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, May 26, 2006

Inerrancy problems

There were no human witnesses to events of days 1 - 5 of Genesis 1’s Creation Week. Same goes for all creation myths of course, but it only becomes problematic if you try to anchor your philosophy on the literal truth of these narratives.

So how do we know, for example, that God created his firmament on Day 2 but left the separation of water from land until Day 3, leaving him plenty to do as he then had to create all the plants and decide where to put them? Might it not have been more sensible to separate the land from the water on Day 2, giving it time to dry out overnight? How do we know that other couples were not created to enjoy life in Eden as well as Adam and Eve, which would be a natural enough reading of Genesis 1.27 taken in isolation from ch. 2? (It also sidesteps the perennially recurring question of who Cain’s wife was - typical creationist answer: one of his sisters, dummy. You have a problem with that?)

The answer of course is that God knew what he did when, and dictated a summary to the writer of Genesis, whom creationists identify as Moses. For creationism to work, it’s essential that Moses’ audio-scribing skills were infallible, although can be no check, in the nature of the case. The transmission must be totally reliable. We must know the Bible is a book we can trust in every respect; on history, geography, biology, physics, the lot.

Any internal contradiction or factual error that can be shown to exist in the Bible skittles this. To a fundamentalist, the Bible can no more be slightly fallible than a man can be slightly dead, or a balloon slightly pricked. Fundamentalism is an all-or-nothing, high-anxiety world view and unsurprisingly the apologetic struggle between fundamentalists and their critics to prove or disprove inerrancy is intense. It only takes one prick to pop the balloon.

An enormous database of alleged Biblical errors is maintained here and continues to grow as readers identify new ones. It must be said that many of these are trivial and could indeed result from copying errors, which does not violate the dogma of inerrancy in the original manuscripts. The unavailability of any original manuscripts might be seen as an escape hatch for the fundies, but they are welcome to it: they’re in plenty of trouble as it is. Many contradictions remain which are far from trivial and cannot be waved away as textual glitches. Fundies have their work trying to reoncile them but note the assumption: an apparent error cannot actually be one. They know without having to look that the Bible is inerrant; the task is to dispel any contrary impression.

The "Skeptics' Annotated Bible" (link above) also collects verses which display God’s fondness for slaughter, prompting the question: do we want this book to be held up as holy from cover to cover? I much prefer to think that the ancient Hebrews were a bloodthirsty lot, in common with other nations, and projected their militaristic ambitions onto the God they believed would fight for them. Christians and Jews alike should want to distance themselves from such a primitive deity; it’s when Christian fundamentalists on the one hand or Zionists on the other revere him that we get trouble.

So far as I’m concerned, John 19.14 & 31 make it clear that Jesus was crucified one day BEFORE the Feast of the Passover, in contradiction of the Synoptics according to all of whom he met his death ON the feast day. But I’ve used this one before, so let’s look at something else: the problem of "big numbers". This one interests me because it played its part in breaking down the nineteenth century literalist consensus. John Colenso, later to become bishop of Natal and something of a folk hero in South Africa, started out as a mathematician and was troubled to discover that some of the sums in the Pentateuch don’t add up. These books are inaccurate, he concluded, and can’t be literally true. Colenso’s rebellious thinking (he also challenged the doctrine of everlasting punishment, and refused to insist that polygamous men converted to Christianity should renounce all but one of their wives, since this would be to condemn the others to destitution) gave the Anglican communion a headache. The bishop of Capetown tried to excommunicate Colenso, but he carried on his pastoral work regardless. The first ever Lambeth Conference was convened in 1867 to resolve the issues he had raised. The hymn "The Church’s One Foundation" was written at the time in defiance of what was thought to be his apostasy.

Colenso had calculated that if 600,000 able-bodied men and their families had escaped from Pharaoh (Exodus 12. 37), it would have involved the movement of 2,000,000 people at dead of night. There would also have been the sick, the infirm and more than 200 mothers in the throes of childbirth. That would be comparable to the total evacuation of a city the size of Philadelphia. Not even the most disciplined army in the world today could achieve anything like that.

He also noted that if the part about the slaughter of passover lambs was taken literally, 1250 animals would have had to be killed every 60 seconds and each priest would have had to sprinkle the fresh blood of 333 lambs per minute for two hours. The task would have been impossible.

More recently David Fouts, a theology professor in Tennessee, has published a paper defending what he calls a "hyperbolic interpretation" of such number problems as these:

Judges 12:6 states that for mispronouncing "Shibboleth" 42,000 Ephraimites were slain at the river Jordan, a number that exceeds the census total for that tribe in either Numbers 1 (40,500) or Numbers 26 (32,500). Even allowing for an increase of the Ephraimite warrior population after the conquest does not alleviate the problem of the enormity of the number of those slain.

1 Kings 20:30 asserts that after Israel had killed 100,000 Syrian foot soldiers at a nearby battle, 27,000 more  into the city of Aphek where a wall fell on them, apparently killing them as well. One would think that this wall or its remains would be somewhat comparable to the Great Wall of China to be so calamitous in its collapse and that it would have been at least partially unearthed by now. If there is some other signicance to the large numbers, however, the size of the wall may not matter.

One of the most perplexing problems involving large numbers is the different numbers in the 2 Samuel 24 (1.3 million) and 1 Chronicles 21 (1.57 million) accounts of the census ordered by David. Like the censuses of the book of Numbers, the totals are entirely too large.

Fouts’ worries are fuelled by conservative attitudes to scripture; he’s a supernaturalist and doesn’t like Colenso’s "mocking attitude". But he is a thorough and honest scholar too, that’s to say I can live with his conclusions though I doubt a fundamentalist could:

Scripture is similar to other annalistic inscriptional literature in that the historical narratives of the OT often employ figurative language in the near environment of the large numbers, a fact that may support the thesis that the large numbers themselves are hyperbolic. It appears that all enumerated preexilic censuses in the OT may employ hyperbolic numbers.....

The large numbers have often been a stumbling block for accepting the Biblical accounts as legitimate records of history. If the numbers are simply reflective of a rhetorical device common in ancient Near Eastern literature, however, one may no longer question the integrity of the record by use of this argument. The large numbers are often simply figures of speech employed to magnify King Yahweh, King David, or others in a theologically based historiographical narrative.

All I wish to do is press home a point of logic, granted that Fouts is correct. The use of hyperbolic numbers is a literary device, whose effect is to overlay the facts of history, which we cannot now retrieve. In other words, in the kinds of passage Fouts has examined, the Bible does not tell the literal truth even though the presence of statistics may convey the appearance of matter-of-fact prose. Something else is going on in the chronicling.

At this point we have abandoned the view of Scripture as directly dictated by God, substituting for it a naturalistic explanation for the nature of the text. It’s the way it is because human writers, consciously or instinctively, have decided to embroider the plain facts in a manner not intended to deceive but to convey theological rather than factual truth. It’s called creativity, which doesn’t preclude inspiration, indeed may be seen as dependent on it: but it does preclude inerrancy in the usual bone-headed fundamentalist sense. The way is paved for seeing other passages of scripture, for example the opening chapters of Genesis as a kind of writing other than objective chronicle; as imaginative literature. Once that point is conceded, I’m home and dry. Which means creationists won’t concede it, of course, I’m not that daft.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Someone round here is deluded, and it isn't me

I’ve been looking through some e-mail correspondence with creationists, undertaken before I realised how quite how impervious they are to rational argument. I can't say I wasn't warned, you'll get nowhere with these guys, they said; and they were right, but I've had to learn for myself. The term "psychotic" - detached from reality, unable to recognise its own delusions, liable to project its own weaknesses onto those who criticise it (typically: "evolutionists have an agenda, creationists seek only the objective truth") without seeing the irony - has proved useful in trying to understand them. One correspondent provides a couple of excellent examples of the syndrome.

Neo-Darwinism is all you have left but it stands before a precipice and many of us believe that the scientific community will have to face up to the truth about evolution within about 15 years.

Yeah, right. So Darwinian theory is that close to collapse ... and when it does, science will embrace a theory that says 6,000 years ago, roughly, a geocentric universe was formed, without form and void, its principal component being water. Dimensions not given. Source of energy to prevent said water freezing also not given. A firmament, or dome-like expanse, of unspecified construction was then made to "separate waters from waters". Tricky, given the spherical nature of the earth but maybe it was flat back then. No sooner had other waters then been separated from land, than, despite the resulting climatic chaos, plants were found growing everywhere, in soil which normally takes centuries to form, limestone made from the shells of dead molluscs although no living ones had yet been created, but hey. Then, a sun was created, around which presumably the earth is now in orbit, although what it was in orbit around prior to this is not clear. Ooh, and some stars. Tiddly little things aren’t they, and you could see them all at once, even the ones thousands of light years away.

