Kepler the Young-Earth Creationist?

Kepler the Young-Earth Creationist? May 14, 2014

I’ve been meaning for a while to blog about an article by Hank Campbell which reflected on an episode of Cosmos. He notes the tendency to poke fun at Archbishop Usher’s calculation of the age of the earth, so badly wrong from our perspective, while never poking fun at Johannes Kepler, who held a similar view. Here is a sample from the article:

Neil Tyson tells us about Ussher and then we fast forward to modern geology and how much smarter we are now. Okay, fine, but was Ussher all that wrong for the time? Was anyone doing better? No.  What they leave out is that a legendary scientist was just as wrong.

Like any good scientist, Ussher interpolated from what he had, in this case the Bible and a historical date for the death of the Bablyonian King Nebuchadnezzar II in 562 B.C. Deriving from that, he back-azimuthed generations to arrive at  the exact day that the Earth must have been created in 4004 B.C. “It was a Saturday,” Tyson says, with perfect comedic timing.  And completely wrong, as we now know.

But it wasn’t bad deduction – on the contrary, his work in Annales Veteris Testamenti was impeccable. Most of what I learned about black holes 30 years ago is wrong today – does that mean a future science show should ridicule us for accepting it back then?  Ussher was no shill, in the vein of modern numerology pretenders like Harold Camping or John Hagee, who knowingly foist off nonsense on gullible people today. And contrary to what anti-religious zealots insist, religious people who accepted his work in 1650 were not sticking their heads in the intellectual sand against science, they were actually embracing the latest reasoning – just like they had accepted the equally incorrect numbers of a scientist a few years earlier, one who did not ‘count the begats’, as Tyson said while ridiculing Ussher.

Johannes Kepler is rightly considered a pillar of modern science for his work explaining the motion of planets, they are called Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion because they are that fundamental. By 1601, at the age of 30, he had the job of Imperial Mathematician for the Holy Roman Empire. Kepler was into a lot of stuff, he was prolific, and he was loyal.  And so at one point he wrote a polemic for a friend that also served to debunk some bad calculations by those projecting the impending apocalypse.

While on October 22nd, militant atheists love to ridicule Ussher, very few will ridicule Kepler this weekend, even though in KANONES PUERILES, 30 years before Ussher, Kepler calculated April 27th as the universal creation date. That would be April 27th of 4,997 BC

Just as host Neil Tyson says of Ussher, the calculation by Kepler was also “taken as gospel in the Western world” so it seems odd that once again Cosmos, a show about science, instead trots out a priest as a straw man to place in opposition to more recent scientific discovery. Sure, Ussher was wrong, as was Kepler, and as was every number calculated by scientists hundreds of years later. They became slightly less inaccurate, but they were still wildly wrong. An archbishop got a different number than Kepler by a few hundred years – but Kepler was wrong by 13.7 billion.  Even Martin Luther, he of the Protestant reformation, was more accurate than Kepler, and he did no math at all.

To me, it seems that calling Kepler or Usher a “young-earth creationist” is problematic. The modern movement by that name insists that the earth is young despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Ussher and Kepler, in contrast, merely assumed the earth was young but would likely have been open to revising their views if they had new evidence. And so the two stances may overlap on the age of the earth, but in terms of approach, they are diametrically opposed.

See also David H. Bailey’s post on whether religion has always been at war with science, Ken Schenck’s post on the flood story, and also, by way of follow-up to my earlier post “The Solid Sky,” the piece by Rabbi Natan Slifkin, “The Sun’s Path at Night,” on how ancient rabbis understood cosmology.

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  • D Rizdek

    You make a good point. I suppose there are those who didn’t KNOW Kepler thought the same thing. Like me. I’ve never really explored it. But then I haven’t ever made a point of ridicule Usher’s calculation because I would just assume many folks of the day…scientist and layperson alike also thought the earth relatively young. To me it’s just one of those funny little anecdotes. Just like many of the average people thought the earth was flat and that everything they could see in the heavens moved relative to the earth while the earth remained stationary.

    Folks like Tyson, perhaps unjustly, are maybe trying to score some points against religion in general by pointing to that fact that Usher, an Archbishop, made the calculation. It doesn’t bother me too much, but I see far better reasons to question the value of religion over the past than an mistakenn calculation that simply turned out to be wrong. I would expect someone like Tyson to be more even handed in his dealing with misconceptions of the past. IF we are too look at it as just scientifically minded folks trying to figure out something about the earth’s past the mistake is completely understandable. This leads into the next thought.

