The question of evolution is one I’ve thought about a lot, and from both sides of the issue. I started as a William Jennings Bryan and have become, if not a Clarence Darrow, at least a member of the defense counsel for Scopes.
When I was in grade school I was convinced that I was going to disprove evolution. How exactly I was to do that I wasn’t quite sure. My first step involved filling a notebook with a list of dinosaur names and facts about them. I attended a private Christian school throughout elementary, junior and senior high. So when it came time to put together a Science Fair project, I did one on the extinction of the dinosaurs. My report was a garbled mishmash of Flood geology, a water vapor canopy, and National Geographic articles about extinction events like asteroids or a comet. I created a diorama in a fish tank of plastic dinosaurs on land made of green Play-doh surrounded by blue plastic wrap to signify water: Voila! The Flood. What this was supposed to show or prove is beyond me. Even my teacher had doubts about my project, noting that I had not followed the scientific method. I had no testable hypothesis.
The standard Young Earth Creationist explanation of the dinosaurs’ extinction is that dinosaurs were created on the 6th day along with the other animals. This happened approximately 10,000 years ago, give or take (or 4,004 B.C. if one is following James Ussher’s chronology where he added up all of the genealogies in the Bible to arrive at a date for creation). Humans and dinosaurs coexisted until the time of the Flood. The Flood was a catastrophic event that changed everything. Before that time there was a water canopy that surrounded the Earth. Once the water canopy was gone, (presumably the water rained down as part of the Flood), then the climate of the Earth changed. Pre-Flood, the Earth’s climate was temperate and mild. Post-Flood, the climate became closer to what it is today, perhaps even allowing for some sort of ice age or two (though the work of glaciers on the landscape could just as easily be explained by the Flood). So dinosaurs died out after the Flood presumably because of the change in climate (or maybe an extinction event like an asteroid/comet also contributed, or so I guessed).
In high school, instead of learning evolution, we learned evidence that the Earth and the universe were young, no older than 10,000 years. The evidence included the rate of magnetic decay of the Earth and the amount of dust found on the moon (the latter of which I could not find with a quick perusal of Young Earth Creationist websites, perhaps that argument is no longer used) [edited to add: Subsequently I found on the Answers in Genesis site a long paper which concludes that the moon dust argument “should for the present not be used by creationists”]. We were told that the magnetic force would have been too strong if the Earth were older, and the moon would have had much more dust. There was a lot more evidence. The eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 was meant to show that catastrophism could cause immense change that would make the affected area appear old. The Flood, of course, was meant to be the prime catastrophe that caused mountains to appear or layers of sediment, and all the fossils and the Grand Canyon, etc. Carbon dating was right out. It didn’t show what it was meant to show, and wasn’t even accurate past a few thousand years. Troubling aspects like visible light from distant galaxies was hand-waved away with the confidence that God could create the universe with the light already having traveled to Earth. The universe could have the appearance of age if God so chose. Humans, animals, and plants were all created fully formed, so it made sense that so would the universe. Why it had to be so big was a question I never asked.
I continued my education at a private Christian college in the South. Halfway through my first year, I picked up Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time from my roommate’s shelf. I didn’t know much about it, except that Hawking was supposed to be a genius. My memory of the experience is that much of the astrophysics went over my head, but that the overall grandeur of the universe, its immensity, hit home. The evidence for a nearly 14 billion year old universe stacked up. I faced some major cognitive dissonance. The thought of an old universe was unsettling, but I had no intention of giving up my faith. I remember trying to broach the subject of an old earth with some friends in the cafeteria. I was nervous because it seemed like I might be flirting with potential heresy. Nothing we talked about gave me an idea how to reconcile the impasse, so I ruminated on it for the next few months.
Fortunately for me, the college had invited Hugh Ross as a speaker for their annual lecture series in the Spring. Ross is a Christian astrophysicist who interprets the days of Genesis as long periods of time (commonly referred to as the day-age theory of creation). His interpretation does not allow for any macro-evolution of species into other species, instead relying on God to perform special creation at various stages of cosmic history. It was a huge relief to me that there were other Christians who thought the Earth might be old, too. I didn’t have to give up my faith or my new understanding of the universe. I didn’t know much about science at that point, but it was clear to me that the Young Earth Creationism that I had believed considered a certain interpretation of Genesis as primary over scientific inquiry. The only point of science was to prove what was already known from the Bible. There was no discovery possible, only confirmation. In theological terms, Young Earth Creationism treats special revelation (the Bible) as superior to natural revelation (the created universe). Now that I’d had a personal encounter with science (not one mediated by the lens of creationism), I could no longer accept that.
So how could I have let go of my belief in a young earth, given my fundamentalist upbringing? I had only attended Christian schools up to this point. I was surrounded by people who thought very similarly to me, who believed the same things I did. Before I heard Ross, I had never had a serious discussion about the age of the Earth where it wasn’t already assumed that it was created less than 10,000 years ago. While it was this bubble that created my confident belief in a young earth, I think that it was also this same environment that actually let me question those assumptions. If I had gone to a public high school or a state university, I would have felt under attack for my faith. I undoubtedly would have stood up for my beliefs in a biology class, and held onto them all the tighter because they were part of my identity. Because my belief about the age of the earth was safe in my Christian school environment, I could question it.
A few years later while in graduate school I read Del Ratzsch’s The Battle of Beginnings and Kenneth Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, two books that attempt to reconcile Christianity with evolution. I found both of them very interesting and compelling, but I wasn’t sure that I was ready to agree that God used evolution. But I was now willing to say it was possible. In the years since then, there wasn’t a single dramatic moment when I decided that I could accept evolution as an explanation for the diversity of species, but it gradually happened. I suppose a change like this takes a lot of time.
I’ve only had a handful of conversations with family and friends about evolution since I became evolution-friendly, but the situation always makes me feel like the outsider, the stranger, the black sheep. I’m no longer on the creationist team. It’s the Bizarro-version of the creationist standing up to the evolutionist teacher and defending the faith: Now I’m the one standing up for evolution (or not saying anything). It’s pretty strange.
Evolution is a topic I’d like to return to again as I read (and reread) more. I’d like to explore the theological implications of evolution: what does it mean for creation and humanity. But I’d also like to look at the science of it, too, as a layperson who doesn’t know much about science.