Young Earth Creationism at the Giant’s Causeway: a grave error of judgement

By Dr. Rebecca Williams, Teaching Fellow & Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Geology, University of Leicester.

Co-authors: Dr Jan Zalasiewicz, Senior Lecturer, Department of Geology and and PhD student Oliver Knevitt.

A new exhibition at the Giant’s Causeway was unveiled on Tuesday 3rd July by the National Trust. A World Heritage Site, the Causeway is a spectacular geological landscape.  Why, then, does the new visitor centre include Young Earth Creationism?

The exhibition explains that the Giant’s Causeway is made of around 40,000 basaltic columns: a geological feature which forms when molten basaltic lava cools and contracts. The basalt columns at the Giant’s Causeway were formed 60 million years ago, when vast outpourings of lava accompanied the opening of the Atlantic Ocean.  The basalts in Antrim have since been carved by ice, sea and weather to form the beautiful feature that attracts half a million visitors each year.

Legend has it that the columns were in fact a bridge built by the giant Finn McCool so that he could go to Scotland without getting his feet wet. Perhaps this legend was born out of the early observation that very similar basalt columns occur at Fingals Cave, on the Isle of Staffa in Scotland.

The Giant’s Causeway was central to scientific debate back in Victorian times when geology was still a young science.  Early geologists then were struggling to understand the origin of rock formations, and what that meant for Earth’s history.  Some thought that the columns were the stems of huge fossilised sea creatures, while others considered (rightly, as it turned out) that these structures were volcanic in origin.

Many of these early geologists were religious men, such as William Buckland (who became Dean of Westminster) and Charles Kingsley (a clergyman who wrote one of the first popular geology books as well as The Water Babies and Westward Ho!).  They realised that the enormous and varied layercake of rock strata that underlie the British Isles (of which the Giant’s Causeway is a tiny part) must have taken many millions of years to form, layer by layer, as the world itself underwent many changes.  In this, they accepted the evidence of their eyes, while maintaining their Christian convictions.  The notion that the Earth might have formed in, say, 4004 BC (as Archbishop Ussher had calculated in around 1650 AD, from dates in the Bible) simply did not fit the evidence, even in those early days of the science.

The history of Geology as a subject is fascinating, helping to understand how this science grew, with its roots as an amateur pastime in Victorian times. The new Visitor Centre at the Giant’s Causeway recognises the central role the Causeway played at this time and dedicates a part of its exhibition to this. But then it goes on to say that “this debate continues today for some people, who have an understanding of the formation of the earth which is different from that of current mainstream science.

Young Earth Creationists believe that the earth was created some 6000 years ago.  This is based on a specific interpretation of the Bible and in particular the account of creation in the book of Genesis.

Some people around the world, and specifically here in Northern Ireland, share this perspective.

Young Earth Creationists continue to debate questions about the age of the earth. As we have seen from the past, and understand today, perhaps the Giant’s Causeway will continue to prompt awe and wonder, and arouse debate and challenging questions for as long as visitors come to see it.”

The approach of the National Trust here is unfortunate. For the Young Earth Creationists’ belief that the Earth was created less than 6,000 years ago is simply wrong – as wrong as to say that the Earth is flat, or that the Moon is made out of green cheese. It does not form part of any rational debate – and for many, it is not even a theological debate.  The belief that the Earth is only 6000 years old is exactly that – a belief held passionately by some, where interpretations gleaned from Biblical scriptures are given over-riding priority over the abundant evidence of a much older Earth, preserved within the landscape beneath our feet.  (This particular belief in a very young Earth is not a general feature of religion either, for the Hindu and Buddhist timescales encompass many billions of years – longer even than the timescales of present-day cosmologists).

By including the statement that a debate exists, which was campaigned for by the Caleb Foundation (a Northern Ireland evangelical umbrella group), the National Trust has given credence to the idea of Young Earth Creationism. The Caleb Foundation have said that the exhibition “both respects and acknowledges an alternative viewpoint and the continuing debate” and that “it sets a precedent for others to follow”. It is here that the danger in including Young Earth Creationism anywhere within a scientific exhibition lies. The well-documented Wedge Strategy aims, little by little, to push a Creationist agenda. Creationism and Young Earth theory has no place in science, and is entirely at odds with the understanding that we possess of the history of our planet.

We do not wish to censor the beliefs held by people such as those at the Caleb Foundation, nor do we question their right to hold them, or to argue for them.  Nor are we in any way trying to undermine religious belief.  Today, as in Victorian times, there are many active scientists (including geologists) who have no trouble reconciling their personal religious beliefs with the clear evidence that the Earth is a complex and ancient planet (a little over four and a half billion years old, we now know) that lies within an almost immeasurably vaster and yet more ancient cosmos.

