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Creation 42(2):53–55, April 2020

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The French Connection

Western belief in ‘deep time’ first appeared in 17th and 18th century France

by 

*For more information on this same subject, please see creation.com/french1 and creation.com/french2

French-connection

Most of us are familiar with the idea of long ages of millions of years that accompanies belief in evolution. It has been ingrained in the thinking of western culture for generations. It is not well known, however, that belief in ‘deep time’ actually developed in France in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, before spreading to Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.*

Early European scientists, such as Nicolaus Steno (1638–1686), had maintained a commitment to Scripture and they harmonized the Flood account with the geological evidence.1 There were a number of factors involved in the development of deep-time thinking in France. Following René Descartes’ (1596–1650) method of skepticism and doubt, the biblical account of creation and the Flood were denied a place in science, and fallen human reasoning became the arbiter of scientific knowledge.

However, when Jesuit missionaries brought knowledge of Hinduism and Buddhism from South India and China back to France, this was allowed to feed into discussions about the age of the earth.

The Jesuit role

Jesuits are members of the Society of Jesus, a religious order within the Roman Catholic Church that was established in 1540 to oppose the Protestant Reformation. This meant opposing the Reformation principles of the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture, which threatened ecclesiastical authority. Thus, in spite of a credal commitment to the Bible, at least some of their members were significantly involved at that time in a move against the authority of Scripture.

Furthermore, their willingness to accept various aspects of eastern religious philosophies from India and China into their thinking was disturbing even to many of their fellow Catholics, who saw it as compromising the Catholic faith itself. This was reflected in the so-called Chinese rites and Malabar rites controversies within Catholicism in 17th- and 18th-century France. Jesuit missionaries were blending certain traditional religious practices with Catholic rites, the purpose being to make Catholicism more acceptable in China and South India in order to gain converts.

This accommodationism was criticized by other Catholic orders, and at one point by Rome. The ‘Chinese rites’ practice was also strongly criticized by mathematician and Catholic theologian Blaise Pascal (1623–1662).2

The Jesuit Order had worked hard in establishing prestigious schools in the country, some of their students later becoming leading opinion-formers in France. Returning Jesuit missionaries, who brought knowledge of Hinduism and Buddhism with them, often taught in those schools. As a result, Hindu-derived ideas of ‘deep time’ were allowed to gain influence in western science, especially geology.

In the middle of the 18th century, there was growing agitation for revolution in France, and moves to undermine political and religious authority through subterfuge and the denial of Scripture formed part of this. Consequently, the actions of some of these Jesuits and their followers came under scrutiny on suspicion of deception and sedition. The Jesuit order was banned by the French king, Louis XV, in 1764, and more widely by Pope Clement XIV in 1773, before being reinstated in 1814.

Fontenelle

Movers and shakers of French thought

Amongst the most notable French voices against scriptural authority and belief in the Flood in the 18th century were: Bernard de Fontenelle (1657–1757), Benoît de Maillet (1656–1738), Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, 1694–1778), and Denis Diderot (1713–1784).

Bernard de Fontenelle

Fontenelle was trained at the Jesuit Collège de Bourbon, and for decades (1697–1740) he held the prestigious position of Secretary to the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris. This allowed him to influence the development and direction of geological science in France in a way that undermined belief in the biblical Flood.

He had earlier written a book (1686) entitled Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds.3 Effectively a science fiction dialogue, it discussed space travel and the possibility of life on the moon and other planets. Fontenelle envisioned gradual alterations in nature occurring over hundreds of thousands of years, and his book was influential in preparing the French imagination for a different worldview over the subsequent century.4 One passage in the dialogue states:

Ought we to assert that what has lasted a hundred thousand times longer than we, must last for ever? No, ages on ages of our duration would scarcely be any indication of immortality. … True, I replied; nature does nothing abruptly, her method is to effect every alteration by such gentle graduations that it is scarcely perceptible to us.5

At the Royal Academy, he was tasked with offering his own summaries of the Academy’s official papers, notes and correspondence.6 But his summaries began to veer away from fully reflecting that research, and instead often incorporated his own views regarding the nature of the fossil record and earth history.7 Through this, he persuaded French academic society that a more ancient history of the world could be arrived at than the account given in Scripture.

