Pete Enns, BioLogos, and Adam and Eve: why accommodationism won’t work

Peter Enns was the Senior Fellow in Biblical Studies at BioLogos, the Templeton-funded and Francis-Collins-founded organization devoted to reconciling evangelical Christianity and evolution.  Enns has good academic credentials, including a Ph.D. from Harvard in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.  And he left BioLogos about the same time as Karl Giberson (the Vice President), and I suspect it was because both of these guys couldn’t abide BioLogos‘s weaselly stand on Adam and Eve: a refusal to take a stand on whether they existed or not despite the clear results of populations genetics that they could not have existed.

Since leaving BioLogos, Uncle Karl became more critical of evangelical Christianity’s refusal to deal squarely with the facts of science.  Now Enns joins this critical stance in a pair of essays he’s just published, one on PuffHo and the other on his website, Peter Enns.  The articles are telling, for while being far more accepting of science and dismissive of Adam and Eve than were Enns’s former compadres at BioLogos, and far more critical of science-resisting Christians, Enns’s pieces unwittingly show why accommodationism won’t work.  It’s the same reason as ever: to comport science with evangelical Christianity requires those Christians to seriously revise their beliefs—something they won’t do. Further, the accommodationist “synthesis” of science and faith requires a selective reading of the Bible, in which some stories are seen as literally true while others aren’t.  These two reasons are connected, of course, because Evangelicals are perfectly aware of the slippery slope: if Adam and Eve were just metaphors, then Jesus could be too.

In his PuffHo piece, “Once more with feeling: Adam, evolution, and evangelicals,” Enns begins with a stark claim, and one that BioLogos would die rather than admit: science and the Biblical literalism of evangelicals are incompatible:

If evolution is right about how humans came to be, then the biblical story of Adam and Eve isn’t. If you believe, as evangelicals do, that God himself is responsible for what’s in the Bible, you have a problem on your hands. Once you open the door to the possibility that God’s version of human origins isn’t what actually happened — well, the dominoes start unraveling down the slippery slope. The next step is uncertainty, chaos and despair about one’s personal faith. . .

Evolution is a threat, and many evangelicals are fighting to keep Adam in the family photo album. But in their rush to save Christianity, some evangelicals have been guilty of all sorts of strained, idiosyncratic or obscurantist tactics: massaging or distorting the data, manipulating the legal system, scaring their constituencies and strong-arming those of their own camp who raise questions.

I have a strong suspicion that the last sentence refers to BioLogos and its dumping of Enns and Giberson over the Adam-and-Eve business.  Regardless, Enns proposes a solution, but it’s flawed: the Adam-and-Eve story wasn’t meant to be taken literally.

Evangelicals look to the Bible to settle important questions of faith. So, faced with a potentially faith-crushing idea like evolution, evangelicals naturally ask right off the bat, “What does the Bible say about that?” And then informed by “what the Bible says,” they are ready to make a “biblical” judgment.

This is fine in principle, but in the evolution debate this mindset is a problem: It assumes that the Adam and Eve story is about “human origins.” It isn’t. And as long as evangelicals continue to assume that it does, the conflict between the Bible and evolution is guaranteed.

Since the 19th century, through scads of archaeological discoveries from the ancient world of the Bible, biblical scholars have gotten a pretty good handle on what ancient creation stories were designed to do.

Ancient peoples assumed that somewhere in the distant past, near the beginning of time, the gods made the first humans from scratch — an understandable conclusion to draw. They wrote stories about “the beginning,” however, not to lecture their people on the abstract question “Where do humans come from?” They were storytellers, drawing on cultural traditions, writing about the religious — and often political — beliefs of the people of their own time.

Their creation stories were more like a warm-up to get to the main event: them. Their stories were all about who they were, where they came from, what their gods thought of them and, therefore, what made them better than other peoples.  . . .To think that the Israelites, alone among all other ancient peoples, were interested in (or capable of) giving some definitive, quasi-scientific, account of human origins is an absurd logic. And to read the story of Adam and Eve as if it were set up to so such a thing is simply wrongheaded.

Although Enns is an Old Testament scholar, this is bizarre.  It implies that the stories were “designed” as kind-of-metaphorical tales to explain human origins, and that the Adam and Eve story wasn’t really about human origins. It was a “warm-up” to explain human nature, and therefore shouldn’t be taken seriously.

But that’s bogus.  Two millennia of Christians thought these stories were real, and saw them as literal.  Of course those folks weren’t capable of giving a scientific account of humanity’s origins, but they didn’t know that! The Adam and Eve story, an amalgam of two earlier myths, was an honest attempt to describe human origins, and is still seen as such by millions of Christians who believe the Bible is either the direct word of God or is divinely inspired.

But it’s more important than that: the Adam and Eve saga plays a pivotal role in the message of Christianity: their sins brought God’s opprobrium on humanity, an opprobrium that could be expiated only with the death of Jesus.  If you discard Adam and Eve, the whole rationale for Jesus’s appearance and crucifixion, and the Christian view of humans as innately sinful, dissolves completely.  That’s why BioLogos is in such a frenzy about Adam and Eve. Science says they’re fictional; Evangelical Christians require that they existed.  There’s no resolution except to concoct dubious stories that the Primal Pair sort-of-existed, that is, there were two real people among many that God designated as “honorary” ancestors of modern humans.

