Friday, January 07, 2011

A Defense of the "Theistic Evolution" Version of Creationism

Conor Cunningham1 has just published a defense of Christianity against the attack of Darwinism. I've ordered his book, Darwin's Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get it Wrong, and I look forward to commenting on it in future posts.

Meanwhile, here's an excerpt from his BBC series Did Darwin Kill God? You can see right away that there's going to be problem with someone who equates Darwin with modern evolutionary theory. It means that Cunningham lacks scientific credibility making his arguments mostly moot.

There might be a problem with his theology as well but that's not something I'm very interested in. Perhaps some theist can answer a question? If Genesis has always been taken metaphorically and not literally by the Christian church, then what about the rest of the Bible? Specifically, are Christian supposed to take the stories of Jesus as metaphor and not fact? Is the death and resurrection of Jesus something that never actually happened? Is it just a metaphor? What the official Christian view of this?

Conor Cunningham is a lecturer in theology and religious studies at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom.


  1. Let's just take one thing which is in the Bible: The Sun goes around the Earth daily, and the Earth does not move.

    Up until the year 1500, everybody accepted that as literally true. Then there was a transition period of a couple hundred years during which it was vigorously debated. Over the last couple of hundred years, virtually everybody agrees that it is not literally true.


  2. "...there's going to be problem with someone who equates Darwin with modern evolutionary theory. It means that Cunningham lacks scientific credibility making his arguments mostly moot."

    Actually, one of the main points of the book is that modern evolutionary theory is not the same as Darwin's. I'm not sure what he said in the documentary, but this is quite clear in his book. In addition, he wrote much, if not most, of the book in collaboration with atheists.

  3. "If Genesis has always been taken metaphorically and not literally by the Christian church, then what about the rest of the Bible?"

    The Adam and Eve story, the flood story, the tower of Babel story - they all are written as if part of the genre of fables. The new testament gospels, by contrast, are clearly written as observer reports. So there is no clear implication from taking Genesis as non-factual, to taking the gospels as non-factual.

    The miracles reported in the gospels are a different problem. To any theistic scientist, those pose a serious problem and are sure to be a source of doubt.

    So, yes, I would say that it is possible to be a theistic scientist (and evolutionist) while still accepting Christianity. But once that theistic scientist begins to carefully scrutinize the new testament miracles, he is on his way to abandoning his religion.

  4. anonymous says,

    Actually, one of the main points of the book is that modern evolutionary theory is not the same as Darwin's.

    Glad to hear that but I'm a bit skeptical. I'll report back when I've read the book.

  5. You can find a long paper go over many of the points in the book at his university's site
    He does explicitly thank Jerry Fodor and Simon Conway Morris for their help on biology. I am no sure this bodes well.

  6. Larry,
    You said,

    There might be a problem with his theology ...

    Christian theology is whatever one wants to make of it. I personally know active Christian clergy who are atheists. I think it's unwarranted to speak of Christian theology today given that what passes as Christian is so very varied. Whatever the specifics of his theology are he speaks for no more than a small fraction of Christians. Even among the half of Christians self-labeled as Roman Catholic and blaring out their rote catechism week in and week out theology is all over the place.

  7. @nwrickert

    I don't understand why science introduces any problems for miracles. After all, isn't the point of these being miraculous that they shouldn't be able to happen? Everybody knows that you can't walk on water. Science doesn't make it "more impossible".

    What I find interesting is what I mentioned above: For some 2000 years of the Bible, nobody mentioned that "the Sun goes around the Earth" is clearly just figurative language, a concession to appearances; yet today you'll find lots of "Bible-believing Christians" who will tell you just that. How could all of those Bible readers not have noticed the clues that this was figurative language?


  8. @TomS
    C.S. Lewis goes through that in Mere Christianity when he discusses miracles. He argues that the fact that virgins don't give birth was just as much a part of the experience of first-century Jews as it is of our experience today. I basically agree. However, what science gives us now is that with science, we know *why* virgins don't give birth, people don't walk on water, etc. We know *why* those things are impossible. Also, science ties these experiences to other superficially unrelated experiences by explaining phenomena with simple, universal principles.

  9. No official Christian view exists. Christian beliefs are all over the place, as Russ says. New testament miracles are not exempt from allegorical interpretation or being regarded as crowd belief. Respected vicars doubt a bodily resurrection, but insist on being christian, in that they emphasize the survival of a message of human behaviour.

  10. "Specifically, are Christian supposed to take the stories of Jesus as metaphor and not fact?"

    I don't know about other Christians, but Catholics believe literally everything the bible says about Jesus. They believe he did and said everything the bible says he did and said, miracles and physical resurrection and all.

  11. Ancient literature often merges intertwines fact with legend. One who wants to know 'what really happened' is challenged with the task of pulling out strands and sorting them into the appropriate piles of fact, fiction, maybe-factual, probably-not-factual and no-idea. Literary genre plays an important role in deciding what goes where, of course, as do collaborating sources outside the text.

    The task teasing out the interwoven strands is the same regardless of whether or not the interested researcher is a 'theist.' A person who regards a text as canonical or authoritative in a special way regards it as such regardless of the author's mode of expression (factual account, poetry, myth, etc.).

    Informed readers who regard a text as authoritative in some special way still know that the correct understanding of genre will play an important role in determining how properly to understand that text. This is so because it is so for any text. We understand the difference between a fairy tale and a sports report because we understand genre cues like bylines and 'Once upon a time.' Deciding the difference between genres like myth, poem and historical narrative in an ancient document also depends on picking up genre cues. The task is just complicated by the distance between the writer and reader in time and culture.

  12. I get the feeling he is on journey to validate his own beliefs, but I do agree(slightly) with his description of the current debate(for lack of a better term). In my opinion both hard-core Darwinists and hard-core creationists are wrong.

  13. @Archer Opterix -

    The people who were closest to the writers of the Bible were the ones most likely to believe that the Earth was stationary and that the Sun went around the Earth daily.

    Somehow or other, for some 2000 years, people did not pick up any clues that the writer did not mean it literally that the Sun stood still for Joshua. No one did.


