The Language of God: Intellectual Dishonesty

The Language of God, Chapter 6

By B.J. Marshall

Collins begins Part III of his book, entitled “Faith in Science, Faith in God,” by trying to wrap his mind around why evolution is so difficult for some religious people to get. He recalls an experience where he was at a men’s dinner at a Protestant church discussing how faith and science can mesh. All was well until the senior pastor was asked whether he believed in the literal story of Genesis. The priest carefully chose his words to give a non-answer any politician would be proud of. This prompts Collins to lament: if evolution is so well attested, why is it so hard for people to accept it?

He provides two possible answers: 1) it takes such a long time for evolution to occur that people have a hard time comprehending it, and 2) it seems to contradict the role of a supernatural creator. For his first point, Collins draws a comparison between evolution on earth and a clock, pointing out that, if the earth was formed at 12:00:01 a.m., humans would not have come onto the scene until about 11:59 p.m. For his second point, Collins talks about the creation myths (yes, both of them) in Genesis. To stress the idea that these myths might just be “poetic and even allegorical description” (p.151), he points out some odd things in the stories: Genesis 1 has vegetation showing up three days before humans, while Genesis 2 has humans first; if the sun was not created until the third day, what exactly does the notion of “day” mean? There are lots of contradictions in Genesis that Collins doesn’t cover, but he’s clearly asserting his view that Genesis ought not be taken literally.

When discussing Genesis and all its various interpretations he mentions St. Augustine, who wrote five analyses of the Genesis accounts:

With these facts in mind, I have worked out and presented the statements of the book of Genesis in a variety of ways according to my ability; and, in interpreting words that have been written obscurely for the purpose of stimulating our thought, I have not brashly taken my stand on one side against a rival interpretation which might possibly be better. (p.152)

It’s amazing to me how the Augustine quote Collins pulls parallels the politically adroit Protestant pastor in his non-answer. After writing five analyses on the subject, all Augustine can do is give one big shrug? I find it disappointing sthat the preeminent Doctor of the Church couldn’t take a stand on what interpretation might be better. Although, given how violent the church has been throughout history, maybe it was better for him to not ruffle feathers by saying it’s all a crock of bull. But what’s the pastor’s excuse – a need to protect his organization’s dependence on dogma?

Collins recounts the problems the church had with heliocentricity in a way to show that this story – science vs. dogma – has been done before. Although scriptural passages speak of how the earth is an immovable foundation, Collins notes that the scientific correctness of the heliocentric view won out despite strong theological objections. Showing the church’s strong stance toward science, the Dominican Father Caccini insisted that “geometry is of the devil” and “mathematicians should be banished as the authors of all heresies” (p.155). Collins wonders whether evolution can be harmonized with the Bible just as heliocentricity was. Collins ends his introduction with exhortation from Augustine’s De Genesi ad Litteram to say something like, “Hey, Christians. You’re really making yourselves look bad when you don’t face the indisputable facts.”

If [non-Christians] find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books and matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learned from experience in the light of reason?

Quick answer, St. Augustine? We won’t. Even if Christians had their views right about a range of topics from the efficacy of prayer to heal their kids to evolution and cosmology, that still wouldn’t warrant our belief in the resurrection or the walking zombie hordes that accompanied it. We arrived at our understanding of the efficacy of prayer, evolution, and most everything about objective reality through reason and evidence; and our views are provisional based on new evidence that comes to light. I’m doubtful that reason and evidence can get me to buy the resurrection, talking donkeys, zombie hordes, or the existence of a deity.

The next few chapters in this section explore what Collins sees as possible responses to the contentious interaction between the theory of evolution and faith in God:

  • Chapter 7 – Option 1: Atheism and Agnosticism (When Science Trumps Faith)
  • Chapter 8 – Option 2: Creationism (When Faith Trumps Science)
  • Chapter 9 – Option 3: Intelligent Design (When Science Needs Divine Help)
  • Chapter 10 – Option 4: BioLogos (Science and Faith in Harmony)

Given Collins’ options with respect to science and faith, and how he sees evolution as just an example of how God operates in the world, I’m more likely to see Option 4 as “When Faith Needs Scientific Help.” But even that position is rife with problems since it presupposes that faith is something that needs helping. It’s as if people cling to their baseless dogma so tenaciously that they can’t budge; all they can do is try to reconcile scientific discoveries to their flawed worldview.

Other posts in this series:

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  • http://personman.com Danny

    I’m enjoying this series of responses to The Language of God. It was one of the very last books I read as a Christian. That quote from Augustine was especially significant to me. I quoted it at length here: http://personman.com/another_quote_on_religion_and_science

    A few months after reading this book and thinking about the things it says, I was an atheist.

  • Bob Carlson

    It’s as if people cling to their baseless dogma so tenaciously that they can’t budge; all they can do is try to reconcile scientific discoveries to their flawed worldview.

    A good example, it seems to me, is Reasons.org, which was founded by Hugh Ross, an astronomer and astrophysicist who couldn’t reconcile young earth creationism with his scientific knowledge, and so advocated old earth creationism to which sundry “notable christians” have ascribed.

    Faced with the realities of science, Presbyterian clergyman, John Shuck here decided:

    But there are other books. It seems that we could preach about our awe-inspiring cosmological and evolutionary history. That amazing story that we are uncovering day by day is far more fascinating, not to mention far more true, than the various creation fables of any religion, including the Bible’s. Think of all the fields that are open to us from science, psychology, and literature all ripe for the harvest. Yet we continually go back to a two thousand year old collection as if it contains some divine secret we have not yet heard a thousand times already.