    To me, there IS an aspect of that that I do think of. If this guy was “in touch” with God…communicating with him on a daily basis, as we might expect an Archbishop to claim…why wasn’t God helping him to properly interpret these ancient scriptures and alerting him that they are not to be taken literally. Even if a God chose to NOT give specific info, he could’ve “warned him in a dream” to NOT publish such nonsense and wait for better information. I suspect that answer today is either “Well, gee, maybe God did but Usher ignored it.” or that “God doesn’t work that way.” I would just end the conversation there and continue to think such a God very strange to NEVER actually provide good scientific info to us, his most precious creation.

    But even then, I would be less critical of THAT misunderstanding than, say, the RCC’s tendency to threaten folks with excommunication at the least and torture and death at the most, if they were suspected of promoting heresy. THAT is where I would have expected a God to step in with no equivocation and put an end to that kind of wrong-headed thinking. He knew, after all that THEY were supposedly representing the true way. But alas, religions in general almost always have to wait until civilized society evolved and then, it seems to be, play catch-up with their ways and means.

    I think more mileage is gained by us “skeptics” when we encounter folks today who seem to still contend the earth is relatively young BECAUSE the Bible lays out a timeline that they believe should be considered. I realize YOU are probably not of this worldview and I’m not asking you to defend the “Christianity that Debunking Christianity debunks{: (Thought I could throw that in without any repercussions). But what is even odder about many young earth creationists today is that they don’t depend on the literal calculation of Usher but claim they believe the earth/world is about 6 to 10 thousand years old. So, for NO particular reason they just think the earth is young, relative to it’s likely actual age. They don’t take the lineage Usher used literally or there would be no equivocation…but they still for some odd reason think the earth is relatively young.

    • David Evans

      I think the YECs are not claiming that the Earth is young “for NO particular reason”. They take the Bible as authoritative, like Usher, and argue that even if Usher’s calculation is wrong in detail, his calculated age must be of the right order of magnitude. In this I agree with them: there is no way a literally true Bible is compatible with a 4-billion-year old Earth.

      • OK, but a literally-true Bible isn’t compatible with heliocentrism, the absence of a dome over the Earth, the brain being the locus of human thought, and many other things.

        • … the inability of animals without vocal chords, complex brains, and culture to speak …
          … the irreversible decay of the body after days of brain death …
          … the ridiculous number of biological species on earth (impossible to preserve on an ark) …

      • D Rizdek

        Well, if one is going to believe in a literally true Bible, why wouldn’t Usher’s calculations be at least very close to right? It seems unlikely his calculations could be thousands of years off if he did the math correctly. That’s why I rather loosely said “for no particular reason.” Of course it’s because of the Bible, but they are somehow “taking it literally” but then admitting it might not be literal. That is what I think they do “for no particular reason.” Maybe I should have worded it differently, but that’s kind of what I meant.

        • David Evans

          Good point. I suppose one could argue that Ussher depended at some points on being able to link biblical events with those in other cultures. Those links could be mistaken, or his timescale for the other cultures could be wrong – Velikovsky, and other people more recently, have argued that Egyptian dates needed to be corrected by several centuries. Admittedly that wouldn’t get us to 10,000 years – I suppose they might have picked that figure from Graham Hancock.

          • D Rizdek

            I suppose one might reject Ussher’s calculations but still “generally” take the Bible at its word that humans were created rather soon after the world was created and conclude based on that, that the world could be no more than, say, 100,000 or 200,000 years old because however old the world is, the human “species” is just as old and it might be considered impossible that the humans species has been around for 4.some billions years living on a molten earth, surviving the snowball earth, the many extinction level events geologists claim happened, surviving the dinosaur eras etc.

  • There’s a very good reason that Tyson “ridicules” (if that’s the right word) Bishop Usher’s dating of the earth rather than Kepler’s. No one today defends a young earth stance by quoting Kepler. But plenty of Christians still use Usher as an earth-age authority, and have throughout the short history of young earth creationism.

    To me, the ridicule is for those who think that the science of dating the earth hasn’t changed in 450 years.

  • histrogeek

    I didn’t really know anything about Usher’s technique. I had always wondered why he got a different year 1 from the Jewish calendar and the Byzantine calendar. It seems more like he was using a historical technique than what can properly be called science.

