How Old is the Earth and Why is the Answer Important?

Dear Group,

Only the first hour of the debate at the Bing in Spokane on Wednesday, September 19th, was televised. That hour is available to watch here. Another half hour of audience questions followed, questions and answers KHQ did not post. Parts of that half hour I’ve transcribed from recordings made by members of the audience.

Thanks to Bob Gilles for the following question, which he posed in a very jolly, upbeat fashion I cannot express in print.

Bob Gilles: “What is your take on evolution and science? Do you believe the earth is more like 6000 years old or four and a half billion years old?”

CMR: “I get to go first, huh? [laughter] Well. OK. Ummm. The account that I believe is the one in the Bible that God created the world in seven days. [clapping] …made by His creation… [noise] I’m not here…I can’t say how old the earth is. I believe this is an exciting time for us to be living. I’m proud of the innovation and ingenuity of the American people. I’m proud to be an American. It’s the greatest country [loud clapping]…liberty and human rights and religious tolerance and self-determination. So this is a [murmuring] …and science. And I do believe that we need to…ah…know what the science is, respect the science…I’m battling right now to make sure we use science when it comes to making decisions around the Lower Snake River dams and the Snake River system…[trails off]”

It is a free country. Everyone is entitled to their point of view. The point of view McMorris Rodgers publicly endorsed in her answer (a little reluctantly) is consistent with her education. She has never been exposed to the foundations of geology and biology, except, perhaps, to discount the evidence. Her undergraduate degree was taken at the Pensacola Christian College where, among the Articles of Faith, one finds:

We believe that God created the heavens and the earth in six literal days, and that God created all life (Gen. 1). We reject the man-made theory of evolution occurring over millions of years and believe that the earth is approximately 6,000 years old.

No instructor at such an institution would dare offer an unbiased presentation of the physical evidence for a planet that is three and a half billion years old. (The evidence is not only fossils in layers of rock but also the physics of the decay of radioactive isotopes, the stuff of basic science.) 

If everything one is taught begins with the unshakable belief the earth is around 6000 years old (a number calculated based on the “begats” in the Book of Genesis) one must intentionally disregard the bases of nearly all modern science, especially modern geology, continental drift, and, importantly, the geological understanding of the history of climate. (If all ice ages and past documented changes in climate all occurred over 6000 years then everything has to have happened fast. In that mindset modern day concerns over the speed at which climate is changing can be glossed over as unremarkable. McMorris Rodgers analysis, “We’ve been through times when the earth warmed and then also we’ve been through times when the Earth…there’s been more ice on…in the world” is a case in point.)

It is important to recognize adherence to the idea of a 6000 year old earth is not a majority view in America, probably not even among self-described Christians. Much of Christianity, including United Methodism, the tradition in which I was brought up, considers the biblical creation story to be allegorical: “We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology.”  It is worth noting there have been recent (and un-successful) efforts to change Methodist doctrine to an anti-science view. Christianity is not monolithic, and McMorris Rodgers’ views represent only some of those who call themselves Christian. That realization is at the core of her hesitation to directly answer the question Mr. Gilles posed. 

Look at McMorris Rodgers’ answer again. She performed all almost immediate hard pivot to the only “scientific” refuge she knows, her claim of a scientific basis for preserving the Snake River dams, the same pivot she employs every time climate change comes up as a question.

In contrast, Lisa Brown used her time to address the broader issue of climate change:

Dr. Brown: I believe in science [applause] I believe there’s a scientific consensus that human activity and carbon being released into the atmosphere is contributing to climate change and that it is a major, major challenge facing our planet and that instead of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords like the Trump administration we should progressively work with other countries to come up with an agreement that will help us transition to a clean energy economy. And I also agree with the Congresswoman that we need to not put our head in the sand about science, but utilize science and our best technological practices as we address the issues related to declining fish populations and other important uses of the Columbia and Snake River system and get stake holders together looking at that science and coming up with solutions in a collaborative process.

McMorris Rodgers is entitled to her belief system, but at least in her case that belief system prevents her from comprehending scientific issues of the utmost importance. Lisa Brown was brought up in Roman Catholicism, a faith tradition that, like United Methodism, does not reject scientific consensus. Lisa has the intellectual tools to grapple with scientific issues.

Keep to the high ground,