Responding to Young Earth Creationism
STEPHEN O. MOSHIER (firstname.lastname@example.org) is chair of the Department of Geology, where he is a professor, and director of the Black Hills Science at Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL
As geoscience educators, we dedicate our professional lives to sharing knowledge about Earth and its history with our students. Yet, we may find ourselves on the battlefield of a culture war over the perceived conflict between science and religion. A 2009 Pew survey found that 59% of the American public believe that science and religion are often in conflict (Masci, 2009). The most acute tension is felt and expressed among Evangelical Protestant Christians (some 25% of the American public), many of whom believe that modern scientific explanations of cosmic origins, Earth history, and evolution are incompatible with the Genesis account of the creation week and the flood of Noah. Young Earth Creationism (YEC) and "flood geology" is promoted to this community as the "Christian alternative" to godless, secular science. Many of our students bring those concerns into the geology classroom.
The Pew survey also reported that 33% of responding scientists (30% of geoscientists) professed belief in God. The value is 83% for the general public. Only 4% of the scientists identified as evangelical (possibly the same for geoscientists). I live in the worlds of both religion and science as an evangelical Christian by profession of faith and geologist by professional occupation. I have long worked to chip away at the "warfare metaphor" as historically invalid and certainly counterproductive. Here I will share some thoughts from my experience of teaching geology many years in a college strongly identified with evangelical Christianity.
Understanding evangelicals (it's complicated)—While essential to this discussion, there is not space here to explain evangelical Christianity and details of the emergence of YEC and flood geology. Christian fundamentalism is closely related to evangelicalism, but while both hold to the authority and inerrancy of scripture, fundamentalists emphasize its literal interpretation. As an illustration, inerrancy for evangelical Bible scholars can include reading the scriptures in a way that considers how the text would have been understood in its original ancient cultural context. Conservative (i.e., evangelical) theologians in the late 19th century largely accepted old earth geology as "proper science," following in the interpretive framework of reformer John Calvin by concluding that the creation account in Genesis 1 was written in the "... popular style things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons indued with common sense are able to understand" (Orr, 1911).
Not all evangelicals, including pastors, Bible scholars, and theologians, are young earth creationists, but many evangelical students don't know this. Many pastors avoid teaching on any approach to understanding Genesis in light of modern science because they know the issue can divide a congregation into hostile factions. Additionally, evangelical college students might not know that most practicing scientists who identify as fellow evangelicals do not embrace YEC. For example, the American Scientific Affiliation is a national organization of some 2000 Christian professional scientists, the overwhelming majority of whom accept mainstream science on origins, climate change, and other topics. Many of the faculty advisors of Christian fellowships on university campuses come from science and engineering departments.
You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.—While there are science professors who directly confront their students with a message that "science trumps religious faith," I suspect that approach only crystallizes YEC beliefs in their students (for example, Barash 2014). After all, that is what YEC leaders have warned them to expect. A better approach is to help our students understand the purviews and limits of science and theology in their unique approaches to understanding the world. While science is an ever-changing, growing enterprise, dependent upon self-correction for its advance, so too theology is based upon human interpretation of scripture. If one is to comment in the classroom on the creation accounts in Genesis, it is more appropriate to refer to the various interpretations of those accounts (even the meaning of single words like day and kind), which are prone to cultural and other biases.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T—Authors of a recent editorial in GSA Today advocate a paradigm shift in science advocacy that involves respect for students of faith and jettisoning the science-against-religion message (Davidson, et al. 2017). They refer to recent social science studies showing how "...the degree to which 'experts' are trusted depends on how well they align with the cultural values of the audience." In other words, the most effective science advocate to skeptics is an advocate from the same "tribe." That's a lot to ask of Christian faculty at secular universities (though many of them see this kind of work as part of their professional calling). However any geoscience professor can offer students wrestling with faith and science a list of resources (websites, blogs, or books) that promote good science from a religious perspective (see Online Extras for additional resources).
There are two histories in Historical Geology—Teaching Earth history is most effective if students also learn the story of how geology emerged as a science from the Renaissance to the 19th century. This is a story of the positive engagement of science and Christian theology (Rudwick, 2014). It's unfair to start with Bishop Usher and imply that he was a fool for setting the date of creation at 4004 BC. After all, Isaac Newton, certainly no fool, calculated a date of 3988 BC. Many pioneering geologists of the 19th century in Europe and North America were devout Christians, even active clergy. Cambridge Professor Adam Sedgewick, an Anglican priest, identified the Cambrian System and trained Charles Darwin in geology. Hugh Miller wrote popular books on geology and paleontology and helped establish the Free Church of Scotland. Congregationalist pastor Rev. Edward Hitchcock was Massachusetts' first state geologist and third president of Amherst College, where his collection of dinosaur tracks is displayed. These early geologists echoed the classical Christian theological metaphor of scripture and nature being God's two books of special and general revelation to humans.
Finally, contrary to their own claims, modern creationists are not descended without modification from 19th century catastrophists (Young and Stearley, 2008). Other than a small group of "scriptural geologists," those catastrophists believed that time was indeed deep, only that long intervals were punctuated by upheavals or "revolutions." They were ahead of the uniformitarianists in recognizing the importance of mass extinctions in Earth history, too.
War is over, if you want it—Recent historians generally agree that the so-called war of science and religion was not launched by the church, but by 19th century academics who sought to remove the requirement of being ordained in ministry in order to hold professional academic positions in England (Larsen, 2008). Similar motivations expanded to secularize education in North America. It's fitting that in our time the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has established a long-term project, Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER), to facilitate communication and trust between scientific and religious communities.
Conclusions—Students who bring YEC beliefs to our geology classrooms deserve to be as respected as any young scholars. Rather than confront, geoscience educators have the opportunity to share the overwhelming evidence for how Earth works and formed over deep time. This can be framed as an opportunity for students to explore a different approach from what they may have learned from YEC advocates. Students can be assured that plenty of pioneering geoscientists were devout, practicing Christians, exploring what they believed was "God's book of nature." They can be encouraged by learning there are Christian professors on campus or around the world who are engaged in the scientific enterprise. Finally, students can be provided with recommended resources and explore the topics more deeply in ways that educate, but do not threaten the essentials of their faith.
Barash, D.P., 2014, God, Darwin and my college biology class: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/28/opinion/sunday/god-darwin-and-my-college-biology-class.html (accessed February 2018).
Davidson, G.R., Hill, C.A., and Wolgemuth, K., 2017, The need for a paradigm shift in science advocacy: GSA Today, v. 27, no. 7, p. 58-59, doi:10.1130/GSATG280GW.1.
Larsen, T., 2008, "War is over, if you want it": Beyond the conflict between faith and science: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, v. 60, p. 147-155.
Masci, D., 2009, Religion and science in the United States: http://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/an-overview-ofreligion-
and-science-in-the-united-states/# (accessed February 2018).
Orr, J., 1911, Science and Christian Faith: The Fundamentals, v. 4, Chicago: Testimony Publishing, p. 97.
Rudwick, M.J.S., 2014, Earth's Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters: Chicago, Illinois, University of Chicago Press, 360 p.
Young, D.A. and Stearley, R.F., 2008, The Bible, Rocks and Time, Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth: Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 510 p.