A geologist looks at Creationism

 

Many things don’t change much. Creationism changes a few details but is still the same old twaddle from years ago. So though is dates back to 2002 most is still valid

Answers magazine, Oct-Dec 2014 issue

Monkey Business at A State School

 

Early in March 2002 the story broke that Emmanuel College, a state–funded Christian City Technical College in Gateshead, Newcastle on Tyne was teaching secondary school children that the earth is only 10,000 years old.  Richard Dawkins and Steve Jones, were quick to condemn the school and some in the Church of England have joined in. This controversy was triggered off by the visit of the creationist Ken Ham to a conference held by the college. Ignoring the details and the rights and wrongs of the teaching of some creationism in state schools, this incident emphasised that Creationism is a live force in Britain today.

In the last four decades Creationism has caused controversy in American churches, schools and colleges and has hit the headlines when education boards question the teaching of evolution as happened in Ohio in 2002 (website; Ohio citizens for science), and in the last three decades in almost every state in the Union.  When I taught geology at Wheaton College in America last summer half of my ten geology students were sure the earth was created in 6 days – at least at the beginning of the course.  Finding dinosaur bones disturbed the faith of at least one student.  Creationism has grown slowly in Britain.  Recent surveys show that it is held by 10% of the Church of England clergy, whereas in the 70s there were only a handful.  (When I started training for the Anglican ministry in the 1970s I knew of no clergy who were creationist.)  However to criticise Creationism effectively one must understand it and its extraordinary appeal.  Aggressive condemnation, especially when coupled with atheism, will not get rid of it. It will make it thrive. Dawkins may actually encourage Christians to become Creationists!

Many have correctly identified this with Creationism which began in the USA, but are wrong to think this is a reversion to pre–Darwinian days.  Creationism came to the fore after the publication of The Genesis Flood in 1961, which has roots in Seventh Day Adventism and not the Scriptural Geologists nor opponents of evolution in the 19th Century as Ron Numbers made so clear in The Creationists (Numbers, 1991)

 

What is Creationism?

The word itself is most unhelpful, as a believer in God must by definition believe in creation and thus be a creationist. However since the advent of biblical literalism impinging on science in the last few decades Creationism has acquired a far narrower meaning.  This popular meaning is a belief that Genesis must be interpreted literally and that creation took place in six 24–hour days some six to ten thousand years ago, there was no death or suffering before the Fall of Adam (Genesis 3) and that most strata were deposited in the year of Noah’s Flood.  Added to that is the insistence that ‘true’ science supports both the young age of the earth and ‘flood geology’ and as a corollary all ‘orthodox’ science is wrong when it talks about great age and evolution.  Emanating from the USA this is often known as Young Earth Creationism or YEC for short.

Before 1961 most evangelicals/fundamentalists in the USA and some in the UK accepted geology but rejected evolution.  Though many evangelicals still hold such a position today, they are regarded as apostate by hard line YECs such as Ken Ham or Henry Morris, and doctrinally wobbly by many evangelicals.  These are often known as Old Earth Creationists (OEC) to contrast them to both YEC and ‘theistic evolutionists’.  Until about 1980 most British evangelicals accepted some kind of evolution, but that is changing.

To go back to the 19th Century most before 1859 adopted some kind of OEC position, e.g. Sumner, Newman, Adam Sedgwick, William Buckland etc, and those who took a YEC position were very much in the minority (Roberts, 1998). However even before 1850 as Mortenson agrees most educated Christians were non–literalists and that included the majority of Evangelicals.  The latter assertion often comes as a surprise both to scientists and theologians who assume without any historical evidence that before Darwin all Christians were literalists. It must always be remembered that it was the evangelicals Thomas Chalmers and John Bird Sumner who in about 1810 popularised the Gap Theory – an almost literalist interpretation of Genesis One which allowed for vast geological ages. This Gap Theory was the dominant view of evangelicals on Genesis and geology until about 1980.  Today a far higher proportion of evangelicals are concerned about the influence of geology and the vast age of the earth than in the early 19th century.

Within the churches most non–evangelicals and Roman Catholics regard the question of evolution as a non-issue and are bemused by it.  It is only an important issue among evangelicals, who form a good quarter of the mainstream denominations (Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian) and, obviously, all the Independent Evangelical Churches.  Attitudes to Creationism vary.  Most independent evangelicals are very sympathetic to YEC, as are about 10% of Anglican clergy rising to 25% among Anglican evangelicals.  In the USA, where churchgoing is about 50%, evangelicals number about half the churchgoing population, Creationists are well–funded and at times have considerable political clout with the replacement of the Religious Right.  An increasing number of evangelical churches and groups on both sides of the Atlantic are insisting on YEC as a basis of faith.  The diversity among American Evangelicals is great but it seems that YEC is calling the shots, causing much concern among moderate evangelicals. The same is happening in Britain

 

Creationist Literature.

