Evolution and Religion in America from an Agnostic Perspective  Part I

Like most Americans I was raised under the shadow of Christendom.  I went to Sunday school and lived in a community where everyone was at least nominally Christian or claimed they were. I was thus exposed to the celebrated stories, theology, and doctrines of the Bible from an early age.  As a child I had little cultivated reason to question the stuff.  Decades later, my sentiments about religion, its doctrines, and institutions have departed considerably from that early indoctrinated norm.  My sentiments are now best described as agnostic. The details of my disaffection to agnosticism cumulatively add up to a long story.  Some of the more notable aspects will be touched on as my narrative progresses.   For starters, however, I ultimately turned to agnosticism for one of the most basic of reasons, knowledge versus belief.  Agnosticism is knowledge-based insofar as proclamations of any kind are not assumed to be true without tangible evidence that validates them as actual fact.   

Much of what religion holds to be true is grounded in un-testable theistic assumptions.  The other side of the coin is that atheism, the intellectual arch rival of religion, rests on un-testable assumptions as well.  The hard-core theists declare that God, angles, and demons exist and even intervene in the affairs of man and nature.  Conversely, the atheists insist there are no gods or other supernatural entities, no heaven or hell or other form of afterlife.  The problem is that theism and atheism are both belief systems grounded in un-testable assumptions; embraced by their adherents as if they possessed the status of indelible fact.  Neither can prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Agnosticism

In contrast, agnosticism endeavors to take the proverbial bull by the horns.  It seeks to distinguish as scrupulously as possible real knowledge from simple belief, to identify and accept the existing boundaries between the known and the unknown.   This affords a spiritual and intellectual freedom that neither theist nor atheist is at liberty to enjoy. The freedom to speculate unencumbered by a blind allegiance to dogma, to say “what if” in contemplation of life’s profoundest questions, to keep one’s options open in the face of the unknown. 

Agnosticism does, however, require the grit to say “don’t know” even though it sometimes runs counter to long held beliefs about the ultimate realities of life, death, divinity, and destiny.  It therefore also presupposes the integrity to admit truth when something is rendered true by sufficient confirming evidence.  This places a tangible limit on the agnostic stand.  Acknowledgement of some truth (whatever that truth may be) prevents giving free play to possibilities that would otherwise be admissible.  Far better is it that the limits are imposed by evidence-based fact than by belief.  The crux is having a grasp of the facts sufficient enough to know the difference.  

It’s no news that digging the facts out can be difficult, particularly when complex social, cultural, or economic issues with competing political agendas are involved.  Most people are not professional scholars, historians, or scientists.  Wrapped up in the demands of holding a job and raising a family, or pursuing the ingredients of same, who’s got the time to study all the great issues of the day in depth?   Not many.  It’s most of the reason why politicians and other huckster types get away with so much abuse of the facts.   It might not even be deliberate.  They might be just as ignorant as those who they seek to persuade.   Short of in-depth study coupled with a solid streak of scholarly honesty, who can be trusted to have the truth in hand?  How about a fellow worker, or maybe a bar or pew buddy?  Maybe one’s spouse, uncle, or local congressional representative, or some Fox News or CNN talk show’s host?  Does a doctorate of divinity make for reliable authority on matters of science?  Does an English or math diploma make someone proficient in the subtle aspects of astronomy, geology, or biology?  The short answer to all of the above is, “probably not”.  Sometimes even the experts disagree and sometimes really don’t know either. 

This may come across as a bit condescending.  The trouble is that it’s all too apparent that many of my fellow citizens are clueless about a number of critical issues occupying space in the marketplace of American public opinion.  The realization is as troubling to me as it is intriguing.  Undoubtedly, pursuit of the truth will always be a challenge.  Knowing the difference between logical arguments backed with solid facts versus inherent bullshit is an acquired ability.   As a youth I was not so good at it, but now in my seventh decade, I like to think that I’m a little bit improved.  Anyway, that’s my claim and I’m sticking to it, at least for the time being.  

What ability I currently do possess is enhanced by a college education, a portfolio of life experiences, and also by a commitment to seeking the truth out.  I confess to being a knowledge geek of sorts.  The quirk has made me a regular dabbler in a bunch of areas of scholarly interest.  I delight in stumbling upon a kernel of knowledge or wisdom as much as a prospector might delight in unearthing a nugget of gold or a precious gem.  All things being equal, it’s good for the soul as well as the intellect.  Perhaps the reader might gain some benefit from the modest selection of kernels here and there embedded in the following narratives.

