should be no LGBT rights, no abortion or euthanasia, and so forth. Creationism is much more than a religion. It is a socio-political movement that strives for the return to a utopia before the Enlightenment humanism in which God took central stage at all levels of society. Indeed, the creationist movement emerged from American Protestant fundamentalism that gained ground in the 1920s as a response to World War I, which was regarded as an example of the devastating consequences of humanism.

These two features together—the design argument and antievolutionism—form a working definition that is precise enough to allow us to discriminate between conservative and liberal religious people. It is also broad enough that we do not have to associate creationism with a particular interpretation of the Bible, nor even with a particular religion. Hence we can speak not only of Christian but also of Muslim, Orthodox, and even Vedic creationism; this definition is very useful if one wants to study and understand creationism in Europe.

Creationism in Europe

In the course of the first decade of the twenty-first century, it became undeniably clear that creationism in Europe was becoming an issue. Particularly telling and alarming were incidents involving ministers of education. In 2004, the Italian minister tried to delete any reference to evolutionary theory from textbooks for primary and secondary education. One year later in 2005, the Serbian minister of education had to resign after she decided that teachers were no longer allowed to teach evolution without also discussing creationism. In the same year, the Romanian Ministry of Education allowed teachers in Christian and public schools to use a creationist handbook in biology classes. In 2006, the minister of education of the German state of Hessen sided with evangelical schools that taught creationism. The same year, the ultra-Catholic Polish deputy minister of education openly questioned evolutionary theory, which he considered to be “a lie” and “the feeble idea of an aged non-believer” (Kjærgaard 2008). In both Ukraine and Russia, the Ministry of Education has supported creationist conferences. And in the Netherlands, the minister of education declared that ID could perhaps be used in the classroom to bridge science and religion. Because of the political and media upheaval her statement caused, she had to put those plans to rest (Blancke 2010; Blancke et al. 2013).

Support also comes from official religious institutions. In 2007, a fifteen-year-old girl from St. Petersburg and her parents filed a complaint to the court because they felt that the teaching of evolution had violated the girl’s religious rights. Both the Russian Ministry of Education and the Russian Orthodox Church supported her case because they welcomed the teaching of alternative ideas. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a large and influential conservative faction within the Russian Orthodox Church has sought to extend its impact on Russian society. Opposing evolutionary theory, which is often associated with atheist communism, is an important part of their strategy. In the Greek Orthodox Church, a conservative faction has strived for the deletion of evolutionary theory from textbooks, which explains why the theory hardly receives any attention in Greek education.

However, the involvement of religion in matters of state is nowhere as prominent as in Turkey where creationism is simply in the textbooks. This situation is partly the result of active missionary work by American young-Earth creationists during the 1960s and 1970s, when they were looking for the remains of Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat. It is therefore unsurprising that Turkey is home to the group of one of the most active and influential creationists in Europe, Harun Yahya, which is the nom de plume for architect Adnan Oktar. In 2007, the organization sent numerous unsolicited copies of the Atlas of Creation to schools, universities, clergymen, and journalists in countries such as Denmark, France, Switzerland, Spain, and Belgium. This lavishly published and monstrous book contains only one argument. By putting pictures of extant species next to similar looking fossils, it intends to show that evolution has never taken place. (See Stefano Bigliardi, “Harun Yahya’s Islamic Creationism: What It Is and Isn’t,” Skeptical Inquirer, January/February 2014.) Naturally, this event drew massive attention of the media, and thus made Europeans aware of the existence of Islamic creationism. However, Harun Yahya not only spreads his message via books but also—probably more importantly—via the Internet. Through his websites, he reaches the Muslim youngsters who live in European cities and are looking for an Islamic identity within a secular society, where they do not always feel at home. They make an appreciative audience for Harun Yahya’s antievolutionary rhetoric. As a result, biology teachers are frequently confronted with students who protest, make a fuss, or simply leave the classroom when evolutionary theory is taught.

The activities of Harun Yahya were one of the incentives for the Council of Europe (not to be confused with the European Council, which is one of the main political bodies in the European Union) to issue a resolution in 2007 that warned against the dangers of creationism for education and society at large. The report that was drafted in preparation of the resolution also tallies several other creationist incidents that had occurred in various European countries in years before. Some of them I’ve already mentioned, but the report also refers, for instance, to a creationist museum in Sweden and an incident in the United Kingdom where a school had rented out classrooms to the organizers of a creationist conference with American speakers. Later, a newspaper revealed that the students at this partly state-funded school were taught creationism. The school denied the accusations, but it quickly became clear that the director and the head of science were both young-Earth creationists who were in favor of “equal time” (teaching as much creationism as evolutionary theory). After the report, creationists have not stood still. Also in the United Kingdom, an organization called “Truth in Science” dispatched unsolicited DVDs to secondary schools to promote ID. Later, a study showed that after watching this material, teachers were more inclined to doubt evolutionary theory. ID has also put its foot firmly on Scottish soil with the founding of the Centre for Intelligent Design in 2010.

