I’ve been getting back to my roots in recent posts, with something of an emphasis on geology (I first trained as a geologist before I was distracted by the bright lights of physics during my PhD). And in the last week I’ve been reading David Montgomery’s recent book The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood, which offers a rather non-confrontational, but powerful, case against creationism. I must admit to particularly liking the front cover, since it shows an excellent photo of Hutton’s Unconformity at Siccar Point, which is not only just a few miles from where I am sitting now (East Lothian), but is also perhaps the most legendary of all legendary geological sites. Montgomery demonstrates how much the development of modern geology owes to the controversies surrounding Noah’s Flood in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We are so accustomed to hearing of the supposed conflict between science and religion in terms of Big Bang cosmology or Darwinism that it is interesting to come across a discussion from a completely different scientific viewpoint. And Montgomery makes the point that the flood debate shows how complex science and religion are in their relationship to each other. ‘Conflict’ doesn’t do it justice. Montgomery describes his surprise at discovering that the flood controversy wasn’t played out along the conventional science vs. religion lines we’re so used to: ‘[S]cientists were as apt to be blinded by faith in conventional wisdom as Christians proved adept at reinterpreting biblical stories to account for scientific findings. The historical relationship between science and religion was far more fluid, far more cross-pollinating than I ever thought – or was taught at Sunday school or in college’ (p.xii).
As Montgomery ably demonstrates, young earth creationism is one of the most recently-evolved branches of Christianity. Claiming to represent age-old attitudes towards the Bible and the flood, creationism in fact adopts some of the geological theories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, relying heavily on Noah’s Flood as the main explanation for the reason the earth looks as it does today, including the entire sedimentary record and its fossils – all laid down in a matter of months by the flood waters.
This point is very familiar, of course, but Montgomery provides a novel explanation. He suggests that the reason young earth creationism was so successful in the early 1960s, and currently claims something like 50% of the American population, was that mainstream geology had reached something of an impasse, and was unable to make sense of outstanding but very basic problems, such as the shapes of the continents, or the mechanisms behind mountain formation. The development of plate tectonics over the next decade provided a unified theoretical framework capable of explaining many of these problems, but in the meantime creationism – in the guise of The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris – was able to make significant headway by providing its own theoretical framework, based on Noah’s flood.
This is an attractive hypothesis, but I am not convinced that it altogether holds water. The arguments that Whitcomb and Morris considered clinchers against mainstream geology have not, by and large, been overturned by the discovery of plate tectonics; they were already wrong-headed arguments. So their criticisms of radiometric dating, or the conventional interpretation of thrust faults, for instance, were as myopic of the evidence in the 1960s, as they are now. What is perhaps different now is that the development of plate tectonics, together with a whole lot more data and evidence right across the board, means that the mainstream geological edifice is even more confident in its views that the earth is very old than it was in the 1960s. The fact that many creationist arguments continue to fly in its face is, I think, a testimony to the power of theological persuasion over geological. In particular, in the early 1960s Whitcomb and Morris’s book provided a theological focus around which diverse but conservative Christian groups could unite, in a climate of political unrest (e.g. the Cold War). It continues to provide a common focus for diverse religious believers, even to the extent that it has become an important force in global Islam today. I suspect that plate tectonics has rather little to do with it.