  14. I was really disappointed with that documentary. There really wasn't much refuting the YEC position beyond "that's not Christianity as I know it", then ultra-Darwinism (which seemed to be Darwinism without God) falls into self-contradiction. He seemed to essentially be arguing for the middle ground by arguing against the two "extremes".

  15. Interestingly enough, relative to the Resurrection, Prof. John Haught of Georgetown Un., who testified in the Dover trial takes the position that Yeshua of Nazareth was not physically resurrected but appeared to his followers in a vision. As he put it in his testimony, if a video camera had been present at the event, it would have recorded nothing.

  16. Anonymous writes:

    I don't understand why science introduces any problems for miracles.

    As SLC's response alludes to, the scientific tradition gave rise to principles and more systematic practice of evidence gathering, and of reasoning from the evidence once gathered. Technology created better evidence gathering mechanisms. If miracles occurred, one would expect, with better evidence gathering techniques and more people available to do the gathering, that more miracles would be reliably observed and recorded by more people/mechanisms. But exactly the opposite has happened - with more people recording more of what occurs around the world, no reliably recorded miracles.

    This is very different from saying that we know no principles under which an observed phenomenon can happen. When this occurs in science it is very exciting, because it frequently leads to the working out of new scientific explanatory principles. What has happened re miracles is that, given every opportunity, the reputed phenomenon is never observed. That's a very different thing, and usually puts a kibosh on the credibility of said phenomenon, at least for thinking people.

    Non-occurrence of reputed phenomena in the face of increased observation is not a characteristic of reality, it is a characteristic of legends. Thus science has shown us that much of what is taken to be significant in religious writings is characteristic of legends or fables rather than reality. That seems to me to be quite a problem for religion where thinking people are concerned. (Of course I am well aware of the tendency for inconvenient reality to produce denial of reality rather than denial of belief in those for whom belief is overweeningly important.)

  17. Quoting Larry, “If Genesis has always been taken metaphorically and not literally by the Christian church, then what about the rest of the Bible?” This is a great and useful question, for all Christians, and especially for theistic evolutionists, who often accept miracles as fact from the Bible, but not from nature.

    Some Christian scholars do interpret the Genesis creation account as metaphorical, but by no means all.

    If one establishes the point of viewing and interpreting the Genesis’ creation account from above the earth looking down, then the interpretation is scientifically implausible. However, if one establishes the point of viewing and interpreting from the earth’s surface below the heavens looking up, then the account is scientifically plausible, and not a metaphor.

    Metaphors may have worked for the original Hebrew audience that heard it in the context of their language and culture. However, the Genesis creation account was written in a way that has successfully survived many languages, generations, and cultures sufficient for all fields of science to see the Biblical creation accounts as not inconsistent with modern scientific findings. The same findings have shown that the creation accounts of all other religions are implausible at best.

    A “literal” interpretation is not exclusive to the Young Earth idea of six 24-hour days. It is also fair to say that an Old Earth/Progressive Creationist view is “literal”, since the Genesis 1 creation account is consistent with six long periods of time. For example, the day my grandson turned 21, I told him I remembered when I was 21. The use of 21 in each expression is literal, but their contextual meaning is different. In the OE/PC view, the Genesis account has always meant a literal view. The advent of modern scientific data has merely confirmed the accuracy of the Genesis framework.

    There are twelve books in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, that contain creation descriptions from one to nine chapters in length. When various scholarship disciplines are used to match them against each other, they are congruent, and not inconsistent with modern science - in spite of unrelated authors and cultures separated by as much as 1,500 years. Therefore, even when limiting an examination to just creation accounts, plus supporting literary, theological, archaeological, anthropological, geological, and geographical information, the Bible can and should be taken as reliable, and not simply metaphorical.

  18. The point that I raised remains uncontested:

    For some 2000 years, everybody agreed that the Bible really did say that the Sun went around the Earth daily and that the Earth was motionless, and nobody detected any signs of figurative language in that.

    Therefore, one of these must be the case:

    1) A lot of people for a very long time can be mistaken about what the Bible says, for the Bible does not say that the Earth is not a planet.

    2) The old opinion was correct, for the Bible says that the Earth is not a planet.

    2a) And the Earth is not a planet.

    2b) But the Earth is a planet.


  19. A student in my evolution course conducted a survey and in-depth interview of protestant, catholic, and Jewish chaplains at Cornell on the question of the metaphorical versus literal content of the Bible. All of the chaplains she interviewed asserted that they both believed and were taught in their theological training that the Bible is metaphorical, not literal. This was particularly true for the catholic chaplain(s), who pointed out that catholic tradition has never considered the Bible to be anything more than a useful metaphor, especially when compared with the esoteric/apostolic tradition within the catholic hierarchy.

    For what it's worth, I have personally known upwards of a half dozen Anglican/Episcopal ministers/priests, all but one of whom were atheists (and she was a "theistic agnostic"). In other words (and consistent with many of the comments here), there is no such thing as a "Christian" position on the metaphorical versus literal interpretation of the Bible.

  20. TomS,

    For those seriously seeking well-reasoned and scholarly answers to questions like the ones you pose, the books are countless. This thread has already mentioned former skeptic and author, C.S. Lewis. A living author and former skeptic, Lee Strobel, wrote “The Case for Christ,” “The Case for Faith,” and others.

    If you ask your questions only to try to poke holes in another’s beliefs, that’s a little tougher to address. So, I’ll give you a question instead. Why do naturalists spend time trying to poke holes in a belief system (Christianity) that offers hope for all that ails us in this world and the next, while their own naturalistic belief system offers none?

  21. @Denny Why do naturalists spend time trying to poke holes in a belief system (Christianity) that offers hope for all that ails us in this world and the next, while their own naturalistic belief system offers none?

    1) They don't actually care about your puerile belief system until you plop it down in public and use your fairy tales to influence public policy. Why do faith heads think that a bronze age book of fairy tales concocted by nomadic goat herders who didn't even understand germ theory should have any bearing on issues like gay marriage, stem cell research, reproductive rights for women, end of life, environmental ad nauseaum ?