Yes, I can just see that happening. Scientists are such intelligent people, they only need to have their Darwinian blinkers taken off and they’ll see the truth. Roll over Daniel Dennett. I shall ask the scientists of my acquaintance how likely they think it is. Including the lovely Christian lady I had dinner with recently, who teaches biology and had absolutely no idea that evolution ought to be a problem for her, was staggered when I started quoting Henry Morris, didn’t know people still thought like that - I bet she’ll be surprised.

Fifteen years and Darwin will be done for, he reckons. Let’s hope creationism’s dead and buried long before that. I know which grave I'd prefer to dance on; not that Darwinism has to be true; my pitch is that creationism cannot possibly be, because truth makes sense and the Bible isn't stupid. Mind you, the Rapture could happen before either of them keels over. Should have happened in ’88 but someone forgot to tell God (Remember Eighty Eight Reasons Why Jesus will come in 1988, a best seller in America?)

And from the same correspondent, this little gem, in reply to my challenge about Rowan Williams’ "category mistake" comment

I would hardly expect a biblical opinion to come from the liberal wing of Anglicanism (Episcopalianism) which Dr Williams clearly represents! But if the Dr had to face Jesus tomorrow, would he seriously tell him to His face that Creationism should not be seen as an "alternative theory to evolution"? (Because, that is, biblical creation is merely an allegory whereas evolution is "good science" - which is presumably what Dr Williams meant – that is, if the quote is accurate [it's near enough - Snake]). I do not think that the archbishop would dare make such a comment in such company.

My correspondent doesn’t know what an allegory is and no contemporary interpreter of Genesis uses the tool, to my knowledge. It got shoved in the back of a drawer and forgotten back in the Middle Ages. But that little error pales into insignificance beside the quite breathtaking chutzpah of the rest. First, Rowan Williams is a "liberal" - not a terribly accurate designation - and THEREFORE cannot be expected to venture a Biblical opinion. The weight of prejudice behind that would sink the QE2. So "liberal" scholarship is never Biblical other than by accident?

Second, it is assumed that, face to face with Jesus, Rowan Williams would shrivel into a corner, pleading for mercy and repenting of his error; that there is no defensible case, that evolution will be revealed on that last day as heresy - oh please! Why should Dr Williams not dare to state the facts of the matter? Let me speak for myself, I’ll face Jesus and tell him how I combated the creationist menace in His name and hope that compensates in His eyes for some of the other things I really should be ashamed of, but I am in danger of slipping into point-scoring now. What disgusts me is the suggestion - frequently encountered in creationist literature - that "sceptics" (we're all lumped together in the creationist's mind) don't mean what they say, they lack integrity, it's some kind of trendy pose. What Williams says publicly he doesn't truly believe, and couldn't possibly say to Jesus. Knowing just a little bit about Rowan through the friend of a friend, I'd say this: if Rowan Williams doesn't have integrity, nor does anyone else on the face of this planet.

Had my correspondent been interested in rational debate, rather than casting aspersions at one whose briefcase he is unworthy to carry - and I do not claim to be any worthier - he might have attempted to analyse the concept of a category mistake. This would have entailed refuting the view that it is inappropriate to put scientific documents alongside the book of Genesis as though they are any more comparable than Jane Austen and the local bus timetable - both valuable in their way, but useless in the one case for telling me when I can next get a bus to Middlesbrough and in the other for providing satire on early nineteenth century bourgeois society. That’s what a category error looks like. Williams, as fine a Biblical scholar and theologian as Britain has produced in a generation, knows this. My correspondent either does not or has no interest in discussing the matter; yet he presumes to know how Christ will judge Rowan Williams.

Finally, I am accused of nursing "hatred" in my heart, and I need to reflect on this because I am obviously very angry, with which I deal by indulging my sarcasm: but by whom, or by what am I so incensed? And is anger the same as hatred?

I hate stupidity, especially when it is paraded as truth and presented in the name of Christ. I hate it because it makes God look stupid and weakens the Church’s witness. I get angry when intelligent people - my correspondent is one such, I try not to waste my time targeting the obvious morons out there - are wilfully stupid and won’t listen to reason. Sometimes that spills over into anger at them, but this is wrong and I try to rein back. The "psychosis" insight helps here - you don’t get mad at psychotics because they can’t recognise their own delusions. There may be nothing you can do to help them, until they admit they need help. But sometimes they can be a danger to others, and those others need to be protected, as I seek to protect God’s people from creationism - yes, yes, I’m angry all right. But do I hate creationists, as opposed to their ludicrous ideas? May God forgive me if I do. I feel desperately sorry for them. I long for their deliverance.

Come, let us reason together, says the Lord. When that starts happening we may see some progress. But only on the basis that one of us round here needs help, and I’m not the one who’s psychotic. I can offer a process through which the matter could be settled once and for all if anyone’s interested, but I’m not holding my breath. There’s too much at stake for creationists: they can’t possibly be wrong. There were dinosaurs on the ark. Crocodiles were created vegetarians. The earth was made first then the sun, 6,000 years ago, ish. If you can’t see it, you can’t see it.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Happy Birthday dear Noah

... and happy birthday to me. Spent some of it with my son, whom I begat 25 years ago; not like Noah, who waited half a millenium before he got round to any begetting, so far as the Bible can tell us. He would appear to have started building the Ark early in his sixth century and completed it round about his 600th birthday.

One might wonder why the Lord did not entrust this gigantic construction job to a younger man, or even to Noah earlier in his life; though Noah was to live another three and half centuries after the Flood, so he clearly had a strong constitution and might be considered still in his prime.

Noah is one of several characters in Genesis who survived into their 900’s. Methusaleh (969 years old when he died) was famously the oldest of all, followed by Jared (962), Noah (950), Seth (912), Kenan (910) and Enosh (905) the latter not to be confused with Enoch, who did not die at all but was taken into heaven at the tender age of 365.

The precision of these numbers suggests that some kind of chronological scheme is in the writer’s mind, although scholarly enquiry as to its nature remains speculative. Other Middle Eastern cultures indulged in similar flights of fancy about ancestral figures, some of whom are said to have lived for tens of thousands of years. Common to such legends and the Genesis accounts is the idea that "these human beings of the unimaginably remote past were of a quite different order of vitality and durability from the puny men and women of the present age" (Oxford Bible Commentary). None of which will impress a fundamentalist, for whom the figures are accurate, revealed and beyond dispute. If the Bible says that Noah was 600 when he finished the Ark ...

In fundamentalist eyes, I’m a lousy uniformitarian. Few men today live beyond 100, by which time even they are physically clapped out, with no prospect of entering or re-entering the begetting stakes. So, I assume, it must have always been in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, and the Bible does not provide evidence in that way. But fundamentalists denounce this as faithless; since the Bible reveals God’s truth to us, it follows that men did indeed live for centuries, but without losing their vigour. Noah could build the Ark having passed his 500th birthday because he still had the strength of a thirty-year old. It just goes to show how catastrophic the Fall was that we age so quickly now.

There will be no meeting of minds on this issue; you either realise the fundamentalist position is daft or you don’t. I would merely ask this question of those who maintain that Noah did live to be 950; while I accept that the Bible may see long years as a blessing, would you really want as many of them as that? Would you not get bored out of your skull? Would not the years, the decades, whole centuries, get mixed up in your memory, out of which whole tracts of time would fall into the void? Would your brain not accumulate more information than it could possibly process and start to crash?

Here once again, literalism stands in the way of sensible interpretation. The passages about ancient, incredibly long-lived patriarchs, may have some message for us along the lines of: years ago, men were close to God and he rewarded them with his gracious gift of longevity, whereas today people are fickle, rebellious, remote from God and don’t live for more than a fraction of the time. It’s nostalgic and hardly profound but it’s not absurd. Taking the figures literally makes it so: we might not want to die particularly, but living to be nine hundred? Call that a blessing? More like a punishment. If this is a miracle it’s one we desperately want not to be true.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Have human beings evolved from creationists?

I’m in danger of losing it here. The reason: I have downloaded a file called "Genesis Unplugged" from the Creation Research website and I just don’t, I can’t, they’re not, I’m sorry I need a stiff drink.

It’s a series of questions based on a video which one is supposed to have watched first, but it’s not hard to get the gist. Here are some of the - scarcely believable - questions posed by Creation Research, followed by my answers, which needless to say are not the ones they are looking for.

What books did Moses write?

