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Should Creationism Be Controversial? Why are some people drawn to origin narratives like in Genesis, and others to the scientific story?

UPDATED AUGUST 15, 2013 5:27 PM

Should Creationism Be Controversial?

INTRODUCTION

Last week Steven Pinker made the case for scientific thinking outside the “sciences,” and he annoyed some critics. But a recent essay againstscientific thinking (even about scientific questions) prompted a louder outcry. After Virginia Heffernan, a technology journalist, wrote “Why I’m a Creationist,” the condemnations were swift and harsh. Is it really so controversial to believe in biblical creation? Why are some people drawn to origin narratives like in Genesis, and others to the scientific story?The Science Can Be Seen as Purposeful

Karl W. Giberson, a physicist who teaches science and religion at Stonehill College, is the author of “Seven Glorious Days: A Scientist Retells the Genesis Creation Story.”

AUGUST 15, 2013

We are hard-wired to want creationism to be true. A strong belief in a creation story like that told in the Bible validates the powerful human desire to believe that our lives have meaning and purpose, that what we do matters and that we are not just “matter grown to consciousness,” in Carl Sagan’s immortal phrase.

The brouhaha about “biblical creation” is really a proxy war about the reality of meaning in the world. Are we here because God intended us to be here? Is our origin part of a plan? Do humans matter in the grand scheme? Are the instincts we have about right and wrong rooted in reality? Or did the universe come about through a mysterious accident called the big bang, followed by other accidents leading to our solar system, our planet and the long meandering history of life that led to us? Are we, as a Dutch documentary once suggested, “A Glorious Accident”?

Evolutionists have fought to make sure we see evolution as lacking purpose. Biblical creationists have fought even harder to keep evolution out of Genesis.

It would be nice if the scientific story of our origins could be understood as purposeful, rather than as a series of accidents. I laid out just such a “bipartisan” story in my book “Seven Glorious Days,” but the warring camps are just too far apart in this conversation to appreciate any mediation. Evolutionists have fought hard to make sure we understand evolution as lacking direction or purpose. The theory has come to be strongly identified with atheism. Its most public champion is Richard Dawkins, whom Ned Flanders met in hell on a recent episode of “The Simpsons.”

Biblical creationists have fought even harder to keep evolution — the atheists’ creation story — out of Genesis. Its most public champion, Ken Ham, imposes a wooden and implausible literalism on the Bible to ensure that nobody can fit evolution in between the lines.

On Main Street, on television and in the pews of America’s many churches, leaders on both sides portray a choice between a world with purpose and one without. The trouble is, when they ask that either-or question, there’s no right answer.

What We Risk by Accepting the Science

Douglas O. Linder, a professor of law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, is a co-author of “The Happy Lawyer” and “The Good Lawyer: Seeking Quality in the Practice of Law” (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).

AUGUST 15, 2013

It is hardly surprising that Darwin’s theory of evolution should meet with so much resistance. We encounter an idea that comforts us, an account like Genesis 1 that establishes our specialness, and ask: “Can I believe it?” We consider a thing that troubles us, a process like evolution that seems chance-driven and dethrones us from our special place in the universe, and ask instead: “Must I believe it?”

After his discoveries, Darwin said, ‘I am like a man that has become color-blind.’ It doesn’t have to be that way.

Evolution suggests that our species, if not quite an accident, is an extreme improbability — and, most likely, one whose time is limited — on life’s continuing and circuitous journey to an undetermined destination.Must we believe it? Darwin knew that many people, raised to believe in miracles or magic, would find his theory hard to swallow. In his autobiography, he noted that, as a young man on the H.M.S. Beagle, he had written in his journal of “the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion” that would “fill and elevate” his mind. He lamented that now, older and wiser, believing in evolution and disbelieving in God, even “the grandest scenes” evoked no powerful feelings: “I am like a man that has become color-blind.” Publishing his theory, he said, felt “like confessing a murder.”

