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.