Saturday, February 11, 2012

Rendering Out Truth: 3 Critiques of Creationism (11 Feb 2012)

[A Pastoral Blog]

"What made Darwin such a great scientist and intellectual innovator?  He was a superb observer, endowed with an insatiable curiosity.  … It was this ability to observe interesting facts and to ask the appropriate questions about them that permitted him to make so many scientific discoveries and to develop so many highly original concepts." (11)

-          Ernst Mayr What Evolution Is (2001)

      Tomorrow is Darwin’s birthday, and as usual I’ve been thinking about his journey toward the truth of evolution; how he struggled with the data until he had that shining moment when it all came together and he ‘knew’ – even if he didn’t have all of the details worked out – that natural selection was the driving force behind the evolution of life on our planet! What an amazing moment that must have been; so difficult for him to assimilate; yet profoundly attractive—as the truth so often is.

      It took almost a hundred years for all of the details to be worked out; it took the development of genetics and the discovery and exploration of DNA to confirm many of those details at the cellular level. Today there is no doubt – for anyone who has studied the theory and examined the evidence without ideological prejudice – that evolution is a fact; that it happened and it is the process by which we have come to be here. What a wondrous idea! What a boon for spiritual and philosophical reflection and self-understanding; if only people would avail themselves of it.
      It is unfortunate that the truth of evolution has been so widely suppressed in our society by people with political and ideological agendas and who also have the money to back their prejudicial views. It is unfortunate because the truth is always preferable to error. While it is perfectly legitimate to live out one’s life according to insights gleaned from fiction, film, art and from ancient myths, to confuse these stories with the way the world actually is – in its objective dimension – is to fall into self-delusion, after which comes confusion and error. Those who have taken the two creation stories found in Genesis in the Bible as literal accounts of the universe are missing the truth on two fronts. First, they are misunderstanding what the Bible is, considered as the Word of God; in which truths are often couched in fictional accounts of the past. Second, as believers they become unable to appreciate how 'God' actually brought the Universe into being_ from the Big Bang until now_ as well as how 'God' brought life into being, including ourselves; that is, through evolution.
      As I have meditated on the problem of Creationism over the years, I've come to see it as false on three fronts: First, it has become an occult system of thought. Second, it is an escapist fantasy. Third, it is a form of self-deception; i.e., creationists can be likened -- although it is an overused analogy -- to the people in Plato’s Cave, sitting watching the shadows on the walls and taking these to be true images of the world. I’d like to explore each of these ‘fronts,' out of a compassionate desire to see believers accept truth wherever it may be found; whether in the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Koran or the Torah, or in the revelations of science.

      “Truth cannot be ranged again truth,” the ancient Church Fathers used to say, and therefore, if one thing is true – i.e., for Christians, the Gospel – and another thing is true – e.g., evolution – then a person of faith cannot accept the first and reject the second out of hand. What is true is true, and if you believe in a God who is all about Light and Love, and who is therefore revealing the truth about the world, then if A is true and B is true, it is a failure of spiritual vision to accept A and deny B, or vice versa. Accepting evolution and integrating it into a faith perspective generates various paradoxes and conundrums, yet someone who is mature in their faith should be able to handle such things. Part of the challenge of living a spiritual life is to live with paradox; because we are not ‘God’ and therefore cannot understand everything as ‘God’ does.
      I hope that you will think devoutly about what I say in the following pages about the errors of creationism, and reject it as a false system of knowledge.  I write compassionately from the perspective of someone who was once a creationist, and who remembers the pleasant sense of security and comfort it provided as well as the the blinders it put on me, which took me years to get rid of.


