Creationism: Snapshot No. 1

Creationism: Snapshot No. 1 July 10, 2005

Mr. Caruthers and Dawn Summers

Mr. Caruthers was the kind of teacher any kid is lucky to have. He barked out his lectures in outline format and woe to those who didn't keep up. He taught fast and you learned fast and there was no time for the usual boredom and the creep of the clock that characterized most of our classes.

You hated him at first. He had this crotchety-old-man shtick, disdainful of and disappointed by young people these days who were too lazy or too stupid to learn. But the shtick was pretty transparent. Even as we fell for it — inevitably, all of us — and worked our tails off to prove him wrong, we came to see it was just a pose, a trick, but an irresistible one. We knew he was actually fond of us, and proud of us, and we felt the same way about him. So we studied, and we learned and we made fun of his awful, thrift-store suits behind his back. And we picked a fight with anybody who picked on his awful suits and seemed like they really meant it, like they didn't realize this this was just our pose, our way of reciprocating the hostile affection Mr. Caruthers had for us.

Mr. C. taught middle-school science and he taught us well, mostly. We had the standardized achievement test scores to prove it.

But this was also Timothy Christian School, a private, fundamentalist Christian school. Hence that "mostly" above. In addition to teaching us about the periodic table of the elements and the solar system and electricity, Mr. Caruthers also taught that the universe was a mere 10,000 years old.

Mr. Caruthers was a "creationist." He believed that God created the heavens and the earth in six 24-hour days as recorded in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. He did not believe, as observation of the physical world would indicate, that the universe had evolved over billions of years. (Nor did he believe that the heavens and the earth were created in a single 24-hour day, as recorded in the second chapter of Genesis.)

It may seem strange that Mr. C. could simultaneously reject the overwhelming evidence of science and still be, as I maintain he was, a good science teacher, but this is nonetheless true. It was possible because of the elegance of his particular brand of young-earth creationism. Mr. C. believed that the universe was only 10,000 or so years old, but that this was not its "apparent age." Adam and Eve, he said, were created as full-grown adults and the entire universe, likewise, was created ex nihilo as a full-grown, ancient-seeming thing.

This perspective has its flaws, not the least of which is what it suggests about the nature of God. But whatever you make of it, it's logic is unassailable. It would be impossible to disprove this claim. Any evidence that the universe is older than creationists like Mr. C. say is simply reinterpreted as part of God's wondrous handiwork in crafting a young universe that appears so fully formed.

If you've ever seen "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," you're familiar with the idea. The show's fifth season introduces Buffy's 14-year-old younger sister, Dawn. Viewers learn, eventually, that Dawn is not really 14 years old, but was created a few short weeks earlier by magical monks. In creating Dawn's human form, the monks also created in her — and in everyone else — the memories of her birth and childhood. Their magic created years of diaries and altered old photographs so that a family of three became a family of four and that everyone in that family believed it had always been so. Apparent-age creationists like Mr. Caruthers think of God as a larger version of those magical monks, and they think of all of us, and indeed of the entire universe, as a magical, old-seeming young thing, like Dawn Summers.

At root, there's a deliriously strange, pot-think aspect to this view. It suggests a radical, unbridgeable, gap between perception and reality. But Mr. C. wasn't worried about such philosophical matters. And so, even as he taught us that the world was not as it appears to be, he also taught us the science of the world we can see. As long as you don't think too hard, apparent-age creationism allows you to pursue legitimate science, to experiment and theorize about the world as it appears to be.

You might be surprised how many legitimate scientists — PhD.s doing legitimate research — subscribe to some version of this apparent-age perspective, simultaneously believing the universe is 15 billion and 10,000 years old while managing, through some nimble compartmental thinking, to perform capable science.

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