But What Does Jesus Think about a Young Earth?

It has been illuminating to read the comments on my recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Some of them have been simply mean-spirited or crank-ish.  I’ve been called an idiot.  I’ve even been told how I can work at home and make $45 to $85 per hour.  Not bad!

But many commenters raised a much more profound question.  In my article, I argued that calling people ignorant simply because they believe in a young earth is incorrect, both factually and strategically.  Those who want to promote better evolution education, I believe, must start by understanding the worldview of creationists with deep sympathy and even appreciation.  That, IMHO, is just good teaching, for any subject.

Many commenters asked the obvious next question: If this strategy is wrong, what strategy is right?  Fair enough.  If calling someone stupid, ignorant, or other names is not likely to convince them about the truth of evolutionary theory, what might?

Luckily, one of the anonymous commenters posted a link to a terrific article, Joshua Rosenau’s Science Denial: A Guide for Scientists” from a recent issue of Trends in Microbiology.  Rosenau, Programs and Policy Director for the National Center for Science Education, makes a couple of solid points in this direction.

First, Rosenau suggests, evolution educators should remember that creationists will not likely be won over by specific scientific arguments. He cites the work of anthropologist Chris Toumey. Though Rosenau does not quote this part of Toumey’s book, Toumey had argued in the mid-1990s that one of the defining elements of young-earth creationism is a “quasi-religious awe of science” (p. 257).

This deep love of science means that creationists have a scientific response for every mainstream/evolutionary scientific argument out there. Of course, mainstream scientists deny the validity of these counterarguments.  Each side has a prepared response to each scientific argument of the other.  Each side denies the scientific pretensions of the other.  Reciting canned arguments back and forth will not do much to bridge the seemingly intractable cultural divide in creation/evolution debates.

Most helpfully, Rosenau argues that the most effective evolution educators will not be the angry atheists out there.  Rather, as Rosenau puts it, “The messengers most likely to break through will be those who share a social identity with the science-denying audience.”  For example, Francis Collins–eminent mainstream scientist and devout evangelical Protestant–may do more to convince creationists that their religion need not deny the evidence for evolution.

Rosenau’s argument fits the evidence out there.  Even just dipping into the anecdote pool, we hear repeated stories like that of homeschool curriculum writer Abigal McFarthing.  McFarthing tells of her religious upbringing and her hostility to all evolution education.  It was only when she got to (Christian) college, and her instructor told her,

Jesus is not going to be standing at the gateway of heaven holding a clipboard in his hand and asking, ‘Did you believe in six-day creation? Did you believe in evolution?’ He’s going to be asking the one question that matters: ‘Did you believe in ME?’”

As Rosenau points out, the message that Christianity and evolution are compatible will likely be the most effective way to increase the amount of evolution belief in the United States.  This is not a message that many mainstream scientists care about.  To some, it seems like a sell-out to the entrenched prejudices of one specific belief system.

Yet I agree heartily with Rosenau that the way to improve evolution education is not simply to insult and attack young-earth creationists.  Rather, by framing a message in a way that understands, acknowledges, and respects creationists’ beliefs, we might at least be able to have a productive cultural conversation.  We will not be stuck simply calling one another idiots, or telling one another how to work from home and earn between $45 and $85 per hour.

Leave a comment


  1. Another Christian argument: the scientific method is based on seeking truth, correctly recording observations, using them to make predictions, testing the predictions. All Truth. There is a worldwide system of universities, filled with academics practising this, and the search for truth is a Godly thing. If all these people are deluded by the devil into false belief in an old Earth, or evolution, this gives the devil far too much power. God does not allow the devil to use a good impulse, the search for truth, to drag people to Hell.

  2. There seems to be an interesting quandary in this approach, though. Namely, a public school teacher making the same argument that McFarthing’s instructor did could easily be accused of preaching in the classroom, something that would likely rankle both fundamentalist and atheist parents alike. I fully support the sentiment and I, too, believe this sort of approach would be far more productive. Nevertheless, it’s an approach that seems only practical in the public debate outside the public classroom, an important component no doubt, but one that leaves me wondering about what strategies school teachers might use to overcome their students’ objections.

    One approach that Rick Kauffman used when he was teaching science in rural schools was to teach the mechanisms of evolution for months without ever mentioning “evolution” or “Darwin.” He found that students readily accepted the notions of variation, selection and heritability and that once they had these concepts in their intellectual toolboxes they were far less likely to reject the “e” word when he made those connections explicit.

  3. Moonbeam Rogers

     /  May 2, 2019

    The problem I’ve encountered is that science about the past changes so much. When I was younger, it was absolute “fact” that mammals did not live with dinosaurs. Evolutionary science demanded that mammals evolved later. If you thought otherwise (as many Creationists did), you were called an ignoramus. Now, we have proof that mammals most certainly DID live with dinosaurs. We now have to admit that our evolutionary “facts” were wrong. That sort of thing keeps happening. It’s kind of hard to convince someone that THIS time, we know what we’re talking about.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s