A friend, Dave, sent me an interesting article that was published several months ago in Science. This insightful and well-written article by Jennifer Couzin is important because it focuses on one scientist’s trauma and ensuing lifelong journey with rejecting his evangelical creationist upbringing to accept evolution as scientific fact. Below the fold is a summary of this article for you to read.
Paleontologist Stephen Godfrey, curator of the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland, started out his life incongruously as a young earth creationist with a keen interest in biology and a weakness for fossil collecting. Even though his parents were (and still are) fundamentalist christians (his father was a Sunday school teacher, in fact), they were unusual because they encouraged their son’s curiosity in the natural world.
Even though Godfrey grew up knowing that the earth was 6,000 years old, he heard the first whispers of dissention when his first-grade student teacher mentioned that apes were the ancestors of people. After discussing this comment with his parents over the dinner table, Godfrey correctly concluded that this “couldn’t be true because apes aren’t evolving into humans today; they’re apes.”
Upon enrolling in university as a biology student, Godfrey found that his coursework raised niggling questions that could not be answered through biblical literalism, questions such as what carnivorous animals ate since they are so well-designed to kill and eat other animals. By the time he was ready to graduate, he gave a presentation on the origin of flight, arguing that Archaeopteryx could not have possibly evolved from dinosaurs.
Nevertheless, the anatomic similarities between Archaeopteryx and dinosaurs impressed Godfrey so much that he decided to pursue his graduate degree in paleontology so he could learn, once and for all, whether the claims of evolutionary biologists were true. He joined the Robert Carroll’s lab at McGill University where he prepared and described fossil amphibians known as Greererpeton.
But Godfrey’s first summer as a graduate student was a turning point. He had been invited to help dig fossil pelycosaurs in Kansas by paleontologist Robert Reisz from the University of Toronto. Pelycosaurs, which lived 300 million years ago, are ancestral mammals.
So one stiflingly hot and humid day, Godfrey found himself sitting in a cow pasture in rural Kansas, looking at layer upon layer of fossil footprints made by ancient terrestrial animals, wondering how these footprints could possibly have been made during Noah’s flood.
“You can’t imagine a global flood and animals finding ground to make footprints on,” remarked Godfrey. “That, more than anything, any other experience in my life, really shook me to the core.”
Rebutting Noah’s flood. Godfrey drew these
sketches to show how Noah’s flood cannot explain
fossil footprints, as they’re found in different
layers of rock and depend on an animal resting its
weight on the ground.
Finally, in 1989, after Godfrey had moved to Drumheller, Alberta, Canada, he realized the veracity of evolution. He frequented Dinosaur Provincial Park and, as he drove there, he couldn’t help but notice that the landscape was covered in layer after layer of fossil-rich sediments. One layer of these sediments contained freshwater and terrestrial fossils, marine organisms and mollusks in another, and then there was a third layer of freshwater and terrestrial fossils.
“These animals were living here in this same place, but they couldn’t have all been there at the same time,” Godfrey says — an observation that directly conflicts with flood geology. After pondering this for awhile, Godfrey states that “the rest of the young-Earth creationist ideas kind of exploded.”
Godfrey was understandably upset with this elaborate deception. He sought out creationists to argue with. He became alienated from most of his family. His parents and siblings were upset by his acceptance of the veracity of evolution. In fact, families have so much difficulty dealing with a crisis of faith like this that they often turn their backs on the person experiencing it.
As the article points out, some former creationists think that changing creationists’ minds about evolution is not worth the heartache that it causes.
Fortunately, Godfrey did not lose his wife, a devout christian, nor his five children, all of whom still attend an evangelical, young-earth creationist church. However, it seems this experience has made it impossible for him to communicate with his own family about questions of faith. He admits that he doesn’t know what his children believe, nor does he know how strongly he should guide them in matters of faith versus science.
When asked, Godfrey admits that he believes in god today, but tomorrow may be different.
Reading this article makes it easier to understand why religous fundamentalists of all faiths have so much difficulty in accepting the truth since they stand to lose everything, including their very identity. Yet, people do turn their backs on their religious faith every day, so there is something that finally causes them to decide they’ve had enough. For Godfrey, digging up fossil footprints himself were his turning point, but I am interested to know what was that crisis point for others. Have any of you experienced a radical change in your personal belief system as Stephen Godfrey did? What was your ‘breaking point’? How did your crisis of faith affect you and those around you? Are there family members who still do not speak to you?
Evolution: Crossing the Divide. (2008). Jennifer Couzin. Science 319:1034-1036.