To get a taster of Creationist writing go into any local evangelical bookstore and in the section on science most books will be Creationist.  There are simply an immense number of creationist books, which sell well.  Until five years ago or so most were American imports, but now many are homegrown.  The books are usually well–written and produced.  A cursory look will show that the arguments are appealing to a Christian who has little scientific knowledge, or one whose science is limited to physics and chemistry.  Essentially they are based on two arguments; first a “proper evangelical” view of scripture will result in taking Genesis literally (overlooking the fact that most Evangelicals both past and present did not do so) and secondly much of geological and evolutionary science is fatally flawed.  Most books are variations on the same theme and the same arguments crop up each time.  There are many well-produced children’s books and short tracts of varying quality.  The most popular is Big Daddy, which has had an immense distribution and influence (http://www.chick.com/ look for bigdaddy).

 

The Historical Roots of Creationism

Popular secular, and even religious,  writers often portray Creationism as a throw–back to Bishop Samuel Wilberforce and Archbishop Ussher, when it is alleged that all Christians were literalists and opposed every scientific step taken.  This misunderstands the historical situation and stems from the Conflict Thesis of Science and Religion so inaccurately set forth by Andrew Dickson White in The Warfare of Science with Theology in 1896, and perpetuated today by both atheistic naturalists and creationists. The Conflict Thesis has been shown to be false by historians of science, but it retains its vitality.

Present day creationism began in earnest with the publication of The Genesis Flood in 1961.  It was written by an Old Testament scholar J.C.Whitcomb and a hydraulic engineer, Henry Morris.  Morris must be considered the father of Creationism who later went on to found the Institute of Creation Research.  All present–day Creationism goes back to that one book and its ideas are generally accepted today.  Morris developed the ideas of George McCready Price, a Seventh Day Adventist and ‘self–taught’ scientist, who wrote prolifically in the first half of last century arguing that most strata were laid down in the Flood.  These ideas, in turn, stemmed form the writings of Mary Ellen White, the prophetess of the Seventh Day Adventists, who insisted on a literal Genesis in the late 19th Century.

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Creationism DOES NOT have significant historical roots in the 19th century church, as the vast majority of educated Christians did not insist on a literal Genesis. (see Roberts 1998)  Up to mid–century a small minority were literalists and gave Christian geologists like Sedgwick and Buckland a hard time, but after mid–century there were only a handful of literalists.  It is not possible to trace any kind of “intellectual descent” from these literalists to the Creationists of today. Partly because of the success of the conflict thesis of science and religion, which is part of our scientific and religious psyche, most assume that Victorian Christians were dominantly literalist. You will find that it most pop science writings and many works of history including Schama. That is simply not the case, despite the dominance of evangelicalism in the 19th century.

 

Creationism in Britain.

We may date the rise of Creationism in Britain with the publication of The Genesis Flood here in 1968.  Before that very, very few evangelicals were Young Earthers.  I simply cannot name one.  Many adopted the Gap Theory of Thomas Chalmers on Genesis and allowed for geology but were ambivalent about evolution.  Anglican Evangelicals tended to accept evolution.  TGF changed all that.  YEC was soon adopted by independent Evangelicals (those who had opted out of mainstream denominations).  University Christian Unions became very sympathetic to Creationism after the 70s.  In the 70s very few Anglicans had become YEC, but there has been a steady growth since, with YEC theology lecturers at several Anglican theological colleges.  A survey of Anglican vicars in January 2002 indicated that 10% were YEC and about 23% rejected evolution. To demonstrate the change over recent years, in the course of my historical research I pay particular attention what Anglican and other clergy wrote about science from 1500 to the present day.  I have looked at some 150 clergy from 1800 to 1855 and about 15% were literalists.  Part of this was based on a detailed survey of the Christian Observer, the Anglican evangelical magazine, most of whose contributors and editor were consistently pro–geology. The successors of that journal are Anvil and The Churchman, with the latter owned by the Church Society. An indication of the change may be seen in the fact that the Church Society sponsored a fringe meeting at General Synod in June 2002 with Edgar Andrews, a Creationist, as a guest speaker. I must have considered hundreds of clergy from 1855 to 1970 and not one was a literalist, though some were pretty close.  This is most dramatic when we compare 1859 with 2002 – 10% literalists today and none yet identified in 1859,except for Gosse and B.W.Newton.  In fact from all denominations on both sides of the Atlantic I can name less than 10 literalists in the 1860s – and that was with help from an American scholar.

