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Rethinking origins: The evolution of a young earth creationist

Rethinking origins: The evolution of a young earth creationist

In this article, I share a dialogue with David MacMillan, a former young earth creationist who has since come to a very different opinion. MacMillan currently lives in Washington DC with his wife and their children, where he works as a paralegal while studying for his J.D. at Columbus School of Law. He is featured in the independent documentary "We Believe In Dinosaurs" and you can read more about his journey here. "We Believe In Dinosaurs" is an award-winning documentary that follows the creation of Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter from inception to completion, along with its impacts on those involved and the surrounding community. It has been screened in several film festivals since its premiere at the San Francisco Film Festival this April and has just been released on streaming platforms ahead of its broadcast on PBS Independent Lens next February.

Although the filmmakers accept mainstream science, young-earth creationism is portrayed primarily through the mouths of creationists themselves, making the film less a collection of scientific rebuttals and more a glimpse into the inner workings of this unique brand of “alternative” science.

MacMillan is joined in the film by Doug Henderson, the lead designer for the Ark Encounter and a committed young-earth creationist, and Dan Phelps, a geologist and longtime critic of Ken Ham’s organization and teachings.

David MacMillan, a former young earth creationist, who is featured in the independent documentary "We Believe In Dinosaurs." | (Courtesy of Randal Rauser)

Randal: David, thanks for the invitation to watch "We Believe in Dinosaurs." For those who haven’t seen it, it is a fascinating documentary that chronicles the cultural impact of young earth creationism, and specifically Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis (AiG) and their Ark Encounter theme park. Wrapped up into the story are questionable relationships between religion and government, urban decay and the fleeting hope of economic renewal, and the cultural war between secularists and fundamentalist Christians.

In the midst of it all, we also meet you, a Christian who was once deeply committed to AiG: indeed, we learn in the film that you are a lifetime charter member of their Creation Museum.  But you’ve since had a change of heart: there’s a poignant moment where you locate your name on the museum’s wall for charter members and reflect that you are no longer that person.

I’d like to hear more about that story. To begin, could you share something about your background, specifically how you were first introduced to AiG and young earth creationism more generally?

David: Like one of the other characters in the film says, I was more or less “always” a creationist. It was something I grew up with, something we all assumed to be true. My family home schooled, so all of my curriculum came from creationist groups like Answers In Genesis and Apologia. My dad, who holds an M.S. in chemistry, took me to creation science conferences whenever they were close enough to attend.

As I got older, however, the interest in creationism went from being part of my family’s identity to being my own identity. I was far more interested and far more plugged-in to the creation science movement than anyone else in my family or in my immediate peer group. I really liked being the “resident expert” on all things having to do with the age of the earth, evolution, and biblical authority.

Randal: I know that of which you speak. When I was in high school thirty years ago, I lent my high school science teacher my copy of the book It’s a Young World After All. Young earth creationism was very much a part of my Christianity growing up. Indeed, I was taught it was key to everything else: Genesis was the foundation on which the house of Christianity was built, and if you doubted the history of Genesis 1-3, well, that was a slippery slope to doubting everything else, the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, the second coming, heaven and hell, everything.

David: Oh, absolutely. The argument is very powerful. Broadly speaking, the concern is that if you cannot take Genesis “at face value” then you will end up questioning, deconstructing, and ultimately discarding the rest of the Bible. There are also specific, prooftext arguments. If you accept millions of years and death before Adam, for example, then you lose the verse in Romans about death being the result of sin, and your whole soteriology goes to hell.

Part of this was an assumption that the Bible had a “simple” or “plain” or “historical-grammatical” interpretation that ought to be the default. I was never aware that a lot of the interpretations I took for granted were fairly recent in the history of Christianity. More than just that, however, there was a tremendous confidence and reassurance at having all the answers. My religious belief was founded on science and reason. It was all airtight; there was no need (and no room) for faith or even healthy tension. I always had an answer.

Randal: I’m glad that you mentioned the fact that many of these young earth creationist interpretations are of recent vintage. In my view, one of the biggest objections to young earth creationism came when I read historian Ronald Numbers’ book The Creationists. Numbers traces the rise of modern creationism to the fundamentalist debates of the 1920s and the flood geology of a Seventh Day Adventist named George McCready Price. Suffice it to say, young earth creationism was not the default reading of church tradition as I’d been told.

So how did you come to question young earth creationism?

David: It took four years of college and a lot of soul-searching before I even considered it as a possibility. I had been raised without any cognizance that there could be any other options for interpreting Genesis; to me, it seemed like my only choices were creationism and atheism. That false dichotomy is actually still something I struggle to overcome.

Creationism was the reason I decided to get a degree in physics in the first place. There were many questions I’d never been able to get good answers for, even when I spoke to the people at Answers In Genesis at length. On the surface, creationism has all the answers, but when pressed there is a retreat to “we need more research” or “there are lots of ideas but we aren’t really sure how that works.” Even though I knew the classic creationist answers to issues like radiometric dating, starlight and time, ice cores, and evolutionary phylogeny, I was also aware that the answers needed more work. I thought that if I got my degree in physics, I would be able to answer those questions for myself and add to the body of evidence for creationism.

