The age of rocks vs. the rock of ages August 2, 2010Posted by Ezra Resnick in Religion, Science.
A friend of mine works as an Israel Nature and Parks Authority guide in the Avshalom Stalactites Cave. One of the more amazing facts about stalactites one would hear on the cave tour is how long they take to form: some of the stalactites in this cave have been dated as 300,000 years old. Not all visitors learn this information, however: my friend says that the de facto policy is not to mention the age of the stalactites to Haredi groups — so as not to offend their religious beliefs about the age of the universe. (Apparently, one of the tour guides even refused to answer a question about the age of the stalactites from a nonreligious group.)
This is a shameful and cowardly instance of self-censorship by a public agency. A professional guide is expected to enlighten her audience and expand their horizons, not avoid saying anything that might contradict someone’s preconceived ideas. And let’s be honest: it is only religious beliefs that are tiptoed around in this way. Would a tour guide at a rock ‘n’ roll museum avoid talking about Elvis’s death so as not to upset those who believe he is still alive? Would a tour guide at Auschwitz omit to mention the number of people murdered there so as not to offend the beliefs of Holocaust deniers? Religious views, on the other hand, are consistently given automatic respect and shielded from criticism, even by the nonreligious. This is extremely unhealthy for our society, because it allows superstition and dogma to thrive. Not knowing the true age of the Earth is just a symptom of a deeper affliction: valuing blind faith over the scientific method and embracing dogma in place of critical thinking. Many people like to pretend there is no conflict between science and religion, but it is a serious problem when a large (and growing) segment of our population is ignorant and deluded about the nature of the universe. Ignoring the problem (by striving to avoid confrontation) makes it worse.
By the way, if Haredi visitors to the cave did protest when presented with the known age of the stalactites, I hope the guide would not merely tell them to take her word for it, but rather would explain the dating techniques used to ascertain the age of geological specimens. Education, like science, is about intellectual honesty and reasoned argument, and these are the only tools that will allow us to escape the dire circumstances we are in.
Some might argue that if we insist on telling the whole truth to visitors, then Haredi groups won’t come to the cave at all. (Touring the cave without a guide is not permitted.) But giving in to irrational demands merely encourages more of the same. Should we remove immodest paintings from our museums and blasphemous books from our public libraries? No one is forcing anybody to come to the cave or to agree with whatever the tour guide says; people are free to shut their eyes and ears and avoid reality as best they are able. (Though forcing such constraints on children is inexcusable.) But the rest of us are under no obligation to play along and make it easier for people to hold on to their delusions. The more people admire the emperor’s new clothes, the louder we must proclaim his nakedness.