 

Who’s who and What’s What in Creationism?

The two main Creationist organisations in the USA are the Institute of Creation Research founded by Henry Morris and based in San Diego and Answers in Genesis led by Ken Ham, an Australian.  It is a total misconception to think that YEC is a phenomenon of the Southern States as it is widespread throughout the country.  Answers in Genesis has a British base and A.J.  Monty White is their chief publicist.  Monty White has a Ph.D. in chemistry and claims to have studied geology up to pass degree level.  Also in Britain are the Creation Science Movement and the Biblical Creation Movement.  The membership lists of both of these groups boasts many scientists, some with Ph.D.s and some in University teaching.  To my knowledge no British creationist can be considered a practising geologist, though many dabble in it.  A few Americans have Ph.D.s in geology, including Kurt Wise, a former research student of Stephen Gould, and Steve Austin a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University, and teach in Creationist/Fundamentalist colleges.  They often specialise on Creationist interpretations on Mt St Helens and the Grand Canyon.

 

Geology teaching in the USA

In 2001 I taught basic geology for non–scientists for Wheaton College, a leading evangelical liberal arts college in the USA, at their science station in the Black Hills.  The college has a very high academic standard with a very competent science staff.  I was given a class of ten students for a four week (every day, five days a week) geology course.  They were sharp students but half were YEC.  They were mostly the products of home–schooling and creationist preaching in their churches.  This made life interesting! On two occasions I spoke to all students on site – about 70 – on the relationship of science and Christianity.  Because of their upbringing this was causing problems for many of them and I got a variety of responses.  Some students actually complained of being brain–washed by their ministers, others took me to task in a most friendly manner and the next day were enjoying a massive thunderstorm with me in the Badlands, when our tent was blown down.  I have to admit that I did not convince all my students on the age of the earth but they produced good work.  It was odd, to say the least, reading essays on the geological history of the Black Hills referring to geological ages and radiometric age–dating by students convinced that the earth is less than 10,000 years old.

The science staff from both colleges, which used this science station, voiced their worries to me.  Part was distinctly American in that the colleges drew their students from the evangelical community, so that almost every student was an evangelical.  That means that if the college were perceived to be “liberal” by the evangelical community, parents would send the offspring elsewhere to a college like Bob Jones University, which is proud to teach Creation Science.  A common complaint from faculty from another evangelical university was that staff in other faculties were often strongly YEC and made life difficult.  At times parents of prospective students would grill science faculty demanding whether or not they taught “Creation”.  I know of several science faculties in other colleges, which have gone through hell because of Creationist attacks.  Creationist students often challenge Science staff in secular universities.  In a State University in one state parents of prospective electrical engineering students make sure that their offspring will study no biology! (I could provide names and colleges, but prefer not to divulge private conversations.) When one multiplies this for all America there is a large problem, whether in high school, college or State University. On the other side in the USA, there is considerable antagonism shown to Christians by atheistic scientists, much is vitriolic and mis–informed.

 

Monkey Laws.

During the last twenty years Creationist lobbies have put forward anti–evolution bills in state after state.  Two of the most famous are Arkansas in 1981 (when a liberal Governor called Clinton had been temporarily ousted by a fundamentalist) and Kansas in 1999 along with Ohio in 2002 and Oklahoma in 2003.  Those who put forward such bills are not hill–billies who practise the old time religion as portrayed in the woefully inaccurate film Inherit the Wind.  They are very astute, and have immense funds behind them, as well as persistence.  (It is reckoned that the Institute of Creation Research and Answers in Genesis each have war–chests of $5 million or more – and very influential backers.) They are also excellent politicians and know how to drum up support.

Popular journalism, whether in dailies or in science magazines, does not help as frequently the only thing reported is that a state is trying to ban evolution in schools.  That has never happened.  At Arkansas they were trying to obtain equal time for “evolution” and “creation” – a Two Model approach.  At Kansas the age of the earth and cosmology were simply excluded from the syllabus and now in Ohio they were trying to get Intelligent Design taught alongside “evolution”.  A complication at Ohio was that any kind of historical science was being presented as less scientific and more subjective than empirical science.  By doing this creationists can claim that ‘Evolution’ and ‘Creation’ are equally valid faith positions – a view echoed by the former Bishop of Durham on the situation in Gateshead. For myself, my belief in creation ex nihilo is a faith position, but all my views on geology and evolution are potentially falsifiable if contrary evidence came along. Now, if you can find a primate fossil in the Cambrian………

 

