I recently went to Fall Creek Falls State Park in Tennessee and visited several of its waterfalls including the magnificent Fall Creek Falls, which is the tallest free-falling waterfall in the Eastern United States (see below).
When I visit a place such as Fall Creek Falls, I like to enjoy the immediate beauty of the area which I can perceive through my eyes, but I also like to place what I see around me in the context of the scientific knowledge we have about the place.
The park is part of a geological area in Tennessee that is called the Cumberland Plateau which rises about 1,000 feet over the Tennessee River Valley. Several of the limestone, dolomite, and shale rocks in the Cumberland Plateau started out as sediments deposited in a swallow sea 360-320 million years ago. And from 320 to 300 million years ago the erosion of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which once were as tall as the Rocky Mountains, also contributed sand and pebbles to the area. Over millions of years the sediments were compacted (lithified) into rocks and the whole area experienced an uplifting event which led to the creation of swift streams that carved out gorges in the plateau creating beautiful waterfalls such as Fall Creek Falls.
When I stand near Fall Creek Falls, I am standing in an area that hundreds of millions of years ago was a tropical sea. And when I look at some of the rocks under the waterfall, I am looking at sediments that came from the summits of mighty mountains. Isn’t that amazing? Doesn’t that knowledge increase our sense of wonder about the place? It does so for me, but my enjoyment was dampened a bit when I saw that some of the park signs had been vandalized in a particular way.
Signs everywhere are often vandalized by individuals for different reasons, but I noticed that the sign next to Fall Creek Falls (as well as other signs in the park) had one word crossed out: the word “millions”. And in this particular sign, the word “thousands” had been scratched in below. Clearly the person defacing the sign had a problem with the sign alluding to geologic formations “millions of years old” feeling that the proper description should have been “thousands of years old”. Who would this person be and why would they choose to vandalize the sign in this way?
Although I have no definite proof, I presume that the individual(s) who vandalized this and other signs in the park believe in creationism. Other persons who have read these signs have arrived at the same conclusion.
Creationists are people who adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible and believe in several things that are contrary to scientific evidence such as that the Earth is only 6,000 to 10,000 thousand years old, that there was a universal flood that covered much of the Earth, and that all living things were created at the same time, and therefore human beings coexisted with dinosaurs. In recent years, creationists have framed the refusal of mainstream science to accept their views while promoting the teaching of evolution in schools as an attack on religion and the imposition of atheism. This is not true, but I have dealt with creationists before in my blog, so I am not going to repeat myself in this post. However, I do want to address the issue behind the vandalism. How do we know the Earth is much older than 6,000 years? There are many ways to figure this out, but I will only talk about two of them here.
I have already mentioned in the Interesting Stuff section of my website that one of the methods scientists use to determine the age of rocks is radiometric dating. Radioactive elements decompose into other elements at fixed rates, and by measuring the proportion of both the parent and daughter elements in the rocks, scientists can find out when these rocks were formed. The results repeatedly obtained by many scientists using these techniques applied in many areas of the Earth is that the oldest rocks of our planet are billions of years old. This result has also been obtained when radiometric techniques were applied to meteorites and moon rocks. Creationists argue that radiometric techniques rely on false assumptions and have seized on mistakes made by some scientists to discredit these techniques. However, not only have creationist arguments been refuted, but many examples abound of rocks that have been carefully analyzed and found to be much older than creationist claims.
Another way to figure out that the Earth is much older than 6,000 to 10,00 years is using the science from plate tectonics. The continents of the Earth are sitting on top of areas of the Earth’s crust called plates that move over the Earth’s mantle very slowly. Some continents that were connected in the past, such as North America and Africa, have since moved away from each other, while India has crashed into Asia giving rise to the Himalayan Mountains. The rate of movement of these plates nowadays can be measured by GPS and it is in the order of 0.6 to 10 centimeters per year. If you calculate the thousands of miles that the continents must have travelled at these slow rates, you arrive at figures in the tens to hundreds of millions of years. Creationists claim (with no evidence) that plate movement was much faster in the past, but to pack all that movement of colossal landmasses into a span of a few thousand years would be impossible from a physical point of view.
The error in the creationist beliefs comes from using the Bible as a textbook of natural history, which it is not. To express this in a couple of sentences. The Bible is about how to go to heaven, not about how the heavens go. The Bible is about the rock of ages, not about the age of rocks. Creationists do a disservice not only to science but also to religion itself when using the Bible in this way. All the evidence we have clearly points to a very old Earth where most changes in the landscape have taken millions upon millions of years.