What I found, once how I learned to conduct actual scientific research and review existing literature, was that none of the scientific claims I’d been raised with bore any resemblance to reality. I had hundreds of completely false beliefs about genetics, geology, and many other areas of science. By the time I was done undoing those falsehoods, my allegiance to creationism was much more tenuous. I still believed creationism for religious reasons, but I reached the point that I realized the mainstream consensus could be true.

Randal: Wow, so you came to believe that you had overwhelming scientific evidence against creationism but you still retained belief in it for religious reasons. That must have been a recipe for cognitive dissonance. Did you think God was testing your faith, or what?

David: It was a strange feeling. Keep in mind: I still thought creationism was scientifically viable. I hadn't lost that. I just accepted that evolution and deep time could also be viable explanations. But that was enough to put me on the outside. No one on the side of real science was going to accept my contention that young-earth creationism could be reasonably accepted. Yet I wasn't a "true" creationist either, because so much of creation science focuses on "debunking" evolution, and I had rejected the idea that evolution could be easily debunked. I remember writing to my teenage brother in law shortly after I got married and cautioning him after he posted an anti-evolution article. I said something like, "I totally believe in creation, but I think it's inaccurate to act like evolutionary biology is totally absurd. For scientists who think the world seems very old, evolution is a very useful theory and there's nothing about it that's obviously wrong." Everyone was really surprised when I said that.

Still, it made me doubt some of the things I'd always accepted without question. If evolution and deep time weren't obviously false, like I'd always been taught, then could I really maintain my position that atheists were "without excuse"? One of my reasons for believing the Bible had always been this idea that creation science was impregnable, but if evolution was even potentially true, what reasons did I have left? That's when I started examining the origins of young-earth creationism a little more closely.

Randal: The notion that the overwhelming Neo-Darwinian consensus across scientific disciplines – geology, paleontology, biology, genetics, etc. – is attributable to sin rather than evidence and thus that it can be debunked if we simply take the blinders off, that’s a powerful idea. Indeed, in many cases it looks like indoctrination.

So how did you finally cut the Gordian knot? And did your Christianity survive?

David: It didn't take long for me to realize that my in-between state – affirming young-earth creationism while admitting that evolution sort of makes sense – was a very unstable equilibrium. Almost no one held the same view. Reading the handful of people who had similar stances, like Todd Wood and Kurt Wise, made me more confident that my skepticism of hard-line creationism was warranted. There just weren't many creationists who were willing to say, "Sure, the evidence for evolution is pretty good, and a lot of our arguments are pretty bad, but here's why science is still on our side."

Part of young-earth indoctrination is a sort of "inoculation" against outside views. Just like I had been exposed to caricatures of evolutionary biology, mainstream geology, Big Bang cosmology, and the like, I had also been inoculated against old-earth interpretations of Genesis. I'd heard of the day-age theory, the framework hypothesis, accommodationism, and the like, but only from a fundamentalist perspective, where they were portrayed as antagonistic to the Bible and incompatible with the Gospel. I'd been conditioned to see them all as recent, aberrant "compromises" cast against the "obvious" young-earth interpretation.

However, once I allowed myself to admit that there was more than one possible interpretation of natural history, it made me question whether there could be more than one consistent interpretation of Genesis. Before, I'd never had any incentive to seriously consider any old-earth viewpoint. Once I started to look at the physical evidence honestly, it freed me to look at fundamentalism more honestly, which in turn fed back into deeper appreciation for the evidence. There was one critical moment when everything came crashing down...but I won't give that part of the film away.

At that point, I really didn't know what I believed. I had rejected the fundamentalist notion that every part of Christianity depended on creationism, but I didn't know how to reconstruct faith without it. It was like learning to walk all over again. Still a challenge, to be honest, but I’m learning.

Randal: As we wind down our conversation, could you share a bit about where you are at now in your journey in the borderlands of theology and science? And also, how’d you get involved in "We Believe in Dinosaurs"?

David: When Bill Nye accepted Ken Ham’s challenge to a debate back in 2014, I wrote an open letter to Nye urging him to be prepared for everything Ham would throw his way. The filmmakers, who were just beginning to explore a documentary about science denial, contacted me and asked if I would be willing to talk. What started as a single interview morphed into more and more over the next few years.

As far as where I am now – it's been very difficult. When you hear for most of your life that nothing in the Bible could possibly make sense without this specific view of Genesis, the natural inclination is to follow that to its logical end and throw the whole thing out.

It didn't help that any time I struggled with faith or tried to get help, the default response from family and friends was to blame it all on the rejection of young-earth creationism. If I would just come back and believe the way they believed, they said, everything would be so much simpler. They had all the answers; I just needed to accept it again.

I don't think God intended the Bible to act like some inexorable proof, filled with scientific truths only modern readers would be able to appreciate. The Creator I meet in the gospels doesn't need "101 Evidences For God" or a new version of geology or whatever else I once tried to use as proof. If Christianity isn’t the default and unavoidable conclusion, proven beyond question, then faith becomes a choice. I think that’s probably a good thing.

I don't have all the perfect answers like I once did, but at least I'm willing to reject wrong answers when I see them. It's a lot harder this way, but that's okay; I would rather try to have a very small amount of faith in God than have a truckload of faith in my intellectual acumen.

We Believe In Dinosaurs is available now for streaming on demand using Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV, Google Play, and other sources.

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