The Creationist Debate We Really Need

Finally! I hope Pat Robertson takes him up on it. Far more than the meaningless 2014 debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, a face-to-face discussion between different types of Christian creationists would pack a lot of punch.

Ham v robertsonHere’s what we know: As he has done in the past, aged Christian culture warrior Pat Robertson has publicly mocked young-earth creationism. On his apparently-still-a-thing TV show 700 Club, Robertson offered the following tidbit,

You know, this universe that we live in is about 14 billion years old and there’s no question about it. . . . And we have tremendous geological records and all the rest of it. And that 6,000-year stuff just doesn’t compute. But we, as Christians, we need to know the truth.

Robertson has also put his college where his creationism is. He has added a course in anti-young-earth-creationism for students at his Regent University. Is he still a creationist? Absolutely! Is he still conservative? Definitely! And does he oppose the idea that “real” Christians need to shut themselves off from modern science? Yes he does.

And that’s why Robertson’s version of creationism is such a deadly threat to radical young-earthers like Ken Ham. And Ham knows it.

So this morning Ken Ham challenged Pat Robertson to an intra-creationist debate. To this non-creationist observer, it seems like a much more important kind of debate than the one between Ham and Nye.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH will recall, back in 2014 both Ken Ham and Bill Nye could afford to be affable and courteous. Neither of them had much chance of convincing people on the other side of the issue. That is, Ham’s young-earth creationists weren’t likely to be suddenly converted to a secular scientific mindset. And Nye’s “Science Guy” fans were not about to become radical young-earth creationists.

bill-nye-ken-ham-debate-wide

Snooze-a-riffic.

A Ham/Robertson debate would be much different. As I’m arguing in my new book about creationism (stay tuned for exciting news on that front soon), the real trench lines in America’s long culture war about creationism are not between secular Science Guys and radical young-earth creationists. Rather, the most bitter fights are between different types of Christian creationists, fighting to establish their specific vision of creationism as The Real Christian position.

That’s why Ken Ham is so terrified of Pat Robertson. Any credible conservative evangelical has the chance to steal Ham’s creationist followers. In the past, you may recall, Ham flatly refused to even meet with the conservative evangelical creationists at BioLogos.

Why? Because unlike Bill Nye, competing Christian creationists speak the same language as Ken Ham. They value the same Biblical precepts. They cherish the same theological commitments. If conservative Christians hear from competing creationists, they might realize that the young-earth emperor doesn’t really wear any clothes.

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Creation Cold War

Maybe we’ll get a creationist James Bond out of it. After all, the US/USSR Cold War was horrible in a lot of ways, but it created fertile ground for great spy stories. Now, it seems radical creationists are worried about their own inter-creationism cold war. Beyond Kentucky and Austin, Texas, the spiritual battlefields have spread to Latin America and beyond.

This represents a different sort of global creationism. SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware that creationism has always been a global phenomenon, despite the mistaken proclamations of Bill Nye and others. News from Korea and Turkey, to cite just two examples, is unmistakable on that point.

Today we see evidence that creationism is also globalized in a different kind of way. Like the USA and USSR in the twentieth century, it looks like some creationist ministries are conducting a global cold war for the hearts and minds of evangelical believers.

At leading young-earth ministry Answers In Genesis this morning, Ken Ham celebrates a new Mexican outpost. According to Ham, AIG has been conducting considerable outreach in Latin America already. As he explains, AIG has been

sending speakers to over 30 conferences each year in Central America and South America. We’re also teaching in four seminaries and eight secular universities each year.

I’d love to know more about the teaching in those secular universities! But that is question for a different day. Today, we’re curious about Ham’s cold-war warning. As he writes,

Sadly, two apologetics ministries that teach a compromised view of Genesis chapters 1–11 now have representatives teaching throughout Latin America. They will lead many churches and their leaders astray by encouraging the church to compromise the clear teaching of God’s Word in Genesis.

It certainly seems as if AIG is girding its loins for a proxy fight in Mexico and other Latin-American countries. But who are the other two creationist groups he’s talking about? I looked at a few of the usual suspects and came up with only one likely possibility.

It seems the evolutionary creationists at BioLogos have also been conducting Latin American outreach. Among the different sorts of creationists, none rile up Ken Ham more than BioLogos, so I’m guessing that’s one of Ham’s two creationist competitors.

Who is the second? I looked first at Hugh Ross’s Reasons to Believe. They are usually the second creationist foe of the AIG crowd. I couldn’t find any reference to Latin American outreach by RTB, though. I did find a reference to an RTB “partner,” which may be on Ham’s list. Ravi Zacharias International Ministries claims to preach the conservative-evangelical Word in Latin America. A quick look at their website wasn’t satisfying, though. It was hard to tell the degree to which RZIM focuses on creationism in its outreach. Could RZIM be the second of Ham’s creationist competitors? Or is he worrying about a different group?

