At Least Ussher Had An Excuse

26 May, 2009

Archbishop James Ussher was a  brilliant man.  He decided to figure out just how old the earthis and used both written history, astronomy, and the Old Testament of the Bible to do it.  And he arrived at the “entrance of the night preceding  the twenty-third day of October in the year of the Julian calendar 710.”  In other words, October 22, 4004 BC.  Despite slipshod calculations and a hefty helping of assumptions, this date is accepted by a remarkable number of Americans.  In the early 17th century, science was so limited, so primitive, so unrefined, that Ussher’s estimate was not bad.  Wrong, but, given the temporally necessary limitations, not bad.  He had an excuse.  He did not have to disbelieve almost everything in order to hang on to that date.

Today, many copies of the Bible, in various translations, still quote the 4004 BC birthday for good old planet earth.  And remarkable numbers of Christians, Muslims and Jews, worldwide, believe that number (or in the neighborhood) is both absolutely correct and Biblically literal.  And the Biblical or Young Earth Creationist has to disbelieve virtually all scientific discoveries since Archbishop Ussher’s day.

In the field of geology, superposition, the idea that, in an undisturbed (or relatively undisturbed) series of layers, the upper layers are more recent than the lower layers.  At the Grand Canyon, one can be sure, based upon the Law of Superposition, that the Kaibab Limestone is younger than the Hermit Shale is younger than the Coconino Sandstone is younger than the Supai Formation is younger than the Redwall Limestone is . . . .  The problem with this, as Niels Stensen (late 17thcentury), a Danish anatomist and cleric who first formulated the idea, is time.  He could not reconcile Biblical creationism with the layers and fossils he saw in Malta and he copped out, retreating back into glorious religious ignorance:  “Beautiful is that which we see, more beautiful that which we know, but by far the most beautiful is that which we do not comprehend.”  And Biblical and Young Earth Creationists willingly disbelieve the same Law of Superposition to embrace the Bronze Age myth. 

Sir Charles Lyell, who published one the the first geology texts in the early 19th century (Principles of Geology), never actually coined the term ‘uniformitarianism,’ but he brought a great deal of intellectual rigor to the idea.  He posited that we cannot claim any geological process which cannot be seen in operation today.  William Thomson, later knighted raised to the peerage (thanks, Michael)  as Lord Kelvin, embraced the gradualism of uniformitarianism, but not what it suggested:  he was willing to accept that Ussher’s timetable was wrong, but, partly due to the world’s ignorance of atomic decay, refused to allow more than 26 million to 100 million years.  And Biblical and Young Earth Creationists disbelieve uniformitarianism and gradualism to embrace the Bronze Age myth. 

Kelvin’s domination did not go unchallenged.  Many geologists challenged his assumptions regarding the rates of sedimentation, the rates of cooling of the earth and sun, and showed that even a slight change in the assumptions could create wildly different calculated ages.  A new clock was needed to break this impasse.  Radioactivity dissolved the Kelvin model of the young earth by introducing a uniformitarian clock.  Ernest Rutherford famously lectured at the Royal Society of London in 1904;  in the audience was Lord Kelvin himself.  Based upon the experiments with radioactive decay, Rutherford, along with Frederick Soddy, formulated the idea of a half life.  For instance, mildly radioactive Carbon 14 decays at a predictable rate into Nitrogen 14.  By measuring the ratio of the parent and daughter product, the age of the sample can be found.  At the presentation, Rutherford had, in his pocket (the dangers of radioactivity were not known at the time) a piece of pitchblende which, based on his calculations, was about 700 million years old.  By the 1950s, refinements in chemistry and physics had refined the age of the earth to about 4.4 to 4.6 billion years.  And Biblical and Young Earth Creationists disbelieve in radioactive decay and half-lives to embrace the Bronze Age myth.

To maintain that fingernail hold on Biblical and Young Earth Creationism, true believers must also believe that, for hundreds of years, the vast majority of scientists studying genetics, cladistics, paleaontology, radioactive dating, anatomy, chemistry, geology, physics, astronomy, hydrology, volcanology, biology, botany, zoology and, well, every major scientific discipline, have been involved in an international conspiracy to overthrow the supreme innerancy of the Bible.  Forget that early scientists, the naturalists and philosophers of the enlightenment, were often looking to support the Bible.  Forget that James Ussher used the science of astronomy to help create that date of 4004 BC.  Forget that every physicist and geologist looking at the evidence of the rocks was pushed to time-frames in the millions of years.  Forget that science is self-correcting.  Forget that every scientist and philosopher I have mentioned above was, by at least some measure, a Christian.  Forget the absurdity of a multi-million person conspiracy. 