But it is wrong, in a publicly funded centre designed to explain one of the great natural wonders of the world, to include, or lend credibility to, beliefs that have no basis in observed reality.  In allowing religious belief to trespass on scientific knowledge the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre has made a considerable error of judgement, and has failed in its duty to portray the true, and ancient, grandeur of the landscape that surrounds us.

15 Comments

  1. Mike Simpson
    Posted 17/07/2012 at 12:00 | Permalink

    @Eugene
    No-one would mind if creationism was included in the myths and legends section along with Fin nMcCool. But it’s not. It is presented as if it is a valid scientific debate. Anyone can believe what they want, of course, no matter how dumb, but an organisation like Caleb seeks to promote its views and persuade others. That is: they seek to deny people basic knowledge. This exhibit promotes their ideas as valid and they are crowing about it on their website.

    Consider this: would it be okay for a museum exhibit about Jewish history to present anti-Semitic ideology as a valid alternative point of view and say that there is continuing debate about whether or not the Holocaust happened?

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    John Lowe Reply:

    The difference between origins and the holocaust is that we have massive ammounts of documentation from eye witnesses to the holocaust. Evolutionism and creationism have to rely on forensic evidence interptreted through thier worldviews. I don’t know anything about Caleb but why shouldn’t it “promote its view and persuade others”? How can that be called “denying people basic knowledge”. This has to be one of the most blatant cases of ‘the pot calling the kettle black’. Evolutionists take every opportunity to silence criticism of their own worldview. The Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre is a typical case in point.

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    MIke Reply:

    Creationism is a ‘worldview’ based on interpretation of written materials and denial of solid evidence (as is Holocaust denial). Evolution (and the great age of the Earth) is not a worldview, it is inarguable reality, based on an entire planet full of scientific evidence (but contradicting some written material). Caleb are welcome to promote their own views on their own website and in their own literature – this debate occurred because they persuaded someone at the NT to promote their views at the Causeway Visitor Centre.

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    John Lowe Reply:

    What evidence do creationists deny? Actually both Creationistrs and Evolutionists use the same evidence. The difference is in their interpretation which depends on their worldview. Evolutionism has a naturalistic worldview and Creationism has a theistic worldview. Put bluntly it is either “In the begining, God created the heavens and the earth”, or, “In the begining there was a big bang”. the reason you think creationists “deny solid evidence” is beceause any discussion of creationism has been suppressed and hidden from you. you are unaware of the masses of evidence that creationists have. Evolutionists ‘have the microphone’ and won’t let the public hear any voice but their own. This is changing now because of the internet, and contrary views are starting to break through.

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    John Lowe Reply:

    What “solid evidence is denied? Actually the creationist worldview is ‘God created the universe’. The evolutionist worldview is ‘no one created the universe.’ We therefore have a choice between “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and “In the beginning nothing exploded and became everything”. Once you have made that choice you go on to explain your observations of the universe in line with that choice.

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    Chris Williams Reply:

    What creations say is that God was a magician who created the universe out of nothing in 7 days 6,000 years ago. What evolutionists say is that if there was a creator he was the greatest physicist and chemist of all time and he did some splendid work 4.6 billion years ago and may have done some even before that. Now, if you are looking for a supreme being, which one would you choose? I’ll go for the old one not the young upstart.

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  2. Eugene
    Posted 16/07/2012 at 19:42 | Permalink

    The National Trust is simply saying that there are other points of view. The science says otherwise. If a visitor does not share the scientific viewpoint then that is her business. Why the outrage? It is unlikely to change opinions. Science makes its stance known and it seems to me, clear, and that is all it need do. Australian aboriginal creation stories are interesting, amazing and enable a spirituality that is intimately linked to the land. A different epistemology. That is ok is it not?

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  3. Nick
    Posted 12/07/2012 at 08:46 | Permalink

    As bonetired has pointed out, this has obviously sparked much controversy and vast column inches (no pun intended!) on the topic. I agree it is an error in judgement, but I feel it’s also working out to be a brilliant publicity stunt. I for one hadn’t thought about Giant’s Causeway in recent living memory, however I would quite like to go now, to see both the geological formation and the controversial sign! On that note, I think the NT might continue to sit on the fence for a while and see if visitor numbers creep up…

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  4. J H
    Posted 11/07/2012 at 15:35 | Permalink

    “Legend has it that the columns were in fact a bridge built by the giant Finn McCool so that he could go to Scotland without getting his feet wet.”