God versus No God

Obviously, belief in the existence of God is ancient and widespread, particularly among those of us raised in the shadow of one of the Abrahamic religions, as in Judaism, Christendom, or Islam.  More broadly though, it’s fair to say that belief in the existence of the Divine (in some sense of the word) is a universal aspect of faith for religions worldwide.  On top of it all, I’m not personally convinced that “God” exists.  Nor is there any way to decisively resolve the issue.  Philosophers and theologians have labored over the problem for thousands of years, but to no conclusive avail.  I can nevertheless entertain the possibility of some great transcendent being or beings, some unfathomable divine presence lurking behind the origin and course of life in the universe and here on the Earth. Still, I do hold that some things of an empirical nature are bound to be true regardless of whether God exists or not. 

Today, the existence of God is as vigorously debated as ever.  The most visible cultural manifestation is found in the conflict between biblical creationism and evolution science.  The core issue ostensibly turns on the ultimate causes behind life. Is the presence of life here on Earth the consciously designed and implemented creation of a transcendent god-being or simply the evolved result of blind, unconscious forces of nature?  I say “ostensibly” because the underlying issues are ultimately more complex than a simple god versus no-god difference in philosophical outlook can possibly represent.   

Bible versus Science

The modern debate was an outgrowth of the scientific revolution and age of enlightenment that occupied the Western World for about three centuries leading into the 1800s.  It came into sharp focus about 150 years ago in England with the publication of Charles Darwin’s now famous “On the Origin of Species” in 1859, followed by the “Descent of Man” in 1871.  These seminal works on the evolution of life energized an intense public rethinking about our primal origins.  They ultimately transformed science and altered the dynamic interplay between knowledge and popular belief in western culture.  A synthesis of Darwin’s theory and the genetics of Gregor Mendel has become the benchmark paradigm of the biological sciences worldwide.  In spite of this revolution in science, the biblical account of creation stands as a veritable requirement of faith among hardcore Protestant fundamentalists. 

During the half century after Darwin’s publications, American scientists and academics followed Europe’s lead in assimilating evolution science.  When the products of that assimilation began to trickle into America’s public schools Christian conservatives rose up in protest.   In 1925 the Tennessee legislature approved the “Butler Act”, which prohibited teaching any theory that denied the creation of man as taught in the Bible or otherwise advocated that man was descended from lower animals. Fifteen other states had similar legislation pending.  Although not officially prohibited everywhere, evolution theory had little popular support in the Bible belt and Midwestern states where Protestant fundamentalism had its strongest foothold.

A history of legal scuffles ensued, beginning with the celebrated 1925 “Scopes Monkey trial”.  The newly formed American Civil Liberties Union instigated the trial to test the constitutionality of the Butler Act.   Although the Scopes trial did not resolve the issue, it gave initial shape to a continuing national debate.  It was not until 1967 that the Supreme Court stepped in and struck down a longstanding Kansas law that prohibited teaching evolution (Epperson v. Arkansas).  In the wake of that ruling, 45 years after the Scopes trial, the Tennessee legislature finally repealed the Butler Act.  In 1973, however, Tennessee was back in the mix with a law requiring the schools to give equal emphasis to the Biblical account if and when evolution was taught.  The bill also demanded that evolution be represented as theory not fact.  In the following decades the courts handed down a number of rulings that rendered unconstitutional all “balanced treatment” laws and “theory versus fact” disclaimers.

 In an attempt to regain legal standing, biblical creationism was relabeled as “creation science”, but with references to the Bible omitted.  The tactic had no legal traction.  Failure to make a scientific case for itself was the ultimate demise of biblical creationism in public school education.  In the wake of these pro-evolution rulings and other rulings banning prayer and Bible reading from the public school curriculum, the fundamentalists drew back into a circle and locked shields against the looming beasts of secularism and evolution science.   They haven’t been content to just survive in esoteric obscurity behind the doors of their churches.  Although officially banished from the public school curriculum, their efforts to steer education and public opinion back to the biblical world view have gone on unabated.  The profusion of internet websites dedicated to peddling biblical creationism while laying siege to evolution science attests to the stubbornness of their resolve.

