Sorry for a quick detour, but this really sprang out at me. I was reading Jonny Scaramanga’s excellent post about Creationism sneaking into English schools and saw this:
. . . if Adam did not literally exist, then he did not literally commit the first sin, thus there’s no need for Christ to die on the cross and the whole Bible collapses (which seems a short-sighted argument to pick).
This argument, which is indeed short-sighted, may well be the reason why hardline Christians cling so hard to Creationism in the first place and why the science-denial involved in it has become one of their two big emphases at present. He’s been writing about the topic lately and all of the posts about it are excellent, getting attention even from one of biology’s big names and for good reason. I agree with Jonny’s argument, and today I want to talk about why.
A lot of other sciences are problematic to say the least for fundamentalist Christianity, and a lot of other scientific ideas and theories might make those sorts of Christians stumble. The Theory of Gravity, for example, is not only “just a theory” but also firmly places the Earth in context as just one body among near-countless others all exerting gravitational forces. Heliocentrism alarmed quite a few religious authorities when it was proposed. And Germ Theory is not only “just a theory” but one that makes the rather outrageous claim that some diseases are caused not by sin, bad humors, or demonic possession, as any proper fundamentalist Christian would know, but by the passing of teeny-tiny little organisms between people and animals. There are probably other scientific advances one could name, but those are just a few that seem strangely near-universally accepted by modern Christians even though at one time they weren’t. For a while it mystified me why Christians clung to this particular specific science denial rather than any others. Not anymore though.
Just as earlier Christians felt alarmed by how science demonstrated that the Earth was not the center of the universe, modern Christians feel alarmed by how science is demonstrating that humans are not the center of the universe–and by how increasingly superfluous their god is to how the universe works.
I’ve mentioned before that I wasn’t a Young-Earth Creationist (YEC; that means a Christian who believes that Genesis happened literally the way it says, with all of the universe springing into being in a few days just a few thousand years ago; Old-Earth Creationists believe a variety of takes on literalism, some of which accept that the Earth is actually very old). I knew folks who were YEC, but I was Pentecostal before science denial became the big thing in the mid-1990s. Now it’s hard to find a conservative Christian who doesn’t go that route. It’s become what is called a “marker belief”–a belief that sets a particular group apart from all the other groups and defines the group–as much as belief in Jesus’ divinity might be considered a marker belief for Christianity as a whole. The problem is that all Christians believe in Jesus’ divinity to some extent or another, so it doesn’t quite differentiate the hardcore folks as much as they’d like. Creationism is a perfect marker belief for their purpose: it costs the believer next to nothing tangible to hold the belief, it is easy to understand for the most part, and immediately identifies the group member as distinct from every other Christian. You don’t need to wonder about exactly what religion someone holds when that person says the Earth is 6000 years old, do you?
The way they understand evolution isn’t quite accurate, of course. Creationism is about the opposition of a number of fields besides biology. The Theory of Evolution only talks about how Earth’s many species–not just humans but all species–came to exist in so many variations. It does not address how life began in the first place on Earth, nor does it address how old the Earth is. Creationists tend to think of evolution as addressing all of those questions, when all it actually says is that species are modified through natural selection–a proposition we’ve been supporting, I might note, from the get-go, and one that is overwhelmingly accepted by the vast majority of the world’s scientists exactly because it has such ample support.
But that’s the problem, isn’t it?
It’s a compelling idea to a mind persuaded to believe in literal interpretations of the Bible (or at least what are presented as such; most fundamentalists don’t really interpret the Bible that way): If humans evolved just like everything else, then no god controlled the process. If humans weren’t designed and created by a god, then chances are there wasn’t a Garden of Eden, either. That means there wasn’t a Fall–and no Original Sin making humankind inherently sinful and damaged.
A number of modern Christian theologians, especially on the evangelical side of things, link the Fall to the incarnation of Jesus Christ–like the Fall messed everything up, but Jesus’ birth put it all back to rights. He’s considered the “second Adam” in that interpretation (see also, and I swear I’m not making up this word: Apocatastasis). But if there wasn’t a Fall, then there is nothing for him to have corrected the second time around because there was no first time around. The Theory of Evolution’s description of humankind’s past doesn’t leave much room for the Garden of Eden.
Worse, though, evolution presents humankind not as the super-special and beloved children of a benevolent god, but as simply the ongoing results of a dizzyingly long process of natural forces acting upon living creatures. In Christianity, it’s not what you do but what you are that matters; humans can’t be worthy on their own at all because they are–remember–inherently broken and damaged goods, and so they can find worthiness only in terms of their obedience to their god. If their god doesn’t exist, then they have no other way of finding value on their own. (No wonder I had so much trouble with self-esteem and respect as a Christian!) And, too, this myth is tied to human ideals like fairness, mercy, justice, charity, love, and kindness–which is so nonsensical it’d be hard for me to believe if I didn’t constantly run into Christians who explicitly hold this view. If humans aren’t super-special creations of a living god, then they are quite literally worse than beasts according to such Christians, which is why you’ll see them talk (with luridly glittering eyes and creepy excitement) about how society will descend into madness, crime, and chaos if proper biology is taught to schoolchildren, because evolution equates to “no objective morality.”
