A recent Gallop Poll1 showed that 40% of Americans believe in creationism, which they defined as God having created the earth within the past 10,000 years. I regret that they stated the question like that to the those being polled because there are three minimally related issues; 1) God as the creator of the earth, 2) the age of the earth, and 3) evolution. This question may have picked up individuals like me who believe in a creator, but certainly not an earth that is less than 10,000 years old. I am only discussing the age of the earth here and it will be a challenge to whittle even that topic down to a few articles. If you listened to my pod cast on science Vs religion, some of this will be redundant. But this topic is so important, I wanted to bring here as a written article. I also want to handle this in a somewhat exhaustive manner, which will require several parts.
I want to be clear, the specifics of how old you think the earth is, doesn’t matter. What matters is the process of that decision and its implications that are far more reaching than anything about fossils and sedimentary layers of the earth. It is more about epistemology, how we find truth, than about the earth’s age. While that 40% in the poll may represent a certain religious crowd, the influence is widespread. Parts of America are entering an anti-science era and the conservative Christians seem to be leading that march.
The impetus of this concern started after I had several conversations last spring with old evangelical friends. I heard the same theme from each of one. “Science is the enemy.” They had complete loss of trust in the experts, relying heavily on baseless conspiracy theories. This is not healthy for anyone, including a religious movement.
“Science” or “Scientist” does not represent a well-defined social group as the evangelicals I spoke to would like to believe. They defined them as a group whose agenda is to destroy Christianity. I believe, in that case, it is the evangelicals who are projecting their own social group’s dynamics onto the term “science.”
When I was an evangelical, thirty years ago, this projection was part of our MO. We saw the gay community as a well-defined adhesive group with a clearly written agenda of converting children to “gayness.” Oh yeah, and we assigned their leader as Satan himself. It is now the same toward science. But science is simply the seeking of knowledge about reality. You will find all sorts of people in science, religious and non-religious. But you will find the same quest, truth. Yes, if you look hard enough you will find a tiny group of scientists who want to eradicate religion. But if you look hard enough at evangelicals you will find diverse ideologies that including killing political leaders, and “The Nude Church for Jesus.” I will come back to this (science as a social group, not nude churches) later, as I talk about how we find knowledge, both religious folks and scientists.
Why The Age of the Earth Matters
Ten or so years ago, at a moment of exasperation, Denise vented to me, “Who cares how old the earth is?” I understood her frustration because I had just told her that I had no choice but to leave my last church, a church were we both had deep relationships, and she understood me to say the issue was over the issue of the age of the earth. But I had done a lousy job explaining what the real issue was for me, and it wasn’t the views on the age of the earth per se. I honestly don’t care if my friends believe the earth was created last week, but my choice to leave that church was inevitable, and I will try to explain it better here.
There are two major Christian proponents for a very young earth (6,000 years), Institute of Creation Research (ICR), and Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis and his Ark Encounter exhibit and museum in northern Kentucky. My previous church had several weeks of a video program produced by ICR, promoting the ideal that the only real Christian position was that God created the earth 6,000 years ago, and Noah’s world-side flood is responsible for all the geology we see today.
In 1990, while I was trying to make sense of life after leaving evangelicalism, I became a supporter of ICR for about a year. I thought they may have some of the answers I was looking for. They didn’t. I was so involved with ICR, that I was an usher at one of their weekend conferences in Marquette, Michigan. It was during that conference that I heard outrageous things and total mischaracterization of the old earth (mainstream) scientists. Not only did I hear many misleading concepts, but there was an over-arching moralistic pressure to get the audience to agree with them, and to buy their books. Things like, “Are you going to be on God’s side and believe him, or believe the humanistic scientists who are working for Satan?” (my paraphrase).
I will be clear, the Bible says absolutely nothing about the age of the earth. Just like the Bible says nothing about the layout of the solar system, yet the church, for its first thousand years, insisted that the only true Christian view was that the earth was the center, not the sun. You would have been excommunicated from the church for not believing in the geocentric model of the solar system, if not killed.
While raising my five children, I became keenly aware of the mass exodus of the generations X and Z from Christianity. My frustration is not with those leaving, but with the mischief of the American church that causes them to leave, Yet, I’m a big fan of the historical Jesus. As an extreme example, when I was involved with a post-evangelical group in the 1990s, I was shocked how many of these kids had been sexually abused by evangelical relatives, pastors, or youth pastors, thus their turning away (and completely understandable) from the Christian church. But there are many other examples that are no so extreme and this idea of insisting on a young earth is one of those.
