If the first talking snake had kept shtum, we wouldn't be here. Eve wouldn't have eaten the forbidden fruit. But she listened and was curious. So she fell into humanity, thank God. Good old snake, say I. I celebrate its independence of mind. Satan? Neh, that's a later interpretation. The snake was part of the divine purpose. God allowed it into the garden, aware of its linguistic abilities. He knew what would happen. Jesus commended dove-like innocence. AND the wisdom ... of the snake.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Mummy mummy what's a firmament?

"In the beginning": in other words, once upon a time. Genesis indicates from its first words that there follows a story, to be read as such. It provides other clues in case you miss the first one.

Looked upon as science or history however, Genesis is quite extraordinarily uninformative. Day One: God creates the heavens and the earth. It's without form and void. Dark, wet and windy. Light is created, with no source other than divine command. What is it being emitted by? Silly question. It is then separated from the darkness, and we are told that a day passes; this despite the word "day" denoting the time between one sunrise and the next - and we won't have a sun for another three, well, days.

As science this is drivel, but it gets worse. On Day Two, God creates a "firmament" which will enable him to separate "waters from waters". We now have the sky, containing a certain quantity of water, while below there is basically a vast quantity of mud; tomorrow, God will further separate it into dry land and sea. But let us return to this matter of the firmament. We are familiar with the word, less so with its meaning.

Exactly what did the biblical writers picture when they had God create "the firmament"? They must have been thinking of something like a giant version of the Astrodome. The "firmament," as the very word, containing the element "firm," implies, the underlying Hebrew denotes a solid dome of metal or crystal. The Latin noun firmamentum comes from the verb firmare , "to make firm." It is a good word to choose to translate the Hebrew raqiya, which denotes "a dome beaten out of metal sheets."

Heaven and Its Wonders, and Earth: The World the Biblical Writers Thought They Lived In Robert M. Price and Reginald Finley Sr.

So far as the writers of Genesis are concerned, argue Price and Finley, the world had a solid ceiling. Two huge problems then: first, the idea of the sky of a dome seems to confirm one's suspicion that for Bible writers the earth is indeed flat - try imagining a dome anchored on a sphere and you'll see the difficulty. Second, in two days' time the sun is going to be created; and clearly if its warmth and light are to reach the earth it must be positioned below the inner side of the firmament. Forget 93 million miles away; but then, forget also any notion you might have that the sun is much larger than the earth. Think instead in terms of this diagram, which shows the kind of mental picture of the universe which the Bible writers had.

Creationists (with a few seriously lunatic exceptions) tend to fight shy of flat-earth and geocentric cosmologies, despite evidence that these are more "Scriptural" than our modern understanding of a spherical earth orbitting a large, relatively distant sun. Apologists like J P Holding, writing for Answers In Genesis, argue that "firmament" in Genesis 1.7 and elsewhere means something like "expanse" and should not be taken literally; he accuses "skeptics" like Price and Finley of having an ulterior motive in wanting to attribute to Bible writers a clearly primitive cosmology. Holding also resists the implication of verses like Isaiah 11.12 and Revelation 7.1, with their references to the four corner of earth, that this planet of ours is in fact a disc rather than a sphere.

Apologists never acknowledge their own ulterior motives of course, and one could easily turn the tables on Holding by asking why he is so keen to interpret Scripture in the light of scientific discoveries made since it was written. Why should it surprise us to discover that ancient Hebrews, in common with other Middle Eastern peoples, did think of the earth as a disc? But even if Holding is right, it seems to me he's missed the point. According to Genesis 1, God first brings into being a formless mass of muddy water; then he performs two distinct acts of separation, one by way of the "firmament" which creates the sky, then another which creates a single landmass. Anyone seeking a detailed, scientifically credible description of these processes is whistling in the dark.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Mind boggling numbers

Imagine yourself standing by the seashore. Fill a glass with water from the ocean, then tip it out again.

Five years later come back and fill your glass again. Question: what are the odds that it will now contain ANY of the molecules that were present before? Take into account all the adventures that might befall any molecule of water - it might have evaporated, been whisked off by currents to anywhere on the planet, it might have been absorbed into a living creature - and you’ll think: a million to one against.

And you’d be wrong, for a reason that should make you gulp, as I gulped when I was first told this. There are more molecules of water in a glass than there are glassfuls of water in the world’s oceans. So, the odds are better than evens that at least one of the molecules will have been present in your previous sample.

My formal science education ended before I ever heard of Avogadro’s number, and I’ll be honest: the only context in which I’d come across it since was in an obscure Steely Dan song called "Let George do it". (That’s "obscure" as in "never released on a proper album", though it’s available as a demo. I don’t mean "somewhat opaque in meaning" because in that sense nearly all Steely Dan songs are obscure. But I love them anyway).... to return, I looked it up. Turns out to be relevant to the glass of water puzzle.

Avogadro’s number indicates the number of molecules in a gram-molecule, or mole, of any substance. And it’s big. 6.022 x 10 to the power 23 to be exact. And how big is that? My favourite analogy is that an Avogadro’s number of Coca-Cola cans would cover the surface of the earth to a depth of 200 miles. Or try this: a modern computer, counting at the rate of 100 million numbers per second, would take almost two billion years to reach Avogadro's number.

Do not even begin to persuade me that you can get your head round this. You’re lying and we both know it. Boggle, oh mind. Be in awe. And bear in mind that when you’ve reached Avogadro's number that’s scarcely the beginning so far as the total number of molecules of all substances on earth is concerned. Then think how tiny the earth is by contrast with the whole universe. If one’s hypothetical computer had started counting at the dawn of time it would only by now have reached about seven Avagadro’s numbers; seven moles of water is barely a sip.

Creationism trivialises creation. The Bible doesn’t know about tiny things like molecules, any more than it knows about huge things like galaxies. It is as ignorant of microscopic organisms as it is of red giants; it seems to think stars are small (well, they look small, don’t they?) and has no idea that the sun is one. By scaling down creation to what we can readily comprehend, leaving out the unimaginably huge and the unimaginably minute, it reduces that very wonderment which it should be the role of truly spiritual narrative to inspire in us, and which science abundantly supplies. One of the deep ironies here is that the militant atheist Richard Dawkins speaks of nature as awesome; while oh-so-religious creationism treats it as a job that only took God a few days. That humanity’s parents are placed not in some place the size of a national park but in a mere garden, readily encompassable and managed, is part of the same reducing process.

I have to say, lest I be misunderstood: pondering the smallness of physical reality’s building blocks, as illustrated by Avogadro’s number, in no way diminishes my awe at God’s creation; quite the reverse. It is false teaching about creation that paves the way for Dawkins-like atheism. Poor man, he’s met far more creationists than is good for him.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Your God is too nasty

Noah’s ark: a nice little story for children, right? Featuring lots of animals who would walk two by two onto this big boat, where a friendly old man with a beard would welcome them aboard and look after them while the earth got a bit wet.

Wrong. The Flood is a horror story, unpleasant enough as fiction and quite beyond the pale if taken as literal history (which creationists do, of course). The ending is nice - pretty rainbows and a promise by God never to commit such an atrocity again: from now on he would leave the atrocities to us, though he can hardly blame us for getting the idea from him in the first place. But this hardly excuses his earlier behaviour.

He gets cheesed off with human beings, whose wickedness seems to take him by surprise, and decides to wipe them all out, except for one special family. For reasons not explained, his anger extends to the rest of creation too. Nothing is to escape his campaign of watery obliteration. As everyone knows, selected "kinds" of animals and birds are invited onto the Ark so as to continue the story of life after the Flood subsides.

