Answers in Genesis teaches how not to read a story

Answers in Genesis teaches how not to read a story May 8, 2012

In Nature, Andrew Curry offers a fascinating overview of the recent developments in the study of when humans first came to live in the Americas. The article is titled, “Ancient migration: Coming to America“:

For most of the past 50 years, archaeologists thought they knew how humans arrived in the New World. The story starts around the end of the last ice age, when sea levels were lower and big-game hunters living in eastern Siberia followed their prey across the Bering land bridge and into Alaska. As the ice caps in Canada receded and opened up a path southward, the colonists swept across the vast unpopulated continent. Archaeologists called these presumed pioneers the Clovis culture, after distinctive stone tools that were found at sites near Clovis, New Mexico, in the 1920s and 1930s.

… But findings over the past few years … have shown conclusively that humans reached the Americas well before the Clovis people. That has sparked a surge of interest in the field, and opened it up to fresh ideas and approaches. Geneticists and archaeologists are collaborating to piece together who came first, when they arrived, whether they travelled by boat or by foot and how they fanned out across the New World.

The beginnings of the Clovis culture date back to around 13,500 years ago. The newer findings suggest people had arrived in North America even earlier — as early as 14,300 years ago.

Allow me to translate those figures for my young-earth creationist, illiteralist fundamentalist friends. The godless scientists used to believe that the first humans arrived in North America 7,484 years before you think the Bible says the universe was created, but now the godless scientists have found evidence that humans were here at least 8,284 years before the creation of the universe.

I know, I know, picking on the young-earth creationists is too easy. Fish in a barrel and all that.

But they invite it. They’re not just wrong, but audaciously wrong. The weirdness of their conclusions becomes all the more horrifying when you try to trace the arcane routes they traveled to arrive at them.

Take for example the illiteralist fundies who sat down and calculated the hourly rainfall in the story of Noah’s flood.

This is how these folks approach this story. This is how they hear a story and how they read a story. They don’t seem to notice that the story has a narrative, themes, characters, a beginning, a middle and an end. Or if they do notice those things, they don’t care about them, because that’s not what they see as important in a story.

What they see as important are measurements, logistics and the calculating of numbers that do not actually appear in the story itself. They contemplate the buoyancy of gopher wood. They calculate the cubic cubitage of Noah’s ark, the rate of rainfall and the capacity of the firmament canopy (don’t ask).

This is a dim, illiterate and aggressively obtuse response to a story. This is ridiculousness that demands to be ridiculed.

Seriously, people, it’s a story. If you don’t know how to read stories, then you don’t know how to read.

If you don’t know how to read stories, then you become the literacy equivalent of that person who never lets you finish a joke because they’re always interrupting with irrelevant questions and thinking they’re particularly clever for pointing out that a bar stool probably couldn’t support the weight of a gorilla.

But here’s the kicker: This rate-of-rainfall foolishness didn’t come from the illiterate fundamentalists of Answers in Genesis. It came from the Freethought Alliance Conference at UC Irvine.


I’m trying to follow the logic there. “Hey, those Answers in Genesis people are completely incompetent and ignorant when it comes to biology, geology and cosmology — so let’s assume they’re competent, knowledgeable and authoritative experts at biblical exegesis!”

Um, no. Their biblical interpretation is no better than their paleontology. Why would anyone imagine it could be?

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Update: Here’s what the billboard says, “Noah’s flood / 8712 inches per hour = nonsense / what other biblical nonsense is there?”

That’s not mockery of fundamentalist literalism — it’s an uncritical validation of that literalism. It embraces that absurdist literalism and then criticizes the text for being absurdly literal. It’s a variation on Bill Maher’s “book with the talking snake” dismissal.

Try this version: “Rainbow crow / 2,583,333 miles per hour = nonsense / what other Lenape nonsense is there?”

Or this one: “Four Yorkshiremen / 29 hours in a day = nonsense / what other Python nonsense is there?”

That bit about “29 hours a day” is right there in the text of that Monty Python tragedy. Such obvious errors make it very hard to take the play seriously.

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