The age of the Earth-4: The strategy of religions in response to scientific advances

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series on the age of the Earth, see here.

The history of the science-religion conflict follows a standard pattern. Religions make claims that lie within the framework of science, saying those claims must be true because of their divine origin (because of revelation or religious texts). Then it fights any scientific advances that challenge those claims. Then when the evidence becomes too great and further opposition becomes ludicrous, they concede the point and retreat to a new line of defense. Then after some time has elapsed to allow people to forget its previous objections, religions argue that the very scientific discoveries that they once vigorously opposed now actually support their religious beliefs. They sometimes even go so far as to suggest that their religion actually predicted them. (The comic strip Jesus and Mo has something to say on this here, here, and here.)

A wonderful example of this is the church’s persecution of Galileo because of his support for the Copernican heliocentric model of the solar system. The Catholic Church only apologized for this in 1992. But it did not stop there. It went further and suggested that Galileo’s research was actually divinely inspired with Pope John Paul II saying, “Galileo sensed in his scientific research the presence of the Creator who, stirring in the depths of his spirit, stimulated him, anticipating and assisting his intuitions (my italics).”

Really? Who knew? Why wasn’t the Creator similarly “stirring in the depths” of the spirit of the Pope in Galileo’s time to let him know that Galileo was on the church’s team and to stop bugging him? And was god so busy with other things that he waited nearly 400 years to correct this misunderstanding that has been one of his church’s greatest embarrassments? Ah, the inscrutable ways of god, who works in mysterious ways that we mere mortals cannot comprehend. What we see as incredible stupidity or laziness is actually part of some deep plan that will be revealed to us when we are ready or die.

With regard to evolution, after over a century of opposition, Pope John Paul II in a speech in 1996 to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences made a grudging concession that Charles Darwin may, just may, have been onto something with his crazy ideas:

[N]ew findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis. In fact it is remarkable that this theory has had progressively greater influence on the spirit of researchers, following a series of discoveries in different scholarly disciplines. The convergence in the results of these independent studies—which was neither planned nor sought—constitutes in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.

(Note how even the Pope recognizes that it is the interconnectedness of modern science, the “convergence in the results of these independent studies”, that gives its conclusions such strength.)

It took fourteen years for the other shoe to drop on evolution, with the church now actually claiming credit for the basic idea of evolution. Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said just this year that “while the Church had been hostile to Darwin’s theory in the past, the idea of evolution could be traced to St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas” (my italics).

Isn’t that sweet? They knew about evolution all along but decided to keep it secret for 1,500 years until Darwin spilled the beans, and then fought it for another 150 years, before deciding that it was time to whip off the mask and say that they were the original evolutionists, and that they had just been kidding all along about their opposition to the theory.

The age of the Earth provides another humorous example of the church rewriting history in this way. For example, this Catholic website says that “The Church has always agreed with scientists on matters such as the age of the earth and the authenticity of the fossil record” (my italics) while another Catholic website goes into the usual routine of suggesting that god was inspiring these scientific discoveries all along: “The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers” (my italics).

But of course these ingenuous statements that the church “has always agreed with scientists on matters such as the age of the earth” and been thankful for the “understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers” is flatly contradicted by the historical record. Buffon’s 1778 calculation that the Earth was 75,000 years old considerably upset the religious people of his day and the theologians at the powerful Sorbonne created a huge fuss and demanded that he publish an apology for publishing results that contradicted the biblical chronology. Buffon made some apologetic remarks in later editions of his book but did not withdraw the book or repudiate his conclusions (Jackson, p. 111).

Fortunately for Buffon, by his time freethinking was on the rise, people like Baron D’Holbach were publishing atheist treatises blasting the church and religion, and the church had lost the kinds of punitive powers that it had during the periods of the Inquisition so the church could do nothing more to Buffon than castigate him and he was tough enough to withstand their pressure.

As a result of Buffon’s work the genie was now out of the bottle and from then on scientists looked elsewhere than the Bible to answer questions about the age of the Earth. The rise of catastrophism and its concomitant idea of a very old, perhaps infinitely old, Earth came to dominate thinking by around 1850.

Once an old Earth became such an established fact that further opposition to the idea became just silly, how did Christianity respond? That will be discussed in the next posting.

(Main sources for this series of posts are The Chronologers’ Quest: The Search for the Age of the Earth (2006) by Patrick Wyse Jackson and Lord Kelvin and the age of the Earth by Joe D. Burchfield (1975).)

POST SCRIPT: What if life is found on other planets?

Stephen Colbert explores the implications for Christianity.

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