13 December 2012

“The evolution of creationism,” by David Montgomery

Posted by Callan Bentley

The cover story in the November issue of GSA Today was by David Montgomery, MacArthur “genius” award winner and author of Dirt. Montgomery has a new book out on creationism and “flood geology,” and the article is a précis of the historical roots of creationism that appears in that book. The article is titled “The Evolution of Creationism,” and the book it’s derived from is The Rocks Don’t Lie. I’ve got a review of the book coming out in February’s issue of EARTH Magazine, and I’ll encourage you to buy a copy or subscribe so you can read it. Montgomery’s new book is much more accessible (less dense) than Ron Numbers’ The Creationists, and I think it’s essential reading for anyone engaged in geoscientific outreach. Montgomery has performed a major public service by writing it, and doubled down on the utility of his effort by distilling out some of the essentials in this GSA Today article.

I picked up a couple of new tidbits from the article. One is the preaching of Archibald Alexander (1772-1851), a professor of theology at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Alexander is remembered today for promoting scientific understanding among the ascendent ministry (particularly with regards to natural history). As Montgomery describes it, Alexander suggested that

Christians should respect truth in all its forms because failure to take heed of scientific knowledge would only breed contempt for believers and hinder the spreading of the Gospel.

This passage struck home with me: The act of religious folks (not exclusively Christians, by the way) ignoring or rejecting scientific insights, logic, and/or evidence does distinctly cause me to feel contempt for them and therefore for their message. If they’re trying to spread any Gospel my way, they just lost the battle, because I can’t take seriously anyone who rejects empiricism, intellectual rigor, or a quest to see the world beyond the stale pages of old books.

Mind-expansion #2 came with Montgomery’s concise summary of the conclusions of Whitcomb & Morris’ “flood geology” (1961):

Their view of earth history was based on a literal interpretation of Genesis. In the beginning, at the Creation, God made Earth’s core and some kind of crust. Rocks that display evidence of internal deformation, like folds or minerals that form only at high pressures or temperatures, date from the First Day. Over the next week, a tremendous amount of geological work was accomplished, especially on the Third Day, when mountains were thrust up and ocean basins were carved out in a great rush of water as the planet was remodeled into a suitable dominion for man. All this erosion and deposition formed the non-fossil–bearing sedimentary rocks and carved mountains into them. Several thousand years later, the Flood ripped up the entire surface of the planet, killed everything not aboard the ark, and laid down fossil-bearing sedimentary rocks. Then the present geological era began after a brief Ice Age caused by all the snow accumulating on freshly uplifted mountains.

Did you read that? That’s crazy. Folds and high-pressure minerals come first, but mountains form later. Ocean basins are erosional features. Erosion and deposition occur simultaneously in the same place. And we haven’t even gotten to the Noachian flood yet… This is utterly lacking in logic or geologic understanding, but it’s permeated through and through with the pre-determined conclusion that the Biblical origin story is literally true. And that’s all that matters to these guys: the laws of physics may be violated in the most egregious fashion, so long as we end up believing what we started with.

Yet, preaching to their choir, Whitcomb & Morris were able to convince conservative Christians that their geological reinterpretation was valid, and the pervasive grip of modern creationism resulted from their efforts. Montgomery again, with a strongly worded passage:

The idea laughed out of Victorian England took root in Cold War America.

The most cutting passage, however, was this one:

Geologists assess theories by how well they fit data, and creationists evaluate facts by how well they fit their theories. This simple distinction frames an unbridgeable intellectual rift.

This statement, particularly that elegant initial sentence, sums up the different approaches to understanding the Earth quite nicely. I would note two other things: (1) Geologists and creationists have fundamentally different ways of understanding – and therefore a geologist cannot be a creationist, and a creationist cannot be a true geologist. They can play at it, and they can present posters at our meetings, but even if the cognitive dissonance isn’t apparent to them, they’re not fooling the rest of us. It should be noted that creationists can make great geologic achievements, as Louis Agassiz did with developing and advocating for the theory of the Ice Age, however, as illuminated in David Dobbs’ Reef Madness, Agassiz was a multiple special creationist*, and advocated fiercely on behalf of a deistic signature to the natural world. He rejected sound science (Darwinian natural selection theory) because of his creationist ideology. By closing his mind to the insights that real science wrought, Agassiz declassified himself as a geologist, and chose the creationist label. He got lucky with the Ice Age, but his creationism seriously tarnished his legacy in my mind. (Oh, wait, am I displaying “contempt for believers,” as theologian Alexander warned? …Only for those whose deism gets in the way of the insights revealed by rational inquiry.) Ideologies are obstacles that block the path that evidence wants to lead us down.

Regarding the second sentence in the last quotation above, I would also note that (2) the phrase “an unbridgeable intellectual rift” is much more strongly and combatively worded than the section of The Rocks Don’t Lie wherein Montgomery discusses the relationship between creationists and geologists. That topic is covered explicitly in the final chapter of the book, which is intentionally conciliatory in tone, and wherein Montgomery suggests we shouldn’t “cling to the rocky shore of science” any more than we should of faith. This was the only part of his book that rang false to me. In his book, Montgomery says science and religion “offer very different ways to assess truth,” but how is truth recorded, if not in facts? Science and religion may indeed offer “different ways to assess truth,” but one succeeds and the other fails. One brings truth to light, while the other is bent on obscuring it. One gets us forever closer to truth, while the other never moves from its foregone conclusions. I’m glad he set the two in starker contrast in this fine article.

Now, go read it.


* “Multiple special creationism” is the belief that God stepped in multiple times in geologic history to create species anew (e.g., after mass extinctions).