None. That’s what Biblical scholars say. In effect it’s what Creation Research believes. It thinks God wrote the Bible and any human "authors" were mere amanuenses, incapable of thinking for themselves, making any creative or editorial decisions, or - of course - any errors. They qualify their concept of "authorship" so much it ceases to mean anything.

Did Moses write anything about evolution?

About as much as he wrote on differential calculus and for the same reason.

Does the 7 day week come from:
(a) Politics? (b) Astronomy? (c) Religion?

The moon takes 28 days to orbit the earth. Divide it into 4 and you’ve got a 7-day week. It’s convenient, we've developed rhythms around it. There is nothing "sacred" that says we have to divide our time into weeks of any specific length. Please.

Could the 6 days of Creation be any length of time, or were they six ordinary days such as you and I know them?

The writer of Genesis understands them as ordinary days. But the story is a legend so the matter is of little importance.

If the police force can be persuaded to work a 10 day week, followed by 4 days off, what do you predict their attitude would eventually be to:
(a) Abortion? (b) Euthanasia? (c) Infanticide?

No, they are serious. Trust me, they mean it.

What is God's attitude to capital punishment?

They want you to say "in favour" on the basis of Genesis 9 vs 6, as though attitudes have to be stuck in a 4000 year old culture. How DARE they presume to pronounce on the mind of God on the basis of one text? Do they actually understand what blasphemy is?

Does the Bible teach that there should be legal penalties for performing an abortion?

And suppose it does? Why are they so obsessed with this issue? Theologians understand that the Bible is one resource among several on the basis of which we make Christian judgements. Human reason is another one, which creationists themselves try to use continually, only they have not been taught how and I doubt anyone could put that right, they would have to start too far back. I am unhappy about abortion on demand - in effect the situation in the UK - but that is very different from wanting to penalise all women irrespective of circumstances.

Do fisherman have the right to remove seals from their fishing grounds?

Oh come on, it’s obvious. Look up Genesis 1: 27-8, which - er - makes no mention of the issue. It had never occurred to me that Genesis might be relevant to this question (there could be a reason for this oversight on my part, don’t you think) or that, if it be considered relevant, that all people reading it will apply it in the same way.

The USA was built on the belief that "All men were created with certain inalienable rights". Can a democracy function, if evolution is taught as a fact in the educational institutions?

No, no, please, I’ll confess! The question should be: can a democracy function if creationists are regarded as sane people. Go on, download Genesis Unplugged for yourselves. Prima facie evidence that my current description of them as psychotic is too mild by a factor of umpteen. These people are BARKING! Ooww-ooww!!!

How does evolution undermine God's definition of sin?

You don’t have God’s definition, for one thing; you have a number of human definitions. Blasphemy again. Secondly, evolution undermines nothing but stupidity. I was brought up with a powerful sense of sin; also to believe that "God made the world, Darwin showed us His methods" - theistic evolution in other words, the only sane position for Christians to hold, as thankfully the majority in Britan do. From somewhere deep in childhood, the influence perhaps of two devout Christian parents, I have acquired a deep respect for truth, no matter what its source, and for clear thinking no matter where it leads: I regard these as at least Gospel-compatible if not Christian principles. And it partly explains my fury at creationism, which respects nothing but its own idolatrous and insane take on the Bible.

What reason does Paul give for male leadership in the church? Is his reason based on culture?
Is it the slightest use my saying that Pauline authorship of the Pastorals is debatable? Thought not, though maybe it’s beside the point. Answer to the first question: a very silly and very sexist one so yes, quite obviously it’s based on patriarchal culture. You mean there are people who don’t realise this?

Would you accept Paul's reasoning if you believed in evolution?

What the blazes has evolution got to do with church order? They’re coming to take me away, ha ha, they’re coming to take me away. Oh, sorry. I think the question means: would I be a male chauvinist if it wasn’t for Darwin? No, actually. Feminism pre-dates Darwin by a generation at least.

According to the Theory of evolution, should man or woman be the head of the house?

I read this question aloud to my wife. Words failed us both. Let me try to find some: er, there are people who still regard "headship of the house" as a meaningful concept? There are people who having the concept feel that gender rather than competence, aptitude or circumstances is relevant to it? and who feel that the social mores of one particular Middle Eastern society fix for all time the way in which all communities must function? There are people who feel that any of this is even slightly connected with Darwin? Come back to us when you’ve had some proper education, will you. I have no idea who is the head of most of the households I visit and would not dream of asking.

Is ‘falling in love’ the Bible's basis for marriage (Matthew 19:4-7)?

Bang head on brick for ten minutes, it’s so nice when it stops. No it isn’t. The concept of "falling in love" did not exist in Bible times and there have been some interesting debates in educated circles about when it actually emerged: the early medieval period perhaps? C S Lewis’ "The Allegory of Love" was a key text at one time. My sense is that - partly due to our "no deferred gratification" culture, which I deplore as much as any creationist only I know better than to blame it on Darwin - the construct of "falling in love" is on the wane again. But this is by the by. The question is silly and deserves a far sillier answer than I have given it here.

According to one science magazine, modern married couples divorce after about 3 years because that's the longest time two gorillas can tolerate each other. What assumption about the history of life are they making?

Oh come on, that’s too easy a shot. What assumption is the questioner making about surveys in magazines, and the candour of people surveyed? Is creationist "research" habitually carried out at such depth?

Why has evolution had such a devastating effect on people's confidence in the Bible over the past 100 years?

Aha, an almost unloaded question with a hint of truth to it. Evolutionary theory has done a great deal to undermine confidence in, note, certain aspects of Biblical teaching as traditionally held. But that traditional understanding had to change, and tragically couldn’t change fast enough. The 19th century Church couldn’t cope and the casualties were many. In the 20th century it got its act together, came up with theistic evolution and the issue went away, until creationists started forcing it again.

The unasked question is: will the Church survive the damage now being inflicted on it by creationists heretically presuming to speak in its name? I hope so. I love the Bible, more I believe than most fundamentalists do, because I am not blind to its real nature: they worship an idea of the Bible rather than the real thing and can't recognise its depths, its complexities, its frailties.

How could the Antichrist use the theory of evolution to promote lawlessness?

George Bush could order the invasion of Iraq having lied through his teeth about the connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, that’s the Antichrist bit. (Bear in mind that the Antichrist will masquerade as one deeply religious, it’s not so implausible.) Acording to a modified theory of evolution, widely held by the American Right: Western democracy always drives out other forms of government, even when these might be more culturally appropriate, on the basis of the survival of the richest, sorry, fittest.

Why did God give us clothes?

Feathers and scales fell off, suits of armour were too heavy ... no, come on, give me a clue. You want me to say: cos God dressed up Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, don’t you. This is a "just so" story, or aetiological legend if you prefer.

How has evolution helped promote the increase in pornography?

Talk about an own goal! Pornography is an absolute gift to capitalism, because sex sells; America, the most bullishly capitalist nation on earth is also the most porn-soaked (the Internet, born in the USA, runs on porn as we all know), and it’s only in America that creationists get taken seriously. I am not attempting to correlate belief in creationism with an enthusiasm for porn, but the converse IS true at least in my experience: evolutionism is associated with the Left, which at its worst is no more than equivocal about porn and can be deeply puritanical because porn exploits women, and the Left is feminist or should be; whereas the more creationist-sympathetic Right exploits it enhusiastically for commercial purposes. You won’t find tits and bums in the tabloid Mirror or the heavyweight Guardian and Independent, Britain’s left of centre dailies; but you’ll find plenty in the Sun, run by Murdoch, who also owns Fox. Geddit? The evolution/pornography connection simply isn’t there. The capitalism/pornography connection quite manifestly is, and creationism - even if it shuns porn - loves capitalism, which promotes porn. Truth is, creationists aren’t interested in exploring the roots of pornography. They are only interested in finding something nasty and blaming it on evolution, but their list of social evils has some very revealing inclusions and omissions. A subject for another time.

Is the order of events in Genesis the same as the order of events in the theory of Evolution? If not, how do they differ?

Oh Lord, they’re fundies and they don’t even read their Bibles properly. The order of events in Genesis 1, or the order of events in Genesis 2, do they mean? They do realise the order is different ... oh, no they don’t. That would imply contradiction. Error, even ... I am aware of frenetic attempts to harmonise Genesis 1 & 2 but even if there were convincing, both are obviously wrong, which doesn’t matter because Genesis is not in competition with a proper scientific account, such as evolution at least attempts to provide. Evolution could be wrong as well; creationism however CANNOT POSSIBLY be right. The word "right" may only be defined in such a way as to categorically rule this out. "Right" is not something that creationism can be.

