Home/Rod Dreher/The 7,000 Year Old World

The 7,000 Year Old World

Did you say you wanted another mega-post on the Marco Rubio/Young Earth Creationism/Republicans point? Well, sorry, that’s what you’re going to get. I have views on the topic that will irritate just about everybody.

1. People who use this flap to say that people should not bring religion into politics don’t really mean what they say, or at least they don’t know what they’re talking about. As Alan Jacobs pointed out succinctly, what they really mean is they don’t want conservative religion in politics. There is no way to denounce religion in politics without excluding Martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights movement — and, before them, the abolitionists. There’s no way to denounce religion in politics without also denouncing the segregation-era Roman Catholic archbishop of New Orleans who excommunicated several Catholic Louisiana politicians because they tried to pass a law forbidding the integration of Catholic schools. I’m old enough to remember hearing older white Southerners complain bitterly about how the Northern churches overstepped their bounds with the Civil Rights movement, and didn’t realize that religion ought not to get involved in politics.

2. The media love to believe this kind of thing is an exclusively Republican problem, but Daniel Engber at Slate observes that squishiness on the creationism issue is a bipartisan phenomenon. He recalls a 2008 moment when then-Sen. Obama gave more or less the same answer as Sen. Marco Rubio when a similar question was presented to him. Here is a lengthy excerpt from Engber’s analysis that you need to see:

How do these quotes stack up? It seems to me that they’re exactly in agreement on four crucial and dismaying points:

1) Both senators refuse to give an honest answer to the question. Neither deigns to mention that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old.

2) They both go so far as to disqualify themselves from even pronouncing an opinion.I’m not a scientist, says Rubio. I don’t presume to know, says Obama.

3) That’s because they both agree that the question is a tough one, and subject to vigorous debate. I think there are multiple theories out there on how this universe was created, says Rubio. I think it’s a legitimate debate within the Christian community of which I’m a part, says Obama.

4) Finally they both profess confusion over whether the Bible should be taken literally. Maybe the “days” in Genesis were actual eras, says Rubio. They might not have been standard 24-hour days, says Obama.

In light of these concordances, to call Rubio a liar or a fool would be to call our nation’s president the same, along with every other politician who might like to occupy the Oval Office. If a reporter asks a candidate to name the age of Earth, there’s only one acceptable response:Well, you know, that’s a complicated issue … and who am I to say?

That’s not to argue that Obama and Rubio are identical in mind-set (although it’s hard to tell what either thinks on the basis of his cagey public statements). It’s clear enough they differ on some scientific policies. At the same 2008 event in Pennsylvania, Obama went on to give this caveat:

Let me just make one last point on this. I do believe in evolution. I don’t think that is incompatible with Christian faith, just as I don’t think science generally is incompatible with Christian faith. I think that this is something that we get bogged down in. There are those who suggest that if you have a scientific bent of mind then somehow you should reject religion, and I fundamentally disagree with that. In fact, the more I learn about the world, the more I know about science, the more I am amazed about the mystery of this planet and this universe—and it strengthens my faith as opposed to weakens it. [APPLAUSE]

So Obama believes in evolution, and presumably he’d like to teach it in the nation’s public schools, while Rubio suggests that “multiple theories” should be given equal time. But even so, both men present the science as a matter of personal opinion. Obama doesn’t say, Evolution is a fact; he says, I believe in it.

3. Ross Douthat is right:

The fact that the “conservatives vs. science” framework is frequently unfair doesn’t mean that the problem doesn’t exist, or that Republican politicians should just get a free pass for tiptoeing around it. No matter how you spin it, Rubio’s bets-hedging non-answer isn’t exactly a great indicator about the state of the party he might aspire to lead. Instead, he’s contributing to the problem that the wise Jim Manzi has described as follows:

The debate about evolution is a great example of the kind of sucker play that often ensnares conservatives.  Frequently, conservatives are confronted with the assertion that scientific finding X implies political or moral conclusion Y with which they vehemently disagree. Obvious examples include (X = the Modern Synthesis of Evolutionary biology, Y = atheism) and (X = increasing concentrations of atmospheric CO2 will lead to some increase in global temperatures, Y = we must implement a global regulatory and tax system to radically reduce carbon emissions). Those conservatives with access to the biggest megaphones have recently developed the habit of responding to this by challenging the scientific finding X. The same sorry spectacle of cranks, gibberish and the resulting alienation of scientists and those who respect the practical benefits of science (i.e., pretty much the whole population of the modern world) then ensues.

