Bill Nye made headlines last week when he visited the Creationist Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio (Actually near the border in Petersburg, KY). The museum is the brainchild of Ken Ham, the head honcho of Answers-in-Genesis, a ministry that pushes a specific creation story called Young Earth Creationism. YEC maintains the universe and everything in it is less than 10,000 years old, that all or most ancient extinct creatures lived side by side with one another, and that most of the fossils and deposits in the geological record are the result of a massive, worldwide flood that was survived by Noah and his family aboard the Ark as described in the biblical Book of Genesis.
The key point in understanding why someone would want believe in a literal Genesis has to do with the Garden of Eden and original sin. The story goes that Adam and Eve lived in a paradise when they were first created. But they disobeyed God. This was once considered critical to Abrahamic theology, because without that act of disobedience by Adam and Eve, there would be no reason to punish humanity with death and decay, no original sin, and critically for Christians, little or no need for salvation from sin through Christ.
YEC is often said to be at odds with evolutionary biology, and indeed it is, but that’s just the start. A young Earth/universe is in direct conflict with virtually every field of natural science. Two of the most notable fields are geology and astronomy. Let’s review a few examples from each of those fields below the water line.
You don’t have to be a geologist to understand that easily observed surface features discount YEC. There are hundreds of impact craters, thousands of extinct volcanoes, and several extinct super-volcanoes observed on Earth today. Each of these craters and volcanoes produced heat, flaming debris, and super-heated gas at some time in the past. If we add up all that heat and gas, and then assume it was all produced in the last 10,000 years, it adds up to so much activity that our air would be clogged with gaseous residue and the surface covered in many places by cooling ash and lava. Two extinct supervolcanoes alone, one in Yellowstone that erupted twice in the last 2 million years and the other in Indonesia about 75,000 years ago, would still be causing devastating problems to this day had they initially erupted in the last few thousand years.
Geologists have discovered another extinct super-volcano much larger than those two combined. It had a caldera the size of New Mexico and left a telltale lava field larger than Texas! Just that single event by itself created the Siberian Traps and may have caused the Permian-Triassic extinction 250 million years ago. That one super-volcano would still be wreaking havoc on a global scale, if it started up in the last 10,000 years. The same is true for the remains of the vast Chicxulub impact crater that coincides with the K-T extinction event 65 million years ago.
If the entire fossil record were created by a single global flood that covered the tallest mountains, you would expect to find regions where the fossils were all jumbled up. But what we actually see are long extinct species like dinosaurs and mammal-like reptiles that become more and more modern until they are indistinguishable from species alive today.
There is not one single non-avian dino fossil found mixed in with remains of modern placental mammals. There is not one ancient fern found in situ with giant petrified redwoods. Even the fossil remains of early hominids are found in an exact temporal progression from primitive species to anatomically modern humans, and the same is true for many other familiar lines of descent, like horses and whales.
We also find enormous beds of limestone and shale in the record. These deposits form under known conditions over long periods of time that could not exist in the momentary chaos of a single massive global flood. Not to mention there simply is not enough water on Earth, including all oceans, lakes, rivers, underground reservoirs like aquifers, and suspended in the air, to even come close to covering all land.
That’s just a smattering of the evidence below our feet, the picture above is not any better. Many good examples comes to us from astronomy. Light travels at a known velocity, 300,000 km per second or about 186,000 miles per second. If the universe were only a few thousand years old, there would not be enough time for the light from distant objects to reach us. And yet we see stars and galaxies billions of light-years away in virtually every direction we look. The more powerful our telescopes become, the more distant galaxies we see.
A good case in point is supernova 1987A. It’s the remains of a massive star that blew up in the Large Magellanic Cloud located on the outskirts of or Milky Way galaxy. SN1987A is relatively nearby, a mere 168,000 light years from Earth, and was actually seen blowing up in 1987, which means it really went nova about 160,000 years before the universe was created according to Young Earthers. We know that the speed of light has not changed significantly over the eons because, if it had slowed down, events from distant objects like 1987A would appear in slow motion. But wait there’s more, so much more!
When a supernova like 1987A occurs, it creates short-lived isotopes of elements that decay quickly. We can observe those isotopes and watch them decay in live streaming time using spectroscopy. As an added bonus, this confirms that unstable elements decayed at the same rate in the distant past as they do in laboratories on Earth today—which tells us that radiometric dating is a valid method for determining the age of fossils and deposits in the geologic record. Lastly, the debris rings around 1987A allow astronomers to directly calculate its distance using simple trigonometry and high school physics.
Young Earth Creationism is a distinct form of anti-scientific belief. In this country, we all have the right to believe what we choose. Nevertheless, SN1987A is but one of trillions of distant objects that point unequivocally to a universe much older than the paltry 10,000 years proffered up by Ken Ham and his Young Earth ilk. The residual heat of surface events and the organization seen in the fossil record are but two pieces in a large puzzle that all add up to the same thing. It’s true that a creator with infinite power could arrange rocks and paint falsehoods into starlight in any way s/he chooses, for reasons unknown, but if such claims are not testable then they are not in the purview of legitimate science.
These are just a few notable problems with YEC as a science. The actual list is virtually endless. There are many online resources to help you with other points, and the TalkOrigins homepage (And the National Center for Science Education) is a good place to start. Because of the strength of this evidence, most mainstream religions sharing the Old Testament in common have long since reconciled their theology with an old Earth and ancient universe. But there are holdouts, there’s even variants of creationism that accept an old Earth and all the natural science that goes with it, with the sole exception of evolutionary biology.
Should you plan on throwing yourself into an online creationist forum or locking horns with a young earther at a family gathering, here’s a tip: If the person[s] you are debating keeps harping on science but really means faith, you won’t get very far. Your best bet is to establish upfront if they see an old Earth as a threat to their religion, and go from there. And if the person you are debating is a pro like Ken Ham, or a slick pitchman funded by a few wealthy cranks hoping to drive a wedge between middle class parents and government schools, well, good luck, because that isn’t a matter of faith or evidence: in the words of Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”