Principles of Geology

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After 30 years of studying Creationism (my interest in the history of geology resulted from a fracas with Creationists in 1971) I know there is no quick put–down as Creationist arguments are presented with considerable skill and rhetoric.  A particular ploy is to challenge the possibility of doing historical science like geology claiming that interpretations whether young or old earth are a matter of faith.  Consider this submission to the Ohio Board of Education in 2002 from Science Excellence for All Ohioans (SEAO), the group trying to introduce Intelligent Design into school science in that state;

‘Most sciences, including chemistry and physics, are empirical (or experimental) in nature; theories can be tested by experiments in the laboratory and/or by observations of the world.  Some disciplines, like origins science, are historical in nature; that is, they attempt to explain events and processes that have already taken place in the distant past.  Theories in historical sciences cannot be verified experimentally, so the explanations are always tentative.  Biological evolution (like creation and design) cannot be proven to be either true or false.’

This is a wonderful mixture of truth and error.  What it does do is to unsettle Joe Public and make him think that all geology is uncertain and based on tentative arguments.  In fact, theories in geology can be tested and disproved, though not normally by experiment. Most serious is that a new unaccepted concept of origins science is slipped inThis is a term, originated up by creationists in the USA to isolate historical science from empirical science.  It is based on the presumption that empirical science is somehow ‘true’ science as it relies on experiment and direct observation whereas ‘origins science’, that is what would normally be called geology, palaeontology and cosmology, deals with past events.  These are not open to experiment or observation and therefore cannot be truly science in their method of definition.  This is a clever but flawed rhetorical ploy to cast doubt on universally accepted conclusions of all scientists working in these fields.  I can hear most geologists screaming as they read this, but this argument is seen as the ultimate put–down on all historical sciences.

This is a new form of an old Creationist position, which regards experimental science as proper science and historical sciences like geology as far more subjective and unreliable.  Further they often argue that conclusions from “origins science” are more a matter of faith than science.

 

Details of Geology

 

With a few exceptions Creationists make a wholesale attack on all of what they call “evolutionary science”, which includes geology, the evolutionary interpretation of biology, cosmology, palaeoanthropology.  If they are right, it is almost incredible that scientists, including such 19th century bible–believing evangelicals such as Adam Sedgwick, Hugh Miller, and J. W. Dawson to name three, could have got it so wrong for the last few hundred years!  The temptation is simply to laugh it off and meet creationists with scorn and ridicule. To do that is to underestimate the political and religious force of Creationism and its appeal to the considerable number of Evangelicals in Britain, as well as the USA.  This understandable reaction is actually doomed to failure.

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A flippant send-up of creationist geology

Consequentially it is essential to have a broad grasp of their arguments and critiques of them. I deal with a few and further details can be found on the Talk Origins website or books by Van Till and others.  The Creationist attack on geology is both on general principles and on detail.  I have simply ignored other sciences for reasons of space and also that I am a geologist.

