Creationism is Bigger Than the Age of the Earth Question

Creationism is Bigger Than the Age of the Earth Question October 26, 2018

ESO/A. Fitzsimmons

It’s not every day that you get to see Ken Ham pick a fight with Matt Walsh, but it happened this week, after the conservative firebrand posted a video explaining why he rejects young Earth creationism. Walsh states emphatically that the evidence has spoken loudly across multiple disciplines, that this is not a hill anybody should be dying on, and that evangelical Christians are damaging the impact of their witness by making it so. This was a follow-up to a tweet thread where he wrote:

“…[S]cience absolutely definitively tells us that the universe was not formed in a 7 day period. No legitimate scientist anywhere will dispute this. So, if you are unnecessarily married to the 7 day creation (which you need not be, theologically)…”

“Then that means you must do two things: 1) Completely reject modern science altogether, which confirms atheist suspicions that we are anti-science fools. 2) Claim that God made the universe to look older so as to deceive us, which makes God a deceiver.”

In reply, Ken Ham writes (emphasis original):

By accepting the dogma of secular science, Walsh completely ignores the context of God’s infallible Word… He is right that the word “day” in the Bible has multiple meanings, but not when it is combined with evening, morning, and a number as it is in Genesis 1. Every single time it is used with those words, it means a literal 24-hour day, something he completely ignores.

It is very ironic that Walsh regularly defends biblical positions such as biblical marriage, human life made in God’s image beginning at fertilization, two created genders and so on, but rejects the foundation for those beliefs. Without appealing to Genesis, there is no foundation for marriage. Abortion becomes perfectly acceptable if we aren’t made in the image of God. Get rid of spare cats or spare kids—what’s the difference? Why should we have two genders if God did not make them male and female in the beginning? Genesis provides the answers to those questions.

Well, that escalated quickly.

Here’s the problem with this topic. It’s the same problem that has been dogging the creationism conversation for decades now: Christians and skeptics alike are unable to unhitch the age of the earth question from creationism writ large.

What do I mean by “creationism writ large?” I mean things like the miraculous origin and detectable design of species, the special creation of man, and the coming of sin and human death into the world through its first parents. I mean things like a divine telos both for the soul and the body, including the male/female binary. In short, I mean many of the same things Ken Ham tells us he cares about. I would like to inform Ken Ham that Matt Walsh and I care about them too. Evidence of Walsh’s stance can be found in old tweets, including one where he tweets that human evolution in particular seems “unworkable” from a Christian standpoint: “I mean, Adam, a human soul, had parents who were soulless primates?” This implies that he would most likely align with old Earth creationists rather than theistic evolutionists.

But there’s a lesson here for Walsh too. In his Vlog, he makes arguments like “Brilliant people such as [insert Einstein or someone here] accept this,” or “Are you seriously going to say that these entire disciplines are just wrong?” or “The consensus is almost unanimous on this.” Here, it could fairly be pointed out by a young Earth creationist that precisely these sorts of lines are used on people who balk at universal common descent, which of course includes human evolution. If Walsh is concerned about reaching the skeptical world, he should understand that merely rejecting a young Earth while still not buying into the entire evolutionary package deal will gain him no extra traction.

Walsh should also understand that consensus in any field is a multivariate phenomenon, and entire disciplines can in theory and practice rest on faulty premises. This applies not only in the realm of science but in humanities fields like biblical criticism. There are always those few precepts that are placed in Thomas Kuhn’s “black box,” never to be questioned, and it sometimes takes the chutzpah of an outsider to break the lock. (This must be constantly borne in mind when one reads technical literature that admits the existence of leaks in the H. M. S. Beagle but still salutes its flag by professional necessity. For example, while scientists like Carl Woese, Didier Raoult, James Staley, and more still admit only a few common ancestors when they argue against a tree rooted in a single common ancestor, this does not stop those of us unhampered by naturalistic presuppositions from using their arguments to give the forest’s lower branches a healthily skeptical shake.)

When making these points, some people have concluded that Walsh was “posturing” in the thread and the video. I would be less harsh. I think Walsh is honestly unaware of how creationism is bound up with the age of the earth in the minds of scientists and laymen alike. His endearingly matter-of-fact tweet about the parents of Adam being soulless primates indicates to me that he doesn’t realize how many Christians in the field would unblinkingly argue exactly that. No doubt he would say “What? But that’s ridiculous!” if someone informed him of this fact. I would agree. I think we could use a bit more common sense and a bit less group-think on these matters. But unfortunately, the socio-cultural situation is what it is, both outside and, increasingly, inside the Church. If we want to talk about Christians “posturing,” I’ve got much better candidates in mind for that descriptor than Matt Walsh.

That said, I agree with Walsh that the age of the Earth should not be made a litmus test of faith on a par with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As a homeschool alumni, I knew of people who did make a young Earth such a litmus test, and it did no favors for their kids’ faith. One alum I knew of went on to leave Christianity altogether, another almost did but thankfully encountered a Christian who offered him a more tough-minded framework. But where Walsh would say we should be concerned with how this will affect our witness to the outside world, I would say our more pressing concern is how it will affect the young people in our own churches. Much more work still lies ahead of Matt Walsh than giving up a young Earth if he’s going to reason a complete outsider into the faith. But he can start teaching his kids about philosophy of science and intelligent design any time.

