Why Science is (Mostly) Powerless Against Young Earth Creationism: A Personal Narrative

genesis-hebrew2Young Earth Creationism (YEC) is, ironically, relatively young. I’ve written about its origins at Religion&Politics (start in paragraph 4), with a follow-up at Times&SeasonsA recent article in Scientific American highlights the arrival of Young Earth Creationism in Europe.

I take issue with one paragraph.

We have learned that confronting creationism is not a scientific matter but rather a political one. To engage creationism it does not suffice to line up all the evidence and arguments in support of evolutionary theory. Instead, scientists have to get out and operate on all platforms where creationists are active. This includes giving public lectures, writing op–eds and articles in popular magazines, weeklies and newspapers as well as discussing the issue in television and radio broadcasts, developing and maintaining Web sites on evolution, and via exhibitions.

I agree that we need scientists and educators to write more for the general public, to translate technical understandings for laypeople about specific issues, but also about the widely misunderstood nature of science, e.g. here (a BYUS article) and here. I also agree that “confronting creationism is not a scientific matter,” but the solution is not better or more science. You can’t convince a Young Earth Creationist of their incorrectness simply by throwing more science at them, because scientific arguments are not the cause of their Young Earth Creationism, but an effect of it. At its root, the scientific aspects of YEC are entirely secondary to and dependent on the interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis.

This is why the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate was absolutely pointless. They weren’t actually debating the same topic, really. Bill Nye’s science is powerless against YEC; not because he’s wrong (although he certainly has been, at one time making “the entire US philosophy community collectively choke on its morning espresso” and here), but because he can only talk science. And that’s not convincing YECs, who already know that YEC views of science aren’t mainstream.

What, then, changes YEC minds?

Don't bother.

Don’t bother.

I’ll tell you what, and use myself as an example. I read a lot of books on my mission (my stories here and here.) I mistakenly traded a good Nibley volume for something called Using the Book of Mormon to Counter Falsehoods in Organic Evolution. It poked a few scientific holes in evolution and then drew heavily on Joseph Fielding Smith and others to make an argument from authority. In spite of being a doctor’s kid and a science nerd in high school, I wasn’t terribly well versed in philosophy of science or biology. I didn’t embrace YEC, but I did become quite skeptical of evolution. Fast forward two years.

My fiancé was a major in Molecular Biology with a Chemistry emphasis, and the only thing we had an argument about was evolution. Her science didn’t really change my mind, but I could tell that I’d been a little misled. She still couldn’t explain what Genesis meant, couldn’t replace the simplistic power of a context-free reading nor explain Joseph Fielding Smith. (No one seemed to know about President McKay.)

We got married anyway. Happy day.

patheos

As I finished my ancient Near Eastern Studies undergrad, and went on to graduate studies in Semitics, I realized that I had been reading Genesis through modern, western eyes. Misreading, actually. Now, having done more science, lots of modern and ancient Near Eastern history, and reading Genesis in context, I understand why Joseph Fielding Smith interpreted Genesis as he did, why he was wrong, and also why being wrong here doesn’t really undermine his apostolic authority for me.

That’s my story, but it plays out the same way with others. Here are two Evangelicals with advanced degrees who used to be YEC preachers but changed their story.

“At the same time that I was beginning to have scientific questions about the legitimacy of the young earth position, I was also beginning to delve seriously into the language and setting of the Genesis account itself, and that was the most eye-opening of all. I realized that all my life I had been reading Genesis from the perspective of a modern person. I had read it through the lens of a historically sophisticated, scientifically influenced individual. I assumed that Genesis was written to answer the questions of origins that people are asking today.
But I had never asked the most vital question of all: What did Moses mean when he wrote this text? After all, “my Bible” was Moses’ “Bible” first. Was Moses acquainted with Charles Darwin? Or Henry Morris? Or Hugh Ross? Was he writing to discredit any modern theory of evolution? Were his readers troubled by calculations of the speed of light and the distance of the galaxies from earth? Were they puzzling over the significance of DNA? Were they debating a young earth versus an old earth? Would they have had any inkling about a modern scientific worldview? If you agree that the answer to these questions is obviously no, then the logical question is, what was on their minds? How would they have understood Genesis 1? I have read a great deal of literature debating the meaning of Genesis 1, but rarely do the authors even ask, much less start with, the question that is the most important question of all: What did Genesis mean to the original author and original readers?”- Johnny V. Miller and John M. Soden, In the Beginning … We Misunderstood: Interpreting Genesis 1 in Its Original Context, 21. My emphasis.

Science didn’t convince them YEC was wrong; it was having an open mind, asking questions, and especially getting at the ancient Near Eastern setting of Genesis. Heck, they’re still really conservative Evangelicals, believing that Moses wrote Genesis, under the influence of Egyptian cosmology. (I disagree, but still found their book worth reading.)

The point is, a demonstration that the modern YEC interpretation doesn’t make sense of the text and its cosmology nearly as well as an ancient interpretation, which most people don’t even know (see here to learn), has far more convincing power than more scientific explanations. For a similar example in an LDS context, see this post by Julie on the Flood. (My quick take on the flood here.)

