300 million year old rock
January 17, 2007
The summer before my senior year of college I worked as a park ranger guiding hikes in one of the most beautiful state parks in the country. Its central feature was a 256-foot waterfall that plunged down through a gorgeous natural amphitheater, cutting through bands of limestone and sandstone and collecting in a deep pool, the perfect hangout for summer swimming. My favorite program was the hike to the base of the falls. Layers of rock are like chapters in a history book and this canyon, carved so deeply, told an ancient story. Standing at the bottom, calling out over the roar of the falls, I got to teach the exciting conclusion, “The layers of slate and shale beneath our feet tell us that 300 million years ago, this deciduous forest was a tropical jungle.”
“What book d’ya get that out of?” came the reply one day. And thus it began, for this waterfall was not only located in ancient rock, it was also in the heart of the Bible-belt. I had heard there were people who believed the Earth was only 6,000 years old, but I never thought I would actually meet any. That summer, and every other summer I worked teaching science to the public, I met a lot of them. Though most objectors would just walk away from the program, some mothers would cover their children’s ears to protect them from the “blasphemous park ranger.” One man, after I patiently explained how we know the age of rocks, finally just threw up his hands, exclaimed, “The Devil made that rock look that old to turn you away from God,” and led his family back up the trail.
At the time, to a college kid with a summer job, these responses seemed bizarre but relatively harmless — they were local, “everyone’s entitled to their own beliefs”, “no skin off my back”, “whatever”... But now, 15 years later, I understand these taunts to be the threat they truly are: dangerous beliefs made more dangerous because more and more people believe them.
How does believing a 300 million year-old rock is only 6,000 years old become dangerous? It is a reflection of where and how we find answers. A 300 million year-old rock is the answer resulting from decades of observation, research, field study, laboratory testing, comparative studies and critical thinking. A 6,000 year old rock is the answer because God said so.
Is the accurate age of a rock really important? Interesting, yes, but important? Maybe not. But what if the question is about Polio? Should we seek an answer from decades of observation, research and field study, discover a vaccine and destroy a worldwide plague or does the answer lie in God’s plan?
What if the question is about food? Decades of observation, research and field study have shown us there is only so much arable land that can produce only so many calories of food energy. Currently, we burn 10 calories of oil energy to make 1 calorie of food energy. Our world population of 6 billion people is barely sustainable, let alone the 12 billion projected in another 40 years. Should we answer with conservation or with prayer?
What about your right to vote or just your rights in general? Eons of history, research, comparative studies and critical thinking have brought us to the advantages of a representative democracy based on individual rights and the checks and balances of limited governmental power. Is government of, by, and for the people the answer for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness or would we prefer one nation, under God, defined by his will and authority?
Let’s think about this: If, as many people are demanding today, we want our government to be based on God’s authority, the first problem is to decide exactly which God we want to follow. There are many. God is a very ambiguous, schizophrenic deity. This is why, as Carl Sagan explained, “When you ask, ‘Do you believe in God’, if I say yes or if I say no, you have learned absolutely nothing.” So we have to be more specific. How do we get 300 million people to agree to a specific definition of God’s identity and will? We can’t, of course. A democratic populace with the freedom to think for itself never will. Okay, forget individual freedoms. The answer is a theocratic dictatorship that can force the people to live according to its particular interpretation of God’s will.
And that’s how a 6,000 year old rock becomes dangerous.
But it was just a little rock! Yes, but it is a big metaphor.
The man who claimed that the Devil had made the rock look that old to turn me away from God was trying to warn me that I shouldn’t believe everything I see. He believes the Devil works through deception so anything learned from observation can’t be trusted. The church tells him Satan sends demons to trick his senses and his mind. Consequently, according to him and the 30 million Americans who agree with him, we can be saved only through faith.