When this ICR video class in my old church was complete, and as someone who really loves honest science, I was feeling nauseous over the material presented. It was very deceptive at best. But I did not want to challenge people who choose to believe the young earth material. Again, I don’t care what others choose to believe, I still love them, and they are my friends. I would never doubt their religious faith based on their view of the age of the earth. However, I did speak up to the church that we must give our kids the option of believing in an old earth or universe, if not, when they get to college and find out that they have been misled by their churches, they will chuck all of Christianity. That was my concern, not giving them the option.
Immediately, the head elder, a beloved man by all the church and coach, turned to me said out loud to the entire church, “My Bible says the earth is 6,000 years old, if you don’t believe the Bible, then you are not a real Christian.” This is always the nuclear option in evangelicalism, declaring that someone is not a true believer if you do not embrace the same dogma as the accuser. On that morning, no one came to my defense. You could hear a pin drop. It was heartbreaking, because I had years of service to that church, most of the people were dear friends, and still are. I knew in that moment that from that point forward, it would be impossible for me to participate. How could I serve in a church that does not consider me a real Christian? On the way out of the church that morning, one member (someone who I would assume has no interest in science) put his hand on my shoulder and said, “They have proven carbon dating is all fake.” I just shook my head in grief.
Like that elder, ICR and the likes of Ken Ham are now drawing a line in the sand, that if you don’t believe in a 6,000-year-old earth, you cannot be a true believer. I find this another great mischief of the church, just like insisting Galileo recant or facing death. In follow up articles, I want to look at the evidence for each side of this issue, but for now, I want to stake out the boundaries of the big picture and why this issue is important.
When I made my call to my old evangelical friends last spring, I did it to give them the benefit of the doubt. I had heard polls of what white evangelicals believe, and I just couldn’t imagine that these good, bright people would believe such things, but I was disappointed. I won’t mention the many false political ideas they have now embraced but speak only of the scientific realm. I heard from each one the following:
- COVID wasn’t real or was overstated by the “liberals.”
- COVID deaths were faked by hospitals to get better payments (bizarre idea for someone who knows the hospital systems).
- The COVID vaccine is dangerous and ineffective. Bill Gates created it to make people sterile.
- Climate change is not real.
- Science is the enemy; it gave us abortions. (btw, the Bible says nothing about abortion either).
There is overwhelming evidence that COVID is real and deadly and that the vaccines are safe and the most effective tool against COVID. One million Americas died from COVID and of those, it is estimated that 350,000 didn’t have to die, because the vaccine was available, yet they believed this misinformation and didn’t get vaccinated. There is also overwhelming evidence within the scientific community that climate change is real and caused by humans. No, science did not give us abortions, but probably made them safer. Before science, the human life expectancy ws 28 years old. Now it is over 76 years. Science also made live births much safer. So, there are real consequences to this distrust of science for those groups and for our nation.
In general, I sensed a distrust of the expert among my evangelical friends. They would listen to a pastor or Fox News host who has no scientific studies beyond high school but reject the opinions of the thousands of scientists who had spent decades studying the topics. It sounded like profound arrogance to me. What was going on? It turns out to be tied to this age of the earth issue, which I will try to explain.
During the Enlightenment, there was a harmony between the Christian church and scientific community. Isaac Newton, one of my heroes, is considered by some as the brightest person who has ever lived. He considered his love of science as part of his love of God. But soon animosity developed between parts of the church and science. While some will point to the Darwin’s publishing of his, On the Origin of Species in 1859, the real battle started when James Hutton (the father of modern geology) published his book, The Theory of the Earth in 1788. It challenged the long-held view that the earth was 6,000 years old, putting the time frame of geological processes in millions of years. Before this point in history no one cared how old the earth was and there was no conflict between the religious and the people of science (after the Middle Ages). It is for this reason I’ve made the age of the earth my focus. Ahead, I want to look at the general process of discernment and how we find truth. Then, I want to look at the claims of the young earth creationists and the mainstream evidence for a very old earth.
I’m going to do something that we fiction writers are told never to do, I’m going to give away the ending. There is overwhelming evidence that the earth is very old, even more so than the sun is at the center of the solar system. In one hundred years, there will be as few believers in a 6,000 year-old earth as there are in a flat earth (<1%). However, if you are part of the 40% now, I invite you to hear me out. Next time I will address the reason why some religious folks feel they must believe in a young earth, and look at the evidence that supports that. Later, I will look at the evidence that supports a very old earth. Personally, I always welcome evidence that opposes my views and I’m willing to change my views if the evidence demands it. I’ve listened to hours of lectures by ICR and Ken Ham’s group over the past few months, as well as have read a book by a young earth creationist friend of mine. I ask that you grant me the same courtesy if you hold a different position than me.