The Week appears to be a garden-variety news magazine without an obvious agenda, but it’s recently published a number of very silly articles on religion and creationism. One of the silliest appeared about a week ago, and is called “In defense of creationists,” by Michael Brendan Dougherty. Of course after reading this kind of incoherent mind-dump one wants to know who the author is; and Dougherty is described this way:
Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.
By “creationists,” Dougherty refers to young-earth Biblical creationists, and he’s not one of them: he appears to have a somewhat hedged acceptance of evolution. So why does he defend Biblical literalists?
It’s not completely clear, but it appears to be that he has an aversion, as do many of us, against Sophisticated Believers (S.B.s) who pick and choose (without clear reasons) which parts of the Bible are literally true and which are metaphorical. Give us a diehard buy-it-all-literalist, some of us say (me included!), rather than a weaselly metaphorizer who sees himself as superior to both atheists and fundamentalists. At least the straight creationists (and atheists!) have a guiding principle for interpretation: it’s all correct (or, in the case of atheists, made up by humans)! Dougherty’s views, and this piece, were inspired by the reaction of Sophisticated Believers to the Ham/Nye debate, who held their noses when listening to Ham’s Genesis literalism.
The problem with the piece, beside its incoherence—Dougherty doesn’t seem to have thought through his own feelings on the issue, and that shows—is that in the end he buys into the same pick-and-choose mentality as do the Sophisticated Believers he rejects, undercutting his whole thesis.
Dougherty starts poorly, saying that Biblical literalism is a recent innovation:
It took until about the late 19th century and hundreds of years of liturgical self-demolition within the Protestant tradition for this rich understanding of Genesis and Revelation to be reduced to a replacement science textbook and a ripped-from-the-headlines Michael Bay–style blockbuster. Six-day-ism, the theory of the Rapture, and even the juvenile “How many bricks?” re-reading of Revelation by Jehovah’s Witnesses are all modern phenomena.
This is weaselly, for although many Christians might not have seen Revelation or a real six-day creationism as true, for millennia Church fathers and believers alike saw essential components of the Genesis story, including creation ex nihilo, Adam and Eve, and the Fall, as literal truths. Augustine and Aquinas, for instance, believed in both a symbolic and literal interpretation of scripture, so they bought the Adam and Eve story as genuine truth (i.e., a real “replacement science textbook”), but also one that bore a metaphorical interpretation. Here Dougherty deliberately misleads the reader into thinking that literalism is a recent phenomenon. This is a common trope among apologists and faitheists, but it’s a lie, and I don’t understand why it’s gotten such traction.
Before he tells us why he is defending creationism, Dougherty has to get in a few licks against science (even though he accepts it):
[The views of Sophisticated Belief are] a pose, barely more literate in science than the creationism it opposes as illiteracy. The Big Bang and evolution are subject to further refinement and perhaps dramatic refutation on evidentiary terms. To submit to the authority of science does not mean to place one’s personal and irrevocable imprimatur on today’s most supported theories. It simply means accepting the rational process of investigating claims about nature through rigorous observation and experimentation. What does it mean when laymen say they “believe in” a scientific theory? Must they decide between Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins on “punctuated equilibrium?” Who is supposed to be impressed by these declarations?
“Subject to further refinement and perhaps dramatic refutation on evidentiary terms?” Well, yes, in principle evolution and the Big Bang could be shown to be wrong, but it’s not likely, and to imply that “further refinement” may do this is simply being disingenuous. I’m not sure why the more arcane Gould vs. Dawkins debate on punctuated equilibrium is dragged in here, as most of it is resolved (yes, the fossil record often shows jerkiness rather than smooth change, but Gould was dead wrong in claiming this pattern absolutely requires a new, non-neo-Darwinian process). I suppose Dougherty, who probably knows little about that debate, wants to convince readers that the presence of any active controversies in science (and he should have used a better example, like the meaning of dark matter), undercuts the whole scientific enterprise.
Finally, Dougherty tells us why he doesn’t like the more Sophisticated Believers who badmouth Ken Ham:
As the debate between Ham and Nye unfolded, I found myself more and more disgusted with some of the self-styled “sophisticated” Christians performing their giggles at Ham for all the world to see.
There was something just a little ugly about all these Christians rushing up to their platforms, drawing attention to the sweat on their brow, putting a concerned look upon their faces, and proclaiming that fundamentalism is a “modern” error. And then when they were sure everyone was listening, lifted up their eyes heavenward to pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like this mouth-breather Ken Ham.” With a great urgency, but very little understanding of cosmology or the various theories of evolution, they recited their absolute fidelity to these theories. These anxious-to-please Christians were telling important truths, but in the spirit of a lie.