Hitler, Stalin and Mao all accepted some form of evolutionism. What result did this have on their attitude to their fellow man?

This is simply ad hominem, or if you prefer, snide. A good theory is not discredited because evil men misinterpret it. I daresay Hitler and co believed in quantum physics as well. Certainly these butchers claimed support from evolution as they understood it, but the theory did not make them butchers in the first place. Anyone can play this game. Jimmy Swaggart was/is, I am sure, a good creationist.

What is the Gospel?

It has to do with God’s truth, for a start. Therefore precious little to do with creationism. Now I’m getting nasty but hey, I’m sincere, and the facts are with me.

Were Adam and Eve originally vegetarians?

I’d have said vegans. In a world without death, which young-earthers say was the case in pre-Fall Eden, there would also be no need for reproduction (otherwise the earth would get over-crowded rather fast), thus mammals would not provide milk, nor birds lay eggs. Dairy products are certainly not mentioned in Genesis 1.29.

Now there is a massive problem here: in the first creation story (in which human beings are created "male and female", with no suggestion there was only a single couple, or that men and women were made at different times) creatures are told to be fruitful and multiply. So there WAS reproduction - but no death? Talk about unsustainable. Creationists will have thought of this one and come up with a silly answer. How do I know in advance it will be silly? Because of the silliness of the question. What did two imaginary people eat? Imaginary food of course.

When was man first allowed to eat meat?

Miss, Miss! Please miss, I know! It was after the Flood when God said to Noah it’s all right to eat animals now.

Is any explanation provided for God giving this alleged permission, having previously withheld it? Do creationist answers ever explain anything? Is the Pope a Protestant?

The question of when early human beings became carnivores, having presumably learned to master fire (since we can’t eat or digest our meat raw) is quite interesting and has implications for the development of language and community life. Hunters, it is said, need to bond, to communicate with each other quickly and precisely, in a way that agrarian farmers don’t. Needless to say, creationism will have no comment to make on this since it thinks man was created as a skilled language user and ignores anthropology as a discipline for obvious reasons.

What do Luke 16:31 and John 5:46-47 have to say about the effect of the theory of evolution on people hearing the gospel?

You didn’t know the theory of evolution was mentioned in the Bible, did you. Well of course it isn’t. What IS mentioned is the denial of "Moses and the Prophets", as in these two verses. Creationist logic: Evolutionists deny the literal account of creation in Genesis 1 - 3 (which Jesus will have assumed was by Moses having no basis for assuming otherwise), therefore they can’t believe in Jesus, who said that Moses and the Prophets testify to him. Ergo, evolutionists aren’t Christians even if they say they are.

Here’s the truth. Theistic evolutionists deny the literal account of creation in Genesis 1 -3 for the excellent reason that it cannot be read literally by people who a] understand modern science and b] know what the word "literally" means. Because they also want to affirm God as Creator, they take the view that the early chapters of Genesis are stories - a particular kind of literature, to be interpreted in a particular way. But get this: most Christians come to faith because of what they see in Jesus, not because of how some people interpret Genesis 1 - 11.

Creationists insist that these chapters are essential to faith, and major on them so much they produce, in true psychotic fashion, exactly the opposite effect to the one they imagine they do. They drive people away from the Gospel. They parade their prejudices; they do not glorify Christ. They tell us nothing about Jesus - and I can testify here: my study of creationism has sent me to parts of the Bible I did not know as well as I might, especially though not exclusively in the Old Testament. That’s been a learning experience, and I am grateful. Have I learned one new thing about my Lord and Saviour? Not a blithering sausage.

How would you "rebuild the foundations" of the truth of Creation?
(a) If you are a church leader?

I am one, in a modest way: and you’re looking at it.

Scoffing at wilful ignorance

There are certain Bible texts that creationists can be relied on to hurl at their opponents, of which this is among the most frequently unleashed:

"in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!’ They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed out of water and by means of water, through which the world of that time was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the godless."

2 Peter 3. 3-7

Earlier (ch 2. vv 4 & 5) we have been told that "God did not spare .... the ancient world, even though he saved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood on a world of the ungodly ..." so there is no doubt that this writer thought in terms of Noah’s flood as a world-wide catastrophe. In creationist eyes that settles the matter, for Peter (if it was he: this epistle’s authorship is disputed but we can let that pass) wrote only as God directed him and could have made no error. The Flood happened, QED. Anyone who questions this comes under the heading of "scoffer", and clearly the term refers to modern sceptics who question the historical accuracy of Genesis.

It’s a good principle of Biblical interpretation that writers are always speaking to their own generation, taking no thought for what might be read into their words centuries later. Thus Peter would have had more urgent things to do than compose a prophecy which would not be fulfilled for nearly two millennia, and by "scoffers" he doubtless had a particular group of people in mind who were in evidence at the time he wrote. Notice too that their scoffing is motivated by the desire to "indulge their own lusts", free from fear that a dreadful judgement awaited them. The writer’s concern is to hearten his Christian readers by reminding them that judgement does indeed await, and woe betide the scoffers then. In God’s own time it will come, but in fire rather than water: think not so much Noah, more Sodom and Gomorrah.

The scoffers of 2 Peter are the same bunch as in the letter of Jude, which it resembles and may be influenced by the same source. Here they are also described as devoid of the Spirit and causing divisions: at which point it is very tempting to turn the tables on creationism and point out that since it is their dogmatism, their pseudoscience and their wilful ignorance that has wrought so much division among Christians over the issue of literalism, they are the scoffers of whom the apostle wrote. For creationists DO scoff: at mainstream science, mainstream Biblical scholarship, mainstream Christianity. They are the false teachers against whom we are warned elsewhere in the New Testament. Creationism’s opponents are just as likely to be Christians like me, hopefully not devoid of the Spirit, as atheists having a laugh.

Tempting - but cheap. If 2 Peter isn’t about the critics of modern fundamentalism, it isn’t about modern fundamentalism either: one can’t have it both ways. I must leave the Bible to vindicate other people’s prejudices, and fall back on worthier methods of justifying my own, entirely sound, judgements. It would be nice if creationists were to admit that "sceptics" are no less concerned for the truth than they profess to be themselves; they are not motivated by lustful self-indulgence but a desire for honest scholarship. But this is war, they can’t be expected to give their enemies a good press.

What though about those references to Noah’s Flood as literal history: can I explain these away? That is not the Snake's way, any more than I would explain away the six "days" of creation as lasting for far longer than 24 hours. The Bible says day, it means day in the usual sense. Peter speaks of a world wide flood and that’s what he means. But must he have been right? Am I bound to believe him?

Theology is done by weighing a range of considerations, of which scripture is one. Fundamentalists may speak about using the Bible and nothing but; in practice they rely on - aaagh! - human reason just as much as any rotten "liberal", to understand and interpret what each verse means. They will reason away like crazy to justify their interpretations against others - even, sometimes, those of other fundamentalists. The rest of us accept that other factors come into play, of which the most relevant here is the limited knowledge of the Bible’s writers compared to ours. (This argument comes up frequently in discussions about homosexuality, which simply was not understood in the days of Leviticus.)

Question: did Peter have the remotest idea how big the earth is? how many races of people existed to whom even the term "Gentile" hardly applies, since they were completely unaware of any covenant by which they might or might not be embraced? Did he know how many kinds of animals exist that might have needed a passage on the Ark, and the immense distances they would have had to cross to obtain it? It’s because we know these things now that attempts to prove the Ark was a practical proposition, and the Flood a global event, come across as so ludicrous. Conclusion: Peter was mistaken about the Flood’s extent, understandably enough in the light of his limited geographical and other knowledge.

BUT - and creationists miss this - the mistake is incidental to his main point. He does not need to establish to our satisfaction that every last square inch of land was submerged, all life annihilated except the living cargo of the Ark. He reminds us of the story as it has come down to us, drawing from it the awesome lesson: God will come in judgement that will overwhelm us. Another instance of divine wrath is supplied by a verse I left out earlier, so here it is now:

"by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example of what is coming to the ungodly" (ch2 v6)
and there is no suggestion this was any more than a purely local firestorm. Global or local, and for that matter historical fact or legend, Noah’s flood stands as an awful warning to those who imagine God can be mocked. Peter is wrong about history, as anyone would have been at the time; that does not invalidate his message. Creationists had better find themselves another rock to throw.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Joshua's long day

According to the book of Joshua, chapter 10

"Then spake Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and He said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies.... So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day."
I’m quoting from the King James Version, the only translation recognised as "inspired" by many creationists. One American preacher is alleged to have said "well, it was good enough for Jesus" ... which one hopes is apocryphal.

