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My Advice for Florida Creationists

My Advice for Florida Creationists

Which, for those in doubt, includes advocates of intelligent design (ID). I know they won’t take it, but here it is:

Just tell the truth.

John West, over at Evolution News and Views, has written a quite disingenuous post in which he wonders about the motives of advocates in the Florida House who insisted on passing a measure that differed from the one in the Florida Senate and one which would most likely be rejected. Personally I don’t think there was any certainty that the Senate would decide to reject the House bill in the end, but that’s how it worked out.

West thinks this “smacks of classic back-room politics by politicians who are trying to play both sides of an issue.” I’m sure back-room politics is alive and well in Florida, despite sunshine laws, but the real “sunshine” problem here is with ID advocates themselves. You see, if you stick with the truth, you only have to remember one story, but if you decide on lies, then you have to agree on your lies, and you have to keep the various stories coordinated.

What the Florida creationists want is religion taught in public schools, but they can’t write a law to do that directly, so instead they have to write some other scenario, and that’s when things get difficult. The real effect of each of these bills would be to refer the issue to the courts, and the main issue then is just what do you want to take to court with you, considering the truth absolutely won’t do.

That was the problem in Dover. The people who pushed intelligent design really wanted religion in the classroom, and ID was just the means to an end. Once you get one set of materials in you start working on the next one. As long as you are trying to get something that you can’t admit you want, you’re going to have confusion of strategy.

I have been astounded at the number of ID advocates who have told me here on this blog, in e-mail, or in person that I am horribly misunderstanding their position because I think ID has to do with religion. But there is simply no possibility that ID, without any religious overtones, has any audience at all. If the whole argument is about the possibility that some form of alien life is interfering with earth life, perhaps a roomful of weirdos would be interested. The fact is that “intelligent designer” is heard (correctly) as a codeword for God, and that is what gives this traction.

Whether ID advocates are creationists or not–and I think they are–it is certainly creationists in the older sense (YEC or OEC) who are carrying the torch for this movement. What happened in the Florida legislature is that conservative Christians who believe that their particular faith position should be taught in public schools tried to get some portion of it allowed in the curriculum of Florida public schools. There was no back-room deals needed to kill the legislation; differences in the particular form of the lie that should be told in order to reap the greatest benefit spelled doom for the bills.

I cannot prove there were no back-room deals. If there were, I wish I knew who was involved so I could vote for the people responsible. In the legislature I’d prefer crooks who are in favor of good education to crooks who want to lie for God.

One more thing from West:

. . . More importantly, we still live in America, and although Darwinists are doing their best to shut down and intimidate anyone who raises questions about Neo-Darwinism, we still have free speech, and they can’t prevent people from hearing about the debate in the public arena, no matter how hard they try.

I’m wondering if West is even aware of what this bill was for. This was about High School curriculum. It wasn’t about “the public arena.” The ID movement is the noisiest bunch of “suppressed” people in history. If their voices are cut off, there sure is no evidence of the fact.

Joe Carter’s 10 Ways Darwinists Help ID

Joe Carter’s 10 Ways Darwinists Help ID

I found these 10 ways rather amusing (part 1, part 2, part 3. Perhaps we should all take advice from the opposition and say just the things they’d like us to say. Here’s my response, briefer than my usual!