Belief in Biblical or Young Earth Creationism requires more than just a belief in a Bronze Age myth created by ignorant goat herders who, with their flocks, were busy turning much of the Middle East into a desert.  It requires the belief in the greatest conspiracy ever.  And it requires the disbelief of almost the entire body of work and knowledge of modern science.   Ussher, at least, has an excuse:  modern science was not around yet.  He had much less to disbelieve to arrive at that 4004 BC birthday.  Modern BYECs have no excuse for their ignorance entered into willingly out of fear of a psychopathic deity created by the ignorant and frightened.


Some of this post was inspired by James Lawrence Powell’s book, Mysteries of Terra Firma:  The Age and Evolution of the Earth.  I highly recommend the book to those with enquiring minds.



  1. Modern Christians have an excuse too. In those days, there was no big creationist organizations like AiG, and also no such thing as a creationist scientist.

  2. Christianity’s fundamental doctrines require that it deny all scientific evidence to the contrary; specifically:
    A) The truth of an ancient earth and evolution means no creation of Adam & Eve.
    B) No Adam and Eve means no fall creating original sin in us all.
    C) No original sin means no Jesus dying on the cross for our salvation from our sinful nature (original sin).
    D)No Jesus means no Christianity.
    E)If you want to take it all the way dictrinally: No Jesus means no Trinity, and since God is part of the Trinity:
    F) No Trinity means no God.
    By definition, Christians have to believe in some form of creationism or Christianity is completely void. Most other doctrines and stories in the Bible are just window-dressing, but Creation is absolutely fundamental to all Christian doctrines.

    • Well and succinctly put.

  3. I had another thought. The fundamental nature of Creationism to Christianity is why you generally only see Christian “scientists” in two instances: one is to try to “prove” the existence of the Biblical Jesus (it’s kinda hard to have Christianity without a Christ); the other is to “prove” creationism in some form, thus bringing us the IDiots, the YECs, and all of their support organizations (you don’t even need a Christ without creation). This makes more sense of the fundamentalist warcry against “godless evolution” or the belief that accepting evolution leads to atheism: from a strict biblical perspective, if you follow the logic, evolution (rather than creation) does indeed destroy Christianity.
    For those liberal believers, who have no problem with evolution (either they believe that God created Adam and Eve through “directed” evolution or that Genesis is allegory), may I suggest finding allegorical meaning from some other literature so as not to lend credence to the fundamentalist camp.
    Also so-called “directed” evolution as a theological possibility isn’t evolution at all. Evolution occurs through random mutation and competition for survival (aka natural selection); “directed” evolution is nothing more than a massive “breeding” project with God directing the breeding. Therefore, I would call “directed” evolution “Breeding creationism.” Breeding Creationism is the Rube Goldburg machine of creationism where God goes way out of his way to get where he wanted to go. At least if you’re going to believe in magical miracles, special creation has the benefit of being more parsimonious (i.e. requiring fewer miracles) than breeding creationism.

  4. On a lighter note:
    How many televangelists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

    One, but you have to put a hooker in the light bulb first.

    • That goes for Postmen too.

      I mean, some Postmen… that I don’t even know and are not me.

      Er… forget I said anything.

  5. On a lighter note:
    How many televangelists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

    One, but you have to put a hooker in the light bulb first.
    OH! You’re my new favorite blogger fyi

    • Billy,
      I did not send the post responding to my joke, and the link to it appears to be spam. You might want to get rid of it but obviously its up to you.

  6. Well if they’re setting out to “prove” anything, they’re doing it wrong. You set out to test a hypothesis with the understanding that if the test(s) don’t support the hypothesis, you’ll have to abandon or rethink the hypothesis. How is that possible if you believe the hypothesis is Truth?

    • For you and me, it is a hypothesis, but for fundies it is an axiom: it is assumed correct and unchangable by default and other “hypotheses” are then based upon it.

  7. Speaking of Ussher; I ran across this today at Archaeologica.org:


  8. For you and me, it is a hypothesis, but for fundies it is an axiom.

    Well said.

