In this post, I am going to do something highly atypical for a science blog: I am going to talk about theology. I want to be very clear about why I am doing this and why you should pay attention (regardless of your personal religious beliefs or lack thereof). I have spent a great deal of time talking to creationists, and what I have found is that most of them are concerned primarily with what the Bible says, and they only accept science when it happens to line up with their religious views. In other words, it’s not that the creationists are unintelligent, it’s simply that they have different priorities. As a result, if you initiate a conversation with creationists by talking about the science of evolution, you won’t get anywhere because they think that the science conflicts with their religion, but if you start by explaining why the science doesn’t have to conflict with their religion, then you have a chance of actually having a rational conversation about the scientific evidence. So, if you want to effectively talk to creationists, you need to spend some time learning theology, even if you aren’t religious yourself. So, to the creationists reading this, I hope you that will rationally consider the possibility that evolution and the Bible can be compatible, and to the atheists, agnostics, theistic evolutionists, etc. I hope that you will learn some useful talking points for having fruitful discussions with creationists.
The flood that is described in Genesis (a.k.a. Noah’s flood) is one of the cornerstones of young earth creationism. A literal, world-wide flood that occurred roughly 4,500 years ago is absolutely essential for their position because they use it as the “alternative explanation” for the evidence that the earth is old. Whether it’s the extensive fossil record, sediment layers, ice cores, or varves, they consistently fall back on the flood as their answer. Therefore, if you want to be able to convince creationists that the earth is billions of years old and evolution is true, you are first going to have to be able to give them an alternative interpretation of the Genesis flood, and this will require you to know some theology. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you try to convince them that the Bible is wrong, that will almost certainly result in them ignoring anything else that you say. Nor am I trying to say that you personally have to accept the Bible. Rather, I am proposing that for the sake of debate, you should give them the benefit of the doubt (i.e., proceed as if the Bible is true), and direct them to the alternative interpretations of Genesis. To that end, the rest of this post will be written as if the Bible is true, and I suggest that you use similar language when talking to creationists (regardless of your personal beliefs).
Note: To be clear, I am not personally endorsing any of these views or making any statements about my personal religious or philosophical views. I am simply trying to explain the best way to talk to creationists.
The most parsimonious interpretation is simply that the flood account is a parable. I have previously explained this idea in more detail, so I will be brief here. There are lots of parts of the Bible that are figurative or are written as parables rather than as literal, historical accounts (even hard core creationists agree with that), and there are many sections of the Bible that were interpreted literally until science showed that they could not be literal (the passage of Joshua that says that the sun moves around the earth is a great example of this). Therefore, given the fact that there are numerous passages of the Bible which are clearly not literal, and given the fact that some of those were interpreted literally until the advent of science, there is no reason why the flood account cannot also be interpreted as a parable, and interpreting it in light of modern science is completely consistent with the way that creationists interpret other passages of the Bible (again, see my previous post for more details and examples).
The second option is less parsimonious, but I often find that creationists are more willing to accept it. This interpretation says that Noah was a literal person, and there was a literal flood, but the flood was regional, not world-wide. At a first glance, most creationists find this argument laughably absurd because Genesis repeatedly describes the flood as covering the whole earth. Nevertheless, it is vital to remember that one of the key principles of Biblical interpretation (as set forth by creationists) is to interpret the Bible in light of its original audience, and, to the original readers, it would have seemed that the entire earth was under water. To them, the flood would have been world-wide.
Importantly, this use of the phrase “world-wide” is not at all unprecedented. For example, Daniel 6:25 says, “then king Darius wrote unto all people, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth” (my emphasis). To the original readers, that literally meant all people, all nations, and all languages anywhere in the earth, but today, thanks to the science of archeology, we realize that this statement couldn’t have actually meant the entire earth because there is no way that Darius contacted the Aborigines in Australia, the Native Americans in North America, etc. Similar verses can be found throughout the Bible. For example, I Chronicles 14:17 says that all nations feared David. Similarly, Deuteronomy 2:25 says that God put the fear of the Hebrews in “the peoples who are under the whole heaven.” Importantly, the phrase “under the whole heaven” is the exact same Hebrew phrase that is used to describe the flood in Genesis 7:19 when the Bible says, “and the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered.” Perhaps most famously, Luke 2:1 says, “there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed” (my emphasis), but no one interprets that as literally meaning all the world.
