David Montgomery — The Intersection of Science and Religion

LC: Can you tell me about the writing of The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood and how you got into this project?

DM: Yeah, it was a fun book to write. It took me a lot longer to do than I thought because I had to learn some theology. I kind of thought I knew the story of the history of science and religion, and it turned out I knew the cartoon version. If you rotate and look at the books over your right shoulder, that shelf on the left is all sixteenth seventeenth century, and if you look at all the writing from the first two hundred years of geology, which I started to do when I started collecting old books, every single one of them is about Noah’s Flood.

The question was how did God do it, and the theory was that Noah’s Flood was a global flood the way it’s described in genesis or the way that some people think genesis describes it. I ended up with enough books from that era to recognize that pattern. And they’re wildly, wildly creative theories based on hardly any data or observation—just somebody had an idea, “This must’ve been how God did it, I’ll write a book about it,” but they all tried to pay a little bit of homage to what the rocks were actually saying.

If you look at the structure of the Swiss Alps, the geologic structure is all messed up because they’ve been through the tectonic ringer; they’ve been folded and crushed and pushed up. Well, if you didn’t have the theory of plate tectonics and all you had was you’re going to the alps five hundred years ago looking at this mess where you can see these layers and these folds and these bends, it looks like a chaotic disaster must’ve struck the planet. If your only theory is a global flood, you go “Oh that must be what did that because what else could’ve done it.”

The more I read into it the more I realized that the story wasn’t so much one of conflict between science and religion as we hear it framed through evolution now, as much as it was an interesting story about how ideas in the sciences shaped ideas in theology and vice versa. Of course there’s conflict in there, but I found the crossover influence to be the more intriguing idea.

I thought I was going to write up a straight up refutation of young earth creationism, you know, “There is real geological evidence that the world is quite old” and so forth. But the more that I read the history of it, the more I realized that two, three hundred years ago there was hardly a Christian theologian around that would’ve argued with the idea that we should trust the findings of science in framing the natural world and use that to reinterpret passages of the Bible, and that’s definitely not the conversation that is happening around evolution today.

I watched a talk in which you said that science and faith are often said to have this conflict you don’t think is present. Why do people think there’s inherent conflict, and what’s your response?

I think what I said is that the conflict isn’t so much between science and religion but a conflict within religion about how to view science. If you view science as the application of rational principles trying to understand the world and you use it to piece together the planet’s long history, and then you’re faced with a religious document, the Book of Genesis for example, and its description of the creation of the world in seven days, how do you square those? The reason I would argue that there’s not necessarily a fundamental conflict between science and religion is it’s possible to read the first chapter of genesis as allegory, and it was done that way for a thousand years by the catholic church before the reformation.

What I sort of came around to realizing is that there’s a long history of people thinking that if you have things we can characterize as observable, demonstrable facts, and they don’t square with how we’re interpreting a religious document, maybe we’ve been interpreting that document wrong. There’s a way to reconcile them—we can look at how the word “earth” is interpreted coming out of Hebrew into English and the word could be “the soil” rather than the entire planet, in which case the idea of a flood that flooded out the plains of Mesopotamia, it would have seemed like the whole world.

I was really quite surprised at how much flexibility in interpretation there was in mainstream Christianity through most of the history of the religion, and how young earth creationism is a very young offshoot in terms of rejecting geology and thereby engaging in a conflict between science and religion. It wasn’t so much the geological discoveries that forced the conflict as it was the refusal to reinterpret cherished readings of particular passages.

I think some people would say, in that context, that it feels like science has a supremacy in being able to dictate the allowed interpretation of the text.

That’s a very interesting perspective. You’re basically arguing that when you have a set of scientific discoveries or findings that are in conflict with the reading, it’s the reading that needs to change. There’s two ways to look at that: one is that the science is dictating the reading, the other is that the science is actually helping to unveil the true meaning, and the only difference is the attitude.

I was able to find evidence for both perspectives on that in the theological world, so I ended up basically arguing that this is a battle within theology about how to look at science. It’s that distinction there as to whether you’re saying “Oh no you can’t tell me, I independently believe this and that can’t change” or whether it’s like “Oh maybe this is providing me insight into the mind of God.” The idea is that God’s word is enshrined in two different books, one being the Bible and the other being nature and that because they share the same author they can’t be in conflict.

If you accept that philosophy, it leads to the science helping to guide how to interpret things. One of the most famous examples of the antithesis of that are people who’ll argue that god made the fossil record to look like the world is quite old just to test your faith in the reading of Genesis, and I like to think up that brings up a lot of even thornier theological problems about the nature of the mind of god.

I read somewhere that you were raised religious—that you went to Sunday school and things like that.

Yeah, I was raised Presbyterian.

Do you think that has impacted your scientific career? Do you think that a religious mindset motivates it or helps it in some way?

I think that the way I would look at that today is that I’m just continually amazed at the grandeur of creation with a small c, however it was created. This universe and world are put together in an incredible manner—we know so little of it.

One of the things you get from geology is a taste of the infinite just by dealing with the problem of geologic time. It is so beyond our biologically-hardwired ability to understand. Just standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon is a good way to get that feeling of “Wow this is a whole different scale.” I think that if you have a religiously instilled appreciation for the infinite, which is something you get through early religious training, I think it helps open your mind to that.

I think there’s a connection there which is deeply spiritual in the way that you look at the world as a thing I guess is the way to put it. My perspective on that is filtered through the idea that, as the dominant organism on the planet, unless you’re willing to give algae and their oxygen producing capacities top billing, the onus for stewarding this planet is really on us now, and I have a very easy time connecting that to spirituality and religion, and I think there should be much more connection there than we tend to see. The idea that people were given dominion over the planet so we could use it all up, I think that runs 180 degrees to the actual intent of what was being said in those passages.

People will be arguing about how to interpret the Bible forever, but people hopefully won’t be arguing about how to interpret rocks forever, and we can kind of get that down. 

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