A Range of Possibilities

Returning to the creationism well one more time, and then I really will leave it alone and talk about something else for a while!

Human groups around the world have a wide range of different creation and origin stories for Earth and life. For the purposes of this, I’ll only talk about Christian creation stories. But I do encourage you to read widely and get a sense of the range. There’s an interesting list here:

Basically, the two (slightly different) creation stories in the first and chapters of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, have been interpreted in a range of ways. And each interpreter will loudly and repeatedly tell you that their particular interpretation is the simple, clear, plain and literal reading of the text, and all other interpretations are heretical or worse.

If we consider ‘young’ to mean something like ‘less than 20,000 years old’ and ‘old’ to mean something like ‘more than 10 million years old’ (because almost no-one believes that any of the things we’re about to talk about happened in the space between those periods. No-one things Earth is middle-aged, apparently. It’s a bimodal distribution.

So there is a range of possible views, within that scheme:

  1. Universe, Earth and life is young
  2. Universe is old, Earth and life is young
  3. Universe and Earth are old, life is young
  4. Universe, Earth and life is old

The interesting thing is that of these, only 4 does not require any kind of supernatural intervention – but 4 is still completely consistent with the possibility of supernatural intervention. That is to say, only 4 allows sufficient time for natural processes to create everything we see around us.

When I say ‘Earth’ above, it’s probably worth noting that that might mean ‘Earth and our Solar System’. The relevant texts in Genesis 1 talk about the creation of the Sun and Moon:

14 And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years:

15 And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so.

16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.

17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,

18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.

This occurs after the creation of plants, and some folks like to make a ‘gotcha’ of that, but I don’t have a lot of appetite for that kind of frame-shift argument.

A lot tends to hinge, in arguments between proponents of the various positions in the numbered list (1-4) above, on the few words I’ve bolded above in Verse 16: “he made the stars also”. If their positioning with the creation of the sun and moon means they were created at the same time, the universe must be young, and only position 1 is tenable. Many interpret it as a parenthetical comment that allows the possibility that God made the stars, but some considerable time earlier.

To some extent these are accommodations between science and religion, but they are also readings of an ancient text through modern eyes. Terry Pratchett captured it nicely “the stars began to come out, like pinholes in the curtain of night. Or like enormous exploding balls of gas, as some people would say. But some people will say anything.”

The distinction between Earth, solar system, galaxy and universe is not something that would have been a commonplace for people almost 3000 years ago: they’re not even necessary commonplaces for many people now.

I believe that conflict between science and religion is not inevitable, but that conflict between science and certain simplistic readings of religious texts is much more common. Once a religion has become organised, there is systematic pressure to preserve particular interpretations.

I do always find it interesting to observe the passionate arguments between people who believe very strongly that a particular text is sacred and infallible, but read it very slightly differently.

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