By David MacMillan.
8. New perspective. I think there are several different varieties of creationism activists. Some are obsessed with the presumed negative effects of evolution and secular humanism. Some are driven by suspicion for science and the certainty that a conspiracy must be afoot. Some use creationist apologetics to make themselves feel smarter and better-informed than the general public. Some are genuinely interested in science and want to know the truth.
I’d be lying if I said my motivations for arguing creationism were firmly in the last camp. I wasn’t much of a conspiracy theorist, but I certainly believed that there were inevitable negative consequences from the acceptance of evolution. I was definitely stuck-up about my “special” expertise. But deep down, I really did want to know the truth about the world. I loved being right, but I loved learning new things more.
As prior posts have explained, fundamentalist evangelicalism buttresses itself against criticism at every conceivable level. Not only must the existence of God be treated as evident from nature; the existence of God must be treated as beyond any doubt. To the fundamentalist YEC, no overall view of natural history can be even remotely possible unless it can be used as evidence to prove the existence of God.
I maintained young-earth creationism without much difficulty through college. The major objection to creationism encountered in earning a physics degree is the starlight-and-time problem, and I believed that the gravitational-well time-dilation model proposed by Russell Humphreys solved this problem. It never really came up in my classes. My ongoing exposure to the evidence against creationism came mostly in the form of continued argumentation and debate in various online forums, just as I had done before college.
I still wanted to maintain intellectual honesty, but I felt constrained by my religious belief. When I encountered questions and evidence I didn’t know how to answer, I retreated to a position of false humility: “Well, I don’t know how that works, but I’m sure that if I was an expert in that area, I could figure out how the evolutionary argument is wrong.” I knew that there were physicists and biologists and geneticists working for creationist organizations who rejected evolution; surely they understood how it all worked.
There’s not much you can do to challenge that particular approach. It’s the same response I get now from creationists after I’ve answered all their objections. “Well, fine, but science is always changing, and scientists have been wrong before, and so you never can be sure about any of this.”
As frustrating as this response can be, it’s difficult to counter because it’s sincere. They really believe (and, at one time, I really believed) that the scientific process is constantly in flux, that evolution is “just a theory”, that scientists are just taking guesses in the dark. They really think that science can’t provide truly useful answers.
In the recent debate, Bill Nye strongly implied that creationism hinders the teaching and progress of science. While this may be the case in some situations, I believe the opposite is far more true: a lack of scientific literacy and misplaced skepticism of the scientific method enable pseudoscience like creationism to flourish. This is the problem I believe we need to address. Otherwise we are simply seen as making an appeal to authority right alongside the creationists.
Thankfully, my ability to maintain the “science could be wrong” excuse wore thin. I learned about research methods, about confidence intervals, about peer review. I learned to isolate variables, to vet sources, to establish controls. I learned that the scientific process is designed to weed out mistakes and that when mistakes are made, the process will tell where and why and how to correct them. The more actual science I learned, the more I could simply examine the evidence myself, and the more difficult it became to continue unchecked skepticism.
Though I still firmly maintained a belief in young earth and special creation, it became more and more apparent that evolution was not, after all, a theory in crisis. The evidence lined up and made sense; the model worked; the predictions were good. I kept looking for the smoking gun, the telltale traces and shortcuts I would expect to see if evolution were really the junk science I had always believed it to be – but I found nothing. Evolution was, to all appearances, rock-solid science.
I didn’t feel like this discovery was something I could admit. I still claimed confidence in the whole young Earth creationism worldview. But I had confidence in the scientific process, too, and they seemed to clash rather strongly. Moreover, while creationism had only demanded my confidence, science had earned my confidence. It was a distinction I wasn’t terribly comfortable with.
About this time, I came across this brief essay by noted biologist Todd Wood:
Evolution is not a theory in crisis. It is not teetering on the verge of collapse. It has not failed as a scientific explanation. There is evidence for evolution, gobs and gobs of it. It is not just speculation or a faith choice or an assumption or a religion. It is a productive framework for lots of biological research, and it has amazing explanatory power. There is no conspiracy to hide the truth about the failure of evolution. There has really been no failure of evolution as a scientific theory. It works, and it works well. [Emphasis in original.]