Never mind the utter implausibility of this for the moment. The objections are obvious, well known and shrugged off by creationists. Penguins, crocodiles, camels, kangaroos, elephants, polar bears all sharing the same space, despite the vast diversity of the environments in which they normally thrive? Predators cooped up with prey? Noah finding the right food for all the kinds on the Ark, many of which he would not have previously encountered? The seaworthiness of the boat, so huge that nothing of comparable size was launched until 1900, by which time steel was available (Noah had to make do with cypress wood)? A five-hundred year old man being commissioned to build the vessel in the first place? Well, God can do whatever he wants. But what sort of God is this?

A God who, having decided to wipe out humanity, does not avail himself of the quick and easy "smite" option. Does not call on the services of his Angel of Death, as in the Passover story. Does not turn all humans bar Noah and family into pillars of salt. Nothing so humane. Instead he organises a flood - revelling in anticipation over the decades while Noah builds his enormous ship. In time, all is ready. The animals and birds are on board, the best part of a year’s supply of food for every different "kind" is stored and preserved so that nothing will go off.

It starts to rain. It keeps on raining. The penny drops among Noah’s neighbours, (if it hadn’t done before, as they watched a whole queue of creatures plodding up the gangplank) who try to break into the Ark to escape the rising flood waters, but it is too late. They rush to higher ground and still the waters rise. Now they begin to die, some of starvation, others of exposure. Some anticipate the inevitable and throw themselves into the torrents. Animals are in a similar predicament, and across every range of high ground, herds of livestock and wild beasts are huddling together, terrified, attacking each other before every last one is engulfed. Birds fly around, panicking as the trees in which they formerly perched sink beneath the waters, eventually dying of exhuastion. And God approves, having planned this protracted onslaught down to the last elaborate detail. His "repentance", prompted it would seem not by any thoughts of remorse but by the pleasant odour of Noah’s sacrifice, only makes the original act of annihilation seem the more culpable.

Preachers who follow the Common Lectionary are no longer required to deliver sermons on Genesis 6 - 8, although 8.22 sneaks in at many a harvest festival, wrested from its context (I’ve done it myself). But you can see why this portion of Scripture has been liturgically archived. The God of the global flood is, frankly, a tyrannical bastard. Mercy, restraint, wisdom, a sense of responsibility for his actions - forget any of that. This is a fickle deity, who creates one moment and within a few generations decides to un-create, but in a particularly calculating and vindictive fashion. He should make us feel uncomfortable and not in a good way. It hardly seems to be in Christianity's, or Judaism's, interests to draw attention to this episode, but for creationists the story is central to their endeavour.

If this is their God, they are welcome to him. He isn’t mine, and if he were the only one on offer, give me atheism any time.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Did they fall, or did they rise?

Who says that Genesis 3 is about a "Fall" anyway? That’s how it’s interpreted, and in fairness by Jews as well as Christians; though clearly Jews, whose story it was first, don’t think it has the implications for our eternal destiny that many Christians do - and that alone should give us pause. But the story has no title, no "argument" as chapter summaries used to be called: the assumption that this story tells us how human beings came to be sinners is exactly that, an assumption. If you’re wondering what else it might be about, let’s try doing something fundamentalists are always telling us to do: actually reading the Bible. In particular, note the tragic ambivalence of v7:

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
Maybe you zero in on that second clause. Nakedness has become shameful, in contrast to ch.2 v 25. Man and woman disobey God, guilt is the consequence. Agreed, but look at what else happens: their eyes are opened. They become aware - self conscious - enlightened. Even on the most hardline fundamentalist assumptions, a metaphor is being used here. Adam and Eve were not literally blind before. Now, here’s a challenge: find me an instance of this figure of speech being used pejoratively. Anywhere in world literature, that gives you plenty of scope. If eyes are opened that is categorically a good thing because awareness is better than absence of awareness almost by definition. Sight is better than blindness. Enlightement is better than ignorance. You might not like what you become aware of, but that’s different. Indeed, this is Adam and Eve’s tragedy and ours. They pass from a state of pre-conscious innocence into fully conscious self-awareness of which the immediate consequence is shame - but they then discover some basic craft skills, not previously required, and deal with the situation. They become resourceful. In this transition there is both loss and gain.

This story isn’t just about sin. It’s about what it takes to be human. "Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you got till it’s gone" sang Joni Mitchell and that’s the story of Genesis 3: two people in paradise who didn’t know it was paradise until, by dint of doing the one thing that enabled them to realise, they got themselves kicked out. Ask yourself this: would you really want Eve NOT to have eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Would you want a world in which people, like animals, don’t have moral concepts but just follow their instincts? And, pushing it further, do you really think God wanted Eve not to have eaten the forbidden fruit?

Joni Mitchell also sang "we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden", forgetting that its gates are barred by an angel with a flaming sword. On a literalist view of this I might ask if the sword ran on unleaded or diesel, if the angel’s arms didn’t ache, or why God didn’t stick up an electric fence and have done; reading the story sensibly, we can see what that angel represents. You can’t get your innocence back from the lost property office. But we don’t entirely want it back anyway: it’s called growing up.

In Stephen Sondheim’s magical Into the Woods various fairy-tale characters have a lot of growing up to do. Little Red Riding Hood is the first; delivered from the clutches of the wolf, she comes on stage for her big number. You need to see the show to get the full impact of this - and why in the name of all that’s holy haven’t you ? - but here’s a snatch:

So we wait in the dark
until someone sets us free
and we’re brought into the light
and we’re back at the start
and I know things now, many valuable things
that I hadn’t known before;
Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood,
They will not protect you the way that they should
And take extra care with strangers
Even flowers have their dangers
And though scary is exciting
Nice is different than good.
Now I know, don’t be scared
Granny was right, just be prepared...
Isn’t it nice to know a lot?
And a little bit .... not.

Little Red Riding Hood met her wolf and lost her innocence: in the garden of Eden, for wolf read snake. "Isn’t it nice to know a lot? And a little bit ... not" Adam and Eve might have said those very words to each other.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

A little gem from Dr David Rosevear

"In Adam all die. So death was not present before Adam sinned, if the Scriptures mean anything at all. This rules out evolution with its death and struggle. This also rules out day-age compromise and gap theory compromise .... If there had been struggle, death and decay before Adam, how could a just Creator see that all was good? Theistic evolution and other compromises that allow for death before Adam are a libel against the character of the Almighty."

Creation Science - Confirming that the Bible is Right, by David Rosevear. 1991, New Wine Press.

David Rosevear is no ordinary creationist twerp. He’s the head of the Portsmouth-based Creation Science Movement which claims to be the oldest creationist body not only in Britain but the world. He’s a soft target, but it’s not like I’m picking on some psychotic moron off the internet and duffing up the poor guy as though he represents the entire movement - like dismissing Roman Catholicism lock stock and barrel because of a few fornicating Popes. Rosevear IS representative, one of creationism’s rentaquotes. Featured in yesterday’s Guardian giving his response to the Royal Society lecture (of which more later). What’s more he’s PhD, FRSC, so in terms of his science - respect due.

In terms of his theology, no respect due whatever. As you can see for yourself ...

Just how many absurdities are crammed into the above quotation? Well, for a start, Dr Rosevear doesn’t know what proof-texting is or why it’s a bad idea. The proposition he wants to defend is: not one single creature died before the Fall. This is an extreme view which not even all young-earthers hold - many would say that while Adam and Eve were created immortal, elsewhere in nature death was at the very least a possibility. Spiders spun their webs for flies, kestrels hunted for mice. Small insects got trodden on. Curiosity killed the occasional cat. Dr Rosevear will have none of this; in Eden’s brief age of innocence every creature was vegetarian - every spider, kestrel, lion, crocodile, pirana fish, Venus fly trap; and of course, every ssssssssnake. Even then, these non-predatory life-forms must have been careful not to completely devour a plant, because that would have entailed its death. They were presumably only allowed to nibble. (Though one might ask, if they were all immortal, why they needed to eat at all. Could not God miraculously preserve them without the need for nourishment?) Nothing could get accidentally squashed, drowned or impaled. Had a leaf fallen from a tree in Eden it wouldn’t have rotted, because that implies corruption, of which there was none until the Fall.

