Ken Ham, Richard Dawkins, and Me
Ken Ham and I are tight. By that, I mean that I’ve never met him, but I’ve seen him speak multiple times, read a lot of what he’s written, and I’ve visited him (well, I went to the Creation Museum several times). Maybe I’m more of a Ken Ham stalker than anything else. Regardless, over my formative years I became rather familiar with his brand of Young Earth Creationism (YEC)1 in the Christian elementary and high school I attended, and as a professor I have taught several courses on science and Christianity where I have students spend a fair amount of time engaging with YEC.
Regarding my own opinion on YEC, I’ll just lay my cards out on the table. I think that YEC is scientifically untenable and exegetically irresponsible. By that I mean that the best science we have available to us—from both Christian and non-Christian scientists—supports an old earth and some form of evolutionary theory, and that YEC exegetical methods actually fail to honor the text of Scripture by imposing modern questions and frameworks upon the text (frameworks which were never considered by the original authors or much of Christian tradition). But to support these claims I would need to write a different article or perhaps a book, and that’s been done already.2
My Problem with YEC
My main concern with YEC is not that I disagree with their position. I am all for healthy debate within the Christian tradition, and questions regarding the origins of the universe and humankind are important ones Christians should ponder and debate. And I agree with YEC at least on the point that God could have spoken the universe into existence in six 24-hour days 6,000 years ago; God certainly has the power to do something like that. What really concerns me, though, is the explicit and implicit sense in YEC circles that, if you disagree with their position, you either are not a Christian or soon won’t be.
Let me explain what I mean. First, it should be noted that Answers in Genesis and many other YEC organizations explicitly maintain that one can believe in an old earth and evolution and remain a Christian. In response to a New York Times article in 2007 that claimed, “The [Creation] museum sends the message that belief in a young earth is the only way to salvation,” Ken Ham wrote, “As one walks through the Creation Museum, no where [sic] does it even suggest that ‘belief in a young earth is the only way to salvation.’”3 This has been the consistent stated message of YEC proponents.
However, in practice things shake out differently. Anecdotally, I know that in my education at a Christian school—from kindergarten through high school graduation—anyone who questioned YEC beliefs was considered suspect. It was clear that their faith was not genuine or, at the very least, was in jeopardy. And I have heard similar reports from essentially every other person I’ve met who grew up in a YEC environment and subsequently ended up leaving the YEC fold. So, why is this the case? I would like to suggest that when Ken Ham states that it is not even suggested in the creation museum that one’s salvation is dependent on YEC beliefs, he is not being entirely forthcoming.
So, let’s take a moment to examine some of the statements made by Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis concerning Christians who do not hold to the YEC position.4 In 2007, Ham approvingly quoted Thomas Huxley— “Darwin’s Bulldog,” who was an agnostic and adamant defender of evolution—who stated, “I am fairly at a loss to comprehend how anyone, for a moment, can doubt that Christian theology must stand or fall with the historical trustworthiness of the Jewish Scriptures.” Indeed, Ham goes so far as to say, “Huxley understood Christianity much more clearly than did compromising theologians who tried to add evolution and millions of years to the Bible.”5 Similarly, in his 2012 article “Maturing the Message,” Ken Ham stated, “[Christians] can’t defend any doctrines unless they first believe that Genesis 1–11 is literal history.”6 And, finally, in 2012, Ham stated in an interview that “If Christians don’t believe in a literal Genesis, they have no foundation for their doctrine.”7
Examples such as these could be multiplied ad nauseam. Additionally, when one visits the Creation Museum, they repeatedly encounter the claim that if one does not hold to the YEC position, one has abandoned God’s Word for fallible human reason. That is, if one has faith in God and God’s word, one is a YEC, and if one has abandoned divine wisdom for human frailty, then one believes in an old earth and evolution. So, perhaps the New York Times can be forgiven for thinking that according to Answers in Genesis, one’s faith depends on adherence to the YEC position.