    It does seem a little mean to pick on Usher though. The age of the earth wasn’t remotely calculable in a scientific way until the mid-20th century. Before Hutton and early geology, there wasn’t any non-historic way to begin dating things. Newton’s system after all can start at any point in the past.

    Lord Kelvin gets some crap for his younger (in no sense YEC-young) earth estimate because he was also religious. The data available to everyone at his time just didn’t make sense. Biology and geology were suggesting a very old earth, but there was no way to explain how the Sun could have been heating the earth that long. Kelvin picked the option that best fit his expertise as a physicist and preconceptions, a youngish earth. It was wrong but not unreasonable at the time.

    • Pseudonym

      Yes, this is exactly right.

      It’s wrong to say that Ussher assumed that the Earth was young. He came to that conclusion using all of the evidence available to him, like any good scientist would. All of the evidence that he had was written evidence. Had he had other evidence, I’m sure that his conclusion would be different.

      In fact, Campbell is slightly wrong in implying that Ussher came to this conclusion based on the Bible alone. He actually used all ancient writings from all cultures that he could find and cross-checked them against each other. It took him decades, but he found that no matter which culture you look at, “history” stopped around 4000 BCE.

      We now know that this is not the date of creation, but rather the the limit of written memory, but he had no way to know this.

      What Ussher did was a remarkable achievement for his time, and I think that we would think about him differently (maybe he would even be largely forgotten) if his chronology hadn’t ended up in the KJV.

  • Herro

    James McGrath: What word do you want to use for pre-scientific people who thought that the world was ~6.000-10.000 years old based on the Bible since you don’t want to call them ““young-earth creationists”?

    Are you also against calling ancient people flat-earthers or geo-centrists, because they didn’t have ” overwhelming evidence to the contrary”?

    • MattB

      The Bible doesn’t tell us the earth’s age

      • So what? That has no relevance to Herro’s question.

        • MattB

          Oh, sorry, I guess I misread that:P

          • Herro, my concern is that one not single out a particular subset of ancient religious people because they held views that everyone held in their time, and that one not view as the same phenomenon those ancient people who accepted the best thinking of their time and the modern people who insist those ancient people were right despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary available in our time.

          • MattB

            Dr.McGrath, I think you accidently sent that to me instead of Herro:)

          • You would prefer that I comment in a way that interrupts the flow of the already-existing thread? Why?

          • Herro

            One good reason for respondind directly is that on the disqus dashboard you only get notified of responses to one’s own comments (unless it’s a setting I haven’t found), so I didn’t know you had responded here 😉

          • Thanks – I didn’t realize that, since I get notified of all comments.

          • MattB

            I just thought that Herro wouldn’t get the notification if you sent it to me

          • Thank you so much! I assumed that everyone in a thread got notifications and am rather disappointed to learn that that is not the case.

          • MattB

            Your, welcome! and no problem, it’s understandable.

          • Herro

            >Herro, my concern is that one not single out a particular subset of ancient religious people because they held views that everyone held in their time,..

            What particular views are you talking about here?

            But sure, you think that modern YECs are being dogmatic in their rejection of scientific evidence, but don’t think that medieval and ancient YECs were being that.

            But what word do you propose we use for ancient and medieval YECs since you don’t actually want to call them “YECs”?

            And are you also against calling medieval and ancient geo-centrists and flat-earthers “geo-centrists” and “flat-earthers” because they weren’t refusing to accept scientific evidence?

          • I suppose I am not against it in principle. My real concern is to counter the claim of young-earth creationists and others like them in our own time, who say that they are simply being faithful to an older stance. But a stance which presumed the world to be flat or young, but which was open to being changed in light of new evidence, is not merely different from modern young-earth creationism, but diametrically opposed on this key point.

          • Herro

            So we have two persons:

            Person A believes that a god created the world ~10.000 years ago because the bible says so and is open to new evidence.

            Person B believes that a god created the world ~10.000 years ago because the bible says so and is not open to new evidence.

            I would say that both peopel are YECs because they both believe in what’s normally called YEC-ism (the italicised part). I see nothing problematic with using the same term for both persons, since terms like these normally just describe what the people believe and these beliefs are identical, even though Person A is open to new evidence and Person B isn’t.

            Do we ever make up two names for positions like this based on whether the person is open to new evidence or not? Do we e.g. have two words for a person who believes in a historical Jesus, one for a dogmatic believer and one for a non-dogmatic believer? Or a dogmatic believer in geo-centrism and a non-dogmatic believer in geocentrism?

