Creationism and Biblical Literalism

Well, I threatened some time ago that I may make some religions posts. That time has come. This first post is a hodge-podge mixture of my feelings about my own faith. When my friend and colleague Brendon found out I was a Christian, he was fascinated and wanted to hear my views on creationism. I guess it’s kind of like a freak show: “What? You believe in that?” Ok, so let’s talk creationism, I’m game!

I think most people miss the point in the Creationist / Evolutionist debate. Firstly, couching it in those terms will doom any discussion to pointlessness. Setting up creationism and evolution (or religion and science) as diametrically opposed is disingenuous. Not only does it label people of faith as anti-learning, but it labels science as heresy.

For one thing, religion and science have differing goals. Science seeks to answer the question “how”. How is it that things developed the way they did? What is the mechanism by which things change from one state to another? What are the rules that govern this mechanism? How can we test it? Religion seeks to answer “why”. Why do we exist at all? What is our purpose? Most importantly just one great big: “WHY?” I hold that you can believe God created (and continues to create) all things and still agree that evolution is currently the most plausible mechanism by which He made it come about.

Atheists accuse me of having a so-called “God of the gaps”: a God who vanishes away in the cold light of science to hide in the gaps and crevasses of our understanding, fearing that, at any moment, we’ll lift the lid and see that His glory and incredible miracles are merely natural phenomenon that we can document and study.

Once again, I say that science merely sets out to answer “how”. I don’t need religion to tell me how a car works, or what the nature of hydrogen is. That’s what science is for. Anyone who attempts to use religion for this purpose utterly misses the point. Religion is philosophy and metaphysics, it is not interested in the nature of cars or hydrogen. That’s why you will see no mention of cars or hydrogen in either the old or new testaments. Simply because it is not in the Bible, doesn’t mean it’s bad or should be ignored, however.

So, how is it that I can have both science and religion, both reason and faith? Doesn’t seem fair does it? Well, I wasn’t always able to. You see, it all comes down to our understanding of the nature of the Bible: is it literal or does it need some interpretation. I was essentially raised a Biblical literalist. I was told that the Bible is the Word of God and it’s pretty much Him speaking as a kind of supernatural narrator. I remember with a bit of a shudder stories of people opening the Bible to a random page, praying and sticking their finger on a random verse, hoping for God to literally speak to them out of the King James. There was this one man I knew. He was retarded. No literally retarded. He didn’t have any questions about his faith in his mind, simply because his mind couldn’t entertain them. I used to envy him because his faith was so pure.

Even at an early age, there were signs for me that ignorance wasn’t a very practical approach to theology. At about 14 or so, I was earnestly studying the Old Testament. As I read it the following questions popped into my head: Who wrote this? What was their motivation? Who were they communicating with? What was the historical & cultural context? How is it different from today? Who translated? Is this complete? Has it been amended? I instantly felt bad and tried not to ask those questions and tried to believe it verbatim.

I later realized that all of these are natural questions, however, when reading any bit of text that is purported to be historically accurate. The field of hermeneutics (the study of text) was born out of efforts like this, efforts to make sense of the Bible (among other things).

We had made great strides in this regard, peeling back the layers of bias and years of obfuscation that cloud’s the Bible’s message. Then, in the early 20th century, a number of people decided that this was a bad approach, they decided they wanted to get back to “fundamentals”. Fundamentalism was born and a new form of heresy was invented: Biblical literalism.

It’s easy to explain the problem, really. When I was a child, I read Genesis and saw that it said God took 6 days to make the heavens and the earth, but I knew from science that this was patently untrue, the earth is billions of years old and we have proof. There’s only three possible outcomes to that: (a) the Bible I am reading is a fake one since God wouldn’t get the number of days wrong in His book (b) all our scientific enquiry is wrong and everything was created in 6 days as we understand them (c) the Bible cannot be interpreted literally as it stands, we have to apply some understanding to it before it will reveal the true understanding we are supposed to gain from it. I believe “days” referred to here in Genesis was never intended to be 24 hours.