I’m not sure what he’s trying to say here. What does he mean by accusing S.B.s of “telling important truths” (we’ll get to those “truths” later), but “in the spirit of a lie”? What is “the spirit of a lie”? I suppose he just doesn’t like some Christians denigrating the views of other Christians, even though Dougherty actually agrees with the sophisticated Christians! Here’s where it’s evident that the man doesn’t know what he’s trying to say. He simply likes the tenacity of fundamentalists, even if they’re wrong:
On the other hand, I’ve always found those Christians who hold to six-day accounts of man’s origin difficult to refute and even more difficult to despise. There is a certain strength and flexibility to their tautology. Further, even though they’re wrong on the science, they are right about the things that really matter to the human heart and to human civilization.
Flexibility? Really? Since when are fundamentalists flexible? And what is the tautology in their belief? Further, if they are right about the things that really matter to the heart and to our civilization, then so are the Sophisticated Believers! This becomes clear when Dougherty tells us why the fundamentalists are superior:
So I do not think that Ken Ham–style creationists should get to rewrite biology textbooks according to their very peculiar reading of Scripture. But I admire their bullheadedness. They have gotten lost in the woods while trying to protect the big truths of Christianity: that God created the world, that we are dependent on him, that we owe him everything, and that he loves us even though we are sinful. In the world most of us inhabit, day to day, the world of lovers, wriggling kids, disease, war, and death, the sureness of God’s love is relevant in a way that the details of early hominid fossils never will be, glorious as they are. Have some perspective, people.
. . . But the bulk of creation’s fundamentalists are deeply sincere. And, better than that, they are willing to be, in St. Paul’s words “fools for Christ’s sake.” They do not live for the world’s esteem. And so when the world next discovers a sophisticated ideology to get around “Thou shall not murder,” I’d rather have one cussed fundie next to me than the whole army of eye-rolling Christians lining up to denounce him.
But that is precisely what the Sophisticated Believers think as well. Why are fundamentalists protecting these “truths” as opposed to the S.B.s? And really, do Sophisticated Believers try to justify murder? Which ones? Dougherty doesn’t answer these pressing questions.
I guess what he really doesn’t like is that the S.B.s roll their eyes when they listen to Ken Ham. Further, it’s apparently the fundamentalists, not the S.B.s, who enforce morality and the Golden Rule, while the Evilutionists tell us it’s okay to murder and sterilize people:
In protecting that big truth of creation — that we are all made in God’s image and all endowed with supreme dignity — fundamentalists zealously guard things that follow logically from that. Things like the commandment “Thou shall not murder.” Anti-evolutionists often set themselves against “Darwinian theory” because they deplored social Darwinism, eugenics, and other evils that seemed to spring forth from minds overexcited by the latest theories of man’s origin.
Isn’t Dougherty aware that eugenics and Social Darwinism went by the board decades ago, and that almost no evolutionists embrace that stuff? Here he sounds like the fundamentalists with whom he disagrees—but sympathizes.
So here’s Dougherty’s big problem: he himself winds up behaving precisely like a Sophisticated Believer. While rejecting the fundamentalist assertion of Biblical literalness (yet admiring the bullheadedness of its adherents), Dougherty ends up picking and choosing what he sees as the Real Big Truths of Christianity:
. . . that God created the world, that we are dependent on him, that we owe him everything, and that he loves us even though we are sinful.
Could you please tell us, Mr. Dougherty, how you know that God created the world, that he loves us, and that we are sinful? Did you take those bits out of the Bible, or do you have independent evidence for those claims?
If this list of what Dougherty calls Christianity’s “big truths” doesn’t come from selective reading of the Bible, then I don’t know its origin. (Presumably he’s ignoring the Old Testament, where God doesn’t particularly love everyone.) Dougherty has no more reason to believe these “big truths” than do the fundamentalists for believing in original sin or the End Times.
The people who should be rolling their eyes are not the Sophisticated Believers, but the readers of Dougherty’s piece. He should not be allowed near a keyboard until he figures out a). what he wants to say, and b). is able to make a coherent argument while not espousing the very mindset he decries.
At any rate, I still find myself disliking the Sophisticated Believers more than the fundamentalists. I’m not quite sure why, for the fundies do just as much damage, if not more, to science education. I suppose it’s the feeling that the S.B.s really are being intellectually dishonest, ignoring the nasty bits of scripture while deciding, without obvious guidelines, which ones are real and important. And I can’t help but feel that S.B.s, who I presume are more educated, should be more aware of their disingenuousness. But as Michael Shermer tells us, the smarter folks are better at rationalizing their beliefs.