When I was 21 years old, someone finally knocked it through my thick head that the earth was old. I was halfway through Geology 100 when, on one otherwise dull afternoon, the professor said something — I don’t even remember what — and a puzzle piece snapped into place. I sat up straight. The earth was old. Not six thousand years old. Billions of years. What did that mean?
… Back at home after my Geology epiphany, I could do nothing but stare blankly out the front door and feel the roll and pitch of the world as it fell from beneath my feet. It seemed, quite literally, as if there were nothing solid under me, only a great vacuum in which to flail. I grabbed the door handle and stood there, dazed, for a long time.
This vertiginous sense of something almost like panic is what everyone should feel the first time they glimpse the staggering reality of deep time. Or the first time they ponder astronomical distance. It’s all so old and so vast, and if that doesn’t make your head spin for a bit then you’re probably not quite getting that. (If someone asks “How far away is Pluto?” the correct answer is 7.5 billion kilometers, but the correct response is “Whoa … phew … give me a second here …”)
But, as Smith says, there was much more to this for her because:
I’d grown up evangelical Christian. We weren’t as conservative as some — and, to the outside eye, we probably looked pretty normal — but like so many others, we were fully immersed in the evangelical worldview. While you wouldn’t find us picketing abortion clinics, all the core ideas were there under the surface: we were Biblical literalists and against same-sex marriage. We believed America was God’s country, voted Republican and pro-life, and expected the rapture at any minute. We were also six-day creationists, with science textbooks that warned us to beware of any statement that contradicted the Bible.
Young-earth creationism is a cruelly efficient machine for manufacturing spiritual crisis. It has created more atheists than all of Richard Dawkins’ books put together. It exchanges the truth of God for a lie — a lie that’s spectacularly indefensible because none of the people caught up in that lie lives on a young Earth. They live, instead, on this one — this ancient Earth that confronts its inhabitants with its vast and incomprehensible oldness at every turn.
The “evangelical worldview” Nelle Smith describes binds that unsustainable lie to everything else that evangelical Christians believe: the existence of a benevolent God, the belief that life has meaning, the love of Christ, the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. All of this is bound together with the lie in a constantly repeated and reinforced if/then construction. If the Earth is older than 10,000 years, then God does not love you. If the Earth is older than 10,000 years, then all meaning is illusion. If the Earth is older than 10,000 years, then Christ is not risen and your faith is also vain and you are of all people most to be pitied.
This if/then construct is cruel to those indoctrinated into it and slanderous to everyone else. It presents a false binary between young-Earth creationism and nihilism. That supposed binary shouldn’t withstand contact with the wider world. Most people, after all, are neither young-Earth creationists nor nihilists, so it ought to seem patently obvious that other possibilities exist. But because accepting those other possibilities threatens the “evangelical worldview” just as much as trilobites and the light from distant stars, the reality of all those other people — those billions who are neither nihilists nor creationists — has to be denied.
And thus young-Earth creationism also teaches its adherents that their neighbors — all of them — are dishonest, two-faced, secret nihilists who cannot be trusted. They may claim to be humanists or Quakers or Anglicans or Buddhists or nones, but whatever they say doesn’t matter. If they are not young-Earth creationists, then they must be nihilists. Because if you cease to be a young-Earth creationist, you must become a nihilist. These are the only possibilities you are permitted to imagine.
This was part of what forced Nelle Smith to stand there, white-knuckled, as her foundation cracked and the Earth opened up to its very depths. The “worldview” she’d been living in was a house built on sand.
Nelle Smith’s personal testimony is not unusual. It’s what happens to everyone who tries to live in a house built on sand. Everyone attempting to cling to the if/then package-deal “worldview” of young-Earth creationism will eventually encounter some equivalent to her Geology epiphany. The rain will fall and the wind will beat against the house and great will be its fall.