Friday, August 13, 2010

Creation and Evolution

I’ve been reading a book titled Scopes Retried by Stephen Bartholomew, Jr. (2010 BelieversPress). It was given to me by a friend at the Guilford Community Church. It was written by her brother, who is a fundamentalist Christian. She wants me to read it and then meet with her and get my take on it. She has an intuitive feeling that her brother’s beliefs are “diametrically opposite” to hers, but she isn’t sure how to articulate that, especially with him. She loves her brother, but I gather that he is not an easy person to carry on a discussion with about religion without getting into a heated argument. So far I’ve read about 75 pages of the book. I’m trying to keep an open mind on it, but it isn’t easy. It is ostensibly a novel, but as a novel, it is awful. The characters in it are puppets, mouthpieces for the author’s point of view, two-dimensional cardboard figures, caricatures – you name it. The setting is a Madison, NH high school. So far, the main characters are:

The students:
Jennifer, a home-schooled, born-again Christian and fairly militant pro- creationist, anti-evolution spokesperson
David, a thoughtful friend of Jennifer who is struggling with the issue of creationism vs. evolution
Mike, another thoughtful struggler
Josh, a very bright sceptic who thinks creationists are stupid
Several others
Their parents: especially
Gary Newton, David’s father, who goes to the Episcopal Church, and
Michelle, David’s mother, who goes to Grace Bible Church, thus
setting up a potential conflict for David (and in his parents’ marriage)
Tom Lawton, Mike’s dad, who is a member of the School Board – a college biology major who runs a software company and who is passionate about birds (he is a distant relative of Audubon) and favorably disposed to the notion of intelligent design – i.e., a “scientist” who is skeptical of the claims of evolutionary theory.
Their teachers:
Mr. Potter, a science teacher who, of course, believes in evolution, and in whose class the whole issue of creationism vs. evolution is playing out, and who is willing at least to engage students like Jennifer in discussion
Barbara Henrickson, another science teacher who is more scornful of the whole creationist movement.
Two pastors:
Paul Hopkins, youth leader at Grace Bible Church and firm believer in biblical inerrancy, who holds meetings in which he seems to engage the students in discussion, and encourage them to express their views, but is in fact not willing to tolerate any belief system contrary to his own – and slyly manipulates them to turn them against anyone who doesn’t share his views, especially:
Pastor John Strong, the local Episcopal priest, who holds a view the author dubs “theistic evolution,” i.e., an attempt to hold Christian faith and evolutionary theory together in some sort of creative tension, but who I suspect is being set up to be the anti-Christ.

I thought at first the author might be attempting something more nuanced in presenting these characters. E.g., he described Mr. Potter on page 1 as “a good teacher who genuinely cared about his students.” But after 75 pages, I’m afraid I was wrong. The good guys all have white hats and the bad guys have black hats. I have some bad intuitions about where he will take all this. We’ll see.

The “action” so far involves the students doing research, mainly on the Internet, into both creationism and evolutionary theory, trying to sort out the various arguments pro and con on both views. So far, the main points being brought forward are (1) the idea that bird feathers could have evolved from lizard’s scales (as evolutionists seem to claim) is ridiculous on the face of it; (2) mutation, which is essential to the notion of evolutionary progress, has never actually been known to bring forth anything “new” or better; (3) there appears to be a plot to keep some scientific evidence favorable to creationists out of high school text books even though it is all over the Internet (e.g., there’s nothing in textbooks about a world-wide flood like that described in the story of Noah, but the Internet provides lots of “evidence” that such a flood did in fact take place) and (4) “theistic evolution” is an oxymoron – God can’t have anything to do with evolution and still be God.

Since this novel has cardboard characters who are mouthpieces for arguments, an assessment of it comes down to the arguments themselves. Here, I’ll confess, I’m not much of an expert. I have a pretty average grasp of the scientific arguments for or against evolutionary theory. I think I come to this whole issue with some basic assumptions: (1) “Evolution” is a paradigm, a mental construct, that tries to makes sense of a wide range of empirical evidence like fossils, DNA, etc. Evolution is itself not a “fact,” but a theory that tries to make sense of the facts. There are presumably other possible theories which could make some kind of sense of the facts. It isn’t clear to me yet whether creationists dispute the facts (i.e. what about fossils, or carbon dating), or whether they accept the facts but are trying to fit them into the Genesis account of creation. (My guess is that they dispute the facts). (2) I have gotten from somewhere the notion of “elegance,” i.e., that some theories are more elegant than others; e.g., Einstein’s theories are more elegant than Newton’s. It would be possible to “explain” the universe using Newtonian theory, but it would be inefficient, ugly, cumbersome, and leave a lot unexplained. Similarly, it would be possible to “explain” the universe using Genesis as a literal truth, but it would require a lot of highly contorted explanations (like, e.g., that God created fossils when he created the universe 6000 years ago, burying them in the ground intentionally in order to “test” humans and more or less coerce them to have to choose between the Bible and a “godless” alternative. With God, all things are possible! But would you want to worship a God who would do something like that? (3) I am attracted to the notion of intelligent design. I too find it incredible that intricate organs like the eye could have evolved through random mutation and natural selection (if that is what evolutionary theory claims – I need to bone up on this. I strongly suspect that the author is creating a straw man in his presentation of evolutionary theory, but I’m not sure). So I am sympathetic with some of the creationist views. (4) However, I approach this issue with the notion that scientific language and biblical language can’t really be placed on the same level in an effort to determine which is “true.” “Truth” is a pretty slippery concept in this context. I have a sort of vague Wittgensteinian idea that there is a lot that can’t be “said.” “Reality” is mostly mysterious, it is beyond our ability to “name” it. The Bible tries in one way to point to reality, and science tries in another way to do the same thing. They both have something to be said for them, and both are inadequate. I don’t think this is the author’s view. He wants to have a knock-down, drag out fight and declare a winner – THE BIBLE! I think he has very little tolerance for ambiguity, maybe none at all. (5) This book is essentially (I think) a diatribe against the policy prevalent in many public schools against allowing creationism to be taught alongside evolution as an alternate explanation of the world. I think the author is probably against “separation of church and state,” as a fundamental Constitutional principle. I suspect that the title, Scopes Retried, reflects his desire to rewrite history, to undo the effects of the original Scopes Trial, and to create a fantasy nation where Christian law prevails. We’ll see! It is a hard book to read, but I’m sort of interested to see how he will develop the plot (to the extent that there is one), and where he will come out at the end.

No comments:

Post a Comment