A vigorous campaign is currently underway to inject a form of creation science into the high school science curriculum.  It’s called intelligent design (ID) “theory”. Like its predecessor, all connection to the Bible is denied.  Even though ID is couched in science-like jargon, it still amounts to un-testable appeal to supernatural causes.  Notably also, ID’s proponents are overwhelmingly composed of evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants, which just might provide a clue about its religious origins.  Armed with ID “theory” they spare little effort to infiltrate local school boards and PTA groups. They doggedly intend to circumvent both the scientific establishment and the judgment of the courts at the community level by politicking ID into the public school science classrooms.  Their slogans are “evolution is a theory not a fact”, “teach the controversy” and “critical thinking”.    

With evangelical and fundamentalist conservatives now populating the Republican Party base, a host of politicians are openly supplicating at the ID altar.  Almost every week some ultra conservative law maker is found attempting to float legislation at the state or federal level that endorses ID or some other constitutionally objectionable religious cause.   In spite of a 2005 Federal court ruling that relegated ID to the same status as creation science, the movement swells on.  The 2005 ruling only had jurisdiction in a handful of counties in the state of Pennsylvania.  A more sweeping ruling requires intervention by a higher court.  In the absence of that, its game-on for the ID movement.

The Rise of Biblical Fundamentalism

Teach the controversy?  What controversy?   I finished high school in a Midwestern city in the early 1960’s, the product of a lower middle class community. Evolution was not controversial, nor was evolutionary theory in conflict with the Protestant Christian view I was taught.  Geneses was largely considered an allegorical story, a metaphor about the Old Testament people’s relation with their biblical god.  And evolution was taught uncontested in our high school science classes. Hardcore evangelical fundamentalism was not on our radar screens.  That was Bible belt revival stuff that went on in circus tents on the outskirts of town.  In that semi pluralistic world of my youth, wearing religion on one’s sleeve was pretty much unanimously considered rude.  No Bible thumping prophets with bullhorns on street corners or born again crusaders trolling the neighborhoods and college campuses looking for targets of opportunity.  My, how much things have changed.  What happened?

I’m not going to win any prizes for my armchair knowledge of history, religion, or science.  This writing is just a concerned citizen’s personal effort to sort things out and make sense of the whole.  The controversy is profound enough to justify the effort.  It influences what happens in the voting booths on election days and what one’s offspring are formally taught.  It ultimately affects the Nation’s scientific integrity and thus also the Nation’s collective IQ and international competiveness in science, engineering, and technology.  These are not insignificant matters.   The controversy is more complicated than it might appear.  It comes with an array of bells and whistles (and twists and turns) attached, each deserving consideration.  Some of them are evident enough although others are not.  Mine is a condensed chronicle of the anatomy and history of the controversy from its earliest origin to the present time.  No matter how well chronicled or factually presented, the hardcore fundamentalists are unlikely to be moved by anything I or anyone else might say or write.  It’s mainly the unsure and undecided that my narratives are optimistically aimed at reaching.        

Of course, my youthful notion of “no controversy” was only an illusion, the product of insulation in a religiously liberal community in a big city with a major university.   In the Bible belt and portions of Midwest, including just across the river, the situation was different.  Unknown to me and my neighborhood friends, the now looming fundamentalist movement was underway even before we were born.  It came into existence in the late 1800’s as a religious conservative rejection of modernist trends that existed in the Western Christian world.  At that time, the European Christian mainstream, as well as the European academic communities, were still busy absorbing the products of the enlightenment and scientific revolution. 

It’s noteworthy that many if not most of the giants of the scientific revolution came from Christian stock.  To name a few, there was Johannes Kepler, Galileo, Gregor Mendel, Isaac Newton, and Charles Darwin as pictured in order below.   Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, was a Jesuit priest.  Isaac Newton, arguably the greatest scientist who ever lived, was a well respected theologian.  Charles Darwin, the father of evolution theory, had flirted with a career in the ministry before ultimately turning to naturalism.  Both Newton and Darwin are buried at Westminster Abby.  Science did not achieve institutional status in the West independent of Christendom.  Nor did Christendom press forward into the present age uninfluenced by the bridge that naturalistic philosophy had erected between science and religion. 