    2) xtian dogma and dogma of any kind is the cause of much that ails us.

    3) Until you offer convincing proof of a next world, it does not exist. You do not have any special conduit of information that the rest of us lack, you are just making stuff up or uncritically believing stuff that other people made up. At the the very least your unwillingness to keep your delusions private is bad manners and in poor taste, at the worst it is irresponsible and endangers our global civilization.

    4) The function of the "naturalistic" belief system (as you call it) is to better understand reality, not to project your fear of death and the dark on to.

  22. @Denny:

    Are you speaking of those nasty people like Copernicus who came up with the idea that the Earth is a planet?


  23. Denny:

    Christianity... offers hope for all that ails us in this world and the next, while their own naturalistic belief system offers none?


    What kind of hope did Christianity offer diabetics before science isolated insulin in 1922? Or to those in fear of polio before Salk’s vaccine in 1955? Before the first successful open heart surgery in 1896? Aside from a reputed single instance of loaves and fishes (so much for “teaching a man to fish”), when did Christianity ever offer as much hope to the starving as the simply invention of triticale?

    And yet, on it goes. Chilean miners work for 33 days and nights to rescue their trapped fellows, and who gets the credit? God — the guy who apparently couldn’t keep the roof up in the first place.

    It seems to me that the only hope Christianity (Islam, Judaism, etc., etc.) ever provided anyone was just enough to get by on until some human being or other showed up with the (naturalistic) solution.

  24. Lone Primate said... Denny: “Christianity... offers hope for all that ails us in this world and the next, while their own naturalistic belief system offers none? What kind of hope did Christianity offer diabetics before science isolated insulin …”

    It seems to me that all your comments relate to human suffering. I am 67 years old. I have lost friends and family to disease and death. I have been divorced. I have been treated for cancer. I have been unemployed. If you read my last comment at “Test for True Christians,” you know that I am acquainted with other forms of human physical, emotional, and psychological suffering. Why suffering exists is a slightly different question than the relevance of ‘hope’. Why suffering exists is a big question and I am not a philosopher. I know that Romans 8:19-20 indicates what all of us have discovered: Life in this world is not permanent. It was never intended to be. It was clearly not designed to be, whether there actually was a designer or if things only appear to be designed. We’re going to die. The law of entropy and other ‘natural’ forces facilitate death. All the physical medical treatments and cures (good as they are) will not prevent anyone from ultimate physical death, and the suffering our mortality entails. You know all this. Christianity offers hope to understand suffering and death and our existence, which goes back to one of your previous remarks asking why these discussions always seem to get around to “meaning and purpose.” How do you expect me to provide you with a cogent response about suffering or hope, after all the writings, paintings, songs, art, etc. that have been accumulated by those great and small over recorded history – to which you have access? If you really want me to venture a response, you’ve got to be more specific, and help me separate out your real question from the angst you express toward religion or Christians or God, whatever.

    Also, Lone Primate said, “ It seems to me that the only hope Christianity (Islam, Judaism, etc., etc.) ever provided anyone was just enough to get by on until some human being or other showed up with the (naturalistic) solution.” First, your statement implies that only naturalists do good things, or that good things are always naturalistic. Common! Maybe the word naturalistic needs some definition. Second, beyond the possible postponement of physical death, what does naturalism, supported by evolutionary thinking, offer people who ponder suffering and hope?

  25. @Denny Second, beyond the possible postponement of physical death, what does naturalism, supported by evolutionary thinking, offer people who ponder suffering and hope?

    To paraphrase the author of jesus and mo, naturalism is limited by it's unwillingness to make stuff up.

  26. Steve Oberski said...said, Denny…

    “3) Until you offer convincing proof of a next world, it does not exist.”
    - God either exists or He does not. I cannot believe Him into existence, you cannot deny Him out of existence.
    - It is science itself that has opened the door to the reality of other space and time dimensions. Who are you to put a cap on those realities just because you apparently don’t like their implications. Those realities are the ones that spawned our existence?

    TomS “… you are just making stuff up or uncritically believing stuff that other people made up.”
    - No book in human history has been attacked more and critically scrutinized more than the Bible. Whether or not you have personally ever seen a serious examination and validation of the Bible is dependant on your motives, and desire to take the reading suggestions I offered TomS.

    TomS “4) The function of the "naturalistic" belief system (as you call it) is to better understand reality, not to project your fear of death ...”
    - If you have a better term for what you adopt as a worldview vs. my term, "naturalistic" belief system, what is it?
    - I do not fear death. I do fear the process of dying, and separation from those I love (wife, kids and grandkids). Death is, however, merely a doorway to life that is not subject to all the physical limits and trouble/suffering of this world. Everybody in the world knows that things here are too hard, often unfair, and sometimes evil is the only term that applies to what we experience. Thoughts like that result from the uniquely human notion that there must be something better. Why would we think/hope/want things to be better if they were not? That’s my bottom line. What’s yours?

  27. Anonymous said... “The point that I raised remains uncontested:” “For some 2000 years, everybody agreed that the Bible really did say that the Sun went around the Earth daily and that the Earth was motionless, and nobody detected any signs of figurative language in that.”

    First, your statement, “For some 2000 years, everybody agreed …” is grossly exaggerated.” Everybody never agreed on anything, except for death and taxes.

    Second, I think your statement makes some erroneous assumptions and is oversimplified. There are countless valid responses. Here are a few.

    “In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth.” The first thing to notice about this Biblical passage is that no other religion’s creation account comes anywhere close to being as accurate as the Bible’s (when comparing it to known scientific facts), even concerning this brief and simple passage.

    The English words “heavens” and “earth” come from the Hebrew words “shamayim” and “eres,” which have multiple “literal” definitions. However, when placed together, they have a specific “literal” definition: ‘the totality of the physical universe,’ which includes all matter and energy, plus space-time dimensions.

    According to Genesis 1:1 (written approximately 35 centuries before modern cosmology), the entire universe came into existence at a finite moment in the past. Again, this account is unique among ancient religious creation accounts. Additionally, it was originally composed in a “literal” context, and has been confirmed by natural science to be “literally” correct. No metaphorical inferences were or are intended.