Yet Todd Wood was, like me, a strident creationist. Hearing another creationist say all the exact same things I had been unwilling to admit was suddenly liberating. It was all right to acknowledge that the science worked. It was all right to acknowledge that the evidence fit together. It was all right to acknowledge that “evolutionists” were in fact sincere. My faith in God wasn’t going to instantly disintegrate just because I admitted that common descent was a feasible model.
The essay went on:
There is evidence for evolution, and evolution is an extremely successful scientific theory. That doesn’t make it ultimately true, and it doesn’t mean that there could not possibly be viable alternatives. It is my own faith choice to reject evolution, because I believe the Bible reveals true information about the history of the earth that is fundamentally incompatible with evolution. I am motivated to understand God’s creation from what I believe to be a biblical, creationist perspective. Evolution itself is not flawed or without evidence. Please don’t be duped into thinking that somehow evolution itself is a failure.
This, too, resonated with me. I didn’t have to keep trying to convince myself that evolution was a patent absurdity, fraught with problems and utterly indefensible. Instead, I could embrace evolution’s strengths in pursuit of a better understanding of the world, looking toward a new theory that would better explain the evidence while also explaining how evolution had achieved such success.
To that end, I stopped listening to ill-informed people who continued to insist that evolution was absurd and hopelessly flawed. What could they teach me? I wanted to understand the evidence, not listen to people ridicule a theory they clearly didn’t understand.
The new perspective began yielding results almost immediately. Suddenly, the fallacies in creationist arguments and rhetoric seemed breathtakingly obvious. The more I learned, the more distance I felt from creationists, who only ever seemed interested in mocking.
I studied pseudogenes and phylogenetics and endogenous retrovirus insertions. I researched genetic clocks and homology and morphology. I looked at endemic species and fossils; I read studies on observed mutations and novel genes. The deeper I dug, the more creationist answers seemed not only unsatisfying, but patently ignorant of the subject matter. I tried formulating my own explanations that made testable predictions, but they inevitably fell flat.
All the while, I still maintained that even if evolution could work, it wasn’t fact, because the planet wasn’t old enough. Granted, I could see how the planet could be billions of years old – flood geology was wearing a little thin – but I was still constrained by religious belief to a 6,000-year-old universe. I think I really did know the truth at this point, deep down, but I didn’t feel like I could admit it.
Then I started learning about the history of creationism, and that’s where things started to crack. I learned that the age of the earth had never been a dividing issue in Christianity, not until Morris and Whitcomb plagiarized flood geology from the Seventh Day Adventists in the 1960s. I realized that not even the church fathers saw Genesis 1 as speaking of six actual days. Martin Luther was one of the only six-day creationists in church history, and he also believed geocentrism for the same reasons, so that wasn’t very encouraging. I began to see how there might be problems with the “historical-grammatical” approach to interpreting Genesis. If the creationist leaders were so far wrong about science, why should I expect their treatment of the Bible to be reliable?
And finally, one day, I was reading about transit times for cosmic rays and stumbled onto an article about stellar streams. When a small galaxy or a star cluster passes by the Milky Way, the tidal effects of the Milky Way’s gravity rips away a stream of stars, which are left floating in space to mark the path taken by the cluster. The stellar wakes crisscrossing our galaxy are all many tens of thousands of lightyears long.
I realized that no matter how creatively one might spin it, there’s no way any structure 20,000 or 30,000 lightyears long can form in 6,000 years . It’s simply absurd. And while I had no problem with the notion of God creating a universe “in motion”, so to speak, it simply didn’t make sense that he would need to create dozens of completely phony wakes all over our sky. I immediately realized that the universe had to be very, very old.
As I continued reading, I toyed with the idea of a young solar system inside an otherwise very old universe. This stage lasted about six minutes, if I remember correctly: the floodgates had opened and everything I had ever read or learned about the age of the earth came rushing back. It was all so obvious. Orbital mechanics clearly matched observed climate shifts. Independent lines of radiometric dating worked just fine. Cosmic expansion fit observations. The cosmic microwave background really was the afterglow of the recombination epoch. Geology made sense. Plate tectonics made sense. Erosion rates and geomagnetic reversals and everything else fell together in a perfectly aligned puzzle stretching back to the beginning of time. I suddenly realized I had known it all for a long time but had never allowed the pieces to come together all the way.
I didn’t tell anyone at first. It’s scary to undergo a complete paradigm shift. Over time, though, things became easier.
