National Trust panders to creationists
Myth is placed on a par with science at the Causeway Centre
The basalt columns at the Giant’s Causeway were formed about 60 million years ago as a result of volcanic action. Three lava outflows occurred known as the Lower, Middle and Upper Basaltic. The hexagonal columns occur in the middle basalt layer, and the same formations can be seen at Staffa in Scotland (in Fingal's Cave). They also occur in the surrounding landscape of North Antrim and many other parts of the world.
The fascinating pattern that we see in the causeway stones formed as a result of rock crystallisation under conditions of accelerated cooling. This usually occurs when molten lava comes into immediate contact with water. The resulting fast cooling causes cracking and results in what we see today.
For all credible scientists, evolution is a fact and the universe is about 13.7bn years old. The earth itself is about 4.57bn years, not 6,000 years old, as Archbishop Ussher imagined. These facts are established in physics, chemistry, biology, geology and astronomy, to name only a few scientific disciplines. Astronomy tells us that the stars we see in the sky are billions of years old, a knowledge of erosion tells us that it took millions of years to create the 300-mile long Grand Canyon, and continental drift, or plate tectonics, shows us how the earth's continents have drifted over the Earth's surface over hundreds of millions of years.
Archaeology, palaeontology, genetics and dendrochronology all prove that life is many many times older than 6,000 years. For example, dendrochronology tells us that trees still exist which were alive 11,000 years ago.
As far as the Giant’s Causeway is concerned, thanks to physicists like Rutherford, radiometric dating is used to determine the age of rocks and minerals from the decay of their radioactive elements and it has been in widespread use for over half a century. There are over 40 such techniques, such as radiocarbon dating, each using a different radioactive element or a different way of measuring them. These radiometric dating techniques agree with each other and present a coherent picture in which the Earth was formed and evolved over billions of years.
Rocks are made up of many individual crystals, and each crystal is usually made up of at least several different chemical elements such as iron, magnesium, silicon, etc. Most of the elements in nature are stable and do not change. However, some elements are not completely stable in their natural state. Some of the atoms eventually change from one element to another by a process called radioactive decay. If the original element, called the parent element, is unstable, the atoms decay to another element, called the daughter element, at a predictable rate. This process tells us that the Giant’s Causeway was formed about 60 million years ago.
Yet, along with the scientific view, the National Trust has decided to include an interactive audio exhibition which also explains the creationist view of the site’s origin, i.e. that the basalt columns were formed around 4,500 years ago as a result of Noah’s flood. Young Earth creationists generally follow Archbishop Ussher’s judgment that the earth was created by God about 6,000 years ago (Ussher dated it from 23rd October 4004 BC!). By 'earth', they actually mean the entire universe! But the creationists' theory of how the basalt columns were formed as a result of the supposed Flood does not even remotely stand up to the test of common sense, let alone geological scrutiny.
When creating the exhibition, the National Trust appear to have been under pressure from the Caleb Foundation, a group which represents evangelical Christians in Northern Ireland and includes prominent members of the DUP. The Caleb Foundation say that they ‘worked closely with the National Trust over many months’ on the project. In the Belfast Telegraph (7th July) North Antrim DUP MLA Mervyn Storey admitted that he lobbied the National Trust on behalf of the Caleb Foundation. The South Down MLA Jim Wells, NI’s future Health Minister, welcomed the “very tangential and not very hard-hitting reference to creationism” at the Causeway and said he would like to see a creationist viewpoint in the Ulster Museum (Newsletter, 7th July).
Putting creationist views on display in a National Trust site gives them an unfair appearance of legitimacy. It is false to claim that there is still a ‘debate’ going on over the origins of the Giant’s Causeway, because the creationist viewpoint has no scientific evidence to back it up, and it is completely wrong to portray it on an equal footing with the genuine scientific account.
Richard Dawkins commented that the National Trust should not have buckled to pressure from the ‘intellectual baboons of young Earth creationism’. He said it was regrettable that the trust had “paid lip service to the ignorant bigotry” of fundamentalists who believe the world is just 6,000 years old.
TV science broadcaster Professor Brian Cox also waded into the row. He said: “The National Trust should be ashamed of themselves. I don't mind creation stories presented as mythology, but to suggest there is any debate that Earth is 4.54 billion years old is pure shit”.
Creationist political pressure in Northern Ireland has a history. In 2010 Nelson McCausland, then Northern Ireland‘s fundamentalist Christian Culture Minister, wrote to the Ulster Museum asking it to include exhibits reflecting the view that the universe was created only a few thousand years ago. He claimed that the inclusion of anti-Darwinian theories in the museum was ‘a human rights issue’.
In intervening, McCauland made a number of fundamental errors and the National Trust has now reinforced them. Firstly, the government should not compromise the independence of a public educational institution. This smacks of Nazi or Communist dictatorship. It’s akin to the government telling the BBC not to include broadcasts critical of it or ordering teachers to include young earth creationism in their biology or history classes.
Secondly, a museum or a natural history visitor centre is a place for collecting and displaying objects of scientific, historical or artistic value. What it includes under those categories is a matter for professional experts, not governments nor pressure groups nor the public in general for that matter. McCausland said that he had ‘a common desire to ensure that museums are reflective of the views, beliefs and cultural traditions that make up society in Northern Ireland’. But knowledge is determined by evidence, not by head counts. It is not a matter of democratic votes. Even here, the Young Earth Creationist view is held by only a minority of Christians. Moreover, why only Christian creationist views? Other religions have other creationist myths. In a multicultural society, balance would require reference to other creationist stories.
This matter is not a conflict between religion and atheism or Humanism. Most Christians, including the Catholic Church and most modern Protestant denominations, accept evolution as fact. It’s entirely possible to be a creationist in the simple sense of believing that a god created the universe without believing that it was done only 6,000 years ago in 6 days. To repeat, Young Earth creationism is a minority belief, even among the world’s Christians.
Humanists and many Christians believe that it is wrong to give Young Earth creationist views space in publicly-funded museums or visitor centres that explain natural history, or in school science lessons or science textbooks.
National Trust members can make their views known to the Trust here.
The latest development is that the National Trust announced (18th July) that it was reviewing its decision. Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs at the British Humanist Association, commented that "we welcome the National Trust’s decision to review the content of the exhibition. The creationist account of the origin of the Giant’s Causeway is false, and we hope that the National Trust will change the exhibition to make this clear. In a display which is supposed to educate the public about science, it is unacceptable to suggest that creationism can be viewed as an alternative explanation of natural phenomena. In referring to creationism in this way, the National Trust appear to have fallen victim to the 'teach the controversy' strategy pursued by creationists, in their attempt to disseminate their views via educational institutions. We hope that the National Trust will make it clear in future that the scientific account of the Giant’s Causeway is the only legitimate account".
Brian McClinton, with input from Terry Moseley and Peter Floyd
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