Working in the academic field of science and religion (and also teaching one of the world’s few courses of advanced study in the subject, at the University of Edinburgh), I’ve long harboured a desire to bring my first scientific love, geology, fully into the conversation. For, before the bright lights of physics lured me away, I originally trained as a geologist. Not to put too fine a point on it though, insofar as the modern geological sciences have entered the contemporary dialogue with religion, it’s largely been in order to fight a rear-guard action against young earth creationism in the guise of “flood geology”. David Montgomery’s book, The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood (2012), takes a close look at that rear-guard action.
The history of flood geology has been analysed before, notably in Ron Numbers’ The Creationists (2006, ), but Montgomery’s book offers a new twist, arguing that the reason that flood geology was able to gain crucial traction with conservative Christians audiences when it did (early 1960s) was because mainstream geology had reached something of an impasse. For, despite its certainty that the earth had been born and shaped over countless aeons, mainstream geology was lacking a convincing and unifying explanation of the earth as a whole system. Flood geology was able to offer just that, with the added attraction that it was (or appeared to be) thoroughly biblical.
Geology has been here before, and Montgomery demonstrates how much the development of modern geology owes to the controversies surrounding Noah’s flood in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We’re so accustomed to hearing of the supposed conflict between science and religion in terms of Big Bang cosmology or Darwinism that it is novel 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 own surprise at discovering that the flood controversy wasn’t played out along the conventional science vs. religion lines that 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, the flood geology of modern creationism in fact adopts some of the now-discredited 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.
According to Montgomery, young-earth creationism – as one of the youngest forms of Christianity – exploited the crucial lack of consensus in mainstream geology in the 1950s and 60s. Hence, the success of creationist flood geology (currently claiming nearly 50% of the American population, as well as countless others elsewhere in the world) was due, believes Montgomery, to the fact that mainstream geology was still struggling with a number 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 1960s provided a unified theoretical framework capable of explaining many of these problems and driving the subject forward again. But in the meantime creationism – especially through John Whitcomb and Henry Morris’s The Genesis Flood (1961) – had been able to make significant headway by providing its own theoretical framework, paying scant attention to modern geology by relying almost entirely on Noah’s flood. Quite simply, Whitcomb and Morris were able to provide seemingly compelling answers to questions which were still up for grabs in pre-1960s geology.
Montgomery’s 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 in 1961 have not, by and large, been overturned by the plate tectonics consensus; 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). Flood geology continues to provide a common focus for diverse religious believers today, and it shows no signs that it’s threatened by the plate tectonic paradigm of mainstream geology. In fact, creationists have been able to adapt the mainstream paradigm to their advantage, developing their own “catastrophic plate tectonics” to provide an explanation for Noah’s flood (see, for example, this article at AiG). Creationism is nothing if not creative!
Hence, while I value Montgomery’s analysis of the varying fortunes of flood theories in the genesis and evolution of modern geology, I wonder whether plate tectonics would have made all that much difference to 1960s flood geology.
Before You Read ...
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