I’m not arguing here that young-earth creationism is heretical. What I’m pointing out here is that it is immoral.
Young-earth creationism is not an exclusively intellectual error. It is not a harmless mistake or an innocent confusion. Young-earth creationism is a sin.
The degree of that sinfulness depends on the extent to which one becomes invested in promoting or defending this untruthful scheme. At one extreme are the hucksters and charlatans — the bunco artists and shameless fraudsters who are transparently lying for money. At the other end of the spectrum are the followers least complicit in this malicious deception. Their complicity and culpability is more interesting.
For the followers, participation in this falsehood tends to be mostly passive and receptive. For many it may be only tangential or in passing — a matter of accepting what one is told or of not making waves. And yet this passive, receptive role still requires them to participate in what is, at it’s core, a malicious slandering of others, a slothful disregard for the truth, and the prideful puffing up of one’s self.
In other words, young-earth creationism is no different than any other form of contemptuous gossip. Some play an active role — inventing the gossip, fabricating false witness against others, propagating those lies and aggressively seeking to deceive. But these active bearers of false witness are powerless without an audience. They cannot commit their sin unless they have the support of others who agree to listen — to accept such gossip without question and without challenge. Without such a receptive audience, malicious gossip cannot function. The passive listeners and followers play the same supportive role that bystanders play in mob violence or in permitting a culture of bigotry.
My focus here, again, is not on the simple factual errors and mistakes that young-earth creationists accept about the natural world. My focus, rather, is on the factual errors and mistakes they accept about other people. Those false assertions are not an innocent matter of getting the science wrong. They involve a willingness and an eagerness to spread malicious assertions about other people, without caring whether or not those assertions can be defended, and while refusing to consider the evidence that shows they cannot be. That’s not simple ignorance, it’s a choice — a choice that requires and reinforces contempt for others, self-absorbed pride and a rejection of the duty to love.
Young-earth creationism requires that choice, and that is why it is a sin. It requires one to make that choice, and to keep making that choice, which is why the more one participates in it, the worse one becomes — the more contemptuous, prideful and cruel.
It is not a sin to believe that the universe is only 6,000 years old. You can believe such a thing earnestly and innocently and that belief is not, in itself, either moral or immoral. It is incorrect, but such an incorrect belief is no more or less morally significant than any of the myriad other beliefs that all of us hold at any given time.
Provided you never learn anything more about the world around you, you can maintain such a belief and maintain your innocence while doing so. The incuriosity this requires is not commendable, but it need not be willfully immoral. (In another context I would argue that such incuriosity about the world is also a kind of moral failing, but that’s a separate discussion for another time.)
But eventually, inevitably, such innocent ignorance will be confronted with counter-evidence contradicting this belief. Responding to such evidence with hostility or disdain may be morally suspect as well, but we’ll give that a pass here because it is the next inevitable step I want to focus on. The next step is the one that introduces an explicit, conscious and deliberate moral choice. That step and that choice cannot be avoided forever, even for the most sheltered fundamentalists doing their best to guard their innocent ignorance in a hermetically sealed subculture.
Up until that step, that choice, you can innocently believe that which is false because you truly do not know any better. But that changes once you encounter others who do know better. That encounter presents you with a moral fork in the road, a clear choice between two divergent paths.
Suddenly you are faced with others who claim to know of things you know nothing about. Can you accept that this might be possible? To reject such a possibility is to make a moral choice.
These others present evidence and claim to be bound by the implications of that evidence. Will you look at it? Or will you refuse to even consider it? This, too, is an inescapably moral choice.
And then comes the largest and most important choice of them all, because this is where the hucksters and the fraudsters re-enter the picture and begin to do their worst. Here they will offer you another choice.
They will tell you that all of these others — these outsiders with their “evidence,” these people who claim to “know” things — are evil liars. They will explain to you that these others are part of a conspiracy. It is a huge, vast, global conspiracy of wicked people that encompasses everyone — everyone except, of course, them. And they will invite you to join them in opposing this conspiracy. They will invite you to join them in believing — without basis or evidence — the very worst things you can imagine about millions of people whom you have never met. They will invite you to join them in celebrating yourselves as uniquely righteous and as better than everyone else — the sole remnant of innocence in an irredeemably wicked world.
They will present you with a choice. It is the same choice that every malicious gossip presents to everyone they suspect will be receptive to their lies. You can choose to accept that invitation or you can choose to reject it. One of those choices is a sin.