For instance, the respected scientist René Réaumur, in the Academy’s Mémoires (1720), discussed the Falun layers of the Province of Touraine in France, consisting of numerous shells and shell fragments. However, Fontenelle used the occasion to deny evidence of the Flood, and argued instead for geological changes over longer periods of time. He thought the 7 m thickness of shelly layers required successive floods involving a gradually receding ocean over an extended period, and that life on Earth had long preceded mankind. None of these floods, he argued, could be attributed to the Mosaic account.8

Benoît de Maillet

Another significant influence of the middle of the 18th century was de Maillet’s edited book Telliamed (a reversal of his name).9 It was first published posthumously (1748) by the Jesuit priest Abbé Jean Baptiste le Mascrier, although draft copies had been circulating in Paris for a couple of decades. De Maillet had become a French diplomat, allowing him to travel to the Middle East where he became acquainted with other cultures and beliefs.

Telliamed argued the case for millions of years of change from the perspective of a Hindu sage against a French missionary. Earlier clandestine drafts had argued that the earth was at least two billion years old, correlating roughly with half a day of the Hindu creator god Brahma; the 12-hour day of Brahma is said to last for 4.32 billion years (during which period Brahma is awake), followed by a night of similar length.

Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet)

The famous Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire also claimed that deep time was required for geological change. He commented in an anonymous letter to the Academy of Bologna in 1746 that:

Revolutions of thousands of millions of years are infinitely less in the light of the Great Architect of Nature, than to us that of a wheel which compleats [sic] its round in the twinkling of an eye.10

Voltaire also argued that fossil fish found on Alpine mountains were in fact food dropped by Christian pilgrims! However, Charles Lyell, though a strong opponent of the Mosaic account, thought Voltaire was arguing deceitfully, because Voltaire recognized that such fossil evidence strongly supported the biblical Flood account. He commented quite bluntly that:

The numerous essays written by him on geological subjects were all calculated to strengthen prejudices, partly because he was ignorant of the real state of the science, and partly from his bad faith.11

Voltaire even began to argue that the Hindu writings were more ancient and authentic than the Bible. However, again he misrepresented the truth. He praised the Ezour Veda (or Ezourvedam) as a valuable gift to Western nations, saying they were indebted to this eastern religion. But in reality, this was a latter-day forgery; the work of Jesuits, not an ancient text. It was in the form of a dialogue between two supposed Vedic sages, one a monotheist and the other a polytheist who conclude that Hindu polytheism is more or less monotheism in disguise.

Denis Diderot

Diderot was an agitator against the political and religious authorities and, at one time, was imprisoned for sedition. In his Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature (1754), he wrote:

… may not a philosopher, left to his own conjectures, suspect that, from time immemorial, animal life had its own constituent elements, scattered and intermingled with the general body of matter, and that it happened that these constituent elements came together … [and] that millions of years passed between each of these developments … ?12

The Jesuit-trained Diderot was well acquainted with Voltaire and gradually lost his faith, becoming a deist, then an atheist. He was tasked with editing a French Encyclopédie, a comprehensive work published from 1751 to 1772 to explain the world from the perspective of naturalism, and aimed at changing the thinking of French society.

Making the connections

In 17th and 18th century France, then, those who developed belief in deep time and gradual geological change were committed to removing the scriptural narrative of the Flood from geological science, initially because of the influence of Descartes. Sometimes this took place through underhanded, deceptive means. We’ve also seen that belief in millions of years of change arose as knowledge of Hinduism was brought into the thinking of French society, and this was allowed to inform science, whereas the Mosaic account was not. Furthermore, there was a growing desire in France for revolution against the existing political and religious order.

Belief in millions of years of geological change then spread to Britain in the late 18th century and early 19th century through men such as James Hutton, Erasmus Darwin, Charles Lyell, and Charles Darwin.

Many earth scientists are largely ignorant of the roots of belief in deep time, and this ‘French connection’ is not well known in modern geology. Certainly, this belief did not develop purely from studies of sedimentary rock layers.

