Pat Robertson and an Ancient Earth

On a recent episode of the 700 Club, [to see the specific section, fast-forward to 56:43] host Pat Robertson warned a viewer that “If you fight science, you are going to lose your children, and I believe in telling them the way it was.”

Pat Robertson on The 700 Club

Pat Robertson on The 700 Club

This extraordinary statement from one of the America’s leading televangelists can teach us a lot about the nature of religious conservatism and education.

A viewer had asked what to do about her children who came to doubt the Bible due to scientific evidence.  Robertson told her that a young earth was not part of the Bible.  Children, he argued, should be taught the truth about the age of the earth.  Robertson prefaced his remarks about the age of the earth by noting that people would try to “lynch” him for saying it.

The truth, Robertson insisted, was as follows:

“You go back in time, you’ve got radiocarbon dating. You got all these things, and you’ve got the carcasses of dinosaurs frozen in time out in the Dakotas. . . .  They’re out there. So, there was a time when these giant reptiles were on the Earth, and it was before the time of the Bible. So, don’t try and cover it up and make like everything was 6,000 years. That’s not the Bible.” 

To be clear, Robertson said nothing about evolution, human or otherwise.  What he did endorse was the mainstream scientific understanding that the earth has been around for far longer than 6000 years.

What does this matter for those of us outsiders trying to understand “fundamentalism” in American education?

First, it demonstrates the complexity of religious conservatism.  Those progressives who insist on a unified, monolithic, even conspiratorial “Religious Right” in education misunderstand the profoundly fractious nature of conservative religion in America.

Robertson understands it.  As he noted, some folks will likely want to “lynch” him for acknowledging the validity of the scientific evidence for an ancient earth.  One response from the leading young-earth group Answers In Genesis ferociously condemned Robertson’s “compromise.”  First, AiG writer Tommy Mitchell argued, the evidence for a young earth does not come only from one theologian, as Robertson implied.  The Bible itself, Mitchell insisted, must be read as advocating a literal young earth.  The scientific mainstream is simply misleading, and when religious leaders endorse mainstream mistakes, it only leads more young people away from true religion.

Second, for those evolution educators who hope to improve science education, Robertson’s statement demonstrates that many devout Bible Christians are open to the central idea of an ancient earth.  Most mainstream scientists and science educators will agree that we do not know the real origin of life.  But we do know that the earth is more than 6000 years old.  Perhaps Robertson’s statement will allow science educators to think more strategically.  Instead of calling creationists ignoramuses and child abusers, those who hope to improve science education can refer creationists to devout Christians like Robertson who agree on the facts of an ancient earth.

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