Whoever the creationist competition is, if history is any guide, AIG may have spectacular successes in its efforts. Other conservative evangelical outreach programs have made astounding inroads into formerly Catholic-dominated areas. Perhaps AIG will follow that pattern.

Yearnin’ for the Good Ol’ (Earth) Days

How old is the planet? For some creationists, it may seem like an ancient bit of Christian orthodoxy that God created the whole thing less than ten thousand years ago. But we see more proof today that the idea of a young earth is a relatively novel idea among conservative Christians.

Anyone who has done their homework knows the story. As historian Ronald L. Numbers outlined in his definitive book The Creationists, most conservative Christians believed in an ancient earth until the 1960s. Even in the hottest days of anti-evolution controversy in the 1920s, fundamentalist leaders usually felt no need to believe in a young earth.

As 1920s fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley put it in 1927, there was not

an intelligent fundamentalist who claims that the earth was made six thousand years ago; and the Bible never taught any such thing.

As I make my way through Bradley Gundlach’s excellent book Process & Providence, I came across a similar example from the 1800s. Back then, Princeton Seminary was the redoubt of thinking creationists. In 1856, the school’s journal offered a short review of a new book by David N. Lord, Geognosy, or the Facts and Principles of Geology against Theories.

In his long book, Lord argued that mid-nineteenth-century geologists often missed the boat. Such foolish pseudo-scientists, Lord wrote, mistook the boundaries of their own science and slid into both scientific and theological error when they suggested that the earth must have existed for millions of years.

Antique appreciation...

Antique appreciation…

Today’s conservative creationists might think that any self-respecting creationist would applaud Lord’s work. And the guardians of orthodoxy at Princeton did, to an extent. They described Lord’s goal as “elevated and holy.” His conclusions, however, did not sit well with the Old Princetonians.

In a way that might be surprising to today’s young-earth creationist crowd, the theologians at Princeton assailed Lord’s attempt to defend Scripture by attacking emerging geological science. Why? Not because they doubted the inerrant nature of the Bible. No, the Princetonians instead refused to allow their religion to be bound and hampered by any possible scientific discovery.

They “dissent,” the reviewers wrote, from Lord’s

Fundamental position, and deny his right to embark the whole hopes of Christians in one boat, and make the salvation of men through Jesus Christ, depend on the success of his argument against geologists.

Lord had argued that the new geology threatened to disprove Genesis. It was imperative, Lord wrote, for thinking Christians to disprove geology instead. Balderdash, huffed the Princetonians: “There is not a true Christian in the world, who really believes this.”Good old days 2 PRIME

Instead, the old-earth creationists at Princeton insisted that creation was an established fact, whichever way the scientific winds might blow. “If science,” they concluded,

Should succeed in demonstrating that the earth is millions of ages old, then we will with the utmost alacrity believe that the days of the creation were periods of indefinite duration.

Is This the Creationist Conspiracy?

Anti-creationists have warned about it for generations: Creationists are joining forces to sweep away reason and science. A growing conspiracy of dunces threatens to upend centuries of progress. But a recent tiff between leading American creationists demonstrates just how fractured and divided creationists really are.  And it demonstrates the ways hysterical anti-creationism may do more harm than good.

The threats of a creationist conspiracy go back to the roots of America’s evolution/creation culture wars. In his 1927 book, The War on Modern Science, Maynard Shipley warned that the fundamentalist “forces of obscurantism” threatened to overthrow real learning. As Shipley put it,

The armies of ignorance are being organized, literally by the millions, for a combined political assault on modern science.

Ever since, science writers have warned of this impending threat. Isaac Asimov, for instance, warned in 1981 of the “threat of creationism.” Such unified anti-scientists, Asimov believed, had made great strides toward setting up “the full groundwork . . . for legally enforced ignorance and totalitarian thought control.” Like Shipley, Asimov noted that not all religious people are creationists, but also like Shipley, Asimov failed to notice the differences between creationists. The only religious people one could trust, Asimov wrote, were those “who think of the Bible as a source of spiritual truth and accept much of it as symbolically rather than literally true.”

What Asimov missed was the crucial fact that many creationists DO endorse real science; many folks who think of the Bible as more than just symbolic also accept the ideas of an ancient earth and human evolution.

This is more than just a quibble. When leading scientists and science pundits lump together all creationists as “armies of ignorance,” they needlessly abandon and heedlessly insult potential allies in creation/evolution debates. When science writers such as Jerry Coyne attack all religious discussion as “accommodationism,” they unnecessarily alienate creationists who want to teach more and better evolution.