  • Geology is considered to be based on the unfounded assumption of Uniformitarianism, but what is presented is a crude and exaggerated form of what Hutton and Lyell (often spelt Lyle!) put forward from 1790 to 1840.  Uniformitarianism is seen to be part and parcel of Evolution, despite the fact that Lyell opposed evolution until 1864.  Often it is argued that geologists insist on a very slow and steady rate of deposition and do not allow for the slightest bit of “catastrophic” deposition.  It is often reckoned that the views of Ager or Gould, which allow a minimal catastrophism, totally undermine classic geology.  Not many realise how even Lyell allowed catastrophic events, which he discusses in his Principles of Geology (1830–6). Lyell and Gould are not so different on Uniformitarianism. Further it is impossible to work out any geological events in the past without postulating some similarity of geological processes from the past and the present. Many of the early geologists, including those who set up the geological Column, were catastrophists. Among these were Sedgwick (an evangelical), Conybeare, Murchison, both Phillips and de la Beche. If anything it would be truer to speak of the Catastrophic Anti–evolutionary Geological Column.
  • Circular Argument. In TGF Morris claims that the Geological Column is based on a circular argument from evolution citing R.H.Rastall’s statement in the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Thus Creationists often refer to the Uniformitarian Evolutionary Geological Column. The Geological Column is the sequence of strata; Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, Tertiary and Quaternary. Geologists worked this out from about 1810 to 1850, when all geologists were anti–evolutionary and even anti–uniformitarian. Many geologists fall for this one because today they take for granted the use of fossils in stratigraphy and overlook the fact that geological columns are constructed for the Precambrian and also newer strata without fossils largely on the principle of superposition. In the 1830s Adam Sedgwick (an evangelical Anglican cleric) worked out the order of what is now the Cambrian and much of the Ordovician by superposition as there were very few fossils. His conclusions then still stand the test of time.  Over the past few years I have visited many of the places he went to in North Wales and compared the geology with his geological notes. He scarcely ever recorded a fossil and when he did they were no use for dating. I walked many of his routes over the mountains. My longest walk was when I retraced his route over the Carneddau of 26 August 1831, when I covered 18 miles and climbed 6,500ft. I took over 10 hours without stopping to geologise.  I do think many geologists have not fully considered the philosophy and methodology of stratigraphy and do not see that the use of fossils to give relative dates is derivative from the Principle of Superposition, which in turn is derivative from gravity.  There is both a spatial element and a time element involved.  (I am very glad to have worked in Precambrian sediments in South Africa where I had to produce my own Precambrian column as I was only the third geologist to work in that area.) Creationists can cite the loose and sloppy statements of geologists to substantiate their charge of a circular argument, but it does not take into account how geologists actually worked out the Column.  (see Dott and Rudwick. The latter on the problems of the Devonian is excellent on dealing with fossil, time and space in relation to stratigraphy. It also shows that geological methods are complex and not amenable to simplistic critiques by armchair experts.)
  • Radiometric Age–Dating. If Creationists are to be believed radiometric age dating is shot through with error and false assumptions, and thus must be rejected out of hand.  It is claimed that many radiometric dates are inaccurate and in 1978 Woodmarappe (a pseudonym) gave a list of about 700 such faulty dates.  To satisfy myself I checked about 100.  Without exception every one of these were misunderstandings of the original writer.  Elsewhere Brent Dalrymple, the leading American geochronologist, has pointed out the same thing.  The discussion with Woodmarappe on Talk Origins is an eye–opener.  One example which is quoted frequently both in books and tracts are determinations on lava from an eruption in 1802 on Hualalai in Hawaii which gave ages from 160 my to 3 by.  They overlook that these were on ultra–mafic inclusions in the lava, i.e. mantle rock, so of course do not give the date of eruption.  Creationists also cite high ages (hundreds of millions) of recent lavas from all over the world. They have either lifted these from geological articles or sent samples of to labs to have the K/Ar ratios determined and then work out the “age”. These are then published as evidence that radiometric age dating does not work. But it is an emotive argument and catches out most non–geologists, especially if they do not follow up the references. What creationists do not say is that this has been known since the 60s and that the problem is excess Argon in the outer crust of lavas.
  • Polystrate Fossils. This is the term coined by Creationists to describe fossils like trees, which cut through several feet of strata as are found in the Coal Measures, and in Yellowstone National Park.  As “Uniformitarian Geologists” argue for a very slow deposition they must have remained in place for millions of years while sediments were deposited around them.  Obviously the tree would have rotted away. Few geologists will buy the argument, but it is plausible to those who are assured that geologists insist on a slow uniform rate of deposition.  These “polystrate” fossils are only found in certain sandstones, which are often deposited very quickly. An American creationist, Paul Ackerman (Ackerman, 1986, 85) includes a diagram of a tree–trunk passing through a hundred million years of strata from the Cretaceous through the Tertiary and Quaternary to today. I find this diagram very disturbing as it gives a totally false impression of what “polystrate” fossils are. I do hope Ackermann removes this misleading diagram in future editions.
  • Polystrate tree fossil. Note the base of the stump is rooted in a more organic-rich deposit, while the top of the tree is truncated sharply. Photo from Wikipedia commons.poly
  • Grand Canyon. Now the Grand Canyon is a post–Flood feature (that means that the strata were deposited during the year of Noah’s Flood at a rate of about one foot per hour) and took about a century to be gouged out! Also near the bottom it is sometimes alleged that there are fossil conifer forests in either the Cambrian or below.  This is based on Clifford Burdick’s claims to find pollen of recent conifers in the Precambrian.  By 1972 the Creationist geologist Art Chadwick showed that this was due to the contamination of Burdick’s samples by recent pollen.  However thirty years on it is still being cited but now the pollen has grown into fossil conifer forests according to some Creationists (K. Logan, Responding to the Challenge of Evolution, Kingsway, 2002). When I went down the Grand Canyon in 2001 I did not see any fossil forests, though I was looking hard at the geology! Much is also made of the “missing strata” as for example the Ordovician and Silurian are almost totally absent (as they are in much of the Western U.S.A., including the Black Hills.)  Wherever you read this, much of the Geological Column below you will be missing, as either it was never deposited or else it has been eroded away. Below where I sit there is a hundred feet or so of Quaternary glacial till and below that Triassic Red Sandstone, indicating a good 200 million years of missing rock. If you go to a place like Scourie in N.W. Scotland, 2.5 b.y. Lewisian Gneiss is exposed meaning that 2.5 b.y. of strata are missing! Where is it? Davis Young, a geologist and historian of geology and son of the Old Testament scholar E.J.Young, has written a superb exposé of creationist muddle on the Grand Canyon (Van Till et al, 1988, p93–124).
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  • Guadeloupe Man. In about 1810 a skeleton was found in limestone at Guadeloupe in what was later to be considered Miocene.  Soon after writers in The Evangelical Magazine of 1816 argued that this showed that the geologists were wrong on the age and the argument has been recently resurrected by Creationists.  This skeleton is in secondary recent limestone rather than Miocene.
  • Mt St Helens. The eruption of Mt St.Helens was a godsend to creationists as it demonstrates catastrophe with a vengeance.  It shows catastrophic erosion as a gorge 140 feet deep was carved out by a mudflow – in unconsolidated sediments. (To consider the difference between consolidated and unconsolidated sediments go into your garden and aim your hose at some bare soil. It will erode. Then aim it at the walls and, unless there is something wrong with the brickwork, it will not erode.) I had half a pint of water availabe and spray it on the sediments, they eroded rapidly !!!! This shows, by arguing in a “uniformitarian” manner that the Grand Canyon could have been carved out in a century.  There is also catastrophic deposition after the eruption as well.  Steve Austin has published extensively on this and uses his results to argue for catastrophic deposition of most strata in a similarly short time.

