01 December 2010

Answers NOT In Genesis: The Failures of Bibilical Literalism

An intoduction to a new column at IDGOFB.

What is the Problem?

Many Christians, perhaps rightly, fear the implications of not only evolutionary biology but cosmology, physics and geology on a literal interpretation of their scriptures. Indeed any scientific stance at all makes it hard to accept the miracles alleged in any religious text without actively looking away from the insights provided by a scientific education. To state it plainly, any such acceptance requires that a person actively look away from reality as it is demonstrated by the evidence while imposing wishful thinking on what they see. This kind of interaction with the world must surely be a prescription for disaster on both large and small scales. One product of this has been a pointless fight that the religiously literal minded cannot hope to win on evidentiary grounds, that wastes resources and precious time for all the parties involved.

An example of this waste is demonstrated in Kentucky by an unscientific, no, anti-scientific group called Answers in Genesis (AIG). This group developed the blight on the human mind that is the Creation Museum. Run by Ken Ham, it is not a place where one will find good science of any kind, but one will find quite a literal reading of the bible on display in fairly strange defiance of evidence. However even if there were no evidence at all of the history of life on Earth (prehistoric, and historic) the things that are on offer at Creation Museum are flatly contradicted by known science. Further the folks at AIG build there premise on a false dichotomy. Evolution could be completely wrong and the Creationists would still have all their work ahead of them. Why not Hindu Cosmology? Or Shinto, or, well, pick one among thousands. Advancing a positive claim requires evidence.

(AIG) is partnering with an organization called Ark Encounter, to build a “life size” version of a mythological boat for an estimated 150 million dollars. The mythical boat to which I am referring is of course the Ark. It will be, and be surrounded by, an amusement park. One can review the whole sad, and gaudy insult to the intelligence, and intellectual rigor of Kentucky and the greater US here. Sadly the Governer of Kentucky, Steve Beshear (who is apparently as credulous as the rest of these people, or at least wants his constituents to draw such conclusions) is on board the great ship, and on some level thinks Ark Encounters and Answers in Genesis are performing a great service promoting bible stories as if they were established historical fact and constituted good science. However, building monuments to baseless mythology isn't science, or history. But this benighted governor is so enamored of the idea, he is willing to give something like 37 million dollars in tax incentives to AIG and Ark Encounter to see the project gets done in his great state. One cannot help wondering if this somehow violates the Seperation Clause in the US Constitution. That is an argument for another time.

The entirety of the enterprise turns on the following fear, I think, and on some level it seems to be shared by fundamental biblical literalists, and people of more liberal religious constitutions. Confusion and quagmire reign for many a religious mind when the absolute bedrock upon which they have built a world view is shaken. Fundamentalists seem to understand this quite well as the most powerful of their rhetorical maneuvers (and it isn't that powerful) is an appeal to negative consequences. They worry that accepting evolution will cause massive social upheaval because the bedrock of morality, the Bible according fundamentalists, will lose any claim of being absolutely true. It will all come down to competing interpretations with no evidence to distinguish which interpretation is correct or if any can even be considered correct. Assume for a second that this is the case. That is let us assume that in the West we actually do get our morality from the Bible and that ruining its claims of absolute truth will lead to societal ruin. Does that consequence have any bearing on the truth of the matter of religious claims? Specifically, are the truth claims of the Bible dependent on such outcomes whatever they are? Clearly the answer to this is no. It is in fact the same as saying, No, no my grandma can't have cancer, because if she did, if that were true, well..that would be bad. So it can't be true. Grandma either has cancer or she does not. The goodness or badness of the situation that follows doesn't affect what is.

If the believing academic theologian is more comfortable with the metaphysical troubles brought on by scientific progress is isn't by much. Bishop Harries, a rather splendid fellow, finds himself quite convinced that biologists are fine without being forced to carry the ideological lense of Genesis around, but even he puts himself ahead of the evidence on other supernatural matters. Even in the process of evolution he seems to want to suggest that God’s hand is in there guiding the processes. Both liberal religious person and fundamental religious person see their God, to a greater (sometimes much greater)or lesser (sometimes much lesser) extent as involved in the origin of life and certainly in the origin of Homo sapiens sapiens. Neither stance is a scientific one. That will seem perhaps too tangetial, but I suspect that to teach people credulousness, and to accept things without evidence, even a little bit, is to store up trouble.

The purpose of this series of blogs, which I will call, Answers Not In Genesis will be to break down the arguments of the folks at Ark Encounters and AIG (or indeed any biblical literalist), and assess their scientific merits. We will find them wanting. But hopefully the exercise will be fun anyway. The inspiration for this endeavor comes largely from Ken Ham’s twin projects The Creation Museum and Ark Encounter. Both projects will prove disastrous for American education (and perhaps they will prove problematic for British education too). My fear is that it will bolster public support in a small way (hopefully not a large way) for the continual efforts of creationists to get their mythology taught alongside real science in public school classrooms. AIG neither publishes or performs real scientific research. All they attempt to do is poke holes in existing science. And that they don’t do well in the slightest. They could do some real research as the Flood account alone provides (as we will see in the next installment of Answers NOT in Genesis) numerous easily tractable scientific predictions.

Such efforts by Ham and company will cause teachers to avoid teaching evolutionary biology in school, to get into pointless arguments with students and parents, as well as other faculty. Nor is it just biology that will suffer the effects of such efforts, but physics, cosmology, geology, and history are all immediate and obvious casualties in this fight. But art, and literature are also potential victims.

The degree to which these efforts are popular is also the degree to we are laughed at and mocked by our neighbors abroad. There is a very real danger that our future scientists, MDs, professional people will be judged by how prevalent accepting attitudes on Judeao/Christian Creationism are in the US. Our institutions of higher education will also be judged. These are not small concerns when one considers the number of foreign students that have historically come to the US for the quality, durability and, most importantly, transferability of US degrees.

My intention with this new feature is to help in the fight against anti-science and its ugly twin pseudo-science by providing a tool people can use. These will be easily linkable essays on the ideas of Fundamentalists and why they fail. Hopefully they will be useful to those of you who find yourselves in these arguments with creationists. And, I hope, they will be fun to read. Some of you will note that I am jumping the gun a little bit by skipping straight to the Ark and not dealing with the Biblical creation account. That is in honor of Ken Ham and his infamous Ark Encounter.

In the next installment Answers Not in Genesis....Biodiversity defeats the Ark.



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