 “One should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds.”
-Moses Maimonides, Eight Chapters (12th century)

      I was long immersed in the Bible and theology, and I have meditated on the truth of evolution over the course of many years.  For the last ten years I've been immersed in the study of science and -- more recently -- mathematics.  Out of meditation on the evolution of life has come personal and spiritual insights.  As such, I have long struggled with the persistence of creationism, having long ago seen it as an error, and devoutly sought to understand it and why it persists.
      In 2010 I had an insight one day in my morning meditation in which I suddenly saw creationism as an 'occult' program.  Let me try and explain what I mean by this.
     Though it can refer to many things and has a spectrum of meanings, what I mean by 'The Occult’ here is ‘arcane knowledge;’ that is – ideas and theories that were once more or less tenable, but that are tenable no longer.  The older understanding -- what once passed as knowledge -- has been "occulted" (hidden, covered over) by the emergence of a more accurate or more fully verified understanding of ourselves and/or the workings of Nature.
      An "occultist' is someone who uses these older theories in an attempt to make sense of the world. Occultists I have met and read are often inspired by the idea that there are mysteries in the universe that we have not yet 'explained' -- and this gives them a sense of enthusiasm.  Alternately, the person drawn to occultism may be seeking power and personal fulfillment through arcane methods, disciplines and theories.  Finally, they may simply bee seeking security in an insecure world; finding new and counter-intuitive ideas threatening and discomfiting.
      An 'occultist' will often search-out esoteric systems of thought and attempt to articulate them in new ways in the quest either for personal power, fulfillment or inspiration.  There is usually a element of 'obscurantism' to any occultist's system, as it must remain 'behind a veil' in order to prvide a sense of its 'importance.'  There is 'mystery' associated with it; though I would call this a pseudo-mystery.  There is resistance to bringing the system out into the light of reasonable examination, and those who are to 'critical' or ';rational' are thought to not have an ability to 'understand' the occult system.  The real worry, behind occult piety (and anti-rationalism), is that the belief might be disproved.  Too close examination of an occult system or method will show that it is untenable in light of what we now know about the world; thus the practitioner veils it in abstruse language or symbols that cannot be understood without a 'key,' which only the occultist knows and shares only with trusted others.  Though occultists can be 'true believers,' I have found in dealing with them that, behind a haze of exterior confidence, there lurks a fear that their 'knowledge' will be seen to be empty, misleading or at the very least shown to be a dubious way of understanding life and the world.
      There are many examples of occultism from the 19th and 20th centuries, from the penchant to seek mystical knowledge through "esoteric" Eastern religions to the adoption of prognostic techniques that were part of archaic European and non-western traditions.  The Tarot, the I Ching and the Ouija board, pseudo-scientific ideas – such as mesmerism, the idea of the 'aether' – which was originally a scientific hypothesis for explaining how light travels through space, current before Einstein’s brilliant synthesis and reinterpretation of Maxwell’s equations – and the desire to discoverer -- and visit -- mystical places from which occult ideas and beliefs have disseminated; e.g., Atlantis and its Pacific sister continent “Mu” -- were all part of "The Occult" as I am using the term here.  Most of these ideas -- and many others -- persist today and have their adherents.  They are usually given a pseudo-scientific gloss in an attempt to make them sound 'rational' and defensible as contemporary belief systems.

