Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Religion vs. Science, the Vast Gulf Part Six: Continents

It is with considerable relief when I say, Congratulations to Barack Obama for winning a second term. I was afraid that Mitt Romney would make devastating cuts to science and education, cuts that would actually not reduce the deficit very much. At the same time, almost exactly half of the voters voted against Barack Obama. His next four years may be even harder than his previous four years.

Now back to our series about the many ways in which science differs from traditional religion.

The Biblical view of the Earth is that orderly dry land is surrounded by chaotic oceans; in fact, one of God’s earliest acts of creation was to set a boundary between land and sea. The landlubber Israelites were frankly afraid of being out on the ocean (so am I). The God of orderliness had created dry land as the place for people to live.

But the Israelites had no idea that the continents moved around. Of course, neither did anybody else. The idea of continental drift was proposed by Alfred Wegener in the early twentieth century, and accepted only decades later by geologists. You cannot fault the Bible for omitting continental drift, unless you believe the Bible to be the outline of all scientific truth, in which case you have to reject continental drift.

But it is a little more complicated than this. Creationists believe that God sent a Flood upon the Earth, saving only Noah and his family (which, they imagine, contained black, white, and oriental daughters-in-law) from which all the people of the Earth are descended. This was such a severe disruption to the stable continents that all sedimentary rocks (of which continents largely consist) and all volcanic and metamorphic layers between them were produced at that time. Where did all the land come from? Not from day three of Genesis 1, but from the big piles of mud left over after the Flood of Noah. The problems with this theory could fill a book, and have filled many books.

But it gets even more complicated than this. Genesis 10:25 said that in the days of Peleg (a mysterious patriarch about whom little is known) the Earth was divided. This was after the Flood. Let us consider the tremendous scientific implications of this verse, if we take it literally. This verse literally says the Earth was divided. The word for “earth” is the same Hebrew word that is used for the entire planet (see here for concordance references). The word for “divided” refers to cutting entirely in half (see here for concordance references). To really take this verse literally, we have to say what one creationist (Walter Brown) once said in a public forum at the University of Illinois: this was when God created the Atlantic Ocean, causing the Eurasian and North American plates to diverge. But the word literally means to split into pieces, thus we must go way beyond continental drift and believe that the entire planet was split in two. One of the halves must be the one we are on, and presumably the other half has been lost. This would mean that, even right after the Flood, Earth was a much bigger planet, which would give it stronger gravitation, which would make birds unable to fly and large animals (as they are currently designed) unable to walk… This quickly leads to absurdity. Therefore, creationists such as the people at Answers in Genesis claim that “earth” in this verse refers to the people of the Earth. They refuse to allow this interpretation for the very same word in reference to the whole Earth being covered by the Flood, or to God creating the whole Earth in Genesis 1. Apparently, creationists have appointed themselves as the official “deciders” of which passages are to be taken as scientifically literal statements and which are more figurative.

It gets even stranger. Something interesting happened during King Solomon’s coronation parade. “And all the people went up after him [King Solomon], playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise.” Some translations say that the earth rumbled with their noise, but the actual Hebrew words refer to the Earth itself actually splitting. Most of us would assume this is the figurative equivalent of “ear-splitting,” and some Bible translations take the liberty of translating it, “The earth rumbled with their noise.” But if you base your science on a literal interpretation of the Bible, you have a problem here. Creationists quietly accept the figurative meaning of this verse.

There are whole continents of difference between the ancient religious view of the earth and the modern scientific one.


  1. What if the Bible and other scriptural material was nothing more than a 'Trap' for human hubris, spiritual and intellectual pretensions? So that one day God might expose just how far 'reasoned' ignorance can carry the step of man in the absence of demonstrable truth. It may very well 'prove' [in the literal scientific sense] to be the case that true religion has yet to begin!