This is an article in a series written to create an unambiguous, complete understanding of Genesis 1:1-1:19, and continues from Part 6: The World of Genesis versus the World of Science.
The religion versus science debates of today
There is currently a war of sorts being waged between Theism and Atheism, both in forums of the people and in forums of philosophers, where both sides are trying to point to fallacies in the theories of the other; to crush the faiths and foundations of either. While wars have no winner, it seems this is one golden age of questioning established knowledge and doctrine. It is one in which a wealth of knowledge about the world has crystallized and solidified, many disciplines have been backed up by evidence, and where this knowledge and evidence is instantly available.
I originally intended a short article to wage a war in the same manner; I had found the fallacies that would weaken the faith and foundations of religion, and it was quite clear to me that I had truth on my side. Instead, the very few sentences of knowledge that these few verses represent became weeks of analyzing sources from all camps with the intent to destroy my original article, interspersed with pauses of reflection and introspection. This may not sound like fun to some, but for me, it was a summer holiday well spent. Regularly finding time to find this philosophical mood I get in sometimes trigger something in me that makes me more happy, calm, and confident; more contented about life — even pondering something depressing such as death, when I do it in this mood, it is helpful to me.
If I had the power to influence the warring sides, I would like them to fight their battles this way instead. They might find that that prohibits them from fighting the war as forcefully, but that the small battle won without losing the understanding of the other side is more permanently won, and that they haven’t sacrificed a part of themselves in order to win it.
Taking both sides
In this series then, I have taken both sides in the Religion vs. Science debate of today, and in the previous part, I tried my best to defend the attacks on this part of Genesis and hopefully clarified what arguments will not further the debate. I’ve done this to show that there is an alternative to the polarized debate with both camps attacking the opponent and supporting their own. I think there needs to be more philosophers who write in this way in order to create a better debate climate. Not because I think it too much of a fight or because I shy away from fierce argumentation, but because I’ve discovered that not only seeing both sides but actively taking both sides “kills your bastard darlings”; rids you of arguments that the opponent sees clearly are wrong but that you mistakenly see clearly as being valid. In doing so, it does leave your remaining arguments all the more solid, it gives you a deeper understanding, and your opponent sees this deeper understanding in you.
While much harder work, I found that the act of doubting yourself leaves you not with self-doubt, but with a stronger, tempered self-confidence. It also helps in predicting counter-arguments of opponents; not that you couldn’t predict them almost as well before, but in responding to them you will convey thoughts that speak to the opponent in way similar to how they speak to himself. It will lend you the leverage to perhaps convince some of the already convinced.
There are some conclusions (as they apply to the debate on topic) that can be drawn even from summarizing these relatively few attacks and their attempts at reconciliation:
Reconciliating the understanding of the texts to reality can break your heart. It requires of the believer the same burden of proof amassed by tens of thousands of self-critical, rigorous scientists that is found in thousands of books, already peer-reviewed, revered, and attacked over the centuries, with the believer himself only having a few texts and scholars available to develop a reconciling theory. This exposes him to a debate climate in which he finds himself attacked skillfully on all sides, and the pressure of this may make him feel like he’s fighting a war that is over before it’s begun. It would take a stronger man that I think exists to fight such a war and not cave in under this pressure.
A few reconciliations are impossible to maintain. Many reconciliations were possible, but the remaining few suggests that an inordinate amount of time will be spent on developing the required new reconciling theories of the meaning (text) and knowledge (understanding of what the text claims) that does not yet exist and which does not match mainstream beliefs, even within your own faith. These new theories will be perceived as “tailor-made to make the holy texts work”, which will bring suspicion of their level of accuracy and intent. Science hasn’t worked to understand the world to undermine religion, but simply to understand the world. In this educated age, new religious interpretations of the texts and what they say will be said to not have been developed to understand the world better, but to stop religion from losing credibility, and will at the same time fall short of undermining well-supported scientific theories.
Intermediate explanations to reconcile texts with reality takes you out of the frying pan and into the fire. If these show the texts describe reality as well as scientific theories, but only after scientific theories had been developed that say how things really work or came to be, the explanation will be perceived as a construction after the fact; after its inventor had been educated to the point where he saw that the text posed a contradiction to Science. By believers it may be seen as an attempt to “validate scripture through Science and not through faith”. However, these are the insincere intermediate explanations. Certainly, intermediate explanations that are found or developed that do not fall into this category are highly interesting and of the same worth as scientific explanations, but that does not mean they won’t meet the same fire of criticism from your peers and opponents both.
Yes, parts of this summary are unnecessarily generalizing. The reason is that it’s intended as general advice to guide debaters into fertile areas of discussion that have a chance of reducing polarization and producing new truths.
