How I Stopped Believing the Earth Is 6,000 Years Young

My fascination with creationism ultimately led me to embrace evolution

TTen years ago, I never could have imagined myself sitting in a theater and watching myself, on film, explain why I left young-Earth creationism. For most of my life, I believed that the world was created only 6,000 years ago and that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth together on the sixth day of creation. Creationism was the framework of my faith and my worldview. I wrote articles and argued endlessly with anyone willing to listen.

Dan Phelps, co-directors Monica Long Ross and Clayton Brown, producer Amy Ellison, and David MacMillan at the world premiere of “We Believe in Dinosaurs” at the San Francisco International Film Festival on April 13, 2019. Photo: Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images

By the time I was approached by the documentary company 137 Films, my views had changed dramatically. I had written about science denial for multiple venues, and I was deeply concerned with creationism’s growing influence in my home state of Kentucky. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to explain the path that led me to reject the doctrine I’d grown up with, but I agreed to meet with producers Amy Ellison, Monica Long Ross, and Clayton Brown to tell my story.

We Believe in Dinosaurs explores how young-Earth creationism has gained a stronghold in the Bible Belt, particularly with the construction of the Ark Encounter theme park in Kentucky. Last month, I met Clayton, Monica, and Amy again at the premiere of the film in San Francisco. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the documentary. I knew it would be challenging to portray the frustrating absurdities of creationism, while also demonstrating why the movement is so enticing to the Christian community. To my delight, the film did both.

SSeeing my own story writ large on-screen brought back more than just memories. People who have become fluent in a second or third language have told me that they still think in their first, even if they haven’t spoken it in years. I have a similar relationship with young-Earth creationism.

The creationist worldview was an essential part of my upbringing, but my personal investment in the movement surpassed that of everyone I knew. As a teenage evangelist for a young-Earth and fundamentalist doctrine, I learned to see everything as evidence that confirmed my worldview. Endless layers of rock, exposed by roads cutting across the hills and valleys of central Kentucky, must have been deposited by a global flood just 40 centuries ago. An oak tree was more than just part of the landscape; its veined leaves and deep roots and chloroplasts and cells and DNA all screamed of an intelligent designer. Seeing people walking different breeds of dogs reminded me that even though God programmed canines with almost endless variation, dogs would never evolve into anything else. A crowded mall testified that all people are descended from Noah and his family. Every corner of creation was a plank in the platform of creationism.

This mandate to perceive the world through the lens of young-Earth creationism could be exhausting at times, but I loved it. It felt as if I could see the world in different colors than everyone else. I knew the real story, the hidden nuggets of truth behind everyday scenes. Everyone knew that I could be counted on to give the “true” answers about any scientific issue, providing an ego boost I definitely didn’t need. Ironically, creationism also gave me an overwhelming fascination with learning everything I could about the world, a fascination that ultimately led me to the truth.

In the documentary, I explain how young-Earth apologists identify gaps in the public’s understanding of the universe and fill those gaps with concepts that sound scientific, but aren’t. My broad knowledge base across myriad areas of science gave me the confidence to claim I knew where “hidden assumptions” were leading mainstream science astray. I learned to ignore evidence that didn’t fit my preconceptions, assuming that the “true” explanations were still waiting to be discovered.

Creationism only works if you compress the entire lifetime of our planet into the briefest of periods. When those shackles break, the impact is astonishing.

Yet unanswered questions piled up. In the film, Ken Ham, founder of the Ark Encounter, remarks that his followers should listen to young-Earth “experts,” even though they are too smart for most people to understand. For a while, that was enough for me. Even when I went to college as a physics major, I was expecting to learn the skills I needed to prove the young-Earth doctrine. As I began doing real academic research, though, I saw over and over that deep time and evolutionary biology have real, demonstrable applications. My trained skepticism of mainstream science weakened.

When I was finally able to accept the truth about the world — that creation is much bigger and older and more complex than I could have ever imagined — everything changed. I still had the same fascination with the world, but I was seeing so much more than ever before.

In order to fit billions of years of geologic history into a global deluge lasting just a few months, creationism has to compress the entire lifetime of our planet into the briefest of moments. It would be as if someone tried to claim that all the world’s wars since the discovery of the Americas happened in parallel, beginning and ending in less than half an hour. As a creationist, I saw every part of the world with that same transformation applied. Then, when I realized what I was missing, I could finally see depths where before I had only seen a muddied surface.

Creationism only works if you compress the entire lifetime of our planet into the briefest of periods. When those shackles break, the impact is astonishing. My world — a world I had examined so closely through the lens of creationism — grew hundreds of millions of times larger. Everything that had once fit neatly into a small, controlled framework exploded into a space billions of times larger. Everything I had once seen as simple evidence of recent creation and global catastrophe was now imbued with a dizzyingly complex and intricate history.

Everything I thought I knew about the world and the universe had turned out to be only the title and cover page of a story far deeper and grander than I ever knew. I went from thinking I knew most of the history of creation to realizing that the world contained far more knowledge than I could ever hope to learn in a dozen lifetimes.

FFor the first few months, I was insufferable in my excitement. I was rediscovering everything I had thought I knew. Everything that had formerly held only a single meaning now carried with it immeasurable mystery. An oak tree was no longer merely a reminder of a onetime miracle of design; it was now the testimony to innumerable generations of adaptation waiting to be discovered, each miraculous in its own way. All creatures were now interconnected, with every species heralding an unbroken tree of life stretching back tens of millions of centuries. A spray of starlings wheeling in twilit formation echoed the thundering footsteps of the dinosaurs. Everything thrilled me.

Yet, even now, I still think in the language and framework of creationism. When I read about a new discovery from an ancient civilization, my first instinct is to wonder what part of the Old Testament it fits into. Medical research that depends on evolution seems suspicious to me. I still assume exposed rock layers on a cliff face represent a global, cataclysmic flood. When I look up at the night sky, I catch myself again wondering how God managed to make starlight traverse billions of light-years in mere centuries.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Every time I catch myself thinking in creationism, I experience the same thrill at rediscovering how vast and beautiful the cosmos really is. God became much bigger to me when I accepted the truth about the cosmos.

I no longer have to know all the answers; I don’t have to struggle to cram creation into a 6,000-year box. I’m not afraid of losing my whole worldview over a difficult question. I get to learn, rather than endlessly debate. Every day is a brave new world.

David MacMillan is a freelance writer, paralegal, and law student in Washington, DC and features in the 2019 independent documentary We Believe In Dinosaurs, now streaming on demand. His upcoming book explores the impact of science denial in America and what it took for him to leave it behind.

Anyone with really good ideas will always be looking for better ones. Writing about law, fundamentalism, and science denial…book to follow.

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