Contrary to its reputation among scientific elitists as a “science-stopper,” intelligent design is a rich research field, providing many positive indicators of creative intelligence. Embarrassingly, theistic evolutionists prove themselves indistinguishable from Richard Dawkins here, as they keep labeling ID a “God of the gaps” argument, and ID researchers keep having to correct them. (As a side note, perhaps this is cruel, but the idea of “theistic evolution” seems comparable to the idea of civil unions for gays: a thing people thought was culturally hip for all of five minutes.)

Yet even old Earth coupled with a robust affirmation of detectable design will not be enough to satisfy many in the young Earth camp, Ken Ham included. There are two reasons for this: First, they are genuinely persuaded that “mountains of evidence” point to a young Earth. Second, they believe insurmountable theological problems are created by giving up a young Earth.

On the first reason, let it first be said that while I myself am persuaded by the scientific arguments for an old Earth, it is unproductive to imply as Walsh does that the scientists who affirm a young Earth are simply not that bright. Say what you like about guys like Todd Wood, Paul Nelson, et alia, but unintelligent, they are not. They are professionals who do serious work and deserve a voice. That being said, while acknowledging that I have not dived deeply into the literature, it seems from my perspective to require a lot of genuinely clumsy modelling to force the data we have into a young Earth mold. I don’t wish to insult the minds of all the people who have worked on such models, but they are pushing themselves to what appear to be unnecessary limits.

However, this brings us to the second reason, which is that young Earth scientists are driven by what they see as a compelling theological need to find such a fit. Unfortunately, Answers in Genesis literature consistently mixes and matches the problems they feel arise just from old Earth and the problems that legitimately do arise from a general fictionalizing of Genesis 1-2. This does not aid clear conversation.

Nevertheless, old Earth creationists like myself can still sympathize with some of the former, e.g., the conundrum of animal death. It does create a certain amount of cognitive dissonance to imagine billions of years of groaning nature red in tooth and claw before man and his sin have entered the scene. However, it’s a level of dissonance that seems to me and many other thoughtful conservative Christians to be tolerable. (Here I’ll point readers to this article by my good friend soon-to-be Doctor Jonathan McLatchie, who is a genius and a fount of knowledge on all things creation, intelligent design, and biblical scholarship. I recommend browsing through his archives at the Discovery Institute’s blog, Evolution News.)

Despite the fact that I see no pressing philosophical or theological need to overhaul the case for an old Earth, I cannot emphasize this point strongly enough: Science needs the checks and balances of philosophy and theology. Stephen Jay Gould was wrong. The magisteria not only can, but must overlap. This goes both ways, of course, but far more people have forgotten one way than the other.

It is imperative that scholars and laymen alike, Christian or not, cultivate an integrated mind. The idea that you can and should keep your scientific views hermetically sealed off from your philosophical or theological views is a dangerous fiction. More than a little humility is in order when you are dealing in the realm of educated guess rather than empirical certainty, as evolutionary scientists are. The moment you take the next step after raw data collection and begin weighing probabilities and theoretical virtues of your model, you are no longer in the realm of pure science. You have stepped into the realm of philosophy. It thus behooves the scientist to pay attention on his journey in model-building to the signs saying “Warning! Philosophical reductio ahead!”

Christians who have strong independent reason to believe Christianity is true should also be on the look-out for similar signs replacing “philosophical” with “theological.” This should especially apply to models that make a Gnostic hash out of imago Dei and human exceptionalism. The scientist who is a Christian should not simply shrug his shoulders and say “Oh well, I guess we don’t really know what imago Dei means anymore, but onward. The Science has Spoken.” He should recognize that the implications of universal common descent for human origins are antithetical to everything we know of the nature of man, both by the natural light and scriptural revelation. They are, in fact, so bizarrely antithetical that it should require evidence very nearly on the order of being able to point a telescope at the sky and see the planets revolving around the sun to even the balance.

I have yet to find that kind of evidence, though to hear the way some scientists talk, you would think we had it. To give a taste of the scientific counter-arguments that can be mounted against the arguments for common ancestry, I refer my readers to this detailed engagement with the argument for common ancestry of humans and chimps from mice/rat similarities, this technical look at the argument from the vitellogenin pseudogene, and this  response cum lit survey to the argument from shared ERVs.

In conclusion, there is much that young and old Earth creationists can link arms and shake hands on. But the white noise produced on all sides by the single-minded focus on one particular thread of the conversation, the Earth’s age, has made a peace treaty almost impossible to broker. Thus, when someone like Ken Ham sees someone like Matt Walsh holding forth on the age of the Earth, using language that would ring very familiar to anyone who rejects the broader evolutionary narrative, he understandably thinks “Here we go again.” And as mentioned above, he likely would still not be satisfied even upon learning that Walsh still rejects the rest of the evolutionary package deal.

Again, such is the socio-cultural landscape through which thoughtful Christians seeking a reasonable balance between faith and science must thread their way. Still, let us continue to do so, with integrated minds, thick skins, common sense, and a clear understanding of exactly what we are talking about when we talk about creationism.

""The god I believe in is not short on cash, mister!" - Bono"

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