This is a long recognised problem for literalists. It came up at the Scopes trial, when Darrow (defending evolution) caused the staggeringly inept Bryan (representing the creationist view, although he was not a young-earther) some embarrassment over it:

DARROW: The Bible says Joshua commanded the sun to stand still for the purpose of lengthening the day, doesn't it, and you believe it?
BRYAN: I do.
DARROW: Do you believe at that time the entire sun went around the earth?
BRYAN: No, I believe that the earth goes around the sun.
DARROW: Do you believe that the men who wrote it thought that the day could be lengthened or that the sun could be stopped?
BRYAN: I don't know what they thought.
DARROW: You don't know?
BRYAN: I think they wrote the fact without expressing their own thoughts.

Darrow held that Joshua’s "long day" assumes a geocentric solar system, and that in any case the story of an enormous heavenly body being required to stand still in the midst of heaven, simply to facilitate a local military campaign on behalf of one side, is an obviously partisan fantasy. But of course if this miracle did not take place, fundamentalism is in trouble; so it must be defended as literal fact and one can rely on there being an "answer" to the problem on creationist websites, even though it is not directly relevant to their cause.

Answersingenesis' page on this denies geocentrism: "The Bible uses the language of appearance and observation", which is fair enough - I have no doubt the Bible does assume geocentrism, but this is not the passage to prove it. It is AIG’s follow-on argument that makes the jaw drop: "the mention of the moon also standing still seems to confirm both the divine authorship of the account and the fact that it is the Earth which moves. Since all Joshua needed was extra sunlight, and most ancients believed the sun moves, not the Earth, a human author of a fictitious account would only have needed to refer to the sun stopping." Attempting to unravel the logic of this defeats me.

AIG suggests three possible explanations

1. Some form of refraction (bending) of the light from the sun and the moon. According to this view, God miraculously caused the sunlight and moonlight to continue in Canaan for ‘about a whole day’

Such an event is not inconceivable, says AIG, in the light of what happened in the reign of Hezekiah when the shadow on Ahaz’s sundial retreated ten degrees (2 Kings 20:11). So one implausible event is quoted to prove the plausibility of another.

2. A wobble in the direction of the Earth’s axis of rotation. This involves a precession of the axis of the Earth, wobbling slowly so as to trace an ‘s’-shaped or circular path in the sky. Such an event could have made it appear to an observer that the sun and the moon were standing still, but need not have involved any actual slowing of the rotation of the Earth.

or, the most obvious one:

3. A slowing of the earth’s rotation.

According to this view, God caused the rotation of the Earth to slow down so that it made one full revolution in about 48 hours rather than 24. Simultaneously God stopped the cataclysmic effects that would have naturally occurred, such as monstrous tidal waves. Some people have objected to this on the erroneous assumption that, if the Earth slowed down, people and loose objects would fly off into space. In fact, the apparent centrifugal force (tending to throw things off the Earth) is only about one-three-hundredth of the gravitational force. If the Earth stopped rotating (whether suddenly or not), this outward ‘force’ would cease and we would actually be held more firmly by gravity.

This scenario need only imply that God slowed the rotation of the atmosphere, oceans, and Earth simultaneously to prevent any tidal-wave effect, and any heat build-up inside the Earth due to friction from still-rotating liquid layers of the earth’s core. And after the long day was over, the whole process would need to start up again.

What is so hilarious about all this is AIG’s use of contemporary scientific knowledge to make sense of a story rooted in a pre-scientific worldview. It’s a story that can only be told on certain cosmological assumptions; one these collapse, it makes no sense as history or science. The reasons for its telling are not far to seek; it reinforces Israel’s belief in a God who could and would do anything to make sure that his people prevail. It's a piece of morale-boosting propaganda raising more questions than it answers, notably: if God could fix it for Joshua on that occasion, how come he didn't fix it for his people throughout their history?

In its own terms, AIG’s conclusion is sound enough:

There is not one logical, scientific reason to claim that, given a God powerful enough to create a universe in six days, Joshua’s long day ‘could not have happened’. Those who balk at this account are almost invariably those who have already rejected 6-day creation through compromise with evolution’s fictitious long ages, and have thus rejected the authority of the Bible.

However, such a claim is vulnerable to the charge that a God who behaved in such a cavalier fashion with respect to normal experience might easily do so again on a whim, which renders scientific endeavour impossible. Scientists have to work on the assumption that reality will behave itself and act consistently - the dreaded "materialist" position. Creationists resist this insofar as they need to defend Biblical miracles; when these are not under discussion they can be as materialist as the next man.

As for rejecting "the authority of the Bible", the charge holds only on the basis that fundamentalists are allowed to define the phrase. It is not only possible to discount the supernatural tall tales of the Bible while still acknowledging its supreme place as a source of spiritual insight and guide to conduct; most theologians do.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

A humble claim

I know I’m right about creationism. It’s silly, it’s heretical, it’s manifestly false. But don’t go calling me arrogant. I am a mere learner compared to Henry Morris, may he rest in prejudice. I quote from the foreword to his son John’s book "The Young Earth":

"The facts of science oppose evolution, and most people see this, once these facts are shown to them. There is no evidence whatever - past, present or possible - that vertical evolution of one kind of organism into a more complex kind or organism has ever occurred or ever can occur." [emphasis added]

I was going to say that at least my arrogance stops short of pronouncing on what cannot possibly happen in the future, but honesty forbids: I have publicly said more than once that the Second Coming will not happen in anyone’s lifetime, which might seem to be on a par with Morris’ breathaking claim. But Morris faces far more difficulties (or did until he died) because if I’m wrong, and the Second Coming does happen in my lifetime, there will be no mistaking it and I shall have to throw myself on Christ’s mercy. If Morris is wrong the world won’t end, but the whole fundamentalist edifice will collapse about its then defenders’ ears.

There will never be any evidence for evolution - ponder the implications of that. What Morris actually means is something different. His claim translates as: we creationists have decided that evolution can’t happen. Therefore, anything which its supporters put forward as evidence for evolution we will interpret in some other way. No matter how many knots we have to tie ourselves in while we do this. Our theory is true and we will duff up the facts until they beg for pardon and line up with it, as good little facts should.

Friday, May 19, 2006

That Richard Lewontin quote

Here’s a quotation I’ve come across a few times. Creationists use it to prove that evolutionary scientists are ideologically compromised. It’s from a review of Carl Sagan’s posthumously published book, Billions and Billions, and the writer is the geneticist Richard Lewontin of Harvard. So it's not as if he's particularly intelligent, then.

"Evolutionists ... have a prior commitment, a commitment to naturalism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door"

That’s strongly put, but I don’t see why Christians should find it threatening. I take Lewontin to be saying: the moment we concede a role for the supernatural in scientific enquiry, however small, the process becomes fatally contaminated. It may be tempting to reach for supernatural explanations, which may seem more plausible, but the temptation must be resisted even when the materialist explanation honestly arrived at seems crazy. And that’s true. God is not in the little bits of the world that don’t make sense unless he is part of the equation; to say this leaves you nowhere to run when someone comes up with a better equation. God is in the whole fabric of the universe or he is nowhere.

Here’s a typical creationist reaction. First, Lewontin is supposed to have "let this slip", as though it’s some kind of guilty secret. Then:

Just as we thought all along! You must find a way—organic evolution—to rid yourself of that "Divine Foot in the door." Nice to see you finally admit it. Well, once again, gentlemen, I have news for you. God’s foot is in the door, whether you like it or not—all your attempts to prevent it notwithstanding. And there is nothing you can say or do to stop it, because neither He, nor we, will be going "quietly into the night." Not now. Not ever. Yes, the attack is on. But we are at the vanguard of that attack. You are losing the battle—and you will lose the war! Truth always triumphs over error.

(from a report posted at

Psychosis again. "Truth will always triumph over error", indeed. The possibilty that mainstream science might actually be the truth, and creationism a load of manure, never crosses this poor writer’s mind.

Whose are the burning pants?

In 1994, Australian geologist Ian Plimer published "Telling Lies for God", a scathing attack on creationism. It sounded interesting but proved to be out of print; my copy was kindly sent to me by the author himself (damn, didn’t ask him to sign it) and I’ve enjoyed it hugely. AnswersinGenesis took issue with him, ever so slightly; I believe there was a lawsuit at some point, but that’s history. Its website features a huge, point-by-point "rebuttal" of Plimer. Promised myself and indeed Ian that I would work through it. I had my secretary print off a hard copy so that I could more easily compare it with the book. It runs to 60 pages. Wow, he did upset them, didn’t he.