Enns’s solution, the only one possible that saves both Christianity and science, is to discard the idea of a literal Adam and Eve:

Reading the biblical story against its ancient backdrop is hardly a news flash, and most evangelical biblical scholars easily concede the point. But for some reason this piece of information has not filtered down to where it is needed most: into the mainstream evangelical consciousness. Once it does, evangelicals will see for themselves that dragging the Adam and Eve story into the evolution discussion is as misguided as using the stories of Israel’s monarchy to rank the Republican presidential nominees.

Evangelicals tend to focus on how to protect the Bible against the attacks of evolution. The real challenge before them is to reorient their expectation of what the story of Adam and Eve is actually prepared to deliver.

Translation of the last sentence:  “Evangelical Christians must discard their belief in a literal Adam and Eve.”  But he doesn’t add the obvious point that this affects the whole Christian mythology, nor describe how to deal with the idea of discarding original sin.  Further, he doesn’t tell us why we shouldn’t also see the stories of the New Testament as “quasi-scientific” attempts to explain human nature—not the word of God but human constructions.  If Adam and Eve didn’t exist, why do we assume Jesus did? After all, the Bible is equally clear on the existence of all three.

While I admire Enns’s frank admission that Evangelical Christians must deal with science, he weasels out of the most important questions: the effects on Christian faith of trashing the Old Testament as a literal document, and the reasons why we’re supposed to accept the Old Testament as metaphor but the New Testament as literal. I challenge Enns, who knows these things perfectly well, to come clean about these issues.  His failure to deal head on with the important questions shows, more than anything, why the mission of BioLogos is doomed.  And it has been an abject failure: no Christians have converted to evolution, and BioLogos now is engaged simply in pandering to Biblical literalists.


Enns’s own blog post, “Evangelicalism and evolution ARE in serious conflict (and that’s not the end of the world)“, is taken from his new book, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Does Not Say About Human Origins.  And I’m surprised and pleased that he admits again that Evangelical Christianity is wrong in opposing science. He also admits that facile acccommodation is doomed.

There are two kinds of thinking that get in the way of the conversation evangelicals need to have over evolution.

One is exemplified by those who see red, cry “liberal,” and retreat to their safe doctrinal bunker with their fingers in their ears humming “la la la la la I do not hear you.”

The other type is exemplified by those on the other side of the spectrum, but whose thinking is just as harmful. They claim that there is no real conflict between evolution and Christianity. The two can get along quite well, with perhaps a minor adjustment or two—nothing to lose sleep over.

The former approach is obscurantist and stubborn; latter is theologically superficial. Both cause spiritual damage.

The last two sentences are a serious indictment of Enns’s former employer BioLogos, whom he sees as promulgating “superficial theology” and pushing views that are “spiritually damaging.” That’s a strong charge.

And you don’t often see an admission this frank from someone of Enns’s stripe:

So, I repeat my point: evolution cannot simply be grafted onto evangelical Christian faith as an add-on, where we can congratulate ourselves on a job well done. This is going to take some work—and a willingness to take theological risk.

Evolution demands true synthesis: a willingness to rethink one’s own convictions in light of new data, and that is typically a very hard thing to do.

Well, one solution when rethinking one’s convictions is to realize the whole apparatus of Christianity is a human-constructed fiction, and that there’s no evidence for either God or a divine Jesus. Enns, however, isn’t willing to do that.  Why? First, because religion is here to stay:

Likewise, abandoning all faith in view of our current state of knowledge is hardly an attractive—or compelling—option. Despite the New Atheist protestations of the bankruptcy of any faith in God in the face of science, most world citizens are not ready to toss away what has been the central element of the human drama since the beginning of recorded civilization.

That’s a terrible reason to retain a false story. What’s false is false, regardless of how many people believe it.

The real reason, of course, is that revelation has told Enns that God and Baby Jesus are real:

Neither am I, not because I refuse to see the light, but because the light of science does not shine with equal brightness in every corner. There is mystery. There is transcendence. By faith I believe that the Christian story has deep access to a reality that materialism cannot provide and cannot be expected to know.

That is a confession of faith, I readily admit, but when it comes to accessing ultimate reality, we are all in the same boat, materialistic atheists included: at some point we must all say, “I can see no further than here, comprehend no more than this.”

This reminds me of John Haught and his cup-of-tea metaphor that supposedly proves a “deeper reality”.  Yes, there is mystery, and if two millennia of religious lucubration has shown us anything, it’s that mysteries about the state of the universe can be solved only by science. Theology has provided no solutions; or rather, different theologies provide different solutions. Those are not “answers”, but alternative, irreconcilable, and insoluble guesses.  And how exactly does Enns know that there’s “transcendence”?