When William Jennings Bryan took on evolution in a courtroom in Tennessee in 1925, in the famous Scopes “Monkey” trial, he acknowledged that he did not fully understand the theory of evolution, but said that he fully understood the theory’s dangers and misuse: how it threatened to leave students feeling lost in an uncaring universe, how it could lead to sterilization of the abnormal and diminished concern for the survival of the “unfit.” Bryan cheerfully ignored the evidence for evolution, explaining, “I would rather begin with God and reason down than begin with a piece of dirt and reason up.”

I believe in evolution not because I want to, but because I feel I must, and because, unlike Bryan, I find it hard to reason in one direction or another. Creationists have offered one objection after another — “The immune system is too complex to have evolved,” “Evolution could never produce an eye, because what use is half an eye?” — and each has been answered. As the confirming fossil and DNA evidence piles up, as the theory of evolution reveals itself to be a powerful tool for both explaining the imperfections of species and accounting for transitional species, it becomes ever more difficult to believe in the pleasing creation stories told in Genesis and elsewhere. Facts, as John Adams reminded us, are stubborn things. Whether 20 years or 200 years from now, the accumulating evidence will become so overwhelming that evolution will be as accepted as the Sun-centered solar system is today. (No gloating allowed, scientists.)

Our challenge is to accept evolution while maintaining a sense of wonder, concern for those whose survival is beyond their own means, and a vision of a colorful and surprise-filled world.

Science, Too, Calls for a Leap of Faith

Trevin Wax, managing editor of The Gospel Project, is the author of “Clear Winter Nights: A Journey Into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After.”

AUGUST 15, 2013

Christian leaders are sometimes accused of dismissing doubters and skeptics, those who question the reliability of Christian teaching. Based on the swift condemnations of Virginia Heffernan’s article, “Why I Am a Creationist,” it appears that such Christians are not the only ones who take offense at skepticism. In challenging a purely naturalistic explanation of the world’s origins, Heffernan ran afoul of people unwilling to entertain even a crack in their naturalistic system.

Interestingly enough, Heffernan did not take a position on how the world was created; she merely expressed her belief that the world was, indeed, created. This educated, rational human, like many others before her, claimed that it makes as much sense to believe in a creator as it does to believe the world came into existence out of nothing. For this, she was ridiculed.

Evidence leads us only to a point, and then we draw conclusions. When it comes to the world’s origins, we are all in the realm of faith.

Yet science neither proves nor disproves the existence of a creator. Evidence leads us only to a point, and then we draw conclusions. People like Heffernan look at the elements of our world that appear to be designed and purposeful, and conclude that a mind is supervising the matter.

Furthermore, as her article pointed out, even those who take the naturalistic point of view tend to live as if the creation story is true. We do not see our lives as meaningless, but purposeful. We live according to values and morals; we teach our children right from wrong. When we care for ailing parents or welcome children with birth defects, we are living against the “survival of the fittest” principle of natural selection. A purely naturalistic explanation of the world’s origins does not explain the way we live. Religious stories do.

The real issue here is not merely creation or the lack thereof; it’s about the source of truth. Those who condemned Heffernan believe science is the only reliable way to discover truth. But this belief in science collapses on itself: there is no scientific evidence to prove that science is the only reliable way to discover truth. Once we take unproven hypotheses and dogmatize them, we have moved beyond scientific evidence into philosophical reflection on truth and the scientific method. Naturalist or not, when it comes to the world’s origins, we are all in the realm of faith.

The Risk of Reading Literally

The Rev. Wil Gafney, whose doctorate is in Hebrew Bible, is an associate professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at The Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

AUGUST 15, 2013

Biblical literalism usually emerges from a faithful impulse – a deeply meaningful faith in God, scripture and, in Christian tradition, Jesus. (Corollaries exist in Judaism and Islam, but I will confine myself to Christianity.) That faith is frequently buttressed by personal experiences with God and the scriptures that shape and reinforce their meaning. For many, to deny the truth of the scripture would be to deny God of the scriptures.

