Many devout Christians believe the Earth and the universe are less than 10,000 years old, and closer to 6,000. Where did this grossly inadequate figure come from? In the seventeenth century, Bishop James Ussher dated the creation of the world to October 23rd 4004 BC using the biblical chronology and by speculating on the Hebrew calendar.

By using scientific methods we get a much better idea of the true age of the Earth. One such example is by using radiometric dating. With a rock containing the element uranium, for example, we know that uranium loses subatomic particles over time and those losses change uranium into other elements with fewer particles. This process is called radioactive decay. In the case of uranium it will eventually become lead, but it does this a little bit at a time so you can measure the rate at which it turns into lead. Once a scientist knows this rate, one can go to a particular rock sample, measure the amount of uranium and lead and determine how long it’s been since the rock cooled.

Samples have been found that date to as old as 4.5 billion years, using this method. There are many other dating methods used in science, many of which corroborate this figure. Other elements are used for dating shorter periods of time, but none support a young Earth.

These other methods include (but are not limited to); radio carbon dating, potassium–argon and argon-argon dating, luminescence, electron spin resonance, fission track, archaeomagnetism, palaeomagnetism, and dendrochronology. One could always debate that the figure of 4.5 billion years could be a bit higher or a bit lower, as an absolute figure. However, it’s pretty hard to argue that the Earth would be less than 10,000 years old, given that no scientific dating methods support that view. All verifiable evidence points to the Earth being much older and — in the case of long term dating methods — by many orders of magnitude.

With regard to the age of the universe as a whole, science supports this being approximately 13 to 14 billion years. A first approximation for this was calculated by Edwin Hubble who, in 1929, was able to establish not only that the universe extended beyond our own Milky Way galaxy, but that our galaxy was just one of billions of galaxies, and that all the galaxies were moving apart. Put simply, Hubble discovered that the universe was expanding. By simply tracing the galaxies back to their point of origin one could work out a time frame for the age of the universe. Over time, scientists have developed more accurate methods of measuring the distances to other galaxies, with current measurements putting the age of the universe close to 13.7 billion years.

As science advances, one can expect even more accurate figures to be forthcoming. However, none are likely to support James Ussher’s figure of 10,000 years. As quoted by Richard Dawkins, “To give an idea of the magnitude of the error is equivalent to believing that the width of North America is less than 10 yards.” Amongst other awkward facts for devout believers of a young Earth include; fossilised marine animals in what was once the ocean floor, and now the Himalaya mountains. It would obviously be a lengthy time frame for such tectonic uplift to take place.

Also worth mentioning (if one is inclined to believe in a young universe) is looking through a telescope at astronomical objects. The Andromeda Galaxy is approximately 2.2 million light years away from Earth and yet still comparatively close in astronomical terms. Given that its light takes 2.2 million years to reach us, and thus started its journey 2.2 million years ago, how does one explain our ability to see it — if the universe is merely 10,000 years old? Nevertheless it’s there, as are much more distant astronomical objects, many billions of light years away.

It is hard to reconcile that the Earth and the universe are anything other than many orders of magnitudes older than the various cultural creation myths assert.

Atheism SA Inc. active atheist assoc., Adelaide South Australia, for atheists, agnostics and non-believers.

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