And vandalizing park signs is not going to change that.
The photographs belong to the author and can only be used with permission.
Although this is a science blog, I often address instances when belief clashes with science. I subscribe to the notion that religion and science have expertise over different areas and should be kept separate as per the concept of non-overlapping magisteria advocated by the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. But I recognize there will be cases where that separation becomes fuzzy or unworkable. I have made the point several times in my blog that science is the best method we have to discover the truth about the behavior of matter and energy in the world around us, and this is not an opinion. The success of science in discovering how the natural world works is plain for all but the most irrational skeptics to see. However, at the same time I accept that science cannot operate in a vacuum, and we have to contend with the reality of belief. In these trying times when we are in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, one of the crucial guidelines that scientists have issued to our population is the need for social distancing and avoiding crowds to reduce the spread of the virus. This guideline is derived from our knowledge of how the virus spreads.
Because of this I was shocked when I saw the video below.
This woman, who had just attended a church gathering where dozens of people hugged and assembled inside, has the firm conviction that the virus won’t infect her, and that she will not give it to others, because Jesus is protecting her.
Most people will criticize the belief of this woman and her congregation and view them intellectually in unflattering terms. However, I understand the need that people have for religion, especially during trying times such as the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact this is nothing new. For millennia, human beings have invoked the deity to help them overcome challenges. I also understand that for many individuals, psychological well-being is often as important as physical well-being. This is not to say that all religious congregations have responded in the way this one did. The majority are offering virtual religious services and other activities that follow social distancing guidelines. But there are a substantial number that are still refusing, and these can (and have) become hot beds of virus spread. However, I don’t think this is solely a religious issue.
In the United States, there is a distrust of government among many people. Any ordinance that in any way limits freedom is viewed with suspicion. If you include that there is the belief among some religious groups that a war is being waged on Christianity by atheists aligned with liberal organizations that wish to spread socialism and destroy the American way of life, you begin to get the idea of what may really be transpiring behind this opposition to common sense safety rules that interfere with regular worship. To this, of course, you must add the delegitimization of science that has taken place in our society, and the rise of antiscience movements such as those that advocate opposition to vaccination and climate change denial or the acceptance of conspiracy theories ranging from 911 and chemtrails to the flat Earth.
I believe, however, that there are ways to harmonize belief with science. If you look at the video of the woman again, you can see that she is wearing a seat belt. This makes sense, as science has generated evidence that seat belts along with air bags save lives during collisions. The woman probably doesn’t even think about this when she adjusts her seat belt upon entering the car. She also probably doesn’t even consider driving without a seat belt expecting Jesus to protect her in case of a crash. Additionally, the church she attends probably has lighting rods on top of the roof to protect the building and the people inside from lighting. It is likely that no one in the congregation has even considered removing the lightning rods and relying just on their faith in Jesus to protect the church. So there are clearly science-derived safety measures that these people accept. Why not then accept the safety measures against the coronavirus?
While it’s true that, unlike the acceptance of seat belts or lighting rods, the social distancing guidelines impose a serious restriction in their ability to worship, in essence the occurrence of a viral pandemic is not different from a lighting strike: they are both natural phenomena. Car crashes are a more artificial situation, but they can be rationalized in terms of collisions among moving bodies (a physical phenomenon). If these people have accepted, or at least don’t question, the science and the necessity behind seat belts lighting rods and other such safety measures in their daily lives, how can we convince them that the safety measures against the virus are no different?
As it turns out, many religious congregations, including some that share the same brand of Christianity as that of the woman in the video, have already taken care of this issue. They argue that God has responded to our prayers to keep us safe by giving us science, and through science we can understand how the world works and react accordingly. Viewed from this vantage point, applying our God-given science to come up with safety guidelines for the coronavirus is no different from applying it to come up with things like seat belts or lighting rods. No conspiracy. No attack on Christianity, No atheism or socialism. Science does not have an ideology. Science is a tool, and it the right hands it can be used for good.
Of course, the above argument that God has given us science is a religious argument and therefore outside the scope of science. But if it means having people accept safety measures that will save lives, I am all for it. Rather than condemn and berate these people for their beliefs, I am of the opinion that the best way to proceed is to search for individuals whom these religious denominations will trust, and have them deliver this argument. Then it can be worked out how to adapt the coronavirus safety guidelines to meet the needs of these religious congregations.
Image by geralt from pixabay is for public use.