The assumptions about that “truth” often go unexamined. We must ask about the intent and genre of the text. Biblical literalism requires reading all of the Bible as being intended to relay a series of historical (and theological) facts. This ignores what we know about language, that there are many kinds of speech and writing, which we use in combination to make our points: irony, exaggeration, puns, sarcasm, riddles, proverbs, quotes in and out of context, etc. Insisting on biblical literalism flattens out the richness of the text and its multiple contributors. And even among Christians, there is no single Bible: there are different books in different sequence in Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Anglican Bibles.

Insisting on nonsensical interpretations, especially from literal readings of nonliteral texts, can erode one’s credibility.

Literal readings of nonliteral texts can also lead to fraudulent readings, dogmatic tenacity to ahistorical or unscientific claims, and the loss of credibility for those who insist on nonsensical interpretations.

I teach students to consider three aspects, to shift from asking “is the bible true” to “how is the Bible true.” First, determine what the text says. This requires knowledge of original languages, because all translations are unreliable at points. Second, consider as much as possible what the text may have meant in its original contexts. This could mean learning which expressions were euphemisms and how language may have evolved before and after the text was written. And third, ask what the texts says in our modern contexts – which values and themes transcend time and which do not.

If all that sounds like hard work, it is. Not every reader is willing to delve into questions about the genre, rhetoric and interpretive possibilities of a text. Many prefer simplistic formulas. But surely all modern readers accept that the earth does not have four corners, though that was the literal meaning when the texts of the Bible were composed and transmitted. All readers interpret through belief and experience, regardless of whether they realize or admit it. What we bring to the text shapes what we see, for good and ill.

Save the Umbrage; Let’s Talk Calmly

Salam Al-Marayati is executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

AUGUST 15, 2013

If you think the reaction to biblical creationism is harsh, here’s an experiment: Next time you’re at a dinner party, mention that you try to follow Shariah. At best, you’ll get dead silence. In recent years in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West, bringing up Shariah is like invoking the anti-Christ. I deal with shock and anger from some, or ridicule and mockery by others. You can’t have an objective, dispassionate, neutral discussion about Shariah. Some Americans, including religious people, even want to burn the Koran – not very American.

Christians and others should be able to talk about creationism without a fiery reaction. It shouldn’t be the “third rail” of spiritual discourse. Neither should Shariah. If we could talk about Shariah calmly – what it means to Muslims – then its critics would no longer have any reason to fear it.

Americans should all be able to discuss topics like Shariah and creationism without intimidation and browbeating.

I saw a Bible translation recently that was called “The Way” – interesting, because that’s what Shariah is, too: in classical Arabic, shaari’ is the road to the water hole, a symbol of spiritual replenishment in following the path of God. The Jewish corollary is Halakha. This commonality makes sense. The Koran actually refers to Shariah in pluralistic terms, saying that there are many paths to God and that God intended for different faiths to manifest different laws and customs.

I can’t completely blame people for fearing Shariah, because many Muslim-majority countries legislate in the name of Shariah in a way I would oppose: imposing head-coverings on women or stoning them for mere accusations of adultery. I would vote against Islamic groups’ governing, because I believe, as the founders of Islamic jurisprudence believed, that Islam and Shariah are the property of the people and not that of any government, political party or clergy group.

I and other Muslims should be able to say all of this without being shouted down. Americans should all be able to discuss topics like Shariah and creationism without intimidation and browbeating. Freedom of speech applies to those who want to follow religion as well as those who want to flee religion.

The Story Doesn’t Have to Be Soulless

Mary Evelyn Tucker is a senior lecturer and senior research scholar at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Yale Divinity School. She is a co-creator of “Journey of the Universe,” a film, book and series of conversations.