At this point, the most common, knee-jerk response that I get is simply to claim that if my argument was correct, then the Bible would not be true, but that is not what I am actually arguing. Rather, I am simply pointing out that we have to read the Bible from the point of view of its original readers, and to the original readers, these statements would have been true, even though today we know that they are not strictly speaking accurate. Further, consistency of interpretive judgments is another hermeneutical principle that creationists often stress, and this interpretation is actually extremely consistent. As I pointed out, the exact same phrase is used in both Deuteronomy and Genesis, yet most creationists interpret it as figurative in Deuteronomy and literal in Genesis, which is extremely inconsistent. Let me use two parallel syllogisms to illustrate this inconsistency:
- The Bible clearly says that King Darius contacted all nations: Daniel 6:25 “Then king Darius wrote unto all people, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth.”
- Modern archeology tells us that he could not possibly have contacted all nations but was actually only in contact with all nations of the “known world” at the time that Daniel was written.
- Therefore, the Bible is not in error, but this verse was simply written from the viewpoint of its original readers.
There are very few creationists who would challenge that syllogism. Now consider the parallel:
- The Bible clearly says that the flood covered the whole earth.
- Modern science tells us that it could not possibly have covered the whole earth.
- Therefore, the Bible is not in error, but this story was simply written from the viewpoint of the original readers.
The two syllogisms are perfectly analogous. Therefore, according to the laws of consistent reasoning, if you accept one of them you must accept both of them.
In addition to the fact that interpreting the flood as a regional event is internally consistent, there is actually evidence in the account itself which suggests that it should not be interpreted as world-wide. First, the Hebrew word for “earth” that is used throughout the passage is “eh’-rets” which can also mean “region” or “country.” So all of those verses that say, “the whole earth” in your English translation may actually have been read as “the whole region” by the original Hebrews. Also, this interpretation is in no way ad hoc, because eh’-rets is translated as “region” or “land” elsewhere in the Bible.
Another clue comes from the fact that Noah was told to use “pitch” on the ark. Answers in Genesis claims that pitch was from tree sap, but getting enough tree sap to cover the ark seems like a truly impossible task. Alternatively, some translations use “bitumen” instead of “pitch.” Bitumen is a petroleum-based product which was historically used by ship builders and is readily available in the Middle East. Thus, it seems more likely that Noah would have used bitumen. This is important because bitumen comes from sedimentary rock, and creationists think that sedimentary rock all formed during the flood. So, the world-wide flood model must be wrong if Noah built the ark by using something that supposedly formed during the flood.
The final piece of evidence comes from an apparent contradiction between Genesis 8:5 and 8:9. Genesis 8:5 says “And the waters decreased continually until the tenth month: in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, were the tops of the mountains seen” (my emphasis), and Genesis 8:9 says, “But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth” (my emphasis). If you want to claim that the flood literally covered the whole earth, then these two verses are extremely problematic, because 8:5 clearly establishes that by this time, there was land that was not underwater, but 8:9 uses the exact same “whole earth” phrase that creationists take literally in every other part of the passage. In this verse, the phrase “whole earth” unequivocally refers to a region, rather than the entire planet, and it is extremely inconsistent to insist that the references to the “whole earth” must be literal everywhere except this one verse. That interpretation violates creationists’ own rules of Biblical interpretation. If, however, you consistently interpret “the whole earth” to mean, “the whole region,” then there is no contradiction.
In summary, there is no reason why the Christian faith and the science of evolution have to conflict with one another. It is entirely possible to interpret the flood account as either a parable or a regional flood, and doing so is completely consistent with how other parts of the Bible are interpreted. Therefore, if you are a creationist who is resistant to evolution because you think that it contradicts your faith, I encourage you accept the possibility that the contradiction is only between science and one interpretation of the Bible, rather than between science and the Bible itself. Similarly, if you are an atheist, agnostic, theistic evolutionist, etc. I encourage you to really familiarize yourself with theological arguments, and when you are talking to creationists, make every effort to avoid attacking their faith (even if you personally strongly disagree with it). Based on my personal experience, you will be far, far more effective if you begin by convincing them that science and their faith can be compatible, rather than assaulting their faith or demeaning their intelligence.