          • Pseudonym

            I think that James’ point is that modern YEC is actually a bundle of beliefs which tend to happen together, and people living in the past didn’t hold all (or a critical mass of) those beliefs.

            Even though they both believed the world was a few thousand years old, you couldn’t imagine Ken Ham echoing the words of St Origen:

            For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? And that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky? And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? And again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that anyone doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally.

            Or St Augustine:

            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 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.

            With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about [the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.

            Or even Calvin:

            For it appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven. Hence some resort to allegory, and philosophize concerning angels; but quite beside the purpose. For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here the Spirit of God would teach all men without exception; and therefore what Gregory declares falsely and in vain respecting statues and pictures is truly applicable to the history of the creation, namely, that it is the book of the unlearned.

            Even though they held some beliefs in common with modern YECers, these comments, including a belief in what today we would think of as a “young Earth”, there is a notable willingness to concede to observation and reason which is lacking in people like Ham. This is young-Earth belief, but not science denial.

          • Herro

            >I think that James’ point is that modern YEC is actually a bundle of beliefs which tend to happen together, and people living in the past didn’t hold all (or a critical mass of) those beliefs.

            The views they do hold in common is what is generally known as YEC-ism. As an example, here’s how Wikipedia defines YEC-ism:

            >Young Earth Creationism (YEC) is the religious belief that the Universe, Earth and all life on Earth were created by direct acts of the Abrahamic God during a relatively short period, between 5,700 and 10,000 years ago.

            This is YEC-ism. Usher, Augustine and so on all believed this, so they were YECs.

            >Even though they held some beliefs in common with modern YECers, these comments, including a belief in what today we would think of as a “young Earth”, there is a notable willingness to concede to observation and reason which is lacking in people like Ham. This is young-Earth belief, but not science denial.

            On the one hand we have YECs who have to deny a lot of science, and on the other hand we have YECs who didn’t have to deny a lot of science. But they are both YECs. Just like modern geocentrists have to deny a lot of science, but pre-modern geocentrists didn’t have to, but they’re both geocentrists.

    • Pseudonym

      I’m not James, but I would call them “pre-scientific people” or “proto-scientific people”.

      • Herro

        Yeah, that doesn’t work I think, since those words already mean something different than “someone who believes that the world was created ~10.000 years ago by god”.

        E.g. you would probably call the ancient Greeks “pre-scientific” but they didn’t think that a god had created the world ~10.000 years ago based on the bible.

        • Whatever words you would like to use for them, I can certainly tell you what they never called themselves:

          “young-earth creationists”

          • Herro

            Sure. But why does that matter? They didn’t either call themselves “pre-scientific people” or “proto-scientific people”.

          • The real question is why do these semantics matter to you? What point are you trying to make?

            And why should we care?

          • Herro

            Here’s the point: There’s nothing “problematic” with calling pre-modern YECs “YECs”. And it seems rather odd not wanting to call them YECs.

          • … um, no, still don’t see why we should care …

  • arcseconds

    Kepler also at one thought the distance of the planets from the Sun were determined by spheres inscribed and circumscribed around the platonic polyhedra.

    Most of the early modern scientists had beliefs we would either describe as conservatively religious or just plain screwball. Newton was an alchemist and a magician, and spent massive amounts of time doing biblical prophecy — and his religious views were idiosyncratic, to say the least. He was a unitarian and regarded the worship of Christ as blasphemy, and he wanted to recover the original, pre-flood religion.

  • arcseconds

    I think it’s very easy for us to get a ‘people in the past were stupid and believed crazy things, but then smart people came along and fixed everything, it’s good thing we’re all smart, not stupid, isn’t it? Silly stupid past people.’ vibe from the way history of science is often presented (or maybe even the way history more generally is presented). I’m not meaning in actual texts about the history of science, which usually at least try to do a better job, but rather the way it’s often presented at school and in popular treatments.

    Chastising people in the past for not believing modern ideas goes hand-in-hand in lauding people in the past for beleiving modern ideas (or things that look a bit like modern ideas if you squint through rose-tinted specs enough) nice and early, even if they didn’t have any real evidence for them.

    This whole fixation on being on the right side and believing in true things puts the focus on dogma, rather than on methodology and practice (which aren’t themselves fixed forever). And it’s the same problem we see too clearly in religious fundamentalism.