In the post election fall out, no story has hit me as personally as the new media kerfluffle over Marco Rubio’s “age of the earth” comments. For those of you still trying to tune out, here’s the recap. Rubio, a Republican Senator from Florida, got asked in an interview with GQ how old he thought the earth was. His reply heard round the world:
I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.
This immediately caused cries of how scientifically ignorant he was, as the correct answer is apparently 4.54 billion years. Rubio has been accused of putting religion ahead of science, and this has sparked a general conversation about how religious orthodoxy and science are incompatible. In fact, Phil Plait over at Slate put it this way:
(Highlight in the original)
Now, I agree with Plait. Science is critical to our understanding of the world. I started this blog in part because it makes me incredibly sad exactly how little most people know about math and science, and how malleable most people believe facts are. I think scientific literacy is one of the biggest gifts we can give our children, and obviously I spend a decent amount of my free time trying to promote more critical interpretations of popular facts….and that is where I disagree with Phil Plait and the other Rubio critics.
I think drawing a line in the sand over one specific issue like this is wrong.
I am not a young earth creationist….but I was raised by them. I’m not talking about my parents either, I’m talking about the 13 years of Christian school education I received, including 7 years of strict Baptist teaching in middle school and high school. Every science or math class I took for my entire pre-college career was taught by a young earth creationist (or at least someone who had been willing to say they were one). In this environment, any science class not taught by an avowed Christian was immediately suspect. When I announced my intention to go to a secular university and to study engineering, I fielded question after question about how I would be able to stay true to my faith while being taught science by those terrible atheists. I was encouraged to change my choice of school or my choice of major, to change anything, because of the constant assaults on my beliefs I going to have to withstand. I was told horror story after horror story of Christian kids singled out and flunked for standing up for what they believed in. A friend’s mother actually cried while talking to me about it. For a time I reconsidered, but in the end I didn’t change my mind and I went to college ready to face the fire.
Well, the fire never came.
In four years where I barely left the math/science buildings, in four years of biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, physics and engineering classes, I was never, not once, asked how old I thought the world was, how we all got here, or if I thought there was a place for God in any of it.
It’s not just that no one asked, it’s that it never came up. I mean, I’m pretty sure in one of my biology classes there was a passing reference to “this is an evolutionary adaptation”, but other than that, no one raised the subject. We were too busy learning about how to multiply numbers in a matrix or how objects move on frictionless surfaces. In fact the only time it came up was either when people found out I went to a Baptist high school (“oh, so you were taught the whole earth in six days thing? what was that like?) or when I’d run in to Christians who would want to grill me on how I was being treated. Ironically, many of these Christians were in the psychology or sociology departments, both of which had professors FAR more critical of fundamental Christian beliefs than anything I encountered.
Over time, I came to be fairly critical of the particular high school I had gone to and the attitude of religious fundamentalism. It was science, really, that set me free. The ability to review evidence, to think critically, to decide what is and isn’t a valid source, and a healthy sense of skepticism all moved me away from those people who claim religion mostly so they will always feel sure about everything. I like feeling unsure. I like admitting I could be wrong. I like saying there’s some ambiguity, and that I’ll look in to it independently and form a conclusion. I will always love science for this.
However, when people use science to do the same thing to others that I feel religion was used to do to me, I get upset. Science should be used to open people’s minds to the idea of evidence based investigation, not to make fun of people because they repeat something they were raised with. To set the bar at the age of the earth, to say that no one who even questions the 4.54 billion year number is allowed to come in, well I think that ensures that fewer people of faith will even bother trying to enter the sciences. This needlessly perpetuates hostilities on both sides. If religion throws down a gauntlet on one side, it’s up to science to sit back and say “no problem, come on in, take a look around for yourself and see how you feel after”. Science is not an excuse to shove a conclusion down someone’s throat. Science is a process of teaching people how to reach a good conclusion to begin with.
Getting back to Rubio and his detractors….this is why I can’t criticize the man. Rubio’s a Catholic, a lawyer, and a politician. I doubt he’s seriously sat down and studied geology, astronomy or anything else that would help him understand the age of the earth debate. Additionally, his Catholic faith tells him that many conclusions could be valid (Catholics are not required to be young earth creationists). So when he was asked a question outside his comfort zone, he said what he knew, admitted his limitations, and said what he didn’t know. To me, that’s science.