God and dinosaurs

by Brian on June 5, 2021

in In the News,Jewish Holidays and Culture,Science

We were out on tiyul when the tour guide sprung what still seems to me, years later, the biggest whopper of religious cognitive dissonance I’ve ever heard.

“Dinosaurs,” he stated derisively, looking over the desert landscape. “How does Torah understand these kinds of fossils if, as we all know, the world is less than 6,000 years old?”

The hike participants snickered. Dinosaurs! Who could believe in enormous ancient reptiles that supposedly lived millions of years ago when it’s clear that God created the universe much more recently?

The year of that outing was 1984. I was attending Ohr Somayach, a yeshiva for the newly religious. Those of us on the hike eagerly devoured any and all things ultra-Orthodox. But the explanation we were about to receive strained credibility for even the most wannabe supplicant.

“God put those fossils in the earth so you would think the world is billions of years old,” the tour guide said. “There were never actually dinosaurs. God simply wanted to supply us with a believable ecosystem.”

The other students nodded appreciatively, but I was incredulous. Paleontology, geology and all the other “ologies” of science have long formed the backbone of my own belief system and, despite my growing interest in Jewish philosophy and law at the time, this was pushing things too far.

I left the yeshiva a few days later and enrolled in a more balanced religious program.

I had assumed that this story was an outlier, unique to our impressionable group of young twenty-something seekers. 

So, I was flabbergasted to hear the same twisting of pseudoscience from 21-year-old Na’ama who has been in Israel for two years now studying at an ultra-Orthodox women’s seminary.

I tried to argue. 

“Why would God need to come up with such an elaborate ruse?” I asked Na’ama. “It doesn’t fit with Occam’s Razor.”

Occam’s Razor is a famous proof proposed by Franciscan friar William Ockham in the 13th century in which he posits that, if there are two explanations for a particular phenomenon, the simpler one is usually correct.

“How is something like evolution simpler?” Na’ama responded. “If anything, the solution with the least assumptions is that God created everything, including the fake dinosaur fossils.”

Despite Na’ama’s assuredness, I was curious whether the God and dinosaur coupling was still canon amongst the ultra-Orthodox. I checked the Ohr Somayach website. In an article for the yeshiva’s “Ask the Rabbi” series entitled “Jurassic Judaism,” the existence of dinosaurs was raised.

“Dinosaurs aren’t a matter of belief. The fossils really exist,” the unnamed author writes. 

I breathed a sigh of relief. 

“How one interprets these fossils is a different matter,” the article goes on.

The author then does some serious mental gymnastics, wondering, “How do you measure a ‘day’ [in the book of Genesis] when the sun was only created on the fourth one?” 

According to this creative melding of science and fiction, each of those first four days of creation could have spanned billions of years – an “era” rather than a mere 24-hour-period – thus enabling the possibility that the fossils are real.

That was at least a step back from “God wanted to trick us.”

My dinosaur conundrum might seem an inconsequential thought experiment, but it has real-world implications. In Jerusalem, for example, the Natural History Museum has taken to hiding its dinosaur exhibit behind a curtain when ultra-Orthodox youngsters visit.

“The museum should decide whether it is a scientific museum presenting the truth or an institution with self-censorship that seeks to tell its visitors half-truths and complete lies,” chastised Uri Keidar, executive director of Be Free Israel, a group promoting religious pluralism, in 2018. 

There’s no such equivocation at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky where founder Ken Ham has constructed a $35 million facility including a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark featuring (wait for it) dinosaurs coexisting with humans.

“Sixty-five million years ago, a giant asteroid entered the earth’s atmosphere and crashed into the surface, destroying the dinosaurs and the majority of the species in existence at that time. Or did it?” the museum’s promotional material asks.

And what happened to the dinosaurs that survived the flood? 

“Dinosaurs could have gone extinct any time after the ‘two of each kind’ got off the Ark, just like many other animals have gone extinct since the Flood,” the site states.

Don Stewart, writing for Blue Letter Bible, an evangelical Christian website, adds that “dinosaurs would have had to have lived at the same time as humans because they were part of the animal kingdom created by God” on the sixth day in the book of Genesis. 

“Why can’t you just live and let live?” my wife, Jody, challenged me. “Na’ama has her point of view and you have yours.”

“It’s because I find this way of thinking offensive.”

“Offensive? Really? That’s what you’re going with?”

“It’s just that it flies in the face of everything I hold dear: logical thinking, respect for research, consideration of experts.”

“All this over a few fossils?”

Yes. Because it’s a short distance from dismissing dinosaurs as facts to dismissing the most important policy issues facing us these days: climate change, vaccines, masks … heck, the entire pandemic itself. Anti-science conspiracy theories are reaching the corridors of power all over the world. 

It’s for these reasons that this seemingly small issue is emblematic of a much bigger problem, one that threatens the very fabric of our fragile society. (A little over the top, I know, but that’s how I feel.)

We can’t simply agree to disagree. There’s too much at stake. 

It’s not just about dinosaur bones anymore. 

Na’ama and I first argued about dinosaurs at The Jerusalem Post.

Image from by Fausto García-Menéndez on Unsplash

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