I have mixed feelings about Enns. He’s smart enough to see that evolution poses a serious problem for Christianity, but not savvy enough to see that this problem is insoluble—maybe not for him, but for many.  He’s not savvy enough to see that he won’t persuade Evangelical Christians to give up major tenets of their faith.  And, worst of all, he’s not courageous enough to do what Dawkins has asked: for Christians to go “one god further” in abandoning their historical beliefs in deities.  When Enns says “By faith I believe that the Christian story has deep access to a reality that materialism cannot provide and cannot be expected to know,” he’s abnegating the very canons of reason that he espouses.  Because, after all, the words “By faith I believe” really mean, “There’s no evidence for what I believe, but I believe it anyway because I like it.”

Let me remind Enns what he’s up against when arguing that Biblical scholarship shows that the stories of Genesis are fictional:

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll.

Perhaps people can eventually be convinced that global warming is real, since that doesn’t really contradict their faith in a serious way, but as for Adam and Eve and evolution, well, it’s not so simple.


Update: I see that over at EvolutionBlog Jason Rosenhouse has written a good analysis of Enns’s PuffHo piece. I especially like Jason’s conclusion:

There are good reasons why mainstream evangelicals are mostly not buying what the scholars are selling. Once you accept that science flatly contradicts the foundational stories of scripture, you seem to have two options.

You could go Enns’s route, and summon forth a tortured model of Biblical inspiration in which God chose to communicate fundamental truths of the human condition in a manner so confusing that normal people cannot read them on their own. Instead they need assistance from the local departments of archaeology and ancient civilizations, and to have it explained to them that what certainly appear to be factual accounts of human origins are actually something else entirely. We are left to sympathize with all those generations of honest seekers laboring prior to the advances of modern scholarship, who simply had no hope of coming to a correct understanding of God’s word.

Against this you have the possibility that the Genesis stories are purely human constructions, and that they seem naive from a modern perspective because they were not written by people with any special insight into much of anything.

Which possibility do you really think is more plausible?


  1. GBJames
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Evangelical Christians have trapped themselves. There is no solution to this other than to stop pretending that make-believe can be made compatible with an honest understanding of reality. If they stop pretending, they will no longer be evangelical Christians. You simply can’t have both.

    • dunstar
      Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      well it sure is entertaining as hell! lol.

  2. Posted January 26, 2012 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    [A]t some point we must all say, “I can see no further than here, comprehend no more than this.”


    I mean, sure. It’s important to recognize the boundary between what we do and don’t know. But why on Earth should we even stop to think about stopping at that boundary? Do that, and you, by very definition, slam the door on all possibility of the advancement of knowledge.

    Besides which, it’s not like we don’t know anything about classical Judean history, or that there’s any reason why it should be hard to know about such things. Indeed, we know a great deal, a surprising amount all things considered, about it.

    And it’s no more intellectually honest to think that the Zombie of Zion terrorized the populace in 33 than it is to think that Darth Vader went around blowing up planets a long time ago in a galaxy far away. They’re both fantasies, obviously and unapologetically so…and all who insist on clinging to these fantasies as somehow real are childishly delusional.



    • Hempenstein
      Posted January 26, 2012 at 7:45 am | Permalink

      ZoZ: +1!

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted January 26, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

        Ya, ZoZ.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted January 26, 2012 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

          Yah, ZoZ. [D’oh!]

    • PB
      Posted January 26, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

      Yea! that’s it .. Jason’s alternatives (at the update) is not equal.

      It is not that we know nothing of how the people 2-3 thousand years ago live and think. A lot of comparisons to the judean version of origin and everything.

  3. Patrick
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    I don’t understand why people keep saying (to paraphrase) “We can tell that Adam and Eve aren’t intended as literal history because we can demonstrate that they were intended as parables.”

    That’s faulty reasoning, and probably anachronism. In religious world views, something can be believed to be both a parable and an event that actually happened.

    • Sajanas
      Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      While I’m all for trying to relate older works to modern ideas, understanding a work of literature requires an understanding of how its original context would have been. For example, my Shakespeare professor in college taught us that Hamlet’s long speeches, visions of ghosts (who made a point of departing *below* the stage, hell-ward), and various other features were intended to paint him as insane and even a villain. But today, characters giving long soliloquies to the audience aren’t that uncommon, so some of that original context needs to be mentioned, or we just think he’s troubled, but not on the brink of full on madness.

      Likewise, people who are familiar with Greek, Roman, and Norse creation myths might see Adam and Eve as just the mythical start of the story, but it is very important to remember that the people who told those stories originally, and wrote them down all thought they were real, and found it important enough to make sure that the creation story was put into one narrative. And likewise with the Flood, Johan and the Whale, and the Exodus. And realizing this makes religion feel a little more embarrassing too.

      • Steve
        Posted January 26, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

        How do you know the guy who first told one of those stories thought it to be truth, and not just a story he was concocting?

        • Sajanas
          Posted January 27, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

          That’s entirely possible, and I think its the sort of thing people study when the look at development exiting cults, or even just various psychics. I’m sure there are plenty of frauds, but (and I could be wrong here, since I’m just going off of various skeptics articles, not real data) the more successful ones are the ones that actually believe themselves.

