Guess the author: answer

February 21, 2010 • 11:02 am

Yesterday I asked people to guess the author of a couple of paragraphs about reconciling science with Christian scripture.  Here are the guesses: as of 10:30 CST, Feb. 21

a. a sociologist   7

b. a liberal, non-literalist theologian   8

c. a creationist   15

d. an atheist scientist   9

e. a non-theological religious scholar 10

f. none of the above   4

The answer is . . .


It’s a creationist.

To be specific, young-earth creationist Paul Nelson.

The quote is from a defense of YEC: Paul Nelson and John Mark Reynolds, “Young earth creationism.”  pp. 39-73 in Three Views on Creation and Evolution, edited by J. P. Moreland and John Mark Reynolds.  1999, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Reynolds is a professor of philosophy at the creationist Biola University).

Fooled most of you!  Creationist” garnered most of the single-item guesses, but still only 28% of them.  One prescient soul, though, did guess Paul Nelson.

Why did I give this quote?  Obviously, one reason was to provide support (this time from a creationist) for the assertion that, until the rise of science, Christians in general had a far more literalistic view of the Bible than they do today, taking stories like that of Noah and the Flood, and of Adam and Eve, as plain fact.  Lots of accommodationists still disagree, touting Augustine and the like (and forgetting about the millions of medieval Christians—and modern Americans—who accepted Hell as real). But there are other reasons.  The quote shows how more fundamentalist Christians are at odds with believers who reject Biblical “facts” when they don’t comport with science.  Here’s part of what Nelson said again:

“To a secular person, Noah’s disappearance looks very convenient. If a Bible story contains details that are contrary to science, then the Bible story is ‘myth.’  If the Bible story is fortunate enough to be unverifiable, like that of Abraham, it is allowed to function as history.”

This shows starkly the intellectually vacuous position of claiming that what is so obviously a Biblical “truth” is really metaphor if it conflicts with science, while the scientifically unverifiable (but also scientifically improbable) parts of the Bible, like the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, are allowed to stand as true.  Even Nelson, young-earth creationist though he is, can see through this ruse. And this sense he, and his literalist compadres, are more intellectually honest than are accommodationists.  At least they don’t pick and choose.  (Please don’t remind me here that some parts of the Bible are clearly metaphor.  Of course they are, but those parts aren’t Genesis or the Flood story.)

Finally, it stuck me, while reading this piece, that when Nelson is talking about this incompatibility, he often sounds like an atheist (that similarity is what gave rise to the guessing-game). Both atheists and fundamentalists agree that it’s a “serious move” for the church to start winnowing “truth” from “metaphor” in the Bible, especially when the “metaphor” reads like truth.  Liberal theologians, by and large, are uncomfortable with admitting this, and prefer to argue that the whole history of Christianity is one of seeing the Bible largely as a metaphor, a gigantic lesson in ethics and salvation couched in stories that were obviously intended as fiction.

At any rate, Nelson has his own problems.  The article, as well as his other writings, are pervaded by his realization that the young-earth position simply doesn’t stack up with the facts of geology.  Here’s what he says elsewhere in the article:

“Young earth creationism, therefore, need not embrace a dogmatic or static biblical hermeneutic. It must be willing to change and admit error.  Presently, we can admit that as recent creationists we are defending a very natural biblical account, at the cost of abandoning a very plausible scientific picture of an ‘old’ cosmos. But over the long term, this is not a tenable position.  In our opinion, old earth creationism combines a less natural textual reading with a much more plausible scientific vision.  They have many fewer ‘problems of science.’ At the moment, this would seem to be the more rational position to adopt.

Recent creationism must develop better scientific accounts if it is to remain viable against old earth creationism. On the other hand, the reading of Scripture (e.g., a real Flood, meaningful genealogies, an actual dividing of languages) is so natural that it seems worth saving.  Since we believe recent creation cosmologies are improving, we are encouraged to continue the effort.”

In the main, Nelson admits that his reasons for accepting a young earth are thological, not scientific. And he recognizes that this creates big problems.

Nelson is wrong on the facts, of course, but I’m not going to bash him further here, for he has his own cross to bear—the real age of the earth—and he shows a form of intellectual honesty absent in accommodationists and liberal theologians, many of whom who adhere to this:

h/t: John Danley and Lori Ann Parker for the photo of the Charles Fillmore quote, taken in Franklin, Tennessee.

40 thoughts on “Guess the author: answer

  1. And this sense he, and his literalist compadres, are more intellectually honest than are accommodationists. At least they don’t pick and choose.