In the Netherlands in 2009, a group of Dutch creationists distributed a leaflet with the title Evolution or Creation? What Do You Believe? through the mail to every Dutch household. The action was intended as a counter voice to the many celebrities in the public sphere on the occasion of the Darwin year, the bicentenary of the scientist’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. One of the organizers, entrepreneur Johan Huibers, has built an ark as a traveling museum to spread the word of God. On a debate show on Dutch national television in 2008, he was asked whether there were dinosaurs on the ark, to which he replied: “Only the little ones.” One year later, some of these creationists established a “scientific” creationist magazine, Weet Magazine, which looks just like a popular science magazine such as Scientific American. They also published Dutch translations of German creationist books, including the sixth edition of Evolution, Ein kritisches Lerhbuch (Evolution: A Critical Textbook). The authors of this book are Reinhard Junker, a theologian and former biology teacher, and Siegfried Scherer, a microbiologist at the Technical University of Munich. The book has been translated into several European languages, including Serbian, Portuguese, Italian, and Russian. Both authors are members of the Studiengemeinschaft Wort und Wissen (Study Community Word and Knowledge), a small but very active German creationist organization with ties to the American ID movement. In 1999, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) referred to the works by Scherer and Junker to substantiate his doubts about macroevolution. Hence, it seems that they have managed to turn a typical brand of American creationism into a European version that is digestible and usable for religious conservatives who do not want to be associated with American creationism.

Clearly, creationism in Europe is a complex phenomenon. Not only does the popularity of creationist beliefs differ from one European country to the next, but there are also many different types of creationism. Sometimes Europeans (especially evangelicals) simply adopt American-style creationism. Creationism, however, also easily adapts itself to new environments by mixing with local varieties. There are Islamic, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and in some places even Jewish and Vedic creationists. In Russia and other former Eastern Bloc countries, evolutionary theory is associated with communism, whereas for Muslim creationists the theory is a symbol of Western decadence. Dutch creationists regard evolution as the cause of the undesirable modernizing developments since the 1960s. Hence, local factors determine the form and the success of creationism, which makes it impossible to speak of one European creationism or creationist subculture.

The Future of European Creationism

Because of this complexity, it is difficult—if not impossible—to predict the overall fate of creationism in Europe. The situation is completely different from the United States where creationism is part and parcel of a substantial and politically influential subculture. In Western and Northern Europe, creationism does not seem to stand much chance, except perhaps in small Protestant communities and among Muslim populations in the cities. In Eastern Europe, however, decades of communist regime have resulted in a religious wasteland, where the traditional religious beliefs of conservatives and fundamentalists find a welcoming soil. Creationists seem to have the best chance of exerting societal influence when they can align themselves with right-wing parties who share the same moral agenda, as in Poland, or when they are the dominant faction within the official church, as in Russia. This means that we cannot drop our guard. When creationism spreads, it poses a threat not only to science education but also to the many achievements of modern society.


References

  • Blancke, Stefaan. 2010. Creationism in the Netherlands.  Zygon. Journal of Religion and Science 45(4): 791–816. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9744.2010.01134.x.
  • Blancke, Stefaan, Hans Henrik Hjermitslev, Johan Braeckman, et al. 2013. Creationism in Europe: Facts, gaps, and prospects.  Journal of the American Academy of Religion 81(4): 996–1028. doi: 10.1093/jaarel/lft034.
  • Blancke, Stefaan, Hans Henrik Hjermitslev, and Peter C. Kjærgaard, eds. 2014. Creationism in Europe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Kjærgaard, Peter C. 2008. Western front.  New Humanist 123(3): 39–41.
  • Miller, J.D., E.C. Scott, and S. Okamoto. 2006. Public acceptance of evolution. Science 313(5788): 765–766. doi: 10.1126/science.1126746.
  • Numbers, Ronald L. 2006. The Creationists. From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Expanded ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • ———. 2009. Myth 24. That creationism is a uniquely American phenomenon. In Galilei Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by Ronald L. Numbers, 215–223. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Stefaan Blancke

Stefaan Blancke is a doctoral researcher in the department of philosophy and moral science, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium.


Many people regard creationism as a North American phenomenon. Indeed, polls over the past three decades have invariably shown that creationism is immensely popular in the United States. Between 40 and 50 percent of the American population endorses the belief that God created the Earth (and life on it) more or less as it is …

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