      What I would urge is that creationism is much like these other occult systems. Creationists base their belief in a "young earth" and "recent creation" on a 2 to 3 thousand year old text that describes the world in what we now understand to be mythic terms.  Unfortunately, for whatever personal, (pseudo-)spiritual or political reasons, those who have become creationists have misconstrued this text as an 'historical' text, and -- despite all of the literary and textual evidence that the story is largely fictional, mythic and ultimately meant to instruct -- they insist that it describes how the world actually is--how it came into being and how old it is.
      Just like other occultists over the course of the last couple centuries, creationists have developed a system of interpretation that keeps their belief in a "young earth" and ":recent creation" insular; that is -- 'protected from examination' from the outside while providing a coherent understanding for believers that gives them confidence in the story they have accepted.  Just like other occultists, creationists mis-use the findings of science to bolster and prop up their belief system; from misinterpretation of geologic features to the misconstrual of genetic and molecular facts.
      While many if not most Christians and Jews before the 18th century would have assumed that the story of Creation in the biblical texts was the actual ‘history’ of their world (and, to be fair, they had no solid reason not to assume this) – since the advent of geologic and other evolutionary sciences, it has become harder and harder for enlightened religious people to hold onto those ancient stories as ‘historical’ truths, though they are still valid for the deep spiritual truths that they convey.  And, as many would argue, it is the spiritual truths that are the inspired element in these texts; that 'God' didn’t 'intend' them to be understood as historical documents in our modern sense!
      Creations are occultists in the primary sense I identified above in that they continue to hold onto a view of the world that was once plausible, but that is plausible no longer--because it has been supplanted by a better, more accurate understanding of how the world is.  In saying this, I am not attacking the Bible; even understood as 'The Word of God.'  What I urge is that the advent of evolutionary sciences was a mode of revelation that 'God' has used to help believers 'grow up' and 'grow out' of the childhood of their faith.  The stories 'God' told his children 2 - 3,000 years ago, when the Biblical texts were being written, were appropriate to a spiritual childhood, but are no longer appropriate to spiritual adults.  By and through the revelations of science, I would argue, 'God' is calling on humanity to grow up and see the universe -- and ourselves as manifestations of it -- in its full glory.  The response to the the revelations of science -- especially evolution and cosmology -- on the part of believers should be awe and wonder.  For many believers, this is how they respond to science.  Unfortunately, an all too narrowminded and all-too-vocal group of believers -- Creationists -- have muddied the vision of God's revelations-through-science with their occultism.
      For creationists, the Bible is an esoteric source of knowledge. It is clung to for security and held up as the ultimate source of knowledge, just as many other occultists cling to 'sacred' texts and ignore anything in the wider world that may seem to 'contradict' them.  It is interpreted in esoteric ways (usually passing as some brand of 'literalism') and is thought to be a vehicle through which the divine speaks (in a way akin, I always think to the way other occultists use the Tarot and the Ouija board to get insight and listen to the voices of potentially wise informants).
      As such, a creationist is no closer to the truth about the world than a flat-earther, a mesmerist, or a water-witcher.  The only thing that keeps us from 'seeing' this, is that they are practitioners of a wider, often more open-minded religion (Christianity) that is still very much alive and integral to our culture; though they are ignorant and heretical in their use of scripture; i.e., they have fallen into the fallacy of literalism, which even Augustine warned against in the fifth century CE, saying that the literal level of Biblical understanding was only for beginners and must not be seen to constitute a ‘real knowledge’ of God or Christ or salvation.  For that, he urged, a believer must move on to deeper modes of interpretation; allegorical, metaphorical and symbolic modes, for instance.  Despite this, creationists – along with all fundamentalists – claim proudly to be ‘literalists!’

      One reason occultism persists is that it often reinforces very deeply held intuitions about the world.  Occult systems seem ‘intuitively’ right to many people; they  ‘get it,’ and for a person to mature and give up occult thinking, they have to find the courage to leave what is simplistic and intuitively pleasing behind and enter into engagement with the world as it actually is; as scientists and philosophers – as well as enlightened theologians and artists – have discovered and revealed it to be.  For some believers, creationism may remind them of other simple stories from childhood; for which they may still yearn, desiring a simplistic escape from the complexities of life.  The evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, at one of his many insightful moments, said:
“Childhood is, for many people, a lost Arcadia, a kind of heaven, with its certainties and its securities, its fantasies of flying to the Never-Never Land, its bedtime stories before we drifted off into the Land of Nod in the arms of Teddy Bear.  With hindsight, the years of childish innocence may pass too soon.” (142, Unweaving the Rainbow, 1998)
Holding onto their leather-bound Bibles and using them like some kind of 'shield' against the world as we now understand it to be, creationists – and fundamentalists in general – seem to be in a permanent defense mode against growing up and embracing the Earth & Cosmos as 'God' created it; as a 13.75 billion year old expanding wonder, in which life on this planet began some 3.8 billion years ago.  I caricature creationists in this way because I was once among them, and know the feeling of security such beliefs can give you.

      It is understandable that people get comfortable with the way they understand the world to be, and it is perhaps unfortunate that, as they get older, it becomes harder for people to alter their worldview.  Unfortunately, creationism didn’t go away after the generation that was alive at the time of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) died.   New generations clung to and developed the tenets of the occult system called 'Creationism.'  In persisting in their occult tendencies, creationists are missing out on the richness of spiritual understanding available to those who have accepted science and its revelations.  My hope is that they will eventually wake-up and allow themselves to be led out of the darkness.  Amen.

[Please see Part II of this blog [below] for the second and third parts of the critique]

1 comment:

  1. Hi Monty...I just read your article on science and spirituality. have you seen the Jung-Pauli Letters? They begin to map a "psychophysical" reality.