However, this is what Dr Rosevear believes, so he raids the Bible for support - it’s that way round. His proof texts are Romans 5.12 ("through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin") and 1 Corinthians 15 ("for since by man came death, by Man came also the resurrection of the dead.") In neither place is Paul remotely concerned with non-human mortality. The Romans passage is part of an extended argument about the pervasiveness of sin and its dire consequences; in 1 Corinthians he’s developing an idea about Christ as the undoer of Adam’s deed. Dr Rosevear however needs a text that allows him to say nothing died before the Fall, and these appear to suit his purpose.

Then he goes for broke. Not only is this a valid interpretation; no other reading can be considered. "If the scriptures mean anything at all" they have to submit to his view of them. Dr Rosevear is more aware than some creationists of what others think about the subjects on which he pronounces; but pronounce is all he ever seems to do. Constructing logical arguments is not his bag. He has read Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 and he has decided how they should be interpreted. The different varieties of old-earthers, many of whom would share Dr Rosevear’s basic fundamentalist world view, theistic evolutionists and even young-earthers who believe that only humans were immortal before the Fall, are deemed not to have read or thought about these texts.

Dr Rosevear assumes a knowledge of God’s character that few Christians I know would be bold enough to claim. Specifically, he knows that God does not use pain, death, struggle and chance to achieve his purposes; insofar as these are features of life now, they must therefore be consequences of the Fall. He asks, rhetorically, how a just creator could pronounce the world to be "good" if Eden remotely resembled the earth as it is now. I might ask, equally rhetorically, what sort of justice is implied by God’s decision to introduce unleash death, destruction, pain and cruelty - all previously unknown - across the entire natural order because two creatures exercised the free will He himself had given them, even putting temptation in their way and turning a blind eye to the presence of a Tempter: does not this seem just a tad disproportionate?

But it’s Dr Rosevear’s assumptions that we must examine. He thinks he knows what the earth looked like at the moment of its creation, and concludes that God, in calling it good, was sound in His judgement; which would not be the case had the earth failed to match Dr Rosevear’s picture of it. This appears to make God’s judgement dependent on Dr Rosevear’s approval; if there had been death before the Fall, Dr Rosevear would say this was not a good thing, and God would have been at fault had he declared otherwise.

I cannot help thinking that it is for God to endorse Dr Rosevear’s judgement rather than vice versa, but then I don’t have a Ph.D in chemistry. As for the suggestion that anyone who dissents from Dr Rosevear’s theology is libelling the Almighty, this sounds to me like a desperate manoeuvre to foreclose any argument; but it won’t wash because Dr Rosevear’s deity is not one I have the slightest wish to encounter and if I’d caught him hanging around at my ordination I’d have shown him the door.

My sarcasm has got the better of me and I’m sorry, well sort of. There may be more able creationist intepreters of Genesis than Dr Rosevear but this is a man with a fairly high profile leaving himself wide open to ridicule far more venomous than mine, and frankly deserving it. Which I think matters for two reasons: first, we are hearing suggestions that creationism should have some kind of place, however limited, on school examination syllabuses. I invite anyone who thinks that a good idea to consider Dr Rosevear’s book (still in print and commended on his organisation’s website) he being one of Britain’s leading creationist figures don’t forget, and ask if this is the quality of thinking they wish to have inflicted on their children.

Second, if there is one thing on which Dr Rosevear and I might agree, it is the need to put up a convincing case against the likes of Richard Dawkins, for whom evolution proves there’s no God; but if he imagines himself capable of this he’s even more seriously deluded than I thought. It IS unfair to judge a movement on one book, but this particular book damns itself by its very subtitle. It is no more the business of science to "prove" or "disprove" the Bible than it is to adjudicate between the merits of Philip Pullman (boo!) and C S Lewis (hooray!). Scientists are not cheerleaders and if Dr Rosevear thinks they are, perhaps I might change my mind about respecting him even as a scientist. Richard Dawkins needn’t worry about exposing the absurdities of creationism: Dr Rosevear has done it for him.

Spring has sprung in Stokesley

Randy's Reply

(See "They've all got it in for me", posted April 10)

I challenged Randy to tell me how he knows that 50% of scientists believe in creationism, which is the natural reading of a statement on his site. As I suspected, that's not so:
As far as the 50% figure. I believe I read somewhere that approx. 50% of Scientists in this country believe in God.

I.e. not, except in a few cases, in creationism. Phew. But I don't think Randy knows the difference. The rest of his e-mail confirms my earlier diagnosis. I could be naughty and reproduce it here without his permission, but I think I'd better ask him first...

Ten thousand + American clergy must be wrong, then

Americans who try to keep up with this issue will know, as few Brits will, about the Clergy Letter Project. It’s a simple declaration about the value of good science teaching, which clergy have been asked to endorse. 10,000 signatures, and counting, have been collected. The link is here but come on, you don’t always follow links, and this is important so here’s its substantive point:
We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as "one theory among others" is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

Creationism sucks, then. It’s interesting to check the geographical spread of signatories too. 10,000 sounds quite a lot, but down in Mississippi there’s only 14 and in the city of Jackson just one: a Unitarian called Jacqueline Luck, who’s agreed to meet me in June. So why aren’t the rest of Jackson’s clergy on board? I think I can guess, but I will test my hypothesis in situ.

So far as creationist institutions are concerned, the clergy letter is just further proof that the Church has sold out to secularism. You don’t know whether to laugh, cry, throw rocks or throw up, but it really is an absurd and unnecessary situation. In Britain, please God, we’ll never need anything like the Clergy Letter. This simply isn’t an issue for us.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Everyone’s afraid, it’s called being human

Fundamentalists are visibly afraid. By that I don’t imply that the rest of us aren’t afraid too, or that we’re any braver than them, or even that we’re not afraid of exactly the same things. But fundamentalists seem to put their fears on public display in a peculiarly distinctive way. They leave us in no doubt what has to be true for them.

What are they afraid of? Creationism is not like a house that might have its roof blown off; more like a big balloon that could be destroyed with a single prick. That’s an anxiety-making kind of religion to have.

Here’s the logic, as found on a thousand message boards and websites. Find yourself a creationist to correspond with and you’ll hear something like this, probably sooner rather than later. God created the world in six days, each of them 24 hours long. That’s what the Bible says and the Bible’s true. If Genesis 1 isn’t true, or if it’s only a story, then maybe the Fall narrative is only a story as well, and on that basis who knows what else might be only a story? Sodom and Gomorrah? The raising of Lazarus? When does the erosion stop? Where’s the dependable reality that will stand your full weight?

Besides, there must have been a Fall or we wouldn’t need a Redeemer, which we obviously did since God sent us his only Son for this very purpose. Without redemption we’re sunk, i.e. we’re not going to live forever because the curse of Eden took away human immortality; but Jesus undid the curse by his sacrifice on the Cross. He proved his victory over sin and mortality by rising from the dead (in the Bible, therefore true) and so will we, so long as we’re true believers. If we’re not true believers - which on a typical fundamentalist definition excludes most of humanity - we’re still going to live forever only we won’t enjoy it one bit.

