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Biblical Literalists Have Picked the Wrong Fight

April 4, 2014

The Biblical literalists are again making fools of themselves for choosing to be in the wrong fight. Because they are trapped by the ideological chains of the literal truth of every word in their version of the Holy text, they have managed to frame the discussion, that they started, in such a way that there is only one outcome: they lose. They keep insisting on trying to answer how questions with why answers. More on that later.

They are reacting badly to the reboot of Cosmos, hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Cosmos is a brilliantly conceived and beautifully produced revisit of the original brainchild of Carl Sagan. Both the story and the science are compelling, and anyone graduating from high school should be at least conversant with the basics of the series.

But noted Biblical literalists are unhappy because it does not conform to what they consider to be the teachings of their religious faith. They are upset that the series does not give their views equal time, or even a mention.

But they are wasting their time on the wrong fight. No serious or educated person is going to debate or even discuss Creationism (except for Bill Nye, who only managed to add false credence to their stubborn insistence in believing non-facts). They can push as hard as they want about Intelligent Design (the teaching of which in public schools has been ruled illegal) or smugly point out that Evolution is merely a “theory” (showing that they completely misunderstand the meaning of the word when used in a scientific context.) There is a cottage industry on the web devoted to promoting Creationism and trying to debunk science.

Although they don’t quite yet get it, but scientific knowledge and progress is happy to keep moving forward without them. Although they can retard this progress at the margins by teaching pseudo-science in the various Christian academies and other private schools (and surprisingly, at taxpayers expense in some schools), the only thing they are really accomplishing is not preparing their unfortunate students to compete in a modern, globalized, information-rich world. They are however, preparing their students for a life of poverty and isolation. Fortunately, the smart ones will eventually find a way to overcome this handicap.

The more they try to defend Creationism, the more ridiculous they sound. Here are two arguments for Creationism that I have come across on the internet in the wake of the Cosmos kerfuffle:

  • In trying to “prove” that a vessel (Noah’s Ark) of the dimensions described in the Bible could, in fact, hold two of every animal on earth including those not indigenous to the immediate area: God probably miniaturized the animals and miraculously had them all lined up and ready to go! Microbes are not mentioned, even though they are the basic building blocks of life. But then, Bronze Age story-tellers did not know about microbes, did they?
  • In trying to reconcile the fossil record with the Young Earth Creationists story: Jesus put those dinosaur bones in the various levels of the Earth’s crust to test our faith!

This, of course, is the kind of groan-inducing, head-slapping nonsense that makes the ardent Biblical literalists appear to be nothing more than home-schooled, ignorant rubes. If their prime mission in life is to spread the Gospel, then turning themselves into clowns with size 24 shoes is not going to help.

When fundamentalist Christians get wrapped around this axle, they are doing their faith and their message a great disservice. This nonsense does not invalidate their primary message, only obscures it and makes it especially difficult for the young, the educated and the reasonable to even see it. We are starting to see genuine declines in religious affiliation, in no small part due to this incoherent gibberish.

That’s why I think they have picked the wrong fight.

Stephan Jay Gould, in his 1997 book Rocks of Ages, offered an elegant way to reconcile scientific fact with religious belief. He introduced the concept of Non-Overlapping Magisteria.

His solution? Don’t try. They are irreconcilable. But that does not mean that one invalidates the other. I cannot do his formulation justice in a brief blog post, and I admit that I may have some things wrong. But I will offer my take-away, in the hope that it may be thought-provoking for some people.

There are two fundamental questions essential to the human spirit. Wrestling with both questions is fundamental to not only our existence but to our progress. They are also required to keep our big mammalian brains busy. The questions are how and why. Science concerns itself with how. Religious belief systems (should) concern themselves with why.

The two should not cross, thus Non-Overlapping.

Take for example, global warming (if you are one of the dwindling minority who deny global warming, or question our agency in it, then read no further. This part will only piss you off and I am not in the least interested in your ignorant hate mail. Science does not require your endorsement to be true.) Scientists have done a very good job of documenting and explaining the how of global warming. We all know the story—carbon emissions, rising average global temperatures, ocean acidification, charting the time until the collapse of various ocean ecosystems and the rest of it. But even when they try to explain why—industrial revolution, burning fossil fuels, increasing worldwide affluence, etc., they are still stuck in the how.

Getting to the why requires reflection on the nature of man, our place in the Universe, our destructive and wasteful nature and even sin itself. Honest reflection on these matters requires an intellectual, moral, philosophical and spiritual framework that science cannot hope to provide.

Another example is the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark, and another mini-kerfuffle because of the movie Noah. The Biblical story is an extinction story. We know from the fossil record there have been five great extinction events in the Earth’s history (the Permian extinction came terrifyingly close to wiping out all multi-celled organisms on the planet.) Some scientists are becoming convinced that we are in the midst of a sixth great extinction, this one caused by us. But that’s the how part of the extinction story.

But isn’t the Noah story also about the why? Isn’t the story ultimately about the destructiveness of sin and the power of redemption? Science cannot answer these questions-but these questions are every bit as important to the human experience as the scientific how.

So when Biblical literalists get into these fights about the plausibility of the Ark actually holding two of every animal on Earth, or how an ancient wooden craft could withstand rainfall of six inches per minute for 40 days and nights and survive, they are obscuring, in fact missing altogether, the deeper spiritual questions of why. After all, Bangladesh goes through periods of rains lasting 40 days and 40 nights every year and we are all still here.

The Noah story could not possibly be literally true, any more than God created the universe in six days (the sun wasn’t created until day four, after all) and the Earth is not 6,000 years old. But there is spiritual truth to all of these stories. A truth that will remain obscure as long as the Biblical literalists continue to stubbornly cling to this demonstrable nonsense.

The Biblical literalists should stop trying to make their faith answer the how questions. It is a losing game for them—and besides, we have science for that.

  1. This will blow your mind. I agree.

  2. Nothing lost for me.

    • It is helpful to know how little you think of me. It does, however, help explain your gratuitous and juvenile snark.


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