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Journal of No. 118

April 18th, 2012

Among the Creationists, by Jason Rosenhouse @ 03:53 pm

In Among the Creationists: Dispatches from the Anti-Evolutionist Front Line, mathematician Jason Rosenhouse describes his experiences at a number of creationist and intelligent design conferences he attended over the past few years. I had heard that he had had some interesting experiences, and thought this might offer an interesting sociological view of American creationism. Although there is some of that, there is not as much as I hoped or expected, given the title. But there's some good stuff concerning his direct interactions at conference sessions (primarily in somewhat adversarial Q&A sessions) and more casual (and generally positive and polite) interactions at the lunch counter. If I were to over-summarize, he found teenage creationists to be curious but misinformed, while older ones were incurious and misinformed. On the whole, I think Rosenhouse does a good job presenting the best foot of creationism, being fair to (albeit unpersuaded by) their arguments, and only occasionally getting exasperated to the point of ridicule.

Interspersed amongst the chapters detailing his dispatches from the other side are other chapters that lay out a lot of the basic facts about evolution, the legal history of the creationist response in public schools, and other matters in science and philosophy of science as they relate to the creation evolution controversy. A lot of this was old hat for me, but sometimes there were refreshing takes on things. Perhaps the most interesting and challenging was his discussion of How to Read Genesis...

[In the beginning]
Obviously, most young-earth creationists view the Genesis account through a lens that is both inerrantist and literal. a Universe created by God in six literal 24 hour days, and adding up genealogies gets you an age of 6000 years or so. But as Rosenhouse points out, their literalism is somewhat selective. When the Bible speaks of God establishing a firmament, or the vault of the sky, YEC's don't (so far as I know) consider the sky to be a solid dome or canopy stretched over the face of the Earth (though this is indeed what the Hebrew etymology and ancient Hebrew 'cosmology' indicate was their belief (however, cf. Canopy Theory)).
So if the 'literal' response to "The best scientific evidence suggests that life on earth is billions of years old, and it developed over time in a process outlined by the modern theory of evolution." is "The Bible says otherwise." THEN the 'literal' response to "The best scientific evidence suggests the sky is not a solid vault suspended over the earth." should be "The Bible says otherwise."
Nevertheless, I think he has a certain respect for those who accept a 'plain reading' interpretation of Genesis. It just so happens that it's all wrong. Because he doesn't think much of various less literal ways to interpret Genesis while still adhering to its divine inspiration. If God had intended us to figure out that the 'days of creation' were actually long periods of time, why didn't he say so? Was going on about mornings and evenings the best a divine author could do to impart the truth to his followers?
His solution (for the Christian) is to dismiss the divine inspiration of Genesis:
Marcus Borg is even more succinct: “They are not God’s stories of the world’s beginnings; rather, they are ancient Israel’s stories of the world’s beginnings” (Borg 2001, 62). From the perspective of Christianity, I would think this model is entirely plausible. More plausible, in fact, than familiar notions of verbal, plenary inspiration. Of course, following Gilkey requires discarding certain traditional teachings, but perhaps that is good riddance to bad rubbish.

And as for any supposed 'dialogue' between science and religion, and the attempts to really use metaphor to interpret the Bible in light of scientific discoveries, he is even more harsh:
If you want to redefine original sin, or summon forth strained interpretations of Genesis to reconcile evolution with Adam and Eve, then go right ahead. But please do not pretend that this represents some convergence of ancient wisdom with modern understandings. This is not science and religion in conversation. This is science telling it like it is, and religion trying desperately to catch up. After science has dutifully applied its methods, over the course of centuries and frequently in the face of religious objections, you do not get to redefine your words and pretend that religion had the answers all along.

So the choices offered to the various People of the Book is to:

A) Insist on literalism. Honest, but flawed due to being factually wrong.
B) Keep inspiration, but stray from literalism. Not so honest... this is not so much an exercise in exegesis as it is a method of making Genesis 'come out with the right answer' -- an answer derived from other knowledge.
C) Acknowledge that Genesis is a human work. There is no need to reconcile modern knowledge with ancient myth. Although uncomfortable, dispensing with Genesis in this way doesn't necessarily harm the Good News.

I guess I'm more generous in allowing metaphorical interpretations of Genesis, particularly since Augustine and Origen and other early fathers did so. Not that I lose a lot of sleep thinking about this. Rosenhouse takes evolution-friendly peoples to task for trying to convince creationists that 'Genesis isn't supposed to be taken literally.' Usually what I try to tell people is that 'Genesis isn't supposed to be a science textbook,' which is slightly different. Actually, I generally try to stick to the science and ignore the Bible, because if and when I quote it, someone will invariably say that the Devil can quote Scripture for his own purpose. Though this stokes my pride, it does little to foster conversation.
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Date:April 19th, 2012 12:59 am (UTC)
Your "In the beginning" link doesn't seem to do anything or go anywhere.
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Date:April 19th, 2012 03:36 am (UTC)
Hmm... it's the new Livejournal spoiler tag. It should expand the post, but without going to a new page (as the cut tag did).
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Date:April 19th, 2012 01:54 pm (UTC)
And now it works. Either LJ fixed a bug somewhere in the middle of this conversation or I'm terribly confused.
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From:Jennifer Johnson
Date:April 19th, 2012 02:05 pm (UTC)
Interestingly, a common Chassdic belief is that the universe IS literally 5772 years old, but still acknowledges all observable reality as being valid. I recently had a friendly debate with an orthodox rabbi on this subject. He explained to me that God wanted to create a "ready made" universe. His belief is that God just created all reality as we perceive it, during that seven-day period, that stars and galactic dust and the fossil record and ALL of it, was created in some sort of divinely-crafted time-weave during the seven days of Creation.

My counterargument to this was to propose that this suggests that God is a deceiver. If God creates a reality that *leads us to conclude* that the world is older than it is, then God is trying to deceive us. We went back and forth on that one for a while (fortunately, he was not the angry antagonistic type of Biblical literalist.) While I didn't bring up dome-sky, I did bring up the example of Joshua stopping the sun in the sky, and how that suggests an earth-centric solar system (if we want to be literal, that is.) He didn't really have an answer for that one, though he acknowledges that Earth is not the center of the solar system.

However, I found it interesting as I had never heard a Christian young-earth Creationist make that argument. In the case of Christianity, I've always encountered either those that try to debunk observable reality ("humans *actually* lived with dinosaurs, and here's how!"), or those who choose to ignore observable reality ("It doesn't matter, and I don't understand all of it. I just know what the Bible says.")

To me, I look to religion for guidance, inspiration, and comfort - not for answers about how the world began. Of course it makes sense that people looked to religion for those answers in a pre-science world, and therefore religion would offer some kind of explanation. Even if one believes the Bible is the direct word from God Himself, would the answers have been literally true? When my child was 3 years old and asked where babies came from, I wasn't literal in my response, either.

Edited at 2012-04-19 02:06 pm (UTC)
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Date:April 19th, 2012 03:46 pm (UTC)
However, I found it interesting as I had never heard a Christian young-earth Creationist make that argument.

It used to be more common, with a history stretching back at least to the mid-19th century with Gosse's Omphalos. I still see it from time to time, especially from creationists who accept a certain amount of scientific knowledge. They understand and accept that such and such a galaxy is a billion light years away, but suggest that the light was created "already on the way" to our eyes (since otherwise, it would take a billion years for it to get here).

I think the reason it's not more common is exactly what you point out. It makes people uncomfortable to think of God creating deceptive evidence.

Journal of No. 118