    The Genesis 1 account in verse 2 shifts from a wide-angle view to a close-up view of Earth – its then water surface. The Genesis author turns from cosmology to geology. Yet again, these simple and ancient passages indicate what was originally “literally” intended and what has been scientifically confirmed to be a general but “literally” correct view of the universe’s and Earth’s origin – separating the Bible’s creation account from all other religious creation accounts, and even from the historical naturalistic/atheistic steady-state notions about the universe.

    No assumptions made in these few accounts suggest that the Sun revolved around the Earth. Gallileo confirmed that the Earth was not the center of the solar system. The then Pope agreed, and then recanted his agreement. As with all things, including science, this was all a matter of scientific interpretation that is sometimes influenced by what might be called political pressure. Accurate translations of scripture do not indicate any metaphors.

  28. @Denny:

    What you have given is your own interpretation of some Bible verses. You will note that I specifically excluded interpretations which date from after the year 1500 when I said that no one said that the Bible statements about geocentrism were not to be taken literally. I agree that just about everybody today accepts that the Earth is a planet.

    If you think that my statement is grossly exaggerated, then I'd like to know of a few counter-examples between 500 BC and AD 1500.

    By the way, I agree that some verses of the Bible do not have anything to say about the motion of the Sun around the fixed Earth. The Bible talks about lots of things. The question is whether you can find someone, before 1500, telling us that a particular verse seemingly about the motion of the Sun around a fixed Earth is to be interpreted figuratively.


  29. Denny:

    1/3 I would venture to say that we’ve all seen tragedy and misery enough to recognize them, if not always to the same degree and extent. The issue is what it drives you to... do you retreat into religion, shrug it all off as superfluous and pretend that something imagined and hinted at in old books is all one need really be concerned with; or do you look at the realities of the world for ways to solve the problems in the here and now, doubtful that there is anything else? The only reason we’re not all still pushing plows around the Old World and dropping dead and toothless at 35 is because we moved beyond subjection to the supernatural to understanding the natural... the real.

    Entropy isn’t responsible for death. Entropy applies in closed systems and our bodies are anything but closed systems — in fact, they require constant input from outside. Were the restorative powers of our bodies equal to the task, there’d be no need to die provided there were sufficient input of energy and material. But they aren’t; our ability to regenerate is limited to a few basic systems and the number of times our cells can replicate efficiently even appears to be limited genetically. In general, there’s a survival advantage in getting the previous generation off the planet as soon as it’s passed the ball to the next; we’re smart enough to hold that off for two or three times longer than would be typical for an animal our size and reproductive characteristics. A static generation that never dies of old age, and thus never changes, would be fine so long as its environment never changed (and it could find a way to replace its members lost through accidents). But our environment does change, necessitating evolution, necessitating new generations, which implies removing the previous ones which compete for resources... hence, death. It’s not mystical, neither is it designed; it’s just a survival mechanism in multi-cellular organisms.


  30. (cont’d)

    2/3 It’s a strange take to insist that everything is meant to die, and then turn around and claim that your beliefs ultimately put the lie to what you just held to be true. But then we should ask, if we’re immortal anyway, what’s the purpose of insisting souls, inflicted with heavenly amnesia, slide down a chute to a material realm where they are transitorially welded to matter and judged for all eternity on basis of their conduct in this extremely brief game show called “life” that turns out not to be “life” at all, but just an ephemeral detour into a realm of physicality? Especially in Christianity, where ultimately the only criteria that finally matters turns out to be something on the level of did you believe in the adult version of Santa Claus, yes or no? If yes, then nothing else you did matters (well, unless you’re Catholic, then at least there’s purgatory). What is the point of all that? It looks to me like nothing more than an excuse to send a lot of souls to hell for the entertainment of a deity and its sycophants, with the division bell ringing on susceptibility to early indoctrination.

    I understand what Christianity purports to offer us: do as we say [that our god says], and be rewarded; do otherwise and suffer forever. No evidence is even offered to support this emotional blackmail, and so belief itself becomes the criterion. But one cannot believe what one does not believe; one either believes, or does not. There is no way to force oneself or anyone else to sincerely believe what is unconvincing. Ultimately this is of little importance to most religious people. What they are after is not so much salvation for others – that’s a nice bonus – but actually just the comfort and power of conformity. There’s no way to know if someone truly believes or not, but so long as they act like they do, and behave in no way disturbing or offensive to the orthodox, that’s all that really matters. It’s plainly admitted in things like the Wedge Document that initiated the whole movement to teach creationism in science classes: it was never just about that; that was always just the thin edge.

    Beyond the postponement of physical death, what does naturalism promise? Well, that’s just it; it doesn’t make “promises”, especially ones it can’t keep. It points to possibilities. What we do with them is up to us. And hope. What is hope, finally? Hope is the ability to either imagine or become aware of a desirable outcome, and to either passively anticipate it or to work actively to achieve that outcome. And this is where the difference between religion and naturalism is at its most crucial. Religion imagines possibilities, and tacitly recognizing their unreality, makes positive virtues of believing without or even in spite of evidence. It can calm nerves, but it can never solve a problem because it deals with the immaterial and the imaginary. Naturalism faces facts: unlike religion it doesn’t make promises that can’t be kept; as previously stated, it identifies real possibilities, indicates real goals, and provides real means to accomplish them.