  1. Well, if ID advocates would just define an actual theory and quit trying to disguise the religious intent, perhaps people’s perception of your work would match yours. I’m not required to be deceived, however, and thus I represent it as I see it rather than as you would like me to see it.
  2. It is stealth creationism. It’s religiously driven. ID advocates must be delusional if they think their activities would be driven by scientific concerns. It’s that large body of creationists out there that keep ID going. Just look at the efforts to market “Expelled!” to churchgoers–an open admission of the religious nature of the controversy if I ever saw one.
  3. “Science in the gaps” is almost cute, but unfortunately completely lacks validity. You see, the “God of the gaps” is constantly receding, while science keeps advancing. The fact that we find ever more complex stuff and then come to understand it is a positive thing about the power of scientific investigation. You’ll have a parallel when you find science retreating and God filling in the space. It’s not going to happen. In reality God is never retreating. He’s unthreatened by natural explanations and science will continue to grow. There’s always going to be something more, at least “always” from a limited human perspective.
  4. Produce some science and scientists will publish it. Until then, quit complaining! Oh, and by the way, it’s not science because–wait for it–it’s not science–not because it isn’t published in peer-reviewed science journals.
  5. Sexual selection is a topic of controversy in evolution. Why not provide some scientific discussion if you think that helps ID. The reason ID advocates won’t do that is that if you adjust the factors a bit you’ll still have evolution.
  6. Learn how words are defined and used in different contexts. In other words, instead of trying to plug your idea of design into a scientific discussion, use the author’s definition.
  7. I’m not an atheist. But I neither want to regulate who gets to be vocal, nor do I want to. If you’re not sufficiently perceptive to hear the many religious voices in favor of the theory of evolution, such as Francis Collins, John Haught, Richard Colling, Kenneth Miller, and many others, perhaps you have a discernment problem.
  8. Where you divide the questions is an interesting point. Richard Colling, in his book Random Designer, deals quite directly with origin of life issues, but the fact is that they are logically somewhat different. Common descent, an old earth, and the mechanism of variation+natural selection are not dependent on explaining the origin of life. The reason creationists want to combine them is that common descent has been largely explained in broad terms, while the origin of life has not. Combining them makes a better target. Scientists, on the other hand, have to investigate the topics, and the different states of the science suggest they need to be looked at separately.
  9. Pot, kettle, black. Oh, and many creationists are liars, especially young earth creationists. That’s not an argument against creationism, but it sure does complicate things. It’s annoying having to hunt for the honest creationist so you can argue with him.
  10. You started by accusing us of attacking a strawman, then you end with a strawman yourself.

My suggestion to other defenders of evolutionary theory: Don’t take Joe Carter’s advice.

Historicity of Genesis 1-11

Historicity of Genesis 1-11

I think those of us who are not all that conservative, as in moderates and liberals, do everyone a disservice with the admonition, “Don’t take it so literally.” Unless, of course, we break down “not literally” a bit further. The word “literal” has gotten muddied in the public understanding, and is often taken to mean “true,” so “not taking it so literally” is “not taking it so truthfully.” But more importantly, literal is (or should be) a fairly narrow category and “not literal” involves quite a number of possible types of literature.

But there’s another question that non-scholarly readers of the Bible have pretty regularly: Just what is it that I’m supposed to get out of this? I’ve heard this many times teaching groups of United Methodist laypeople, well educated folks, but not Bible scholars. They’re pretty well convinced they shouldn’t take it too literally, but they are often uncertain where to go from there. Then they hear anyone who doesn’t take it literally condemned as one who doesn’t believe the Bible at all.

To narrow that down again, just what historical information might one get out of a non-historical passage of scripture? In the case of Genesis 1-11, I have frequently noted that it is not narrative history. But “narrative history” is not necessarily equivalent to “no historical value at all.” There is more of a continuum (one of my favorite words) of possibilities for historical values, and a number of twists and turns.

For example, I could say that a book is a work of fiction. Does that mean that it has no historical value? Consider these examples:

  • A fantasy novel/series, not set in the real world, such as Lord of the Rings
    One might extract information on the time of the writer, but vanishingly little information about the real world. Even extrapolating to the time of the writer based on his themes would be a difficult proposition.
  • A generic novel set in the real world, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged
    This book is intentionally set in an indefinite future (from the time of writing) with generic titles for government officials such as head of state rather than president, for example. There are incidental references to real historical figures, numerous references to real places, but also numerous references to things that don’t exist. One would get a very skewed view of the United States if this is one’s source. Yet one would find historical data embedded in it.
  • A novel set in a realistic historical period, Rand’s The Fountainhead, for example.
    I’m distinguishing this category from historical novel in that presenting historical information is not part of the author’s intent, yet the setting is intended to reflect a specific period.
  • A historical novel
    Often a fictional story intended to present a realistic view of a period of history. While the actual characters and character-specific events are fictional, the background and the major historical events are generally intended as accurate.
  • A biography
    Generally this is intended as true, yet dialog and information about the subject may limit the general historical value.
  • A history with a mission
    Portrayal of a period of history intended to present a particular philosophy of history, or the viewpoint of a particular group or something similar.
  • An objective (wishfully) history
    In this case, the author intends to write a sequence of events from an objective point of view in order to correctly portray those events, not accomplish some philosophical goal. Absolute objectivity is impossible, I believe. I’m speaking about the intent.

