by Sean Martin
Sean Martin has recently completed a doctoral degree in Theology from the University of Dayton and is currently preparing his dissertation project, Scott Hahn and the Rise of Catholic Fundamentalism, for publication. Along with a doctorate in theology, Sean has an M.A. in theology from the University of Dayton, and an M.A. in philosophy from Georgia State University. He specializes in Christian fundamentalism, Scott Hahn, John Henry Newman, and early modern philosophy. When not editing his book or attempting to survive global pandemics, he and his wife, Beth, are raising their wonderfully precocious daughter, Gwen, and a wildly destructive puppy, Luna, in Cincinnati.
I grew up in the small town of Richmond Hill about 30 miles into the woods outside of Savannah, GA. In many ways, it was a truly magical place to grow up. The neighbors all knew each other and kept tabs on the safety of each other’s kids. My siblings, friends, and I built tree forts, swam in the wide, slow Ogeechee River that wrapped around our little neighborhood, hunted (successfully, and without our parents’ permission) rattlesnakes in an effort to make our own snake skin boots, and always felt safe and loved. Our little town boasted one blinking yellow traffic light, three Baptist Churches, and two Waffle House restaurants, each of which you could see from the doorway of the other. My father attended a weekly men’s breakfast at the small local restaurant in town; the few times I was allowed to go with him, I would watch in amazement as the waitress would walk around the table of sometimes up to twenty men and ask, “The usual?…the usual?…?” She never made a mistake, down to the number of creams and sugars in the coffees.
Such an idyllic place to grow up, however, also came with a cost. My childhood gave me an extremely small view of the world. I had never met a Muslim. I had never seen synagogue. Most everyone in my world looked like me, thought like me, talked like me, and lived like me. I had no idea I was a Republican, only that the Democrats were bad. In school, I learned about the War of Northern Aggression, that the world was created in seven days, and that prayer’s most natural place was in the classroom.
While this worldview was reinforced by many aspects of the small, southern world in which I lived, there is one event that has always stood out in my mind. My father had learned from some friends of a “world-renowned” scientist who was coming to speak at a church just outside of town. This speaker was celebrated for the way in which he effortlessly dismantled the ridiculousness of atheist, evolutionary thought. As I had decided at the tender age of eleven that I wanted to be a pastor, my father signed the two of us up for the five-day event. I still remember driving down Hwy 144 out into the countryside and after passing miles of pine forests we came upon the small white Church that stood alone on the side of the road. Inside was a crowd of perhaps twenty people, filling the small sanctuary, and Dr. Kent Hovind (a.k.a., “Dr. Dino”).
We began that first morning like you might expect. We opened in prayer thanking God for heroes like our speaker and asking for God’s protection around our community from the evil of the world. Dr. Hovind, a tall, pencil-thin man in a light blue suit began to tell us about the dangers of evolution. I’m not sure I had ever heard that word before that day but by the end of the week I felt that I could have written a book about this most immoral and dangerous of theories. Hovind sat on the narrow wooden stage with an overhead projector and screen and demonstrated time and again how evolution and the Big Bang are complete (pardon the pun) nonstarters. I don’t remember everything that was said throughout the week but in the years that followed, I committed several discussions to memory and employed them in my role as middle- and then high-school evangelist.
On that first day of the event, Hovind recounted a conversation that he had with one of his college science professors. This professor had begun a class with an account of the Big Bang and the age of the universe. As Hovind told it, he raised his hand and asked a simple question, which the professor could not answer.
As we waited to hear the question, Hovind placed on the overhead a cartoon of children playing on a merry-go-round. He then told us that, according to these scientists, billions of years ago, all the matter in existence, for reasons we don’t know, began to be drawn together, like water rushing down a bathtub drain, into a tight point, “smaller than a period on a page.” This infinitely dense, spinning point, for reasons we don’t know, then burst out creating the universe.
He then turned to the cartoon of the children at play and asked the audience if, as children, they had ever had the misfortune of playing too wildly on a merry-go-round. Putting up a second cartoon of the children either holding on to the merry-go-round or flying off, he informed us that, interestingly enough, several planets and moons in our galaxy spin in a different direction than the rest. “If children were playing on a merry-go-round that began to spin clockwise at 100 mph,” he jokingly asked with a grin, “how many of the children would fly off spinning counterclockwise?” Obviously, none.
“So why,” he told us he asked the professor, “do several planets and moons in our solar system spin the wrong way?” The professor, of course, had no response. Hovind helped him out. “Here’s what I believe: Six thousand years ago, God created the heavens and the Earth,” a mantra that he would go on to repeat after refuting every claim.
I was transfixed. It was all so easy and straightforward that the only way anyone could not believe was due to willful, sinful ignorance. That week I learned that:
- given the erosion of Niagara Falls, if the earth were millions and millions of years old, Niagara Falls must once have been as far south as Texas.
- reptiles never stop growing and so, if there was once a time on earth when there was no death or disease, these small reptiles we experience today would have been able to grow into the massive dinosaurs of the past.
- alleged alien abductions were actually instances of demonic possession.
- there were layers of bedrock that showed dinosaur footprints right next to human footprints.
- there are plesiosaurs swimming in the deepest reaches of our oceans and Scottish lochs even today.
- the Earth is slowing by a small amount every year, and that, if the Earth was millions and millions of years old, there must have been a time when it was spinning so quickly that everything on the Earth should have been flung away into the depths of space.
- a scientist once carbon dated an apple his coworker had brought from home for a snack and was informed that the apple was hundreds of thousands of years old . . . and that the scientist soon converted to Christianity because of the experience.
- all of the mysteries of existence were fully explained in the simple, perfect Word of God.
At my request, my father purchased from Hovind’s media table a series of perhaps eight VHS tapes of lectures. Over the years that followed, I watched these tapes incessantly and memorized everything I could. I felt so much pride in all that I had learned as well as the praise that I received from the leadership of the church we attended. I felt so much confidence in the knowledge that I would never experience the crisis of faith that so many had after being caught unprepared by the allure of evolution. In the years that followed my introduction to Dr. Hovind, I told hundreds of questioning friends and nonbelieving strangers about the myth of evolution, always echoing my teacher’s mantra, “Here’s what I believe: about six-thousand years ago, God created the heavens and the Earth.”
My crisis of faith came about ten years after my time with Hovind and his overhead projector in that small, white chapel. The small fundamentalist Christian college I attended somehow had a few professors who actually had reasonable rebuttals to my well-rehearsed declarations of the truth of creation. And then in my junior year of college, I lost a good friend to the carelessness of a drunk driver. He was a good man, like a brother to me, and nothing I had learned could keep the careful world I had built in my mind from shattering. In the moment of a short phone call in the middle of the night – “Doug died last night. I have to go” – the last vestiges of the hollow faith and naivete that I had inherited in that backwoods, country church with Dr. Hovind and his cartoon overheads were finally exposed.
In a moment, everything that I had once held dear had been taken from me. But by the grace of God and the kindness of God’s people, I have found a new and stronger faith than the one I lost. The scars of my fundamentalist past still remain, but I in the intervening decades I have found a new faith.
Here’s what I believe: About 2,000 years ago, Christ, for reasons that I will never fully understand, sacrificed himself for a world I will never fully understand, but that, through the work of a lifetime, I can come to love like he did.