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  • The list goes on, consult http://www.talkorigins.org for more creationist geology and its flaws. This site is good and many of the contributions are by Christians. One could also consult the website of the Association of Christian Geologists, which is largely made up of Evangelicals.

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Intelligent Design

Since 1990 several conservative Christians have argued for Intelligent Design.  The main proponents have been Philip Johnson, Michael Behe (Darwin’s Black Box) and Bill Dembski.  Their thesis is that the natural world shows evidence of design and thus of an Intelligent Designer behind it, whom they refrain from calling God.  Gone are the continual references to Genesis and dinosaurs in the ark.  Several of their chief thinkers sport two Ph. Ds and hold down respectable academic positions.  Their argument is that many natural systems exhibit irreducible complexity, which cannot be explained naturalistically and thus must be the result of Design.  It is difficult not to see this as a God–of–the–gaps argument.  Even so, a good number see ID as a refreshing alternative to “evolution” and Creationism.  Behe in fact accepts common descent and Dembski the geological timescale.  However, most concerning to a geologist is the near absence of reference to geological time in studies on Intelligent Design.  It is as if the origin of species, whether by direct intervention or by evolution, can be discussed without reference to Deep Time, or to the succession of life.  As Nancy Pearcey wrote, ‘For too long, opponents of naturalistic evolution have let themselves be divided and conquered over subsidiary issues like the age of the earth’ (Pearcey, 1999, p26). This hides a serious problem as Pearcey, along with others like Paul Nelson is YEC.  ID is a “big tent” and includes anti–evolutionists of all shades from YEC to virtual evolutionist.  They have a peculiar symbiotic relationship with Creationists alternately distancing themselves and diving into bed with them!  However Intelligent Designers have worked in harmony with Creationists in the preparation of alternative science policies in Kansas and Ohio.  I tend to see Intelligent Design as a Trojan Horse for YEC, and despite their claims they have produced nothing worthwhile in scientific fields.  This is a careful statement as I have looked very carefully at their arguments and know and like several of the main players.

 

Strategy

There is no simple answer on how to deal with Creationism.  Frequently it has been ignored and ridiculed yet it keeps on growing and multiplying.  Refutation at the intellectual level is fairly straightforward, but often Creationist views are tenaciously held for faith reasons.  Thus Creationists need to be dealt with showing considerable empathy seeking to understand why they hold such views.  Think of me teaching geology to bright young creationists in the Black Hills!

It is extremely easy to get bogged down in details e.g. whether or not Archaeopteryx has clear dinosaur ancestors or the validity of aspects of Radiometric Age–dating.  Those types of discussions go on and on, though at times they give opportunity for debate and refutation.  However as soon as you have sorted out one red herring, another is produced citing references you have never heard of.

A major problem is that the term “Evolution” is used so loosely, so loosely that even the anti–evolutionist Adam Sedgwick, who opposed Darwin in 1860, would be regarded as evolutionary.  Further by focusing on “evolution” Creationists are being allowed to set the agenda, as they are adept at focussing on minor aspects.  I am convinced that the main approach should be on the age of the earth (and the universe), especially as neither of these have anything to do with evolution. Yes, I know it is often claimed that geology is dependent on evolution but it is not. Creationist arguments on the age of the earth are dependent on a misunderstanding of the principles of geology, particularly how the age of the earth and geology developed in the past.  Frequently they talk of the “evolutionary” or “uniformitarian” Geological Column, thus indicating that they do not understand how the Geological Column was worked out.  All the arguments for a young earth are worth considering, as they all contain serious faults, though they may require a little homework.