A recent interchange between leading creationists demonstrates the way international creationism really works. Creationism in practice is not a horde of Bible-believing fanatics, relentlessly unified on the age of the earth and the origins of humanity. In practice, rather, creationism is a splintered and fractious impulse, fighting internal foes more viciously than external ones.

The “evolutionary creationist” Deborah Haarsma, leader of BioLogos, recently reached out to young-earth creationist leader Ken Ham of Answers In Genesis. Haarsma was “troubled” by Ham’s angry polemic about a third creationist, Hugh Ross of the old-earth Reasons to Believe.

We all have our differences, Dr. Haarsma said. But why can’t we come together over our shared Biblical faith? About our shared concern that young people are leaving the church? Why can’t we at least sit down together for a cordial dinner and talk over our differences?

Ken Ham publicly rebuffed Haarsma’s efforts. Ham agreed that his animus toward Ross was not at all personal. As Ham explained, “I don’t consider Dr. Ross a personal enemy . . . he is actually a pleasant person.” But Ross was also an “enemy of biblical authority.” And Haarsma was no better. “People like Dr. Haarsma,” Ham wrote,

make it sound like they have such a high view of the Bible, whereas in reality, she has a low view of Scripture and a high view of man’s fallible beliefs about origins!

There will be no dinner. There will be no grand alliance of creationists. Instead, we see the ways some creationists will tend to isolate themselves into smaller and smaller like-minded communities.

This story spreads beyond the borders of the United States. As historian Ronald Numbers described in The Creationists, in the mid-1980s the minister of education in Turkey wrote to the San-Diego based Institute for Creation Research. Turkey’s schools, the minister wrote, needed to “eliminate the secular-based, evolution-only teaching dominant in their schools and replace it with a curriculum teaching the two models, evolution and creation, fairly” (pg. 421). And Islamic creationism, much of it based in Turkey, has thrived. However, Numbers concluded, “the partnership between the equally uncompromising Christian and Muslim fundamentalists remained understandably unstable” (425). Numbers cited the rhetoric of American creationist leader Henry Morris: “Mohammed is dead and Jesus is alive!” As Numbers noted acerbically, such talk was “hardly calculated to win Muslim friends” (425).

There will be predictable tensions between different types of creationists. Though some conservative religious voices will work to spread evolutionary theory among evangelicals, others will focus on what Ken Ham called “rebuilding a wall” (Nehemiah 6:1-3).

Folks like me who want to see more and better evolution education will be wise to reach out to those conservative religious folks who also believe in evolution. Instead of copying the tactics of Ken Ham, as Jerry Coyne is prone to do, science promoters should embrace allies and make friends. Instead of shrieking about the “armies of ignorance,” science promoters will do well to look closer at the creationist population. There are plenty of friends there.

Creation Debate Update: Squeezing Out the Middle

Forget the Super Bowl.  Next Tuesday, February 4th, at 7 PM New York time, we’ll all be watching the debate between young-earth creationist Ken Ham and science popularizer Bill Nye.  It looks as if Nye and Ham agree on their goals: squeezing out the middle.  Both debaters want to draw attention to young-earth creationism, and their agreement threatens to exacerbate the divide between evolution and creationism.

The debate host, Answers In Genesis’ Creation Museum, will be streaming the action live for all of us to see.

Ken Ham has suggested that the debate might be a perfect learning opportunity for teachers and students in public school science classes.  From Ham’s point of view, this debate might be a chance to reach students who might not otherwise be aware that mainstream evolutionary science is full of holes.

Bill Nye, too, has explained his reasons for engaging in this debate.  In these pages and elsewhere, evolution-education mavens have wondered if this debate only legitimizes the dead science of the young-earth creationists.  As “The Science Guy” explained, “I don’t think I’m going to win Mr. Ham over.”

So why debate?  Nye says, “I want to show people that this belief is still among us. . . . It finds its way onto school boards in the United States. . . . I’m not going in as a scientist as such . . . I’m going in as a reasonable man.”

So it seems both debaters have the same goal.  Both men want to make people aware of the claims of young-earth creationism.  From Ham’s perspective, such awareness will help keep smart young Christians from leaving the faith.  From Nye’s point of view, if people know what creationism is, they will help fight against it politically.