Perhaps only an anti-creationist anorak such as yours truly would even consider setting himself such a task, but I’m using it partly to test my view of creationism as psychotic. Have any of Plimer’s substantial charges against creationism really been rebutted? I’m going to guess they fault him on details and small factual errors - the John Mackay style that I experienced in Clitheroe - but don’t address the main points at all. Let’s see. Suffering as I do from high blood pressure I will have to take the AIG document in small bites [!] but I’ve made a start and will post on this from time to time.

Provocatively, Plimer calls creationism a "cult"; I prefer to speak of a sectarian mentality, but Plimer writes out of his Australian experience where the situation may be more polarised than in Britain. AIG objects to the word of course, but then declares "Creationism is simply the historic, evangelical, orthodox view of the Church, which has become more and more unpopular". For an article seeking to refute the charge of lying, to come out with this one early in the proceedings is pretty rich. Creationism depends on the notion of a "literal" reading of Genesis in a sense of the word which did not exist until modern times; it also seeks to defend the Bible on the basis of up-to-the-minute science so by definition it cannot be a historic doctrine. It has a history, part of the fundamentalist movement which is essentially a modernist reaction to the despised Enlightenment. To call the Protestant Reformers "creationists", for example, is simply anachronistic. Besides, what exactly are AIG’s credentials in declaring the content of evangelical orthodoxy? The evangelicals I know and the evangelical groups I have contacted are extremely wary about associating themselves with YE creationism, many of them saying, or words to this effect: this is not a core doctrine, and evangelicals are free to affirm it or not. The Church in its wider sense (which AIG regards as apostate, and the feeling is mutual) disowns creationism entirely. So much for it being "orthodox".

The other point I’ll pick up in this post is the earth’s flatness. Plimer says "flat earthism is a basic concept of biblical cosmology", offering a range of quotations to justify this, one might have thought, fairly uncontroversial assertion. AIG’s "rebuttal" runs to a few lines, referring the reader - assuming he has got this far, there cannot be so many as dogged as me, surely? - to the "clear-cut arguments in our literature, showing that flat-earthism was never biblical, nor was it widely held by Church fathers". Plimer is then accused of not knowing his Hebrew: well, excuse me, I don’t know Hebrew either but like Plimer I can look it up and my understanding is as follows. The "firmament" created on Day 2 need not necessarily have been solid, and the Hebrew word can mean "expanse". But the root meaning is "dome", and domes are solid: if the Genesis firmament is - heaven forbid! - a metaphorical one, the basis of comparison is still with a solid hemisphere, and that assumes a flat earth (see my early posting "Mummy mummy what’s a firmament").

What creationists won't acknowledge, of course, is that they have an axe to grind. They NEED the Bible not to have taught a flat earth, so they must find alternative interpretations for verses that seem clearly to point that way. For the rest of humanity nothing is assumed, it is not a matter of "scepticism", but of weighing the evidence. I am free to conclude either that the Bible teaches a flat earth or that it doesn't, nothing is at stake for me given my view of Scripture; but for creationists, everything is at stake, so they know in advance what the Bible can and cannot possibly say.

Plimer offers a number of killer arguments for Biblical flat-earthism which AIG ignores. Maybe its refutation of them is to be found in their literature, but if they are so devastating it would have been pertinent to reproduce them here. This much I know: NOWHERE in Scripture are we taught that the earth is a globe. The shape it isn’t - flat - is one issue, but might not the word of God, if its purpose is to convey some rudimentary science, have instructed us as to the shape it is?

More to come. I feel my blood pressure rising and I’m only on page 6. Another 54 to go.

Twinkle twinkle little star though you're not that little really

Young earthers have more than battle on their hands: it’s not only Darwin they have to discredit. Other sciences as well as biology are also part of the conspiracy to prove that Genesis 1 isn’t literally true, therefore the whole Bible is worthless. No, I don’t think it follows either, but creationists do.

Standard, sane cosmology estimates the age of the universe in billions of years, which clearly contradicts the young earthers. It also creates a problem when interpreting Genesis; on the fourth day of creation stars were made, it being implied they could be seen instantly. Now, you and I know that stars are huge and distant; that light has a finite speed and thus even the nearest star, created on day 4, would not have been seen on earth for more than four years. We would still not be able to see the distant reaches of the universe even today. The human scribes of Genesis 1 could not have been expected to know any of this and presumably took the commonsense, pre-scientific view that stars are tiny, relatively close by and in any case that light needs to time to get from A to B. But for creationists as for fundamentalists in general, the Bible was not written by human scribes but by God, who must have got the science right.

Problem, which used to be resolved through the declaration that when God made the stars on day 4, he created their light already reaching the earth. I remember laughing out loud when I read that in a creationist book while reading up for an essay during my theology degree, back in the 1970’s. If there is one experience that determined me at some point in my life to deal with all this codswallop, it was that moment of hilarity; which makes me rather disappointed to discover that creationists don’t use this argument any more. Frankly, I don’t see that it’s any more ridiculous than all the other proposed solutions to the problem of apparent age; my current favourite anomaly (I’ve been gardening a lot recently) is humus. Present in soil, it consists of decomposed organic matter; plants need it to thrive and was thus, one assumes, kicking around on Day 3 of creation when plants were made - so where had the decomposed organic matter come from ...???

Creationist arguments tend to outstay what welcome they may have ever enjoyed. You can still read on websites that there should be much more dust on the moon than there is if the universe is as old as scientists say, that the earth’s rotation should be much slower and its population much greater; plus if I read one more reference to Robert Gentry’s polonium haloes and how these prove a young universe I shall scream. In the eyes of all normal people these arguments have been put forward, considered and demolished but creationists don’t give up easily. However, on the "light created in transit" argument, they have. As a useful article in the Free Dictionary puts it

"as the idea relies on a supernatural conspiracy to create the appearance of a material reality that is different from actual reality, it is an epistemologically impossible to refute idea.... one bizarre implication ... would be that supernovae that occur in the distant universe would have had to have been manufactured optical effects at the time of creation. In other words, in this idea distant supernovae never really happened even though we see them."

However, the alternative theories are considerably more technical, and needless to say unacceptable to mainstream science. Creationists seem to be pushing two at present, although with a certain tentativeness that suggests even they realise they’ve got their work cut out on this one. Naturally, they do all they can to try and rubbish the Big Bang theory, where their arguments take the familiar form: here’s a scientific theory that presents certain difficulties, therefore it’s completely wrong, therefore the Bible is the only possible alternative.

But if not the Big Bang, then what? Step forward Russell Humphreys, whose name is likely to come up sooner rather than later in any creationist account of cosmology. He has proposed an unashamedly supernaturalist theory - don’t tell me that’s a problem for you? To quote the Free Dictionary again

Humphreys refers to Isaiah 40:22, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in. To Humphreys, this is an indication that God side-stepped the laws of physics, to drag spacetime out of its own black hole and force the universe to expand, in what Humphreys calls a "white hole cosmology".

So that’s going to play well among mainstream astronomers. The alternative is the view that the speed of light may have been higher at the time of creation than it is now. I believe that Big Bang theory itself requires this, certainly in the early moments after the primal singularity when it is calculated that the universe must have been expanding faster than the speed of light. Other, sensible, physicists have speculated that c may have varied over time. But the huge levels of increase in light-speed required to bully the universe into making sense on a creationist interpretation generate all sorts of other problems to which only creationists are convinced they have answers.

Houston, or rather Kansas, we have a problem. The universe keeps on looking like it’s older than it says in Genesis, but since we know that can’t be true we will have to keep on searching for facts to fit the theory - just like we always accuse evolutionists of doing ...

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Mull thoughts from back home

Spent a few days on the Isle of Mull earlier in the month. As ever we hit lucky with the weather (our fourth trip and we haven't had a truly foul day yet) and left wondering why we don't just sell up and move there NOW. Yeah yeah, think practicalities. And very long winters.

This is Croig bay, west of Dervaig; little there now to show it was once the main harbour for cattle being shipped in from the Outer Hebrides on their way to the mainland.

This time I was struck by the many antiquities on the island. Here is a fine group of standing stones dating from the Bronze Age. The general consensus in the guide books is that Mull's first inhabitants settled here around 9,000 BC.

Except they can't have done so far as a YE creationist is concerned. They would have to have migrated here from around Ararat after the Flood, which would not have given them that long. And given the inhospitability of the climate for much of the year, why should they have done so?