 

Left to right: Kepler, Galileo, Mendel, Newton, Darwin

The fundamentalist movement itself was the brainchild of British but mostly American evangelical Protestants.  It was a protest against the liberal mainstream theology which accepted the naturalistic methods and insights of science including Darwin’s theory of biological evolution.  In opposition, the evangelical-fundamentalists insisted that a doctrine of biblical inerrancy, essential in their view for true Christianity, was being violated in the larger Protestant world.  

The doctrine of biblical inerrancy, which is tantamount to deification of the Bible, was not resurrected from some earlier time in Christian history.  In fact, the declaration of a formal doctrine of inerrancy can only be traced back about 200 years.  It was an ultra conservative outgrowth in the wake of the Protestant reformation.  The European advent of the printing press in the mid 1400’s allowed the Bible to be widely circulated and read for the first time.  Before the resulting expansion in biblical literacy, the Bible was pretty much the exclusive privy of the Roman Catholic priesthood. The Church accordingly enjoyed the exclusive status of final authority and source of information on Christian doctrine and ritual.  The monopoly was challenged by reformers within the priesthood, like Martin Luther and John Calvin.  They openly objected to the church’s hierarchy, doctrines, rituals, and what they viewed as blatant corruptions in church policy. The movement originally intended to reform the Catholic Church itself, but resulted in the establishment of independent national churches and these became the foundational institutions of Protestant Christendom.  

The leaders of the movement needed an authority to legitimize their indictment of the Papacy.  The Bible filled that need.  The Protestant reformation was rooted in the assertion that the Bible, not the Papacy, is the ultimate authority on Christianity and its practice.  In some substantial degree, the onus of this new Christendom fell on the believers themselves to be their own ministers, thus reading and interpreting the Bible in accordance with the dictates of their own conscience. However, there was nothing ecumenical to the Protestant reformation itself that required the Bible be accepted as either the actual word of God or as being inerrant.  The phraseology "the Word of God" appears nowhere within and only here and there are passages found where the dialogue alleges to be God speaking.   Critically notable also, the Bible amounts to a collection of writings by many different authors accumulated over a span of some 1400 years subsequently compiled together in a single voluminous writhing. Not all published Bibles are identical, either in content or in the detail of their translations.  Despite settled consensus on a substantial number of these ancient writings, debate about what others should also be included in the official biblical canon has been ongoing since the second or third century AD and  continues to evoke controversy to this day.   Considering these things alone, its rationally impossible to justify applying a standard of inerrancy to any given version of the Bible as a whole or to the historical factuality of any account contained within. The doctrine of inerrancy was the invention of a minority faction that immerged after the reformation and quite evidently in response to a growing trend toward naturalism in Christian theological circles.  It amounted to a situation where a provisionally reasonable notion of scriptural authority was taken to a cultist extreme. In suit nevertheless, many evangelical-fundamentalist organizations today like the Southern Baptist Convention have formal articles of faith where allegiance to the Bible is spelled out first even before mention of God.

Although the rising popularity of evolution theory triggered the modern controversy, the original locus was between these “conservative” and their “liberal” counterparts within Protestantism. The radical former advocated the presence of an irreconcilable conflict between religious scripture and science, while the mainstream latter held that scripture and science (including evolution) were reconcilable.  Nowadays the American version of the controversy has morphed into a ubiquitous conservative versus liberal, creation versus evolution, religion versus science, theism versus atheism national food-fight having no parallel anywhere else in the world.   The fundamentalist movement, which keeps the fires burning, became visible in America in the 1920s.  At first mostly only Presbyterian and Baptist conservatives were involved.   It started with a dispute within in the “mainline” Presbyterian Churches between their conservative (evangelical and fundamentalist) and liberal (modernist) members, but eventually spread beyond to alter the theological terrain throughout Protestant America.  

Briefly stated, the evangelical-fundamentalists advocated a militant form of proselytization integrated with a dispensational (apocalyptic) theology.  The notion of “militancy” was evidently equated as a non-violent yet vigorous style of cultural engagement.  I suspect though that some of the movement’s more zealous members wished it were backed with the draconian authority of Emperor Theodosius himself.  Anyway, after nearly a century of activism, the movement has successfully lodged itself in American culture.   Its ultimate intent is not just to dominate American Protestantism, but to achieve dominion over the Nation as a whole.  Their theocratic goal is to leverage government conformance to fundamentalism’s moral and ideological dogmas, including the literalist view of the Bible.  Curiously, even though the movement has enjoyed amazing popularity in America, it has so far failed to make significant inroads in England or Europe at large.

