Friday, September 23, 2011

Doing It Wrong

A curious debate-by-blog has been spinning itself out, between some atheists who claim that modern genetic evidence conclusively rules out the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and the defenders of the faith. I'm all for atheists calling out the religious when their beliefs are contradicted by scientific evidence. It seems to me that this sort of debate didn't happen much during the last century: atheists pretty much ignored religious dogma and stuck to promoting knowledge of science (evolution, especially). So I was very interested in the current exchange. However, Jerry Coyne of Why Evolution is True seems hell-bent on showing us how not to go about it.

It began, more or less, with Jerry's comments on some media reports about evangelical Christians who have been attempting to address the issue of the scientific evidence and its implications for Christian doctrines, especially the existence of an actual Adam and Eve. Jerry correctly points out that "... the scientific evidence shows that Adam and Eve could not have existed, at least in the way they’re portrayed in the Bible."

But then Coyne goes on to poke fun at the evangelicals' attempts to address the scientific evidence. Now, I don't choose to spend my time poking fun at other people's beliefs, but I don't have a problem with others who wish to do so - I enjoy my daily dose of PZ as much as the next atheist. But I live in a country in which close to half of the citizens reject evolution. I think the message shouldn't be "Gee, look at those silly Christians struggling to fit their religious beliefs around scientific evidence." Instead, it should be "Hooray! You've finally admitted that Adam and Eve are mythical! Now go tell all your coreligionists, please."

From there things went downhill.

Michael Flynn responded to Jerry by noting that Roman Catholic theology, at least, doesn't require belief in a literal interpretation of "the mythos of Adam and Eve." He suggests a scenario in which Adam was just one of many ancestors of modern humans - one who also happened to be a common ancestor of everyone living today. In the National Catholic Register,  Mark Shea applauded Flynn, and Edward Feser on his blog took the same tack.

Coyne fired back. His response is a good illustration of how an intelligent person can make fundamental mistakes when he goes outside of his area of expertise. A glance at any recent introduction to the Bible would have shown him that modern Biblical scholars recognize that the Bible is composed of a diversity of sources and is written in a variety of genres: history, poetry, myth, etc. For many, the Genesis story is a myth of origins, not a historical account. It should have been obvious, at any rate, that anyone who accepts the evolutionary account of human origins - as Roman Catholics now do - cannot also take the Genesis account literally.

Instead of congratulating them for recognizing the validity of evolutionary science, Coyne goes on the offensive, saying they are misinterpreting their Bible and "making stuff up" in order to reconcile it with their beliefs.

And if the language is figurative (and there’s no indication that it is: Shea simply realizes that the story [is] wrong in light of modern science), how does he know the event is real?

So, Jerry, you're now an expert on Biblical language?

Here, he falls into a common atheist error: telling Christians how they should interpret the Bible, and then telling them why that interpretation doesn't make any sense.  You're never going to get anywhere that way!

Fundamentally, I agree with Jerry's point: these theologians are scrambling to reconcile their beliefs with the scientific evidence, and it doesn't make a pretty fit. But at least they're making the attempt - in contrast to so many believers who simply stick their heads in the sand, ignore all the science, and claim the Earth is 6000 years old. In fighting to keep real science in the schools, it is the latter, not the former, we need to worry about.

Finally, and unforgivably,  Jerry fudges on the science. Flynn pointed out, correctly, that the question of a single couple that is ancestral to all modern humans is completely different than the question of mitochondrial Eve or Y-chromosome Adam. The most recent common ancestor of all currently living humans (MRCA) lived astonishingly recently, according to current models: around 2000-5000 years ago. Flynn, et. al., are supposing a picture in which Biblical Adam and Eve are ancestors of the whole of current humanity, though not the sole ancestors, so it is the MRCA that is relevant. Rather than admit that they are right about the biology, Jerry simply ignores all this.

(On the other hand, Flynn and Feser both talk a lot of garbage about the evolution of "sapience": I wish Jerry had spent his considerable resources ripping them a new one on that point.)

I like Jerry's blog, and I agree with him most of the time. But the thought of uninformed atheists expounding the true meaning of the Bible makes my skin crawl. Please stick to the biology, Jerry, and leave the Bible interpretation to those who know something about it.


  1. I think the point everyone is missing, is that by admitting the Adam and Eve story is a myth, then Christians are technically admitting that the concept of "original sin" is entirely made up--a metaphor at best.

    If this is the case, then Jesus died for nothing, according to their own theology. Which is why, traditionally, Christians have fought tooth and nail to salvage a literal interpretation of this story.

    However, I may have to agree with Coyne's sentiment that if they relinquish the literalism of Adam and Eve, then they basically have misunderstood the traditional theological views of their religion for the past 1,800 years or so. I wouldn't say they misunderstood the Bible, just the theological implications.

  2. I think the Christian has a couple of options here:

    - Take the Eden story as completely metaphorical, but say that nevertheless a real atonement was necessary for humanity to be reconciled with God. This is what I take to be the liberal Christian approach.

    - Take the story to be a myth that nonetheless represents a real event of some sort, involving a real couple. This is what Edward Feser's version of Roman Catholic theology does.

    For you and me, this looks like desperate special pleading to resolve a clear conflict with science. But, as Feser points out, allegorical interpretations of Eden have a long history in Christianity.

    I think the atheist ought to avoid holding forth on Christian theology, just as much as on Bible interpretation - at least, until you LEARN something about that theology. These people are not stupid, and it's not like they've never noticed the issues that are raised by scientific discoveries. On the contrary, there's a lot of theological writing that addresses exactly these points.

    If we ignore all that, then we're the ones who end up looking stupid and ignorant.

  3. I have a related observation. I have spent most of my life in evangelical churches. In such churches, there is often a significant contingent of educated, scientifically astute congregrants who would concede that the Adam/Eve story is mythic. And yet, in the preaching, in the formal and informal bible study, and (especially!) in Sunday School, it is always talked about as if historical fact. So, while lip service is given to what science demands (the story is a myth), that concession is in practice irrelevant - it is blithely set aside whenever it comes time to actually talk about Adam and Eve.

    I think this is due largely to tradition - it just feels too uncomfortable and alien (and "liberal") to explore what the story might mean as a myth. But, agreeing with Tristan, above, I also think it has a lot to do with a reluctance to (implicitly) "give up" on the message/theology of original sin, as it is traditionally framed.

    There are of course other biblical tales where science and common sense also impel churchgoers to want to "give up" on the literalist view, but they are often afraid to (where will it lead?), and so in many churches (at least in ones not willing to declare themselves "liberal"), there is a real gulf between belief and practice/talk/teaching, and a sort of undercurrent of intellectual dishonesty.

  4. Thanks for that, Dan.

    Some interesting comments on how religious people deal with doubts/questions at Butterflies and Wheels: