Radical Creationists Fall into the Poetry Trap

Want to understand American creationism? Then don’t dig into Charles Darwin or even Bill Nye. The key to American creationism isn’t science, not even its peculiar “zombie” science. No, to understand radical American creationism, we need to look instead to poetry and the fundamentalist impulse.

Here’s the latest: today’s leading radical creationist Ken Ham recently defended his young-earth position against charges of flat-earthism. As Ham bemoaned,

now it’s not just atheists arguing the Bible teaches a flat earth—it’s some Christians, too, who’ve sadly fallen for flat-earth arguments and now believe that’s what the Bible teaches. But does it?

No, it doesn’t. Now, flat earthers will frequently bring up poetic passages, such as verses from Psalms or Job, and say those verses teach a flat earth because phrases like “ends of the earth” or references to a setting sun appear. But those passages are poetry—by definition poetry is filled with literary devices such as metaphors, similes, and figures of speech. The biblical text is meant to be interpreted naturally, according to the genre. And poetry is clearly intended to be understood within the context of abundant literary devices that are not meant to be taken so woodenly and literally (i.e., God does not literally lie us down in green pastures as per Psalm 23:2).

For those who know the history of American creationism, Ham’s use of the “poetry” defense must seem either brutally cynical or woefully ignorant. Here’s why: Back in the 1950s, fundamentalist Protestant scholars tried to move away from Ham’s preferred sort of radical young-earth creationism. They wanted to remain creationists, but they didn’t want to be bound to scientifically outlandish notions such as a 6,000-year-old earth or a literal world-wide flood.

How did they interpret the creation passages in Genesis? You guessed it: as poetry.

Most influentially, Bernard Ramm argued in his 1954 book The Christian View of Science and Scripture that simple young-earth creationism made a huge theological mistake. As Ramm wrote,

If the theologian teaches that the earth is the center of the solar system, or that man first appeared on the earth at 4004 BC, or that all the world was submerged under water at 4004 BC and had been for unknown millennia, he is misinterpreting Scripture and bringing Scripture into needless conflict with science.

When the Bible describes creation, Ramm argued, it was speaking poetically, in popular, accessible language. Such language, Ramm thought, did not “theorize as to the actual nature of things.” Rather, it explained God’s role as a personal, engaged Creator in poetic language that people everywhere could understand.

AIG fortress cartoon

For radical creationists, the problem with evolution is what it supports…

The modern American radical-creationist movement was born as an attempt to directly refute Ramm’s ideas. John Whitcomb Jr. and Henry Morris set out in their blockbuster creationist hit The Genesis Flood to prove that Genesis was not poetry, but history.

As always, though, poetry is in the eye of the beholder. How were conservative evangelicals supposed to choose where to draw the line? How were they supposed to decide if talk about a flat earth was meant to be read poetically or literally? Or passages about a world-wide flood? Or the age of the planet?

In the end, the answers came down to something besides science or even theology. For Whitcomb and Morris in the 1960s and 1970s, or Ken Ham today, insistence on a literal young earth and literal world-wide flood is not a scientific decision or a theological one, but rather a very popular kind of draw-the-line-ism, a fundamentalist promise that traditional beliefs must be protected at all costs.

For example, when John Whitcomb Jr. and Henry Morris made their first case for radical young-earth creationism, they insisted that there were only two ways to see the world—young-earth creationism or “evolutionism.” On the creationist side stood Jesus and the Scriptures. On evolution’s side were only “ancient idolatries or primitive animism or modern existentialism or atheistic communism!”

AIG foundations

Supporting evolution, for Ken Ham, means supporting abortion and homosexuality.

Throughout his long career, Henry Morris insisted that only a rigid, literalistic, radical creationism stood between true religion and a host of pernicious ideas. In The Long War Against God, for example, Morris warned that a poetic reading of Genesis would mean an endorsement of “premarital sex, adultery, divorce, and homosexuality” as well as ”Unrestrained pornography. . . . [and] Prostitution, both male and female.” Don’t forget, Morris warned, that “evolutionary thinking” lead to “abortionism.” And the Holocaust. As well as, presumably, cannibalism, not to mention “the modern drug crisis (rock music, peer pressure, organized crime, etc.)”

When Henry Morris insisted on reading Genesis as literal rather than poetic, he wasn’t making a theological statement. He was not making a scientific statement. Rather, Morris was appealing to America’s fundamentalist impulse, the desire of many conservative Christians to draw the line somewhere.

For Morris and his erstwhile protégé Ken Ham, the threat of evolution isn’t really theological or scientific. Rather, as Ham never tires of repeating, evolutionary thinking is the foundation of a host of modern social ills, from abortion rights to LGBTQ rights; from youthful disrespect to internet pornography.

