11/27/2012 01:14 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2013

Young Earth Creationism Is a Threat to American Survival

The ruckus about Rubio's relationship to geology continues unabated. And my attempt last week to deflect attention from him to the larger problem of science literacy in the United States has been misinterpreted as a defense of Rubio's position and a lack of appreciation for the relevance.

Let me be clear (as I may not have been in my first post): I think the age of the earth matters and that our leaders need to be either scientifically informed or skilled at finding authoritative voices to consult on the many scientific issues relevant to the future of the country and the planet.

I worry a lot about people who believe the earth is a few thousand years old, for example. I don't see how they can possibly think clearly about the issue of energy. If the earth is 10,000 years old, then there is no such thing as fossil fuels. The oil in the ground could not have originated from fossils laid down 4,000 years ago in Noah's great flood, which is what young earth creationists believe. Fossil fuels, in this view, are not the result of hundreds of millions of years of organic change. Their origin is a mystery.

Knowing how our planetary fuels originated should inform deliberations about the best price for gas, the optimal EPA targets for fuel economy, and the level of subsidy for alternative fuels. And geologists are a critically important part of this conversation. I have so often heard people like CNBC's "drill-drill-drill" Larry Kudlow exclaim about how wonderful it is that the United States has enough oil and gas to last for a couple of centuries. That statistic does not encourage me in any way. We need to be thinking about our energy needs on a time scale of millennia and longer and geologists can help us with that.

I think all my critics agree with me on this point. But this was not the point I was trying to make.

I have spent decades deep inside American evangelicalism. When I first engaged the origins controversy I thought the solution to the problem of anti-evolution was simple: provide evidence and people will change their minds. False things should be easily trumped by true things. And today I find many of my younger colleagues wading into this controversy with the same naïve optimism.

But after decades of huffing and puffing and blowing on the straw house of creationism, it still stands. If anything, creationism has only become more popular, even while the evidence refuting it has grown steadily stronger.

We will never resolve the issue of widespread scientific illiteracy if we simply attack public figures that reject evolution or an ancient earth. That does nothing but steel the reserve of those propagandists who make their living undermining science. The young earth creationist worldview is couched in a larger theological framework that takes "spiritual warfare" seriously. There are forces for good in the world and there are forces of evil. One strategy that creationists have employed successfully is to argue that they are on the "good" side, from which it follows that those who oppose them are on the side of "evil." So-called "secular" scientists are thus so tainted that they are readily dismissed.

Much work needs to be done here to both understand this cultural phenomena and then to address it. I have been wrestling with it for a quarter century and am just beginning to understand why it is not going away. Ten years ago I published "Species of Origins: America's Search for a Creation Story," arguing that the origins controversy is a culture war, not a scientific controversy. Six years ago I published "Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists versus God and Religion" (with Oxford University Press, not a partisan religious press) raising alarms about how the public face of science was far more hostile to religion than the scientific community as a whole. Last year I published "The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age" (with Harvard University Press) examining the structures of authority within evangelicalism and how they empower what looks like a confident rejection of mainstream science. These and other books from people like Chris Mooney and Michael Ruse (both atheists) are our attempts to raise the right sort of alarm about broad cultural currents in American society. Assaulting public figures who express these cultural currents turns them into heroes.

Writing in the New York Times on Thanksgiving, Paul Krugman again weighed in on Rubio's geological cliff: "Don't shrug off Mr. Rubio's awkward moment," he said. "His inability to deal with geological evidence was symptomatic of a much broader problem -- one that may, in the end, set America on a path of inexorable decline."

We should be worrying about the more than 100 million Americans who think the earth is 10,000 years old and trying to figure out how that happened. Rubio is simply an expression of that large problem and attacking him is nothing more than the proverbial assault on the messenger.

Addendum: 'Species of Origins' was co-authored with Donald Yerxa; 'Oracles of Science' was co-authored with Mariano Artigas; 'The Anointed' was co-authored with Randall Stephens. I also note, as a clarification of my previous piece, 'Marco Rubio's Fiscal Cliff,' that I did not intend to imply that Jerry Coyne's excellent book, 'Why Evolution is True,' is itself hostile to general belief in God. My point was that Coyne is a highly visible crusader for atheism.