Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The smoking gun of Biblical literalism

I've already blogged about that wonderful eccentric, the very hungry, Very Reverend, Dr William Buckland. To recap:
he claimed to have eaten his way through the animal kingdom... The most distasteful items were mole and bluebottle; panther, crocodile and mouse were among the other dishes noted by guests. The raconteur Augustus Hare claimed that "Talk of strange relics led to mention of the heart of a French King preserved at Nuneham in a silver casket. Dr. Buckland, whilst looking at it, exclaimed, 'I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before', and, before anyone could hinder him, he had gobbled it up, and the precious relic was lost for ever." The heart in question is said to have been that of Louis XIV. 
There's a lot more to Buckland than celebrity bush tucker chef, though. Buckland was a pioneering geologist and palaeontologist, who wrote the first full account of a fossil dinosaur, Megalosaurus, and his career history included spells both as president of the Geological Society and Dean of Westminster.

It's pretty clear from his biography that Dr. Buckland was a learned and knowledgeable man in two now distinct fields, the natural sciences and theology.  As such, he's a great place to start, if you want to stress test a revisionist version of history currently popular with mainstream Christian apologists.

To recap, the standard version of history goes like this. Once upon a time, people had a strong, literal belief in the historicity of the Bible. Then, along came science and the analytical study of Biblical texts, which contradicted some testable Bible passages (creation in seven days, Noah's flood and so on). The discovery that the Bible was factually incorrect at several important points reduced the authority of the church and levels of belief among the laity.

The revisionist version of history asserts that mainstream Christians have always understood that implausible Bible stories that contradict modern scientific knowledge, like Noah's flood, were metaphors, or allegories, or whatever. Biblical literalism, they claim, is a modern aberration which exists only in the minds of a few crazy creationists and literal-minded unbelievers who don't understand the subtle, complex nature of Actually Existing Christian belief.

I have no problem understanding that mainstream Christians today think of Noah's flood as some kid of metaphor or allegorical story, rather than a true account of a world-wide deluge, featuring a lifeboat big enough to accommodate two representatives of every species of land-dwelling animal from aardvark to zebra.

What I would question is the claim that your average Christian never believed in this stuff. Are non-believers really being ignorant in supposing that ordinary Christians ever literally believed in, say, Noah's Ark? Are the Biblical truth claims that have already been disproved irrelevant, because they were never really truth claims in the first place?

The Very Reverend Dr William Buckland can help us to clear up these questions. As a theologian and a natural scientist, Buckland was initially keen to reconcile geological evidence with the biblical accounts of creation and, specifically, Noah's Flood, which he believed to have been a real, historical event:
...the grand fact of a universal deluge at no very remote period is proved on grounds so decisive and incontrovertible, that, had we never heard of such an event from Scripture, or any other authority, Geology of itself must have called in the assistance of some such catastrophe, to explain the phenomena of diluvian action which are universally presented to us, and which are unintelligible without recourse to a deluge exerting its ravages at a time not more ancient than that announced in the Book of Genesis.
Later on in his career, he adjusted his views in the light of what he'd observed and recognised that a lot of the evidence formerly cited as proof of the Noachian flood, must, in fact, have been the result of more gradual processes:
Some have attempted to ascribe the formation of all the stratified rocks to the effects of the Mosaic Deluge; an opinion which is irreconcilable with the enormous thickness and almost infinite subdivisions of these strata, and with the numerous and regular successions which they contain of the remains of animals and vegetables, differing more and more widely from existing species, as the strata in which we find them are placed at greater depths. The fact that a large proportion of these remains belong to extinct genera, and almost all of them to extinct species, that lived and multiplied and died on or near the spots where they are now found, shows that the strata in which they occur were deposited slowly and gradually, during long periods of time, and at widely distant intervals.
These were the documented views of an intelligent, educated man of his time, a Fellow of the Royal Society who was an acknowledged expert in the emerging fields of geology and paleontology. He was also a mainstream Christian of his day and, presumably, a theologically knowledgeable one (he did, after all, end up as Dean of Westminster). It seems quite clear that he started off believing in the literal truth of Noah's flood and it's by no means clear that he ever abandoned this belief (he may have come to the view that he hadn't seen any direct evidence for it, and that such evidence would be difficult to find, but that's not the same as concluding that it never happened).

It's also clear that he was engaging with the work of other, earlier, scholars who had believed in the Biblical story of a world-wide deluge and sometimes found what they thought was evidence for that event. Looking back from Buckland's time, it's not hard to find the recorded opinions of people whose documented opinions suggest that they thought of the Bible flood story as a historical event.

