God help me, I was a young-earth creationist
I will never feel as smart or as certain of myself as I did at age 16 when I challenged my biology teacher to debate the merits of evolutionary theory and the Big Bang.
I knew the day of battle was coming because I was a good student who always did the reading. I had prayed that morning to be clad in the “full armor of God,” believing that the Bible and specifically the book of Genesis could be wielded like a sword in holy rhetorical combat. I believed in a god who needed defending.
In those days I was a lot of things: a student newspaper rabble-rouser, a budding screamo enthusiast in tight pants, an occasional poet who self-published on Myspace. I was also a creationist, meaning I believed that the universe and all living things in it had been created in six literal days as recorded in the first chapter of Genesis.
Specifically I was a young-earth creationist, meaning that I believed our planet had come into being less than 10,000 years ago, based on some fuzzy math and Old Testament genealogy.
My teacher, Ms. Jackson, surely knew there was a possibility of a showdown in her classroom that day in a suburban public school district in the swampy backside of the Bible Belt. Looking back, I am sure I was one of a long series of self-assured young men who passed through her classroom thinking they knew better than their college-educated teachers and the global scientific community.
I raised my hand at the end of the lecture and fired off a fusillade of questions about the accuracy of carbon dating, inconsistencies in the geologic record, and the supposed lack of “transitional” fossils linking commonly recognized species. I don’t remember the exact bullet points, but my closing statement was that macroevolution was only a theory and shouldn’t be taught as fact.
“If it’s only a theory, it could all be proven wrong one day and this book would be toilet paper,” I said, holding my tattered biology textbook in the air.
Ms. Jackson could have sent me out of her classroom for being a smartass, but she didn’t. She told me I was free to believe what I wanted and explore the science for myself, and even threw me a lifeline by mentioning that some Christians had successfully reconciled their faith with the previous 150 years of scientific discovery. She showed more patience than she owed me.
In time I abandoned the children’s crusade for young earth creationism. But I will never forget the thrill of confrontation I felt that day, or the sense that I was fighting for the ultimate stakes.
I didn’t have any good arguments to make that day, but I came prepared with arguments, and I owed my preparedness to a man named Ken Ham.
At the risk of getting lured into a debate with Mr. Ham — he’s still hawking DVDs of his debate with Bill Nye the Science Guy from five years ago — allow me to introduce you to my mentor.
Originally a high school teacher from Queensland, Australia, Ham moved to the United States in 1987 to work with the Institute for Creation Research before founding his own organization, Answers in Genesis, in 1994.
In the olden days before YouTube, I watched a few Answers in Genesis videos in my Southern Baptist youth group and read some articles on the organization’s website. I can’t recall if Ham explicitly told teenagers they should call their teachers liars, but that’s the message I received.
Scrolling through the AiG website today, I felt a familiar thrill reading headlines like “The Challenge of Fossil Forests for Creationist Research,” “Jacob’s Odd ‘Breeding Program’ of Genesis 30,” and “Lizard-Men Evolution or Rubbish Theory?”
In high school I wanted to live out the fantasy of standing up to arrogant humanists and putting them in their place, a fantasy that still finds expression in products of the Christian culture industry like the 2014 film God’s Not Dead.
Thanks to Ken Ham, I came to biology class that day with a stack of flimsy arguments that wouldn’t withstand a casual Google search.
How, for example, can scientists explain the adjacent layers of Hermit Shale and Coconino Sandstone at the Grand Canyon, representative of eras that are supposedly millions of years apart?
I mean, erosion, obviously. But in the mythos of Answers in Genesis, the Great Flood (you know, the one Noah survived in an ark) jumbled up the fossil record and rendered the fields of geology and archaeology more or less invalid.
Which brings me to the reason you may have heard Ham’s name before: He built a giant replica of Noah’s Ark as the centerpiece of his Creation Museum, a $27 million edifice of alternate reality plopped down in northern Kentucky.
I have not seen the ark, but I can appreciate the craftsmanship from afar. Ham hired Amish timber framers to construct the thing more or less according to the specifications found in Genesis 6, gopher wood and cubits and all. Here’s how he described the sourcing process in a 2016 interview with Journey, a Christian publication in his native Australia:
There’s only one mill in the whole of America that actually had the machine that we needed to be able to get the timber, and then we had to find these massive logs, some of the big ones that are up to 200 years old, came from beetle-infested forests, harvested under forestry license, we were able to get those.
Much as I want to dismiss Ham as a charlatan or a cultist, a part of me is still attracted to the certainty of his faith and mission. If the Lord decided to flood the planet next week (I know, I know, it won’t happen again), Ham seems like the kind of dude who could build a real working ark in the nick of time, and plead with the unbelievers to join him.
But I haven’t been able to walk in Ham’s footsteps since I became an adult. The Genesis creation account is internally inconsistent, written in a genre that was not generally meant to be taken literally, and incompatible on its face with the mountain of geological, genetic, and astronomical data available to our God-given eyes.