Mull is a magnet for geologists, whose studies are readily available in Mull's bookshops (both of them ... well it's not quite that bad, but the whole island has a population of little more than 3,000 - and it's a damn sight bigger than Manhattan!) These assume a 4.5 billion year old earth as a matter of course. It's not some wild conspiracy: neh, the earth is old so there's no God. It's just the scientific consensus. A YE creationist would have a hard time on Mull: the whole culture screams deep antiquity, archaeological and geological, and he can't hear it.

Psychosis at Clitheroe

Would there have been, perhaps a hundred people at the Clitheroe Community Church on Tuesday, May 16th for the visit of leading Australian creationist John Mackay? The hall looked comfortably full, but let’s see this in proportion: on the one hand, gathering a hundred people for a weeknight church meeting for any purpose is achievement enough. On the other hand, this is a small Lancashire town, one of the stops on a highly publicised visit, and the venue was, come again? I could be catty and guess the proportion of those who were there because it was their church and they’d have turned up if the occasion had been Joe Bloggs’ slides of his holiday in Telford but even so: the time to worry is when John starts filling the Blackpool Winter Gardens. On this showing British creationists are still very small fry.

The evening confirmed one thing for me: it’s on theology and literary understanding that I need to tackle John and his fellow psychotics. The man is a scientist and, naturally enough, plays to his strengths. His presentation was smooth, well illustrated and easy on the ear. But like the rest of his kind he hasn’t the faintest clue what kind of writing Genesis actually is, nor any awareness that the God he wants us to believe in is a vindictive monster. We were even dangled over the pit at one point - believe in evolution and you’re in danger of hell, a view attributed to Jesus - was that him weeping at the back? Once he strayed beyond what would seem to be his field of competence (it isn’t mine so I must give him the benefit of the doubt) the logical sleights of hand and theological howlers came thick and fast. Not that the largely sympathetic audience seemed to care; John raised a tittter or two with the sort of unhilarious jokes that only come off if you’re among friends - e.g. slide of woman with dog, to illustrate a point being made about dog-breeding: the dog, said John, is the one on the left. The response to that and others in similar vein warned me this might not be the arena in which to raise questions about the post-exilic dating of Genesis 1 (which would rule out Moses as its author, or rather scribe: creationism cannot acknowledge any human initiative in the composing of Scripture). But if John knows there is such a thing as Biblical scholarship he hides it well.

John’s co-presenter, Diane, sought to discredit evolutionary theory, making some perfectly valid points about the difference between evolution and adaptation, as though that will send Dawkins back to the drawing board. She provided what was for me the evening’s highlight: an explanation of why Adam and Eve, at the time of their respective creation (Adam from the dust of the ground, Eve from his rib) needed different sets of chromosomes. Now that really is hilarious; modern science being read back into an ancient supernatural story as though the two forms of discourse are entirely continuous and compatible. It’s methodologically up the spout even if the Adam and Eve story is literally true. (Anyone who thinks it even could be should try describing, in detail, the surgical procedures God used to the create the Mother of all mankind.) I cannot imagine a more telling example of creationism as a "category error", the charge levelled against it by Rowan Williams; was Diane aware of this? Does she have any idea what the Archbishop meant? But that’s psychosis for you: insulated from reality as it is, it cannot handle or really understand a direct challenge to its picture of the world. But for Diane the Bible is either factually true or a "fairy story". She will know all about fairy stories, having been theologically asleep herself for the last 200 years.

The creationist conspiracy theory was a continual background hum. From the perspective of not the largest church in not the most populous town in East Lancashire, John, and Diane presumed to declare the whole non-creationist Church apostate and the whole of mainstream science culture mesmerised by the diabolical Darwin. The easy swipes at the BBC, with its constant "preaching" of evolutionism, Steve Jones and Ian Plimer went down well but there was no proper attempt to represent the view of the overwhelming majority of educated people in this country, only to dismiss it; creationists fondly imagine that they are the only ones with integrity, thus fail to appreciate the painful irony of someone like Diane reminding us that we are to love the Lord with all our minds. Just like she does?

Plimer, a theist, is no more the Australian Richard Dawkins than Mackay is the Australian Karl Barth but creationists make no distinction between their Christian critics and militant atheists of the Dawkins type - we’re all sceptics who (and I find this a particularly insidious attempt to claim the argument by redefining terms) "don’t believe in creation". Excuse me, I believe in divine creation. I will not be told by deviants like Mackay and co that I have to believe in it on the basis of stupid theology and pseudoscience.

John’s talk presented details of alleged evidences for evolution being discredited as nothing more than proofs of adaptation. He showed that "kinds" (that remarkably scientific term) preserve their forms over many generations, even using data from old-earthers to support his case, which seemed a little inconsistent. It seemed to me that on his chosen battleground he scored a number of hits, and if it is true that biology textbooks are still using unsound examples to prove Darwinism, then shame indeed on evolutionists for not keeping their research up to date. If nothing else, the the current upsurge in creationist activity should make them tighten up their act. On the other hand, John quoted various authorities whose credentials might in themselves be suspect; I recognised few names but when there was one I did - Michael Denton, a known maverick in this field - it made me wonder about the rest.

I was waiting for the leap to "therefore the Bible is true" but could hardly believe how crudely John made it, with no attempt AT ALL to explain how creationism could begin to be any sort of scientific theory. Nor did he persuade me that he had shaken Darwinism to its core: a few examples of sloppy research are hardly enough to prompt a rethink of its basic principles. He would have us believe that evolutionists are dishonest people with an agenda that ignores the facts - another classic example of how psychotics perceive in others the truth about themselves, and never spot the irony.

Steve Jones ("he had a go at George Bush and that was about as scientific as he got" said Diane) scored one hit early on in his Royal Society lecture - I’ve only listened to the first few minutes, an omission I must now correct - when he showed that creationism ignores all other stories except the one [or two!] in Genesis. In other words, the only sacred text on view in creationism is the Bible; it is that which science must seek to prove. The idea that this approach, which would leave any scientist from outside the Jewish/Christian/Islamic world view scratching his head, utterly invalidates creationism as science appeared not to have occurred to John and Diane.

John used the decline in human longevity since the days of Noah to support a wonderfully fanciful argument about degradation and "de-volution". Things have gone from bad to worse folks, we don’t live as long as we used to. Pause for thought: life expectancy has increased since - to take a date not entirely at random - 1859, at least in the degenerate and Darwin-worshipping West - perhaps God is trying to tell us something through this! No, of course not, but the point illustrates the pathetic level at which John seeks to do his apologetics. He even made a point - of persssssonal interessssst - about snakes losing their legs over time to illustrate his degradation thesis, but hang on: in the environments where they live now legs would be a nuisance to snakes so they have adapted to manage without them - who says legs are always a good idea? Oh, sorry, we’re back in Genesis - the snake lost its legs as a punishment for tempting Eve. Category errors again.

Likewise - another sleight of hand here - everything bad in nature results from the Fall, so we mustn’t blame God for Iraq. Loud "Amens" around where I was sitting, but it’s time to love the Lord with all our minds, people: don’t even think of blaming God for what’s happened in Iraq. Try asking him instead how he justifies introducing malaria, cancer, osteoarthritis, renal colic, and a few other nasties. If these are a result of Adam and Eve’s rebellion, someone Up There has no sense of proportion.

There were impressive table-fuls of resources on display (impressive in terms of quantity at any rate - sorry, that’s cheap: although the resources themselves were not, particularly). I confined myself to John Morris’ book The Young Earth and a DVD of Mackay in debate with a proper scientist and theologian, Britain’s own John Polkinghorne. I was quite surprised to see this on sale since the two will be most unequally matched intellectually and the only way Mackay will have been able to hold is own is through vastly superior debating skills. I don't know whether he possesses them but here’s my guess/prediction: Polkinghorne wipes the floor with him and Mackay has absolutely no idea. When I've watched the disk I will post my verdict here.

I’ve plenty to be getting on with. More soon

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Even the BBC gets it wrong sometimes ....

Creationist theories about how the world was made are to be debated in GCSE science lessons in mainstream secondary schools in England.

The subject has been included in a new syllabus for biology produced by the OCR exam board, due out in September....

.... The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which oversees the development of the national curriculum, in effect guiding exam boards, said discussions of "intelligent design" or "creationism" could take place in science classes. (my emphasis)

Thus says the BBC, on a web page dated 10 March.

I couldn’t believe this and wrote an "oh surely not" sort of e-mail to OCR.

I hereby reproduce, in full, the reply from John Noel, Qualifications Manager, Maths and Science Qualification Team for the Oxford, Cambridge and RSA examinations board. It includes some of the material included in the BBC’s item, but in such a way as to eliminate certain misinterpretations which could have been read into it (by panicky people like me, for example).

Panic over.