My primary aim is to demonstrate the age of the earth, or rather the vast age of rocks.  This is very much a personal view and not all will agree with me.  For example Dr Eugenie Scott of the National Council for Science Education in San Diego strongly disagrees me when I told her that the primary aim must be to convince people of the age of the earth and then let evolution sort itself out.  Eugenie reckons I undersell evolution, which is a major scientific concept and needs to be taught.  In a sense I totally agree, but I am thinking strategically rather than scientifically.  Once someone has accepted a vast age of the earth they have moved from Ussher to William Smith(who produced the first geological map in 1815), for the simple reason that if the earth is more than 50,000 years old Biblical literalism is untenable.  Further many of the Creationists I have dealt with are not dogmatic Creationists but have adopted Creationism because that fits into their evangelical perspective and have yet to hear contrary arguments. Further the atheistic arguments of Dawkins and others, and the concessions made to science by more liberal Christians (who often deny any possibility of miracles and reject Biblical authority) make Creationism seem an attractive proposition. I totally understand why.

It is far too much to expect someone to jump from Ussher to Darwin in one go.  If I can persuade someone that the earth is at least a million years old I consider the war to be won.  The rest is mopping up!  To give an example, I have a tract entitled Dinosaurs and the Bible, which is rightly appreciative and complimentary of the geology teaching of Wheaton College and is emphatic that the earth is billions of years old.  However some of the science and theology is a bit wayward!  The author is a radio–preacher and graduate of Bob Jones University – a bastion of Creation Science, so his views are heard by millions.  I happily gave it to my Creationist students, and the author later made me a beautiful wooden walking stick, which I took onto the plane as hand luggage in July 2001!

One strategy designed to fail is to tell the creationist that Genesis is a myth written in Babylon in the 6th century.  (This is not the place to discuss Genesis, but I am not happy with considering the Bible as myth.) If one does so then all evangelical hackles will rise and the argument will be lost.  Far better is to remain with conservative views of the Bible, which reject myth and reckon Genesis was either written by Moses or by an editor in about 1000 BC (my view).  This was held in the 19th century by such Christian geologists as Sedgwick, Conybeare, Miller and Dawson.  Recent examples of conservative theologians on Genesis are G Wenham, E Lucas and Blocher.  Lucas is the most useful as he is a highly respected evangelical theologian with a research background in chemistry and a good grasp of geology and evolution.  He is no Creationist and empathetically understands the Creationist position.

From this we see that there is a double problem in Creationism, part theological and part scientific.  For myself I have two axes to grind! From the US experience it will not quickly go away but will rumble on for several decades.  Many Creationists are slick operators and know how to catch out even the most competent.  The next time I meet a Creationist he will probably mention an argument I have never heard of. However within 24 hours I will find out why it is wrong, either by consulting the Talkorigins websites, or asking a member of the Association of Christian Geologists. A good number of evangelical Christians hold toCreationism because it is preached from the pulpit and it fits into their evangelical worldview.  At times they believe it because that is what they have heard, rather than through burning conviction. Thus an attack on creationism will be perceived as an attack on the Christian Faith.  Finally Creationism has a very strong religious appeal in that it repudiates reductionism, upholds biblical truth and the message of the Christian Faith.  Any argument, which can be perceived as being anti–religious, is doomed to fail with the majority of Creationists.

Even so, Creationists are quick to accuse such as myself as being apostate and in the US have forced lecturers out of colleges and pastors out of churches. Consider this statement by Mortenson, ‘Even Davis Young, the professing evangelical old-Earth geologist at Calvin College who has influenced so many other evangelical scholars in the last few decades, has misled his readers on this subject.’ That statement is offensive and unworthy of Christ.

However, one of the most important questions to ask is whether or not any position of the age of the earth or evolution is true. I accept the vast age of the earth not because it is convenient but because I see it to be true. I cannot say the same for Creationist arguments. It is a matter of truth.

 

Conclusion

If anyone had said in the Swinging Sixties that there would be serious attempts to introduce teaching biblical literalism as science in the 21st century, the response would have been mirth and incredulity.  I simply collapsed laughing when I read about TGF in 1969. When I read it two years later at L’Abri it took me two days to identify the flaws in its argument. But Creationism is here to stay.  Despite the fact that the whole population daily depends on the work of geologists for petroleum and other minerals they use up so avidly, a significant minority claim that the whole of geological science is fundamentally false and are persuading others.  The substance of Creationist claims are plain wrong, but neither the scientific nor ecclesiastical establishments have any means of dealing with it.  Or, at least, they don’t seem to.