That gives a kind of summary of some of the levels of historicity that one might find. Consider the gospels briefly. It is fairly common in a course in the gospels (or one particular gospel) to note that the gospel writers did not set out with the intent of writing history. They are presenting a picture of Jesus. Many things that an objective historian (remember: intention!) might present are subordinated to the picture the writer is trying to portray. Some people here this comment as a statement that the gospels contain no historical information, or no reliable historical information. That is certainly never my intent in making the statement. I’m simply pointing out that we should expect the needs of the historian to be thoroughly subordinated to the needs of the biographer and even more so to the theologian.

So let’s briefly look at some historical options in Genesis 1-11 now that we have some loose collection of ideas to which to compare.

The first option, of course, is to regard this portion of scripture as narrative history. Many Christians have done so. This assumption leaves a number of details to be discussed. How detailed is that history? Is it chronological? This latter question can come in two parts: 1) Is it intended as sequential or descriptive in another sense? and 2) Is it intended to portray the passage of time accurately?

Young earth creationists (YEC) would answer that it is narrative history, that it is intended to be sequential, and that the passage of time is intended as an accurate portrayal. This involves two aspects of the text. First, we have the days of Genesis 1 & 2. In the YEC position, these are literal, 24 hours days. But secondly we have the years in the genealogies of Genesis 5 & 11. Here the YEC position is that the years are real years, are accurately portrayed, and that there are no gaps in the genealogies, in other words they are complete.

That’s a substantial number of claims. I would simply note that if you start from level ground, looking at the story in the context of ancient near eastern literature, none of these things is obvious. Nonetheless it is not my purpose to evaluate, so much as to point out the possibilities.

Old earth creationists (OEC), differ from this in that while most of them would hold that the sequence is intended as true, the flow of time in the narrative is not even. For example, between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 1:6 there would be nine billion+ years, while between Genesis 1:6 and 1:11 there would be a bit less than 4 billion years, while starting with verse 14 we have some difficulties with sequence. The genealogies are assumed to contain gaps so as to provide a longer history following Adam and Eve.

Some OECs read the passage more symbolically, i.e. it contains valid historical information, but this information is presented in the form of symbols. Thus sequence, consistency of timing, and referent can be adjusted substantially while still maintaining that there is historical content.

Finally, Christians who accept evolution, but not all theistic evolutionists, most commonly see the passage as mythology, i.e. God presents truth through the medium of the cosmology and the way in which such information was presented in that culture. Now one might think this means there is no historical information in the passage, but again that is not the case. It will still present information about how the world was understood in its time, and how the authors understood themselves and their relationship to God. That is historical information, even though that is not what is intended.

Note that there are some Christian theistic evolutionists who would also see these passages symbolically and find some sense of a presentation of the way it happened in the passage. Thus there are a variety of views on the historical content of the material, and those views don’t precisely match. I have been extremely brief here and probably have left some holes. Hopefully readers will quibble with me in the comments to some can get filled in.

Two additional notes:

  1. I don’t regard any of this as an issue with inerrancy. I know folks who accept Biblical inerrancy who have no problem with the idea of regarding a passage as symbolic or as myth, provided that one is assuming that was the way God intended it to be presented. Then the portion that would be inerrant is whatever message God intended to present in that medium. I don’t accept inerrancy, but I like my debates over the topic to relate to actual disputes!
  2. I distinguish here Christian theistic evolutions as there are numerous other options for those who are theists but not Christians, including ignoring the Bible completely. Deistic views of evolution similarly have no need of discussing how Genesis is understood. This is strictly a Christian or Jewish enterprise, and is different in nature for each of those groups.