Eric MacDonald on Adam and Eve

January 6, 2011 • 12:31 pm

Eric MacDonald’s new website, Choice in Dying, is taking off nicely.  His post on assisted suicide and Christmas was picked up by Andrew Sullivan, which brings a website more readers than even Pharyngula does. Eric is an ex-Anglican priest, and what he says about religion is worth reading; do bookmark his site.

His latest post, “‘Integrating’ science and religion” is about BioLogos‘s perennial obsession with Adam and Eve, something I’ve written about myself. But Eric goes into the background much more deeply, and with much more knowledge of theology.  Here are some excerpts from his take on physicist/Christian Denis Alexander’s “white paper” on Adam and Eve, a piece published at BioLogos:

For example, Alexander ends his “white paper” with the claim that

In relating anthropology to Biblical teaching we are in a much stronger position than that [than science itself, which sometimes must acknowledge that there is no coherent theory for apparently conflicting data-sets], since the models proffered go at least some way towards rendering the two data-sets mutually coherent. (9)

The reference to the two data-sets is entirely delusional. There is one data-set, the scientific findings of genetics and anthropology about the evolution of Homo sapiens, and its subsequent migration from Africa to populate the world, and then one story, sifted out historically from a great many origin stories, the one that has come down to us in the biblical text which is deemed sacred by Christians and Jews. In what sense can this story be considered a data-set? That it has been privileged by religious believers whose religion survived while others did not, scarcely gives it, in any reasonable sense, probative value regarding the nature of the world or the significance of human beings. . .


So when Alexander begins his “white paper” — it’s hard not to laugh derisively when typing those words — by saying that

Theological truths revealed in Scripture are eternal infallible truths, valid for the whole of humanity for all time, although human interpretations of Scripture are not infallible and may change with time over issues that are not central to the Gospel, (1)

he is merely making marks on paper, not saying anything. He wants there to be a “data-set” of theological truths, so he simply dragoons the Bible into providing one. But there are so many unsettled questions here, at the very beginning, that make it simply impossible for him to go on, if his aim is to say something coherent.


But this just shows how open to interpretation and reinterpretation the biblical stories are — even those that are central to what Alexander thinks of as the Gospel. So there is no way that we can provide a “data-set” on the religious side of the proposed integration of science with religion that is in any way coordinate with the data-sets that are the very stuff of science. Nor is there any way to settle the question of which interpretation is the right one regarding the biblical stories, though, in the case of science, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding, that is, in how things actually turn out. So a “model” for a theological “truth” is no more than a proposed interpretation of biblical texts considered as revealed by a god. And this is simply not enough to be going forward with, and even Denis Alexander must — at least one hopes that there is this much rationality left, despite its manifold deformations through the alembic of the Bible — know this even as he tries to fit the many shapes of religion into a mould that remains steadfastly obdurate.

Yes, people can consider me, P. Z., Dawkins et al. as “theologically unsophisticated,” and dismiss our arguments on those grounds, but nobody can say that about Eric.  They’ll have to deal with his arguments qua arguments.

32 thoughts on “Eric MacDonald on Adam and Eve

  1. If being “theologically sophisticated” means giving serious respect to a story in which the central character is a talking plant (on fire!) that gives magic wand lessons to the reluctant hero, then I have no wish to ever be theologically sophisticated. Especially if it also includes cannibalizing a long-since-undead zombie king for the stated purpose of self zombification.



    1. One would assume that an unreported part of the bush’s dialogue would have been “AAAAAAAHHHHH, PUT ME OUT! FOR THE LOVE OF ME, GET SOME WATER!”

  2. Yes, people can consider me, P. Z., Dawkins et al. as “theologically unsophisticated,” and dismiss our arguments on those grounds, but nobody can say that about Eric. They’ll have to deal with his arguments qua arguments.

    Oh, they will still say it and make something up, like “being Anglican is not a real religion” or other foolishness.

  3. It’s not clear to me that a random priest will necessarily be theologically sophisticated. I don’t think that’s what they’re trained to do.