The Connection to Dawkins
And this is where Richard Dawkins makes his long-awaited appearance. For, much like Thomas Huxley, Dawkins explicitly sees evolutionary theory (and science more broadly) as debunking Christian faith. For example, in a debate with Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and current head of the National Institutes of Health, Dawkins stated, “For centuries the most powerful argument for God’s existence from the physical world was the so-called argument from design,” after which he goes on to argue that evolution has now disproved this “argument from design.”8 In fact, at the heart of Dawkins’ (sadly)9 bestselling book, The God Delusion, is an argument that evolutionary theory nearly rules out the possibility of the existence of God.10 Much like Ken Ham, then, Dawkins believes that once one gives up on God creating the world in six 24-hour days and accepts an old earth and evolutionary theory, one may as well give up on Christianity altogether.
Indeed, despite Dawkins’ vitriol for YEC,11 he has a kind of grudging respect for what he considers to be their honesty. For example, referring to In Six Days: Why 50 Scientists Choose to Believe in Creation, a collection of essays by YEC scientists, he states, “I recommend this book. It is a revelation… At least some of the authors seem to be sincere, and they don’t water down their beliefs.”12 And, in the debate mentioned earlier between Dawkins and Francis Collins, he argues that Collins’ belief in theistic evolution/evolutionary creation13 is “a tremendous cop-out” due to the fact that Dawkins doesn’t understand why God would create using evolution as a method. It is both Ham’s and Dawkins’ belief that Christians ought to believe in YEC—the two simply disagree regarding whether YEC is true. This agreement has harmful ramifications for Christians, especially young American Christians.
Before I conclude with my main point, let me quickly make clear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that aren’t personal beliefs that should call someone’s faith into question. There clearly are beliefs that are incompatible with the Christian tradition. I, for example, think there is a good case to be made that if someone holds to explicitly racist beliefs—and refuses to be corrected—we, the body of Christ, should remove them from the church. This is similar to how Paul commands the Corinthian church to hand over to Satan the man in a sexual relationship with his father’s wife.14 That is to say, I think there are certain beliefs so antithetical to the Christian message that they ought not be tolerated in the church. However, I do not think that belief in an “old” earth falls under this category. From as far back in Christian tradition as St. Augustine (and even before), Christians have been interpreting Genesis in a number of fruitful ways that are not the “literal” interpretation mandated by Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis. These interpretations not supported by YEC are not an acquiescence to secular thinking, but rather, the dominant mode of understanding the Christian Scriptures. In fact, YEC’s insistence that the only allowable method of interpreting Genesis is their “literal” interpretation is the historical aberration.15
So, in conclusion, what I do argue is that Christians should not make their personal convictions a litmus test for authentic Christian identity. To do so is irresponsible and ultimately works to drive people away from Christianity. As I noted previously, in my upbringing YEC was largely seen as an essential aspect of Christian belief, and this contributed to the fact that I spent most of my undergraduate years as an atheist. And I’m far from the only one who has this story.16 In fact, in recent polling done by the Barna Group, “Churches come across as antagonistic to science” was listed as the third most common reason that young Christians are leaving the church—and I would argue that the most common reason for leaving the church, “Churches seem overprotective,” is also tied to YEC culture, where only YEC sources are seen as credible and life is presented as a binary struggle between the church and the world.17 Thus, I hope that for the health of the church—and especially that of young Christians—real and informed debate can be fostered between YEC proponents and other Christian believers. Such debate cannot afford to dissolve into deciding who counts as a “true” Christian. God, and the Christian tradition, is big enough to accommodate genuine disagreement among fellow believers.18
(1) Generally speaking, the idea that God created the universe in six 24-hour days between 6,000-10,000 years ago.
(2) See, for example, Francis Collins’ 2007 book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief or Darrel Falk’s 2004 book Coming to Peace with Science: Bridging the Worlds Between Faith and Biology.
(3) Ken Ham, “Is Belief in a Young Earth the Only Way to Salvation?,” November 26, 2007, https://answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2007/11/26/is-belief-in-a-young-earth-the-only-way-to-salvation/.
(4) I focus on Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis because Answers in Genesis (which Ken Ham founded) is the most visible and largest YEC organization.
(5) It should be noted that I agree with Huxley if he means that Christianity is a historical religion – God really did enter into history and redeem God’s people. But Ham’s suggestion that believing in an old earth and evolution rules out the historical character of Christianity is misguided. Belief in an old earth and evolution is even consistent with belief in a historical Adam and Eve: Kathryn Applegate, “Why I Think Adam was a Real Person in History,” https://biologos.org/articles/why-i-think-adam-was-a-real-person-in-history.