    This is not true, and I’m tired of hearing atheists say it is. ALL CHRISTIAN BELIEVERS PICK AND CHOOSE. Period. They HAVE to – the Bible is a mass of contradictions and if they didn’t pick and choose what to believe they’d be paralyzed into inaction.

    “Literalists” have chosen to pick and choose out of the Bible a series of beliefs based on what they believe to be a “literal” reading of the Bible. But their literal reading allows a lot of error. For example, how many of them have taken up the Gospel challenge of giving up everything they own to help the poor? Most of them not at all – because they don’t read that bit “literally”. They also don’t read the part about dietary laws “literally”. Nor do they read the bits in Leviticus about how they’re supposed to treat foreigners in their midst “literally”. All of these things they carefully excuse away with one rationale or another.

    The “literalists” are no more (or less) intellectually honest than their liberal counterparts – they have just chosen different parts of their book to take literally than their liberal counterparts have. Atheists who believe and propagate the propaganda of the literalists are not doing anyone any favors – just because the “literalists” say they’re taking the whole thing literally doesn’t make it true – that claim is just a club that they use to rhetorically beat their liberal and moderate counterparts into submission, and atheists who believe them at face value look like gullible chumps.

    I’m speaking as an atheist and former believer who grew up in the midst of believers of a variety of stripes. Stop believing what “literalists” tell you about themselves. You know they’re mistaken when it comes to their beliefs about the Bible – why do you let yourself believe that they’re right when it comes to beliefs about their religious sect? They aren’t anymore literalist than John Shelby Spong is – the only difference is that Spong is intellectually honest enough to admit it to himself and the world and the literalists aren’t even willing to admit it to themselves.

    1. I’ll agree that the terminology is less than perfect, but I read that as literalists doesn’t pick and choose in a relative way. They have put down their stakes and aren’t happy to move them.

      The model of believers modeling their belief is a given, and that they do so in a religious way as well. (I.e. they rather have beliefs of their beliefs than facts.)

      I will even agree that it is a valid way to show their disregard of facts, by comparing their claims with census statistics.

      But it isn’t all that interesting for most atheists, for the same reason that theology isn’t. It is more about the inner structure of religion than the process and result. And religion is insane – sane people don’t want to go there.

    2. I agree. Literalists are always telling me that I don’t understand that this or that verse doesn’t meant exactly what it says. They interpret things differently from the liberals, but they still interpret.

    3. Agreed.
      I have never heard a strict literalist be able to explain the clear contradictions in their tome.
      Such as the two radically different versions of creation.
      They *MUST* pick & choose between these two.

    4. Agreed here, as well. I too am growing quite tired of hearing fellow atheists champion a literal interpretation of the Bible as the only “right” one because it’s easier to hurl rotten tomatoes at. (And how, exactly, is blatantly ignoring logical contradictions “intellectually honest???!!”). If you’re against religion, be against religion. Don’t pick and choose which way one should “truly” look at it. That’s about as foolish as being religious yourself.

      1. “Finally, it stuck me, while reading this piece, that when Nelson is talking about this incompatibility, he often sounds like an atheist…”

        This, of course, is what the accommodationists are always saying: that atheists and fundamentalists are alike.

      2. Chris,

        I’m not an accommodationist *sigh*, unless criticizing a point made by a New Atheist means that I’m accommodationist, thus making the term just an empty invective.

        It’s kind-of undeniable that both New Atheists and fundamentalists are both trying to promote biblical literalism as the One True Religion. They might have very different motives for doing so, but it’s not a fabrication to draw that parallel. Not at all.

      3. Milton,

        Sorry for the confusion – I was agreeing with you in a roundabout way. I didn’t think you were an accommodationist. (And even if you were, I don’t think that’s some terrible sin, though I’m not one myself.) But I think atheists should avoid falling into the trap of being tarred too easily with the fundamentalist brush, which will happen if we continually praise the “courage” and “honesty” of the fundamentalists.

    5. It’s also worth pointing out that there are plenty of Christians who see the whole Bible as metaphorical, and don’t consider it particularly important whether things like the Virgin Birth are real (UUs come to mind).

      Of course, taken in its totality, the Bible is a rather murderous and hateful metaphor, methinks. But there are nice parts, and I’m not inclined to rail too hard against those people who choose to embrace the nice parts. (Of course I wish I could make them see that the reason they do so is because they are fundamentally good people, not because they learned to be that way from the Bible or Jeebus or something…)

  2. Thanks Dr Coyne. Very enlightening indeed.
    It puzzles me what is so “natural” about biblical literalism. Doesn’t come to me naturally.
    Well, at least not as naturally as it comes to Paul Nelson to distribute a movie, the main point of which he thinks is a lie-the so called “Cambrian explosion”-to make evolutionary biologists look bad. (Amazing that fundamentalists blast moderate believers for lack of “consistency”).
    Either way, I think Mr Nelson will have to take a position on the conviction of Galileo-was it justified? The inquisition convicted Galileo precisely because his ideas contradicted the bible-specifically the book of Joshua. That should be a valid reason for Nelson. And quoting St Augustine didn’t save Galileo.

