(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)
Religious believers occupy a continuous spectrum that range from those take their religious texts as literally true to those who say they treat them as metaphors.
For those who treat them as literally true, books like the Bible serve as infallible history texts. Although religious texts are not meant to be scientific textbooks (in that the material is not organized in a way that seeks to elucidate the laws of nature) and are not considered so even by ardent literalists, the events described as history (such as the Genesis story and the miracles) do have scientific consequences and treating those events as factual leads to conflicts with science that have to be resolved in some way.
For example, the Bible does not come right out and give the age of the Earth but its genealogies and the chronology of the kings, if assumed to be historically true, enable one to calculate it quite precisely, as was done by Bishop Ussher, Isaac Newton, and others. (See here and here for how those calculations were done.) The more fundamentalist religious believers who take everything in the Bible literally are stuck with these conclusions that impinge on science, however many contradictions and complications it causes them. That is why they eventually become essentially anti-science.
Other religious believers, being more sophisticated and not wanting to be seen as anti-science, know that they have to escape the shackles of being bound to the literal truth of the religious texts while not discrediting them entirely. One device is to argue that although the Bible is the word of god as revealed by him, at the time he chose to make his revelations god was dealing with a population that was generally ignorant, especially of the concepts of modern science, and thus had to greatly simplify the truth of how creation came about. He thus gave them the Genesis story, telling a tale of creation in a way that could be understood by the people of that time.
The implication in this mode of thinking is that if god had waited a couple of thousands of years more before revealing himself, and chosen Pat Robertson as his Moses and taken him to a mountain to whisper in his ear, he would have revealed his creation story in terms of the big bang theory, conservation of energy, and other modern scientific concepts. (Though Pat may still not have understood, not being the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, if you get my drift.)
Although this sentiment is widespread among those who are not literalists but want to preserve the idea that the Bible is a source of great and eternal truths, is it reasonable? Jason Rosenhouse doesn’t think so. He takes this argument apart by pointing out that there is a big difference between simplifying and fabrication, and he gives as an example of how we try to answer small children when they ask deep questions.
When you explain something to a small child you routinely simplify the situation. You omit details and context, and express yourself in language the child will understand. It is rare, and almost never appropriate, to lie outright to the child about what is going on. Surely God could have presented the essential spiritual truths without embedding them within a fictitious story. Accommodating His presentation to the level of His audience calls for simplification, not fabrication.
Rosenhouse does not specify the rare instances where it may be appropriate to fabricate but may be thinking of stories like the stork delivering babies, because people are uneasy with talking about sex with their children until they reach a certain age. But even in such cases, it is possible to finesse the sex issue but still preserve the essential truth that a baby emerges from the mother’s womb.
As a general rule, it is desirable to follow the advice of Albert Einstein who said:
It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience. (“On the Method of Theoretical Physics”, The Herbert Spencer Lecture, delivered at Oxford (10 June 1933); also published in Philosophy of Science, Vol. 1, No. 2 (April 1934), pp. 163-169.)
More popular variants of this sentiment that have been attributed to him are “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler” and “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.” In other words, don’t simplify to the point of distortion. It can be argued that any major simplification necessarily implies some distortion but the caution to bear in mind is to not simplify to the point where you have changed the very core of the idea.
One could think of many ways to tell a simplified story of the origins of the universe that approximate the best scientific ideas of current times in ways that should have been understandable, at least in their general outlines, by children now or people who lived several thousand years ago. Recently I was asked by an elderly relative who has absolutely no scientific background to explain the big bang theory to him “in words of one syllable.” i.e., without jargon or the assumption of knowledge of even slightly esoteric scientific concepts. It is not that hard to do and I am preparing such a document and may post it later. In doing so, I will follow Einstein’s dictum.
Rosenhouse argues that the story of Genesis does not fit the description of simplification. It so disconnected from the way we now believe things actually happened that it cannot be viewed as anything but a total fabrication. Take for example the implications of the Genesis story for evolution:
The question is: If… the Bible was not meant to provide us with scientific information, then why does it say anything about science at all?
Let us assume for the moment that evolution is God’s means of creation. We can understand that He would not lay out the technical details of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis, since those details would not have meant anything to ancient readers. How does it follow that His only option was to present the story of creation via an entirely fictitious sequence of events? A story which, if you accept the results of modern science, has led astray enormous numbers of sincere seekers over the centuries.
Rosenhouse correctly argues that the Genesis story cannot be re-interpreted as a simplification of the big bang theory or of evolution. For those who think that evolution was guided by god and that the Genesis story was meant to hint at that, I could easily think of a simplified story that would have served god’s purpose better. “And god created the Sun and then later the Earth. In the waters he created life, first as tiny beings from which came forth worms which then became fishes that later crawled upon the land and became a multitude of animals and birds. And finally there came man. And the morning and evening were many, many days. And he saw that it was good.” It needs work, but you get the idea.
The purpose of the Genesis story, as Rosenhouse says, is clearly something else, to drive home the idea of original sin and the fall from grace.
The stories in Genesis are central to the grand narrative of fall redemption, yet modern science tells us these stories are completely fictitious. Given this basic fact I can understand why so many people believe you must choose between science and scripture. What I do not understand is people trying to maintain the idea that the Bible is holy and inerrant some of the time, while utterly unreliable at other times.
Next: What about the idea that the events in the Bible are not simplifications but are metaphors?
POST SCRIPT: A mystery solved
Ever wonder why so much of TV is so awful? That Mitchell and Webb Look explains.