Ron Numbers in Salon: seeing the light - of science

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By Alexander Carpenter

Professor Ron Numbers in Salon today.

What a great start to a new year!

I'll be adding my 0.02 later, but let the comments fly. . . .Given your field of study, you have a particularly interesting personal history. You grew up in a family of Seventh-day Adventists.

That's correct. All my male relatives were ministers of one kind or another.

All? Going how far back?

Both my grandfathers. My maternal grandfather was president of the international church. My father and all my uncles on both sides worked for the church. My brother-in-law is a minister. My nephew is a minister.

Did you go to Adventist schools?

First grade through college. I graduated from Southern Missionary College in Tennessee.

And what did you think about life's origins as you were growing up?

I was never exposed to anything other than what we now call "young earth creationism." Creation science came out of Seventh-day Adventism. My father was a believer, all my teachers were believers, all my friends believed in that. I can remember as a college student -- I majored in math and physics -- there was a visiting professor from the University of Chicago lecturing on carbon-14 dating, and he was talking about scores of thousands of years. And my friends and I just looked at each other, wincing and smiling, saying he just didn't know the truth.

But at some point, your ideas obviously changed. What caused you to question the creationist account?

I wish I knew. There are a few moments that proved crucial for me. I went to Berkeley in the '60s as a graduate student in history and learned to read critically. That had a profound influence on me. I was also exposed to critiques of young earth creationism. The thing that stands out in my memory as being decisive was hearing a lecture about the fossil forest of Yellowstone, given by a creationist who'd just been out there to visit. He found that for the 30 successive layers you needed -- assuming the most rapid rates of decomposition of lava into soil and the most rapid rates of growth for the trees that came back in that area -- at least 20,000 to 30,000 years. The only alternative the creationists had to offer was that during the year of Noah's flood, these whole stands of forest trees came floating in, one on top of another, until you had about 30 stacked up. And that truly seemed incredible to me. Just trying to visualize what that had been like during the year of Noah's flood made me smile.

Did your beliefs come crashing down at that moment?

Well, the night after I heard that, I stayed up till very, very late with a fellow Adventist graduate student, wrestling with the implications of it. Before dawn, we both decided the evidence was too strong. This was a crucial night for me because I realized I was abandoning the authority of the prophet who founded Adventism, and the authority of Genesis.

You went on to write a book about Ellen White, the founder of the Seventh-day Adventists. Didn't that prove to be quite controversial?

It did. I wrote about her as a historian would, without invoking supernatural explanations. That bothered a lot of people because according to traditional Adventism, she was a chosen of God, who would take her into visions, where she would see events past, present and future. Once, God actually took her back to witness the Creation. And she saw that the Creation occurred in six literal 24-hour days. Which made it impossible for most Adventists to play around with symbolic interpretations of Genesis. I also found in my research that she had been copying some of her so-called testimonies, which were supposed to be coming directly from God. So it did create something of a stir. . . Read it all here.

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