Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Creation or evolution - do we have to choose? - Chapter 2 (final installment)

The longest section in this chapter is under the heading "Does the Bible teach science?", and rounds off the two chapters which aim to give us an overview of the Biblical position, before we go on to get an overview of Darwinism. (The chapters after that then ask how the two can be integrated.)

There are some good points scored here against those who have a naive, Richard Dawkins-style take on how religious belief and scientific research can interact. Alexander aims some shots which hit the target in criticising some modernist assumptions. Here, we're talking about the idea that science is the primary arbiter of all truths - any kind of "truth" which isn't a "scientific truth" is an inferior species. This is the empiricist fallacy. The set of justified beliefs is much larger than the set of beliefs subject to verification via repeatable experiments. How much does my wife love me? I'd say quite a lot, but I can't measure it with the love-ometer and give you a score on a scale from 1 to 10.

DA also seeks to explain something of the principle of "accommodation"; that the language of the Scriptures is designed to be intelligible to its readers, who were to read it according to its purpose, not according to any arbitrary whim they should entertain. It is not to be read as if it were an edition of The International Physics Monthly. The words should not be interpreted as if they have coded technical and scientific meanings to demonstrate to us that in fact Moses was familiar with how mobile phones work. Just because modern secularists think that "science" is a superior kind of truth does not mean we have to bend the Bible to show that it's science in order to stop it coming off second best.

In the presence of these criticisms of modernist errors, then, it is ironic to see that ultimately DA takes a position which involves one of the biggest and most damaginig to Christianity of them all. In his zeal to stop us from reading the Bible as science, DA comfortably avoids driving his cart into the ditch on the left hand side of the road. Sadly this is at the expense of making a bee-line into the ditch on the right side instead. The position which DA leaves us with is one right at the top of the list of modernist axioms. Ultimately, modern scientific journals contain objective science, and the Bible contains religious truths, and never the twain shall meet. The Bible is not intended to, and does not, teach us anything about the concrete world that you can
see and touch; it contains spiritual truths for salvation. Hence DA approvingly quotes other writers with words like "the Holy Spirit did not desire that men should learn things that are useful to no one for salvation" and " [Scripture is] a Rule of our Faith and Obedience, [but not] a Judge of such Natural Truths as are to be found out by our own Industry and Experience" and "You receive no instruction on physical matters [from the Bible]. The message is a moral one".

This is ultimately a false dichotomy, and a rank modernist one at that. The God who has acted to save us is one who has acted in the world of space and time. His intervention is a historical one, involving real atoms and molecules. It is not an other-worldly salvation that only exists in an intangible spiritual realm, but in the concrete one that we live in. In this part of the chapter, DA continues to employ the strategy that has already been noted in this review. He sets up the question upon his own terms, with his own choice of dubious dichotomies, and then brings in the "some Christians believe..." straw-man to set the backdrop that he'll paint his own views against. The clear implication, given the purpose of the book, is that creationists believe that Genesis is to be read something like as if it were a copy of Newton's Principia, science written ahead of its time. Alexander writes, "A question that is often raised when thinking about the biblical doctrine of creation is whether the Bible itself presents its teachings on the subject as if they represented some form of modern science" and "There is a certain irony in the reflection that the keen atheist Prof. Richard Dawkins shares with some Christians their idea that religious and scientific truths belong to the same domain." Here are those strange bogey-men, "some Christians" again. Who are they?

The intention of the suggestion is to put into the reader's mind that this is what creationists think. That impression is confirmed because such hints are the only false suggestions that Alexander contrasts his own view with. The book is meant to refute creationism; yet DA's
descriptions of creationism are off-the-wall. Ultimately this is simple intellectual dishonesty. The briefest survey of creationist literature from any kind of mainstream source would show that DA has set up and shot down a legion of flaming straw-men. No mainstream creationist
thinks that Genesis is intended to be interpreted using the paradigm of modern science. The real question, which they raise again and again, is one of history. Genesis is not an other-worldly narrative, "written in timeless narratives" as DA says. It is very much time-bound. There is no "spiritual core", for example, to Genesis 5, such that we can dispense with the long, detailed geneaologies of how Enos lived ninety years and gave birth to Canaan, or how Jared died aged nine hundred and sixty two. This is real-world history, because the Saviour who was coming was to be born as a real flesh-and-blood man, with a real human ancestry going back to Adam. The Son of God came as a real person in the real world to redeem real people in the real world. Genesis has to be real history, precisely because contrary to secularism, the salvation which was coming was to be a real and historical one, not just a set of private ideas. The Saviour and his apostles, taught us to read Genesis as accurate history; but all questions of that kind are conveniently ignored by Alexander in order to arrive at the neat scientific truth / spiritual truth divide that he leaves us with.

In conclusion, then, we see that Alexander totally side-steps all questions of history. He sets up the neat dichotomy, "is Genesis modern science", answers negatively, and conveniently entirely ignores what creationists actually teach. Is this deliberately dishonest, or just ignorant? Either way, I again came away sad because the clever method of setting up the debate on your own terms whilst ignoring what your opponents actually say, and then displaying a lot of skill and
cleverness in your answer, will probably be persuasive to many naive readers. But to anyone who thinks that a case is only established when you represent your opponent on the strongest possible terms, this part of the book can only be judged as very weak indeed.

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