Heard a cool story on the radio last week — cool because it’s about dinosaurs, and dinosaurs are always cool. “New study shakes up the dinosaur family tree” is the headline in the USA Today write-up, while Scientific American goes with “Dinosaur Family Tree Poised for Colossal Shake-Up.” The BBC did a good job of elevating the local angle: “Major shake-up suggests dinosaurs may have ‘UK origin.'”
This is the kind of story that comes out every week based on the latest studies published in the new edition of the journal Nature, which is very good at disseminating the latest research (and publicizing themselves) this way. Their science turns into wire stories, which get reprinted and reported all over the world.
I first heard this story on KYW, the AM newsradio station that owns a button on everybody’s car radio in Philadelphia as our go-to source for quick news about the weather and traffic. They follow the “give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world” model, meaning their stories are rat-a-tat-tat, quick and short. That’s not an ideal format for reporting science news, but some copywriter there did a great job paring this complicated story down to a clear and accessible 45 seconds. Well done.
That KYW story, like every report on this research, included the word “evolution” a lot. That’s appropriate and accurate, because that’s what this story is about: how dinosaurs evolved. But that had me remembering my childhood, growing up attending fundamentalist church, youth group, and Christian school. We were young-Earth creationists, and in our world “evolution” was a dirty word.
Young-Earth creationists have evolved a defense mechanism for stories like this one. They’ve taught themselves to celebrate such stories as a re-affirmation of their beliefs. It doesn’t matter that all these scientists are talking about stuff that happened hundred of millions years ago, and that creationists want to believe the universe is only 6,000-10,000 years old. What matters, instead, is that word “shake-up.”
You see, those silly godless scientists used to be so arrogantly sure that dinosaurs “evolved” 230 million years ago, but now they’ve been proven wrong. Godless science will always ultimately be proven wrong, so someday these same scientists will also be forced to admit that they’re wrong about this new theory that dinosaurs “evolved” 245 million years ago. Eventually they’ll be forced to admit what “the Bible says” — that dinosaurs were created by God a few thousand years ago and they lived with humans and died in Noah’s flood and Paluxy River Piltdown Man missing link Darwin deathbed Loch Ness coelacanth sis-boom-bah.
That’s how this story registered for the thousands of young-Earth creationists who heard it repeated every half-hour on KYW, or who ran across it in the newspaper, or their Facebook feed, or in that brief science segment at the tail-end of the local TV news. Creationists will defend themselves and comfort themselves by nearly convincing themselves that this is just further proof that those prideful scientists will always be proven wrong — the Lord has humbled the mighty, the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight, etc. etc.
This is the position they have staked out for themselves — voluntarily and deliberately — but let’s appreciate that it’s an uncomfortable position. Dinosaurs are cool, but these poor folks aren’t able to fully enjoy the latest cool news about cool dinosaurs because they’ve convinced themselves that they’re obliged to hear every such bit of news as a kind of attack on their faith.
And dinosaurs aren’t the only cool thing they can’t enjoy. Astronomy is also amazingly cool. It’s another frequent subject addressed in these weekly spasms of science reporting — the latest findings about exo-planets, or Pluto, or some inexplicably strange observation involving distant galaxies. Such reports are, in the most literal sense, awe-some. But they’re also anathema for young-Earth creationists because space is unfathomably vast and old. It’s so big and so old that astronomers are forced to measure distance in light years — units that serve as a constant reminder of the undeniable reality of deep time.
For people who have been convinced* to believe that their faith and the core of their identity depends on denying that reality, every mention of “light years” will be perceived as a kind of attack. Just as every mention of the word “evolution” is, or of “dinosaurs,” or of “sedimentary rock,” or of anything else that carries with it a reminder of the undeniable reality of deep time.
This is not the only source of the manufactured pretense driving the persecution complex of white evangelical Christians in America. And I don’t think it’s the main factor involved in that. But it is a constant, relentlessly contributing factor. The ideology of young-Earth creationism reinforces the sense for these Christians that they are besieged by “the world” — by “elites” and “intellectuals” and “liberals” and nebulous godless forces nefariously conspiring against them.
And I suspect that’s partly by design — that it is a feature, not a bug, for many of the most vocal proponents mandating and policing belief in young-Earth creationism among white evangelicals. It’s a valuable tool for keeping one’s followers feeling beleaguered, and therefore a valuable tool for keeping them under control — for ensuring that they keep the votes and donations flowing in the desired direction.
That’s not the biggest reason to oppose this young-Earth creationist ideology. The main reason to do that is because it’s not true. It’s demonstrably false — disproved by both science and by a literate understanding of the Bible. It is an unreality that can never seem wholly sustainable in the real world. The effort to sustain such an unreality is exhausting and immiserating for those convinced that they’re compelled to attempt it.
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* Or commanded to believe. Or who have been tricked into or seduced into or pummeled into believing this. Or some combination of all of the above.