Of course, there’s no denying that our minds can be easily fooled. After all, it is the basic premise underlying all marketing, entertainment, and campaign policies. But the idea that we must turn to faith for our salvation is fundamentally flawed. Credulity is a disastrous reaction to deception. If we wish to succeed in life, we need a more skeptical way to react to the world around us. How can we possibly work through the deceits of the world and the whims of our minds and come to a true understanding of reality?
That answer is the Scientific Method. It is a process of constant questioning, testing, verifying and questioning again, until the smoke and mirrors are removed and reality is revealed. Then you do it all over again. It is an adaptive mechanism, a hybrid of contemplation and observation and the best technique we’ve invented to help us figure stuff out. Constant questions. Constant testing. If an idea doesn’t hold up, we throw it out. It’s ruthless, but it works. There is no “argument from authority” because authorities make mistakes. And, as Sagan reminds us, “Intellectual brilliance is no guarantee against being dead wrong.” Nothing is sacred and that is how lots of very diligent people figured out that a 6,000 year-old rock was really 300 million years old. Cherished ideas often must fall by the wayside, but at its best, the method keeps us honest.
Honesty is difficult. It requires heroic efforts of introspection and self-awareness. This honest portrayal of reality is at the heart of the conflict between science and religion. While science is a natural response to reality, religion demands that we distrust our senses and our intellect, instead relying on a supernatural explanation. In this way, faith robs us of the best tool we have for learning about our world and understanding our true position within it. Religions, especially fundamentalist religions, get stuck because they are based on an immovable, unchangeable, unquestionable authority. But without doubt and questioning, there is no way to acknowledge, much less correct for errors. That is how a 6,000 year-old rock becomes dangerous.
It also explains the hostility on the hike that day because the danger goes both ways. If we want to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, almost every scientific discovery of the past 400 years has been a real downer. First we find out that the universe, literally, does not revolve around us. Next, we discover that our Sun is really a quite average star and, not only that, we live out in the boon-docks of an average spiral galaxy that is just one of 20 other galaxies (given the appropriately non-superlative name The Local Group) zipping through space outward from the center of the cosmos which, did we mention, is very far away from us. As if that wasn’t bad enough, this planet that was supposedly created for us was hanging out for almost 5 billion years before we even showed up and, by the way, we didn’t look like this when we first got here.
If your sense of self-worth, your purpose in life, is based on the belief that you and the universe were created specially for one another, science is truly a harbinger of doom. You can shoot the messenger, but ignoring reality is no guarantee that it will go away. Like a talk-show celebrity, the significance you desire is, sadly, based on unmerited importance. Truth be told, though the performance was entertaining, your show is just a dot among 6 billion dots on a bigger dot flying around a brighter dot lost amid a billion, billion more dots separated by vacuous space.
But here’s the cool thing: at least you are a dot. I am a dot, too. This means that, though we are insignificant to the cosmos, we are incredibly significant to each other. We and our fellow dots. What should we do? Don’t be afraid. The lack of a deity is not an opening for chaos. It is a call for responsibility. Besides, there are some really smart dots over there that have figured out how to learn and they can teach us how to survive. It’s all really quite amazing. Did you know that this rock is over 300 million years old?
Our species has continuously found meaning, purpose and comfort in the idea of god or gods. Unfortunately, if we want to know what is actually going on, and our survival depends on understanding reality, religion is utterly bereft of explanatory power. A belief in god’s existence is a useful and powerful illumination of our own desires for life, but it is not a reflection of what life is.
The discovery that a rock is 300 million years old is the result of lots of questions by lots of people who devised lots of different ways to ask the Earth about itself. Much to our delight, she is talking. Science is how we listen and the scientific method is how we understand what she says.
To deny that a rock is 300 million years old is to deny the process that got us to that understanding. Since this process of inquiry is our best tool for succeeding in the world, its denial is a grave threat to our future prosperity. Far from making us stronger, faith cripples us because it takes away our greatest advantage: our ability to question, to learn, to adapt and, therefore, to live.
This essay originally appeared as a commentary on Point of Inquiry, the podcast of the the Center for Inquiry. www.pointofinquiry.org