Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Thoughts on the misuse of literalism

According to this article, an American-style "debate" about evolution and creationism has been raging in Kenya, touched off by the National Museum's decision to display its collection of fossils, including Turkana Boy, the most complete proto-human fossil ever discovered. Apparently, the leader of Kenya's large evangelical movement, Bishop Boniface Adoyo, has been leading a crusade of sorts against the museum and against expressions of evolutionary theory in the public square more generally.

I won't bother pointing out what ought to be obvious: that it's alarming that this particular form of religious anti-intellectualism may be spreading, and it's upsetting that the museum authorities have to worry about the security of their exhibits and their visitors due to it.

I did want to point out one thing about the way this story was covered, however, which bothers me quite a bit. It might seem like a quibble, but it's actually a crucial aspect of the evolution controversy that doesn't get enough attention. The article describes Bishop Adoyo's views on evolution thusly:
Followers of creationism believe in the literal truth of the Genesis account in the Bible that God created the world in six days. Bishop Adoyo believes the world was created 12,000 years ago, with man appearing 6,000 years later. He says each biblical day was equivalent to 1,000 Earth years.
So the story seems to be that Adoyo is a literalist, and hence believes the Genesis account of the creation of human beings ex nihilo, hence refuses to believe any account of the origin of human beings that traces their lineage back to a non-human ancestor. Hence, literalism contradicts evolutionism.

This is fine as far as it goes. Surely it's true that the literal meaning of the sentences of Genesis is incompatible with evolutionary theory (and astronomy, geology, etc.). But Bishop Adoyo also believes that the "biblical day" was equivalent to 1,000 Earth years. No matter your interpretation of the ultimate significance of Genesis, and regardless of your general theory of biblical interpretation, this is not a literal interpretation. The literal meaning of the word "day" is 24 hours, not 1,000 years, and there's no appendix to Genesis wherein the author explains that the word "day" should be taken to have a non-standard meaning. The good Bishop therefore isn't even a literalist, really. He allows for the stretching of definitions when it suits him, but not when it suits his secular rivals.

(This is not to say that there's no case to be made for Adoyo's interpretation here, which many theologians accept. I've always found this interpretation a bit odd, though. Is the addition of a few extra thousand years really supposed to make creation seem more plausible? It's surely no more astounding that a god could create the universe in six days than in six thousand years, or at best only more astounding in the "Wow! Superman can fly faster than the speed of sound!" sort of way. When ill-defined supernatural powers are involved, nothing should be astonishing.)

If Adoyo isn't a literalist, why do the folks at CNN insist on calling him one, and on labeling his movement this way? I assume it's because this is how they describe themselves. And this is my complaint: why can't media organizations ever question these self-descriptions? The claim to represent simple and absolute biblical truth is the only thing the anti-evolution forces have going for them. They have no science, they have no sound philosophical arguments, they just have the text of the Bible. So why don't we ever talk about how they actually use the Bible, and whether they really achieve literal interpretations? If they don't, they have nothing going for them whatsoever. If you give up the literal interpretation of something as simple to interpret literally as the word "day", why can't you give up on literally interpreting some of the other aspects of Genesis so that your theology doesn't contradict evolution? I think the answer is simple: they can't give it up because they realize that the scientific worldview constitutes a threat to their authority as long as there is a viable materialistic account of the origin of the universe, life, and our species.

I wish that news organizations would take "literalists" seriously enough to consider whether their claims to Biblical authority are genuine. I think that they can never be, and that "Biblical literalism" is more or less a contradiction in terms--surely no-one thinks that Jesus meant to say that the Kingdom of God is literally a mustard seed--but regardless of my own opinion, I wish we could have an actual debate about these issues.

As long as the culture war between reality-based science and (some wacky versions of) Christianity continues to be seen and presented as a war between science and religion as such, or between science and the Bible as such, it may seem to be a dispute between two equally coherent but contradictory worldviews. But this is simply not the case. "Biblical literalism" is incoherent, and should be called out as such.


M.J. O'Brien said...

So Bishop Adoyo says that "each biblical day was equivalent to 1,000 Earth years."

Methuselah, the oldest person named in the bible, was therefore 353,685,000 years old when he died according to the "modern" calendar, and not merely 969. Quite an accomplishment...

ellis said...

You have to assume that this concept of the "Biblical Year" cuts off at some point, and doesn't apply to every event in the Bible. I have actually heard people say that the Flood lasted for 40,000 years, which would mean that antediluvian Methuselah would in fact have to have been millions of years old. Surely the events in the historical books like Judges and Samuel don't operate on the same scale, though. (Right?) The fact that the application of this definition of "day" cuts off at some point makes it even less plausible as a "literal" interpretation...