So a literal reading of Genesis (first book of the Torah) brings many people under the impression that the world/universe was created in six days, is less than 10,000 years old, and that there was a global catastrophic flood. Science teaches us that the universe is about 14 billion years old, that the earth and our solar system dates back about 4.5 billion years (based on ample evidence). How does one resolve these two conflicting theories?
Below are the strategies I could think of. Note that while Genesis (by names in various languages) forms part of many of the Abrahamic religions’ sacred texts, I am coming from a Christian angle, addressing primarily the Young-Earth Creationist strains.
Hypothesis: Satan Deceives!
Many that subscribe to a strong deity-dualism (namely God and Satan as two supernatural entities duking it out) consider lies as “belonging to Satan”. (Traditions with a more poetic understanding could say the same thing, but without a conscious entity actively bringing about deception, and a non-literal appreciation of the “poetry” in Genesis, will not have a problem anyway.)
So what is the problem with this hypothesis? The evidence contradicting the young earth view is everywhere. It is in the fossil record, in the cosmic background radiation, in our understanding of globular clusters and nuclear physics, in the speed of light, and the distances between galaxies… If all of creation is deceptive in that regard, and all deception is the work of Satan, this seems to indicate Satan is the creator. That would be in direct contradiction to the primary message of Genesis 1, the affirmation of Israel’s God as creator, author of fossils and stars. That is the primary message according to both literal and poetical readings.
(Scholarship indicates  Genesis 1 was probably written during Israel’s exile in Babylon. During such times, when a tribe was defeated by another, the tribe’s identity, religion, faith in their deity, typically suffers. In that context, Genesis 1 is a defiant call to maintain tribal unity, religious identity, faith, through radical monotheism.)
Hypothesis: (a) the fossils are just there to Test Ya Faith! *or* (b) fossils et al provide an interesting back story
(a) Um, what’s with this hypothesis? Doesn’t this make God a liar, another thing that is explicitly contradictory with Christian theology? (Who can provide a reference to the verse that says God cannot lie?)
(b) Also known as “Last-Thursdayism”, there is nothing logically inconsistent with believing the world was created as-is last Thursday. The question, though, is why, if the universe has this interesting and consistent 14 billion year back story, should it be treated any differently to something that really is 14 billion years old? If you were created last Thursday with all your memories intact, does that really make any difference to your life, which you would live as though you are many years old?
The Wikipedia page on this, the Omphalos hypothesis, has some very interesting insights. I love controversial Rabbi Natan Slifkin’s response:
God essentially created two conflicting accounts of Creation: one in nature, and one in the Torah. How can it be determined which is the real story, and which is the fake designed to mislead us? One could equally propose that it is nature which presents the real story, and that the Torah was devised by God to test us with a fake history! One has to be able to rely on God’s truthfulness if religion is to function. Or, to put it another way—if God went to enormous lengths to convince us that the world is billions of years old, who are we to disagree?
Strategy: “there is no evidence of an old-earth!”
I’m not calling this one a hypothesis. This is a strategy, a choice for ignorance. For many stuck in conflict, this is actually the strategy I’d propose! If your religion is important to you, if you find real value in your religion, what difference does it make how old the earth is? Could you not choose ignorance, explicitly? Accept that you don’t know, and don’t care, and aren’t interested in discussing it? This may be a controversial statement for me to make, amongst my scientist friends, but there is of course an important side-effect I’m also aiming for: leave the debates and arguments to those that study these things.
Not that many strongly-convicted evangelicals would take me up on that offer, since they often perceive science as a threat to their belief system and detrimental to their evangelising. Of course, there is an opposite argument using the same rationale. Quoting the church father, St Augustine, whose theology laid foundations used by most Christians today, explained it as follows:
It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.
– De Genesi ad literam 1:19–20, Chapt. 19 [AD 408]
The much uglier version of the “choosing ignorance” path, in my opinion, is where the ignorance is outsourced to authority figures (like Adam blaming Eve for the apple 😉 ). This is the business model on which creationist organisations and websites like Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International (now creation.com, used to be creationontheweb.com) operate: they use “claims of authority” to win the trust of those with a strong authoritarian style of deciding what to believe. Deferring to authority lets you “escape” responsibility… Is it that much harder to simply say “I don’t know” and leave it be?
Alternatively, take the non-literal stance on Genesis 1-11
This makes most sense to me. (Naturally, I don’t read Genesis literally, that much should be clear. 😉 ) Of course, if the only thing that keeps you “believing” is the lack of acceptance of evolutionary theory, you will starting on a path to de-conversion. (Is it worthwhile to believe in a God that only exists on condition that evolution is impossible? Is that your God?) However, don’t let the Christian fundies or the atheists fool you, de-conversion is most certainly not your only choice!
You could read up on Theistic evolution. You could buy e.g. The Bible, Rocks and Time: Geological Evidence for the Age of the Earth, a book by evangelicals, maybe after reading the wonderful review on Exploring Our Matrix. Or you could go for some free ebooks by an online evangelical community — (1-4, 5).
Have an interesting conversation!
And feel free to ask! If you need some help or conversations to help you embrace more science in your worldview, I have a couple more references up my sleeve which I’ll customise to your needs as best I can, there are more “theistic evolutionists” hanging out here, and there’s my little network of friends, pastors and theologians that I could consult for advice on your behalf. We also have humanists, with varying amounts of secularity, if you find yourself or your worldview drowning in all the new info and need to chat to some people to help you find something to hold onto while the dust settles. (Dust and water, mixing my metaphors here? 😉 )
(There’s even one or two “Real Live PhD Scientists” that occasionally take part in discussions, to the detriment of their research!… because they also have a passion for education, for sharing knowledge. Of course, that doesn’t make them the authority figures to be obeyed, it just makes them the knowledgeable bunch that know what’s cutting: within their fields of study, they’re experts on the evidence and the tentative conclusions drawn from that evidence, by the process known as science…)
Additionally, I (we) will be starting our first attempt at a thinktoomuch.net book club in July. I (we) will be reading (and blogging and commenting on) Bones, Rocks and Stars: The Science of When Things Happened — this is much thinner than “The Bible, Rocks and Time”, but sticks to science and doesn’t cover Christian theological concerns.