Posted in: Atheism

Is Evolution a Creation Myth?

By Tom Snyder, PhD, Copyright 1995 by Tom Snyder.

Is Evolution a Creation Myth? It depends on how you define the words “creation” and “myth.” Sometimes the word creation implies the existence of a creator. In other contexts, however, the word creation implies the thing has come into existence or been created and how it came into existence or was created. Perhaps it would be better to say, therefore, “Evolution is a myth about origins — about the universe, how it came to exist and how it came to take on the attributes we now observe.”

What about the word “myth”? To many, the word myth means a story or fable that is not true, that is more exaggerated fantasy than reality. This in not a good definition if you are a myth scholar, who wants to view all stories as myth without getting bogged down in a debate about whether a particular myth is true or not. This kind of myth scholar tries to use the word myth as a key whereby he or she can unlock the meanings behind all sorts of stories. Thus, the definition of myth I prefer is a definition that I developed from the 1989 New College Edition of “The American Heritage Dictionary”: myth is “any real or fictional story, recurring theme, or character type that appeals to the consciousness of a people by embodying its cultural ideals or by giving expression to deep, commonly felt emotions” and ideas. Since writing my book Myth Conceptions (Baker, 1994), I have added the two words “and ideas” in order to convey the notion that myth doesn’t only express human emotions, it also expresses human thought.

Using this definition, we can see that evolution can indeed be seen as a modern creation myth. By calling evolution a myth, we don’t necessarily mean that evolution is not true. For example, I can say that the life of President Abraham Lincoln, born in a log cabin, is an example of a hero myth because it shares one of the important qualities that many hero myths have: a man of lowly, humble origins rises to great heights as a leader, is tested in a dramatic fashion, and becomes an international icon of mythic proportions. Does this mean that Lincoln was not the 16th President of the United States or never was born in a log cabin? No, of course not.

Paleontologist, Dr. Leonard Krishtalka, professor of paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, asserted in the PBS documentary, “The Creationist Controversy” (May 31, 1995) that evolution is not a creation myth because the theory of evolution can change over time but myths do not change over time. His comment is ridiculously ignorant for several reasons.

First, while the details of evolution theory can indeed change over time, the basic concept behind evolution — that the universe came into being through purely natural or physical means involving some kind of random process and that human beings evolved from “lower” forms of life through these same means and through a similar process — remains the same. Second, it is not true that myths do not change over time. For instance, let’s look at the four gospels in the New Testament. The four books were written over a period of 10 to 40 years (some say as many as 60 years) by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Each book, if read in succession, presents a different perspective on the life of Jesus. John, for instance, contains more lengthy, unique descriptions of Jesus teaching theology to his disciples and of Jesus debating the Jewish leaders. In John, therefore, we receive a new perspective on the ministry of Jesus. Even so, we get the same basic story that is in the other three books.

Some people might object to me looking at the four gospels as myth. They think the word “myth” always means a story is not true. If you use the definition of myth above that I have used, however, then this is not true. I can still call the four gospels a Christian myth without having to call them factually false. Like Abraham Lincoln, Jesus Christ was born of lowly humble origins but he rose to great heights as a religious leader, was tested in a dramatic fashion, and became an international figure of mythic proportions. His story appeals to our consciousness. It embodies cultural, even moral and philosophical, ideals, and it gives expression to deep, commonly felt emotions and ideas. Does this mean that Jesus Christ is not the unique one and only Son of God, second member of the Holy Trinity? No, absolutely not.

In the same way, evolution is a “creation myth” in this specialized sense, regardless of its correspondence to the facts, because it provides the vehicle for the story of how our society came to be what it is. Against the odds of randomness, chance, and time, evolution delivered us to our current state of ordered complexity.

Dr. Krishtalka did not deal with Dr. Philip Johnson’s logical criticisms of evolutionary theory or of the academic discrimination practiced against alternative origin theories. His avoidance of logic and the facts typified the “Creationist Controversy” program’s failure to come down of its high horse, deal with the issues in an intelligent and accurate manner, and to stop trying to miscast opponents’ positions and evidence. This program did not examine the creation/evolution debate objectively by focusing on the scientific evidence and its interpretation. Dr. Krishtalka’s comments on myth were superficial and false. It is sad to see such a display of ignorance in our fellow men.

“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God” (John 3:19-21 NIV).

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