  31. (cont’d)

    Religions hold that death isn’t really death – this is the “hope” they hold out to people, without evidence, merely to garner support from thinking animals who instinctively fear death and can be persuaded to metaphorically flee it to some imaginary shelter, the door to which is controlled by a powerful few in the clergy. Science, on the other hand, recognizes that there is no reason to credit that we are anything but beings of limited existence, but ones that have evolved to certain level of understanding and capacities largely lacking in other animals... that we can clearly define problems, fix goals based on them, and produce strategies to reach those goals. Those goals can better and lengthen the lives of people living today or even in generations to come; they can enrich the experience of what it is to be human. That’s real hope, and the lives we live today come as a result of that. I don’t hope to live forever; that’s unrealistic (and eventually it would probably get pretty boring). But I do hope for other things, potentially realizable things. I hope to see cancers cured. I hope to see human beings reach Mars. I hope to see fusion power become a reality. I hope to see some sort of democratic world government and citizenship (the EU looks like a good practical start to me). I hope to see life discovered elsewhere in the solar system. I hope to see things like a mind-computer interface that could not only facilitate artificial limbs and extensions of the brain, but communication between brains among humans, and even other species, giving us a real understanding of what it is to be “other” for the first time. I have a range of personal goals I hope to see achieved in my life as well. All of these are things that I can realistically hope to see in my lifetime. Others are things I can only hope for for those who come after me, but for which I am willing to work (or at least pay taxes) today, as others did before me. All these are real things that naturalism, materialism, science – however one chooses to call it – actually offers to human beings. Religion offers none of this; nothing but idyll stagnation in this life, sitting around waiting and chanting and bowing and rubbing beads in precise formulations all in anticipation of the something “better” that by definition no human agency can or will ever provide; a perpetual dark age of abject surrender to superstitious fear and ignorance under clerical direction where chits of “hope”, safely valid only after the death (and silence) of the holder, are dolled out to the fully-compliant. Where naturalism holds life as valuable simply because it is so ephemeral, religion devalues it because after all, this “life” is merely an instant in an eternity.

    What exactly does your religion promise the people you mentioned? ‘Don’t sweat it, nothing here counts or matters, stay focused on grabbing the brass ring of death’, all the while attempting to alienate people from their own bodies and terrify them of their own thoughts? When you think of the human misery that attitude papered over from days of the Roman Empire right up to the time of Charles Dickens (Dickens, not Darwin), all the alleviation and progress that were waved off as unnecessary or overly indulgent in all those thousands of years, the wasted lives, the wasted generations, the wasted epochs, you ought to hang your head in shame.

    My bottom line is why sit around waiting for someone we don’t know exists to do the heavy lifting of making things “better” for us, and even then, not until we die? Work to make things better now, using means and within a realm we know for certain to exist.

  32. Denny:

    “no other religion’s creation account comes anywhere close to being as accurate as the Bible’s”

    Six days by one account, one day by another; sun made separately from the stars (of which it is one), humans made separately from all other animals (in one telling before, in the other after; in one telling man and woman created together, in the other separately); plants predating the fall of the first rain... contractions of external fact and internal claims and counter-claims. Where do we find “accuracy” in these accounts?

    “Again, this account is unique among ancient religious creation accounts.”

    Even if this is accepted at face value, so what? How does having a “unique” feature to some aspect of its mythos indicate the validity of a religion? The Muslims claim their account gives the speed of light — through a lot of jiggery-pokery, it’s true, but given that spin is the name of the game here, you’d have to admit that that trumps just correcting guessing (part of the time) the order that things came into existence. Will you be swapping your crucifix for a prayer mat anytime soon? If not, why do you suppose the rest of us are awed by the mediocre claims of your religion’s scatter gun shots at the bullseye?

    “No assumptions made in these few accounts suggest that the Sun revolved around the Earth.”

    No assumptions made in them suggest the opposite, either. The first account does, however, insist the Earth pre-exists the Sun, which is not the case.

    “Yet again, these simple and ancient passages indicate what was originally “literally” intended and what has been scientifically confirmed”

    What if you read the account in the second chapter of Genesis? In that account, the creation took a single day; Adam was created before the animals, and Eve was not yet created when God warned Adam alone not to eat of the tree of knowledge (which is not mentioned at all in the first account). There’s also an implication in 2:18-21 that God expected Adam to choose his mate from among the animals (created immediately after God decided Adam needed a helpmate), but Adam didn’t find any suitable, so God fell back on making Eve. Now how does any of this accord with science in any way, shape, or form? And why do the accounts, one ending at 2:3 and the other beginning in the very next verse, contradict each other at all?

  33. Anonymous said... @Denny: “The question is whether you can find someone, before 1500, telling us that a particular verse seemingly about the motion of the Sun around a fixed Earth is to be interpreted figuratively.”

    I’ll get a book back from a friend and let you know what I find. But, what’s the point?

  34. @Denny asked "what's the point?"

    Larry asked about literalism and figurative language in the Bible. I was suggesting that the standards as to what is taken as literal and what is taken as figurative have changed over time. As an example, I took the matter of geocentrism. For a long time, nobody took the story of the Sun standing still for Joshua as being anything other than a straightforward description (rather than figurative language). Yet today, practically everybody accepts that the Sun does not go around a fixed Earth.

    I am aware that moderns make a very good argument for the language of geocentrism in the Bible not to be taken as a literal description of the universe. I am not arguing with that. I can understand that there are quite good reasons for that argument. I am merely pointing out that that is an argument which was constructed only relatively recently.


  35. Anonymous said... @Denny: “The question is whether you can find someone, before 1500, telling us that a particular verse seemingly about the motion of the Sun around a fixed Earth is to be interpreted figuratively.”

    Anonymous, scripture is silent on a lot of things, especially things not be pertinent to its central messages like human redemption. It’s written in many linguistic styles to be understood by readers from any culture and any group speaking virtually any language from the 35th century to today, omitting irrelevant topics like atomic structure, quantum mechanics and seemingly, heliocentricity. At the same time, all scripture (natural phenomena references included) was recorded much farther back than 1,500 A.D. to no later than 100 A.D.
    1 Chronicles 16:30 (“… the world is firmly established; it cannot be moved,”) and Psalm 93:1 (“… the world is established, firm and secure.”) apparently describe an "immovable" earth. This is phenomenological language. For me to say “the sun will go down tonight” doesn’t mean that I’m an IDiot, it means I’m describing the Sun the way a non-astronomer would see it. Proper interpretation is important for both science and scripture. Discoveries in astronomy and physics render a correct interpretation of why the Sun looks like its going down. The same scientific discoveries confirm that the laws of physics are “firm and secure” – fixed, and that the 1 Chronicles 16:30 (300 BC) and Psalm 93:1 (1000 – 500 BC) descriptions are (unlike all other creation accounts) not inconsistent with modern more accurate science. In other words, Galileo (preceded by Copernicus) equipped by both ancient scripture and a new science (telescope) was bold enough to offer a proper interpretation of ‘both’ scripture and science when he posited earth’s position around the Sun. The then Pope actually accepted Galileo’s posit at first. According to popular (mis)perception, the trials of Galileo pitted the outmoded traditions of the church against the relentless advance of science. However, it was the scientific establishment that resisted Galileo’s posit and talked the Pope into rejecting it. Galileo’s scientific peers likely all believed in a (Aristotelian) geocentric view. The Church eventually corrected its error, although not before the Church and Christianity suffered disrepute. Naturalists have yet to accept responsibility for their role in disgracing Galileo. The popular perception of Galileo also started the process of removing humanity from its central location in the cosmos to the more (naturalistically) correct position of virtual irrelevance.