          Plus, how the original audience would have interpreted it is probably more important than what the original author did, since it probably lead more to the consensus in how to understand it.

          • Posted January 27, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

            Depends. Joseph Smith was really obviously a conman, and Mormons are completely sincere. L. Ron Hubbard was really obviously a conman, and Scientologists are completely sincere. I see no reason to assume the founder needed to believe a word of it to get people to believe him.

            • Diane G.
              Posted January 29, 2012 at 2:17 am | Permalink

              Ain’t that the truth.

  4. dbredes
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    “…well, the dominoes start unraveling down the slippery slope.” Wow. Anybody have a mixed metaphor collection?

    • Posted January 26, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      Ha! Beat me! It’s such a complete jumble, I think Enns must have done it deliberately…


      • dbredes
        Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

        You’re a generous thinker.

        • Posted January 26, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

          & I think my generous thinking has been vindicated! 😀


      • McWaffle
        Posted January 26, 2012 at 10:19 am | Permalink

        Taken literally, it kinda reminds me of something out of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory.

    • Posted January 26, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      I’ve heard from Pete Enns, who assures me that this was a deliberate mixture. He told me this, which I have permission to post:

      And as for my jumbled metaphor “the dominoes start unrevealing down the slippery slope”—-you can tell you readers that I was kidding a bit. Sheesh. Some have no capacity for humor, I suppose. I was humorously joining together the standard sets of excuses I hear among some Christians.

      • Linda Grilli Calhoun
        Posted January 26, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

        I’m happy he was kidding. However, if he makes an effort to follow some of the comment threads, he might notice how badly written many of the posts are.

        Sometimes it’s hard to tell satire from seriousness. The goddies peddle tripe that they actually believe, and because it’s nonsense, we sometimes go in the other direction and mistake that for satire. They cannot possibly believe that baloney, right? They MUST be kidding, right? L

        • GBJames
          Posted January 26, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

          There is a reason for Poe’s Law.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted January 26, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

        What can we say? That is what happens when your lost son comes home to roost.

        • Diane G.
          Posted January 27, 2012 at 12:45 am | Permalink

          Or your prodigal chicken. Or when the tapestry tumbles…

  5. Posted January 26, 2012 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    “But that’s bogus.”

    No, it’s Biobogus.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted January 26, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

      Well done.

  6. Linda Grilli Calhoun
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    “…the dominoes start unraveling down the slippery slope.”

    Mixed metaphor, anyone?

    I have a theory that, as part of “religion makes you stupid”, the dumber you are in your thinking, the worse you write. And, I personally find poor expression to be a big distraction while I’m trying to understand the ideas and content.

    I’m sure there are exceptions at both ends of the spectrum, but in general this seems to be true.

    This is amply demonstrated by this article; the author has the academic credentials to express himself, but there seems to be a positive correlation between the level of his thinking and the level of his writing.

    I’ve also seen this on Pharyngula. For anyone who has followed the Why I Am an Atheist series, it is impressive how well written those essays are, even by people who are writing in English as a second language.

    I wish I had the time to research this formally, but I don’t. L

    • Diane G.
      Posted January 27, 2012 at 12:47 am | Permalink

      Rationality is more effable.

  7. Egbert
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Evangelicalism has always been the enemy of both atheists and rational theists. However, a rational theist was more or less a deist or pantheist, the idea that evangelicalism and science can co-exist makes no sense other than political propaganda by evangelicals.

  8. Posted January 26, 2012 at 7:51 am | Permalink

    He’s … not savvy enough to see that this problem is insoluble

    I suspect that he is, but that he just can’t yet admit it to himself — or, at least, in public.

    Religious convictions have stayed some historical scientists from believing their own conclusions — an essay on this by Asimov is lurking at the back of my mind, but I can’t remember who it was about… :-/


    • Diane G.
      Posted January 27, 2012 at 12:49 am | Permalink

      One reason we had to come up with the term cognitive dissonance. Of which most all of us are quite capable at times…

  9. BradW
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    It would be nice if people checked their facts when talking about the Medal of Honor.

    The highest civilian award in the U.S. is the Presidential Medal of Freedom which is what was awarded to Francis Collins.

    The Medal of Honor (sometimes called the Congressional Medal of Honor) is only awarded to military members (many times posthumously to surviving family) for service way beyond the call of expected duty.

    It is a dishonor to Medal of Honor recipients and there families to confuse these two awards.

    • BradW
      Posted January 26, 2012 at 8:00 am | Permalink

      Duh! “their” not “there”!

  10. Tulse
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    I would be nice if both Uncle Karl and Cousin Pete would be explicit with their audience and note that they used to work for BioLogos, by far the most prominent organization pushing the line that they now oppose. And it would be more intellectually honest if they admitted that their own positions on this issue have changed (as they apparently have).

  11. vel
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Enns seems to be just one more Christian with a magic decoder ring. His version of god says that he can decide that A&E were metaphor but golly, JC was real. Just more of the same pathetic excuses.