God has told us this in his Word, which since it’s divine is infallible. Find one mistake in it, prove for example that all but an ark-ful of the world’s animals were not destroyed in a global flood, and the Bible’s entire credibility is shot to pieces. So Christ might not have redeemed us after all, might not have risen from the dead, and who knows - when we die it will be like falling asleep, never waking up, and never knowing we haven’t woken up. Consciousness seems biochemical, an aspect of brain function; brain stops working, end of story, surely? Well, most people want that not to be true and fundamentalism seems to guarantee that it isn’t true; but the operative word is "seems". The guarantee is illusory and spiritual adults must acknowledge that. Castles in the air provide no shelter from storms on the ground. Faith is about not being sure, but hoping for the best. For God’s best, which will not be what we imagine.

This is Holy Week, my alter ego is preparing worship for Good Friday. I’m thinking of a man facing inevitable, agonising death and wondering what that felt like. Perhaps he knew that God would raise him but there’s more than one take on that; the Christ of Gethsemane seems distinctly lacking in blessed assurance, and connects with our own experience as he rarely does elsewhere, for that very reason. I’ve struggled with this all my life and still do. Here’s Philip Larkin developing the theme of existential dread:

... the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere
And soon, nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says: No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel,
not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch, or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Larkin, "Aubade", Collected Poems

I am less than charmed at having religion described as a moth-eaten pretence, but Larkin takes us to the heart of human darkness where fundamentalism cannot light the way, nor any other set of bland propositional absolutes. Yet faith is still possible. What brings me round, lifts me out of morbid preoccupation with my own extinction, are those unbidden moments of transcendent trust in Julia of Norwich’s simple statement that all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well. Mozart moments, Dervaig to Fionphort moments. Imprecise, beyond proof, yet grounded in Christian truth.

Only in America

Creationism’s natural habitat is the USA. The rest of the world, by and large, accepts the evolutionary/old universe consensus. While schools in America are urged to "teach the controversy", in Britain there is no controversy to teach. In the State-funded, church-sponsored primary schools where I conduct weekly assemblies (and lead the children in prayer, Americans eat your hearts out!) the shelves are stocked with science books that assume an ancient earth and an evolutionary basis to explain how we came to be here. For Adam and Eve, see under religion. I have never seen a creationist textbook and I wouldn’t know where to look.

What does America have, that Britain doesn’t, which could begin to explain this?

This is a theme I will be pursuing throughout June, when I shall be in the States myself. For the moment I offer this thought:

America has

  • Fox
  • Talk Radio as ideology
  • Televangelists
  • Sectarian higher education (e.g. Bob Jones University)
  • gun ownership
  • major resistance to abortion law
  • no established Church
  • large and wealthy Bible belt
  • A President who sees his faith as an electoral asset

Britain has

  • the BBC, required by law to be non-partisan; regulations affect commercial stations too. Fox couldn't operate here
  • tightly regulated commercial radio mostly music-based
  • a National Health Service paid for out of taxation (and still essentially free), with private medicine a minority option
  • no death penalty
  • The Church of England - the established church, to which all British subjects technically belong. It has a distinguished tradition of academic scholarship....
  • a pluralistic and multi-faith society, with a strong Moslem/Hindu/Sikh presence in many inner cities
  • compulsory religious education in State schools (and in theory a compulsory act of collective worship - although this is rarely observed in high schools); this presumes an agreed syllabus drawn up by professional scholars - and that implies "non-fundamentalist"
  • advanced secularisation - the great majority of us do not attend church and those who do tend to be older, with a preponderance of women
  • a Prime Minister whose faith is seen as an electoral liability, so he generally keeps quiet about it (as his one-time press officer said, "we don’t do God").
  • no real quarrel with abortion law. We might not like it but anything's better than a return to the days of "Vera Drake"
  • relatively few problems over gay rights/same-sex civil partnerships (except, one has to admit, in the Church!)

In other words, creationism does well in America because cultural conditions are relatively favourable to its flourishing; and poorly in Britain because they are hostile to it. Creationism is part of an American culture of the Right - a damaging observation, because it implies that the perceived truth or otherwise of its propositions depends on the social climate. Even in America, creationism gets better reviews in Texas than New York; I wonder why?

H2O + SO3 = H2SO4 however is equally true on both sides of the Atlantic, the snake declares, acidly.

Cos that’s science, y’see.

Monday, April 10, 2006

They’ve all got it in for me

The internet is a public space, almost entirely unregulated. Anyone is free to say anything, on a message board, on a website, on a blog. Up to a point, that’s wonderful. But there is and there can be no quality control. Any twerp can mouth off and many twerps do. There seems to be something about fundamentalism that attracts them.

But don’t take my word for it: have a look at this site.

Webmaster Randy Berg has made it look pretty, and he provides plenty of material, which to anyone unfamiliar with the way creationists set their stall out might begin to seem persuasive. Scientific amateurs like me need to keep touching base with the (so far as I can see) open and trustworthy people at to work out how Berg is trying to bamboozle me. Sometimes it’s fairly obvious: "the fossil record offers very little evidence for evolution", he tells us - er, wasn’t the discovery of fossils a key factor in the devleopment of evolutionary theory in the first place? The usual "arguments from incredulity" abound, with Berg declaring that this or that process "could not possibly have happened", ignoring sane-science explanations of how they did.

But it’s the section on "mass media cover-up" that reveals Berg’s problem: he’s seriously paranoid.

For example, media reporters, writers and producers routinely call what evolution propagandists believe in and call "scientific," while at the same time, ignoring, censoring, and/or editing out almost everything creation scientists have to say -- (that is, if they even bother to ask their opinions) while labeling them and the facts of science (that evolutionist story telling can never overcome) as "religious nonsense."

In fact, it is only because of the mass media's hypocrisy, and/or ignorance of the facts, or and/or lack of courage, and HATRED of God and His Son, Jesus, that evolution is still taught at all in ANY of our public institutions.

So now you know. Evolution is an anti-Christian conspiracy. It’s fooled the Pope, it’s fooled the Archbishop of Canterbury, those two well known haters of God and Jesus. But Randy Berg knows better than them and even persuades himself that half the scientific community is on his side. I think I’d slit my throat if that were true, but my guess is he’s read somewhere that 50% of scientists believe in a creator, which is as different from supporting creationISM as astronomy is from astrology. I’ve challenged him on that detail and will publish his answer if I get one.

Meanwhile it’s Randy Berg against the world. Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me: the line might have been written just for him.

Love the sinner, hate the sin: or, Truth vs Love

A few people know I’m here now, but "Weekend Fisher" was the first person to respond on site. Which felt a bit like something else happening for the first time. Ye-e-s! Affirmation!

I e-mailed him and promised I’d deal with one of his issues. He thinks I tend to demonize, or as I would spell it demonise (he’s American, but someone has to be), fundamentalists. Hm.

My beef is with fundamentalISM, not fundamentalISTS, and within that category the particular variety: YE creationists, who may be lovely people, but lovely people with views I believe to be mistaken, dangerous and unChristian. I hope I’m generally open-minded but this is a sticking point. Defending it is part of my current raison d'être.

Weekend Fisher wasn’t suggesting that I literally demonise creationism, but oddly enough I think that’s just about what I do. I regard its influence on the Church as malign; a source of division, a distraction from our real business. It leads to the devaluing of Scripture, tells us nothing new about Christ - notice how much creationist literature is about challenging evolutionary theory and how little it has to do with Jesus. Does creationism build up the body of Christ? Does it make us more effective disciples? Does it equip us for service to the poor and needy? Does it commend the Gospel? No, no, no, and no. Does it drive intelligent people screaming from the Church saying if that’s Christianity you can stick it? Does it give Christianity’s critics a target so big they can’t miss it? Does it make us a laughing stock? Does it make some of us think: with friends like these who needs enemies? Yes, yes, yes, and YES! Perhaps I should go into deliverance ministry. Spirit of creationism, come out of the Church! In Jesus’ name!

