Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Why arguing for creationism is, in my opinion, ill-advised

Some time ago, I explained why I think that arguing in favor of Intelligent Design is almost completely misguided; rather than suggesting that ID is false, I said that only a very few people are even qualified to have such a discussion. In response, crooked deep down wrote
However, wouldn't you say that, for some people, what they perceive to be incontrovertible scientific evidence against the Bible is a fence that keeps them from loving Jesus, and we can help them along in their journey if we can knock a hole in that fence?
It's important to remember that crooked is a young earth creationist, so the discussion is completely re-framed, we need to distinguish between three positions:
  1. Young earth creationism
  2. Theistic evolution (ID)
  3. Atheistic evolution
This astute reader observed that there are really two reasons to talk about theory of origin:
  1. To convince somebody to accept Jesus
  2. To reassure yourself that the Bible isn't inauthentic
One of the hiccups with ID is that it attempts 1, but not 2. That is, ID points us to an unnamed creator, but it doesn't make it any easier to read Genesis 1-3 as basically historical.

Young earth creationism attempts both, but fails altogether, because it is deeply incongruous with astronomy, geology, paleontology, paleoanthropology, and archeology, even when just considering the contention that the earth is 6,000 years old (or so). The talk.origins FAQ is the best place to start that I've found.

As far as the science of it is considered, I think creationism is pretty dumb, but I prefer not to think ill of creationists (exception: Kent Hovind). For the most part, creationism makes sense, if you've mostly been exposed to creationist literature. I think of creationism like I think of urban legends, people believe because people they trust believe, and that's completely reasonable, most of the time.

I don't think that belief in YEC is neutral; I think that it is destructive because of how it misrepresents nature and falsely engenders distrust in the scientific process. One example of how YEC harbors misinformation is in crooked's response:
For example, we might say that much-touted radiometric dating relies on a lot of assumptions that might not be true, or the whole thing with the decay of the earth's magnetic field being seemingly incongruous with an Earth much older than 10,000 years.
Again, I don't suspect any malice or evil on the part of crooked, or on the part of whoever told him that, but this is a good example of how YEC, like an urban legend or conspiracy theory, shows part of the information to produce misunderstanding of the whole.

Yes, the earth's magnetic field is currently weakening. This is normal. The contention that the earth can't be much older than 10,000 years depends on the assumption that that the magnetic field has been weakening monotonically, that is, that it has always been weakening. This is simply a very bad assumption; we know that the magnetic field, rather than decreasing steadily, fluctuates periodically, this is called geomagnetic reversal.

We know that geomagnetic reversals have taken place, many times, from several pieces of evidence, namely variation in magnetic polarity in adjacent rock layers. For example, at places where new rock forms continuously, like at the mid-Atlantic ridge, the magnetic polarity of a bit of the rock is like a snapshot of the earth's magnetic field from when that bit of rock was formed. Measurements like this actually confirm the geomagnetic reversal theory, and emphatically point to an old age for the earth.

If I had a friend who was considering becoming a Christian, but felt as if the Genesis account of creation didn't match with science, rather than teach him YEC, I'd instead tell him that Genesis 1-3 was actually written to be understood as myth. George E. Mendenhall's article, "The Shady Side of Wisdom" provides a good explanation of this. (This article is very difficult to find; if you want a copy, ask me.)

Mendenhall demonstrated from linguistic analysis that the text had a late date of authorship, based on the use of certain words that are relatively new. This, alone, doesn't take away from the understanding of the Genesis account as inspired, we just need to read it as an inspired myth that tells us much about who we are and who God is, but not so much about actual history. This isn't even a new idea, Augustine, among others, thought of Genesis 1-3 as basically mythical.

This is what I'd tell a friend considering becoming a Christian.

I hope that I walked the line between calling YEC the way I see it, but not being mean to my creationist readers. If you want to talk, well, origins, check the talk.origins FAQ first, then drop a comment.


  1. I really like what Mike Huckabee said in a debate about this stuff. It might be the only clip from a Presidential debate that I do like.

    Well okay, I don't know what that bit about "How far you'll march that back" is, but I like the rest. I'm agnostic-towards-creationism, whatever that word is.

  2. I stand corrected. Good post; your original was not nearly as thorough in explaining how and why we can still go about doing evangelism and defending the Bible.

