The recent completion of a “Creation Museum” dedicated to persuading people that the Earth is only a few thousand years old, alongside the assertion by several presidential candidates that they do not believe in evolution, has brought the book of Genesis back into water cooler conversations. Christian fundamentalists argue that a literal reading of the Bible rejects any scientific assertions that humanity and the Earth were not created ex nihilo, in their present form, only a few millennia before recorded history.
Along the way, the fundamentalists and the politicians who pander to them fail to mention the other “scientific” assertions required of someone who claims to take the cosmology of Genesis (and later books in the Hebrew Bible) literally. First, the literalist must claim that the sky is in fact a transparent dome holding back the enormous oceans of the “waters above” (Genesis 1:7). They must also understand that the Sun, the Moon, and stars are attached to that dome and move across it (Genesis 1:15-17; Joshua 10:12-14). Finally, the literalist must affirm that the Earth is flat. It has four corners (Isaiah 11:12), and rests upon giant pillars anchored in an enormous, primordial sea (I Samuel 2:8).
The fundamentalists of earlier centuries understood this, and consequently dismissed the research of Galileo Galilei, Nicholas Copernicus and other astronomers. Eventually, however, even the most militant fundamentalists have come to accept that the Earth is round, that the sky is not holding back an ocean, and that the Earth orbits around the Sun – despite what the biblical writings explicitly state.
The process for such acceptance goes something like this. First, a scientist proposes a theory that contradicts the way the biblical writers thought the world worked (their “cosmology”). Then, the biblical literalists of that time claim the scientist must be both wrong and a heretic. When the scientist’s theory is proven to be incontrovertibly true, the biblical literalists are forced to claim that the passage they initially used to accuse the scientist of heresy was, in fact, meant metaphorically or allegorically. Sometimes literalists even argue that the now disproven passage was “true” in the sense that it was literally true from the perspective of the person who wrote it.
In other words, “literally true” means one thing if scientists cannot disprove the fundamentalists’ claim and something else if they can.
That kind of doublespeak is exactly what we teach our children not to do when we teach them about lying. Yet fundamentalist religious leaders get away with it because it sells well to people who do not take the time to think seriously about how nonsensical their approach is. The fundamentalists, by disingenuously asserting that they are the ones insisting on interpreting the Bible literally, use this deception to claim the moral high ground. Unfortunately, the media often plays into their agenda by portraying the debate over evolution as a fight between scientists and Christians who “believe the Bible.”
It is not. The debate is between scientists (many of whom are Bible-believing Christians) and a sub-group of Christians who use selective literalism to prey on the public’s biblical ignorance and to sell their social agenda. Despite the fundamentalists’ claims, their brand of selective literalism is not essential to the Christian faith. Christian scholars around the world recognize the first three chapters of Genesis for what they are, two different and internally contradictory retellings of a popular Babylonian creation myth. The editors of Genesis included these two myths, not as scientific treatises, but as reminders that all of the Earth is the product of the careful intention of a loving and affectionate God. Misusing that beautiful message to drive a wedge between science and faith does not protect the Bible’s authority, it abuses it.