I should probably mention why this topic is an important one for me. Young-earth creationism is a particular pet peeve of mine for two main reasons.
The first is that it is not just false, but demonstrably false, and is thus often the place where the collapse begins for soon-to-be-former Christians raised to believe in the fundamentalist house of cards.
This house-of-cards faith is a particularly brittle and fragile belief system that insists, emphatically, that all of it must be true or else none of it is true. Faith is, for these people, a pass-fail course. Get a 100 percent and you pass. Anything less than that, and you fail.
I grew up around some people who believed faith worked like this and yet I still can't figure out the theology behind it. Their soteriology seems to work like "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" — except with no prizes awarded for any but the final question. It's salvation by neither grace nor works, but rather by the knowledge of and mental assent to a very long list of arcane biblical interpretations.
A very, very long list. And that very long chain is only as strong as its weakest link (to mix both my metaphor and my quiz show reference). If every item isn't true — or isn't blindly accepted as true — then they insist that it all must be false. Thus if it is not true that the world was created in six, 24-hour days about 6,800 years ago, then it is not true that Jesus loves you. Or that you should love others as Jesus has loved you. Or that your sins are forgiven. Or that you are anything but alone and godforsaken when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
House-of-cards fundamentalism allows for no distinctions between babies and bathwater, between the central tenets of the faith and the adiaphora and error. So once one part of this belief system begins to collapse — as it inevitably will since young-earth creationism is disprovable — then it all has to go.
As I said, I grew up around kids who were taught this their whole lives. They didn't have a choice about where they were going to college after graduating — it was either Bob Jones University or Bible college. As the rest of us planned to head off to Wheaton or Messiah or Azusa Pacific, those kids' parents would shake their heads sadly and pray for our protection in such worldly Babylons.
But it's really hard, even in the hermetic and hermetically sealed world of BJU, to avoid encountering some incontrovertible piece of evidence that the earth and the universe is far, far older than young-earth creationism allows. When they encounter this evidence, they may be able to cling to some desperate form of last-Thursday-ism (the world is 6,000 years old, but was made to seem older) which may provide them with a temporary patch until they get better at living with very high levels of cognitive dissonance and barely veiled self-deception. But just as often, the whole edifice collapses. Hard. They wind up rejecting everything they ever believed.
Everything, that is, except for that pernicious notion that "all of it must be true or none of it is." These kids shoot way past what their parents feared would happen to the rest of us at Wheaton or wherever (with our dangerous book learnin' and dancing and movie-going and such) and they become the mirror-opposite of their old fundamentalist selves. They become as strident and binary in their unbelief as their failed mentors at Bob Jones were in their belief. Yet even their rebellion tends to remain shaped by that world and its narrowly imagined options.
And that's a tragedy. I think it was Maya Angelou who said there's nothing sadder than a young cynic, because they've gone directly from knowing nothing to believing nothing.
This scenario is not hypothetical and it is not rare. And it's not something I forgive easily. The proponents of young-earth creationism are responsible for this very scene playing out a thousand times over. Jesus spoke to exactly such people. Something about how it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their necks and be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Jesus was fond of hyperbole, but I'm not sure he's using it there.)
That experience was what really drove home for me the way that creationism wasn't just an additional layer of interpretation added to how these folks read their Bibles, but that it had wholly replaced any and every other meaning from the stories or the text. The word "creation" itself has no theological meaning for them beyond "as opposed to evolution." For them, the creation accounts* and the story of Noah in the early chapters of Genesis have nothing to say about the inherent goodness of creation or about the obligation of stewardship. For them these chapters exist solely as some kind of divine amicus brief in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District — as polemic arguments, that is, in a 20th-century American political dispute that has little to do with either science or theology.
I found it almost impossible to communicate with those people. We had a common vocabulary, but the words all seemed to mean different things. The accounts of creation seemed, for them, to have nothing to say about divine intent or divine affection, but only about divine technique. The story of Noah seemed to be nothing more than a complicated word problem involving the measuring of livestock capacity in cubits. The story of Adam giving names to all the animals seemed, to them, to be a reason not to learn about biodiversity. And I probably don't need to tell you how they seemed to regard that bit about the Tree of Knowledge.
"You will know the truth," Jesus said. "And the truth will set you free."
What he didn't mention was that free can be a whole lot more complicated that not-free is, and that it's not always easy to convince people to choose complicated over simple. Not easy, but still worth trying.
I just wish I had a better idea of how to reach them.
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* Plural. Genesis 1 – 2:3 offers the more famous six-day account, while in Genesis 2:4-25 we get the one-day version in a different sequence. There was some good discussion in the previous two comments threads of the differences here and the traditional ways of accounting for this. It's a difficult dilemma for those who insist they read these accounts "literally." They're forced to resort to all sorts of semantic gymnastics to harmonize two different stories that were quite deliberately set down as two different stories. Their dilemma is what leads some to refer to these two different stories as a "contradiction" or a "discrepancy."
For the rest of us, though, that's overblown. It'd be like saying: