The Return of the Fellowship of the Two Models

I’ve just returned from NCSE’s annual rafting trip down Grand Canyon, where Josh Rosenau, Genie Scott, and I regaled our fellow rafters with our unique “two model” approach.


There are all kinds of Grand Canyon rafting charters that specialize in everything you can think of: yoga, en plein air painting, bluegrass music, nudism—and, I imagine, trips combining all of these.

NCSE’s trip is unique in that it contrasts the normal scientific model of the geology and natural history of Grand Canyon with the creationist model put forth by organizations such as Answers in Genesis and Canyon Ministries. In other words, at various interesting locations on the river, our rafters hear the evidence for a Grand Canyon containing rocks nearly two billions years ago and the supposed “evidences” for Grand Canyon being carved a few thousand years ago by the retreating waters of Noah’s Flood. We report; the rafters decide for themselves.

Most rafters are surprised to learn that while we do just one trip a year, creationist groups are doing a booming business using the majestic setting of Grand Canyon as the stage for their ministry. For example, in 2014 Canyon Ministries offered no fewer than 13 different rafting trips.

canyon ministries


That’s not all. As Ken Ham recently promoted, Canyon Ministries is now offering one-day, air-conditioned van trips around the South Rim (in summer, they really emphasize the air conditioning!). These vans proudly declare they are “providing a creationist perspective,” as shown below:

rim tours

I checked their schedule and found that they’re offering trips every day of the week (except Sundays, naturally).

Set among sizzling stones, such excursions promise “much more than a beautiful place to visit.” As Ken Ham noted, “rather than go to the rim and hear the anti-God, evolutionary explanation of the Canyon’s formation,” one can instead hear the alternate creationist interpretation. These trips “take you to key overlooks and help you understand the canyon in relationship to the Genesis accounts of Creation and the Flood.” Like tender Tony Soprano proclaiming “I get it!” and crying as he watched the sun rise over vermillion Nevada cliffs, witnessing the beauty of nature is meant here to be inspirational, spiritual, emotional.

I get it, sopranos

And that’s fine. Grand Canyon is vast enough to accommodate many uses for many people, all of whom have the right to visit the park in the way they want. The problem arises when creationist groups take this into the realm of the scientific, sowing confusion and misinformation even as they promise to “spend time explaining the geology and natural history of the canyon.” This is disrespectful not only to the centuries of work building what we know about the natural world, but to the Canyon itself.

Imagine if public zoos were inundated by private tours, the guides of which loudly proclaimed that the zebras were elephants, elephants were tigers, and tigers were vegetarians. That’s how surreal it feels for geologists to hear the rocks of Grand Canyon described as thousands of years old.

Although NCSE’s rafting trips give a serious airing of what creationists actually say about Grand Canyon, sometimes it’s hard to maintain the act. As rafters listen to our account of creationist writings, they often come up with the best questions:

  • “If the creationists think the Canyon was carved quickly because it was still wet, unconsolidated mud, then how did this mud form such steep cliffs? Wouldn’t the cliffs have just collapsed into a mud heap?"
  • “If creationists think these fossils were formed in a violent flood, how could delicate fossil features be preserved? Why aren’t these fossils all broken up?”
  • “If a worldwide Noah’s Flood did all this, why don’t we see Grand Canyons everywhere in the world? Why is this place so unique?”

Why indeed.

Science is sometimes accused of supplanting the grandeur of nature with cold, rational explanations. The emotional, inspirational side of nature, to this way of thinking, conflicts with scientific parsing of the natural world. But that need not be so.

To me, knowing the story of how the Canyon formed—from the sparkling quartz grains of the Tapeats Sandstone to the fossil fragments of the Redwall Limestone to the staggering lava dams of just a million years ago—enhances the majestic experience of being there. I couldn’t imagine rafting down the river or riding around in a van while listening to untenable creationist misinterpretations so far removed from what we know about the Canyon that I would get paranoid that someone was putting me on and start checking for the hidden camera. Rather than detracting from the beauty of nature, knowing the real science behind it enhances the experience.

As usual, Richard Feynman summarized it best:

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars—mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is ‘mere.’ I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination… It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it.

P.S.: if rafting with NCSE sounds like fun to you, our next trip will run from the launch date of July 3rd to July 10th, 2015. More info soon.

Short Bio

Steve Newton is a former Programs and Policy Director at NCSE.