  3. I know I'm posting waay too late in this one, but I thought I'd throw my two cents in.

    Completely apart from whether or not creationism is "defensible" from a scientific viewpoint, I would argue that sound, coherent, and consistent Biblical exegesis leaves very little room for considering the Genesis story to be "pure myth". I could go (or perhaps could have gone, when I was younger and smarter) into great detail about how the Hebrew text is not at all similar to texts which would be considered allegorical, but I won't. I realize that's a cop out, but hey - this is a blog. =)

    Lastly, I must say that I do have a further, theological problem with considering the Genesis story to be an allegorical tale. I believe that for the gospel to make sense, man had to have been created perfect, and yet have Fallen by his own actions and will. A scenario in which man evolved from monkeys does not allow for an intelligent position on "when" man stopped being a monkey with no soul and became a man with a soul, nor does it therefore allow for an intelligent explanation of how man could have fallen from a state of grace into a state of sin and misery.

    Oh, and not only that, but (and I know this is probably considered the ultimate of stupid arguments by many) you have to wonder what possible allegorical significance a genealogy of Adam -> Noah could have, and if you discount Adam's existence, it seems to me you must therefore necessarily discount Noah's existence.

    It seems to me that, one way or another, the attempt to avoid taking the Genesis account at least mostly literally ends up in a series of pretty difficult issues to resolve regarding the actual text of the Bible.

  4. Peter, I recognize that you and I really are looking at the historicity of the Old Testament at very different levels, and that's reasonable. Which non-Christians have you met, for whom the issues you mentioned were a primary obstacle to conversion?

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  6. This is very late, but I was meaning to comment on this for a while now (just never got around to it till now, lol)...

    There are a couple things I've learned based on past and current experiences with this.

    First, I think personally it is good to avoid the topic altogether as well and not argue for creationism per se. If I find myself in a conversation like this however the first thing I do is make sure we all define our terms and premises (interpretations, assumptions, etc.) I find it confusing enough to wade through the quagmire of drastically different views of this without having to deal with false assumptions as well.

    So, from there I'll segway into the next point on what I think on the matter itself.

    My views are still in a somewhat transitory state and not fully solidified so bear with me...

    As far as importance goes, I think personally that the whole issue in itself is not important unless it is being used to justify a denial of God or unhealthy biblical interpretive frameworks (which is a discussion in itself and not one I am willing to get into at the moment). Other than that my take is "Where we there when the Earth was made? I'm gonna take a wild guess and say no." In my opinion this goes for both science and biblical interpretation.

    Speaking of which, about the allegory vs literal interpretation, I have a question to ask. Are they always so mutually exclusive? There are places that contain literal events and historical nations and events but are also used in an poetically allegorical way too (Father Gregory was just telling me this in regards to reading certain Psalms). Another example is in John 1:1, the original greek used the word Logos, which has many different meanings in English. Which one should we use, which one was intended? Well, why not all of them? Considering this title of Logos was applied to Jesus Himself, and God created all things and above all of them as well, would it really be farfecthed to say there can be multiple intended meanings?

    So to turn this back to Genesis, I do believe that there was a real, literal Adam and Eve. How, when, and where I dunno, nor is it a top priority on my concern list at the moment. However they also represent humanity before the fall as well, what God had originally intended for us to be that is now marred.

    Again, how it all fits together chronologically I dunno. What I do know is all these are attempts to put into human words things that we really are unable to comprehend on our own. I think of it like a really tough magic eye picture. One has look beyond what your own senses and reasoning see initially and see the fully formed image behind it. One also needs others who actually do know what they are doing to help show how to do it so we can see it for ourselves (as an aside, to this day I have yet to actually see a magic eye image successfully).

    So based on that, in regards to Young Earth/Old Earth I'm gonna stick with my idea for the moment. I call it the Middle Earth Theory! It's basically my way of saying "it's a lot older than 6,000 years, maybe or maybe not 5 billion years exactly, and how it all works I do not know beyond what we've already got".

    All I know is that in the next world at least we won't have to deal with Orcs!

  7. Brandon, since you're coming from a more old-earth view, you're already interpreting Genesis about figuratively enough for it to mesh with science.

    There is a distinction between historical stories with symbolic components, and mythical stories that are highly symbolic. Theologically, a historical Adam and Eve are necessary, but that is about all -- the historicity of a tempter appearing is important, but not whether he was really a snake, or had snake-like attributes. In particular, because of the writing style of the first part of Genesis, I would say to to interpret much of it literally is to do a disservice to the author. I do appreciate, though, consideration of symbolic attributes of stories that are intended as historical, I do not think that this sort of thinking is too common.

  8. Came across your post looking for the Mendenhall article. Is there a way for me to get a copy of it? Thanks so much!

  9. You can't find the Mendenhall article easily. I have it around here somewhere, and I can Xerox a copy for you. Anyone else want a copy? I do advocate reading it, it has been very helpful for me in reconciling the Bible with archaeology, and understanding the Bible to be what it is, no more, no less.