In general, it would be far wiser to challenge the assertion that X implies Y. Scientific findings almost never entail specific moral or political conclusions because the scope of application of science is rarely sufficient.

4. I was discussing this issue yesterday with a friend on the left, who challenged my claim that it’s possible for someone to be well-educated and to believe in Young Earth Creationism. I told him that I have known, and do know, a number of people who are well-educated and who nevertheless affirm this. It’s mostly a matter of cognitive dissonance, I believe. But it’s also a matter of people living in bubbles.

Here’s what I mean: I don’t know a soul — aside from scientists, science educators, theologians who work in this area, or former colleagues at the Templeton Foundation — who ever talks about the age of the earth, God, and evolution. I care about this stuff more than most people I know, but until I went to work for Templeton, I rarely gave the topic much sustained thought, except episodically, e.g., when reading newspaper stories about the controversy in this or that school system. It’s just not the sort of thing that comes up, and when it does (or when it did with me), I would tend not to engage, because the last thing I wanted to do was argue in a social situation about religion, unless I had to. Granted, for some churches, this is a very big deal, but they only really talk about it with people who already agree with them. Again, I’m speaking from anecdotal experience, but in Southern culture, a well brought up person will avoid talking about controversial issues in social situations. It is easy for me to imagine that a well-educated person who attends a church that preaches some form of creationism might never encounter someone who plausibly challenges that belief, and might never, in his reading, come across books or essays that do.

Forget science and evolution for a second. Alan Jacobs (him again!) cites a whopping example of cultural ignorance: a literary scholar’s op-ed piece in The New York Times completely misunderstanding the meaning of the phrase “the Word made flesh” with reference to Jesus Christ. Nobody on The New York Times staff caught her egregious mistake before it went into print. Jacobs, who teaches literature, writes:

There are few pages of Scripture more famous and influential than that first chapter of John. A scholar of pre-twentieth-century literature, American or European, who is unfamiliar with it is operating at a severe disadvantage. If we want to understand — truly to understand — writers and thinkers from the past, we’re going to have to go to some considerable trouble to know as much as possible of what they knew, even if it’s boring or unpalatable to us. That goes for historians and literary critics alike.

Now, I would wager that many Christians with nothing more than a high school education can tell you what that phrase means. It is hard for me to understand how anyone in American culture — Christian or non-Christian — can be well-educated without awareness of that phrase’s meaning. Yet a professor who teaches 19th century literature is not only ignorant of the metaphysical basis of the worldview that produced much of what she teaches, but moves within a cultural milieu in which nobody grasped how wrong she was, or challenged her.

Was this professor not well-educated? Are editors at The New York Times not well-educated? Of course they’re well-educated, but they are still ignorant of something very basic in this culture. I only bring this up as an illustration of how cultural context determines what a person knows, and, more crucially to the point I want to make here, it determines what a person knows he doesn’t know. This professor, and the Times editorial staff, did not think her wildly inaccurate interpretation of “the Word made flesh” might be wrong. A minute’s googling would have shown them otherwise, but they didn’t know what they didn’t know, because (presumably) nobody in their intellectual and social circles ever talks about such a thing, or challenges what they think they know about religion.

This is what I mean by many educated people not knowing enough about science (geology, biology, etc.) to know what they don’t know. It’s not because they are poorly educated. It’s because for whatever reason or reasons, they’re ignorant. The more interesting question raised by this Rubio thing is why so many Americans are so uninformed about basic science. A second and parallel question is why so many elites are so uninformed about basic Christianity, and how it informs the content of the culture in which they live (beyond their immediate circles, I mean).

