How tectonics strikes down creationism

A typical depiction of Goliath versus David shows a veritable monster fighting an apparently blonde, Caucasian boy.

As a kid in a Presbyterian Sunday School, I took the Bible stories we were told at face value. The story of the giant warrior Goliath being struck down by a youthful King David certainly had appeal. We all knew what giant bullies were about. And as second-graders, it wasn’t our job to engage in critical thinking about the anthropology of Goliath and the idea that he was possibly twenty feet tall.

What we did understand was the meaning of the allegory. We could relate to the boyish David showing courage in the face of such brute force.

But the older we get in life, the more these exaggerations should fall back into their natural places. It is possible to engage the story of David and Goliath without exaggerating the size of the man. Even a seven-foot-tall warrior in armor was a sufficient threat to the young David in his circumstance. It also makes sense to stand your distance in such a fight. Which is why the sling David used to fell the giant Goliath made a perfect weapon. Close engagement by David would have resulted in certain death.

David’s slaying of Goliath has served as inspiration for many generations of people. But the persistent depiction of Goliath as some sort of super-being is not just unfortunate, it belies a desperate lack of critical thinking and honesty on the part of so many people who engage with the Bible.

The creationist giant

The story of Noah’s Ark has similarly been turned into an allegory that is too big for its britches. The fact that a $100m “creation museum” in Kentucky has been created celebrate a literal interpretation of the Noah’s Ark story is demonstrative of the fact that people are quite easily carried away by outsized depictions of their ideological desires.

But the fact remains that a literal interpretation of the Noah’s Ark tale depends on some highly fantastical claims in defiance of facts about the earth’s natural history. To ascertain the source of these false perceptions, we will take David’s approach to confronting Goliath. First we’ll stand back and size up our opponent. Then we’ll whip the slings of reality and strike the head of what has become a creationist giant.

Tall tales and vertical evidence

In order to believe in the tale of Noah’s Ark, we must abide by the claim that a massive rainstorm generated seas capable of engulfing the highest mountains on earth. That would mean a worldwide ocean seven miles deeper than its current sea level.

It is true that great seas once covered large sections of continents such as North America. We know this from the massively complex limestone deposits forming bedrock in these regions. Within this deep strata are clearly defined fossil layers of increasingly simple life forms. This constitutes the “vertical column” of a continental matrix that is consistent around the world.

Of course, Noachian flood proponents like to claim these layers were laid down by the Great Flood. There would seem to be some logic to this claim if it weren’t for the fact that cataclysmic floods do not typically produce vertical strata that is so consistently organized and true to type across the entire face of the earth. Anyone that has witnessed the results of even a localized flood recognizes the fact that large trees and even huge boulders get knocked about and come to rest in highly chaotic fashion. Even a flood receding in very slow order would still result in vertical strata chaos.

Plus the vertical strata in limestone and shale deposits fits by together category of sea life and land life. We find that ferns showing up in fossil form and coal deposits do not intermix with mollusks in limestone.

The vertical strata exhibits an organic foundation in line with ecosystems and the pursuant life forms they contain. A worldwide flood would never (and could never) produce such fantastic order and vertical verity.

Horizontal logic

The challenge of defending the timetable of a biblically literal creation story and the pursuant occurrence of a worldwide flood gets even more difficult to sustain the more one looks at the horizontal logic of continental movement we call plate tectonics.

It was long postulated from world maps that the continents may well have fit together at one time. But it wasn’t until the process of how the earth’s crust could accommodate movement of entire continents, and why it would (or must) occur that we achieved evidence and understanding of how it all really works.

An illustration of the continents as geological evidence suggests they existed in Pangaea

Clues about how the continents came to their current positions fit together across several fronts. The first clue was discovery of a phenomenon called sea-floor spreading. This is the mechanism by which deep fissures in the ocean floor produce new crust through continual cycles of near-surface magma. These forces produce measurable magnetic traces that are literally “spread” across the sea floor in precisely matched longitudinal lines. Let us repeat: They match up precisely.

The sea floor thus moves toward the continents at known rates and gets pushed down below the thicker crust when it strikes the continents. This produces the “ring of fire” around the Pacific Ocean and drives the process of both earthquakes and volcanoes. So the horizontal logic of plate tectonics explains continental movement as well as the consistently inconsistent occurrence of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

Tectonic clock

Illustration by Christopher Cudworth. All rights reserved.

All these activities are real-time measurements of earth history. We now know how fast the continents move across the face of the earth. We also know where they came from and where they are likely going. We can measure all angles and directions of the Tectonic Matrix. Using this keen data and the horizontal logic it dictates has made it possible for scientists to re-assemble the length of earth’s existence and the movement of our continents across the face of the planet.

Given these known rates and processes, we also know they did not happen in six thousand years, or even ten thousand years. The horizontal evidence alone dictates a long, slow process involving billions of years. This is the ticking of the tectonic clock.

Diagonal lines

Much evidence of fossilized algae exists at the tops of mountains in Glacier National Park, Montana.

To make things even more interesting in terms of the tectonic clock, we also have evidence that great chunks of continental crust have proceeded ‘diagonally’ across the planet’s face. We see this in the mountains of Glacier National Park, Montana. And how do we know? For starters, there is vertical evidence in the presence of fossilized algal pods at the top of the mountains. And while Noachian Flood advocates might like to claim that these evidence the fact that the flood waters reached the tops of tall mountain peaks, this claim defies the known conditions that produce organic fossils such as algal pods. These life forms depend on slow-moving oceans, not rushing or receding floodwaters.

