Creationism advocates use a crafty debating ploy to paint science into a corner. They frame the argument around supposed faults in evolutionary science, and in the process keep everyone from examining the very real faultiness of creationist theology. Ever since Darwin enunciated his theory of evolution, many religious people have regarded the theory as an attack on religion, and they have continued to fight it. In our time, the fight is taken to the schools via challenges to the way science is taught. I wish to focus on what I see as the theological errors of creationism, which also apply to its more recent incarnation as intelligent design.
Error #1: Every word in the Bible must be literally true, because it was dictated by God (much as God supposedly dictated the Koran to Muhammad). This is patently unlikely. For example, why would God dictate conflicting doctrines? Biblical literalism presupposes several things that seem untenable. First, God quit talking to Jews around the time of the Babylonian exile, a time when much of the Old Testament was written, and quit dictating to Christians around 100 A.D., when the New Testament was completed. What we call the Bible was actually a collection of old religious writings apparently compiled by an appointee of Emperor Constantine around 320 A.D. The commission was given to Eusebius, easily the most notorious documentary revisionist of his time. We have no way of knowing how much tinkering he did with the texts he collated. Many religious writings were dismissed, others have been discovered since the Bible was sanctified and no doubt others remain to be discovered. A few years later, a group of Catholic bishops in the Council of Nicaea sanctified the collection as the official Bible. The Council became, in essence, the enforcer of the official doctrine. The Bible we have today not only had this problematic origin, but no doubt suffered significant distortion through successive translations from Hebrew (complicated by the Aramaic that Jesus spoke), to Greek, to Latin, to old English, to modern languages.
There are many contradictions and areas of confusion in the Bible. Jesus repudiated several scriptural doctrines, rebuked the Pharisees for their scriptural literalism and thought it essential to clarify and correct many of the ideas in the Old Testament. Much of the Old Testament, and even the New Testament, paints a picture of a God that is ruthless, arbitrary and capricious. As humans would define good and evil, God is painted both ways. The whole point of the teachings of Jesus is that God is good — not the God who arbitrarily decides in advance who will be saved in eternity, who tempts people to stray from him, who orders Jews to commit genocide against the Canaanites, who torments Job just for sport, who demands an “eye for an eye,” and so on.
Central to Jesus’ teachings was the position that salvation does not come from Scripture or slavish obedience, even to the Mosaic law. Jesus taught by metaphor and parable because that forces believers to think about their relation to God, not just memorize rules.
Another problem of the Bible is that it is among the most poorly edited books in history. It is full of sound-bite edicts, decontextualized passages, imprecise and ambiguous word choices, impoverished vocabulary, unreferenced personal pronouns, and lack of flow from one “book” to another. Even if every book were inspired by God, God’s messages were not coordinated. These limitations force Bible scholars to argue over what many passages mean. If good editors were around when the Bible was written, there wouldn’t be so much need for today’s numerous Bible commentary books.
Nonetheless, the Bible is a powerful book full of wisdom and spiritual inspiration and nurture. But it needs to be read with perspective and understanding, not slavish literalism. Christians must not confuse worshipping the Bible with worshipping God.
Error #2: Everything in the Bible refers to fact; there are no metaphors, stories or parables. First, creationists apparently fail to accept the Genesis version of creation as a story. In a pre-science world, writers of the Bible would have found it impossible to explain creation. So, they created a story, which by the way is a pretty good approximation of what scientific evidence suggests did happen. The Bible is full of stories that cannot possibly be literally true. Consider Noah’s ark: It is a physical impossibility for one man to build a ship big enough to hold two of every plant and animal species in the world. To demand that metaphors and parables be interpreted literally misses the power of religious teaching.
Error #3: The Bible is the only source of religious truth. What is the basis for this conclusion? No book in the Bible makes such a claim. Indeed, no writer of any Bible book, except possibly Revelation, claimed that he was delivering a direct message from God.
Does not God’s creation testify to at least part of his nature? We should think of nature as God’s laboratory, and itself a source of spiritual revelation. Evidence for biological evolution is not the only enigma we have to deal with. Science still cannot explain the weirdness of quantum mechanics, even though it is a cornerstone of modern physics. What will we make of future discoveries about dark matter, dark energy or parallel universes? None of this is covered in the Bible. Yet there is scientific evidence for such realities. Much of nature remains to be revealed and it will surely have major religious implications.
God may or may not have literally spoken to a handful of prophets in ancient times, but he speaks to everyone through nature and science.
Error #4: God doesn’t need a method for creation or for anything else. Is God really some kind of wizard in the sky who just snaps his fingers and magical things happen? We are talking about a material world when we talk about creation. Working in a material world requires a method, even for God. That method clearly involves the creation of the laws of chemistry and physics. Even Genesis I talks about pre-life creation, which means chemistry and physics. Science argues that life emerges inevitably from the laws of chemistry and physics. Creationists won’t give God credit for creating laws of chemistry and physics that can give rise to evolution because to do so undercuts their argument against evolution. If those laws were created by God and if those laws provided the method whereby God could create life in all its abundance, then creationists have lost the argument against evolution. In short, it seems that creationists would rather have the argument than embrace an uncomfortable truth.
Error #5: Evolution is an atheistic dogma. First, there are many scientists, I among them, who claim to be Christians. Second, as far as I can learn, the first person to suggest evolution was St. Augustine. In his classic work “City of God,” he stated that higher life forms could have evolved from primitive ones, though he did not elaborate a theory of natural selection as the mechanism. Indeed, Augustine argued that if science and religion conflict, religion must adapt. Christian scientists believe there is a creator God who uses his laws of chemistry and physics as the method for evolution of various life forms. There is intelligent design in the universe, but it is not correctly disclosed in Genesis I.
Error #6: “Good” Christians must believe in creationism. The creationist community consists mainly of evangelical Christians who believe that to be a genuine Christian requires one to reject the idea of evolution. But mainstream Protestant denominations don’t have a problem with evolution. Jews and Muslims don’t either. So where do fundamentalist Christians get their notions of theological purity? According to the New Testament, Christ never talked about how God created various species or anything like it. There is no record of his reference to the specifics of Genesis I, though of course he did refer often to God as the creator. Creationists are guilty of putting words in Jesus’ mouth.
Creationists try to impose their flawed doctrine on the teaching of science in schools. That encourages students to be sloppy thinkers and it is just the opposite of what a good education is supposed to do. Creationism sabotages science education.
It also stunts spiritual growth.
W.R. KLEMM, D.V.M., Ph.D., is a professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University. He holds a doctorate in biology from the University of Notre Dame and has been a scientist and professor for over 45 years. He has also been a student of the Bible since childhood.