  36. (cont.)
    Anonymous, since I often see the Bible mocked as myth at Sandwalk, and since I am more aware of New Testament scholarship, I will offer this information as an example of Biblical scholarship that applies to passages noting natural phenomena, as well as all scripture, including 1 Chronicles 16:30 (300 BC) and Psalm 93:1 (1000 – 500 BC).

    Confidence in the authenticity of ancient manuscripts increases with the number of copies available compared to what was originally written. More copies = more confidence.
    - 5760 copies exist of portions of NT in Greek (more being found all the time)
    - Next most reliable non-Biblical NT-age document has 640 copies

    Confidence in the authenticity of ancient manuscripts increases with a narrowing of the gap between when the manuscript was originally written and when the earliest copy was written.
    - The gap for all non-Biblical ancient texts averages around 800 years. The average for the Bible is 30-50 years. There is no other document for which this narrow gap exists.
    - 20,000 copies of non-Greek (Coptic, Aramaic, Latin, etc.) NT’s exist that say the same thing as the Greek NT.
    - Over 1,000,000 NT-age quotations exist by people outside of the NT, quotes dating from the 2nd to the 4th centuries. So much so that the entire NT could be reproduced from those quotations, minus 15 verses.
    - The Bible is indisputably the most reliable text in human history, including references to natural phenomena, which, when they are compared to modern scientific discoveries, do not conflict with those discoveries.

  37. @Denny:

    You seem to be agreeing with me.

    There are passages in the Bible which seem to be saying that the Sun makes a daily movement around a fixed Earth. (The story of the miracle of the Sun and Moon stopping in Joshua 10 is probably the most famous example, but there are others.)

    No one, before AD 1500, said that those passages were meant figuratively (or that they didn't actually say that about the Sun and the Earth).

    However, just about everybody today accepts that the Earth is a planet in the Solar System.

    Thank you.

    By the way, to distinguish me from other people who post anonymously, you can call me


  38. TomS said, “You seem to be agreeing with me.”

    I’m not sure if we agree or not. The Bible isn’t definitive on some things. Neither is science. Maybe we could agree on that. But, that doesn’t mean that science and the Bible are not reliable, concerning the things on which they are definitive. While a text may seem to be figurative or metaphorical, I don’t think that subtracts from the veracity of scripture, especially since interpretation plays such a big role in science and scripture. And, since science is in a position to clarify figurative or metaphorical speech when Biblical references to natural phenomena are involved.

    It may be expecting too much for scripture to clearly describe heliocentricism (Quoting Wikipedia: “the astronomical model in which the Earth and planets revolve around a stationary Sun.”). I think it would have been unadvisable for the Bible to imply that “the Earth and planets revolve around a stationary Sun,” because the Sun is not stationary, it’s moving, within a galaxy that’s moving, etc. What meaning would that have had for people before Galileo, and before modern science revealed the solar system?

    I’m content to watch science and scripture reveal their consistencies. I think there’s a better outcome there, than the one offered by naturalism. I struggle in these threads to discover the motive for choosing naturalism over Christianity. That’s why I got into "A Defense of the ‘Theistic Evolution’ Version of Creationism". I was hoping to see how some people blend naturalistic science with the Bible. Oh Well. Maybe next time.

    GBU, TomS

  39. @Denny:

    I was mistaken. You are not even talking about the same thing that I am.

    I am not talking about whether the Bible is reliable. I am not talking about whether science is reliable.

    I am pointing out that there has been a near-total shift in the interpretation of passages like Joshua 10. For some 2000 years, everybody took statements about the Sun taking a daily path around the fixed Earth at face value. Nobody suggested that they were consistent with the Earth being a planet in the Solar System. And, of course, in the last couple of centuries, it's hard to find someone who would write about Joshua 10 from that same point of view.

    I am not talking about whether the old view of the Bible was wrong (or right), or whether the modern view is right (or wrong). All I am saying is that they are different.

    I took the fact that you didn't dispute that, and that you (or anyone else) didn't give a citation to a writer before the year 1500 who suggested otherwise - I took that as agreement that nobody did. Apparently, it's just that you are not interested in that topic. On the other hand, what you are talking about, I am not interested in discussing.


  40. TomS,

    In your original comment, you used expressions like “everybody [Christians] accepted” and “literally true” and “virtually everybody [Christians] agrees.” These are over-generalized terms, even when referring to areas of Christian theology that may be vague. To me, your comments seem to be a little disingenuous, because they ignore the point I tried to make that the Bible is, in terms of scholarship, literary excellence, and most importantly predictability, indisputably the most reliable text in human history (far surpassing the scholarship of any other documents, including those espousing naturalism) and is useful for human behavior, just as science is a reliable tool for understanding things natural and using them for human benefit. Your comments are, I think, in the end, intended to diminish the Bible and Christianity. I respectfully disagree, based on both Biblical and scientific scholarship.