    This in your own words is “simply wrong.” Of course it is; it’s a legend.

    The National Trust have done what you have done by offering this legend. It is just an interpretation, whether true or false.

    NT states creationist thinking “is different from that of current mainstream science.” This to me is another way of saying it’s a legend.

    Aboriginal creationism is incredibly fascinating. It tells similar stories about the creation of features of the land. However fascinating their stories, they are also simply wrong.

    What’s the big fuss? I don’t believe the National Trust are offering creationist theory as a rational debate. They are made up of entirely (mostly) rational people.

    However absurd young earth creationism is, the truth is that as the NT state “some people… share this perspective.”

    I would perhaps remove “specifically here in Northern Ireland” from the wording, which makes it sound bigger than it is. But this is hardly a grave error of judgement. That is simply wrong.

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  5. Mike Simpson
    Posted 11/07/2012 at 14:19 | Permalink

    Anyone can make an error of judgement. What is remarkable here is the NT’s dogged refusal to admit their mistake, which is just digging them into a deeper and deeper hole. It’s one tiny part of the visitor centre and could be easily removed or switched off. Surely they must have realised by now that the loss of reputation and income they will face from aggrieved non-creationists far outweighs whatever kudos/income this has earned them with creationists.

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  6. Dan Porter-Brown
    Posted 11/07/2012 at 09:14 | Permalink

    Debating articles of faith with the principles of scientific investigation is the equivalent of taking a chess set to a draughts tournament. Whilst the scientific method constrains the adherent to strict rules about evidence based knowledge, faith has no such restrictions giving its proponents free reign to pick and choose facts that suit their case. The main problem in relation to the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre is that a post-modern desperation to give all view points an equal hearing plays into the hand of those with a point to make and the will to make it. YEC, if it is to be mentioned in relation to the Giant’s Causeway, should sit alonside the myths of warring giants and the divine intervention of the Spaghetti Monster.

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    John Lowe Reply:

    The past is not open to the scientific method because it cannot be observed.

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    Chris Williams Reply:

    May I recommend you take a trip the Greenland with an ice core drill. The past can be observed in all it’s magnificence. If you budget won’t run to it, take a core sample from a very large tree but not one of mine.

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    John Lowe Reply:

    Observing ice cores is not the same as observing the past.
    we make obsrvations of ice cores and and interpret them according to our worlview. Michael J Oard is a meterologist with an interest in the ice age. In one of his articles on the subject he says, “The wild oscillations in the oxygen isotope ratio during the Ice Age is interpreted by uniformitarian scientists as catastrophic changes in temperature in the North Atlantic region. These are used to justify speculation on rapid climate change in the present climate due to increased greenhouse gasses. It is the uniformitarian stretched-out time scale that is the main cause of the problem. Within a creationist model, the large fluctuations can be explained by events during the Ice Age. With much thicker annual layers in the Ice Age portion of the core, the oscillations could simply be annual layers caused by seasonal changes in temperature or more prolonged changes in temperature caused by variable volcanic dust loading in the stratosphere.

    Interpretation of ice cores is another example where different assumptions, using the very same data, result in quite different conclusions.”

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  7. Stephen Moreton
    Posted 10/07/2012 at 21:25 | Permalink

    For those interested in what creationists actually say about the Causeway, Australian creationist Tasman Walker has written about it, trying to interpret it as a product of Noah’s flood. His two articles are to be found here: http://creation.com/a-giant-cause and here: http://creation.com/the-inter-basaltic-bed-at-giants-causeway These are used by Northern Irish creationists in their propaganda.
    I researched and debunked the claims in these articles and caught Walker out lying. And I mean lying. See my article “Facts meet fantasies at the Giant’s Causeway” 2009, Earth Science Ireland Issue 6, p. 37-9. On-line: http://www.habitas.org.uk/es2k/ click on “magazine” and the whole issue will download as a pdf. Although there were other criticisms of the creationists’ attempts to get into the visitor centre, including some harsh words in “Earth Science Ireland” mine is unique in that it is the only one that actually addresses their technical claims, and debunks them.
    After publication I made sure the creationists knew about it as I posted links on their websites and told Walker directly. Now go to Walker’s recent report about the current visitor centre debate: http://creation.com/giants-causeway-visitor-centre-opens
    You will find that he cheerfully points to those other criticisms and dismisses them as a “battle of worldviews” but he does not mention the one critique that actually demolishes his case on technical grounds and shows it to be a load of rubbish. Now that’s what I call lying by omission. There is a comments section following his report. I submitted a comment politely pointing to my article. It has not appeared. Old habits die hard I guess.

