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The Rocky Road of Science and Religion

A geologist investigates ‘Noah’s Flood’

Nov. 5, 2012
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In some polls, nearly half of all Americans believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old and was once entirely covered by Noah’s flood, which left behind the mountain ranges and canyons that constitute the topography of our world. University of Washington geologist David R. Montgomery is more bemused than amused by the popularity of such ideas. But in exploring the history of science, he found not only many unexpected intersections between geology and theology, but also that theology is more dynamic than he expected. Human thought in all areas shifts more rapidly than any tectonic plate.

In The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood (W.W. Norton), Montgomery explores millions of years in geology and thousands in history on a journey triggered by a quizzical discovery in Tibet. While on a geological expedition, Montgomery found that an enormous lake and a catastrophic flood had once submerged much of the country. When he mentioned this to a villager, she shrugged and said she already knew all about it. An ancient legend told of a great flood whose hero, Guru Rinpoche, the apostle of Buddhism to Tibet, caused the waters to recede. Later, he discovered that some American Indians believe the Grand Canyon was carved in a flood whose hero was actually a heroine. Carl Jung isn’t in Montgomery’s intellectual kit; he doesn’t explore the widespread legends as an archetype, but rather as an example of how numerous ancient floods left their mark on human memory.

Montgomery is surprised to learn that Christian fundamentalism and its attendant dogma of “creationism” are relatively modern developments. He cites the second-century Eastern Church father Origen for holding that Genesis consisted of “figurative expressions,” not “actual events.” Clement of Alexandria embraced faith and reason, and that looming figure of the Roman Catholic West, Augustine, while accepting the veracity of Noah’s flood, praised “the evidence of experience” and warned against biblical interpretations that affronted reason. But the father of Protestantism, Martin Luther, discarded tradition by declaring that Moses “spoke properly and plainly, and neither allegorically nor figuratively” about the flood and everything else. Thus, the book of nature could teach us nothing and Luther’s fundamentalist heirs in 20th-century America cobbled together the pseudo-science of creationism, trying to squeeze the complexity of geological time and evolution into the frame of biblical literalism.

On another track of exploration, Montgomery learned that the science of geology as it developed in Renaissance Italy took the Great Flood as its starting point; the failure to find evidence for a universal deluge was what pushed the frontiers of science forward. “Perhaps we would be wise to consider Earth itself as a habitable ark careening around the sun,” Montgomery concludes after pondering the convergence and divergence of religion and science. “Maybe the modern relevance of the story lies not so much in whether it literally describes a particular prehistoric flood, but in a timeless lesson about humanity’s moral responsibility to safeguard creation.”


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