Monday, February 10, 2014

Further Reflections on Ken Ham and Creationist Science

I've got to hand it to Ken Ham.  One can only admire what this immigrant from Australia has accomplished in pursuing his vision of 'creation science' and in founding the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.  He has also brought succor and rejoicing to the millions of religious creationists in America, some of them relatives and friends of mine.

Ken Ham's view of the 'descent of man'.
My only problem with all that is that he is profoundly wrong, in my opinion.  Creation science is not really science at all, rather it is an attempt by fundamentalist believers to defend their faith in the historicity and scientific validity of the first eleven chapters of Genesis, using whatever means are necessary, including the rejection of much of what everyone these days seems to call 'mainstream' science, but what I prefer to call just 'science'.

I have over the years collected a fairly large cache of books on the subject, but every time I try to get into the books, I find myself put off.  It may be simple boredom, or it may be some leftover emotional hangup from my childhood, which was fundamentalist in orientation.  I don't know.

Nevertheless, one doesn't need to be a scholar on the subject of fundamentalism and creation science to outline some of the basic problems with it.  I'm probably more familiar with the subject from a number of different viewpoints than most people, so I'll probably just continue writing about it as long as it's in the news.

To begin with, one should in fairness acknowledge a basic historical fact, namely, that the vast majority of Christian folk in Europe and America, including most clergy, prior to the mid 19th century, probably did actually believe in a young earth, a literal Adam and Eve and Noah's Flood.  And for good reason: although modern science had been around since the 17th century, nothing to that point had directly challenged the teachings of the Church (which until the 18th Century Enlightenment dominated Western culture) about the creation story found in the Book of Genesis.

It was only when modern geology and biology came together in the 1840s and 1850s to challenge the notion of a 6,000 year old earth and a much more gradual development of life on earth, that it all hit the fan.  At that point, the basic paradigm of creation of the earth and of biological life shifted drastically to what we know today.  Nonetheless, there have always remained pockets of Christian believers who could not let go of the older paradigm, especially in America, where evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity has always found a more favorable place to thrive than in the Old World.

However, as I almost accidentally discovered the other day, this conflict actually goes back many centuries to the early days of the Church.  Even among the 'Early Church Fathers', as they are often called, there was a recognition that a 'literal' interpretation of Genesis wasn't always the best Christian interpretation, given the uncertainties of nature and the common-sense observations of persons since long before Christ.

For example, here is the great St. Augustine of Hippo, famous Church theologian, writing about the interpretation of Genesis back in 408 AD:  "It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation." --The Literal Interpretation of Genesis.

It is no accident that 'liberal Christianity' also came into its own in the 19th Century in Europe and America.  Liberalism in religion (and this is true for all world religions) was/is an attempt to come to grips with modern forms of thought, including modern science, and somehow make Christian faith compatible with at least some of the modern ways of thinking.  Over time, most of Christianity made its peace with modern science, and in the process developed many new ways of thinking about the basic issues of Christian faith.  Unfortunately, much of this does not get transmitted from what the clergy learn in seminary back to the parishioners in the church, so that, for example, there is much ignorance about the meaning of Genesis among rank and file Christians.

One real problem I have with 'creation science' and its fundamentalist thinking is that young people 'on the fence' about faith may think that that represents the dominant Christian approach to science and feel they have to choose between Christian faith and modern science.  Indeed, that seems to be Ken Ham's direct challenge: either accept a 6,000 year old earth, along with Adam & Eve and Noah's flood, or simply reject the Word of God (and thus God himself) and suffer the eternal consequences!

That may satisfy the fundamentalists among us, but for the rest of us, it is a very unsatisfactory solution.  Most people, Christian or otherwise, wants a religious faith that works cooperatively and tries to 'sync' with the results of our ongoing scientific tradition.  In other words, most people want the good fruit of both religion and science in today's world, believing that in the end, both kinds of investigation and knowledge give us a part of the Truth.

Let me give the last word to St. Augustine:  "In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture."

Friday, February 7, 2014

First Reactions to the Bill Nye-Ken Ham Debate on Science vs. Creationism

I was raised in a fundamentalist church where I was taught from the cradle the things that Ken Ham presented a few days ago in his online debate with 'Science Guy' Bill Nye. About 45 years ago, at the age of around 17, I rejected that fundamentalist worldview and have never turned back. Everything I have learned since then--in college, in seminary, in graduate school, and in my personal study as a Methodist pastor for 35 years--has only reinforced that rejection.

Illustration presented by Ken Ham and the Creation Museum
Which means that I accept the results of 'mainstream' science, in all of its various forms, whether biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, archeology, geology, or whatever.  The universe was created billions of years ago in the Big Bang, not thousands of years.  Likewise, sometime in the almost unimaginably distant past, life developed on earth and over millions of years has evolved into the biosphere that we experience today.

To the contrary, as you can see from the illustration presented by Ken Ham during his creationist presentation, he believes that his fundamentalist interpretation of the first 11 chapters of the biblical book of Genesis somehow trumps all the knowledge that modern science provides to us.  The pictures he shows there could have taken directly from my Sunday School class in 1st grade.  (We used the flannel-graph kind, colorful cutouts stuck to a flannel board on an easel....those of you who grew up back in the 1950s and 60s in fundamentalist Protestant Sunday School will know exactly what I mean!)

This boggles my mind.  The notion that the story of creation as given in Genesis should be taken to be a scientifically and historically accurate account of what actually happened some 6,000 years ago leaves me speechless.  It's hard to know how to counter such a weird thought in this day and age.  To me, it's akin to trying to prove to Mormons that the Book of Mormon is not historically and scientifically accurate.  (In the Book of Mormon, Jews came across the Atlantic Ocean in big boats thousands of years ago, were the ancestors of the American Indians, and welcomed Jesus when he paid a visit to Missouri after his resurrection.)

Poor Bill Nye.  He tried very hard to be nice and fair and balanced to Ken Ham in his presentations and responses, and I give him credit for that.  But this was a mission impossible, because as Ken Ham openly said toward the end of the 'debate', there is no evidence of any kind that would change his mind about 'creationism', because it is a basic religious conviction for him, and to concede anything would be to (for him) deny his faith in Jesus Christ, which of course he will not do.

Now, I'm not saying that Ken Ham isn't a smart man.  He clearly is quite intelligent, and very pleasant and courteous as well.  The problem, of course, lies in the nature of his basic religious presuppositions: namely, that the first 11 chapters of Genesis are historically and scientifically accurate and infallible. Why does he believe that?  Because--as he said several times during the debate--they are the Word of God, and obviously God cannot be wrong.  With those starting points, you pretty much end up where he ends up, modern science be damned.

I've got more to say about this whole thing, but I'll put it in a followup post.