What was it that made the Christian leaders of 1663 so agitated at the heliocentric theory that they placed Galileo under house arrest and put his writings on the Index of Forbidden Books?
And what is it that makes so many modern Christians so agitated at the evolutionary history of the world that whole organizations and state governments have tried (and failed) to keep it from being taught in schools?
For the geocentrists, it might have been that they were tied to a literal, word-for-word interpretation of the Bible.
Certainly, verses like the book of I Chronicles describe the earth as “firmly established, impossible to move.”
The psalmist declares that God “fixed the earth on its foundation so it can never be shaken,” which, if read literally, specifically describes the earth as being immovable, rather than circumambulating the sun at thousands of miles per second.
It could have been that the Church saw the heliocentric theory as conflicting with their literal interpretation of the Bible.
Indeed, the evolutionary age of the earth conflicts with a literal interpretation of Genesis in the same way, and that’s certainly one reason so many Christians have trouble accepting it.
If Genesis isn’t literal, they fear, then it must be mythological, and the whole Bible is thrown into suspect.
Never mind the fact that even the most ancient Christian writers weren’t too concerned with Biblical literalism.
St. Augustine, for example, wrote a whole essay explaining that when observable scientific truths contradict a particular interpretation of Genesis, one should reconsider one’s own interpretation, not science.
But it wasn’t just Biblical literalism that caused Catholics and Protestants alike to dispute Galileo’s theories, and it would be unfair to say that it’s all that motivates young-earth creationist Christians either. In both cases, there’s just more to it.
The heliocentric theory envisioned a universe that was unimaginably vast — a universe where humans were not at the center. This idea was discomforting at a time when everyone viewed the universe with the earth taking center-stage, the sun, moon and stars whirling around the human species, the lead characters of the cosmic story.
Evolutionary history forces us to consider this humility in the same way.
It places us in a universe vast in both time and in space, and it identifies us as one branch on a grand tree of life on earth.
Our story becomes a blip in cosmic time. We share our world with our fellow evolved creatures, instead of hovering over them in a Great Chain of Being.
Wait. Isn’t this humility at the crux of Christian practice?
The earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old.
We know this because certain radioactive elements have rates of decay that remain exactly the same over time.
They aren’t prone to change from heat or pressure, and we use this fact to find out how long ago a rock was formed; we get orders of millions of years, not 6,000.
Naturally, this is one of the first places where faux research groups like to start when attempting to disprove the old age of the earth.
Such was the case of Hugh Miller, a leader in the Creation Research, Science Education Foundation, who posed as a chemist to convince the Carnegie Natural History Museum to let him carbon date their dinosaur fossils.
Despite reminding him that the bones were “covered heavily with [carbon-based] shellac,” and that the carbon dating method can’t be used to date anything nearly as old as dinosaur bones, the museum allowed him access to their samples.
The bones dated to only a mere few thousand years. Success! Evolution disproved!
Except the bones were already half plastic, and using carbon dating to measure the age of millions-of-years-old fossils is like measuring the weight of an elephant using a bathroom scale and calling it defective for reading 400 lbs.
Still, Miller’s “experiment” was widely published on creationist websites.
That’s where the idea that “carbon dating is a hoax” originated.
Creationist groups continue to misrepresent science in order to disprove what scientists have confirmed for years.
But until we accept reality, we’ll still be trapped by our cosmic hubris — a human centric theory of the universe.
We’re born evolved, not just fallen, with the baggage of our animal past leading us to harm each other, to lie to each other, to do what it takes to survive.
And yet, in recognizing our place in the evolutionary timescale — much like recognizing our place in the universe — there’s the reminder that it’s not all about us. An uncomfortable thought?
For some people, it can be. But it’s ultimately a humbling one.
Certainty in the way things are, a need to cling to literalism, these are the traits that will cause Christians to continue to fall behind the times as scientific advancements unlock new understandings of our world.
The more we understand, the more humbled we become, living in a universe so much greater than ourselves.
Brian Pfau is a junior molecular and cellular biology major.