Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Science and Religion

Okay, before I get into this, I must make a quick disclaimer: I didn't take the necessary time to properly source this thing, so some of the data I present may sound like it's just conjecture coming out of the arse of yours truly. If you have questions about anything in particular, just comment or email me, and I'll try to provide some sources.

How many of you have been in the frustrating position of arguing about something theological or biblical with someone, but their response is “I believe the Bible for what it says, and that’s it...” The people I’m referring to are those who assume they can read the Bible through entirely literally, and accept each detail as if it were a step in a manual for an IKEA product. The most famous and exasperating example of this is seen in the young-earth-creationists' approach to the account of Genesis 1-2. I’m not saying you can’t take the creation story literally . . . that’s a perfectly valid approach, if it floats your boat. In the end, it shares exactly the same message for us all whether you take is literally or not – that God created the world. But there is a whole culture of people who think that if you don’t take the story literally, then you don’t believe the Bible. Furthermore, if you tell them that you approach the Bible in a different way, or with a different “philosophy” (a word that can get you in a lot of trouble with such folks), they may view this as cause for burning you at the stake as a heretic.

The bottom line is that these people, like everybody else, have a worldview, or a philosophy, or a something that is speaking to their interpretation of the Bible. Nobody is approaching Scriptures with a pure, untainted, objective mind . . . but this is what some people (perhaps even most people) think. Those who read the Bible completely literally and think they’re reading it the way it is meant to be read somehow forget that they live in a culture that is (up to) four thousand years removed from the culture of those who wrote the book. I’ve heard someone argue that God had this in mind, and that He wrote the Book to be relevant to all cultures . . . well, can you get any more idiotic than that? Yes, the Bible is relevant to our culture; No, the Bible is not relevant to us in the same way as it was to those who wrote it. For one thing, there’s this all-so-important element of literary criticism called “author’s intent” that can mean a whole world of difference between whether a passage should be approached literally or not. There is a human being on both sides of the coin: a writer and a reader. The writer has an entire history of experiences and ideas that influence the intent behind his writings, and the reader has an entire history of experiences and ideas that will influence his interpretation. You can’t just divorce the experiences and ideas of the writer and the reader and expect to come up with “one correct reading” of the passage.

Looking at the Creation story in particular, I will only note that Moses was attempting to convey the message that God created the world (and even slipped some theology of the Trinity in there), which is a literary form found in the holy books of practically every religion as a way of establishing a foundation for where we come from, and Who we belong to (called a cosmology). The fact that it’s written in a highly poetic fashion, sounding more like a song than a science lesson, should perhaps suggest a more symbolic reading of the account (never mind this day-age or gap theory nonsense, which even a cursory glance at the text must render illogical). The question we must pose ourselves is “why would God choose to create the world in such a simplistic, easily-explained manner, when nothing else about the created order seems simple at all?” I mean, look around . . . for thousands of years, people have devoted their lives to studying the stars and discussing human origins, and we are none of us the wiser for understanding these things on human terms. The next question is “why would God want us to have such a simple account for how He created the world?” The answer to this is really very easy:

If you study the Bible, you will be struck by a very primitive scientific outlook. When they looked up into the sky, they saw that it was blue. On occasion, this blue mass would spit water at them (read: rain). They therefore concluded that the sky was a mass of water above the earth. Similarities to Genesis 1:6-8, anyone? Some creation literalists have argued that indeed, there once was a water canopy existing as a kind of “zone” above the earth (giving long life to human beings and allowing for the growth of massive creatures like dinosaurs). They say this water canopy fell on the world during the Flood of Genesis 6-8, therefore bringing an end to dinosaurs and long life in humans. Well, this might make sense, except that we see several more examples later on in which biblical writers refer to the “waters above the earth”. What’s the meaning of all this? Quite simply, that the people of the Ancient Middle East really didn’t have a clue about anything scientific. They thought that the sun crossed the sky every day, and then spent the night circling back to repeat its routine. They thought that the world was flat, and that it was within man’s power to reach the “ends of the earth”. They thought that hell was at the center of the earth (which gave route to the still widespread tendency to view hell as somewhere underground). Do you really think that God created the stars three days after the earth, and that He momentarily took these objects out of the laws of science to ensure that the light from these stars had reached earth immediately, in time for Adam to be able to experience the light of the sun and stars on day 6? Do you really think that the plants of the earth existed an entire day (or age of years, if you’re a day-age theorist) without the sun to allow for the process of photosynthesis?

What would have happened if God, through Moses, recorded for the people exactly how he made the universe? You don’t think they’d be a little bit confused by the concept of millions of years passing in which all sorts of creatures existed before humans (such as dinosaurs, and other extinct species)? No, clearly God was condescending to their understanding of time and space. No doubt, people thought that the sky was a large expanse of water long before Moses wrote the book of Genesis. In including that concept in the creation story, God was simply speaking their language. He wasn’t trying to confuse them. What’s humorous to me is that there are thousands of Christians today trying to create a modern science out of a few snippets of poetry in which God (through Moses) was making the creation of the world sound as simple (and, indeed, beautiful) as possible.

So, why I am writing all of this? I think that the reason people say “I read the Bible for what is says” and can’t look at it in any way but literally is because they are afraid that they could be wrong. If they allow themselves to think somewhat objectively in other disciplines, such as science, they’re afraid they’ll compromise (and lose) their faith. But I say we all need to be intelligent people. We need to read and study in all areas. I’m not saying that if you’re an intelligent person you have to believe in evolution. After all, that’s still just a theory. However, far too often the attitude among Christians is to avoid anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, and that just won’t do if you want to be taken seriously by the world.