    • Wowbagger
      Posted January 26, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      I hadn’t that term (‘magic decoder ring’) used to describe the mysterious process by which Christians determine fact from metaphor in the bible before.

      But it’s very apt.

  12. Posted January 26, 2012 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    I put this to my Christian friends – theologically sophisticated, actually read the Bible, know its history, frustrated by fundamentalists’ stupidity – and they respond that it works fine if you think of the Fall as a metaphor for humans’ evolved barely-intelligent animal state.

    • Tulse
      Posted January 26, 2012 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      But the notion of redemption only works if there was some sort of explicit rejection of the Christian god — if “the Fall” was just a natural, unthinking state, then how is it sinful, how is it our fault, and why should we be punished for it?

      The story of Jesus and his alleged “sacrifice” doesn’t work if human sinfulness is natural, and not an explicit rejection of the divine.

      • Tulse
        Posted January 26, 2012 at 8:28 am | Permalink

        (And why the hell do atheists have to explain to Christians how their own damned theology works?)

        • Posted January 26, 2012 at 8:37 am | Permalink

          This is apparently the answer they actually use in their thinking. Presumably that bit’s a metaphor too, like all the other hard bits.

          (Because we are so rude and uncivil as to insist on actual joined-up thinking.)

          • Sajanas
            Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:34 am | Permalink

            I always had weird feelings about the whole Jesus story, since it didn’t seem quite right, for the reasons Tulse mentioned, and the general “Why couldn’t God just forgive people without the sacrifice if he was such a great guy?” question too. But I was honestly afraid to articulate it to myself, because I could sense a red line where it would break my faith in God entirely. When I was frustrated enough with religion, I went past that line pretty quickly, but it can be hard when you’re part of a community that tries to tie its membership with believe in various incoherent stuff.

        • Posted January 26, 2012 at 8:43 am | Permalink

          Because it doesn’t.

          Work, that is.

          I mean, that’s the whole point of “faith.”

          Used car salesman: “She’s a beaut, all right!”

          Parishioner: “So how’s the transmission?”

          UCS: “Trust me, it’s perfect! Like new!”

          P picks up a handful of oily sawdust: “How do you explain this, then?”

          UCS: “Er…the last owner was a carpenter. Did beautiful cabinetry!”

          P: “Well, then, in that case, I have faith in you! How shall I make out the check?”

          UCS: “Actually, we only take cash. It’s not that I don’t trust you…it’s just company policy, you see. Nothing personal.”

          P: “Not a problem. Here you go!”

          UCS: “Pleasure doing business!”

          David’s “sophisticated” Christian friends aren’t trying to find the truth of the matter. They’re engaging in sophistry that helps perpetuate the scam.



      • Kevin
        Posted January 26, 2012 at 8:45 am | Permalink

        To be fair, the evangelicals are the ones who really put themselves up a tree with this type of literalist “fall” thinking.

        Some churches preach merely that man has a “sinful nature” and therefore the giant invisible fairy sent himself down to Earth in human form so he could be sacrificed to himself in order that he could be given the authority to forgive us for being sinful creatures which he created in the first place but not the sinful part that was Satan but in any event a human sacrifice was definitely needed in order that those people who think in the right way can have their souls sorted after death away from those who don’t think the right way about whether or not this human sacrifice actually happened, or if there was some sort of human death involved in the whole history whether or not it meant anything at all other than some weird preacher kook getting himself offed by the authorities for mouthing off too much.

        Sophisticated theology.

        • Linda Grilli Calhoun
          Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:26 am | Permalink


        • Tulse
          Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:28 am | Permalink

          One can see why fundamentalism is appealing — at least it’s simple and understandable, however wrong it might be.

      • Dan L.
        Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:49 am | Permalink

        There’s two ways to go at this.
        1) Humans in a state of nature are just the way they are, there’s no concept of “good” and “evil.” To become civilized, human beings need rules/laws etc. and these rules impose concrete notions of “good” and “evil” (or at least “good” and “bad”). Thus, evil is a result of humans becoming civilized and trying to impose rules on each other. The problem here is that we’ve given up any metaphysical notion of “good” and “evil” so we don’t need a literal God to make sense of this. In this case, we can look at Jesus as a non-divine human who tried to show other humans how to live together peacefully without imposing rules on each other.
        2) Essentially the same thing but with some metaphysics. The “knowledge of good and evil” that led to the earliest forms of law “polluted” the souls/minds of humans in some metaphysical sense, God is real, and Jesus really was trying to “clean up” the souls/minds of all these “polluted” humans.

        I’m not endorsing either narrative. I find (2) incredibly silly and there are some serious problems with (1). But I also think (1) is an interesting answer to the question “what is civilization” as asked by rabbis in the 5th century BC.

        Of course, by endorsing (1) you lose all the mystical claptrap that usually goes along with Christianity but from my perspective that’s a good thing. At any rate, the problem with these narratives is that there is no reason to believe them, not that they’re logically inconsistent.

