Whoever claims that he is giving the Bible a literal reading is either a modern historian who is interested in concepts quite different from his own, or intellectually insincere. The text of Genesis 1 is straight. God created the earth, he separated the waters above from the waters below. Earth is a plate, a land surrounded by water. A dome is above us and protects us from the water masses up there; and water is underneath the land shield. God fixed the sun and the moon as lights on that dome. This was not a story Newton could accept any longer – though the Bible remained his first choice when it came to ancient chronology (see my posting on early modern views of the antediluvian period).
In a letter to Thomas Burnet written in January 1680/1 Newton took the step which all modern Bible readers tend to take. He took into account that all this was written to suit the audience Moses had to address. It would have confused this audience to learn that they lived on a globe, let alone that there was gravity in space, a force sufficient to keep planets in orbits around the sun. Newton to Burnet:
As to Moses […] where he speaks of two great lights I suppose he means their apparent, not real greatness. So when he tells us God placed those lights in ye firmament, he speaks I suppose of their apparent not of their real place, […] to adapt a description of ye creation as handsomly as he could to ye sense & capacity of ye vulgar […]
For Moses, accommodating his words to ye gross conceptions of ye vulgar, describes things much after ye manner as one of ye vulgar would have been inclined to do had he lived & seen ye whole series of wt Moses describes […]
Now for ye number & length of ye six days: by what is said above you may make ye first day as long as you please, & ye second day too if there was no diurnal motion till there was a terraqueous globe, that is till towards ye end of that days work.
As much as the astronomer felt that he was in a better position than the contemporaries of Moses, he remained unable to obtain the pictures Ken Ham is able to detect in the book of Genesis today: Dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark. Adam’s sons had been playing with these beasts, they were peaceful vegetarians, so the Creation Museum.
The dinosaurs promoted by the Creation Museum have, so Ham, always been part of the Bible. Behemoth and Leviathan were two of them. As beautifully as this might fit into a claim of Biblical literalism, it remained a thing people before Darwin would not realise. God did not write a Bible that would give mankind the images Ken Ham is able to get when reading the scriptures.
The relationship of creationism to the sciences is complex then. It is essentially parasitical. Creationists fill their books with knowledge they take from scientific and pseudoscientific books and they transform this knowledge into counter narratives. The Creation Museum is taking most of its visual power from the Smithsonian Museum and from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. The Bible itself did not lead to Ham’s exhibits.
The central clientele of the Creation Museum is attending school. The Creation Museum confronts this audience with counter narratives that will bring the individual pupils into problems: “Yes dinosaurs existed, but not that long ago as you have been made believe in your school lessons. Adam and Eve and their sons played with these animals, not with toy replicas but with the real ones, because they were nice and friendly, vegetarians like the elephants you might have seen in a zoo.”
The counter narratives are in themselves tremendous intellectual fun. The unpleasant part are the strings attached – and they are promoted in Ken Ham’s central book: The Lie.
Ken Ham’s Lie
Ken Ham’s The Lie departs from regular creationist literature. It is not filled with fake questions an “evolutionist” is allegedly unable to answer.
Ham offers in a first step a fundamental strategic consideration of the question what kind of debate the creationist should want to be in. Illustrations clarify the risks: If you are a creationist and discuss evolution with a scientist he will beat you on his field. If you discuss creationism on your own terms you will win with your superior knowledge – so the promise.
The rest of The Lie is devoted to the title’s statement: Evolutionism is not a mistaken scientific theory; it is a lie designed to infiltrate our societies and to destroy them from within. Once you accept this “lie” it will erode your beliefs and turn you into an atheist, it will turn you into a Marxist, a secular humanist, a Nazi, a porn lover, a potential serial killer. You will lose all your family values and live in sin.
The ten year old who has taken his tour through the Creation Museum will be able to question his teachers. But he will not be able to defend what he has read on his visit. The exhibits are persistently wild guesses. You get an alternative theory of plate tectonics, you learn that penguins and ice bears might well have lived together in the warm climate in which the ark was built; you learn that the oceans were filled with drift wood for more than a hundred years after the flood, so that Noah’s animals could reach the different continents that now existed. The student who dares to use any of these theories in school is going to become his teacher’s laughing stock for wild guessing and the designers of the Creation Museum are well aware of the clash of intellectual cultures they are aiming at. They visualise that as well: Visit the Museum and get the counter narrative, the narrative you will never hear at school.
The question is: why should they prepare a student with shaky allegedly “literal” interpretations of the Bible and with knowledge he should better not use in an environment where knowledge will win.
A debate with Ken Ham will not aim at his conversion to the sciences. He will not invite scientists to correct his exhibits. Ham uses scientific theories and plays with them. One might like to avoid the debate of evolution altogether in a consensus with him. One should much rather accept his invitation and discuss creationism on his ground with the aim to clarify things. Creationism is certainly not what it seems. Ham’s role and the role of the “scientists” he claims to have employed both are immensely questionable.
Three fields of thought will be confrontational – if one should aim at the confrontation and not at a fun event.