Descriptions in Genesis 1:1-1:19 that contradict reality
These are the statements of knowledge that were attacked and which could not be reconciled in order to keep the text as a true description of the creation of the world:
In Genesis, we are not told that land was formed by God, but instead that God somehow gathered the water into seas to make land “appear”. That’s simply not how it works, and you don’t have to be a geologist to show that. Moreover, there is no reason why it should be mentioned as an act of creation, since this process is ongoing.
I’d love to see a classroom experiment in which this is demonstrated!
Yes, barring removal of water such as by evaporation or ice or snow forming on land, it is only the transformation of the Earth’s crust that can make surface water gather and form seas, both if the Earth is covered with water and if it isn’t.
It’s simply a description that demonstrates a misperception of reality that could not be the word of God.
If you wish to accuse Genesis of not being a holy text, but simply the ignorance of the Bronze Age put in writing by scholars doing their best, this is one of the strongest arguments.
If you wish to defend Genesis as a holy text, you must somehow make the removal of this demonstrably false description not seem insincere editing of the Truth.
The Moon doesn’t rule the night, it sometimes isn’t even in the sky at night! In some parts of the world, it’s below the horizon for months at a time!
It’s a mystery to me why scribes would write such a description, when surely they could see, as could any other man in the Bronze Age, that there were moonless nights and even that the Moon was in the sky during the day. Therefore, this does not point to ignorance on the part of the scribes, but a human, if perplexing, mistake or embellishment.
The Sun and the Moon aren’t in the sky under the rainwater and above the earth! They’re in space, far from the Earth and its sky.
This is an even stronger argument for Genesis not being the word of God but descriptions written by the best scholars of the age who yet were ignorant of, in this case, Astronomy.
Implications of the unsuccessful reconciliations
It would seem to me it’s immensely hard to defend not only these verses as the word of God, but by the fact that the rest of Genesis 1 is written as a part of the same creation account, to defend that Genesis 1 as a whole is the word of God.
Considering that there are 3 errors in these mere 19 verses, perhaps the best recourse for believers intent on keeping their holy books unassailable would be to deem Genesis not one of the holy books, as we know has been the fate of other books once considered holy accounts of events in the Old and New Testaments.
Implications of the successful reconciliations
For non-believers, I hope I’ve shown which types of attacks reveals crudeness and ignorance on their part, and also in what way other types of attacks will not appear convincing to believers.
For believers, I hope I’ve given you valid defenses for many of the attacks on holy scripture that non-believers commonly wage.
I realize that the detail of this analysis might have caused some believers to doubt their faith. Even though I’ve never found any of the mainstream religions persuasive despite my interest in spirituality, and therefore never lost my religion, I think I can yet understand the very human questions that would arise.
Religion has given me so much — faith in what I do and the future, and a sense of worth and belonging. How do I keep my faith?
If you feel all those things are dependent on you subscribing to certain religious ideas, first consider why that should be so.
The answer I’ve arrived at is that those things are very human and common to all of us, and that religion has arisen naturally as an attempt at fulfilling those needs in us. Should you suspect yourself of wanting the answers and everything else religion offers in place of finding out for yourself how to have faith in what you do, the future, that you are valuable, and how to belong?
Perhaps you fear that if you do lose your religion, you will be in the same place that Man found himself in ancient times, looking up at the stars in awe of the mystery, and on all the parts of the world, both the wondrous and the horrifying, and at human behavior, both inspiring and despicable. And there is only you, wanting, needing, to make sense of it all.
Certainly, this is the abyss of a lonely feeling you share with philosophers and scientists who through the ages attempted to make sense of it all. But you perhaps feel that gaining enough knowledge to do the same is out of your grasp. The most knowledgeable among us feel the same way. The good news is that the times have changed, and today there are so many sources of established knowledge to learn from that the world will seem even more wonderful and at the same time less of a strange place. There are more senses in which you can belong, and we are more in control of our future, than ever before.
This leaves the spirituality side of us that I think we all possess: what is this sense of awe and wonder that this world evokes in us in different forms? I wish I had an answer to that. My personal experience is that this comes naturally to us in reality, dreams, ideas, poetry, music and art; everywhere except in religion, where it for some reason requires to repeatedly be externally imposed on you. This is just my experiences from taking part of three religions, but if you can remember feeling this same way, you should not fear losing your religion and try to discover for yourself whence comes your spirituality.
Assuming it were even possible at this stage to change what is commonly taught in religion, how can we change the religious text to better match reality?
I can see two recourses:
1. Edit out or somehow create new interpretations of these descriptions to match reality.
2. Not consider Genesis an answer to the ageless and very human question of how the world and Man came to be.
For Young-Earth movements and Creationists, revisions are already taking place. Hopefully, my views are useful for you to revise more carefully and perhaps successfully.