AUGUST 15, 2013

As has been clear for some time, evolution and an aesthetic and spiritual sensibility about the beauty of nature need not be separated. Whether we start from a scientific or spiritual angle, if we arrive at a large-scale evolutionary perspective of deep time, it can only enhance our sense of wonder and awe at life’s complexity and value.

The evolutionary concept is only about 150 years old, and we are still struggling to understand how it changes our sense of ourselves, both as a species and as individuals. We are just beginning to see ourselves as part of the vast unfolding processes of galaxies, stars and planets that have birthed our blue-green Earth teeming with life. This discovery of our lineage has the potential to change our sense of our role and purpose. So it is understandable that there are intense arguments over the nature of evolution and its implications for human identity.

It’s not an either-or choice. We understand evolutionary processes through science, and we appreciate them through art and spirituality.

We need not, however, enter into simplistic debates that lead to endless conflict. Rather, we can bring science and the humanities together to explore a new synergy of scientific fact and human values. Recognizing that we are now understanding these evolutionary processes through science and appreciating them through art, poetry, literature, music and spirituality gives us an opportunity to discover our own role in this unfolding story.

In 1978, the cultural historian Thomas Berry suggested that we needed such a “New Story” that would integrate science and humanities. He felt that our environmental, social and political challenges required such a story to inspire human attitudes and behavior for the flourishing of the Earth community. The key for Thomas was story – namely, a narrative telling of the dynamic unfolding of the universe and the Earth, with an emphasis on how we fit into this larger history.

Inspired by Thomas, three collaborators – Brian Swimme, John Grim and I – have tried to create such a story in our “Journey of the Universe” project, which includes a book, film and series of conversations. It is our hope that this will enable us to engage more fully in the transformations needed to create a future that is worthy of our children and theirs.

Who I Am, and Who I Am Not

David P. Redlawsk is a professor of political science at Rutgers University.

AUGUST 15, 2013

The science fiction writer Robert Clarke once wrote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But when a technology journalist concedes that “the mechanisms that animate my ingenious smartphone … might as well be angels,” it is indeed shocking – because we assume that technology equals science as it is understood and practiced: the continual testing of theories against reality, discarding those that fail, and building on those that work. This journalist, Virginia Heffernan, writes that she does not even believe evolutionary theory, and its explanation of the rise of Homo sapiens. Instead she leans toward faith that the earth and humans were both created directly by God.

It looks like faith versus evidence. But the psychology is more complicated. Most of us – even those of us who practice science for a living – have to take an awful lot on faith. I’m not a biologist; I have never actually seen a microbe in person. But I believe in them. Likewise, I take it on faith when my doctor tells me a particular medication will work in a particular way to address a particular malady.

Sometimes a strongly held belief is held strongly because it separates ‘us’ from ‘them.’

So why do I and others not believe in creationism? Why do I have faith in science? Part of it may boil down to identity and the internal motivations to maintain our identities in the face of challenges.

Identity is part of our internal understanding of who we are, but it is also part of what connects us to the groups with which we affiliate. As social beings, humans are group oriented, and social identity theory helps explain how a strong sense of our group can result in differentiating as “outgroups” those who do not share our identity. This simultaneously reinforces our own sense of who we are and separates us from others who are different. It also makes it hard to bridge the gulf that separates us.

An important part of my identity is the embrace of the scientific method. Those who do not share this seem quite misguided to me. I simply cannot understand how one can deny science – like evolution – but still accept that a doctor with modern medicine developed through the scientific method can cure a disease. Identification as a creationist seems to be equally at odds with identification with science.

For the most part, to accept the other’s position would be to challenge one’s own identity, the sense of who we are. Yet there is a certain irony that both sides in this debate are taking their positions mostly on faith, drawn from teachings we did or did not accept over time. And we are doing so, probably because this faith reinforces an identity that says “this is who I am.” Or as Martin Luther is often quoted as saying, when his beliefs were challenged: “Here I stand. I can do no other, so help me God.”

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