Well, that’s how strongly I feel. Given that, I find it hard, in attacking creationist ideas, not to give offence to those who hold them. Nor do I find anything in scripture that says it’s wrong to give offence; and yet, I find myself duty bound to extend love to my brothers and sisters (fellow Christians); neighbours, AND my enemies. I can’t see that leaves anyone out. Under whichever heading I might put creationists, there is no get out. If I’m trying to correct their ideas I must do so lovingly. On the other hand, I believe myself called to preach the word of God, in and out of season. That’s in my ordination vows. I must be faithful to the truth as I see it. How do I keep the two duties in balance?

Let me put it like this. If a man breaks into my home and attacks my wife, I have some duty of love towards him as an enemy: I must seek his good. But my primary and most urgent duty is towards my wife, on two very obvious grounds - first, she’s the woman I care about more than anyone else in the world, which is why I married her; second, she is a victim here and as such I would still go to her aid even if she were a stranger. I will love my enemy only if and when I have seen my wife out of danger; even then, he must realise that to love him and and let him have what he wants are not the same thing. Loving him must include helping him to restrain his violence and teaching him it will do no good. I am not a violent person (and as a tyical Brit - American visitors please note - do not have a gun nor the least desire to possess one) but in such circumstances I could not rule out grabbing hold of something sharp and/or heavy if that’s what it takes to protect what I must protect.

In ministry terms, my first love must be the Church - the body of Christ - and the essential truth of his Gospel (which is not the same, not even slightly, as the human doctrine of inerrancy). It is through serving the Church that I serve Him; plus, the Church houses me and pays me a salary. We’ve been through a lot together. I am under some obligation, part of which entails seeking to protect the Church from its enemies. In my perception, creationism is then the intruder seeking to harm that which it is my duty to defend, and defend it I will. That done, I will consider my duty of love towards the enemy who has threatened to destroy what I am called to protect. I will try to reason with him, give him chance to repent, try at all times to distinguish between the sinner and the sin; but I’m not going to say that a mistake isn’t a mistake, that heresy is good doctrine, that rubbish theology is the wisdom of God, just for the sake of fellowship and unity.

Creationists are trying to make a fight out of this and the Snake is fighting back, not venomously (I’ve had the operation to remove my poison sacs) but in the name of truth. Does that get the love/truth balance right? Every Christian minister has to struggle with that one.

The hand that made us is divine

90+ minutes' drive from Stokesley but still in North Yorkshire is the village of Cowling, aka paradise. If I live so long I'll retire to a cottage my wife and I have there which is currently let out for holidays. Ten minutes walk from our front door and you could be looking at this. Ickornshaw Beck ("beck" is Yorkshire for "stream"). Picture taken last autumn on a walk where I could (figuratively of course) hear God saying to me: slow down and take this in, lad. Drink in the fine details and marvel at the intricacy of My creation.

Some say God's so wonderful he could have made this lot in a flash. And I say he cares so much he really took his time. "Thy years are glad, and sure, and slow" - from a favourite hymn, words by a woman, interestingly. It seems to be men who need God to do everything in a hurry. The earth's young, the Rapture's due any moment .... may he give us fellers some patience. And help us realise how much of His own is displayed in creation.

Honest lawyers, buxom brunettes* and teetotal Scotsmen

Creationist theology is vulnerable on many flanks.

It requires the grandmother of all conspiracy theories to explain why the vast majority of scholars across a range of academic disciplines tell it to run away and play - geologists, cosmologists, historians, theologians, anthropologists, archaelogists, as well as biologists. They see no need to waste their time refuting nonsense.

It requires a Bible so divinely inspired that errors and contradictions are inconceivable; the fact that many observers can find some glaring ones without much trouble serves only to illustrate, to creationists, the extent of Satan’s stranglehold on contemporary culture. There’s no possibilty of these observers being correct, obviously. If the Bible says that Jesus was crucified on the day of Passover as the Synoptics tell us, despite John 19.31 which makes plain that the event took place on the day before Passover, then this is so. I don’t understand how the same event can happen on two consecutive days, but that only serves to illustrate the extent of Satan’s stranglehold on me. Jesus was crucified twice, a little known Biblical fact.

It fails to distinguish between exegesis - reading a text in order to discover and interpret its meaning - and eisegesis: reading into a text an interpretation which the commentator has already decided it must bear. Creationists are not interested in what the Bible might mean, only in proving that it means what their theories require it to mean. They are not alone in this - I have known liberals plunder the Scriptures trying to find divine sanction for homosexual activity because they know, for other reasons, that God loves gay people. This seems to me quite mistaken. The Bible says little about homosexual practice but that little is hardly favourable and I’d be surprised if it were. The theological case - which I completely endorse, by the way - for recognising and affirming same-sex relationships needs to be built up by other means, similar to those used for affirming womens’ ministry (the New Testament isn’t too struck on that either). I digress. The Bible, even though fallible, deserves respect. It is not there to feed our prejudices, or even our well grounded convictions.

Creationism cannot distinguish different literary genres, finding no problem in treating Genesis as scientifically accurate despite its complete lack of resemblance to any other scientific text you’ve ever seen.

It denies its own history as a recent reactive movement against modernist scholarship in both science and theology, claiming instead to represent "historic Christianity" while the rest of the Church is apostate. So AIG’s theological nonentities presume the right to challenge the credentials of Rowan Williams, by common (non-creationist) consent one of the finest Christian scholars in Britain. This is roughly equivalent to your local Friday night pub singer expostulating "that Barbra Streisand, what’s she know about voice projection?"

It fails to recognise the relative modernity of its own mindset. Creationists are fond of saying "Jesus regarded the Flood as a historical event/spoke of Adam and Eve as real people" as though it’s conceivable he could have done otherwise, given the culture of his day. The modern distinction between "literal" and "imaginative" or "symbolic" would have made no sense to Bible writers or indeed to Jesus, and to insist that they must have organised their thoughts using our categories is plain anachronistic. But then, fundamentalism in general lacks any notion of cognitive development, of the difference in consciousness between the present age and the first century CE. I’ve read accounts of Adam’s first day in Paradise which describe his thought processes in terms any present day American can immediately relate to. I would commend to creationists a few days’ immersion in the thought world of Chaucer, the first great poet to write in recognisably modern English. The ideas he explores in his masterpiece Troilus and Criseyde seem very foreign to us now; yet Chaucer is closer to us than the New Testament is to Chaucer.

One consideration is supremely fatal to creationism: the earth’s "apparent age" at the time of creation. According to Genesis, God created living things in a state of maturity. He did not create seeds which would grow into trees, but trees already grown; not eggs which would hatch into fledglings, but adult birds (so the chicken came first, there’s that one settled). Adam and Eve themselves were created as adults, having had no childhood in which to acquire cognitive and motor skills or learn how to speak. Six days after its creation, the earth would have looked considerably older than that; it would provide evidence of a past history that had never actually occurred. The trees in Eden would have had annual rings. Stars would have been visible in the sky, their light already reaching the earth despite its having had insufficient time to travel the light years’ immensity of space. Creationist scholars have always accepted this but don’t seem to realise just how huge a problem they then face. There is no way of telling how much older the earth looked to Adam on Day 6 than it actually was: decades? centuries? Why can we not say that it looked billions of years older? And if it looked that old, why not say it really IS that old?