References and notes

  1. Walker, T., Geological pioneer Nicolaus Steno was a biblical creationist, J. Creation 22(1):93–98, 2008; creation.com/steno. Return to text.
  2. Pascal, B., The Provincial Letters, Letter V, 20 Mar 1656, Trans T. M’Crie, University of Adelaide, Australia, 2005. Return to text.
  3. Fontenelle, Bernard Le Bovier de, Entretiens sur la Pluralité des Mondes; it went through many French editions. Return to text.
  4. Stott, R., Darwin’s Ghosts: In search of the first evolutionists, Bloomsbury Publ., London, p. 117, 2012. Return to text.
  5. Fontenelle, B., The Plurality of other Worlds, Gunning, E. (trans.), Paternoster-Row, London, pp. 129–141, 1803. Return to text.
  6. Rappaport, R., Fontenelle interprets the earth’s history; in: Revue d’histoire des sciences, tome 44, no. 3–4, pp. 281–300, 1991. This discusses the Histoire et Mémoires de l’Académie royale des sciences, Paris, annual volumes from 1699. Fontenelle wrote the Histoire. Return to text.
  7. Fontenelle, B., Histoire … , ref. 6, preface and p. 9, 1699 (Paris, 1702). Rappaport (ref. 6, pp. 282–283) writes: “He wrote in the Preface of the first publication, ‘we even took care on occasions of sowing our own clarifications to facilitate the reading of the Mémoires’” (my translation). Return to text.
  8. Fontenelle, B., Histoire…, pp. 5–9, 1720 (1722); in Rappaport, ref. 6, p. 297. Return to text.
  9. It was fully entitled: Telliamed, or Conversations Between an Indian Philosopher and a French Missionary on the Diminution of the Sea, and the Origin of Men and Animals (English translation); Le M.ascrier, J.B & Antoine Guers, J. (Eds.), Amsterdam, 1748. Return to text.
  10. Voltaire (Arouet, F.-M.), Dissertation on the changes that have happened in our globe, and on the Petrifications which are alleged as Proofs thereof, Letter to Academy of Bologna; in Smollett, T. et al., (trans.), The Works of M. de. Voltaire, vol. 18, London, pp. 243–256, 1762. Return to text.
  11. Lyell, C., chapter 4 of Principles of Geology (9th Edn), book 1, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia, pp. 54–55, 1854 (also in 1834 edition). Return to text.
  12. Diderot, D., Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature: and Other Philosophical Works, (Ed. Adams, D.) Clinamen Press Ltd, Manchester, p. 75, 2000. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

The Deep Time Deception
by Michael Oard
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The Great Turning Point
by Dr Terry Mortenson
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Rocks Aren't Clocks
by John K Reed
US $15.00
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The Geologic Column
by John K Reed, Michael J Oard
US $15.00
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Readers’ comments

David B.
Great addition to my history notes! Of course we could go on to mention later French contributors to the development of the secularization of science and acceptance of evolutionism, such as Lavoisier and Buffon.

Francis Bacon did write of "the Book of Nature," but also placed studies of nature as the "handmaiden" of faith.

I put a lot of the blame on Edward Herbert (1583-1668), "Britain's first popularizer of deism."(publishing De veritate in 1624, 20 years before Descartes magnum opus) He "never rejected the Bible but he considered it to be a man-made record... disregarded the teaching of Jesus' … resurrection..." Charles Blount carried on his work.

And of course there was the German school of "Higher Criticism," which weakened faith in the Bible in general. I believe one or two "Holy Roman Emperors" in this time frame also encouraged "free thinking."