  3. Jerry, if you have the time, could you please tell us what you perceive as Paul Nelson’s intellectual honesty?

    I truly wonder.

    He acknowledges a conflict between scientific facts and his personal beliefs. Fine. I call that candor. A clear statement of cognitive dissonance, if you like. But then he goes on pursuing ways of twisting or refuting those facts–or maybe new ones–to make them fit his beliefs. Or the beliefs he wishes to further. Once he places his beliefs above facts, he’s leaving the domain of rational inquiry and discourse. Honesty it may be, but no longer intellectual honesty as I understand it.

  4. I came in late on this, missing the OP till after the answer was posted, but what struck me in the OP, before reading the answer here, was the reference several times to “the church” instead of “many churches” or something like that. Which “the church”? That suggested someone with blinders on – not sure now in retrospect if I would have guessed correctly tho.

  5. In my opinion the one crucial advantage that young earthers have compared to theistic evolutionists is their explanation of the fall. The fact that God needed to send his son (who was himself!) to atone for the sins of Adam and Eve is the central point of the story of Jesus and his death and resurrection. Theistic evolutionists are prepared to accept scientific evidence that indicates the Adam and Eve part of the tale is entirely fictitious and yet they still accept the rest of the story. Did Jesus really die for the sake of a myth? YEC Christians are not prepared to accept this glaring contradiction (although, lets face it, they are prepared to accept many others!).

    1. I’ve heard YECs make that argument before, and I find it extremely unconvincing.

      Jesus supposedly came to earth to redeem humanity from original sin. It shouldn’t matter in the slightest if it occurred through a real Adam & Eve or if they were a literary metaphor for “original sin entered the world somehow” or “all mankind is fallen” or what have you.

      The key part of the story—as far as the New Testament goes—is original sin entering the world. Adam and Eve are merely incidental. I don’t see any conflict in accepting both that a) mankind is fallen and needed redemption from God, and b) that Adam and Eve were only a metaphor for how that sin entered the world.

      Whatever. Arguing about exegesis is like arguing about the colour of Darth Vader’s underwear. Insufficient evidence, and who gives a fuck because it’s all fiction anyway.

      1. But that is not convincing either.
        The “liberals” argue that the original sin is just a metaphore of “inclination” to sin-same thing as “mankind is fallen as a whole”. But then, whose fault would that be? Why did god have to make us the way we are, then sacrifice himself/his son for our redemption? Was the sacrifice for the sake of the inclination? But that didn’t change the inclination, did it? What did it accomplish? Who was he trying to impress?
        It is just one weird story, however you look at it.

  6. I often use the Paul Nelson quote to ID proponents when they insist that ID is a scientific theory:

    “Easily the biggest challenge facing the ID community is to develop a full-fledged theory of biological design. We don’t have such a theory right now, and that’s a problem. Without a theory, it’s very hard to know where to direct your research focus. Right now, we’ve got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions such as ‘irreducible complexity’ and ‘specified complexity’-but, as yet, no general theory of biological design”.

    At least creationism IS a scientific theory. Completely wrong of course, but at least it does make predictions that can be tested, it does have a mechanism (God), etc.

    ID has nothing.

    1. I absolutely challenge the notion that creationism is a scientific theory. Not scientific, not a theory.
      It can’t be allowed to be falsified, because it’s supposed to be based on divine revelation. If facts stand in the way of YEC, they try to twist them or refute them. If YEC collapses, there’s always OEC. If that fails, there’s metaphore after metaphore after metaphore. Turtles all the way down. If all else fails, they’ll say God is “an infinite regression”.

      1. YEC has already been refuted, many many times. Its proponents deny this, but so do many scientists whose theories are refuted. It is therefore a scientific theory, though a very poor one.

        Neither creationism or ID are scientific theories because they are not refutable.

      2. Sorry but: aren’t you contradicting yourself by asserting that YEC has been refuted many times, yet creationism is not refutable? Logically the two propositions are mutually exclusive.

      3. Just because a proposition can be refuted, it doesn’t make it a scientific theory. YEC and indeed any christian oriented god proposal has much evidence that refutes it but all the many christian proposals lack any evidence of support. Remember, contrary to a christian theory, a scientific theory is much more than a simpleton’s guess or wishful (although I have no idea why any thinking person would want any of the christian gods) thinking.

