Christian Right, Christian Wrong

[Before Big Engine went under, this was scheduled to appear in 3SF issue 4.]

Go to London’s Science Museum and you will find the command module from the Apollo 10 moon mission. That lump of metal carried three men out of Earth’s atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. It got them around the moon, protecting them from the alternately searing and freezing temperatures of space, and fell back to Earth at the heart of a blazing fireball. The three men inside walked safely away.

There is a sign on it saying “do not touch”. Bearing in mind its history and its design specs, you have to wonder exactly how much damage one poking finger could do it.

Church of England tradition is to use at least one analogy of eye-watering tortuousness in any talk, sermon or homily, so here’s mine — the first of several, but this one’s all my own. Faith is like a command module. It’s a marvellous survival mechanism and it can certainly take a bit of poking. And like the command module, it should only be used on particular occasions. The command module is a pretty good vehicle for travelling to the moon and back; it’s lousy for popping down to the shops. Faith, too, has its strictly defined parameters for use.

I get irritated by glib statements like “Darwin has disproved God” (or more generally, “Science has disproved God”) but that’s nothing to my irritation at Christians who refuse to consider that Darwin, science etc. might at least have a case to answer. I can usually grin and bear it when the attitude comes from Mr or Mrs Average of the Great British Public to whom the question is at best academic. Mortgage to pay, kids to feed, job to do — the question of where the world came from is just irrelevant in their day to day lives (and, face it, probably irrelevant in yours too). I like to know how things work but that doesn’t mean everyone else does, or needs to, or should. But when you hear these sentiments being uttered by the Bible thumpin’ Christian Right in the US, or Gateshead’s Emmanuel College in this country — people whose opinions and attitudes can sway and inform and even educate the children of Mr or Mrs Average — it’s quite another matter. That makes my blood boil. They are refusing to touch the command module and making the rest of us look stupid. Why? Afraid it will break?

If you believe God to be real — and for the sake of argument in this article, and in my life generally, I do — then it surely follows that there cannot be any fact that is going to make him unreal. Rather, each fact will simply reveal more about the nature of the universe you believe he created — surely something to be celebrated rather than ignored. “The Truth shall set you free”, and all that.

The same sort of argument can be found here and there in the Bible. For example, in Acts 5 the Jewish Sanhedrin is meeting to decide what to do with these pesky newfangled Christians — their original cunning plan of silencing them by crucifying their leader had somewhat backfired. The Rabbi Gamaliel stands up and makes the most quintessentially Jewish suggestion anywhere in the scriptures. What to do? Leave them alone already. If God is with them, they’ll succeed. If not, they’ll fail. Let’s eat.

Gamaliel was a wise old man with his head screwed on, but of course he wasn’t a Christian. Maybe that’s why more Christians don’t follow his example.

So, how can and should a Christian who doesn’t believe the world is only a few thousand years old act towards one who does? How do you take on the Christian Right?

Cat snorkelling

The Gamaliel Solution — leave well alone and let God do the sorting out — has its advantages. It can help you save time and breath for more useful purposes, and it can stop you looking immensely stupid. There’s the saying, never argue with a fool — people might not be able to tell the difference. In The Joy of Work, Dilbert creator Scott Adams likens arguing with an irrational person to trying to teach a cat to snorkel with written instructions: “No matter how clear your instructions, it won’t work. Your best strategy is to reduce the time you spend in that sort of situation.” [Scott Adams, The Joy of Work, Boxtree, 1998, p. 150. And I’m well aware that as a Christian, to many people I too count ipso facto as “an irrational person”. So take Scott’s advice and don’t argue.]

It’s a nice long-term solution, but not one that will work when the subject arises over a cup of coffee with a friend (as has happened to me), or when (more worryingly) the entire educational system of a state is ordered not to teach the theory of evolution. One thing absolutely not to do is stake out your own position. “But any moron can see the world is millions of years old!” It only puts people’s backs up and implies at the very best that they’re mistaken, possibly a liar and either way you’ve just called them a moron. No, no, you want to be more subtle. Let’s assume the cup of coffee scenario, where often there is a genuine curiosity on the part of the other person. Ask them very gently about the basis for their own belief.

Surely, you can say, the very concept of God involves someone who is bigger, better and cleverer than us. He doesn’t owe us an explanation. If he wants to make a world that’s billions of years old, let him and live with it. Trying to make any argument about God that is based upon the limitations of what the human mind can accept is doomed to failure.

The same argument can rebound back on you: the same God is perfectly capable of making a world that is only six thousand years old. Well, yes, you have to cede that point.

What can generally be agreed is that by every perceivable and testable means, the world appears to be billions of years old. If it was made in six days, the fact is entirely unknowable and unguessable from the available evidence. If it was made in six days, it was made in a state of already being billions of years old — a bit like a woman giving birth to a middle aged man. Therefore, the only viable way of acting towards the world is to treat it as being billions of years old.