The central issue has not changed since Protestant fundamentalism’s earliest inception.  In his influential book The Battle for the Bible (1976), Harold Lindsell worried that loosing the doctrine of biblical inerrancy would be the thread that would ultimately unravel the church.  An outcome so extreme seems unlikely any time soon for the greater institution of Christianity.  It would, however, stand to put a terminal dent in the solvency of any church that currently embraces a literalist theology. Not surprisingly, the evangelical-fundamentalist community agreed with Lindsell’s assessment, having postured their defenses and battle tactics accordingly. 

The root issue is not about the existence or nonexistence of “God”, but rather more specifically about the Bible’s status as the seminal last word concerning God and “God’s” alleged instructions to the people.  Also implicitly in jeopardy is the claim to moral authority, which the religious conservatives dogmatically believe is exclusively their own.  In the final analysis, the Bible’s alleged status as the “inerrant word of God” is all that the fundamentalists have in support of their claims to authority about anything.  Theirs is the classic “all or nothing” type of demand on the people’s faith.  According to Lindsell’s scenario, if the factualness of Genesis becomes indefensible in the eyes of the laity, then the status of the Bible as the high source of wisdom and moral guidance unravels in total. Interpretation issues notwithstanding, it’s clearly easier for the fundamentalist clergy to sell their stuff when the bible is accepted as unchallengeable truth.  The good news is that not everyone in America agrees to the fundamentalist scheme of things.

Science and Creationism

The problem from the scientific perspective is that the Biblical account of origins stems from a popular religious narrative rather than a confirmed factual description of past events.  It puts the biblical literalists at odds not only with science, higher learning, and modernist Christendom, but now also with the supreme law of the land.  The US courts ultimately ruled against biblical creationism being taught in the public schools because it was in violation of the First Amendment’s religious establishment clause.  Although the US Constitution mentions government support of art and science (Article 8), endorsement of religion is expressly forbidden (Article 6 and First Amendment).  Biblical creationism or “creation science” was ultimately found to be both religious and unscientific.  For the same reasons, ID lost its first skirmish before the courts in 2005.   Undeterred, the ID people labor tirelessly to have state legislatures and local school boards redefine evolution as a religion and or redefine science to include supernaturalism.  Their continued impositions on public education have forced the church-state watchdog community to be equally as tireless in litigating against them. The courts have had to repetitively grapple with the issue of how science is distinguished from religion and thus what is legitimately classified as scientific versus what is not

Science

Science is defined by and grounded in the study of what is observable and measurable. In other words, the study of phenomena that are amenable to confirmation or disconfirmation from evidence directly collected from nature or from controlled laboratory experiment.  To illustrate, virtually all plants use sunlight to convert soil nutrients into energy and materials for the plant’s life functions.  The process is called photosynthesis.  In this process the plants absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen as a byproduct.  Plant life is therefore primarily responsible for the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere; the very air we breathe and depend on for our existence.  Because of this and other ecological factors, virtually all animal life is dependent on the continued abundance and vitality of plant life.  It’s therefore understandable why ecologists and environmentalists are distressed by the magnitude of deforestation going on in concert with the sharp rise in human population levels worldwide.

Anyway, a researcher might want to investigate whether the rate of photosynthesis is tied to the color (electromagnetic wavelength) of light that plants are exposed to.  The experimental hypothesis would then be that a plant of a specific type will produce different amounts of oxygen when exposed to different colors of light.  Putting the hypothesis to the test, the researcher might set up several plots of the same plant type for comparison.  However, plot size, soil type, temperature, amount of water, and light exposure, etc would likely be held identical for all plots.  Standardizing these things across plots intends to make light color the only variable that could possibly affect the amount of oxygen produced by any plot.   Each plot is then subjected to a different color of light.  The researcher measures the amount of oxygen each plot produces for an equal period of light exposure.  If there are significant differences between plots in the amount of oxygen produced, then the evidence confirms the hypothesis that light color effects oxygen production.  If, however, there are no differences, then the experimental hypothesis is disconfirmed. Scientists always want results from multiple studies by independent researchers before concluding that the phenomenon underlying the experimental hypothesis is true.  Only if it turns out to be reliably true does the experimental hypothesis get elevated toward the status of theory.  That would be theory spelled with a capitol T.  The example is simple, but for starters it provides a basic feeling for the objectiveness and attention to detail that scientific investigation and theory development require.  

