The title of Montgomery’s history of the intricate relationship of science with Christianity over the past few centuries is not simply a declaration of an earth scientist’s primary article of faith. There have been times when voices defending the Bible have been reduced to claiming that the rocks are doing precisely the opposite of what the title suggests. The evidence may indicate rocks are far older than the six- to 10,000-year timeline permitted by Genesis, but Biblical literalists argue that God made them to appear that way, presumably to test our faith. (Those voices, Montgomery shows, have never been louder than now: for most of Christianity’s first centuries, thinkers like St. Augustine argued against reading Genesis as literal fact.)
But the geologist tells a story that is by no means as simplistic as modern creationism’s more obtuse arguments. Most early geologists were clergymen, spurred by the Biblical tale of Noah’s Ark to seek evidence of God’s design in the world he made. Some can be counted as heroes of both areas of human experience: consider Nicolas Steno, a 17th-century Danish Protestant who established the principles of stratigraphy before becoming a Catholic bishop who gave all his possessions to the poor. And science too has had its share of dogmatists defending untenable theories in the teeth of contrary evidence.
It took a tremendous imaginative effort for scientists to understand how unfathomably long deep geological time is, an intuition captured by 18th-century geologist James Hutton as he pondered Siccar Point on the Scottish east coast: evidence, he realized, of the rise and erosion of two mountain chains. Once geologists did grasp the concept, the doctrine of uniformitarianism—Earth’s topography as formed by a slow, steady natural process—clashed bitterly with the religious premise of a single, violent event (Noah’s flood) being responsible. And when evidence later surfaced that catastrophic Earth-changing events did indeed occur at times, the geological establishment fought it for decades. A cautionary tale, Montgomery writes, showing that blind faith is not solely the provenance of religion.