    • derekw
      Posted January 26, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      Have to agree with Jerry here and if you take the side that A&E are metaphorical much of the Biblical redemptive story falls apart (along with historicity claims such as genealogies.) Personally I like my “2001” theory for a literal A&E. You also have the ‘headship’ theory where two humans are chosen by God out of a population. And there are ways one could wiggle around with even greater ‘miraculous’ interventions (ie creation of gene diversity.) One could also propose population genomics as being fairly young in scientific practices and await further confirmation of early results would be much more prudent.

  13. Zugswang
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    I doubt many evangelicals have read the Summa Theologica, but there’s a bit in there I find particularly hard for Christians, especially Catholics, to ignore:

    “In discussing questions of this kind [in this article, Aquinas is discussing whether firmament was created on the second day] two rules are to observed, as Augustine teaches (Gen. ad lit. i, 18). The first is, to hold the truth of Scripture without wavering. The second is that since Holy Scripture can be explained in a multiplicity of senses, one should adhere to a particular explanation, only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it, if it be proved with certainty to be false; lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing.”

    I’m actually surprised this doesn’t get quoted more often, especially when someone decides to use the “sophisticated theology” gambit.

    • Tulse
      Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:30 am | Permalink

      My guess is that it’s because Augustine is associate with the Catholic Church, that Whore of Babylon. One doesn’t need fancy learnin’ to understand the literal Word of God.

    • Persto
      Posted January 26, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      Trust me it is well-known among sophisticated theologians. It just doesn’t necessitate quoting. It is one of those basic beliefs of apologists and accommodationists. I mean, that is exactly what they are in the business of effectuating–manipulating scripture to be congruent with scientific evidence about the universe.

  14. Kevin
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    Note to copy editors: Every time Enns uses the word “faith”, replace with “credulity”.


  15. Posted January 26, 2012 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    …the Christian story has deep access to a reality that materialism cannot provide…

    Deep access to a reality? As opposed to, what, shallow access to a reality? He presumably means the Christian story tells us things we wouldn’t otherwise know. Why can’t any of these people just write in clear and simple language?

    • Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      Christians will never write in clear and simple language for the same reason no other scam artists ever will. You can’t con the marks if they know what’s going on.

      That some of the cons are themselves sincerely deluded marks is no more remarkable than the fact that many drug dealers are themselves addicts.



  16. Jonathan Smith
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Would some one please explain to me exactly who makes the decision which scriptures are allegorical and which are to be taken literarily? Is there a book which points out the criteria in the decision making? Did God extend some revelation to a few chosen people on this issue? Are the authors of these editorials just blowing smoke out of their asses?
    If not, then who’s to say that their opinion is any more valid than mine, yours, or the tattooed guy that delivers my pizza.

    • GBJames
      Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      I live in Milwaukee and it is too cold to tell if my pizza guy is tattooed. But the next time I get a delivery I’ll ask him about allegory vs. literal interpretation. Perhaps I’ll finally get a sensible answer.

      • Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:06 am | Permalink

        Is there much work for biblical scholars? You might get a detailed answer!

    • Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

      The smart money is on the gaseous anal post-combustion products theory.



    • dunstar
      Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      lol. God should have told the authors of the bible to at least put in bold or italics the parts He intended as literal.

    • Diane G.
      Posted January 27, 2012 at 12:59 am | Permalink

      “…who makes the decision which scriptures are allegorical and which are to be taken literarily?”

      That would be science. Increasingly often.

      Didn’t someone famous say something about making “religious virtues out of scientific necessities?”


    • Se Habla Espol
      Posted January 28, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

      Would some one please explain to me exactly who makes the decision which scriptures are allegorical and which are to be taken literarily?

      Since quote-mining (of their bible, as well as of non-biblical texts) is one of the major sacraments of the christianities, the answer is: each christian, when inventing his christianity, is responsible for inventing his own bible. He may be inspired by his pastor or other preacher, but each christian (mis)understands his pastor in his own personal fashion.

  17. Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    this seems a pretty simple marketing dilemma:

    – power goes to the tellers of simple stories, stories simple enough for young children to understand
    – only a few of these simple stories are hooking/robust enough to sit in people’s brains — again dumbed down enough for young kids
    – you give up on any of those you lose your marketing power

    best to fight for the dummest to keep your power

  18. Griff
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter because it’s all just made up. Who cares what awkward mental contortions they have to go through to try and reconcile their bronze-age myths with the understanding of our universe that Science provides?

    The important battles are education, free speech and secularism.

    Eventually, religion will bend so far that it breaks. Hopefully, before it destroys the planet.

    • Persto
      Posted January 26, 2012 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      Evangelicals are obstructing genuine education, free speech, and secularism because of their bronze-age myths. The campaign to invalidate religion is about safeguarding and strengthening education, free speech, and secularism. So, if we don’t strive to vanquish religion then religion will dictate the nature of our education, free speech, and, even, our secularism with intimidation and coercion.

      If we wait for the eventual expiry of religion it may be too long of a wait.

