Why Creationists Aren’t Wrong

The Huffington Post surprised and upset many readers recently by publishing a blog post by Discovery Institute senior fellow David Klinghoffer linking Hitler to Darwin. While most liberals would regard the post as creationist propaganda, it can at least open the door for an acknowledgement of how deep and serious this issue is for creationists; and why their intuition, just as often, is more deeply right than they may know.  

As many biblical literalists maintain, evolution says there is no plan (or Planner) for life; it’s random, just one damned thing after another, everything passing and changing (except maybe things like sharks, horseshoe crabs, and cockroaches). Nothing’s permanent, nothing is special, including us. They contrast this with the story that God—who created the whole universe—created us as the center of his concern, and gave us dominion over everything on Earth. Or as Ann Coulter so characteristically put it: “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.’” With or without the moral vulgarity, it’s hard to beat a story that says the Creator of the whole universe made it for our benefit, and loves us as a Heavenly Father.  

To many, these efforts by the creationists are the last desperate gasp of a religion born within an ancient and naive picture of the universe as a completely local affair. In what’s called the “three-story universe,” Earth was flat like a pizza. Heaven was “up” above the firmament, which was made of rock; the Greeks had their strongest god holding it up. Hell was “down,” and was a place of hellfire and brimstone, as anyone could see just by watching the awful stuff shooting out of volcanoes. This is the worldview within which the heavens could open, and a Voice proclaim that Jesus was His son, in whom he was much pleased, or within which Jesus could “descend” to hell.

When that worldview died—we now live in a universe without an “up” or “down”—so did the literal coherence of the religions born within it. Seen in this light, some of the creationists’ most hysterical claims (Adam rode a dinosaur?) make perfect psychological sense, as a desperate attempt at “bargaining” which could let them believe their salvation story could still be credible in our modern world. In Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ “Five stages of grief” model, bargaining is the last stop before falling off the cliff of deeply held beliefs that are no longer tenable. We’ll make almost any bargain to avoid the desperation of having no story to make sense of our lives, losses, and loves.  

There is also a deeper dimension—ancient, poignant, and now sad—to the denial of evolution. Religious thinkers in the Western Bible-based religions have known for over two thousand years that if Chance is given any role at all in determining things, then God has no significant role. This was the core of the Greek philosophy of Epicureanism, which held that we can plan and work, and accomplish some good things, but nothing and no one controls events, for Chance has its way with us all. The Jews used the word apikoros (“Epicurean”) as a term for the most vile apostasy. But long before Epicurus (341-270 BCE), Greek mythology had proclaimed the goddess Tykhe (Chance) as sovereign of all the gods, “for she alone disposes all things as she wills.”  

Epicureanism (meaning the worldview that gives Chance that kind of “sovereign” role) has always been the mortal philosophical enemy of our biblical religions. Evolution is just the latest widely accepted perspective that gives Chance an essential role in how life came about and continues to change.  

At stake for the Creationists is a fundamental question: Is God in charge of history, or does Chance play a role? If Chance plays a role, then God is not in charge. And if God is not in charge, why bother? The Creationists’ intuition is correct: the contest between the “God of history” and Chance is a win-lose scenario. But it does seem very clear (at least to most scientists) that Chance is a fundamental quirk: in the evolution of life, religions, and our many understandings of the symbol “God.”

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