    Why do we do this? Habit, I suppose. This is a habit worth breaking. It is time for a Copernican revolution. That begins by asking what it means to practice religion without, or perhaps beyond, revelation.

    Others, such as theologian John Dominic Crossan, reconcile their belief in God by redefining God as the driving force of evolution. His similarly minded colleague, Marcus Borg, chooses to define God as “Isness.” They discussed those views in this YouTube video with a young lady who, like them, seemed in desperate need of a refutation of atheism. Unfortunately, they choose to spout the self-serving, conventional nonsense about atheists as folks who believe in nothing and have no sense of wonder.

    It isn’t hard to understand how and why these folks have come to their various points of view. The case of Collins, on the other hand, seems to make less sense.

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Grachus

    Liberal weasels pretend literalism with regard to scripture in general and Genesis in particular was invented by a few denominations of American Protestants in the early 20th Century.

    That is a grossly unhistoric lie that supposes even in ages that had no reason to insist otherwise no one ever thought the scriptures meant what they said and, to all appearances, most certainly did and do mean.

    The view we now call “Young Earth Creationism” that is based on a literal reading of numerous Bible passages was the reigning view among all Christians from St. Paul’s day to the mid-19th Century.

    The scholars of the Jesus Seminar are frauds in many regards.

  • http://atheistwiki.wikispaces.com Jon Jermey

    The problems theists have dealing with change over time have prompted me to create a parody argument: How do you know your kids are growing? You never actually see them in the act of growing, do you? Perhaps the notion of ‘growth’ is merely a scientific fraud, and what really happens is that God takes your children away every night and replaces them with new children who are exactly the same, but slightly bigger! Can you prove otherwise? I didn’t think so!

    If a theist can be made to see how absurd this is, then we have some leverage for explaining how we know about processes that are too slow to observe in a single lifetime.

    But if I get impatient there is always the alternative: “What part of ‘change’ don’t you understand?”

  • http://www.theelectoralcollegestudent.blogspot.com/ Teleprompter

    @Gaius Sempronius Grachus:

    So when you hear Psalm 23, do you think of a literal valley and of death as a literal shadow, or do you think of a difficult or anxious time in your life?

    When you hear Paul exhort Christians, in 2 Timothy 4:7, to “fight the good fight”, do you imagine an actual boxing match? Do you feel that Paul is telling all Christians to sign up for mixed martial arts? Or is it a metaphor?

    When Jesus talks of harvesting, is he only talking about farming? When Jesus calls his disciples to be fishers of men, is he using a literal expression or a figure of speech?

    Did the Psalmists and Paul and Jesus not mean what they said, or did they sometimes speak in a non-literal way? Please answer this question honestly.

    It is impossible to read the Bible entirely in a literal manner. Much of it is clearly written in the format of songs or poems, and not historical accounting; this is especially true for some of the creation narrative in Genesis. Also, many of the sections in the Bible were written at different times by different people with differing agendas and motivations. That further strains the credibility of literal interpretations.

    I haven’t even mentioned yet the blatantly wrong contradictions and misconceptions within the plain text of the Bible itself (such as the idea that the moon gives its own light, when it merely reflects the light of the Sun – that’s just midway through the first chapter!).

    Even if you accept Christianity, a literal interpretation of the Bible is bankrupt.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    “pulls parallels the politically proficient Protestant pastor”

    Fixed it for you. :D

  • Fumio Takeshi

    I think the big glaring problem with any “literal” or “non-literal” interpretation of the Bible is this – What metric does one use to determine which statements are literal and which are not?
    I am yet to receive a coherent answer to this which does not immediately destroy the foundations of Christianity.

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com themann1086

    Fumio,

    Bingo, though I’d also add that “literal” translations have the separate problem of the Bible being self-contradictory, making “pick-and-choosing” inevitable. But yeah, no “nuanced” believer I’ve ever met has been able to explain how to determine what’s “literal” and what’s “metaphor”; even further, most struggle to explain how this particular section is a “metaphor” at all; I mean, what the hell is Leviticus a metaphor about?? How is a list of cult rules a metaphor for anything??

  • Leum

    @themann1086 #8: Christianity has historically argued that the Law was a metaphor for service to God and for the need of Christ’s blood to redeem us from our sins.

    More generally, the notion that it’s impossible to tell what parts of the Bible are and are not meant literally is ridiculous. The Bible is composed of many books of various genres. No one, for example, believes the parables in Matthew literally happened, that simply isn’t the point of the parable genre. It gets trickier to tell with things like the creation myths, but the very fact that there are two contradictory ones side-by-side is at the very least an indication that neither is meant to be read literally (at least by the editor that placed them side-by-side).

  • John Nernoff

    There is absolutely no way that evolution can be reconciled with the existence of a supernatural creator “God” which is omnibenevolent, all good, good or even nice.

    Evolution entails the production of many more progeny that can possibly survive. The extra lives, seeds, spores and other life entities are scattered out to a completely indifferent universe, and if they cannot immediately protect their futures or somehow last out the rigors of nature, they will be obliterated forever. They can starve, be extirpated by fire or flood, or be chased down, injured or torn apart, mercilessly killed or be eaten alive. Nature, red in tooth and claw (Tennyson). This is a basic part of the process of evolution. It is obvious to anyone who understands only this part that no caring supervisory divine presence is possible.