I once suggested to my father that I thought God may not have made heaven and earth in 6 days and he practically rebuked me (to use a Biblical term) saying that it says so in the Bible and that’s that.

So, for many years I tried to swallow it. I tried to swallow it whole. It’s like trying to swallow an elephant. But the more and more I think about it, the more I realize that my first instinct was correct. If you take the Bible as literal truth without interpretation, you get a mangled, distorted view of God, one that results in the likes of Fred Phelps.

Anyone who says God created everything in 6 days as we understand days to be is lying and (what’s worse) they know it. A day is measured by a revolution of the earth, since there was no earth on the first day, there can be no “day” as we know it now. Genesis refers to God separating light from the darkness and that counting as a day. Sure, that’s great, and I am sure that when the person who was writing (or, probably more accurately, saying) this originally, that’s exactly what God told them: 6 days. Why would God go into any more detail? Can you imagine the conversation?

God: And then there was the big bang and all the helium atoms….
Man: Huh?
God: Oh, I separated light from dark and it was all good, that was… let’s call it the first day, ok.
Man: Sure, light and dark, first day, good.

Why is it so hard for people to believe that when God says “day” He doesn’t mean what we believe a “day” to be? I think it’s because the Biblical literalists see that if you make one allowance, even this most simple and straightforward of allowances, you open the whole of the Bible up for interpretation and that’s not what they want.

Ironically, though, this is against the original Fundamentalists ethos: which is to go back to the grassroots of a religion. How much more grassroots can you get than trying to uncover the “actual” intent and meaning behind the words than reading the words at face value and subconsciously applying your own twisted cultural bias to them?

Let’s face the facts: taken on face value, the Bible is full of some rather nasty stuff. Atheists always delight in pointing these out to me, as if that is supposed to shake my faith. What Atheists and literalists have in common is they fail to understand is that although the Bible may be inerrant and inspired, it cannot be the literal Word of God because (a) Jesus is the Word of God and (b) if the Bible is read literally, the message is totally flawed (we’ll have to discuss inerrancy and inspiration some other time).

You don’t believe the literalists’ Bible is flawed? Think it’s been handed down from generation to generation all squeaky clean without people maybe applying the cultural biases of their age on it? Oh, I don’t doubt God kept it good enough for us to gain a good understanding, but it cannot be read today, in our cultural context and make complete sense. How do you explain the support of slavery? How about Paul’s apparent misogyny? What about acceptance of polygamy? Long hair being unnatural? That women shouldn’t wear men’s clothing?
Even Jesus knew this: let’s look at Mark 10 (often used against gay people, but we’ll get to discuss that later):

2 Pharisees came to him testing him, and asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a certificate of divorce to be written, and to divorce her.”

Huh? Hang on a second! Moses commanded? Moses? Didn’t God make that commandment? Doubtlessly, Jesus was referring to Deuteronomy 24 which says

When a man takes a wife, and marries her, then it shall be, if she find no favor in his eyes, because he has found some unseemly thing in her, that he shall write her a bill of divorce, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.

Jesus said this was a commandment from Moses, because of the hardness of men’s hearts. Not only that but He later reverses that commandment saying it was, in essence, too lax (more on divorce later).

So, if I believe that it didn’t take 6 days to create the Heavens and Earth, I can actually believe that God chose whatever mechanism He liked to create things, evolution seems plausible to me.

I think people get their knickers in a twist over this for no good reason. You see, because arguing things from this standpoint is actually the wrong way around. To say “God exists, therefore the universe was created in this way” is a logical fallacy. Rather, I prefer the argument “I believe the universe was created and didn’t just happen, therefore, God exists”. That is, incidentally, one of my reasons for believing in God. Sure, I am happy to agree that all of this may have evolved, however, when I look at creation, at how perfect it is, I have to believe that some intelligent active force was at play, otherwise all this complexity and beauty was for nothing.