Dear Rev. Snake,

It is actually all a bad dream! The recent media interest in our new ‘Gateway’ GCSE Science specifications, for first teaching from September 2006, has centred on the learning outcome:

Explain that the fossil record has been interpreted differently over time (e.g. creationist interpretation).

This statement occurs in an ‘Item’ entitled ‘survival of the fittest’ which covers natural selection and evolution in detail, including the work of Lamarck and Darwin. The evidence from the fossil record, from examples of natural selection occurring today and from genetics is considered. However, the specification aims to set the development of important scientific ideas in context, so for example it includes the reasons why natural selection met with an initially hostile response. The statement above should be considered in this light – it relates clearly to an historical perspective.

In response to the concerns raised, OCR has issued the following statement:

"Candidates need to understand the social and historical context to scientific ideas both pre and post Darwin. Candidates are asked to discuss why the opponents of Darwinism thought the way they did and how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence. Creationism and 'intelligent design' are not regarded by OCR as scientific theories. They are beliefs that do not lie within scientific understanding."

There is therefore no scientific controversy here; in these new science courses, no questions will be set on creationism as a theory or on ‘intelligent design’ and no credit will be available to candidates giving such answers to questions about the fossil record, except where presenting an historical perspective.

The interaction between science and belief is worthy of consideration in science lessons. However, this is not a requirement of the specification.

I hope these comments have been helpful.

Yours sincerely
John Noel

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Two stories, not one

I was taught at college that Genesis provides not one creation story but two:

Genesis 2:4-25

Mainstream Biblical scholarship maintains that the creation story found in Genesis 2 is the earlier of the two Genesis accounts. Filled with ancient and rich imagery, it is believed that the basic story once circulated among the early nomadic Hebrews, told perhaps around simple, intimate campfire settings, answering questions about life and the origins of humankind. It is known as the "Yahwist" account from its use of the name Yahweh to refer to God.

Genesis 1:1-2:3

Most Biblical scholars believe that the Genesis 1 account can be attributed to the so-called "priestly" writer(s)/editor(s) (known in academic circles as "P") responsible for a fair portion of the Pentateuch. Dating to roughly the Exilic and early post-Exilic period of Hebrew history, the account sets forth creation on a cosmic scale.


My own translation makes this "official" with a section heading at ch 2v 4b: "Another account of creation". This is an important early clue as to the kind of literature the Bible actually is, and creates problems for literalists. But it ruffles fundamentalist feathers, so one finds apologists like J P Holding arguing against the consensus and in favour of a seamless narrative from chapter 1 through 4.

This could be a matter of "pay your money and make your choice". If you can’t see that a story [Genesis 1] in which the creation of human beings, male and female, follows that of plants and animals, contradicts another one [Genesis 2.4b ff] where a single male human is created, followed by plants, animals and finally a woman, I don’t know how to persuade you. To which a fundamentalist might reply that if I can’t see Genesis as God’s inerrant word transcribed by Moses, so that any apparent contradictions are ONLY apparent, there’s no hope for me. It’s partly a question of what you want to believe.

But only partly, and here I set a challenge. Try to write a single continuous narrative covering the events of Genesis 1 and 2, without absurdity or contradiction. I don’t think it can be done, and I say this having tried. On Day 6, in Genesis 1, God creates male and female human beings. There is no mention of a single couple, nor for that matter a "Fall." Human beings are blessed and instructed to be fruitful and multiply; which surely presumes the fact of death, enabling one generation to make room for the next. However, the account of the Fall in chs 2 - 3 won’t work unless there is indeed a single couple who bring sin into the world through their disobedience; for which the punishment would appear to be death, previously unknown (certainly a young-earther would read it that way). Adam and Eve are not told to multiply and may not necessarily have had sex until after the Fall (although 2.24 could be seen as implying otherwise).

There is a way round this in terms of Adam and Eve’s punishment being not so much that they forfeited their immortality, but were created mortal and remained so having lost the chance to eat from the tree of [eternal] life through their rebellion. This I think is forced, but there is still the insurmountable problem that in re-telling the events of Genesis 2 one has to describe the creation of plants and animals which according to Genesis 1 are already there. "This is plan B, so parts of last week didn’t happen", I have to make one of the characters say in my own re-telling.

It’s this way: Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 CANNOT both be literally true. To prove me wrong, recount the events they describe as a single narrative without contradiction.

I am not holding my breath.

A chat with the man from Capernwray

I read once of some Victorian worthy, a schoolmaster I think, who had a text on his study wall: "A soft answer turneth away wrath" (Proverbs 15.1) Dave Jackson, on the staff of Capernwray Bible College, might have taken a leaf out of his book. Not that I felt any wrath towards Dave - I reserve mine for bigoted twerps, of whom he is not one - but had I done so his eirenic manner would soon have disarmed me. At the end of a half-hour chat on the phone I didn’t even feel like thumping a bad-tempered lunatic like John Woodmorappe, author of a huge book "proving" that Noah’s boat really floated. Don’t worry, the mood soon passed. I’m not about to turn conciliatory.

Capernwray’s evangelical credentials are impeccable, and in making contact with such an establishment I figured that if creationism is indeed on the march across the UK, they would have noticed. Well, Dave hasn’t. It’s one issue among many that concern staff and students there, same as it has been for a while. A growing priority it is not. That’s a relief.

John McKay, the Australian geologist and young-earther, will be speaking at Capernwray in the course of his current tour (I shall catch up with him at some point, probably Clitheroe). That does not, Dave was quick to tell me, constitute any sort of endorsement by the college; for him, the interpretation of Genesis 1 - 3 is a "grey area", and he sees young-earth doctrine as one possibility among several that good evangelicals might accept, although he doesn’t himself. The judgement "no, he’s far too sensible" comes too easily but I wonder if Dave’s problem, from a YE point of view, is that he hasn’t spent long enough in the fundamentalist ghetto. British evangelicalism is, within limits, quite pluralistic, and Capernwray seems to reflect its diversity.

Young earthers want to force an issue that is better not forced, I said to Dave, who seemed to agree. The perception of arrogance, even though it is only a perception, on the part of those who know they’re right can damage their cause, he said: something I need to watch because I know, not so much that I’m right, as that young-earthers are definitely wrong!

Dave was a little equivocal about the Flood, wanting - of course - to affirm that it covered "the earth" just as the Bible said, while conceding my point that what the Bible’s writers understood by "the earth" may have been a much smaller area than the entire globe; yet insisting, again in line with Scripture, that all humanity bar the Ark’s passengers were wiped out. I sensed an inconsistency there which I should have explored further but I was anxious not to trespass on his patience. Maybe it’s another "grey area" for him.

Dave, a geneticist, gives evolutionary theory qualified acceptance. He has seen evidence, he says, of development by selection, but that isn’t the same thing as buying the whole Darwinian package. Young earthers, of course, believe that evolution is an atheist conspiracy: Dave resists that simple charge, agreeing that evolution can be valid science. But he did speak of its use in popular culture to reinforce "subliminal" messages about secularism, which quickly led us to Richard Dawkins, whom neither of us can stand!

Dave reckons that anxiety about school curricula is what drives creationists to raise the profile of their pet issue. Evangelicals are not alone in perceiving a danger that teaching about Christianity will be increasingly marginalised in favour of a mile-wide, inch-deep multi-cultural package; maybe so, although if the assumption behind such a judgement is that state schools should still be obliged to deliver Christian education as per the 1944 settlement, this is something I would question on several counts. But creationists are the very last people who should be making the case for religious instruction, and the more these nutters (as they are perceived) are seen as in any way representing the Church, the more they will queer the pitch for those of us who actually do represent her. Dave, ever the moderate, would not go so far, but he does know what "counter-productive" means.

He made one statement which I’m going to check out: there is, he reckons, good scientific evidence for the descent of all human beings from a single female who lived about 6,000 years ago. Hm. Genesis may not be science; indeed, Dave teaches his Capernwray students not to interpret it as such (that high pitched hum you hear is Henry Morris spinning in his grave), but there may be more authentic history behind it than woolly liberals like me are wont to countenance. Whenever I hear that some Biblical passage is vindicated by the latest scientific or archaeological discovery I suspect special pleading. Well, if Dave’s claim has any objectivity, I should be able to track down some scientists who accept it who are not, in any sense, creationists. Let’s see.

Dave thinks creationists should be respected for their sincerity. I don’t. He’s probably a nicer guy than me, but I read more into their wrong-headedness than just wilful ignorance. I’m not even sure all of them ARE sincere. Some evolutionists may have an agenda; I have no doubt at all that creationism does, and I am very wary of it.