Creationism has no easy way to duck the problem of "last Thursdayism", which asks how we can be sure that the earth was not created last Thursday, along with all our memories of experiences that seem to have happened before. But it gets worse, and here’s a fundamental question that I haven’t seen raised elsewhere: if creationists accept, as they do, that the earth will have looked older on the day of its creation than it actually is, why should they expect to find any evidence to prove that it is in fact "young", i.e. ten thousand years old, tops? The logic of "apparent age" suggests to me that if God created a world relatively recently but needed it to look ancient, he will have seen to it that the scientific data point to an old earth rather than a young one. This however defeats the whole creation-science enterprise, which aims to find evidence for a young earth; but if God wanted the earth to look old, there won’t be any!
More on this another time.

*buxom brunettes: in bloke jokes, they are always flat chested, by the same logic that blondes are always well stacked and stupid. Don’t ask me why. So - honest lawyers, teetotal Scotsmen, and creationist theologians, geddit?

Saturday, April 08, 2006

I'm over the moon. Literally? Of course not

Some people don’t seem able to recognise a figure of speech even when it is staring them in the face. That’s a figure of speech, by the way. Combinations of words, such as figures of speech, do not possess eyes.

I contend (see "My starting point", which I encourage all visitors to this blog to read, since it explains its raison d’etre) that Genesis 1 - 11 cannot be read literally, even if one mistakenly supposes it necessary to try. You might think you have read it literally but trust me, you haven’t. All right, don’t trust me: why should you? But do bear with me and I’ll demonstrate.
God said, "Let there be light."

Leave aside the question, which I will address at another time, of how anyone knows what God might or might not have said given that no-one was there taking notes. Leave aside the question of how his utterance actually prompted the eruption of light energy and what form its emission took. If you really can’t see that Genesis, if it were a scientific document, is vague and unhelpful at precisely the point where you would expect it to provide some data, you’re reading the wrong blog. Thanks for dropping by, but I’m talking to earthlings here. Let’s ask ourselves what it might mean for God to speak.

Has he ever spoken to me?

I believe so; and I think the kind of experiences that I’d describe in that way are broadly similar to those of other religious people. For a person to hear God speak means that they are confronted by some imperative, or perhaps some message of reassurance, that transforms their perceptions and alters their behaviour. God, as any preacher will have said many times, uses different media through which to address us: TV, newspapers, other people, books of all kinds, and indeed the Bible. The "voice of conscience" is not to be equated with divine utterance but God may none theless communicate through our social conditioning. Among the "God spoke to me" experiences I would have to list would be a TV screening of "Dr Strangelove", round about 1980. Prior to that, nuclear weapons were to worry about. Thereafter, they were to campaign against, a fact which did much to shape my priorities and commitments for the next decade. Something touched me through that movie, making me aware of human madness and evil as I had never been before, but also firing me to sign up for the protest movement which was growing rapidly in Britain at that time.

But I make no claim for God’s utterance as in any way literal. That’s true for a number of reasons. Nothing happened that I could have saved as a tape recording. I could not tell you whether God has Yorkshire accent or sounded a bit hoarse that day. Now, try to score one over me if you will, tell me that when God speaks to you he sounds like he’s from Halifax, would probably get on all right singing second tenor and tends to drop his voice at the end of a sentence; but this sounds more like psychosis than spirituality to me. You may have been "hearing things" but not in a good way. After all, if God speaks to Belgians, which cannot be ruled out even if they do seem a pretty secular bunch on the whole, a Halifax accent is not going to do much for his intelligiblity. One would assume he speaks to them in either French or Flemish, with no hint of an accent that might make him sound foreign. In other words, we always imagine God as speaking in our own language and in just the way we use it ourselves. Well, he’s ominpotent, so that’s not a problem. What is a problem is the notion that we can describe his speech in the sort of detail we would apply to anyone else’s. I would need to check this, but it seems to me the Bible rarely uses anything other than the simple, unqualified verb to indicate divine utterance. Thus says the Lord is everywhere, but not: thus gabbles the Lord, thus mumbles the Lord, thus yells the Lord, thus insinuates the Lord. Not thus says the Lord, tongue in cheek; thus says the Lord, wistfully, cryptically, defiantly.

Why should this be so? Here is an indicator that the language is indeed figurative. Take the cliché I used at the start of this message. If I said I had a problem to which the answer was staring me in the face, you’d know what I meant. You would not ask: what colour were the answer’s eyes? How long did it stare at you without blinking? Was it wearing glasses? If you did ask such questions, you would betray complete ignorance of what figurative language is. Similarly, if you told me that God spoke to you and I asked if he rolls his r’s, you’d think I was taking the mickey. Figurative usages cannot be qualified or indeed quantified; and so it is with the first recorded words of the Creator.

Let there be light, said God - but how loudly, and at what pitch? Through what medium did the sound waves travel, and what distance before the desired effect was achieved? These are questions which not only cannot be answered but shouldn’t be asked. "God said" is not a literal statement. QED. 3 verses into the Bible and creationism is in dead trouble. Actually, it’s in trouble a verse earlier, but that’s for another time.

Let Ed Babinski finish the argument. Ed is a former creationist who has now moved out of the Christian fold altogether - which is sad, but given the extreme views of the culture in which he was raised it is not surprising that his reaction to it in enlightened adulthood has also been extreme.

"My greatest fear is being stuck in heaven for eternity with a bunch of televangelists." You gotta love the guy.

Ed comes at the issue of divine speech from a comparative religion angle. His conclusion and the rhetorical question which follow it have devastating consequences for creationism’s credibility ...

In which tongue did God dictate Creation? Literalist Hebrew scholars assume that the book of Genesis contains the first recorded syllables of God's speech, "Let there be light!" (in Hebrew). Literalist Moslems insist that Arabic is the language of Allah (God), and therefore it is an insult or worse to translate their holy book, the Koran, into foreign tongues that are not the language of God. While Hindus claim that the Sanskrit syllable, "AUM," encompasses all the vibrations of Creation.

Personally, I do not pretend to know what language God used to call forth Creation. It appears that only angels were listening to God's speech at the time, and I hesitate to declare if these were Hebrew, Islamic, or Hindu angels. Therefore, I find it easiest to assume that creation by the "word" of God is merely a poetic description of how God "called" the cosmos into being. But if the description of God "speaking," and the record of His alleged "words," is poetry, what does that say about how the rest of the story in Genesis should be viewed?

I do not know that the urge to campaign against nuclear weapons that came over me as I watched Strangelove was the voice of God. As will be clear from other postings, when I reckon I know something I damn well say so. This is different. One tests revelatory convictions, as they seem, against the counsel of Christian friends, against the Church’s teaching, against Scripture, against experience and common sense. On those criteria - what with the Church issuing anti-nuclear statements all across the spectrum, friends doing civil disobedience and the small matter of the Beatitudes, it seemed plausible that the divine Spirit had got through to me. But my existential certainty was not empirical or analytical knowledge and I hope I did not confuse the two (that would have been arrogant!). I had to allow for the possibility that God had spoken to other Christians who believed in deterrence, the balance of terror, mutual assured destruction and so forth, mistaken though I believed them to be. Religious experience is like this though. Consuming, transfiguring, passionate, yes: but it does not guarantee accurate information or flawless logic. Too often in religion the claim "God told me this" or "I know because it has been revealed" is an attempt to protect a weak position from the onslaughts of rational critique. If your source of information is divine, that saves any need for consultation, but unfortunately other Christians can "know" the exact opposite of what you also "know". So it’s not knowledge at all, but conviction. Faith, of a kind.

In such a context it’s important to be clear, dogmatic if you will, about what we cannot know, however strongly we may believe it. No-one can know that light came into existence because of some words uttered by God. Besides, the logic of literal and figurative language forms, as I’ve illustrated, forces us to identify ALL "God said" statements as non-literal.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Boss

As they say, dogs have owners, cats have staff. Say hello to Maisie, and don't forget to curtsey

A missing link? Whatever will they say at AIG?