With such agreement, it seems likely both debaters might succeed.  This debate might elevate the profile of young-earth creationism.  One casualty, it seems, will be other visions of creationism.  Ken Ham’s brand of young-earth creationism, after all, is only one extreme form.  Many religious people believe that humans and life were created at some point by God.  But they do not believe that they must discard the findings of modern science.  The folks at BioLogos, for example, insist that fervent Biblical Christianity can go hand-in-hand with mainstream evolutionary science.  And “old-earth” creationists such as Hugh Ross agree that God did it all, but they don’t insist that he did it only 6,000 years ago.

If this debate succeeds—at least according to the goals of both Ken Ham and Bill Nye—those “other” creationist belief systems will likely get squeezed even further out of the conversation.  That’s a shame.  Too many observers already equate “creationism” with young-earth creationism.  It may make for more lively debates, but it makes for less productive and civil conversations.

 

Inconsistent Christians Don’t Need a Young Earth

If you don’t really understand it, you can still go to heaven.  But if you are logical, you can’t.

That’s the message about creationism and salvation recently from the young-earth creationist Institute for Creation Research’s Jason Lisle.

Lisle debated “old-earth” creationist Hugh Ross at the National Conference on Christian ApologeticsBoth men spoke with The Christian Post after their debate.

It’s possible to still go to heaven if you don’t embrace a young earth, Lisle said.  But that is only true if you are willing to embrace illogic and ambivalence.  In order for the Bible to make sense, Lisle argued, Christians need to insist on its obvious meaning.

One problem, Lisle noted, was that children tend to reject illogic.  “Some people,” Lisle told the CP,

will say they can live with the inconsistencies. They’ll tell me: ‘Well, it’s just Genesis that I allow the scientists to tell me what it meant.’  But, what we’ve found is that children will see that inconsistency, and they will be more consistent, they will reject all of the Bible. They’ll say, ‘Well, mom and dad don’t really believe in the Bible because they don’t believe in the first few chapters. Why should I believe in the Gospel?’ We’ve seen that happen. The statistics are just alarming. We see the students walking away from church in droves.

Christians CAN be saved if they don’t accept a young earth, Lisle concluded. However, it doesn’t make any logical sense for them to do so.  As he explained,

If you believe in millions of years, if you believe the fossils are millions of years old, you have death before Adam sinned, in which case death cannot be the result of Adam’s sin if it was already there for millions of years. If death is not the penalty for sin then why did Jesus die on the cross?

As astute observers from both sides have noted, this is one idea on which atheists and young-earth creationists agree.  Jason Rosenhouse, for instance, an atheist mathematician and student of American creationism, agrees with young-earth creationists that evolutionary science is a fundamental challenge to traditional Christian faith.

Those who hope to maintain faith—especially a faith built around a belief that the Bible is God’s inerrant Word—while embracing evolutionary science or the idea of a very old universe have a tougher case to make.  As Hugh Ross, the old-earth creationist, explains, “God’s revelations in Scripture and nature do not, will not, and cannot contradict.”

Bridging the worlds of creation and evolution may make intuitive sense to Ross and many more Bible-believing Christians out there.  But the logical case for a rigid choice between either atheism or young-earth creationism remains compelling.  For those who believe in an inerrant Bible, the choice can seem all-or-nothing.

 

Evolution for Christians

How are evangelical Christians supposed to understand evolution?  This morning at BioLogos, evangelical scientist Dennis Venema begins a series that hopes to explain why evolutionary ideas do not conflict with a Bible-based evangelical faith.

One of the trickiest aspects of understanding American creationism is that there are potentially as many “creationisms” as there are creationists.  Many outsiders like me tend to use the term “creationist” as a catch-all term, when in fact the differences among and between types of creationism are perhaps the key to bridging many of our evolution-creation culture-war divides.

Some “creationists,” for instance, embrace the young-earth creationism promulgated by organizations such Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research.

Others might find an old-earth version more compelling, one such as that defended by Hugh Ross and Reasons to Believe.

Yet others might prefer the big-tent creationism of the intelligent-design movement, promoted most assiduously by the Discovery Institute.

Still others might prefer the sort on offer by Dennis Venema in this series.  BioLogos calls its brand of creationism “evolutionary creationism.”  In general, BioLogos’ creationism embraces the tenets of evolutionary science.  Such evolution, many evolutionary creationists insist, is simply God’s method of creation.
I’m looking forward to following Venema’s series.  Venema describes it this way:

“The goal of this course is straightforward: to provide evangelical Christians with a step-by-step introduction to the science of evolutionary biology. This will provide benefits beyond just the joy of learning more about God’s wonderful creation. An understanding of the basic science of evolution is of great benefit for reflecting on its theological implications, since this reflection can then be done from a scientifically-informed perspective. From time to time we might comment briefly on some issues of theological interest (and suggest resources for those looking to explore those issues further), but for the most part, we’re going to focus on the science.”