I can’t help but wonder if Ham is aware of the long history of his poetry defense. Does he know that Bernard Ramm used the same argument against his mentor’s radical young-earth beliefs? Does Ham just not care? Or, rather, does he understand that his followers don’t really care about science or theology, they are just looking for someone to tell them where to draw the line, where to take up a fundamentalist defense of traditional values?

Advertisements

Can Science Oppose Heresy?

In a sense, it’s as old as Galileo. In another, though, our question today shows the uniquely modern state of our current culture-war climate. Can someone stand up for science by opposing heresy? If we really want to understand culture-war thinking, we need to make sense of the ways they can, even if we don’t agree with them.

ramm science scripture

MUST science denial be heresy?

A conservative lament about gender-bending school policy brings this question to our attention. Ideas about gender fluidity, Margot Cleveland argues, turn otherwise intelligent people into thugs and morons. In her view, insisting that young people can and should be able to identify their own genders is both “science denial and heresy.”

I don’t agree, but that’s not the main point here. More important, I want to know how any idea can do those do things at once. How can an idea—any idea—claim to be both religiously and scientifically orthodox?

For secular people like me, it seems like a contradiction, a paradox. Yet for conservative religious intellectuals, this notion has long been both obvious and vitally true.

After all, in the street-level, Bill-Nye sense of the word, “Science” can’t really care about heresy or orthodoxy. As Neil deGrasse Tyson defines it, “Science” means the opposite of such things. In his words,

Science discovers objective truths. These are not established by any seated authority, nor by any single research paper. . . . Meanwhile, personal truths are what you may hold dear, but have no real way of convincing others who disagree, except by heated argument, coercion or by force. . . . in science, conformity is anathema to success.

Before we talk about Cleveland’s claims about heresy and science, let’s acknowledge a few things to start.

  • First, for the past fifty years or so, philosophers and historians have challenged Tyson’s simplistic definition of science. One person’s voodoo might be another’s science, and so on. Fair enough.
  • And some pundits might say that Cleveland was talking about a merely coincidental agreement between her idea of religious orthodoxy and science. That is, she might be saying that religious orthodoxies about eternal, unchanging, God-assigned gender identities happen to be biologically true as well. She might only be saying people are born with a certain set of sex characteristics and it is not scientifically nor religiously true that they can change their gender identity at will.

Those things make sense to me, but they don’t get to the heart of our dilemma. The interesting question, the difficult question is whether or not heresy and science denial can really go together as a general rule.

When it comes to the questions of evolution, climate change, sexuality, and now gender identity, conservative religious thinkers have long argued that they can. Indeed, that they must. To my mind, it is this point that is most important. If secular people like me want to really understand conservative religious thinking, we need to try harder to understand this logic. To me, it seems obviously false. To many people, though, it is compelling.

It is not only fundamentalist young-earthers who have made this case. Consider the most famous creationist dissenter from young-earth thinking, Bernard Ramm. In the 1950s, Ramm shattered the complacency of fundamentalist science with his blockbuster book, The Christian View of Science and Scripture.

In some ways, Ramm’s anti-young-earth work can be said to have sparked the modern young-earth renaissance. After all, it was in furious response to Ramm that John Whitcomb Jr. penned the young-earth counter-blockbuster The Genesis Flood in 1961.

Ramm denounced young-earth fundamentalist thinking in no uncertain terms. Young-earthers, whom Ramm called the “hyperorthodox,” missed the point of both science and scripture. Ramm explained,

If the theologian teaches that the earth is the center of the solar system, or that man first appeared on the earth at 4004 BC, or that all the world was submerged under water at 4004 BC and had been for unknown millennia, he is misinterpreting Scripture and bringing Scripture into needless conflict with science.

Instead, Ramm argued religious thinkers needed to reclaim their roles as scientific leaders. Real science, decent science, productive science, Ramm insisted, needed to be guided by the “light of revelation.” Without it, science could only be either “cheap or ironical.”

What does any of this have to do with gender-identity curriculum in California or Indiana? The way I see it, we have two ways to interpret arguments like the one made by Margot Cleveland. Either she is saying that religious truth and scientific inquiry happen to agree about gender identity, or she is making the much stronger case that religious truth and scientific truth must always agree about everything.

For those of us outside the world of conservative religious thinking, this second argument is very difficult to comprehend or even to recognize. Many of us default to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s heresy-promoting vision of true science. If we want to understand our religious friends and neighbors, though, we need to understand a world in which heresy is the very heart of science denialism.