  7. “Even Nelson, young-earth creationist though he is, can see through this ruse. And this sense he, and his literalist compadres, are more intellectually honest than are accommodationists. At least they don’t pick and choose. (Please don’t remind me here that some parts of the Bible are clearly metaphor. Of course they are, but those parts aren’t Genesis or the Flood story.)”

    Actually Genesis has two mutually incompatible creation stories; surely people knew that a long time ago. How could any intelligent person ever take those to be literal (even in pre-science times?)

    1. Well, which is MORE literal: saying that God created the earth and all its creatures in seven days (regardless of the order), or saying that the whole thing is just a fairy tale and that evolution is true? Surely people have to agree that there are DEGREES of taking the Bible literally.

  8. I have a problem with this statement:
    Obviously, one reason was to provide support (this time from a creationist) for the assertion that, until the rise of science, Christians in general had a far more literalistic view of the Bible than they do today, taking stories like that of Noah and the Flood, and of Adam and Eve, as plain fact.
    How is this anything other than an anecdotal assertion? It just seems you’re finding someone to back up your established point of view.

    Augustine’s writing suggests to me that both literalists and non-literalists existed even back then, if there were no literalists then he would have had no need to say it. It’s not like they had a sceptical movement pushing them to justify one’s position rationally.

    It seems from my perspective that there’s a political game being played here where the truth is incidental to history – it’s just a matter of picking a voice to support your own bias. Does it really matter whether traditionally believers were literalists or not? Does that somehow invalidate the concept of God? Does it mean there’s an inherent incompatibility between God and scientific inquiry? Surely the biggest problem with scientific inquiry that believers have is the same problem that those who believe in alien abductions have with astronomers – those measuring aren’t seeing any evidence.

    This kind of argument comes off as justification for why a straw-man isn’t made out of straw.

    1. But the “establishment” (even among the Catholics) seems to have quite literalist.
      See my comment on Galileo.

    2. It is relevant because the old trope “the bible isn’t meant to be taken literally” has been trotted out a lot in the past 100 years (although as you point out, it’s probably not anything new either). You also have to be very careful with Augustine; it is easy to take quotations from him out of context and people do so liberally. Why was Augustine so fond of the non-literal interpretation? You could get away with inventing more bullshit, that’s Augustine’s agenda. He could not argue a case for his favorite inventions such as “original sin” and “just war” with a literal interpretation. In fact much of what passes as “literal interpretation” these days isn’t, it’s Augustinian “reinterpretation”.

      With the Roman empire crumbling, Augustine was looking for means to maintain the tyranny of the church. “Original sin” was a good start, that’ll scare the peasants and help keep them in control. “Just war” was another one – basically Augustine’s “just war” meant that local warlords may brutally suppress dissent with the blessing of god because the only means for people to be liberated in a manner approved by god would be for a foreign sovereign to conquer the domain (and of course said sovereign can heap on their own abuse with the blessing of god). Augustine was a vile creature.

      1. It is relevant because the old trope “the bible isn’t meant to be taken literally” has been trotted out a lot in the past 100 years (although as you point out, it’s probably not anything new either)
        Which again doesn’t address the issue of whether God exists, just whether the bible is supposed to be taken literally. As to how it is interpreted today, does it matter any more how someone in the 13th century or 6th century took it as to the 20th or 21st century? It’s an argumentum ad populum, truth by historical consensus when really those in prescientific times have the same interpretive nature according to their own culture as we do today. In this line of argument, the only thing that could possibly matter is what the original authors intended – and that is subject to whether God did indeed write it as many vacuously assert.

        My objection to the argument was the way in which it’s being used. That liberal theologians and “accommodationists” are being accused of intellectual dishonesty by not subscribing to a literalist interpretation, when really there’s not much to say that one literally has to believe the bible is anything more than another mythic narrative; a socially-constructed human-edited volume. It’s defending arguing a straw-man, and one that doesn’t actually argue against the underlying issue of compatibility between God and scientific inquiry.

        It’s trying to find an easy argument to knock down a complicated issue, putting the bible as the central authority and dismissing those who do not recognise it to be as such. Historical interpretation is not a sufficient reason to say that one needs to recognise the bible as the central authority.

      2. It’s trying to find an easy argument to knock down a complicated issue

        That is my major beef with the New Atheism, Kel. Are other atheists not a fan of your vitriol? Throw a rope around them, call them the enemy, and you win(ZOMG!) – and don’t even have to argue about it!