Yesterday's Guardian led with a story about the discovery of a new fossilsed transitional form between fish and land animals. I could practically write the debunk on AIG [Answersingenesis] myself. (I have this incredible site - that's incredible as in, you can't believe a word of it - saved as one of my internet favourites. I'm sure its owners would be pleased; however I have renamed it Codswallop in Genesis.) It is a creationist article of faith that there are no transitional forms, cos that would imply evolution happening, oh horrors. So this allegedly transitional form will turn out to be something else.

Let me guess: AIG will attack the personal credentials of the scientists who discovered this creature. They will claim that it's a distinct species, although they might need to be a bit careful they don't identify it as an actual "kind", because that might mean it would have qualified for a place on the Ark, which has been calculated to have just enough space for the kinds we already know about. It follows there can't be any more to discover. They will point to the Guardian story as further evidence of the liberal conspiracy to discredit Biblical science and quite possibly attach some significance to the timing of the announcement, just before Holy Week. It's bad enough having to fend off a flaky Gospel of Judas and all the publicity about the Da Vinci Code film without these damned evolutionists prating on about transitional forms. Yes indeedy, Satan is tightening his grip on our culture. Roll on the rapture. I can guarantee that AIG will not accept this discovery as genuine.

OK, let's see how long they take to come up with an answer. Watch this space.

They mean it. They really mean it. And here's me with my high blood pressure ...

Some thoughts about arrogance

Creationists know they're right. So do I. The difference is I can prove it. Trouble is they think they can too. And we'll never agree what constitutes "proof".

People who know they're right and express themselves forcefully, especially in the face of wilful ignorance, may be perceived as "arrogant". I've decided that's a risk I'll have to take, for two reasons. First, I have evidence - it will be featuring on the blog - that creationists take no notice whatever of measured argument. Calling them names is more likely to force some sort of response, and typically they will show themselves up while making it. Second, anyone who challenges a creationist article of faith is liable to get called arrogant no matter how conciliatory their tone. Might as well resign oneself to the inevitable.

I might tell you that Stephen Sondheim is a greater artist than Andrew Lloyd Webber in the way that Switzerland is more mountainous than Holland. While this may strike you as mere opinion, it is the opinion of one with quite impeccable taste and aesthetic discernment, so any disagreement on your part can be discounted. Hearing that, you would call me arrogant, and you'd be right (although so would I, to express the judgement ...)

But then, I might simply tell you that Switzerland is more moutainous than Holland; and to call me arrogant then would be - tell me where you've heard this phrase recently - a category mistake. (You remember - the Archbishop of Canterbury thus described creationism). I would not be making any sort of value judgement as to the superiority of otherwise of a particular kind of territory. I'd be giving you a fact. Holland is flat. Switzerland isn't. Get over it. That might be petulant - but arrogant? Arrogance confuses opinion with fact, and there is no confusion here.

Young earth creationism is a mistake, and that's a fact too. Entire scientific disciplines - not just biology - presume a universe billions, not thousands of years old. Huge bodies of scholarship would become worthless on a creationist premise. Yet there is no controversy within those disciplines, no spread of opinion within the scientific community. Only among creationists, with an acknowledged theological rather than scientific agenda does it appear there might be an alternative paradigm. And until I have identified and made contact with an exception to the rule, I shall continue to maintain that ALL creationists are religious fundamentalists first and scientists second.

I don't think that's arrogant. I think this is: a bumper sticker which declares

Darwin's dead; Jesus isn't. Darwin's a Creationist now!

Words fail me for the moment. I may think of a suitable riposte later.

A feathering of snow in late March over Bilsdale, a few miles south of Stokesley

I’m not literally a talking snake

... but you knew that. You know that snakes can’t talk. They have neither the anatomy for producing speech, nor the mental capacity to engage in dialogue. It would also be unusual for a legless reptile to become a Methodist minister, though we may have had among us one or two snakes in the grass.

The compilers of Genesis also knew that snakes can’t talk; and they knew that those reading, or listening to, the story of Adam and Eve would also know.

But they tell us of a snake that could talk. So what’s going on?

Typical fundamentalist answer: if the Bible says this particular snake could talk, it could.

Fine ... so how come it knew Hebrew? And please do not interject that we don’t know that at this early stage in human history, pre-Flood, pre-Babel, Hebrew was the language of Adam and Eve. Scripture records them speaking this tongue, by which we therefore can be certain that Hebrew was indeed the original language of humanity. We have a verbatim report of their conversation, although probably summarised.

There are only two possible answers to my question: either the snake already knew Hebrew because God granted it the capability (this has been suggested to me by a creationist correspondent) or - which in view of its character I regard as more probable - it learned the language by eavesdropping on Adam and Eve’s conversation, painstakingly mastering the grammatical constructions it would need to carry out its cunning plan of temptation.

Either way, the character of God is called into question. If, as seems to be the case, mankind’s fall into sin was brought about through Eve’s succumbing to reptilian temptation, it seems most remiss of Him to provide the snake with an unusual capacity for speech. If the snake was surreptitiously learning Hebrew, one would have expected God to know about this and at the very least to give Eve some kind of tip-off; if it knew Hebrew all along, one must ask if God, knowing - as He must - all about the serpent’s devious nature did not actually intend that the forbidden fruit should be eaten. Which would vindicate the premise of this blog: that the snake was instrumental in Adam’s and Eve’s becoming truly human. Part of the divine plan.

What calls this interpretation into question, of course, is that God later rebukes the snake and, it would seem, punishes the creature by depriving it of the legs which it had formerly possessed. This is a natural reading of Genesis 3:14, which also condemns the snake to eat dust all the days of its life. The snake must have quickly found ways to circumvent this curse however, since dust rarely contains sufficient nutrients to sustain life. Seriously - for a moment - the storyteller clearly does not mean us to approve of the snake’s actions; yet it is difficult to see how without them there would be any human story to tell, and how God himself can shrug off all blame for the way in which the animal behaved.

Creationists are not stupid. I will rephrase that. Not all creationists are completely stupid; in the case of the educated variety, their stupidity is selective. They can see that the logic of my entirely legitimate interpretation causes problems, and which they attempt to as it were wriggle out of (sorry!) by identifying the snake as Satan. Not a real creature at all, but a malign spirit masquerading as another creature in the garden. One might question its choice of disguise - a nice licky Border collie would surely have melted Eve’s heart in a moment, far sooner than anything cold-blooded and potentially poisonous, legless or otherwise - but people say there is no arguing with success*: the ploy worked and Eve was duly suckered.

This solves one problem: the mastery of Hebrew would not have caused any difficulties for an intelligent spirit. But it creates two others. Firstly, fundamentalism insists on a literal reading of the text, which plainly does NOT identify the snake as, well, anything other than a snake. Later commentators have read that interpretation into the text, but the moment fundamentalism allows the symbolic imagination so much as a foot in its door, the game is up. Whatever next - the "tree of knowledge of good and evil" is allegorical? The "days" of creation might have been a bit longer than 24 hours? No, no. Literal is literal. A snake is a snake.

Secondly, the unimpeded, un-monitored presence of Satan - if it was he - in the garden raises again the question: why did God allow it? Did he not know what the old devil was up to? Did he not brief Adam and Eve to watch out for his trickery? On any literal reading of Genesis 3 God has a good deal to answer for and no obvious defence beyond his being God. And it won’t do to reply "God can do whatever he wants"; if he is to be just in all his ways, that would seem to rule out many options that must be regarded as unjust on any reasonable definition.