Instead that algae grew on a sea floor. And we know that because very similar forms of that type of algae still grow and exist today. But for an algae fossil to go from a sea floor to a mountain top, that did not happen by the cataclysm of a floor. That would tear it apart. Instead it occurred by the same known processes that drive plate tectonics to this day. Because the entire ridge of mountains we call the Rockies are the result of deep earth motion and upthrusts. We can see these forces in the angle of the rocks in the mountains. Metamorphic pressures shift entire mountains into massive diagonals.

But this also takes time. The Great Flood did not, as some like to claim, pick up entire mountains and plop them back down at an angle.

The Spread of Life

Butterfly Banquet painting by Christopher Cudworth

The final and perhaps most damning evidence of a worldwide flood and the Noachian limitations it places on known earth history can be found in the existence of living diversity across the face of the earth.

Because while there is vertical, horizontal and diagonal evidence in the earth’s matrix, it is the spread and diversity of life that most occludes the gigantic claims of Noachian literalism.

We can start very small with our examination of living things that were included on the ark. For illustration that may be no better creature than the Texas Blind Salamander. describes it this way:

“The Texas blind salamander is an obligate troglobitic species that occupies the subterranean waters of the Edwards Aquifer in Hays County, Texas. It is neotenic (non-transforming) and aquatic throughout its life and lives in water-filled, cavernous areas in the San Marcos area of the Edwards Aquifer. Observations in caves with access to the water table indicate that this salamander moves through the aquifer by traveling along submerged ledges and may swim short distances before spreading its legs and settling to the bottom of the pool. Due to the relatively constant 69.8°F (21°C) temperature of subterranean waters in the Edwards Aquifer, the Texas blind salamander is believed to be adapted to this temperature regime and may be sensitive to changes in water temperatures. However, additional research is necessary to determine critical temperature minima and maxima for different life stages of this species.”

A grotto salamander. Can a blind freshwater salamander swim across an ocean thousands of miles wide?

In other words, there is no way that a Texas Blind Salamander or any species of freshwater salamander could navigate their way across the Atlantic Ocean, sustain life during temperature changes and saltwater conditions and transport across a desert environment to be kept in an ark that could not possibly provide conditions for its survival.

The spread of life across the continents is so diverse and so demanding in its specificity that the notion of thousands upon thousands of living things crossing the expanse of massive oceans to board an ark is so absurd it is like a rock to the head of the Goliath of creationism.

But again, creationists might jump on the fact that the earth’s continents were once connected. But that would require an entirely different timescale and still require flightless birds and tiny shrews, freshwater shrimp and tiny toads no bigger than a fingernail to make their way across landforms surrounding the Middle East that defy even human transportation, much less the blind journey of hundreds of thousands of land-dwelling or water-dwelling creatures.

Jesus slings some stones

And still, there is a $100M museum in Kentucky that insists dinosaurs lived into the same time period as human beings. That contention and its depiction of dinosaurs in exhibits directly steals from the work of paleontologists that have comparatively studied evolutionary history to derive logically how and where dinosaurs lived, what their needs are and why the large proportion of their populations were in fact wiped out through climatic or possibly cataclysmic conditions that likely had nothing to do with a flood, but everything to do with an asteroid strike that radically altered the earth’s atmosphere and likely led to the evolution of life forms known as mammals.

Which includes us. We even have solid evidence of our relationship to all other creatures on earth. It is found in our genetics. We share more than 95% of our genetic material with other apes on earth. This is the completion of a matrix that throws a stone in the face of the Goliathan claim that human beings are specially created, separate life forms from all other living things on earth.

The matrix of tectonic history and indeed, the existence of diversity in life defies a literal interpretation of Genesis and its partner claims of a worldwide flood that wiped out all living things but those saved on an ark.

Literalism is both bad theology and a poor excuse for claims to a science. The fact that more than 40% of the American people claim to abide by the Goliathan claims of creationism shows that the keepers of that faith do not abide in the brand of organic symbolism Jesus prized in teaching through parables. Somehow Jesus fails as an example to creationists and literalists who would prefer to exhort the lies of literalism than accept the more sustainable, and believable, brand of knowledge Jesus advocated and used in his ministry. With every naturalistic parable, Jesus issued warning shots to the Goliathan authorities who defied his humble example. That process continues to this day.

Enlightened minds

We have examples of more enlightened theology all around us. Pope Francis recently warned that “All scripture that does not lead to the love of Christ is obsolete.” This clear call to a more progressive view of scripture begs believers to relinquish a stubborn worldview bent on preaching outsized lies about the size of the warriors such as Goliath, the literal “days” in Genesis or the outrageous claim that the earth was once submersed under waters seven miles deep, and worldwide to boot.

There are enough miracles in life, even the history of the earth and its existence in the galaxy, to find inspiration and evidence for God if we go looking. But to manufacture outsized belief for the sake of political, religious and cultural control of the narrative is a lie that deserves to be struck down.

This is an excerpt from a book titled Sustainable Faith, by Christopher Cudworth. The book examines ways that people can reconcile religious faith to modern life.