Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
The Conundrum of Smart Creationists | Righting America

by Susan and William Trollinger

Last Sunday, Bill taught the first of four classes that we are offering on Creationism and Science at Westminster Presbyterian Church here in downtown Dayton. (The next three classes will be February 03, 10, and 17, 11.20 AM-12.15 PM). While there did not seem to be anyone in attendance who believes that the universe was created in six twenty-four-hour days less than 10,000 years ago, a number of people volunteered that they have friends and family members who are young Earth creationists. One participant nicely captured the attendees’ sentiments:

I have a smart, well-educated friend who is informed on all sorts of matters. But he is also a creationist, which makes no sense whatsoever. How can he accept these ideas?

It is a great question. And it is not easy to explain why intelligent folks believe that light years refer to distance but not time, that dinosaurs walked the Earth with humans, and that a global Flood created the Grand Canyon and all other geological formations that give the Earth the “appearance” of being old.

But there are at least two factors that are in play. The first is that in the past 150 years science has

become a discourse most people could not understand. Its focus [is] too specialized, its vocabulary too esoteric, its objects of study either too big or too small to comprehend (Righting America 25-26).

That is to say, scientific knowledge has become the realm of highly-trained “experts,” many of whom are not terribly willing and/or able to find ways to communicate their findings in ways that the general public can understand. This has dire consequences, as we see in the contemporary “controversy” over the reality, causes, and consequences of climate change. Of course, the failure to grasp climate science is not simply the responsibility of scientists – the well-funded disinformation campaign on the part of the fossil fuel industry is another factor – but there is no question that we would benefit greatly if more scientists from an array of disciplines would make it their business to educate the public.  

We should note that it is not only academics in the natural sciences who are not adequately meeting their public responsibilities. For example, it also applies to historians, who need to take a little time from the writing of specialized scholarly monographs to address the fact that only 8% of America’s high school seniors believe that slavery was a central cause of the Civil War, or that 31% of all Americans (including 44% of millennials) “do not believe that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust and think the real death toll is at least 2 million lower.”

A second factor in explaining why so many people hold to young Earth creationism is that for the past half century leaders within the evangelical and fundamentalist movements have been largely successful in making the case that the only truly faithful reading of the Bible is a literal one of a particular sort (as opposed to other literal readings). According to this particular literal reading, “day” in Genesis 1:1-2:3 has to mean a 24-hour day. To say anything else is, according to their argument, to fail to take the Bible seriously as the chief authority in one’s life. Thus, the 24-hour creation day (and a young Earth and all the rest that goes along with that) has become a crucial measure for many of these Christians of the integrity of their own faith.

When you put that conviction about the measure of one’s faith together with the difficulty many people have in understanding scientific discourse, it is perhaps not all that surprising that folks who really want to be good Christians choose the measure of their faith over science.

That said, so-called literal readings of the Bible change over time. Just as people have been talked into the idea that the only truly faithful way to be a Christian is to read the Bible in a young Earth creationist fashion, so they can be talked out of this. But this too will take work, and biblical scholars – particularly biblical scholars from evangelical institutions — will have to speak directly to this public.