5. For all that, Ross is right about the need for the Republican Party to get over its weakness on this issue. Fundamentalist doctrine on the matter is not the same thing as Christian doctrine. Well-known Christians who did not believe in a literal reading of Genesis’s creation account include St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and John Wesley.  [UPDATE: Not Calvin, as I previously claimed, depending on the BioLogos claim; I thank the reader in the comments section who pointed out this error — RD]. It is a myth that all Christians believed that Genesis was a science textbook until Charles Darwin called that into question. The excellent website BioLogos is staffed by Christians who write about how the Christian faith and biological science can be reconciled. And, for the record, the Discovery Institute’s advocacy of Intelligent Design is intellectually provocative; whether or not you agree with ID — and BioLogos does not support ID — it is a far more scientific approach to the question of human origins than Creationism.

The political point here is simply that there is no good reason for a politician of Christian conviction to hedge on this issue as a matter of faith. Yes, to reject Creationism will tick off some of the GOP base, but this is just going to have to be done. Why? Because fair or not, this issue is becoming more relevant as the population becomes more secular. As a friend wrote to me about it this morning:

[Rubio’s] remarks are disqualifying to me for the presidency for the following reason: either he really is as dense as he sounded in that statement, which is a bad sign about his intellect more generally, or he’s just saying it to placate the folks I described above, which might be worse. We had 8 years of that garbage under W. That’s why I’m now a functional Democrat — meaning: I vote Democratic for almost entirely negative reasons, because I hate what the Republican Party has become.

Democrats do this too, of course (see Daniel Engber’s column above), but the media narrative is that it is an exclusively Republican thing. This is a problem for the party, and complaining about the selective outrage of the media over it is not going to help.

6. My friend Joe Carter asks of me, Ross, Pete Wehner and others who have criticized Rubio:

Douthat is Catholic, Dreher is Eastern Orthodox, and Wehner is Evangelical. Yet all three Christians think that Rubio’s mild support for Young-Earth Creationism is somewhat embarrassing.

Even though I myself believe that that the Earth is about 4 billion years old (give or take a decade), I wish these gentlemen—and others who are criticizing Rubio—would explain why their—or, I should say, our—beliefs are preferable to our fellow Christians who believe the Earth is 10,000 years old

If you pressed us to give an explanation for our explanation (without the aid of Wikipedia) we could probably say that it has something to do with radiometric dating. But even though each of these men are highly educated, I doubt they could give a sufficient explanation for how the process works, much less how it can be reliable enough to make a measurement of billions of years (I certainly could not).

In fact, I suspect that if you ask most scientists, they would be similarly stymied. Their answers—like the ones Douthat, Dreher, Wehner, and I would give—is that we have faith that the people who understand that sort of thing and have taken the measurements know what they are talking about. We may not know these people personally or even know people who know them. But we have great faith in the presumed knowledge of these people we don’t know because other people also have faith in them. Our epistemic warrant—our justification for reasonably holding such a belief—is based on our faith in what other people know.

There is nothing wrong with this type of faith-based belief. But why do we assume it is inherently superior to other types of faith-based beliefs?

Joe’s point is an interesting one, and one I endorse to a strictly limited degree. He’s completely right that I, a non-scientist whose technical knowledge of science is scanty at best, accepts the standard scientific account of the origin of life based on the authority of scientists. I also accept certain theological doctrines and reject others, even though I could not give a strong and detailed account of why, based on authority. I would point out that I often write on this blog critically of the tendency in our culture to grant science more authority than it deserves; this is called scientism.

Even so, to answer Joe’s question, I accept the verdict of science on the age of the earth because science is a mode of inquiry best suited to investigating these kinds of questions, and delivering accurate judgments. That is not to say science provides definitive, unchanging judgments: in fact, the scientific method presupposes that every scientific claim can in theory be falsified (that is, proved wrong). Scientists test and retest theories, and adjust them in light of new knowledge. Scientists may find out in the future that the scientific consensus on the biological origins of humankind are wrong (see Alvin Plantinga’s review in The New Republic of Thomas Nagel’s new book on the topic). But I trust science to give us the most accurate — if incomplete! — explanation of the origins of humankind that is available to us in the present moment. It is highly improbable that the Young Earth Creationist’s account of the origins of the earth and humankind are true, with respect to the evidence, and vastly more probable that the scientific consensus on this question is true, or far more true.

Would Joe privilege a reputable Bible scholar’s explanation of atonement over a geologist’s? I bet he would. That’s why I privilege a geologist’s account of the age of the earth over a reputable Bible scholar’s.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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