I am a scientist and believer. Can I hold holy scripture true even if parts of it contradict science?
It’s a difficult question. While this poses no problem in some sciences, when claims of knowledge of holy texts overlap established knowledge in hard sciences, it would seem to me it’s a question of being honest with yourself. For myself, this is a hypothetical question, since I rely on science in my work but do not work as a scientist. But where conflicting knowledge overlaps, there can’t be two truths; it seems to me that while it’s certainly possible to take two views into consideration for a while, eventually you will have to make a choice.
You can tell yourself that the problem is restricted to the areas of Astronomy, Biology, and Geology pertaining to the three errors in Genesis and any scientific truths they build upon, but in the light of that these are the disciplines that offer scientific explanations that clash even more severely with the larger account of the entire holy texts, I really think it would be staving off the inevitable, that is, in order to keep your faith you must dismiss the foundations of these scientific disciplines.
If you rely on these foundations in your daily work, I think this must eventually cause you to ask what you are doing, holding them as true and yet favoring another world view which has no bearing on your work.
If you do not rely on them, there is naturally no conflict. But you may yet ask the question, suspecting that one is more well-founded than the other.
One option is attempting to disprove or develop alternative explanations for the conflicting descriptions. This is what we see Creationists and others doing today. I wish that all such attempts should be met with welcome as well as sincere criticisms by the scientific community, even though they and I might ask of you whether you develop the arguments to really find the truth or just in order to be able to cling to your faith.
What do you hope to achieve with this analysis targeting Abrahamic faiths?
The original analysis or the withheld precursor to this article series was foolheartedly intended to cause doubt in those who considered this text the word of God and the true account of creation.
While that might have been the eventual outcome, I started this series with the opposite – to destroy the original analysis. In the process, the articles grew into finding ways for more productive debates in the current “religion vs. science war”. I hope you agree that this at least, is a good intent despite of the results of the analysis.
I hope to suggest to Atheists, Christians, Jahwists and Moslems which battles can be left out of the debate wars as either impossible to win (for either side), are losing battles (for Theism), will not convince (for Atheism) or have no bearing on issues previously considered conflicts between science and religion.
I hope that this will lead to less polarization of debate and a movement toward a desire to understand the opponent.
I hope to have shown Young-Earth believers, Creationists, and other revisionists that newly developed theories weaken faith if they serve as intermediate explanations, especially if they show signs of being developed in response to or as a consequence of scientific findings that expose conflicts between scripture and reality.
I hope to have shown that reading Genesis symbolically is untenable, and that hard sciences have a bearing on some of the claims.
I hope my method of a partisan trying to take the opponents’ side for a temporary yet extended period of time and sincerely exploring the knowledge the other has to offer catches on. It has many merits, not the least of which is sincere intent.
While mine might not be a new kind of dialectic, I hope this two-sided process will become the preferred method to prepare for debate, to:
1. Weed out “waste of time” arguments: the indefensible, the untenable, the irrelevant, and the pertinent but equally valid,
2. To almost automatically lead the debater to such deeper understanding, and in this persuade him to form debate topics as earnest questions into the others’ knowledge.
Where do you stand on religion and science and the current war being waged?
I’m a non-believer who currently do not identify myself completely with Atheism or Antitheism. I think Science has brought the greatest knowledge and understanding of this and previous ages and think Science, rational thought and logic will eventually guide us to the great truths, whether or not they are truths that we need, want or like.
I think religion has filled these needs in the past, but are starting to not be enough, now that Science has expanded into the realm of what used to be metaphysics and as education makes people see that Science is a solid source of truths. I think religious world views and doctrine are beginning to show signs of the age in which they came about and as a natural consequence are becoming increasingly irrelevant to modern life. Secular law has now shown us that it works as a generic moral code for a society of independent citizens in a complex world on a level that religious authority alone could not hope to reach.
I think I see the signs of an emerging danger that since the conflict between Science and Religion is becoming so apparent, debate will become even more polarized, and even though we all are educated, knowledgeable humans with the potential of compassionate, rational thought, this conflict will instead bring out the stubborn child in us; the achieved scholar (on either side) who just wants the other to concede and admit he’s right about everything he says.
As we have to grow up in the Universe, I think we have to grow up in the arena of debate and make them arenas of sincere curiosity instead of arenas of attack and defense. As we ask of others intellectual honesty, we should see in our new claims the foundations for them that we have not yet built.
What books inspired you to write this?
While proper references will be added for the sources I consulted for the translation, I have purposely not read any analytical attacks on religion by established philosophers on the topic of my series, in order to not subscribe too eagerly to established arguments. Now I can, and if you have particularly excellent book recommendations, please mention them to me :)