Biologos has some great essays, and now they have a book collecting stories of when and how Christians became convinced that scripture wasn’t against evolution. How I Changed my Mind About Evolution: Evangelicals Reflect on Faith and Science includes essays by NT Wright, Francis Collins (MD/PhD, director of the National Institute of Health and head of the Human Genome Project), and others less well-known to LDS. I haven’t read it yet, but I imagine their stories follow the pattern above.

Confronting creationism, then, is not a scientific matter (although it’s important) nor a political one (although education can help), but an interpretive matter. One’s understanding of Scripture in the abstract, and Genesis in particular, is the tail that wags the scientific dog for YECs.

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6 thoughts on “Why Science is (Mostly) Powerless Against Young Earth Creationism: A Personal Narrative

  1. Great post. As a small counterexample, I made the transition from believing in Young Earth Creationism while on my LDS mission to believing in evolution as a result of more and better science. Eventually I just felt the weight of the evidence was so strongly on the side of an old Earth and evolution that I began looking for ways to harmonize that evidence with the gospel. I was relieved to find that the actual position of the Church is agnostic as to evolution (save for the caveat that Adam was the first of all men — which I interpret as meaning the first human being to also be a spiritual child of God.)

    But I do think you are correct that, for most YEC believers, the way to convince them is through the scriptures, not science.

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    1. Yes, I figured there were a few counter-examples out there. The issue with scientific “conversions” (so to speak) is they don’t leave you with a coherent reading of Genesis. You know what it’s not, but not what it is. Most people can live with some tension, or with a simple “oh, it’s metaphorical” but it’s still an interpretive vaccuum that needs to be filled.

      As I’ve written elsewhere, the binary choice of “literal vs. figurative/metaphorical” doesn’t really account well for the complexity of scripture.
      Thanks for the comment.

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  2. Ben in an LDS context, isn’t the real issue not young earth but death before the fall? That is the nature of the fall seems to be what most Mormon opposition to evolution takes as it’s focus.

    Now of course we can and do take the fall as the move from our celestial place to our earthly place. In that sense the temple is explicit that it’s about each of us an not a mere historic event. However simultaneously lots of scriptures suggest there was a real Adam. (Joseph’s Adam-ondi-Ahman more or less requires this) So then the question is what happened to the actual Adam.

    To that question, how people would have read Genesis 1-2 in the original semitic context seems almost beside the point. The question is what happened to the real Adam.

    For the record I think this can be resolved in a way compatible with the abundant scientific evidence for evolution not to mention humans living more than 7000 years ago. I just think though the problems are slightly different than you suggest.

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  3. If by evolution you mean change, I can accept that. If you mean that it is the start of life on this world, then you are dead wrong. Life cannot start by accident, it requires exact invention by some intelligence.

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    1. No life doesn’t need to be invented. If you accept Evolution the basis of change then you still have to accept that humans are not special creations but are the result of said change, have not always existed and only recently came into existence. Somehow I doubt you accept these conclusions.

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  4. Ben, in my seminary days (71-75) we separated out the prehistory of Israel from the story of Abram which starts in Chapter 12. During this pre-history, which shares with many other origins stories from the same region, we understood that 1-11 are NOT historical accounts, but ask questions about “who am I?” why am I here?” “Who made me?” “Why did he make me” One professor summed it up as: Genesis and science asks different questions; and they get different answers. Genesis is dealing with questions of who? and why? Who am I –Who is God? why am I alive? Why did God make me? Science asks how and when. And they therefore get different answers. To ask the wrong questions gets wrong answers.

    What I have discovered in my studies of Genesis is that I believe it is a responsive reading. As the people gather for worship at the new year, they start Genesis 1 again.

    [After the first few verses, which don’t quit fit the structure of the verses which follow…but sets up the following story, with some of the most dramatic words:
    In the beginning of God’s creation….calls to mind (and vice versa) the words of John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. John deliberately invokes the beginning of the Jewish narrative, to announce that Christ, the savior of the world, was from the beginning]

    The Genesis narratives continues in v. 6. (The next time I post this, I’ll work out vv 1-5)

    A: And G-d said ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let iy separate the waters from the waters.

    B: [Narrator] SO G-D MADE THE DOME AND SEPARATED THE WATERS THAT WERE UNDER THE DOME FROM THE WATERS THAT WERE ABOVE THE DOME.

    A: And it was so. G-d called the dome Sky

    B [Narrator] AND THERE WAS EVENING AND THERE WAS MORNING, THE SECOND DAY.

    The format of Genesis 1 is to announce G-d’s intent to create the world, and the narrator’s announcement that what ever G-d specified was brought into being. G-d states that “it is good.” Then the narrator states that the day of creation is complete: “Evening and morning, day (whatever)”

    It is a reminder to Israel that the creation is the good gift of G-d, and that Israel lives as a result of G-d’s grace and bounty. Year after year, Israel begins its year remembering that they are the beneficiaries of the bringing of the world into creation by the G-d of Israel. At the end of each year, they end with the last verses of Deuteronomy, and begin again on Rosh Hashanah: In the beginning…

    Genesis 1 is akin to the psalms, prophets in their poetical sections: Poetry that puts a story into Hebrew poetic structure. But it is NOT history. Nor is it science. The Hebrew author (Moses or whomever, I follow the 4 author hypothesis for the Torah) draws Israel to sing the praises of G-d, and they begin every year calling to mind that they are children of G-d. Up until the present day, Israel has remembered.

    PR Chris

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