Marcus Ross was 9 years old when he realized his two passions, dinosaurs and a fundamentalist Christian belief, were colliding.

“I recall very specifically sitting in our little playroom and thinking that the dinosaur books tell the dinosaurs are millions of years old, that the Jurassic Period was 150 million years ago,” he says.

“But when I read the Bible and went to church, no one talked about millions of years ago. The talk was about God creating everything in six days and it didn’t happen very long ago.”

So, “in a very kiddie kind of way,” Ross began pondering a riddle of religion and science that would mark his life. The answers he now offers have charged an explosive debate in universities and laboratories across the nation.

Ross, 30, is an assistant professor of geology at Liberty University, founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who died May 15. He also is a young-Earth creationist who tells students he believes the planet is 6,000 years old.

He earned a doctoral degree in geosciences from the University of Rhode Island last year after completing a dissertation on mosasaurs, a marine reptile that, as he wrote, vanished at the end of the Cretaceous era 65 million years ago.

David Fastovsky, Ross’s dissertation adviser and a professor of geosciences, describes the 197-page work as “impeccable.”

But Ross doesn’t think the premise of his own work is true.

He said he never believed the timelines and wrote a dissertation he thought was fundamentally wrong. “If naturalism is true, I think my thesis is dead on,” he says. “But I don’t think that it is.”

Ross said he hopes to bridge the often-warring worlds of science and religion by establishing geological proof the Earth was created around 4000 B.C. – a date he traces back through the Old Testament.

“My goal is to incorporate the Bible as part of the data in the natural world,” he said. “That’s the biggest difference between me and my secular colleagues. They say the Bible is not data and we can’t use God to explain anything.”

Brimming with enthusiasm, Ross has never shied from publicity. He’s been quoted in The New York Times, interviewed by Christian radio stations, and featured in DVD lectures arguing why intelligent design – a belief that the universe and life can be best attributed to supernatural causes – is a better explanation than evolution for the Cambrian explosion, a fast diversification of animal life about 500 million years ago.

Search for his name on the Internet and you’ll find a vigorous debate: Should universities deny degrees to people based on their religious beliefs? Is it intellectually honest to submit a dissertation based on facts the author believes to be wrong? Is Ross seeking to cash in on his science by discrediting it?

“We believe Dr. Ross is doing a tremendous disservice to his students and the public,” Nick Matzke, a spokesman for the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit group in Oakland, Calif., that promotes the teaching of evolution, said in a telephone interview.

Michael Dini, a professor of biology education at Texas Tech University, said Ross should not have been awarded a doctorate. “Anyone who uses religious scripture or theological doctrine as a litmus test to gauge the validity of a scientific theory is no scientist,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Is this discrimination? Yes! It’s discrimination against bad science.”

Dini, in 2003, made news by refusing to write letters of recommendation to graduate schools for students who would not offer a “scientific answer” for how the human race began. Writing recommendations “is a favor I grant only to those I respect,” he said.

Ronald Numbers, a professor of the history of science and medicine at the University of Wisconsin, said Ross is the latest in a growing list of creationists who have tried over the last 40 years to get a foothold in science.

“Their biggest goal is to be recognized as fellow scientists,” Numbers said. “They’re breaking all the rules when they say, ‘God did it.'”

Numbers said it’s particularly tough for a creationist to get a doctorate in geology. “First of all, the science is hard,” he said. “Secondly, the evidence overwhelms you. You can’t escape dealing with the age of the Earth if you’re a geologist.”

Ross said his infatuation with dinosaurs began in early childhood, when he would look at a picture book and listen to an accompanying record. “There was all this roaring and crashing and screeching and I just had to find out more,” he said.

Ross was raised in Rhode Island. His father, a printing salesman, was not religious. His mother was a devout Baptist who took her children to a church that taught the seven-day creation in Genesis as historical truth.

The tension between science and Scripture tightened as Ross climbed the academic ladder in public schools and universities. “Not a day went by where I wasn’t thinking in some form about the broader creation-evolution controversy,” he said. “There was never any rest from it. It was tiring.”

But he never strayed from his youthful conclusion when the conflicting ages of Earth first crossed his mind. “The dinosaur books don’t claim to be written by God,” he said. “The Bible makes that claim. So I’ll err on the side of the Bible and see what I can do about the dinosaur folks.”

If he is wrong, Ross said, there are staggering implications. “If Adam and Eve aren’t real people and the fall isn’t a real event in history, then there’s not a good reason to believe that Christ rose from the dead and everything else,” he said. The fall refers to the Biblical account of their eviction from the Garden of Eden and man’s transition from innocence to sinful understanding.

And so the bearded professor with piercing dark eyes and a corny sense of humor dwells in what he calls “two paradigms,” speaking with equal expertise about geosciences and Genesis and seeking a nexus. An hour apart at Liberty this spring, he taught one class on technical geology and another on creationism.