If the American and Australian experience is anything to go by then the problem will get worse.  There is no panacea but the starting point has to be both a clear understanding of the tenets of Creationism, scientific and religious, and why they are so tenaciously held.

 

Acknowledgements.  It is impossible to acknowledge those who have helped me in the last thirty years.  I have had help from both sides of the pond, including from Creationists.

 

Essential reading; Ken Miller, Finding Darwin’s God, Harper/Collins £8, pbk

and

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References

ACKERMAN, P. D. 1986. It’s a Young World after all. Baker, Michigan.

DOTT , R. H. 1981. Journal of SedimentaryPetrology. 51, 701-704 OR 1982, Journal of Paleontology. 56,(no.1) p.?

LUCAS, E.  2001 Can we believe Genesis today? Intervarsity Press Leicester.

NUMBERS, R. L. 1992 The Creationists. A. A. Knopf, New York

PEARCY, N. 1999.  Design and the Discriminating Public, Touchstone, July/Aug 1999.

PENNOCK, R. T. 1999. The Tower of Babel. MITPress, Mass. (Pennock discusses Creationists with the delicacy of a brain surgeon using a hatchet)

ROBERTS, M. B. 1998. Geology and Genesis Unearthed. The Churchman 112, 225–55. also on http://scibel.gospelcom.net/

ROBERTS, 2002, Critique of Mortenson’s paper given to the evangelical Theoloigical Society in Autumn 2001, (http://www.glenn.morton.btinternet.co.uk/mortensonresp2.htm)

RUDWICK, M. J. S. 1985. The Great Devonian Controversy. University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

WHITCOMB, J.C.  & MORRIS, H.  M.  1961, The Genesis Flood. Presbyterian and Reformed, New Jersey.

VAN TILL, YOUNG, D, & MENNINGA, 1988. Science held hostage. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois.

VAN TILL, SNOW, R., STEK, J., YOUNG, D. 1990. Portraits of Creation. Eerdmans, Michigan.

YOUNG, D. 1995. The Biblical Flood. Eerdmans, Michigan.

 

 

Websites;

http://scibel.gospelcom.net/

www.cis.org.uk Christians in Science

http://www.talkorigins.org A useful technical anti–creationist site.  Comprehensive.

www.asa3.org Site of an American evangelical science and religion site, varying in perspective from evolutionary to creationist.  Very useful, much good stuff, some dross.  Some good links.

http://www-personal.ksu.edu/~kbmill/ Website of Dr Keith Miller of Kansas, geology prof and opponent of 1999 Kansas proposals.  Some good links both on geology and creationism.
http://www.ncseweb.org/ National Council for Science Education, San Diego. Very useful.
http://www.glenn.morton.btinternet.co.uk/mortensonresp2.htm This site is by Glenn Morton, a Texan geophysicist, who was an active Creationist until the mid–80s when wormholes in the Carboniferous converted him. He was Josh MacDowell’s “scientific” adviser and is often cruelly accused of being an apostate. Interesting and disturbing.
www.reason–science–and–faith.com is excellent on history etc

 

Creationist Websites

www.answersingenesis.org Answers in Genesis – sometimes critical of an Anglican vicar.  You can even send a Creationist greetings card to a friend!

www.icr.org Institute of Creationist Research

www.pages.org/bcs/ Biblical Creation society (UK)

 

Michael Roberts

 

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3 thoughts on “A geologist looks at Creationism

  1. Paul Braterman

    ” Dr Eugenie Scott of the National Council for Science Education in San Diego strongly disagrees me when I told her that the primary aim must be to convince people of the age of the earth and then let evolution sort itself out.”

    Many leading US creationists, including those associated with the discovery Institute, accept an Old Earth. Their UK partners, such as C4ID and Truth in Science, are naive biblical literalists and YECs. That might explain the difference

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    1. michaelroberts4004 Post author

      Our discussion in 2000 was in relation to YEC. My aim is first to convince others of great age and then deal with evolution. To me even convincing someone that the earth is 1000000 years old is going way beyond D-day

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      1. Paul Braterman

        I would say that both of you were right in context. It could well be that whatever a particular creationist’s position is, causing them to question some part of it will set further changes in motion. Thus a YEC will become open to change once they allow the Earth to be millions of years old, while an Old Earth creationist might change if convinced that Noah’s flood could not have been worldwide.

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