On a recent trip in the Midwest, as I was perusing the tourist brochures in a stand of the hotel where I was staying, I spotted one that read: “Creation Museum, Prepare to Believe”. I shook my head and sighed. Creationism has been around for a while. But the building of modern-looking museums where creationist can present their case to the people is a more recent development that probably reflects the sad state of acceptance of misinformation and rejection of facts and reason that currently prevails in our society.
I have addressed the topic of creationism several times in my blog. Creationists believe the Bible to be the literal word of God. Therefore, when they perceive there is an apparent contradiction between science and their interpretation of the Bible, they choose their interpretation of the Bible.
While many people and religious denominations understand that there are sections of the Bible that are not to be taken literally, creationists are wary of this notion. They argue that it is tantamount to human beings deciding what parts of the word of God they will believe, and they see this just as a recipe for distorting God’s message. They also ask, “Where do we draw the line?” If one passage is declared not to be the literal word of God, and then another, and another, where does it stop? Creationists also argue that God would not lie to us. If God communicated in the Bible that something happened, or if we can infer it from his words, then it must be true.
While some people may roll their eyes at these arguments, they are certainly not trivial. Faith is central to the lives of creationists. They see any belittling of the word of God (the Bible) as anathema to their faith, and people who hold creationist views represent a strong and motivated economic and political block in our society. It would be to everyone’s advantage if the conflict between creationists and science could be resolved, and heaping scorn upon creationists does not help. In fact, many creationists are actually eager to find ways to reconcile their faith with mainstream science. But how do we go about this?
There is a possible resolution to this conundrum that has been proposed by several individuals in various versions over the years. In this post I will try to convey my own version of this proposal.
Although people believe that the general message in the Bible is timeless, the book is clearly addressed to people living thousands of years ago who didn’t have the understanding or the thinking about the world that we have today. But how was God to address those people?
Look at it from the point of view of God. God wanted to get key points across such as love each other, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, and so forth, but at the same time God had to provide a background to address certain common-sense issues such as how everything started, how it’s going, how it works, and how it will end. But God couldn’t do this employing the comprehension of the natural world we have today, as it would just have created confusion and bewilderment among those people. God would have had to introduce new terms such as genes, chromosomes, cells, mutations, species, evolution, deep time, plate tectonics, the fact that stars are suns, supernovas, gravity, the speed of light, etc. to describe realities that were alien to the beliefs and notions those people had regarding how the world works. It would have been counterproductive for God to dwell on complex subjects beyond the understanding of the people of those times. So the solution was to simplify the message, present it at their level of understanding, frame it within the context of their commonly held beliefs, and then move on to the really important things.
Believing that the Bible is the literal word of God is perfectly compatible with this view. The world was not created in seven days and is not six thousand years old. Life arose on Earth by a process of evolution, and there was not a universal flood. However, God communicated otherwise to the people of those times so they could relate to what he was saying in a manner compatible with their understanding and beliefs about the world around them.
There are several levels of what we call “the truth”. When we greatly simplify things for our children and explain issues and things in ways that they can understand, you could argue that we are “lying” to them because we are not conveying the actual complex, detailed truth. But it is unfair to say we are lying to them because they would not understand or relate to the truth if we were to explain it to them at the adult level. Similarly, the intention of God was not to lie, but to make the Bible accessible to the people of those times who had a limited understanding of their physical world.
And as to the Creationist question of where do we draw the line, my answer is that we draw it at science. When God inspired human beings to write the Bible, God did not intend to teach science. The Bible is not a science textbook. The Bible is not intended to teach natural history. Pronouncements about how the physical world works are not the warp and woof of the Bible. That’s the realm of science. The Bible is about how to go to heaven, not about how the heavens go. The Bible is about the Rock of Ages, not about the age of rocks.
Science has limits. It cannot tell us what is good or bad, moral or immoral, ethical or unethical. That’s the field of expertise of the Bible and religion. As a scientist I accept that science has these limits. However, at the same time, the Bible has limits too, and creationists have to accept this. The Bible cannot tell us accurate truths about the chemistry, biology, and physics of the natural world beyond the understanding of people who lived a long time ago. Science and religion have different fields of expertise or non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), as proposed by the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould.
Our use of science has to be tempered by values, morals, and ethics, which most of the time have their origins in religion, but what we choose to believe has to be tempered by science. Science and religion have to coexist and work together, not be adversarial, and I hope that the particular view of the Bible that others and I have proposed gains acceptance among creationist circles.
Photograph by the author can only be used with permission.