In the May 2002 Focus, editor Simon Morden summed up the matter nicely. Mr Morden is a Christian with a degree in geology and is not remotely convinced by Creationism. He wrote: “Creationism, even if it was true, is of no practical use. It is, to all intents and purposes, magic. It doesn’t help to know that the world is only ten thousand years old when it has the appearance of being around for four and a half billion.” He goes on to point out: “[Creationism] doesn’t help explain the occurrence of valuable ores, or the behaviour and position of volcanoes. It won’t save lives down mines or in earthquake zones. It won’t even help us in our efforts to reverse the effects of global warming and environmental degradation.”

So, a possible middle way might be to accept that the world could only be a few thousand years old but treating it as older is a useful model to follow. This can defuse the tension over the cup of coffee, but it’s still a bit mealy mouthed. The Catholic church in Galileo’s time was prepared to concede that the heliocentric model was a useful model to follow for purposes of navigation etc. — Galileo’s problem was that he insisted he wasn’t just promoting a useful model, he was right. And you can see his point. Why would a God who sets such a premium on the truth make a world where you have to believe lies to make useful things happen?

Again, God by definition doesn’t owe us an explanation: he can do what he wants. But hopefully, stick to the above and you might plant a seed of doubt in the Creationist’s mind which, nurtured by their own innate sense of honesty, will eventually develop into the truth.

Bash that Bible

“But surely it comes down to this,” said my friend over the coffee: “do you believe the Bible or don’t you?”

Well, sure I do. And the Bible says the world isn’t billions of years old … um, where, exactly?

What it emphatically does not say is that the world was created in 4000 BC — a figure oft quoted by Creationists based on clues in the Bible. (The seventeenth century Bishop James Ussher (1581-1656) pinpointed it at Sunday 23 October, 4004 BC and his reasoning can be found at You have to remember he was acting on the best information then available and it’s solid, scholarly work.) There are a couple of Biblical genealogies linking the first man Adam with Jesus, so beloved of Springfield’s Reverend Lovejoy in his sermons, and we are told the ages at death of some of the significant figures along the way. The life of Jesus extends into recorded history — for instance, we are told he began his ministry in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius (Luke 3:1), which we can fix from independently verified historical sources. Put it all together, count back and you can work out a rough date for the Creation.

The weak link is those genealogies. They don’t always tie up and one can omit several names that appear in the other. Even if you take the longest one for your calculations, how do you know that’s complete? You don’t.

What the Bible does specify, of course, is that the Creation, whenever it was, took six days. As the sun and moon didn’t appear until Day 4, it’s not clear how days were measured before that; nor is it clear how the plants which appeared on Day 3 managed to photosynthesise. Christian apologists may point out that bits of the Genesis account do at least match our scientific understanding — first seas, then plants, then animals, then humans — but I confess to being unconvinced. Is it entirely out of the question that we are simply reading a bit of superbly-told mythology, with truth embedded in cosmic themes that have echoed down the centuries and will continue to do so for centuries more?

Well, your opponent — sorry, enquirer — might say — yes, it is. As Bart Simpson’s luckless Sunday school teacher begs, is a little blind faith too much to ask?

Personally I would say that it is too much, and I would modestly add that the Bible agrees with me. It has its own inbuilt safety valve — 1 Thessalonians 5:21, “Test everything. Hold onto the good” (New International Version). So, let’s get testing.
The Bible is a mishmash of styles. Bits of it were written as history, bits of it are mythical (but written as history), bits of it are just poetry. It’s not too hard to see which is which. If something seems to defy sense but still conveys a message, it’s probably not strictly factual history. The Song of Songs is a love song and is full of poetic imagery, much of it erotic in tone. But by today’s standards … “Your hair is like dancing goats” (SoS 4:1). Woof! — dead sexy.

In other parts it’s not so obvious which is which, and really it’s not important. It doesn’t matter if something is historical or poetic, as long as you are prepared to be honest and shunt it from one category to another as new facts emerge to broaden your understanding. The message, the principles taught, are constant from beginning to end.

After all, in a society where most of the population spend their daylight hours toiling in the fields and you’re never going to travel more than ten miles from your place of birth in your entire life, the Genesis account of Creation and the early history of the world might as well be historical. It really doesn’t matter how the world came to be, and you have more important things on your mind. Then along comes a Galileo who in one stroke, and perhaps quite by accident, broadens the field of knowledge about the world in which we live. Once those facts are known, understanding of the scriptures has to change to incorporate them. Any other course of action is just dishonest. It’s failure to budge at this point that gives Christians a bad name. The behaviour of the Catholic church towards Galileo (1564-1642) was a disgrace that Rome is still trying to live down. Let’s hear it for the prods: less than a lifetime later, safe in Anglican England, Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was working out principles of astronomy that are still used today. [It wasn’t until the 1990s that the case against Galileo was officially re-opened and the evidence re-examined, this time with a strong hint from the Pope that a “not guilty” verdict would be welcome.]

