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Dec 09 2009

The age of the Earth-5: Christianity tries to deal with an old Earth

(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.

By the end of the 18th century, Enlightenment values had taken hold, science and rationality were on the rise, and religion could no longer rely on dogmatic assertions and threats alone to suppress ideas that it found unpalatable. So the strategy shifted to creating alternative narratives that had a scientific veneer that would make their religion-based conclusions more acceptable. That strategy has been the one that religions have followed ever since, right down to the present day, with intelligent design being its latest incarnation.

In reaction to the rise in the mid-19th century of uniformitarianism in geology and its concomitant idea of an old Earth, there was a resurgence of Biblical literalism that manifested itself in an alternative school of thought known as Neptunism, that argued that water was the main cause of changes in the Earth’s features. This theory was favored by those of a more religious bent who were seeking ways to reconcile science with the Bible.

Some of the adherents of Neptunism were convinced that the Great Flood of Noah was sufficient to preserve the biblical chronology and this group steadfastly rejected any attempts to make the Earth older than 6,000 years or so. One of the most well known of the proponents of this theory was George McCready Price (1870-1963), who tried to make the case that scientific evidence supported a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible. The numbers of this group remained small until the recent rise of the creationist movement that was facilitated by the publication in 1961 of the book The Genesis Flood by John Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris that built on Price’s ideas. While Whitcomb was a theologian, Morris had a doctoral degree in hydraulic engineering with minors in geology and mathematics. He later founded the Institute for Creation Research in 1970 to advance these ideas.

But most religious scientists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were willing to concede that a strict biblical chronology was too restrictive and required the existence of unrealistically strong forces to create its effects in such a short time. As is the case, when faced with incontrovertible scientific evidence that what they were asserting all along as divinely inspired was simply wrong, sophisticated religious apologists now came up with new interpretations of scriptures that conveniently seemed to conform with an old Earth. They then, as usual, argued that this agreement shows that the Bible is correct because it predicted the scientific discovery of an old Earth!

One version of this new biblical interpretation is what is known as the ‘Gap’ or ‘Ruin-Reconstruction’ theory that arose in the early 19th century. This theory conveniently found a ‘gap’ between Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”) and Genesis 1:2 (“Now the earth was [a] formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”) that allowed for an indefinite amount of time and the shoe-horning in of a very old, unspecified age of the universe in which matter was first created, followed by non-human life and the formation of fossils.

This gap allowed for multiple cataclysms and creations and is flexible enough to accommodate most geologic evidence. But when it comes to the first appearance of humans, the model becomes that of standard creationism with a Garden of Eden and the first humans Adam and Eve created in six 24-hour days in 4004 BCE followed in 2348 BCE by Noah’s flood, which in this model need not be a global flood but could be a local phenomenon.

A weaker formulation of creationism has an even more flexible structure and is known as the ‘Day-Age’ model. This allows for a very old, unspecified age of the universe in which matter was first created, followed by life, the formation of fossils, and finally human beings. Noah’s flood was a historical event in this model but it could be a local phenomenon. The six ‘days’ of creation in the Genesis story are interpreted metaphorically as representing long but indeterminate periods of time, whence comes the name of this model, and hence all these events have unspecified dates that can accommodate values obtained using the standard dating techniques of science. Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden story are also interpreted metaphorically and not as actual historical events. (For a history of evolution of creationist thought, see Ronald Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism, 1992.)

William Jennings Bryan, a key player in the Scopes trial of 1925, seemed to be a believer in the ‘day-age’ model but under questioning in the trial, probably for tactical reasons related to the specifics of that case, responded as if he was a believer in the ‘gap’ model.

Nowadays one rarely finds people who believe in the gap model. Christians seem to be either young-Earth/Flood Geologists or some form of day-agers. Islamic creationists and some sophisticated Christian apologists (such as the intelligent design people) today also seem to adopt the ‘Day-Age’ model, hoping that it will make the science-religion contradictions less obvious.

But enough of religious apologetics and its sad attempts at rescuing faith using religious and historical revisionism. The next post gets back to the scientific history of calculations of the age of the Earth.

(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).)

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