I am just beginning my first sabbatical since launching our MSc in Science and Religion, and am enjoying getting into some research that I’ve had on hold for a long time. Those of you who have skimmed over this blog in the past will have realised that one of my abiding interests is in the fraught relationship between natural scientists and biblical scholars over how the Bible should be interpreted. A couple of years ago it occurred to me that the debate between them is exactly parallel to the old argument between ‘catastrophists and uniformitarians’ in nineteenth century geology. This argument is little-known today beyond geology, but it was truly foundational, in that much of what we know as modern science today stems from what was being argued about back then, not least Darwin’s theory of evolution. Continue reading
Arthur McCalla, The Creationist Debate. The Encounter between the Bible and the Historical Mind, (Bloomsbury, 2013), £19.99, pp viii – 327,ISBN:978-1-62356-852-8
The first edition of McCalla’s book was already well-known to me when I received this new edition for review. The first edition is an excellent critical study of the historical growth of creationism, an area surprisingly neglected by historical scholarship given the prominence of creationism in the pews of North America. This second edition is better still, thoroughly deserving a place alongside Ronald Numbers’ magisterial The Creationists as one of the few definitive historical studies of the phenomenon.
Beginning with the medieval metaphor of ‘the two books’, McCalla charts the historical development of scriptural exegesis and its relation to science (the earth sciences in particular) in the early modern period, setting the scene for a discussion of the great Darwin debates of the nineteenth century, the development of inerrancy and fundamentalism, and then ‘creation science’ in the twentieth century. Key moments like the Scopes trial feature prominently, along with Whitcomb and Morris’s epochal creationist text, The Genesis Flood, grounding the debate in the political and social milieu of American religious conservatism.
Noticeably more polemical in tone than Numbers, McCalla’s aim is to demonstrate that debating with creationists over the interpretation of scientific evidence misses the point. Their real agenda is to exalt the status of the Bible above all historical contingencies as a transcendent reality of its own. This is why creationism must defend its inerrantist reading of the Bible from all historical studies that threaten it, evolution for sure, but biblical criticism perhaps even more so. And this provides an explanation as to why creationism is persistently able to evade all attacks on its view of science, since science is only a secondary issue compared with the exalted creationist view of the Bible.
First published in 2006, McCalla’s new edition of 2013 expands the original treatment in several ways. There are small changes to the earlier chapters, but most notably, the treatment of intelligent design towards the end of the book is expanded considerably from the first edition, bringing the treatment up to date by covering the first decade of the twenty-first century. More material on Islamic and Vedic creationism also helps to extend the remit beyond that of the United States (but apart from this McCalla’s discussion of creationism is largely restricted to the American situation). Another new chapter presents a penetrating overview of attempts within more moderate Christianity (compared to creationism) to harmonise science and religion, making useful points of contrast and contact with the creationist situation. This chapter makes McCalla’s case all the stronger, since it brings the issues closer to home for those of us who might be tempted to take an ‘us and them’ attitude towards creationism.
This is an excellent book, and is highly recommended.
Feeling rather guilty because I’ve posted so little on the blog this summer. In my defence, I’ve been working flat out on various publications, and have given quite a number of talks on science, the Bible, and creation, and especially on my new book, The Nature of Creation. One particularly enjoyable visit was to the Faraday Institute’s summer school in Cambridge, where I gave a talk entitled “Creation in the Bible and Science”. You can see the whole talk here.
It was also good to spend some time with the BioLogos conferences in Oxford, especially the Configuring Adam and Eve meeting on human origins. This was an excellent opportunity to engage the latest scientific findings on human evolution with the age-old theological problems of evil, sin, and the Fall. I first set out some thoughts on this in The Nature of Creation, but now look forward to developing them further through this project.
I wrote about this topic last summer here and here, when I gave a conference paper on the much-hypothesised effect of the Bronze Age volcano Thera (now called Santorini) on ancient Egypt and the Exodus. The reason I’m returning to it again is because of some challenges I received recently, which prompted me to return to the evidence. I was accused of promoting a religious agenda over science. My response is that quite the opposite is true. Some of the mythology surrounding Thera has taken on the status of a near-religious belief, a belief that is, by and large, not borne out by the scientific evidence, as I try to explain here.
Many books, scientific articles, TV documentaries, etc, have appeared over the last few decades claiming that the C17 BCE eruption of this volcano created all of the conditions necessary to explain the miraculous events of the Exodus naturalistically. For instance, the ash cloud from the eruption is said to have completely engulfed Egypt, and provided the sequence of events that we know as the Plagues of Egypt (e.g. the Plague of Darkness). Most spectacular of all, a gigantic tsunami from the eruption is said to have been what enabled the Israelites to cross a lagoon on the Mediterranean coast (the “Sea of Reeds”), while it drowned the pursuing Egyptians. That’s the well-known idea, which has been recycled many times with variations to take account of changing attitudes towards the date of the eruption (which has been refined from the C15 BCE back to the late C17). I call these ideas the “Thera theories”.
Many of us in the Science and Religion program have recently been examining miracles in our course on science and scripture, and today we took on the resurrection of Jesus. As you might imagine, this is a formidable topic, and one can come at it from all kinds of directions. One of the more inventive approaches we discussed comes from philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne in his book The Resurrection of God Incarnate. Swinburne begins with the hypothesis that Jesus was God incarnate and that he was resurrected, and he attempts to convince his readers using Bayesian reasoning that the likelihood of this hypothesis being true is overwhelmingly high. In fact, he comes up with a specific number: according to Swinburne’s analysis, there is a 97% probability that his hypothesis is true.