          Creationism

In general, creationism is a belief that the universe and its contents are the handiwork of a great supernatural god-being or beings.  Creationism is non-factual because it depends on un-testable supernatural explanations.  Supernatural phenomena are by definition beyond nature and thus beyond verification by any objective means applicable to the observation of nature.  This does not rule out the possible existence of supernatural influences.  It’s only that supernatural influences, such as they might exist, are beyond the capabilities of objective investigation to confirm. Therein resides a crucial difference between beliefs based on religious conviction alone versus knowledge built on evidence-based fact.

Practically every religious tradition worldwide has a creation myth of some kind at its root which chronicles the primal origins of the world.   However, the terms “creationism” and “creationist” first came into usage in the 1800s to label those who sought to reconcile the Genesis creation narrative with the unfolding evidence of science.  As the creation versus evolution controversy heated up in the wake of Darwin’s publications, the terms became most commonly associated with the Protestant fundamentalist belief in a young earth interpretation of Genesis and a corresponding rejection of evolution. Categorically, however, creationism also became associated with other less literal interpretations of biblical scripture, such as old earth and evolutionary creationism.

Concerns about the veracity of the biblical account did not begin with Darwin’s publications.   Deism, for notable example, was a form of creationism popular in the 1700’s among Christian intellectuals who, among other things, rejected supernaturalism, superstition, and biblical inerrancy.  Being allied with enlightenment thinking, the premise of Deism was that reason and observation of nature alone (unmediated by organized religion) was sufficient to apprehend the universe as the handiwork of an all-powerful creator-god.  Although Deism retained the one-god concept underlying the Abrahamic religions, the retention itself was effectively decoupled from bondage to scripture and Nicene theology.  In the Deist scheme of things, the creator-god rarely if ever intervened in the affairs of nature or humankind. God was believed to have originally designed and constructed the universe, but stepped aside thereafter to let things run on they’re own.    

Deistic thinking with its roots in philosophical naturalism unquestionably influenced the leaders of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson, author of the US Declaration of Independence and the Nation’s third President, is often believed to have been a Deist.  Like many of his influential contemporaries there is no record of Jefferson ever attending any church.  And given his often quoted statement, “but it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God...” Jefferson remains difficult to exactly categorize.  He was nevertheless a passionate advocate of individual liberties including freedom of choice between religion or non-religion in personal belief and lifestyle.  He was thus also staunchly opposed to government entanglement with religion.   Jefferson was not alone among the Nation’s founders in these views, as confirmed by the First Amendment and the Sixth Article of a Constitution which contains no mention of Bible or God in its specification of supreme law.

At the opposite end of the creationism spectrum is the hands-on creator-god of the biblical literalist.  This version of God is said to actively participate in the affairs of nature and humanity; a personal god who answers prayers and speaks to the people through specially chosen intermediaries.  He is further believed to employ supernatural powers to control the very forces of nature, bestowing prosperity or misfortune, life and death, on his earthly subjects according to their worthiness or lack thereof before the dictates of his Devine plan.  

Between the polls represented by the Deism and biblical literalism, a number of other more moderate forms of creationism are identifiable.   For notable example, theistic evolution or evolutionary creationism as it’s alternatively called, holds that the classical religious teachings are compatible with evolution theory.  They postulate that God does indeed exist and did create the universe and all life therein.  In this view, evolution itself is a God-crafted phenomenon.  Biological evolution is simply a process that God embedded in the workings of the universe to allow all life including humans to autonomously develop and adapt. 

Theistic evolution is not a scientific theory.  Rather it’s a theological or philosophical perspective on how belief in a Devine creator can be embraced in the light of modern knowledge about evolution.  The advocates of this perspective are sometimes labeled “Christian Darwinists” because they largely accept modern evolutionary theory without abandoning scripture in their personal lives.  It would be fair to say they more or less unanimously share the view that Genesis should not be taken to be factual, but rather as an allegorical account of primal origins.  Mainstream Christendom including Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, and most Protestant denominations worldwide tend to favor the theistic evolution or evolutionary creationism viewpoint.  