      • Griff
        Posted January 26, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

        I’m not suggesting that we ignore their existence – but my concern is that we get dragged into arguments about the details of their belief – where they are on their own turf so to speak.

        • Posted January 26, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

          I think questioning the details is important – it’s the little doubts that pile up.

          • Griff
            Posted January 26, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

            Except that the religious mindset is quite capable of either making slight modifications or ignoring the new data altogether (a la Ray Comfort)

            So then you have to argue against the modified position.

            I just think that rigorously enforcing separation of church and state, coupled with education, is more productive.

            I don’t really know though. Maybe it is worth doing.

            • Posted January 26, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

              You never know which little doubt will start the first serious crack.

              And I think there’s enough atheists annoyed by each individual piece of piffle for it to be worth spending time on.

              • Griff
                Posted January 26, 2012 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

                Yeah, it never hurts to laugh at religion. I mean, it is stupid beyond comprehension.

        • Persto
          Posted January 26, 2012 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

          The Bible “properly read, it is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”

          • FredBloggs
            Posted January 26, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

            So all we need to do is to get then to read their own holy book instead of relying on interpretations of it!

            • Persto
              Posted January 26, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

              Exactly. The Catholic Church disallowed lay people from perusing the bible for 1500 years. For the very reason that it makes a perspicuous and individual interpretation of the bible that much more improbable. (Look at all the disparate Protestant denominations, which is, exactly, what the Church feared would eventuate if they enabled lay people to read the bible.) In the light of contemporary scientific discoveries it makes the existence of a Judeo-Christian god inconceivable. So, properly reading the bible will generate more questions than answers–naturally atheistic–because of biblical contradictions and inaccuracies and the current scientific understanding of our existence and the universe, which is utterly incompatible with biblical scripture.

        • Diane G.
          Posted January 27, 2012 at 1:01 am | Permalink

          I often feel the same way, Griff.

  19. Stonyground
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    “when it comes to accessing ultimate reality, we are all in the same boat, materialistic atheists included: at some point we must all say, “I can see no further than here, comprehend no more than this.”

    Actually you are wrong. When perceiving ‘ultimate reality’, we ‘materialistic atheists’ are at a distinct advantage. We don’t have a big pile of demonstrably false, made up nonsense blocking our view.

    • Posted January 28, 2012 at 7:46 am | Permalink

      Or a block in our psychological makeup that says “don’t investigate the limit”. Instead, we can treat it as a challenge.

  20. Gnu Atheist
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    “What was that?”

    “I think he said, ‘Blessed are the cheese makers.'”

    “What’s so special about cheese makers?”

    “Obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally. It refers to ANY manufacturer of dairy products.”

  21. Prof.Pedant
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    “There’s no evidence for what I believe, but I believe it anyway”
    Acknowledging that there is no basis for believing something is a step towards wisdom. And if the person makes every effort to perceive reality with unblinkered eyes there is a good possibility that I won’t care very much about the things that the person believes without evidence. If you have no evidence you have no basis for insisting that someone acknowledge the ‘legitimacy’ or ‘reality’ of what you believe. Acknowledging that you are without evidence for your belief is an acknowledgement that no one has any reason to care about your beliefs beyond their entertainment value.

    • Sastra
      Posted January 26, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

      Unfortunately, I think the appeal to faith is not really an admission that the evidence is insufficient. It’s instead an attempt to add in a different sort of evidence to tip the balance.

      Extra-sensory perception.

      Highly individual, very subjective, not capable of demonstration to others — but nevertheless completely convincing. You just know, or intuit, facts available only to the sensitive. The virtuous. The open. The …. humble.

      That’s why faith is not arrogant. Not arrogant at all. Because only the humble have the ESP ability to divide what is metaphor from what is literal and discern what God really means when He speaks to us through the Bible.

      Enns doesn’t think that appealing to faith should entail that people think that what he believes is not likely to be true. No. He thinks that appeals to faith should inspire a sort of admiration or even envy. Wow, he uses ALL the evidence — including things one only knows through those other ways of knowing.

      He must be so humble.

      Can’t touch him.

  22. Steve
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Those are not answers, but alternative, irreconcilable, and insoluble hypotheses.

    And don’t forget hostile to each other.

  23. Sastra
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    This part caught my attention:

    “Their creation stories were more like a warm-up to get to the main event: them. Their stories were all about who they were, where they came from, what their gods thought of them and, therefore, what made them better than other peoples. . . ‘

    So God inspired the story of Adam and Eve — and made sure it was passed down in the Bible — to encourage people to be as tribalistic as possible? Only you and Your People count. The only things that matter are what happens to you. The only human origins which deserve attention are the origins of your group. Your tribe. You. The chosen.

    Anthropologists, sociologists, biologists, and psychologists can understand and accept tribalism and its tendency to divide the world between Us and Them. But I think we’re getting into another area when we look at this human habit as a tool God uses to increase our understanding of what’s important.

    If Genesis isn’t supposed to be universal, then it was apparently a metaphor to encourage parochialism.

    Perhaps I misunderstand Enns.