How on earth does Swinburne justify such a calculation? I’ll spare you the gory details and refer you to Wikipedia for more on Bayes’ Theorem. Suffice it to say that everything comes down to our confidence about a handful of scenarios. For instance, given the evidence of natural theology, how confident are we that a “traditional” God exists? Assuming God exists, what is the likelihood that God would become incarnate? How probable is it that the specific circumstances of Jesus’ life would come to pass if he was in fact God incarnate? Swinburne chooses values for the probability of each scenario in rather arbitrary fashion, applies the theorem, and voilà – mathematical proof that belief in the incarnation and resurrection is highly rational.
On the other hand, philosopher Larry Shapiro has a recent piece on miracles in which he wields probability to more skeptical ends. Instead of attempting to assign probabilities to theological claims surrounding the resurrection, he focuses on the reliability of human witnesses, the most direct evidence available to us. His result:
The base rate for the resurrection is (let’s say) one in 1 billion. The witnesses go wrong only one time in 100,000. One billion divided by 100,000 is 10,000. So, even granting the existence of extraordinary witnesses, the chance that they were right about the resurrection is only one in 10,000; hardly the basis for a justified belief.
Why do two approaches that use such similar methods yield such different results? I think the answer becomes clear when we examine the type of event that each author emphasizes. Swinburne attempts to quantify theological propositions that have deep implications for the nature of reality, while Shapiro turns his attention to measurable human behavior – a far more appropriate domain in which to apply statistical methods. Even as a believer, I think Shapiro’s skepticism rings more true. My natural instinct is to be suspicious of any model that claims to mathematically prove a theological proposition beyond all reasonable doubt; such a model trivializes faith. It seems fitting to me that a numerical analysis of the resurrection should yield a low probability because that result confirms my instinct.
What do you think? Are either of these approaches convincing? Can we plausibly estimate the numbers we need for this calculation? And of course, the question that’s been in the back of your mind this whole time: is there any theological value in applying mathematical methods to the resurrection, or are we wasting our time?
My new book has appeared – The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science. Although there have been many attempts in modern times to compare and contrast the Bible’s stories of creation with ideas from science, this has almost invariably been carried out in a non-critical way. It’s assumed that the text can be read at face value with scant regard for its historical genesis, almost as though it were a scientific report of the world’s origins. And it’s by no means just young-earth creationists who are guilty of this approach, but many who write on the Bible, especially from an interest in modern science.
What my book tries to do is to build bridges between critical biblical scholarship – which has developed far more sophisticated and historically-sensitive ways of reading the text – and modern science, using theology as the go-between. Remarkably, this has never been done before, or at least not across the whole Bible. This is significant, because there’s far more creation material in the Bible than just Genesis. In this way, I try to argue that there is scope for a whole new way of reading the Bible and science together.
Click here to see the book on the publisher’s web page (Acumen). Amazon uk is also selling the book at a very good price.
I mentioned a few posts ago that I’d been invited to a superb conference on the Exodus at the University of California San Diego (Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination; 31 May – 1 June, 2013). The full talks and lectures are available on YouTube, here –
And my talk (on the legendary volcano Thera and its possible contribution to the Exodus) is this one –
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.
I mentioned in a previous post that I’d been invited to take part in a conference on the Exodus and its relation with ancient Egypt, entitled Out of Egypt: Israel’s Exodus Between Text and Memory, History and Imagination, and held at the University of California San Diego. Well I’ve just returned, and am still reflecting on a lot of what was said. It was an excellent opportunity to take stock corporately on a very active field of research which is still split by fundamental disagreements. Partly, the disagreements arose because of the wide range of disciplines represented, each with very different aims and objectives (Egyptologists, archaeologists, biblical scholars, and earth scientists. I fell into the latter category, but was also slightly unusual in being a theologian). This was a major strength though, and I wonder if there has ever been a gathering of such breadth to consider the many questions involved in this pre-eminent story in Jewish and Christian religious history.
The main question, which came up again and again, was – did it really happen? And if so, how? While there were many who wanted to affirm the Exodus as an historical event to some degree (even if it only meant the minimal affirmation of acknowledging a handful of slaves escaping over the Sinai), there were many who felt that even this was going way beyond what it is possible to claim from the text. The latter felt it more appropriate to speak of the Exodus as a mythic tradition in the consciousness of Israel as a young nation.
I spoke in the ‘Science’ session, where various earth scientists presented their ideas on the possibility that the events described in the book of Exodus (especially the sea crossing) were influenced or caused by geological phenomena such as volcanoes and tsunamis. I spoke about the legendary Bronze Age volcano Thera, and the many explanations that have been constructed from it for the Exodus, the destruction of Atlantis, and many other cataclysms of the ancient world. As one of the few theologians present, I was less interested in trying to say ‘what really happened’ than in drawing out the sub texts of some of the protagonists, and trying to point out that the way we approach the historicity of the Exodus is driven by methodological and theological presuppositions.
The many lectures will be available on the internet, and the proceedings will be published online before long, and I will post details when they become available.
It was an excellent conference, and thanks are due to Tom Levy, Brad Sparks, and everyone else involved in organising and supporting it.