Science tells Ross that the Earth was formed 4.5 billion years ago in a spectacular supernova explosion. Ross believes God created the Earth in seven days in 4004 B.C., a date many creationists reached by tracing biblical events backward.

The flood, according to Ross, occurred around 2300 B.C. and likely destroyed dinosaurs. He says the impregnation of broken fossils into rocks suggests the bones were slammed by a cataclysmic force of water.

Widely accepted methods of dating fossils may be flawed, according to Ross and other creationists. They say scientists derive dates from carbon-14 and potassium-argon testing based on an unproven assumption that the rate of decay remains constant over time.

Ross acknowledged there’s no solid evidence that the rate was once faster, but put the burden of disproof on the other side. “Give me a reason the rate can’t change and we’ll talk about whether that reason is a good one,” he said.

Robert Bodner, a professor of geochemistry at Virginia Tech, said Ross’ argument relies on faith, not fact. “The rate of decay is constant, just like the speed of light,” he said. “There is no reason to expect the rates of radioactive decay would change through time.”

Ross accepts Old Testament claims that Adam lived 930 years; Noah, 950; and Methuselah, the oldest man in the Bible, 969. He noted that biblical lifespans decreased after the flood. “It may be the effect of inbreeding by Noah and his family,” he said. Perhaps, he adds, a weakening of the Earth’s magnetic shield could have shortened lives.

“A lot of people think that, because you’re a creationist, your ultimate answer to everything is ‘Because God did it,'” Ross said.

“For me as a scientist, sure, that’s ultimately true. God did do it. But how did God do it? When did God do it? Did God do it directly, or did he use natural processes?” he said. “And so far from being a science stopper, which a lot of people say creationism is, it’s opening up the field to a whole bunch of questions that my secular colleagues would never even think to ask.”

Is it science or religion that Ross is truly trying to advance?

“It’s a false dichotomy to separate the two because they’re both belief systems,” he said. “Secular scientists use assumptions that are naturalistic ones. And we, as scientists, use theistic ones.”

Ross has never concealed his religious beliefs, and they did not become an issue until he began work on his master’s degree in paleontology at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. He incensed professors and fellow graduate students by identifying himself with the department in a letter to the campus newspaper, a speech and DVD lectures propounding creationism and intelligent design that were sold on the Internet.

“They thought I was trying to claim a position within the paleo department to advance my views, and nothing could be further from the truth,” said Ross, who says he merely identified himself by name, college and field of study.

“I can’t say I lost my friends,” he said. “Most of the people who were irate at me weren’t close to me in any way. But they stirred up a hornets’ nest and I think I could easily prove that some of the professors graded me down.”

The University of Rhode Island was aware of the controversy when Ross was accepted into its doctoral program.

“He was very up-front,” said Fastovsky, Ross’s dissertation adviser. “He called me and said he was a creationist and believed in intelligent design.”

Fastovsky recalls pausing for moment, and then replying, “Well, you’re the whole ball of wax, aren’t you?”

Fastovsky had no qualms about accepting Ross into the program. “The only real question was: Could he do science for me?” he said. “Marcus came from a good graduate school and had a good topic for his doctoral dissertation. He did competent work.

“We all believe in different things,” Fastovsky added. “The university’s job is not to mandate what we must believe.”

Fastovsky speaks of Ross with affection, and the two have stayed in touch.

“It’s safe to say we all know more about creationism than we used to,” he said with a chuckle. “Marcus exposed me to literature that I found not at all convincing.”

Fastovsky has no patience for colleagues who accuse Ross of intellectual dishonesty and say he did not deserve a doctorate.

“Marcus did the work,” he said. “His research withstood peer review regardless of any reservations he may have about it.”

Academia, however, has few landing pads for a scientist with Ross’ beliefs. Liberty, where he has taught for two years, is among a handful of Christian colleges that teach young-Earth creationism. It’s not offered at Regent University in Virginia Beach, founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson. Regent does not have a geology department.

As with most things, Ross views his budding career at Liberty as a blessing. Although he dreams one day of conducting research, his efforts now center on teaching.

He rides to school on a red motor scooter. His windowless office is stacked with fossils, papers, books on science, books on faith, and books on both. Students stream in and out with questions about assignments, tests and grades.

Ross, dressed in a polo shirt and Dockers, looks almost young enough to be one of them. In front of his classes, Ross can never resist making a pun.

“Today we’re going to start a lecture on geological dating, or dating a geologist,” he recently announced to students. “If you’ve ever seen my wife, you know I’ve had good results.”

He builds up science in his geology class with technical lectures on rock formations that note widely accepted dates. He cuts it down in his creationism class, where he emphasizes the many questions of existence that science has not answered.

Although his personal views are well-known, Ross said he does not tell students which theory to accept.

Fastovsky offered reassurance to those who worry that Ross is teaching doctrinaire science.

“Marcus understands evolution and I know because we tested the hell out of him,” he said. “So I think it’s very heartening that a person of his background is teaching at Liberty.”

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