      1. It was said: “Eric is not “a random priest,” I assure you. He knows his theology!”

        And that means what, exactly? He knows the inner secrets of the “Otehrath” (random typing for those not hip to the latest theology)? Seriously; he “knows” his bullshit and should, therefore, be taken more seriously than someone else who “knows” the same nonsense, but doesn’t see it as bullshit? Or better (as I see it), someone who never even bothered (oh, what a weak person) to partake of the utter bullshit of religion?

        I am sorry, but I think I can speak as authoritatively as to the stupidity of religion without having had to immerse myself in its idiocy as can the most former devotee. Indeed, more so, because I have not ever allowed myself to be so swayed by such utter crap!

        C’mon people. Yes, I am happy a former easily-swayed person has seen the real light, but that is not a plus for science or reason. Given his history, he is easily taken by compelling rhetoric. That does NOT make him a resounding authority on truth or nonsense, just one easily-swayed.

        So, as an example, a former fairy-beliver now renounces her belief in fairies, and that renouncement is now to count MORE against fairiology than those who never believed in fairies? Seriously?

        1. I misspoke: I have no idea about Eric’s prior beliefs, so to attribute to him the “easily-swayed by rhetoric” opprobrium was just unfair. That said, the equation that I objected to from the original quotation still stands. There is no more (and more probably much less) authority to be gained from one immersed in but now denouncing theology than from one who has never encountered theology at all. To assume otherwise is to endow theology with an intellectual position it does not deserve, as in my fairiology example.

          1. But the issue isn’t so important for theology, but for convincing listeners (who may trust but aren’t familiar with theological details) that those details are bunk. Or at least that they should be examined with care. In simply encouraging people to give skepticism a second look, trusting in credentials is fine as a first pass, as long as they ultimately examine the arguments for themselves.

            1. That is to give BS a cover it doesn’t deserve. “So, you believe in fairies. Do you know that some former fairiologists now denounce fairiology because pixie-dust has been shown to violate fundamental physics? Or that scholars of fairiology have shown that there is no historical or other reason to accept fairology as a historical truth? I thought not. So, you will now renounce fairiology?” How does that convince “listeners” (i.e., fairiologists), and why should that be the criterion?

              Our job is to speak to the deluded? Why? It is that same accomodationist argument: “flies with honey” and other drivel. Sorry, I don’t want to accommodate those to one truth when they otherwise hold to nonsense; rather, as with the enlightenment, I want them to see and grasp it all. Bringing some to accept some science but denying the rest because of some religious crap is NOT an advance. Indeed, it is to mock science and rationality. To be honest, it is only in the excited states that this approach has any credence at all: the rest of the world sees it for the crapola it is.

              1. If you’re arguing with religious people, there are at least two good approaches: 1) just dismiss out of the hand everything that’s not rational (just about all of it!), or 2) use their own language and sources to show that what they believe just isn’t true.

        2. Anglican clergy generally have to complete a graduate degree in relevant (to pastoring) religious studies. Many have other degrees as well. I don’t know Eric’s academic background, but he certainly seems to understand church doctrine and its related theology quite well.

      2. Perhaps it would be worthwhile for me to interject here at some point. First, I am not a professional theologian, and have very little published theological work to my credit. I have, however, read with some depth in theology, and I think I understand what is being said with a fair amount of breadth and clarity.

        As for the standing of theology as an intellectual discipline, the first thing to point out is that, while I do not believe that theology is a discipline which can in any sense find out the truth, it is a discipline in that there are accepted moves in the theological game and moves that are recognised as in error. In some respects it is like philosophy, and it is not impossible, internally, to say, of one theological argument, that it is an illegitimate move in the theological game, and of other moves that they are reasonable ways of interpreting, understanding and arguing about the points at issue. Very much as in chess, you can’t move your knight diagonally, in theology there are moves that are instantly recognisable as mistakes.

        Of course, one of the problems with theology is that there are different theologies, and these are, to a certain extent, self-contained, so that what would be a reasonable move in process theology would not be considered a reasonable move in, say, the neo-orthodox theology that derives from Karl Barth. And then, there are people like Giberson or Alexander who belong in another box altogether, who, as amateut theologians are trying to do something — and doing it badly — that really requires a great deal more theological depth than they seem able to muster.