sources: _The Timetables of History_ , by Bernard Grun and _The Faces of Origins_ by David Herbert
Eric H.
Thank you for the great article! Regarding the deceptions the Jesuits fabricated to combat the Reformation, an article I read elsewhere hinted that the Jesuits tried to bring a focus on "works" and/or "caring" (i.e. what developed into modern liberal thought) to combat what was seen as a focus on "doctrine" . Can you confirm if this is true? Also, is there a book that speaks specifically to the subversion of the Reformation by the Jesuits?
Andrew Sibley
Thanks for your comments Eric. The Jesuits were influenced by Renaissance humanism, which was itself influenced by Greek classical literature, and emphasised use of reason and experience in human affairs and order within Catholicism - a worked-out salvation if you like. They were more community minded, to the point of controlling society. This led to socialism and managed liberalism - freedom could be imposed through human effort without God. The Protestants emphasised the revealed word of God, renewed as Greek scriptures spread westwards after the fall of Constantinople, salvation by faith, and personal responsibility and freedom. A belief that rights and freedom are given by God. Protestant Huguenots spread from France to Britain, Puritans sailed to the US looking for the freedom to start a new life. I don't know of a book, but you could start at www.britannica.com/event/Counter-Reformation.
Ronald M.
It is quite a stretch to think that Jesuits advocated Hindu and Buddhist ideas anywhere. The question of Chinese rites was whether this was worship or a ceremony of respect or gratitude. The Jesuits who were there and learned Chinese decided the latter, the remote people chose the former.
Andrew Sibley
Hi Ronald - I believe there is sufficient evidence to reach such a conclusion, that Jesuits were seeking to harmonise Catholicism and Hinduism. Most 18th C French intellectuals were trained by Jesuits, De Maillet's work was a dialogue between a missionary and an Indian philosopher, posthumously prepared for publication by a Jesuit. The Ezourvedam was prepared by Jesuits, praised by Voltaire, but deceitfully persuading for harmonisation between Catholicism and Hinduism. There is also a recent paper which highlights some of the inner working of Jesuit education with regard to David Hume. Gopnick, A., Could David Hume have known about Buddhism? Charles Francois Dolu, the Royal College of La Flèche, and the Global Jesuit Intellectual Network, Hume Studies 35(1–2):5–28, 2009.
Dan B.
For me a crucial issue is highlighted in this quote: "Hinduism was brought into the thinking of French society, and this was allowed to inform science, whereas the Mosaic account was not." We still have to ask the question, *why* not? Why was one accepted and the other rejected, and why was it that way round? In principle the European reaction could have been precisely the opposite, viz. to take Hindu vast ages as just another reason why the Hindu system was false. What caused the original self-doubt? I don't know if Andrew has gone further into this issue in his related papers? Anyway, this is a very interesting and significant study clearly showing how speculation ran way ahead of available geological knowledge, contrary to the line that the latter dragged Europeans into old-ageism. (By the way the same applies in astronomy to the nebular hypothesis first proposed in mid-18th century AFAIK, again running way, way ahead of the facts about many solar system bodies not yet even discovered, concerning which this excellent website has so much to say about how they decisively favour younger over older timeframes. You know what I mean - Enceladus, Triton, Pluto and on and on.)
Andrew Sibley
Thanks for the question Dan. The simple answer is that for Catholics authority was/is more broadly based than the sola scriptura of Protestantism - Catholic authority is based upon the Church magisterium, the apostolic tradition, as well as Scripture - but Scripture was allegorised where necessary to support Church dogma. For Protestants authority lay in Scripture with preference for a plain sense, literal reading. The Jesuits were zealous in challenging Protestant faith, as well as extending missionary work in the east, and were willing to accommodate the faith to win converts. The Jesuits also used an ethical system called casuistry, essentially the ends may justify the means - and in the late 18th C even the Pope banned the order because of their activities. There is a longer answer involving hermeticism, but I won't go into that here.
Salvador C.
Great stuff.
It's always useful when we can follow a historical paper trail and get at the root sources of a particular school of thought.
Furthermore, you might like to add, "Evolution: an ancient pagan idea" Creation 30(4):34–36, September 2008, to the related articles reading list; since it is very fitting to the historical origins of vast ages.
Jimmy C.
This article provides evidence of the facade of the Catholic church. ...The question I have can we be saved and believe the theories of deep time? This the question I leave to God. He will decide. I appreciate your articles for their belief in the truth of Gods Word. They help me reason out the truth in other situations. God bless you all for your work.
Andrew Sibley
Thanks for your comments Jimmy. In response I've shortened your comment somewhat. let us not forget that some of those who opposed the accommodation described in the article, such as Pascal, were themselves Roman Catholics and true believers. It is the grace of God that saves us. Of course, the Protestant Reformation occurred because of the corruption seen in the Catholic hierarchy, and the Protestants instead considered Scripture to be foundational to faith because it is the revealed Word of God.
David J.
You say following Descartes’ "method of skepticism and doubt" others were influenced to abandon the Flood. But do we know if Descartes himself believed in Biblical creation and the Flood? This article could also mention the creationist Bacon's (1561-1626) separation of religion and science.
Andrew Sibley
There was no space to elaborate on others such as Bacon and Descartes further. I've written a little more on Descartes in a related paper, /deep-time-in-18th-century-france-1 "Descartes ... developed a philosophy with doubt and skepticism at its core, especially as it relates to ancient or divine authority, and instead made mankind the arbiter of scientific truth. Although he was a self-confessed Catholic, his God was closer to the absentee landlord idea of later deism.[5] From this it followed that science should be pursued without regard for the statements of religious texts; only reason and studies in nature were allowed. Descartes’ ideas on geology were published in 1644 in his Principles of Philosophy in which he envisioned the activity of underground air, water, and fire on smooth layers to shape the land surface through tectonic collapse and volcanic uplift. All of these he thought were explainable by natural processes." Note 5. Pascal commented on Descartes: “In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God. But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God.” Pascal, R., Pensées., section II, The Misery of Man without God, Pensées 77, E.P. Dutton & Co, New York, p. 23, 1958
Egil W.
Good thing there are people like Guy Berthault then! [French creationist sedimentology expert, creation.com/guy-berthault, Ed.]

He may enlighten many fellow believers...
Terry D P.
«/ The First Fleet lands in Port Jackson, Australia from Portsmouth, England, and establishes the English penal colony of New South Wales on January 26, 1778 – the first European settlement in Australia /»
Interesting that was the year Voltaire died on May 30, 1778.
Voltaire is an another example of belief in deep-time leading to disbelief (lack of faith) in God's Word:
«/The serpent said, ‘Of course you will not die. God knows that as soon as you eat it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods knowing both good and evil.’ — Gn§3:4 /»

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