(Ken Ham, “Couldn’t God Have Used Evolution?,” Answers in Genesis, August 22, 2007, https://answersingenesis.org/theistic-evolution/god-and-evolution/couldnt-god-have-used-evolution/.)
(6) Ken Ham, “Maturing the Message: Creationism and Biblical Authority in the Church,” Answers in Genesis, January 1, 2010, https://answersingenesis.org/apologetics/maturing-the-message/.
(7) Bobby Ross Jr. “‘If Christians don’t believe in a literal Genesis, they have no foundation for their doctrine,’” The Christian Chronicle, March 20, 2018, https://christianchronicle.org/if-christians-dont-believe-in-a-literal-genesis-they-have-no-foundation-for-their-doctrine/.
(8) Dan Cray, “God vs. Science, Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins interviewed by D. Cray,” Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia of Religion and Science, 2006, http://inters.org/Dawkins-Collins-Cray-Science.
(9) I say that it is sad that Dawkins’ book is popular primarily not because of his atheist beliefs but because his arguments are so clearly lacking in real substance. That is, once he leaves the field of biology, he is clearly out of his depth. It’s not worth going into details here, so I’ll just leave you with the opinion of Michael Ruse, atheist and philosopher of science and religion at Florida State University, “The God Delusion made me ashamed to be an atheist.” (Michael Ruse, “Dawkins et al bring us into disrepute,” The Guardian, November 2, 2009, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/nov/02/atheism-dawkins-ruse)
(10) “This book will advocate an alternative view: any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it.” (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), 52.)
(11) For one of many examples, Dawkins tweeted “I said I’d never despise individuals, just their views. But there are limits, and YE Creationists who refuse to look at evidence pass mine,” (https://twitter.com/RichardDawkins/status/598812935859871745, also quoted in The Christian Post: https://www.christianpost.com/news/richard-dawkins-admits-he-doesnt-despise-individuals-but-young-earth-creationists-pass-those-limits-says-humans-are-african-apes.html).
(12) Richard Dawkins, “Sadly, an Honest Creationist,” Scepsis: Magazine of Science and Social Criticism, 2001, https://scepsis.net/eng/articles/id_2.php.
(13) Quickly, this viewpoint is defined: “God creates all living things through Christ, including humans in his image, making use of intentionally designed, actively-sustained, natural processes that scientists today study as evolution.” (Deborah Haarsma, “A Flawed Mirror: A Response to the Book “Theistic Evolution,” Biologos, April 18, 2018, https://biologos.org/articles/a-flawed-mirror-a-response-to-the-book-theistic-evolution.)
(14) 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, NRSV, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+corinthians+5%3A1-5&version=NRSV.
(15) The insistence in American Protestantism that YEC was the only acceptable interpretation of Genesis was largely cemented by John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris’ 1961 book The Genesis Flood; prior to this book much more diversity was found regarding the age of the earth and one’s interpretation of Genesis (Susan L. Trollinger and William Vance Trollinger, Jr., “Chapter 31:The Bible and Creationism,” in, Paul Gutjahr (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Bible in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 217). Regarding what constitutes a literal interpretation see Craig Allert’s article, “What is a Literal Reading?” Biologos, January 15, 2015, https://biologos.org/articles/what-is-a-literal-reading-lessons-from-gregory-of-nyssa-and-augustine or this insightful interview of N.T. Wright: “N.T. Wright and Pete Enns: What Do You Mean by Literal?,” Youtube, September 8, 2010, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxQpFosrTUk.
(16) Karl Giberson, “Creationists Drive Young People Out Of The Church,” HuffPost, January 18, 2012, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/creationists-and-young-christians_b_1096839.
(17) “Six Reasons Why Young Christians Leave the Church,” Barna Group, September 27, 2011, https://www.barna.com/research/six-reasons-young-christians-leave-church/.
(18) If anyone is looking for additional resources I highly recommend Terrence Nichols excellent 2008 book, The Sacred Cosmos: Christian Faith and the Challenge of Naturalism, wherein he argues that the real opponent of Christianity is not evolution or an old earth but naturalism—a worldview that rules out the existence of anything supernatural.