Biblical Creationism  

In the extreme, biblical creationism rejects evolution of any kind.  From the fundamentalist (literalist) viewpoint, neither human nor god has the right to go beyond the primitive accounts laid down in Hebrew scripture some 3000 years or so ago.  For them, anyone not accepting the inerrancy of the Bible cannot claim to be a real Christian or worse yet are flaming heathens or atheists.  Whatever else might be claimed about the fundamentalists, they have fueled a controversy that reverberates all the way from rural America to the halls of Congress.

Man in the image of God or God in the image of man?  What did God do before he created heaven and earth?

In detail, biblical literalism posits that the entire universe as well as the Earth was created in just six twenty-four hour days.  This was accomplished by an almighty god-being named Yahweh or Elohim depending on which of the two Geneses accounts one favors the most.  During this six-day period the heavens and earth and all species of animal and plant were individually created in a fully developed state.  During the sixth and final day the first humans (Adam and Eve) were created.  They were allegedly made in the image of this god-being to serve as his earthly regents in dominion over all other creatures.  Using the genealogy of the Old Testament as a time scale, the fundamentalists’ further claim that God’s great creative act occurred only about six thousand years ago.  Among other things, they assert that God created dinosaurs side by side with humans and all other creatures.  Their extinction supposedly occurred ten human generations after Adam when God unleashed a deluge (story of Noah) which covered the entire Earth in water.  

Why were the dinosaurs not saved in Noah's ark along with the rest of the animals?

Of course, the “young earth” claim is at substantial odds with the insights of modern science. The latter now puts the Universe’s age at approximately 13.7 billion years, the Earth at 4.5 billion years, and with modern humans showing up in the fossil record as far back as 200,000 years ago, the alleged product of a long ascendancy from more primitive life forms.  The literalist response to these evidence-based conclusions runs the gamut from complete denial about the evidence, to its misrepresentation, to outright rejection of the methods used to derive it. 

Back in Darwin’s time the literalists still had some semblance of a case.  Although scientists before Darwin had suspected the Universe and Earth were much older than the biblical estimate, there was no compelling way to prove the matter one way or the other.  That began to change in 1907 when another Englishman named Ernest Rutherford (father of particle physics), invented radiometric dating. 

Measuring the Age of Things:

Originally intended by Rutherford to determine the age of the Earth, radiometric dating is now applied to the ages of both organic and inorganic matter.  It exploits the presence of radioactive isotopes in the materials to determine age.  Certain isotopes of trace elements are produced when a rock mass hardens from a molten state or when the process of fossilization sets in on animal or plant remains. 

There are now several dozen such techniques, mostly distinguished by the type of isotope measured.  The concept is based on the isotope’s “half life”.  For various types of material the proportion of isotope that would be produced at the time of the material’s formation is empirically known.    The half life is the length of time required for half of the isotope content to break down via radioactive decay.  Knowing the half-life ratio, the age of an object can be calculated against the ratio actually remaining.  Different isotopes have different half lives.  Some are billions of years, others millions, and some less than a hundred thousand years.  The choice of isotopic measure therefore depends on the type and relative ancientness of material to be dated. Decades of experimentation and replication have proven that when properly applied, the dates obtained from alternative isotopic measures tend to reliably agree.  Moreover, comparison of radiometric dates with other dating methods (counting tree rings or glacial ice core layers for example) show a high level of agreement.

With these pivotal capabilities in hand the scientists have been able to age date the oldest known rocks on Earth and compare them with the age of rocks brought back from the Moon during the Apollo space program.  These data confirmed an approximately 4.5 billion year old Earth.

Radiometric dating allows scientists to determine not only the age of ordinary rocks, but also fossilized plant and animal remains to include ancient humans and their hominoid ancestors.  Science has accordingly used fossil evidence to fit together a chronology of life reaching back into the remote past, much like one might fit the pieces of an immense picture puzzle together.  Fossilization is, however, a rare event.  The labor intensive business of locating and extracting fossils has only been underway in earnest since Darwin’s time.  Gaps remain in the picture where additional pieces are desirable to more precisely link the transitional events involved.  Because of the rarity of fossilization and the attrition of hundreds of millions of years of geologic upheaval and erosion, some of the desired pieces might never be recovered.  Still, the picture thus far pieced together is indelibly clear.   Biological evolution is a genuine phenomenon in nature.