    “Virtually” “every” “Christian” does “accept” what was stated in Larry’s post of the Apostles Creed. When discussing things like geo or heliocentricity, everybody did not agree. I never heard more than a mention of the geo or heliocentric issue over a nearly 70-year life of church-going. Some Christians have a ‘framework’ view of the Bible and believe that passages like Joshua 10 and even the Genesis 1 and 2 creation accounts are to be taken metaphorically, not literally – even today. Additionally, I’m reading a book now (Origins: A Reformed Look at Creation, Design, & Evolution) by Deb and Loren Haarsma (Calvin College professors) that is based on a theistic evolution view that regards some passages as metaphorical that others would take as literal. Other Christians believe that scripture proves to be literally correct, as science reveals confirming or at least supporting details.

    Biblical accounts like Joshua 10 and issues like geo or heliocentrism are almost always seen as non-essentials to the doctrine of salvation. Christians typically see them as accounts of verified historical events that confirm and corroborate other Biblical accounts and the overall truth of scripture. If I ever find something that proves or disproves your suggestion of a “near-total shift in the interpretation” of the issue of geo or heliocentrism,” I will post my findings here.

    In the meantime, I wish you would tell me the basis for your belief in naturalism, supported by evolution in a way that does two things:
    1. Omits any comments about those with whom you disagree, and
    2. Explains how an ever-improving process like evolution can exist in the greater reality of a universe that is certain to self-destruct.

  41. @Denny:

    To take your last point first, I see no reason to defend my supposed belief in naturalism. If I were promoting that, I would, of course, feel some obligation to defend it.

    Now, I admit that I was making some sweeping statements. I made those statements so broadly because (1) I like to be forthright about things (2) I was hoping that if there were some counter-example, someone would be motivated to put me in my place by giving it.

    Now, as far as belief in geocentrism, you, once again, seem to be agreeing with me, that virtually no one today cites the Bible for a belief in geocentrism. (But I am aware of a few, and I tried to make it clear that they are not representative of modern Bible readers. I didn't want to overgeneralize by saying "no one". But in the case of Bible-readers before 1500, I simply said "no one" was a heliocenrist, because I believe that, while it surely is a generalization, it is not an overgeneralization.) You give what seem to me to be a reasonable approach to the Bible which is consistent with astronomy, and I would not dispute its legitimacy.

    I don't know how to make myself clearer on the issue that I brought up: That there has been a major shift in opinion, from "everybody" believing such-and-such to "virtually nobody" believing it.


  42. TomS,

    As I have said, if I find something worth adding to your point about what most people took from the Bible’s limited discussion of heliocentrism before 1500, I will post it here. You’ve got me curious. My curiosity, if your point proves true, goes toward the circumstances that may have done that: language, prevailing scientific knowledge, religion, etc.

    Concerning defense of your “supposed belief in naturalism,” my apologies. I didn’t ask to put you on the defensive. It’s simply an inquiry I make of all naturalists/atheists/skeptics who make it a habit to challenge my Christian faith, and use a naturalistic view of science as a support for their their worldview. I view science’s realities to be something that continues to validate the Bible’s reliability and affirms my faith. I can’t figure out how a naturalistic worldview and the cosmos’ certain fate can be mutually encouraging, when it comes to basic ethereal and nonphysical human needs.

  43. Denny:

    issues like geo or heliocentrism are almost always seen as non-essentials to the doctrine of salvation.

    Isn't it amazing how the Bible is forever the perfect, inerrant word of God himself whenever it backs up theistic claims to the moral guidance of society, but is either ambiguous, superseded, or merely a matter of interpretation whenever its veracity is questionable? A real miracle, that.

  44. @Dennys:
    I had no intention of challenging anyone's Christian faith or using a naturalistic view of science as a support for my worldview.

  45. Lone Primate,

    The Bible's original inspired texts (before they were copied and translated into other languages) were/are indeed the "inerrant perfect word of God" - in the areas they address. The Bible does not claim inerrancy in areas it does not address.

    Correct me if I’m wrong. Science does the same. It at least claims superiority, if not inerrancy, when dealing with issues of nature. Science does not claim superiority over supernatural phenomena, although it may claim ignorance of the supernatural. Naturalists do claim superiority over supernatural phenomena, but that’s interpretation of the facts, not the facts. When talking about Biblical inerrancy, we’re talking about what the text says first, then what the text means. The latter is interpretation. The former is what is subject to an inerrancy test.

    If the original of The Declaration of Independence were lost to fire, and if all that remained were copies, the copies would still be authentic, and considered “inspired” by its authors. Since there are now so many ways of preserving any text, it will not be difficult for any text’s scholarship to survive for eras (opposed to the limited ways available 1500 to 3500 years ago). That’s why it’s important to consider the extraordinary steps taken by the Bible’s authors and succeeding generations of scholars to preserve an authentic account of God’s supernaturally expressed will for people.

    Concerning the actual process of making copies of the original Biblical texts, here is but one small discipline followed by scribes who made copies. They would count and verify the number of letters in a word. Then they would count from the beginning of a word and from the end to see if they had the same number of letters, and if they arrived at the same middle each time. This discipline was then applied to whole sentences, paragraphs, and books. In my comments in this thread with TomS dated Tuesday, January 18, 2011 7:30:00 AM you can see a few of the authentication ‘tests’ passed, when the Bible is subjected to critical examination. To the best of my knowledge, there are no other historical texts, especially texts regarding philosophical naturalism that clear the high bar of Biblical scholarship, especially the Bible’s unprecedented success at making successful predictions, which happens to be an essential part of the scientific method.

  46. Denny:

    I think it’s telling that you make a point of claiming inerrancy only for the “original inspired texts”. What are we to make of this? That your couldn’t be bothered to offer even the cursory inspiration and guidance required for an inerrant translation – and effort lesser by far than the original authoring – that went into laying it all out in the first place? So apparently your god is only concerned with providing inerrant, dependable spiritual guidance to readers of the Bronze Age versions of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek – inclusive, since unlike when he (alternately) authored the Quran, he didn’t stick to one language writing the Bible. The billions of speakers of English, Spanish, Mandarin, Russian, French, Arabic, German, Japanese, etc., are expected to muddle through the best they can on the road to either eternal salvation or damnation on the basis of the erroneous translations your god couldn’t bother himself about. But, of course... that’s OUR fault. It always is, somehow, isn’t it. It’s never, ever, the fault of the reputed perfect designer of the universe, who’s supposed to be in charge of all these things, but never shows up to punch the clock.

