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Creationism Versus the Bible

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If you tuned in to the Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye creationism vs. science debate, you may well have found yourself thinking, "This guy just doesn't get it." And, regardless of which side you're on or which guy you were referring to, you were probably right.

As entertaining as the event may have been, and as high as the stakes may seem to be to both parties, the word "debate" is a misleading one. This was not a time for each side to put forward its most convincing arguments, in hopes of finally revealing which is right and which is wrong.

It's a category problem: Science and faith aren't ever going to convince each other, because they're not playing by the same rules. They're not even playing the same game.

You can't reason with faith. That's why it's called faith: It's not based on reason. It's the difference between believing something to be true despite a lack of evidence and thinking that something is true on the basis of what evidence we have.

So fighting creationism with evolutionary theory, while it makes for decent television, isn't a winning strategy. You have to at least be on the same battlefield.

Fortunately, it is possible to combat creationism on its own turf: the Bible. Because it turns out that if you read the Bible carefully and honestly -- and as literally as possible -- the creationist view falls apart almost immediately.

Genesis 1 begins, as most people know, with the six-day creation so beloved of the creationist movement: day one (light and dark), day two (heavens), day three (earth and all plant life), day four (sun, moon, stars), day five (fish and birds) and day six (all land animals, culminating with humanity). Note especially that last day, when we're told that God "created humanity in his image; in the image of God he created it; male and female he created them." A good literal reading of this verse can claim nothing other than that on the sixth day of creation God made both man and woman, simultaneously, both in the image of God.

All perfectly straightforward, until we read Genesis 2. We begin with the phrase "on the day that the Lord God made the earth and heavens" -- but which of the six days is that? The heavens were day two; the earth was day three. We might think that this is just an expression, and that "on the day" refers to the time after the sixth day of creation. Except that we're then told that there was no plant life, because there was no rain, which means that it couldn't have been day three yet, when, according to Genesis 1 the plants all emerged from the ground.

God then forms man from the dust of the earth. Which would make it day six, presumably. But it's only after man has been created that God causes plants to grow, which should have been day three. And it's only after that that God makes the animals, which should have been on day six too, but before man, not after. And finally God takes Eve from Adam's rib, in explicit contradiction to the simultaneous creation of man and woman in Genesis 1.

The list could go on, but the point should be clear enough. It's all well and good to take Genesis 1 literally, but it means that you can't take Genesis 2 literally. The two accounts of creation, in the first two chapters of the Bible, are in direct conflict on nearly every detail. If one of them is "true," then the other, by definition, is not. But they're both in the Bible, and they're both equally authoritative. Or at least they should be, if it's actually the Bible's authority that is being defended by creationists.

What's more, these aren't the only notions of creation in the Bible. In the Psalms, we read about God not only creating the sun and the seasons and the rivers, but also defeating the sea and crushing sea monsters. In Proverbs we learn that God was helped in the act of creation by a female figure named Wisdom.

It is easy enough to call these metaphors, or allegorical. Easy, that is, unless you have elsewhere demanded that the Bible be understood as literally true. If Genesis 1 is literal, but Genesis 2, and Psalms, and Proverbs are not, then you're really not a biblical creationist. You're a Genesis 1 creationist. You're not defending the word of God. You're defending that word of God. And you're relegating other such divine words to a lesser status.

The Bible contains multiple accounts and ideas of creation. Anyone who claims otherwise is simply not reading the Bible. A creationism that is centered entirely on Genesis 1 is not "biblical," any more than a creationism that insists upon a primordial battle between God and a series of giant monsters from whose bodies the seas were created.

Taking the Bible seriously means treating all of it -- including its internal contradictions -- equally. Genesis 1 is no more biblical, or authoritative, or literally true, than Proverbs. Creationism positions itself as a purely biblical understanding of the origins of the world. But, though it may be based on verses from the Bible, it is biblically illiterate.

During the debate, Ken Ham said "I take Genesis as literal history, just like Jesus did." Hard to know -- Jesus didn't say that much about how he read Genesis. But we know that some of his contemporaries, like Philo of Alexandria (born in 20 B.C.E.) read it not literally, but allegorically. Which is to say: we wouldn't all be literalists if it weren't for that pesky science thing. Two thousand years ago, devoted Jews and early Christians were reading Genesis as non-literal. You can't blame the Enlightenment for this one.

Creationism fails at its own game. And that's the place to beat it. Forget evolution, forget mitochondrial DNA, forget dinosaurs and solar systems and tree rings.

Get a creationist to say, as Ken Ham did, "I take Genesis as literal history," and the argument is won. Get a creationist to say "I believe the Bible is the word of God," and you're even better off.

The way to defeat creationism isn't to fight it with science, but with a weapon it will respect. Creationism is defeated with the Bible. It's one or the other -- both can't be right.

For the scientific-minded, of course, neither is right. But it must be remembered that the path from literalist fundamentalism to pure scientific reason is a long one. If you can begin by demonstrating that the Bible itself cannot be used as a historial or scientific textbook, that's not a bad start. Baby steps.

(Important disclaimer: "creationism" is a broad category. There are lots of varieties; the one featured in the debate, known as "young-earth creationism," is, generally speaking, the most radical. That said, it is also probably the most popular, in both senses of the word. Apologies to those who consider themselves creationists but didn't, and don't, feel represented in this discussion.)