So let’s re-wind. Genesis 3 tells us of a snake that could talk; we know that snakes can’t. So, a sensible conclusion? Aha! We are being told a story here. This didn’t actually happen. Truth and meaning are being conveyed to us through the medium of imaginative fiction. Let’s understand the kind of writing Genesis actually is and then interpret it as best we can.

More, much more of this, later. I have a service to prepare for now.

* "You can't argue with success" indeed. This is a ridiculous statement, which equates popularity with quality. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a far more successful show composer than Stephen Sondheim, some of whose shows have bombed on Broadway. Which of them is the genius? I rest my case

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Someone's having a laugh - I think ...
I first came across the theory of Intelligent Falling on a bulletin board, shorn of any attribution. For anyone who hasn't read the article that started the mischief, it's here.

I assume you weren't fooled, once you saw the context. The Onion wasn't even trying to pass it off as anything other than satire. But others have been suckered. One guy fulminated "look at the crazy stuff these fundamentalists are coming out with now! They believe it! You couldn't make it up!" Sorry, but someone did; and the clues aren't too subtle. The spokesman for the theory is identified as one "Gabriel Burdett, with degrees in education, applied Scripture and physics from the Oral Roberts University?" Or what about "there are many phenomena that cannot be explained by secular gravity alone, including such mysteries as how angels fly, how Jesus ascended into heaven, and how Satan fell when cast out of Paradise"?

The Onion was itself pinching, sorry developing, an idea that had appeared in a cartoon strip earlier in the year - see above. Meanwhile, the "intelligent falling" idea became an internet in-joke, with some re-workings so ingenious and poker-faced you almost wonder if it's being taken seriously. It merits an entry in Wikipedia. One Joshua Rosenau almost persuaded me he didn't have tongue in cheek when he wrote "I believe that angels push the planets around, and control the falling of objects toward one another. If this is true, there's no reason to teach our children the unBiblical falsehood that the earth moves around the sun. If the Pusher wanted the sun to move, there's no reason that it couldn't. " It was only his profile that reassured me: "progressive politics, neat biology, and whackings of whackos". Phew, so he's sane after all; but do check out the link above. The site is too big, too laboured, too badly designed, to be merely ironic. It's in absolute earnest, and quite barking: the pitch is that Copernicus got it wrong. The universe really does revolve round us. Time for the medication, fellers.

I'm heartened that so many appreciated "Intelligent Falling" as a clever piss-take. It's hard to imagine a similar attempt from the creationist side making a fraction of the impact; but that's saying something about the social uses of humour, which is typically targeted by the dominant culture against minorities - the supposedly stupid Irish, effeminate homosexuals, tight-fisted, whisky-slugging Scots. It's how in-crowds draw boundaries between themselves and threateningly different outsiders. But it's worrying that the target is thought big and possibly dangerous enough to be worth attacking. If satirists are treating creationism as fair game that means two things; first that their audience will know enough about it to get the joke - and second that it's a force to be reckoned with. That needs to change.

The river Leven at Stokesley in autumn

OK, I chose my name, set up the blog.

Then I googled on "talking snake" and straightaway found

which might have made me choose another one. Then again, it might not. Sorry, I just lurve Landover Baptist. I know, I know, they are very naughty and I suspect not on the side of the angels. But they make me laugh and their satire (as here) is often very well targeted. Look, if you don't have a reasonably broad mind don't follow the link, and if you do, don't say I didn't warn you. This is the snake trying NOT to lead you into temptation.

My starting point

I've created this blog initially as the record of a project. I am exploring a thesis about "young earth" creationism with the hope of writing a book about it. Any comments welcome. I may quote you - spread the word!

This summarises how far I've got. There's a ton of background material behind this, which I will be posting in weeks to come. But for starters:

"The Creationist Heresy" - outline of a book

I don't know how the universe began, assuming that it had a beginning. I wasn't there. Mainstream scientists reckon there was a big bang, around fifteen billion years ago, an explosion of energy from an infinitesimally small point of singularity, from which not only all matter burst into existence but the very dimensions of space and time were generated. They could be right, or a more sophisticated theory might take its place in the future. What triggered the Big Bang is a moot point, but the idea that there was one stands to reason in the light of the discovery that the universe is expanding.

Likewise, it seems reasonable enough that complex life-forms have gradually evolved from simpler ones, as evolutionary scientists seek to demonstrate. I am not competent to judge the detailed arguments, or any objections to the Darwinian theory, but I do know this: the world was not created a mere ten thousand or so years ago in six days. Life on earth did not begin before the sun was made. The first human beings were not created as mature adults, instantly able to reason and use language; nor did they sacrifice their immortality by disobeying a divine command at the instigation of a talking snake. They were mortal all along, and they had parents, as all creatures do, these being by definition not quite human - but getting there. I do not express an opinion here. Assuming that we live in an intelligible universe, I am stating what has to be the case.

I write as a Christian, well aware that many others who also profess to hold Christian beliefs would see it differently. They believe that one can and must read the opening chapters of Genesis as literal history and accurate science. They are however wrong, as I can demonstrate, and the starkness of my language is deliberate. This is not a question to which there is more than one side. Between "young earth" creationists and those who understand what sort of literature Genesis actually is there is nothing to discuss. The matter has been settled for some time; those who can't see it are flogging a dead horse. It is not a question of whether creationism could have any validity as science. While I suspect this and will give grounds for my suspicions – such as the vast body of scholarship, geological and cosmological as well as relating to evolutionary theory, which assumes and builds on an “old universe” model - I do not claim to be an expert. What I am competent to say is that as theology it is worse than worthless - harmful, in fact, although frequently if unintentionally hilarious.

My case is not so much that evolutionary theory must be true as that a literal reading of Genesis is not even possible, never mind necessary: making the attempt leads to farcical conclusions. It will not take me long to show this. 1 will then proceed to explore the mindset of the many professed Christians who will not accept any statement that seems at odds with the text of Scripture; they "know they're right" in advance of whatever may be said to them. Creationists are deaf to all criticism and continue to trot out arguments long after they have been discredited, to quote "authorities" to whom only they defer. There is no reasoning with them; theirs is not a reasonable position. Many however are intelligent and in other respects educated people. The interesting question then is what draws them to embrace a point of view which others can recognise as extreme and absurd. I have theories about this which I hope to develop with insights from anthropology and behavioural science.

I shall try to distinguish between people who may have many admirable qualities but happen to hold creationist views, and those views as such. These I shall argue, more contentiously perhaps, are heretical on various counts. Creationism takes a second order issue and tries to make it central. It is divisive. It is manifestly an ideological viewpoint, associated with a "Moral Majority" type agenda rather than with dispassionate scholarship. It brings the Church into disrepute, offering a soft target to its enemies. It distracts from the real work of the Kingdom. It brings no glory to God. It explains nothing - it's a very dull, unilluminating doctrine in practice. Most importantly, it's false.

I do not want to deny that creationists are Christians, even though they are fond of excommunicating their opponents, because there is much more to a person's Christianity or lack of it than the doctrines to which he or she gives intellectual assent. However, to the extent that they affirm creationism they have become something other and less than Christian. They are a threat and an embarrassment to the Church, which has already begun to distance itself from them. I write in hopes of seeing that process gather momentum.

There are limits to what can be tolerated under the heading of "Christian" belief. Last century we came to understand that racism and Christianity are incompatible. We must now recognise that creationism and Christianity, similarly, don't mix. Interestingly, creationists already recognise this in their frequently expressed view that anyone who refuses to interpret the early chapters of Genesis literally cannot be one of the faithful. That is true; their mistake is identifying their own beliefs as Christian. The boot is on the other foot. Literalism, in this context at least, is the real heresy.