Without humans having been specially molded, sculpted, redeemed, and inhabited by a “god,” there’s no other way they can have morality and goodness–except for the little detail that we know that non-Christians all over the world, and even science-embracing Christians, are perfectly moral and good people and that people who’ve never believed in a single Christian idea think hurting others is an absolutely abhorrent idea–while apologists bend over backwards to find ways to excuse genocide, slavery, and rape in the Bible. (But remember, folks: subjective morality is baaaaad. Unless Yahweh does it. Then it’s fine. Just don’t get any ideas. Unless of course you think the Bible’s telling you to do something. Then it’s fine.) Fighting against evolution is like fighting against humanity’s worst enemies in the flesh–and this culture war grants Christians the added bonus of feeling like underdogs being unfairly persecuted for preaching this “truth” that only they know–and being at “war” justifies all sorts of misdeeds on the part of combatants focused on what they view as the greater good.
So yes: this is the part of science that gung-ho Christians are going to freak out the most over. Nothing attacks the very heart of Christian zealotry, control-lust, persecution fantasies, and narcissism quite like their erroneous conceptualization of evolution. I can see why Creationists fear and hate it so much.
This whole argument is short-sighted because it turned out to be incredibly simple to knock down the house of cards built upon Creationism–but there’s another reason why science denial turned out to be the wrong horse for Christians to back:
By denying established science and advocating ignorance, Christian leaders are setting their flocks up for an inevitable showdown between reality and dogma.
If they’re telling Christians that they can’t be Christian unless they deny the Theory of Evolution and a raft of other long-accepted principles, then sooner or later it’s inevitable that some of those Christians are going to learn the truth (many at evangelical colleges!), and at that point their leaders will only have given them two choices: deny it and remain Christian, or embrace it and walk away.
It won’t be quite that simple, of course. Considering the stakes Christianity says are in place, it never is. I haven’t run into many Christians who deconverted as a direct result of learning that evolution is really a thing that really happens and happened and that the universe is mind-bogglingly huge and ancient. It’s an important early step for a lot of folks, but it’s not usually the only or the last one. Most of them, when they finally recognize the truth about evolution, tend to plunge into a study of the Bible’s other historical claims–and start discovering that none of those other claims hold water either. Maybe at that point they’ll start noticing that their religion’s promises around prayer don’t hold true, or they’ll start wondering about the Problem of Evil that they may previously have dismissed and mocked (Oh, you’re one of those people who got sunk by that? one said to me once, his sneer showing clearly even through text). Learning that Creationism is false leads to wondering about a lot of other claims–and in my case at least, to seeing those other claims with entirely new and different eyes. And I know a lot of ex-Christians, including me, who wonder sometimes if we’d ever have felt moved to really investigate Christianity’s claims had we belonged to denominations that weren’t so focused on literalism.
When I found out that pretty much nothing in in the Bible happened the way it said, it rocked my entire foundation to the core.
I felt betrayed.
And none of this drama was even necessary.
I was one of many casualties of an opportunistic culture war that never had to happen, and indeed only did because a certain group of Christian zealots decided that this tactic would help them achieve their desired goals.
When people insist that their religion’s myths are real and then try to use those myths to justify perpetuating social injustices, keeping schoolchildren ignorant and misinformed, and trying to control other people’s lives through emotional manipulation or force of law, then yes, I’ve got a problem with that. And that is what Creationists are doing. Creationists use their mythology to rationalize their bigotry against LGBTQ people (“it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” and claims about how the mythical first couple are the guideline for all marriages), force women into subjugation (“Eve was made from Adam to serve him as a helpmeet!”), engage in climate-change denial that will harm our environment, control people’s sexuality and attempt to deny them basic human rights, oppress women through “modesty” and “holiness” standards, and even foster bias against certain diets (“all creatures only ate plant matter before the Fall, but now people eat meat,” which I personally bought into back then–also reference the myth of Cain and Abel). Remove Creationism, and suddenly a lot of hardcore Christians’ social positions and feelings of justified dominance shudder.
That’s why they can’t just let this one go the way their long-ago peers let go of the earlier fights against other scientific ideas.
The funny thing is that Christianity as a whole neither rises nor falls on a literal reading of Genesis–only fundamentalism/evangelicalism does. Their leaders have chosen to pin their entire religion on something this comically erroneous. The fight is not between atheists and Christians, or even between science and religion, but rather between those who understand and accept scientific explanations for our universe and those who deny and/or misunderstand those explanations. And there are Christians in both of those camps. Christianity itself isn’t the enemy; zealotry is. Indeed, we must not fall into the trap of thinking that Creationism is any sort of monolithic belief; even when surveys ask Christians what they think about the subject of evolution and the universe’s origins, a lot depends on precisely how the questions get asked. When asked questions in a way that doesn’t threaten Christians’ compartmentalizations of religion and science, they tend to fall along more sensible lines.
A lot of other Christians don’t even need that level of finesse. Plenty of Christians are firm, dedicated believers who still understand and accept the dominant theories about life on Earth, the planet’s age, and how it and the rest of the Solar System formed. And acceptance of science is on the rise, slowly but inexorably; the younger the Christian, the more likely that person will reject Creationism. Hardcore Creationists are but a vocal–and shrinking–minority.
This fringe belief’s days are numbered. Just as Christianity weathered heliocentrism and Germ Theory, it’ll weather this too. Its proponents will realize that not only has Creationism not won them credibility nor an increase in adherents, it is actively costing them both. They’ll figure out how completely unnecessary this culture war is.
I wonder sometimes if any Creationists ever think about that as they try so concertedly to stop their religion from adapting.