    I’m not aware of anyplace the Bible claims inerrancy for itself. After all, when it was being written, nobody knew they were writing “the Bible”. It wasn’t assembled as such for several centuries. The only claims of its inerrancy are those made by the humans who want to use it to compel others.

    Science doesn’t claim superiority over supernatural phenomena for the simple reason that it doesn’t recognize the existence of the supernatural. There’s no evidence for the supernatural; if there were, then it would by definition be “natural” and thus something measurable, quantifiable, and demonstrable: the province of science. The moment you can prove the “supernatural” to exist is the moment it ceases to be supernatural. As long as it remains imaginary, free to be defined, described, and delineated in whatever way pleases the definer, describer, and delineator (in other words, “interpreted”), it remains supernatural. There are no “facts” where the supernatural is concerned, and that’s the whole point.

    If the original Declaration of Independence were lost, its copies would remain what they are: first, a foundational document for one particular nation-state; secondly, an inspiration to like-minded others not necessarily living in that country, or even in a time when it exists (thousands of years from now, say). But the question here is the translations. If we were able, wouldn’t we want to be sure that people in the future wouldn’t hold that we purported that “all men are created evil” or that “among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of xylophones”? There’s every indication that the Western world has been enthrall for centuries of a virgin giving birth due to a casual, mistranslation of “young woman” as “virgin”; one that’s understandable and almost forgivable were it not for the fact that it turns the unremarkable into the supposedly miraculous. I find it hard to believe that an all-knowing, all-powerful god who really cares what we know and think about him would permit this. It would clearly be either one or the other, but there would be no discrepancy in the meaning.


  47. (cont'd)

    I also find it interesting to bring up the care with which “the Bible’s authors and succeeding generations of scholars” preserved the documents they felt were vital, and the supposed proof of divine providence that their having successfully been brought down to us reveals. Then what are we to make of, say, the Gospel of Thomas, which mentions no crucifixion and suggests women must become men to enter Heaven? Or the non-canonical books revealed by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, including apocryphal pslams? These were preserved and delivered to us within the lifetime of people alive today. Certainly you would claim the survival of canonical documents that support your faith as you’ve come to understand it as miraculous and some sort of demonstration of your god’s intent; what should we make of the fact that he also saw fit to ensure the preservation and discovery of books from the same period that don’t tell a story quite like the one you believe?

    You mention the Bible’s “unprecedented” success at making predictions. I wonder what these could be. The recreation of Israel, for instance, which was brought about by human beings as a result of the constant hammering on of scripture for millennia? One might as well see evidence for God in the return of Coke Classic: if people want something badly enough and it’s possible, then they will cause it to happen. This might be impressive had the Bible actually named the date (“and it shall come to pass upon the fifth day of the month of Iyar in the year 5708, also called May 14, 1948 among the gentiles”) – that’s testable and falsifiable. What would the test have been in 1945, or 1850, or 1100? Simply saying something will happen one day is no test. For instance: Revelations claims a third of the trees and grass are destroyed by hail and fire. When did this happen? Or when will it happen, precisely? This is what we mean by “testable” and “falsifiable” predictions. Something that cannot be brought about by human agency (thus fudging the results), and will happen at a certain time that everyone can agree about, would be both compelling and would accord with science. Vagaries that can happen anytime, and that any occurrence could be spun to satisfy, do not.

  48. Lone Primate said, “I think it’s telling that you make a point of claiming inerrancy only for the “original inspired texts”. What are we to make of this?

    “original inspired texts” means all texts divinely supernaturally inspired by God to the authors from the oldest (Job, second millennium) to newest of New Testament books (first century AD). [I believe this is what you said you would do if you were God in a former comment]

    Lone Primate said, “I’m not aware of anyplace the Bible claims inerrancy for itself.”

    Hebrew scriptures: Passages concerning the words of God being without error include:
    - Psalms 12:6: "the words of the LORD are flawless"
    - Psalms 119:89: "Your word, O LORD, is eternal, it stands firm"
    - Proverbs 30:5-6: "Every word of God is flawless"
    - Christian scriptures:
    - Matthew 5:18: "For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled."
    - Plus many more.

    Lone Primate said, “There are no “facts” where the supernatural is concerned.” Read Lee Strobel’s “Case for Christ” or read Tim Keller's "The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism - take your pick. Strobel is a former skeptic.

    Denny said, “Science does not claim superiority over supernatural phenomena, although it (naturalists) may claim ignorance of the supernatural.” Lone Primate said, “Science doesn’t claim superiority over supernatural phenomena for the simple reason that it doesn’t recognize the existence of the supernatural.” `Eureka! We agree.

  49. Denny:

    I understood what you meant by “inspired texts”. You haven’t addressed my question as to why your god, supposedly so itchy that we get everything right and avoid Hell, wouldn’t put the same effort into the translations.

    The two psalms, the proverb, and the quote from Matthew you lay out claim inerrancy for the word of God. Allowing for the moment for that to be the case, where’s the connection in any of this to the Bible itself? You’re purporting the Bible to be that self-same “word of God”, and that’s not established either in those quotes themselves or anything else I’m aware of. Practitioners of other religions make that same claim for their god and their book, after all, with an essentially equal validity for doing so as far as I can see (which is to say, none).

    So what exactly to Lee and Tim have to tell us in terms of evidence for the existence of the supernatural? Are you capable of expressing succinctly the sensible reasons you believe what you do, or will you simply insist on chasing those who ask difficult questions away and hope they’ll be too lazy to pore through hundreds of pages just to establish YOUR talking points for you? I can tell you what I believe without shooing you away to do MY homework, after all.

    We aren’t really in accord on the take of science to the supernatural. The way you phrase it suggests a tacit acceptance of the existence of the supernatural by science with a hands-off reserve. I’m saying there’s nothing there for science to keep its hands off of, and were it there, science would be all too happy to lay hands upon it. Hallelujah.