Going right back to the early days of Christianity, Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225) pondered the meaning of the various natural catastrophes which had afflicted humanity and included the Biblical flood (and, interestingly, the sinking of Atlantis) among a list of historical floods: 
Pray, tell me how many calamities befell the world and particular cities before Tiberius reigned—before the coming, that is, of Christ? We read of the islands of Hiera, and Anaphe, and Delos, and Rhodes, and Cos, with many thousands of human beings, having been swallowed up. Plato informs us that a region larger than Asia or Africa was seized by the Atlantic Ocean. An earthquake, too, drank up the Corinthian sea; and the force of the waves cut off a part of Lucania, whence it obtained the name of Sicily. These things surely could not have taken place without the inhabitants suffering by them. But where—I do not say were Christians, those despisers of your gods—but where were your gods themselves in those days, when the flood poured its destroying waters over all the world, or, as Plato thought, merely the level portion of it? For that they are of later date than that calamity, the very cities in which they were born and died, nay, which they founded, bear ample testimony; for the cities could have no existence at this day unless as belonging to postdiluvian times.
Later church figures seem to have shared Tertullian's opinion and cited what they considered to be supporting evidence:
Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin all believed that Noah’s Flood was a global flood. They interpreted fossil seashells found in rocks as compelling proof—how else could the bones of marine creatures have ended up entombed in rocks high in the mountains?
Leonardo da Vinci was famously sceptical of contemporary claims that fossil shells in mountain rocks were relics of Noah's flood, but the fact that he spent time refuting literalist arguments underlines the fact that Biblical literalism was a current strand of thought during the Renaissance.

Nicholas Steno (1638-1686), the "father of stratigraphy", anticipated Buckland's realisation that the Biblical flood couldn't account for all the fossil-bearing strata he was seeing but, like Buckland, didn't question the historicity of the Bible deluge, speculating that some of most recent layers of strata might have been laid down in the Genesis flood:
Steno himself saw no difficulty in attributing the formation of most rocks to the flood mentioned in the Bible. However, he noticed that, of the two major rock types in the Apennine Mountains near Florence, the lower layers had no fossils, while the upper ones were rich in fossils. He suggested that the upper layers had formed in the Flood, after the creation of life, while the lower ones had formed before life had existed. This was the first use of geology to try to distinguishdifferent time periods in the Earth's history -- an approach that would develop spectacularly in the work of later scientists.
Thomas Burnet (c. 1635–1715) was exercised by the problem of where all the water that had once submerged the earth had gone, and developed the entertaining theory of a hollow earth* to account for it. Clearly, he didn't propose this mechanism to explain an event that he didn't actually believe in:
[Thomas] Burnet's best known work is his Telluris Theoria Sacra, or Sacred Theory of the Earth... It was a speculative cosmogony, in which Burnet suggested a hollow earth with most of the water inside until Noah's Flood, at which time mountains and oceans appeared. He calculated the amount of water on Earth's surface, stating there was not enough to account for the Flood. Burnet was to some extent influenced by Descartes who had written on the creation of the earth in Principia philosophiae (1644), and was criticised on those grounds by Roger North. The heterodox views of Isaac La Peyrère included the idea that the Flood was not universal; Burnet's theory was at least in part intended to answer him on that point.
The mention of Descartes, North and La Peyrère underlines the fact that the literal truth of the universal deluge was the subject of lively intellectual debate in the Seventeenth Century, just as it seems to have been throughout Christian history.

In short, the claim that mainstream Christians never literally believed in Bible stories like Noah's flood looks like a re-writing of history. There may have been sceptics, like Leonardo da Vinci, but there were plenty of other educated, theologically sophisticated people around, who clearly believed in Noah's flood and spent time and intellectual effort citing the physical evidence this event had left behind and arguing about how it might have happened.

Why would anybody try to re-write history? The charitable answer is that nobody's trying to re-write the past, it's just an honest mistake arising out of ignorance. But I suspect that the originators of this meme knew what they were doing and were consciously trying to buttress the credibility and authority of their belief system. Bury your mistakes and change the past radically enough and it just might look as if you were right all along, as religion always is, at least in the fables it tells about itself:
Science and philosophy set out to climb the mountain of knowledge. After a long and arduous ascent, they reach the summit, only to discover that religion is already sitting at the top, asking, 'what took you so long?'
The evidence on the mountainside stubbornly suggests otherwise.

*The cistern of God that flusheth away the sins of the world?