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Peter Foster is the Telegraph’s US Editor based in Washington DC. He moved to America in January 2012 after three years based in Beijing, where he covered the rise of China. Before that, he was based in New Delhi as South Asia correspondent. He has reported for The Telegraph for more than a decade, covering two Olympic Games, 9/11 in New York, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the post-conflict phases in Afghanistan and Iraq and the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.
Does half of America really believe Noah saved all the animals in his ark?
By Peter Foster World Last updated: February 11th, 2014
Can it really be true? Depending on which polling organisation you prefer, between a third and a half of Americans believe in so-called “young earth creationism”.
This is the idea that the humans were created within the last 6,000-10,000 years and that all the animals on earth were rescued by Noah and his ark – including the dinosaurs – which according to one strand of the theory, were squeezed onto the ark as babies or adolescents, to make room.
Viewed scientifically, this is, of course, childish nonsense.
And yet a Pew poll says that 33 per cent of Americans believe that humans “have existed in their present form since the beginning of time”, while Gallup finds that 46 per cent of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form “at one time within the last 10,000 years”.
I’ve always been suspicious of these numbers and a recent trip to Virginia to meet with both young secularists and evangelicals at Liberty University (the bible school founded by the late televangelist Jerry Falwell which espouses creationism) has made me doubly so.
You can read all about the trip here, but what was startling was the idea, advanced by several of the interviewees, that lots of people brought up in that world didn’t actually believe in this kind of literalism – even though officially, they said that they did.
This was explained by phrases such as: a) it was expected of them by the church b) it was the line of least resistance c) they didn’t want to be ostracised by friends and family d) they didn’t feel it was really that important either way.
Pollsters call this the “halo effect”, and it can be seen, for example, in the gap between the numbers of Americans who say that they go to church and the number who actually do, which can be measured by all sorts of underhand methods, not least counting the cars in the car park on a Sunday.
According to this article by an Evangelical website, regular church attendance is actually observed by about 20 per cent of Americans, which is only half the official pollsters’ figure of 40 per cent. It’s a big discrepancy, and I’m willing to bet it is mirrored to a significant degree in these creationist polls.
At Liberty University, where there is a Creation Hall espousing the doctrine, there was palpable awkwardness at times among some of those having to defend the scientifically indefensible.
Should defending one’s faith, require one to defend the kind of cod science on display at Liberty, such as the “fact” that all species of horse, donkey and zebra are “all descended from an original pair of horses that were on Noah’s ark”, or that the comparative lack of evolution in sharks and the coelacanth “fossil fish” disprove Darwin’s theory?
Well, that’s exactly what institutions like Liberty University and the Evangelical church do demand, even when officially they say that they “teach both sides”, which is not really true, as Kevin Roose, the Brown student who spent a semester at Liberty explained in his brilliant (and sympathetic) undercover memoir The Unlikely Disciple.
One Liberty man, who was reluctant even to show us the Creation Hall, tried to diminish its importance, apparently wanting to avoid conflating or confusing it with the profundity of his own religious faith – “it’s not a big deal, it’s not something we think about that much” – which I took as code for: “it’s not something you should judge us on, and certainly not judge the validity of our faith in Jesus Christ.”
I suspect this explains a lot of the polling. Believing in creationism is for many a statement of tribal identity before a statement of actual belief.
This might explain why, according to another poll recently quoted by The Economist the number of Republicans who believed in biological evolution actually fell from 54 per cent in 2009 to 43 per cent today – a change that perhaps tracks the surge of identity politics over that period.
And if you watched the recent Creation debate between Ken Ham, the Christian author who started a Creation Museum and Billy Nye, telly scientist and CEO of the Planetary Society, you can see how divisive and tribal this debate has become.
It was just a dialogue of the deaf that mirrors and echoes the emptiness of political discourse in the US today, where both sides have retreated to their trenches to lob ideological mortar shells at each other, with their hands clamped firmly over their ears.
I daren’t say that there aren’t Americans who really do believe all the animals were saved by Noah in his ark, but I’d also suggest that those “beliefs” don’t quite amount, in practice, to what both sides of this debate – evangelicals who wish to vehemently defend the faith, and atheists who equally vehemently wish to trash it – would have you believe.