        In the end, though, theology is a bit like literary criticism — a lot of it just is literary criticism! There are a range of responses to, say, MacBeth, and conflicting interpretations are possible, but, in the end, they are all dealing with a text, so there is something which tends to curb the worst excesses, and some interpretations make more sense, given the text as a whole, than others. So, even if there are no objects for theology to be about, there are still parameters, within the game called theology, which limit what can be said reasonably, given the documents that govern the undertaking.

        Of course, the result of all this is that, in some sense, I am just a random priest, because, not being grounded in the real world, theology is bound to have a certain amount of variability, simply because those who do theology have very different intellectual and personal histories. As a result there is something ‘stochastic’ and unpredictable about theology, but it is not completely ungoverned by rules.

    1. Most do get training in Biblical history and Textual Criticism as well as learning a bit of Ancient Greek and Latin, and theology of course. But it seems almost suspicious that they almost never bring it to their congregations. I’m not sure if the average Christian ministers and pastors are really on par with the greatest thinkers of our age, or whether they are washing a lot of them out of theology school because of bad grades.

      Besides, the ‘sophisticated theology’ is that its all just a mystery anyways.

      1. Somebody whose name I can’t recall (but I’m sure somebody here will fill it in) once observed that seminaries are the greatest modern tools for creating atheists.



        1. Dennett and a co author quoted someone saying as much recently in their interviews with godless clergy. I’m not in a position to Google it right now but I’m sure somebody will fill that detail in as well.

      2. Well, I can say here that I did, in fact, bring this kind of thing to ‘my’ congregation. In fact, when we had my wife Elizabeth’s memorial service, and I spoke from an entirely atheist point of view, some clergy who were present said things like, “What kind of effect will this have on the poeple in the parish?” And they got the answer: “Oh, he’s been saying this mind of thing for years!”

  4. “They’ll have to deal with his arguments qua arguments.”

    Or they’ll do what they always do: ignore his arguments completely in favor of a new crop of straw-men. The only science they’ll follow is rigidly making sure the goalposts follow the Uncertainty Principle: the better you understand the level of detail and evidence they’re after, the less you can be sure of the goalpoast’s location.

    Why change a strategy that’s worked so well over the years?

  5. “in the case of science, the proof, as they say, is in the pudding, that is, in how things actually turn out.”

    Indeed. The paradox is that everyone knows exactly what is meant by the phrase, ‘the proof is in the pudding,’ even though the phrase by itself is literally meaningless. Why should the proof be in the pudding? Why not under the chair, or beneath the window?

    I guess everyone is too busy to use the original, transparent and meaningful phrase: “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” Only after eating the pudding can we indeed know “how things actually turn out.” Pedantry lives.

  6. Yes, people can consider me, P. Z., Dawkins et al. as “theologically unsophisticated,” and dismiss our arguments on those grounds, but nobody can say that about Eric. They’ll have to deal with his arguments qua arguments.

    Wanna bet?

    From a trackback to Eric’s post:

    Unfortunately, MacDonald’s entire post suffers from an uninformed view of how ancient texts work, how they were contextualized, and how they function as Scripture for those of the Jewish/Christian faith.

    Um hum. Dealing with the arguments. Right 🙂

    1. Yup, that’s what they always do.

      Hey, that reminds me: over at, some religious types keep trying to use that argument against atheists under the “Critical Research Failure” trope. I’ve been trying to do something about it on my own, but they keep coming along behind me and changing it back. Anybody interested in lending a hand?

    1. For that matter, why all the favoritism shown towards the Bible?

      I’d like to see BioLogos to explain how science is compatible with the religious position that the Milky Way was spurted out of Hera’s breast.



  7. Just a point of information (and sorry if it appears pedantic) but you’ve referred to Denis Alexander twice now as a physicist. He’s not, he’s a molecular immunologist.

  8. Why not Adam & Lilith? According to Jewish tradition (see Robert Graves, The Hebrew Myths) Lilith was Adam’s first wife. My point is that what was included in the canonical bible was rather arbitrary & nothing to do with the revealed words of any god/ess. That is such an absurd claim – “It’s the word of god” – “How do you know it is not the word of man?” – “Because it IS the word of god – it says so & I believe it”…
    just tiresome.

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