One of the things I’ve explained before is how fundamentalism often defines its doctrines in terms of their position on science. This redefinition is intended to bolster faith in the doctrines, but when the pseudoscience is exposed, it often takes those doctrines down with it. It has been difficult to reevaluate my religious beliefs outside of the backdrop of creationism, but the process has been very rewarding overall.
I was recently asked what I would go back and tell my teenage self about creationism, given the opportunity. All I can think of is to encourage my former self to study and understand the scientific method. That’s what made all the difference for me.
How do you reach creationists? Well, it can be difficult. There are a few things to keep in mind, though.
Be patient. I do not think I would have ever made the switch if not for all the people who painstakingly pointed out my errors over and over, and forced me to look at the evidence for myself. It might seem futile, but you can make a difference.
Know your enemy. And your enemy is not the person you’re talking to. Your enemy is the fundamentalist worldview telling the person how they are allowed to think. Understand how it works; understand where the beliefs and rhetoric are coming from. Ask questions. The more questions you ask, the more your opponent will be forced to investigate things for themselves. And that’s where the real progress is made. Read creationist literature and try to see where the arguments are coming from.
Know your role. You’re the teacher. Understand the evidence and the arguments. Know your facts. Pseudoscience flourishes because real science does not. It’s a popular trope in fundamentalism that True Religion automatically displaces false religions, so the Christian doesn’t even need to study other worldviews as long as he’s secure in the Truth. That might not be a very good argument in a religious context, but it’s absolutely true of science. Real science displaces pseudoscience: tell a man about science and he might trust your authority, but teach a man how science works and he won’t need your authority at all. Do your best to instill confidence in the scientific process apart from the question of origins.
Stick to the facts. Activists like Dawkins make the mistake of accepting fundamentalism’s claims of validly representing the Bible in particular and religion in general. But fundamentalism’s claims are simply false. As I stated before, creationism botches literary and biblical criticism just as badly as it botches science. Don’t ever make the mistake of attacking a creationist’s faith; if you do so, you’re simply reinforcing their misconception that evolution is synonymous with atheism. Read the explanations given by theistic evolutionists. Ask questions like, “How do you know your interpretation of the Bible is correct? How do you know that Genesis should be treated as chronological narrative? How would the original audience have understood it? Why wasn’t your interpretation a majority view throughout Christian history?” Be prepared to explain the history of creationism.
Be generous. Creationists will often employ ad hominem attacks, confuse correlation with causation, and use numerous other gross fallacies. Recognize how these approaches come out of the worldview. Assume your opponent is sincere. Understand how difficult it is for a creationist to question deeply held views that he thinks have essential religious importance.
Keep learning. The evidence continues to accumulate every single day. The strength of science is not that we know everything, but that we know how much we have left to learn.
I want to thank everyone who has followed this series, as well as everyone who has been involved in the ongoing discussions. I’ve seen a lot of great questions and good ideas. I also want to thank the handful of creationists who have consistently provided excellent examples of the very misconceptions this series was intended to outline.
My family also deserves credit. Even though they don’t share my conclusions, they were the ones who initially instilled my desire to find out the truth, and that’s what is most important.
I should acknowledge Dr. Lisa Blankinship, one of the biology professors at my alma mater, for helping me nail down some of the critical concepts concerning reproduction and the principles of evolutionary progress, as well as Dr. Joel Duff of the University of Akron for help with understanding genetics and DNA.
Finally, I need to thank Dr. Young, both for hosting this series and for his Eagle-Eyed EditingTM. His extensive editing tips, fact-checking, and proofreading really helped me make this series clear and concise; I couldn’t have asked for a more thorough and helpful editor.
 It’s probably possible to come up with an explanation for stellar streams that sounds vaguely plausible. The prevailing creationist cosmological model features the entire universe being created out of water and God causing runaway inflation while simultaneously transmuting the water into stars and galaxies and everything else. A creative creationist could probably posit that the overall shapes of macrostructures like stellar streams (and galaxies themselves, for that matter) formed rapidly while everything was still extremely compact, and that the creative process “stretched out” these structures as their constituent material was supernaturally transmuted into stars. Of course, stellar streams aren’t the only macrostructures we see. My favorite example is ESO 137-001, a galaxy that has left a trail of stars and hot gas hundreds of thousands of lightyears long as it forces its way through the center of its galaxy cluster. And of course there are numerous supernova remnants with nebulae much larger than could form in only 6,000 years.
Appendix. Here are links to the preceding 7 articles:
6. Genetic evidence.