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  8. Matt Sheard
    Posted 10/07/2012 at 16:25 | Permalink

    I share your position that Young Earth Creationism is a load of cobblers, but I see nothing wrong with what the NT has done here. They’ve stated the geological facts in a way which most visitors will understand. They then noted that the Causeway influenced debate with young earth creationists and then noted, briefly, that some people still hold that position today. To have not said that this position is still held by some may have given the impression that nobody believes in a young earth any more, which is incorrect. Indeed, by my interpretation of the Museums Association’s Code of Ethics the NT has done exactly as it should in this matter. It has not given credence to those beliefs, it has objectively stated that a difference of opinion exists.

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  9. David Tyler
    Posted 10/07/2012 at 16:10 | Permalink

    This article and the comments so far are reading too much into this issue. The NT is not giving credence to creationism. Rather it is celebrating the way the Giant’s Causeway can “arouse debate and challenging questions for as long as visitors come to see it”. Ultimately, this debate should be about evidences. It is sleep-inducing if a line is drawn to specify the boundaries of legitimate questions. The NT is right to think that if people have questions outside the mainstream, they should be allowed to ask them without being decried.

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    Chris Williams Reply:

    You are right they should be allowed to ask them and THEN be decried. With plenty of evidence of course.

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  10. Matt Beamish
    Posted 10/07/2012 at 11:39 | Permalink

    That these beliefs are presented on the same platform as the scientific evidence by a much respected high level organisation makes me sad. Humanity makes so much progress to actively understand and disentangle the past by expanding our knowledge base in so many disciplines but at the same time these efforts are completely ignored by those peddling a regressive ideology plucked out of thin air. Very, very depressing.

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  11. Posted 09/07/2012 at 22:23 | Permalink

    Here in TN, they have taken steps though new legislation to allow creationism back into the classroom. This law turns the clock back nearly 100 years here in the seemingly unprogressive South and is simply embarrassing. There is no argument against the Theory of Evolution other than that of religious doctrine. The Monkey Law only opens the door for fanatic Christianity to creep its way back into our classrooms. You can see my visual response as a Tennessean to this absurd law on my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2012/04/pulpit-in-classroom-biblical-agenda-in.html with some evolutionary art and a little bit of simple logic.

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  12. Gary Porter
    Posted 09/07/2012 at 21:52 | Permalink

    I note that Nelson McCausland, Minister for Social Development in Northern Ireland, and Nigel Dodds, previously Minister of Finance and Personnel are members of the Caleb Group on Facebook… http://www.facebook.com/groups/120251888003861/ both are party colleagues of Arlene Foster, Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Development, which provided £9.25m in funding to the visitor centre at the Causeway. Now I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but has the National Trust sold out?

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  13. bonetired
    Posted 09/07/2012 at 21:41 | Permalink

    The National Trust are behaving dreadfully over this: in effect they are sticking their fingers in their ears and going “nah nah na-na nah”. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people are protesting about this, highly critical articles have been written both by academic like yourselves as well as the N.I. press and yet the NT have done nothing apart from putting out anodyne press releases which answer none of the questions. The NT are in a hole and are using JCB’s to dig it deeper.

    Perhaps its time for the learned societies, for example, the Geological Society, the Society of Biology and, above all, the Royal Society, to ask some pertinent questions? With luck the NT will find it impossible to ignore them as they seem to be ingnoring everyone else.

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  14. John
    Posted 09/07/2012 at 19:07 | Permalink

    As a Northern Irish citizen, I feel outraged that this natural wonder would be tainted with such false information concerning religious dogma. The Giant’s causeway has a myth surrounding a giant named Finn MacCool who was said to place these rocks across the seabed so as he could fight a Scottish giant Benandoner — a figure who stated he could not swim across to prove he was the greatest warrior. While we are at it, the National Trust could debate whether or not that actually happened? Ridiculous.

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  15. Posted 09/07/2012 at 18:31 | Permalink

    Thank you for writing such a succinct and well argued article about this important issue. As one of the many people who have been campaigning against this addition to an otherwise excellent centre, the authority of your qualifications and fellowship position has added further strength to our campaign. I do not know if you have shared your views directly with the National Trust, but I will be sending them a link to this article in the hope that it may help them see the light and reconsider their astonishing lack of response to the public outrage over YEC at the Giant’s Causeway.

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