A brief diversion …

Nowadays, of course, the Vatican has a world-respected astronomy department and is strongly pro-science (the physical if not the biological). The Creationist Christian Right is, typically, Protestant. The constant fact is that with any belief system, religious or otherwise, there are people who derive their security and meaning and very often power from it. Where any of these are threatened, there are people who will take action to enforce ideological purity. Society influences the church and the church influences society. The Creationism of the Christian Right today is just as much a commentary on our own contemporary politics and society; and, dare I say it, a reaction to the loud obnoxiousness of the “God-is-dead” brigade?

… and back to Galileo

Galileo was an educated Christian man, and once he had looked up at the sky he had no difficulty in accepting that the Genesis account was more poetic than historical. He read one thing in the Bible. He looked through his telescope and saw another in the sky. He still believed in God, yet he was privy to facts that the original Biblical authors were not. He reconciled the two. He maintained his belief in the scriptures, allegedly describing them as “telling us how to go to Heaven, not how Heaven goes.”

Try this with a Christian fundamentalist and your results will be mixed. Even the most diehard fundie will probably admit that not every word in the Bible is literal — vide the dancing goats above. Most will admit that new species have arisen within recorded human history — dachshunds, spaniels, Chihuahuas (which surely could not be the work of any benevolent God) — and many have vanished. (If anyone tells you that dinosaur fossils are the remains of animals that didn’t make it onto the Ark, point out that the Bible quite clearly says every animal was saved, then retreat to a safe distance.) As I write this, a new volcanic island is emerging off Italy. A building I remember as a boy in Cornwall fell into the sea a long ago as the coastline crumbled, and yet south coast towns that were ports in Roman times are now far inland. New strains of bacteria can arise within a lifetime. Creation officially stopped on Day 6, but the world is clearly still changing. Used with caution, all these facts can be the thin end of the wedge that precedes some quite spectacular mind broadening.

I’ve even had a fairly constructive conversation that started with the question “If we evolved from monkeys, why do we still have monkeys?” It was a genuine query and showed the speaker was receptive to facts, as well as unaware of precisely what evolution entails. Often you’ll find Creationists don’t entirely understand the concept that they’re trying to disprove, and with a clearer understanding can find that they don’t disagree with as much as they thought they did. Those who dismiss evolution as “only a theory” don’t understand that that’s its strength, not its weakness. Likewise the theories of gravitation and relativity, which the Creationists haven’t quite caught up with yet. They’re not like your crank neighbour’s theory that the moon is made of cheese or that Masons run the country: they stand up to everything that can be thrown at them.

About itself, the Bible is quite modest. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16) (NIV). God-breathed is not the same as God-dictated. If everyone who reads this then goes off and writes down what they have read, you will get a variety of accounts, all different but all agreeing on the gist of it. And the Bible only really claims to address the individual lives of human beings, not the great cosmic questions of how the universe came to be. Even the Genesis account is ultimately about the relationship of God and Man, not a cosmological textbook. Galileo knew this. Unfortunately the church had staked out a position in a place it had no right to be, and couldn’t let him get away with challenging the authority it had no right to claim.

By now the hypothetical coffee has probably got cold, and you’ll be facing two reactions — the first glimmers of understanding, or a blank look. Either way, my advice at this stage would be to back off. You can have too much of a good thing. Apply the reverse side of Simon Morden’s comments: is it useful that this person believes in evolution, or do you just want to make them believe it as a matter of pride? Be frank — does it really matter? Are they hurting anyone? Hopefully you’ve planted some seeds, and who knows what will happen further down the line.

That is on the individual basis. Sadly, the fundamentalists whom I would say are the most dangerous in their misunderstanding — the Christian Right, the ones with the loudest voices and the political clout to enforce their views — are the snorkelling cats. They can cause damage, and tackling them head on is just not going to work. But there’s a parallel from Christian history. It took 300 years from the time of Christ for the Roman Empire to become officially Christian. In that time, individual Christians had been living their lives, spreading the word by deed and example and occasionally suffering horribly for their faith. But 300 years later, it all paid off. It took a vision of the Emperor Constantine (which was quite possibly a blinding migraine) to make it official, but he could never have swung it if the infrastructure of the empire hadn’t been riddled with believers already.

But still it moves

I’m not here to make converts — I generally find that people believe what they’re going to believe anyway. Darwin’s Christian faith was apparently knocked by his theory of evolution, then toppled over completely by the death of his daughter; Galileo, on the other hand, was a devout man to the end of his days despite the treatment he received from the church. A Creationist is probably going to stay a Creationist. What we can do is alter the environment of belief: let the facts speak for themselves and chip away at the Creationist position from the inside. That doesn’t mean doing it through legislation or political manoeuvring. It means doing it over cups of coffee.

The preacher Charles Spurgeon coined an expression, “uncage the lion”. If you have a lion in a cage, it’s vulnerable. If you want to protect it, uncage it — after that, it’s quite capable of looking after itself. If we want the truth to win then we must let the truth out; and to Christians, that means honestly facing up to and accommodating the challenges that scientific discovery unquestionably presents to more traditional beliefs. To coin a good, Anglican triply-mixed metaphor: poke the command module, uncage the lion and don’t teach cats to snorkel.

Copyright © Ben Jeapes 2003. Not to be reproduced without permission, but feel free to link to it.