I was also blind to the harm done by Ham’s theology. He is a strident opponent of LGBT inclusion, misapplying a single phrase from Genesis (“male and female he created them”) to erase trans folks’ identities. And while he rejects the classic racist mythology of the Curse of Ham, he uses the common ancestry of Adam and Eve to espouse a colorblind ethic that only serves to uphold the status quo.
“You hear people like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson talking about the races and so on, actually the very terminology is fueling racism and goes against the truth of what we know scientifically about the human race,” Ham said in a recent lecture posted to YouTube.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Ham was also at the vanguard of a push to rewrite public education policy in America.
In 2005, the same year I picked a fight with my biology teacher, lawmakers in my state were pressuring educators to hedge their standards for teaching evolution. They took a page from the playbook of creationist thinktanks like Answers in Genesis and the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.
Federal courts have ruled that creationism and its watered-down cousin, intelligent design, cannot be taught in public schools (Edwards v. Aguillard, 1987; Kitzmiller v. Dover, 2005), so the creationists have switched to a third tactic: “Teach the controversy.”
As a result, the South Carolina high school biology standards published in 2005 included the phrase “critically analyze” in only one sentence: "Summarize ways that scientists use data from a variety of sources to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory."
(Side note, a subsequent revision in 2014 removed that phrase from the biology standards and added it to a section on human-induced climate change.)
As an adult writing about public education policy in my home state, I saw that bit of language and immediately recognized its implication. It was a loophole written for young people like the boy I was, and for adult teachers who wanted to sneak some light proselytizing into the classroom.
That language was in place to appease adults like then-Sen. Mike Fair, an Upstate conservative who served on the Education Oversight Committee during a round of curriculum revision in 2014. Fair, an avowed young-earth creationist, once tweeted at a critic, “the Bible is more scientific than the big bang.”
Mick Zais, our then-superintendent of education, told the local paper in 2014, “We ought to teach both sides and let students draw their own conclusions.” Zais, it should be noted, is now Deputy Secretary of Education in Betsy DeVos’ U.S. Department of Education and has not publicly changed his views to my knowledge.
I had built my faith on a scaffolding as firm as a conspiracy theory. I was frightened of what would happen when the scaffolding collapsed.
We learned in church that we should be “prepared to give an answer” when people questioned our beliefs, but in reality we were learning bromides to tell ourselves when doubt crept in. Apologetics, much like street evangelism, is partly a sermon you preach to yourself.
By my senior year of high school I was feeling the tug of doubt about the youngness of the earth and, consequently, about the existence of a creator god. I borrowed a book from the public library, Kenneth R. Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, and read it in secret. Miller, a Catholic and cell biologist, showed me a new way to read the Bible — not as a scientific or historical text, but as an expression of the divine.
To my surprise, I was convinced by the arguments. I returned the book satisfied that I could believe in evolution while still following Jesus and haven’t really looked back since, until this week when I saw an errant tweet by Ken Ham and started having flashbacks.
I recently talked about this phase of my inner life with my wife, who has known me since middle school, and she had no idea I used to take this creationism stuff so seriously. To me, it was a question of cosmic and eternal significance. To her, this revelation was a rare surprise after nine years of marriage.
Looking back, the question of the origin of the universe was maybe a spiritual and academic journey I should have undertaken with my friends, but instead I dove into the books alone, as one does.
Those of us who have abandoned biblical literalism and the worldview that comes with it are still processing that shift, and probably always will be. How can I describe this? Leaving creationism felt simultaneously like losing my faith and drawing nearer to God. It was like the ground beneath me vaporized and I fell onto solid bedrock.
There is a new thinkpiece every month about the “ex-evangelical” flight of millennial Christians, and I don’t intend here to throw another one on the pile. My Southern Baptist youth group was a place of refuge and I do not fault the adults in my life who only wanted to equip me for a hard and hostile world. I was bound to make my faith my own one day, and while shedding a few doctrines felt awkward and shameful at times, it was part of my coming of age.
What am I supposed to do with Genesis now? It is a weird and difficult book and I don’t think I can box it in. But I do find points of light along the way. My friend Anya gave a sermon a few weeks ago that dealt with the beauty of the creation account and the radically inclusive message of Genesis 1:27:
So God created them in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
To my shame, I am sure I wielded that verse as a cudgel against queer folks in my youth, suggesting their identity was either an aberration or a sinful choice. Anya pointed me to the redemptive message of that verse, though: It was written in a patriarchal society and yet specified the presence of the divine image in women and men alike. The point of the verse is not the existence of a gender binary; it is that we are all equally beloved children of God.
In some ways I am just the grown version of the boy who challenged his science teacher to a debate. I still appreciate a good emo song and a nice pair of skinny jeans; I still relish the occasional confrontation; I am still throwing strange missives into the maw of the internet. I like to believe I carried my adversarial edge into worthier battles over my eight years as a journalist.
But I have also learned the humility, I hope, to lay down my sword when the battle isn’t worth fighting.
The songs embedded in this week’s issue are from my friend Austin’s band Valley Maker. He recorded an album in 2010 based on some of the narratives of Genesis and continues to make beautiful songs dealing with family, nature, place, and faith.