        Do the arguments of apologetics make you work a bit harder to debunk religion? Then throw a rope around them, declare literalists the True Faithful, and you win(ZOMG!) – and you don’t even have to argue about it!!

        That all might sound jackassish, but don’t get me wrong: I ultimately agree with most of the arguments of the New Atheists. I just can’t bring it to myself to like them because they engage in some whitewashing that is, well, intellectual laziness.

    3. Classic straw man argument, Milton.
      The fact that religious hierarchies over the centuries, both catholic and protestant, would not be in agreement with your argument doesn’t matter, does it?
      I am yet to hear if the literalists are wrong, on what basis cardinal Bellarmine-a catholic-condemned Galileo, based on his discoveries contradicting the old testament.
      Don’t get me wrong-I agree with most of what you say. I just can’t like you.

      1. The fact that religious hierarchies over the centuries, both catholic and protestant, would not be in agreement with your argument doesn’t matter, does it?
        No it doesn’t, the fact is that it doesn’t pose a problem for the religious these days – nor does it invalidate the concept of God. Is the earth being the centre of the universe tightly coupled to God’s existence? Is the interpretation of 17th century Catholicism intrinsic to the question of God’s existence? In both cases, the answer should be no.

        It might be that someone read something out of the bible to condemn Galileo – does this mean that the whole bible was taken literally? Does it mean that the someone who used the bible to justify was interpreting it correctly? This line of argument is simply untenable, you can’t put any more credence in someone claiming biblical authority in the 17th century than you can when Ken Ham puts a saddle on a dinosaur.

        At best the argument is a huge non-sequitur, it simply is irrelevent to the question of whether there are interventionist deities operating in our world, or even if Jesus is God-incarnate and there is salvation through faith. At worst you’re making an argumentum ad populum yourself and creating one huge straw-man that is not going to resonate with anybody you’re trying to convince. Instead of trying to paint these people as bad Christians, address the arguments that are presented. It’s only reasonable…

      2. Sorry-the question is not the existence of god here.
        The question is which one is “true” christian- Paul Nelson or “moderates”.
        As far as I can tell based on the historical evidence they both have valid claims.
        The Galileo example just shows you how prevalent literalism was. And among the protestants it was certainly broader than among the catholics.

      3. Sorry-the question is not the existence of god here.
        The question is which one is “true” christian- Paul Nelson or “moderates”.

        What is the question if not a means to define what it is we are supposed to be contemplating the existence of? What does it even mean to be a “true” Christian? Is a true Christian by historical consensus (most Americans have been historically Christian, therefore you can’t be a “true” American unless you are Christian)? Is a true Christians by adherence to certain dogma? Is a true Christian by adherence to principles? By faith in Christ?

        If the question is what is a “true” Christian then we are wasting our time. Surely there are greater issues to the spirit of this line of reasoning, and those are what we are really trying to get at surely. Just cut through the nonsense and get to the underlying issues – there’s plenty to talk about in the vacuity of liberal theology without needing to accuse them of intellectual dishonesty.

      4. The problem is that I’m not saying the literalists are “wrong,” Ape – I’m saying that ALL religion is wrong. Picking and choosing which subsets of believers are “right” and dismissing the others offhand simply because they don’t fit your characterization of the One True Religion is just an intellectual shortcut. We should be able to have much better arguments to deconstruct their theology than “other people interpret the Bible literally, so you don’t matter.” Trying so hard to pigeonhole all religion into literalist fundamentalism kind of embodies the old “New Atheism is just a knee-jerk reaction to fundamentalism” that we all love to hate, anyway…

  9. No one knows for sure what killed off all the dinosaurs, therefore god. That’s a fine god of the gaps. It will be interesting to see if competing superstitions will accept that just as many competing superstitions promote George MacReady-Price’s imaginary geology despite condemning him to their particular cult’s version of hell.

  10. I would like to see a complete list of all the early church fathers and Jews who mentioned the Genesis account and whether or not it was literal or not. I’ve been told most early church fathers did not mention it at all, but among those who do, there are good numbers on both sides. I could be wrong…

    This statistical data would be very helpful. I suppose I could start making my own list, but it’d be nice if there was already one out there. I’ve found some good resources, but it’d be nice to have some scientific data on the subject. At the moment I have only done enough research to know that there were early Christians on both sides.

  11. Well, I never guessed it will be specifically a YEC, I’ll thought he be a Discovery Institute creationist trying to join the YEC and OEC “factions”.

  12. What will control the biblical exegesis of the Christian? Will they forever be engaged in an exegesis of the moment?

    To me, those two lines make it impossible for the section to have been written by anyone other than a fundamentalist. Without those lines, I agree the rest of the answers were plausible.

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