- The theology of creationism is precarious, it needs God as a deceiver
- It is not clear what creationists would do if they were responsible for scientific education
- The claim that creationism is scientific is precarious
1. The theology of creationism is precarious, it needs God as a deceiver
The book of Genesis is obviously a text to be read with a bit of intellectual distance. Did God write it to suit the minds of Bronze Age men, as Newton proposed? Did God hide basic information about his creation such as the fact that we are living on a planet, circling around the sun? Creationists can intervene and hint at verses that stated the very nature of our solar system right from the beginning. The problem with these verses is that they were ignored and misread for such a long time. God did not enforce the correct readings and he did not save Galileo from having to renounce the truth in the face of the Bible.
How exactly do we determine whether a statement in the Bible is
- a scientific fact,
- written by men who reflected their own epochal beliefs, or
- written by God with an apparent readiness to substantiate an erroneous but, for the time being, useful concept?
The questions lead into a grey zone.
The entire universe seems to be ready to contradict the Bible. Did God create an interstellar environment in which astrophysicists are made believe that they see light that has travelled through space for billions of years? Do we experience plate tectonics that make us believe that these plates must have been moving in the present speed for millions of years? Is God deceiving the majority of scientists? Has he been deceiving people in the past — the audience Moses had to convince with pictures of a flat earth?
2. It is not clear what creationists would do if they were responsible for scientific education
This is an important point since creationists are promoting changes in text books and since they are exerting their influence on US-politicians with the aim to reconstruct the educational systems.
We can assume that Ham would not ban all future research on dinosaurs. He needs dinosaurs. The question is: how would governments of his choice prevent further research in this field from the further spreading all the “lies”? Would it be wise to close certain departments of astrophysics, palaeontology, geology and history in case they continued to promote wrong assumptions of the age of the universe, the age of our planet, the age of mankind?
Could one allow scientists to defend their theories as merely pragmatic suppositions — as Kepler and Copernicus did in the 16th century? What would one do if geologists were just doing better work with their long history models than with any model the Creation Museum is trying to impose?
A simple statement of the freedom of research will not do the job. The sciences are based on the agreement that any lie, any forgery of data, any wilful misinterpretation is punishable on their ground. If a group of scientists detects that a rivalling group has manipulated its research results this is the moment it will publicly discredit the opponent and beat them out of their field. If we assume that the sciences are a sinister complex whose main task it is to infest our societies with a deadly lie we should call for truth commissions and establish in whose interest this lie is spread. The responsible people should be tried in courts.
Who exactly are the responsible people behind The Lie? Was Darwin the primordial liar? Is Stephen Hawking with his History of Time that arch sinner today, or are these scientists rather puppets on strings pulled by government agents? Ken Ham’s book did an easy job to cast doubts into all directions. How does he want to prove that he is not just propagating a huge conspiracy theory with manipulated artefacts taken from the sciences?
3 The claim that creationism is scientific is precarious
Ken Ham’s Creation Museum is filled with peculiar guesses of a past that will not stand any test. How do we determine whether dinosaurs were vegetarians or carnivores? Do we state their vegetarian nature simply because only that will fit into a picture of peaceful coexistence with mankind? What kind of solidity can a claim get like the one that the oceans were filled with drift wood after the flood, so that kangaroos could make their way from Turkey to Australia in 2300 BC? How do we make sure that such claims are not simply invented to bring the ten year old into a miserable situation at school – into a situation in which only creationists could help him? authorities who will desert him or her in any serious debate?
The question of how exactly creation science determines whether a proposition it makes is true or false has fundamental implications. It can be reversed: The scientific question is always at the same moment an invitation to refute the claim. The scientist is able to tell what result he or she would accept as the proof of a fundamental flaw.
…a deplorable debate then
All this is a deplorable (or entertaining) debate then. We do not learn more about the Bible when we fill it with pictures from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park and we do not improve our knowledge about the evolution where we discuss it with creationists. Fake questions are exchanged – questions one does not ask with the aim to widen one’s own horizon but in order to expose one’s opponent.
The debate will make sense simply because we have problems to open an altogether different debate at the moment – a sociological and historical debate: Why do we have a 46% potential for the belief that the sciences are a massive lie in the US? What kind of pseudo critical clientele is nourished here by people like Ken Ham with something that looks critical and is essentially everything but critical. We are dealing here with an authoritarian perspective (the perspective of authoritative Bible interpreters) and with a pseudo knowledge no pupil will be able to defend. We are dealing here with an ideology its clientele can only adopt in acts of brave but miserable resistance. And I’d guess this miserable perspective is damned attractive. If you feel you are an underprivileged part of society you need a nice answer why that should be the case. The answer that you are deceived by those in power, by the school system, by the media — is damned attractive.
Do democracies with free debates, compulsory school systems and massive media presence breed the feeling that all these “free” debates might just be staged? Does democracy nourish this feeling that all the information, especially scientific and allegedly self-critical information, is manipulated?
For Images from the Creation Museum see