Getting a PhD in the United States is not normally a newsworthy event. After all, thousands of people do so every year. But on February 12, 2007, my picture was on the front page of the New York Times, with the headline "Believing Scripture but Playing by Science's Rules." Why the national spotlight? I had just received a PhD in geosciences from a respected secular university, and I am a young-earth creationist.
Going through secular science programs as a creationist is no easy task. I am reminded often of the Apostle Paul's journey to Athens (Acts 17:16-34). Traveling alone, Paul walked the city, preached the gospel, and was engaged by Athenian philosophers. They invited him to address their assembly at the Areopagus. His address provoked much discussion, and several people became followers of Jesus Christ.
Among the science programs, where evolution dominates the classroom and laboratory, it is easy to feel isolated and lonely.
In many ways, the secular universities are today's Athens, where the newest ideas are constantly being discussed and debated; and like Athens, these institutions can be "full of idols" (v. 16). Among the science programs, where evolution dominates the classroom and laboratory, it is easy to feel isolated and lonely, much as Paul must have felt. But if you love to study the creation as well as its Creator and His Word, you may find that the best place to be trained is at a secular university.
As an undergraduate, I majored in earth science at a large state institution, and I eagerly went to meet the paleontologist of the department. We were having a wonderful conversation, when he asked: "What do you think killed the dinosaurs?" Right then I had an important choice to make: I could answer with one of the explanations favored by evolutionists (like a meteor impact) or I could risk "outing" myself as a creationist, and endanger my education. I decided that, regardless of the consequences, I must affirm that I believed Noah's Flood was responsible. I'll never forget his response: "Oh, you're a creationist. Really? Well, of course you know you're wrong." Despite our differences, he took me as his student. While he believed that I would eventually change my mind, he never made things difficult for me, and to this day we remain friends.
I went to a small state school for a master's degree in paleontology. As before, I told my academic advisors that I was a creationist. While initially this was not a problem, I soon learned that when I was vocal about my ideas outside of class (I did not challenge evolution or old-age geology in class), such actions were not tolerated. After I wrote a pro-Intelligent Design letter in the school paper, advisors removed themselves from my committee, and there was talk of how to expel me from the program. For more than two years, I wandered an academic wasteland with no funding, projects, or committee, and no hope of graduating. A wonderful family from my church took me in during this difficult time, and with the help of a gracious and strong-willed museum director I was able to complete my degree.
My PhD work brought me to a medium-sized state school. My advisor knew I was a creationist during the application process, and he knew of my previous troubles. Yet he took me on despite these issues, and had the truest sense of tolerance that I have ever seen. Because we both knew that our differences in origins began first with differing views about God, and not as much about how we interpreted the data, we were able to talk about origins issues quite productively. Though I continued to work in an evolutionary framework for my doctoral research, my intention to teach and work as a creationist paleontologist was never attacked or discouraged. As it turned out, I became the department's very first PhD graduate.
My own trip through secular geology programs taught me many lessons about how (and how not!) to handle myself as a creationist among evolutionists. As an undergraduate, I had considerable freedom at a big university. I lived in a science-themed dormitory, led an on-campus church ministry, and was president of a creationist club. While some of the geology faculty frowned at my creationist activities, I was never threatened or treated unfairly. I didn't speak with faculty often about creation issues, but I spoke to my friends and fellow students whenever someone was curious.
In graduate school, you enter a more significant academic stage. The training is more focused, and relationships with professors are more casual. Leading campus groups and writing for the school paper was not the sort of activity that I needed to do. After all, now there were important research projects to keep me busy. I could (and did) talk about Christianity or creation with other students.
The relationships with my advisors changed as well. A student and his or her advisor often share a very close relationship. As a graduate student, you are mentored by an expert in the field, who (if he is a good advisor) invests heavily in your training, and seeks ways to help you succeed. You become part of a lineage of academics: an advisor in graduate school may have only twenty or so PhD students in a lifetime, and your names will always be connected to each other. My own graduate advisors took great risks in supporting me, despite knowing that I did not subscribe to their views on earth history. Their own reputations were on the line, making it all the more important that the work I did with them was the very best I could do, and that the testimony I had before them and our peers was filled with integrity, and motivated by the love of Christ.
My own walk through today's Athens was not easy, but it taught me the importance of three things: A close walk with God and His Word, the vital work of the Church in supporting its members, and the need to maintain absolute integrity before men. Being open about creationism opened doors (such as my current position at Liberty University), even though it nearly cost me my career. I believe that God gave me many opportunities to grow and trust Him ("What do you think killed the dinosaurs?") so that later, His name would be glorified among men, even in the New York Times.