    • Diane G.
      Posted January 27, 2012 at 1:03 am | Permalink

      Only you and Your People count.

      The Bible in one sentence.

      • Posted January 28, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

        Actually, it is likely worse than that, at least in the OT – it is *your people* count, period. Think of Moses never seeing the promised land, the sacrifice (albeit “just kiddinged”) of Isaac, etc.

        (That this ought to remind us of other totalitarian ideologies is not surprising.)

        • Diane G.
          Posted January 29, 2012 at 2:22 am | Permalink

          “just kiddinged”


          Oh, but I think the “you” is important. A lot of the appeal of dogma lies in propitiating everyone’s inner narcissist.

      • spanner
        Posted January 28, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

        I think this gets closest to something I heard a few years ago but have not seen on these A&E threads (I haven’t read all comments). An Orthodox Jewish man I saw on TV said that Christians had the A&E story, and the creation, all wrong. The Bible says that A&E were the first of Yahweh’s people, created special by him. All other humans, according to this man, were created along with the other animals. I asked someone I know about this and he said, rather charitably I felt, that maybe the other humans were created by the other gods that are implied in the early books.
        In either case, both the old and new testaments make much more sense when you make this shift in thinking. This is how Cain found a wife. It explains why slaughter and slavery of other people were okay with Yahweh. The ten commandments are like an internal memo and do not apply to everyone else. Original Sin has no meaning for anyone but Jews and I’m pretty sure it got wiped out for them with the covenant. There is no need for a Savior and that’s not the Messiah’s purpose. But, when the end of the world did not come, Jesus had to mean something else, so they made shit up for the non-Jews who didn’t know the whole story.
        By the way, the man seemed rather angry that his ethnic history had been co-opted.
        I know this is the worst kind of hearsay, as I can’t even remember the man’s name (he’s an actor active in LA’s Jewish community – just can’t bring his name to mind!) and that’s why I haven’t written up this comment prior to this. I like it, though, since it makes so much sense, and I’m hoping someone can check that this is a common understanding of the story.

        • Diane G.
          Posted January 29, 2012 at 2:18 am | Permalink

          Makes sense to me.

          • spanner
            Posted January 30, 2012 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

            Me, too. Think we can convince the Christians? Probably not. May not be a good idea, anyway, as it has unfortunate implications. Interestingly, today at B&W I found a link to an opinion piece by Gideon Levy at haaretz .com that is related (I’ll mess up if I try to link). Pretty scary.

        • GBJames
          Posted January 29, 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink

          He was upset because a bunch of iron age yokels cooped a myth held by a bunch of bronze age yokels who had cooped it from other bronze age yokels? Really? Hollywood seems to take ownership of plot lines very seriously!

          • spanner
            Posted January 30, 2012 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

            LOL I don’t think Hollywood or Genesis marks the genesis of people believing their own self-aggrandizing stories.

  24. Posted January 26, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

    It assumes that the Adam and Eve story is about “human origins.” It isn’t.

    Likewise, abandoning all faith in view of our current state of knowledge is hardly an attractive—or compelling—option.

    I believe that the Christian story has deep access to a reality that materialism cannot provide and cannot be expected to know.

    at some point we must all say, “I can see no further than here, comprehend no more than this.”

    Unsupported assertions, wishful thinking, and outright falsehoods. This is what faith does to someone.

  25. PB
    Posted January 26, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    Can we just say that xtians are people who considers humanity need to be humbled by acceptance of original sins with all its baggages. Then work upward from that lowly position.

    This is a “proper” philosophical position like socialism or capitalism. Let them be. What we need is to protect our own claim that reality has to be defended.

    • microraptor
      Posted January 28, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      We’ll never get anywhere with that strategy, Christian thinking is too firmly entrenched in American society.

  26. Diane G.
    Posted January 27, 2012 at 1:04 am | Permalink

    I can’t wait till we move on to Noah’s Ark!

  27. chris k
    Posted January 30, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    It boggles the mind that a rational human being with even a room temperature IQ could possibly believe Adam and Eve existed in anything but metaphor.

    Comparative world religion should be taught in every public school in the country as what it is… myth.

  28. @blamer
    Posted January 31, 2012 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    The schisming of the Abrahamic religions shows how tricky it is to seperate ancient wisdom from the words of God.

    Luckily evolution didn’t need to know the origin of the story, it’s just given us a more practical one to teach.

  29. dephlogisticated
    Posted February 9, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    I suggest that before any of you (that includes the good Dr. Coyne) comment on this subject matter, you read “The Chaldean account of Genesis” by George Smith, written in 1876.

    These tablets, by the way, are still held by the British Museum of Natural History.

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  2. […] is an interesting discussion taking place over Peter Enns’ reflections on the creation narratives in the Old Testament. Peter Enns is an evangelical Christian biblical scholar, with a PhD from […]

  3. […] with this one at the Huffington Post: Once More, With Feeling: Adam, Evolution and Evangelicals. Jerry Coyne responds in his usual way… demanding more than one post can offer, lumping everyone into the […]

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