 

The Earth as seen from the Moon by Apollo Astronauts, approximately 240,000 miles distant 

At about the same time as Rutherford’s work in radiometry, the astronomers were plodding ahead toward a solution for the age of the Universe itself.  As far back as the 1800's, some scientists suspected that the Universe was very ancient if not actually eternal, static, and unchanging.  But decisive conclusions would not be forthcoming until the 1990’s.  Several important breakthroughs had to occur first.   Benchmark among them was Edmond Hubble’s 1927 discovery that the universe is expanding. This discovery was the result of Hubble’s prior discovery of star clusters (galaxies) external to and immensely distant form our own Milky Way galaxy.  Prior to Hubble’s work the Milky Way was thought to be largely all that the material Universe contained. 

Universe expansion was confirmed via analysis of the light received from those distant star clusters. The received light characteristically exhibited a shift toward the red end of the electromagnetic spectrum.  This phenomenon was the confirmed result of the light having originated from rapidly receding sources (the clusters).  When a distant light source is rapidly moving away from our solar system the light we receive appears to be stretched out into longer wavelengths.  It’s called a Doppler shift.  If on the other hand a distant star cluster was hurtling toward us, it would show a blue rather than red Doppler shift.  This is due to the incoming light being compressed in wavelength.  Hubble was able to establish a linear-red shift distance relationship that accorded with Einstein’s 1916 general relativity model.  With this decisive information, astronomers were able to estimate the Universe’s age by looking for the oldest star clusters and using them as a baseline to establish the current rate of Universe expansion.  From these calculations they extrapolated back in time to the beginning of the universe itself.  

Their initial estimates fixed the age of the universe at as much as 20 billion years.  Better refined estimates were later obtained by integrating knowledge about the life cycles (evolution) of stars into the age calculations.  I can’t do justice to the technical details involved, but the first measurements were shown to have underestimated the distances to the star clusters having the oldest stars.  Those light sources were brighter and therefore younger than first estimated.  They were about 13 billion years old in an approximately 13.7 billion year old universe.  The results were first published in 1997.

Since then, radiometric analyses have been used to confirm the accuracy of those estimates. Thorium and uranium, some of the same elements used to date the age of the earth, were detectable in the light signature of the oldest stars in the Milky Way.  These data established that the oldest Milky Way stars are indeed about 13 billion years old.  Thus three independent methods of measuring the Universe closely confirm each other: the expansion of the universe, the life cycle of stars, and radiometric dating.

As well-known as it is, I can’t resist mentioning the crucial fact that the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) is a fixed and invariant quantity; a universal constant regardless of its origin or intensity.  The distance between the Earth and Sun is approximately 96 million miles.  It therefore takes the Sun’s light roughly eight minutes to reach the Earth.  The light from the nearest star (Proima Centauri) takes 4.2 years.  A generation of advanced telescopes like the Hubble Space and Subaru Optical-Infrared telescopes has allowed astronomers to peer ever deeper into space and thus ever further back in time.  The most distant star clusters so far discovered are between 13 and 13.2 billion light years distant.  The light that our telescopes receive from these furthest observable depths of space is frequently if not predominantly from stars that no longer exist.  Astronomers are now effectively peering backwards in time to the Universe as it was only a few hundred million years removed from the moment of the Big Bang event itself.  Isn’t that awesome? 

          

As seem by the Hubble telescope - Galaxies as plentiful as stars in the Milky Way

The bottom line is that the Universe is not eternal in any sense that we currently understand.  But it is immensely ancient and it's contents are in a constant state of change; they evolve.  As a minimum, the cosmos' ancientness can now only be controversial to the uninformed, misinformed, or unscrupulous. Undoubtedly, scientific age dating is technical stuff.  Not everyone is going to have even an armchair taste for such things.  Still, one might think that with ample access to public education, television, and the internet, the most deeply indoctrinated literalist might stumble across enough credible information about scientific age dating to foster a modicum of critical reflection on the accuracy of the biblical account.  The fundamentalist’s advocacy of “critical thinking” about evolution theory would be commendable except for lack of any equivalent advocacy for applying it to the alleged inerrancy of the Bible. Critical thinking is about learning how to think, not about being told what to think.

Part II

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