  9. Temaskian: The Roman Catholic Church, Church of England, and all the miscelaneous Protestant sects took care of that.

    Revathiest: Once again, one of my commenteers drops the perfect conclusion to the post that I wrote. After I wrote it. Well said.

    And watch the parentheses: only a limited number are allowed on the internet (they clog the tubes) and I want them all for myself.

    Good joke. Along the same lines: How many hamsters does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Two. But the tough part is getting them in the bulb.

  10. Philly: The Christian Right’s approach to politics, history and science is the same: formulate a conclusion, then cherry pick all documents (including the Bible) to prove your point and, if necessary, create quotes out of thin air. They do set out to prove their hypotheosis and, if the evidence doesn’t support it, they lie.

    Chappie: I agree. For a blogger newbie, Revatheist is pretty good.

    Revatheist: You’re pretty good. Keep it up.

    • And, just for giggles, Revatheist was commenter number 4,000 and, sometime last night, I passed 60k blog visits. And yes, I know, that and $3.95 plus tax will get me a small Starbuck’s coffee.

  11. Silly (((Billy))), Starbucks doesn’t sell “small” coffees, they sell “talls.” Maybe it’s supposed to make you feel like you’re getting more for your money.

    • Last time I flew home from a fire, I stopped in LAX for a hot chocolate from Starbucks. I ordered a small and the young lady (I think she was 12) looked at me, looked at the menu, looked back at me, looked again at the menu, and said,”Oh. I get it. No problem.”

    • When we’d go to Starbucks, I always wondered why all of her friends would laugh when my wife would say something about how “tall” I was. *wink*

  12. […] Neumann. Archvillain discusses the Madelaine Neumann case and the intolerance of religion, whilst (((Billy))) sees how the evidence of “lifeless things” works against creationism. The hand that mock’d them and the heart that […]

  13. (((Billy))) wrote: “William Thomson, later knighted as Lord Kelvin”

    Britons who become lords are “raised to the peerage” or “ennobled.” As it happens, Thomson was knighted before he was ennobled (thereby becoming Sir William Thomson) but ordinarily lords are not knighted and knights are not made lords.

  14. Isn’t it strange that 400 years ago an archbishop with the limited scientific knowledge of the day got it right? And since then as more science knowledge is added it gets further and further away from the truth? Now I know that Usher was a Catholic so I’m not sure if he was a real Christian but then again he actually used the Bible so I guess he couldn’t have been Catholic but he was an archbishop right? Anyway he got it right because a real scientificly accurate statement is always just that, accurate. He calculated to the hour how old the earth is. Now evolutionists want us to be lieve that the earth is ‘between’ 4.4 and 4.6 million years old, which is an error spread of 200 million years. How can ‘science’ be that inaccurate? It cannot, therefore Ushers’ estimate of the age of the earth is scientifically accurate while modern evolution with a 2000 million year error factor is a fantastical religion. Next time you write up another vicious attack on the one true religion you might want to actually do some research first.

    • Abe, if this is a poe please indicate to us so we won’t unnecessarily trash you. If not, please also indicate so we can necessarily trash you. :p

    • Surely, this is POE, right? It’s so hard to tell these days, (By the way, Revatheist, that also was well put. I’ll be keeping an eye out for you.).

      Abe, your comment is so nonsensical that I can’t decide where to start. So I’ll just begin with the math. I’m no mathologist, myself, but I’m pretty sure, (among other things), that the difference between 4.4 and 4.6 is not 200, much less 2,000. I’m also fairly certain that no scientist in the world thinks that the earth is 4.5ish million years old. hell, man, I’ve got boxer shorts that old.

  15. If a religion said there were exactly 10 jelly beans in this jar, and a scientific estimate taking into account the volume of the jar and the size of a jelly bean was between 700-900, which would be more accurate?

    • hey philly, if you want, I can eat all the jelly beans until there’s only 10 left so abe won’t be confused. jelly beans are yummy except the licorice ones whic are excedingly nasty.

  16. Michael: I stand corrected. And type corrected.

    Abe: Of course, you just made a 1.8 billion year error (200 million and 2000 million) so I guess all you have written is bullshit? Also, please quote my ‘vicious attack’ in the above post. Please. I’ll agree with ‘honest attack on biblical literalists and fundamentalists’, but not vicious.

    Philly: I was looking for a way to point out the bullshit, but no way can I do better than you on this one. Thanks.

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