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."

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