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Was Jesus a Creationist?

Post of the Month: July 2004


Subject:    Re: Can an Evolutionist Be a Christian?
Date:       15 July 2004

On Wed, 14 Jul 2004 13:11:24 +0000, William wrote:

> On Tue, 13 Jul 2004 18:45:27 +0000 (UTC), Richard Forrest wrote:
>> MurphyInOhio wrote:
>>> Christianity and evolution are mutually exclusive.
>>Christianity and creationism are mutually exclusive.
> Having ruled out the Gospel writers, Jesus and Paul (who all belived in
> the historicity of the Genesis events) perhaps you'd like to say where
> this Christianity comes from.

Interesting observation. I can imagine an argument that Jesus believed in the historicity of the Flood: Mt 24:38 - "For as in those days before the flood... until the day Noah entered the ark,". And Mt 19:4, where he says "the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female'", for Adam and Eve. What evidence do you have for Paul? All I can think of offhand is "from the foundation of the world", and Paul didn't address himself to a Jewish audience and wouldn't have had many occasions to refer to the Genesis stories.

But anyway, you're probably right. Let's assume so. Two questions, then:
1. Does their belief in the historicity of Genesis make them Creationists? And
2. Is their belief in the historicity of Genesis an essential component of their religious message?

I say the answer to both questions is "no". For the first question, it seems to me the word "Creationist" is only useful if it refers to contemporary Evolution-deniers, not to everyone who ever believed the Genesis accounts of creation. The defining characteristic of modern Creationists is not what they believe, but what they deny, namely contemporary science and scholarship. It's frequently asserted (by modern Creationists) that e.g. Newton and Galileo and Linnaeus were "Creationists", because they accepted the Biblical account of creation. But this makes the word useless, because Newton and Galileo and Linnaeus were unaware of the alternatives to the biblical account, and the evidence for the alternatives. Creationists today, universally and without exception, are people who are aware of the alternatives and the evidence and choose to ignore them, deny them, explain them away no matter what. Nobody joins the Institute for Creation Research because he's never heard of evolution.

By that standard, was Jesus or Paul a Creationist? I really don't think so. They were first-century Palestinian Jews, and the history they knew was the common heritage of their people, and they had no reason to question it. Even if you want to claim that Jesus was omniscient, and would have known if the flood was only a fable, there is no reason to believe he would have spoken otherwise to his followers. It was no part of his mission to teach natural science. He isn't really talking about the flood in Mt 24, he's talking about the coming of the Son of Man, and it's a vivid picture.

Which brings us to the second question. Did Jesus, or did Paul, teach that belief in the literal words of Scripture was an essential part of their religion?

Well, no. For Paul, see his letter to the Galatians. For Jesus, see the Sermon on the Mount. Murphy is fond of alluding to one verse, "Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled", as if this commands reverence for the written Law. He fails to acknowledge the rest of the chapter, in which Jesus rewrites the written Law, teaching as one having authority, not as the scribes.

The lesson of Jesus' disputes with the Pharisees is repeatedly the same, that slavish adherence to the letter of the Law is foolish, self-defeating, and blind to the greater demands of true righteousness. Paul's great message to the Gentiles is the message of Christian freedom and Christian responsibility in that freedom. I think it's a damned shame when people like Murphy, representing themselves as Christians, are willing to twist and distort those teachings into a gospel of ignorance and nihilism in the service of their own superstition. Christianity and Creationism are incompatible. Christianity is better than that.


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"That's Just Your Opinion"

Post of the Month Runner-Up: July 2004


Subject:    Re: "That's just your opinion"
Date:       22 July 2004
Message-ID: VQRLc.29572$

"JPG" wrote in message
> Never one to argue effectively I find myself somewhat disarmed by the "opinion"
> response (subject header) when arguing against pseudoscience (such as astrology
> or alternative medicine) or superstition (such as religion).
> Usually these discussions involve the credulous (and female) members of my
> family.
> How does one answer the "opinion" response? Usually appeals to scientific
> authority are ineffective as they hold to the "mad scientist" stereotype.

There are AFAIK two circumstances in which "just opinion" is a legitimate invocation: in matters of normative judgment, where the accusation is true by definition (de gustibus blah blah blah); and when one is stating one's own tentative position in matters of vast uncertainty.

What another poster in this thread told you is absolutely correct. "Just your opinion", when used by your family members in the manner you describe, does not take on either of these literal meanings. Rather, it is a euphemism for "shut the hell up". It is what J.L. Austin would refer to as a perlocutionary speech act as opposed to a declarative utterance. They are not making a statement about the relative epistemological merits of your position, they are telling you that they feel threatened, and that conversation is at an end.

Once -- once -- I got so sick of my family members trying to stifle conversation with nihilism that I embarked on a brief example, one that you would see in a freshman Intro to Philosophy course (where this sort of thing also tends to rear its head). I held a pencil in one hand and said, "I'm going to drop it, which way is it going to go? Is it just my 'opinion' that it will fall down?"

This was a catastrophic mistake. Understanding why this was so is important, for philosophical, biological, and personal reasons.

Each and every one of us engages to some extent in a folk psychology regarding the other minds we find around us. As social primates, we are hardwired to find persons, persons everywhere in our universe, and to attribute intelligent agency to a panoply of patterns in our stream of sensory input. This is the root of why we kick an automobile that isn't working (the car's doing this on purpose!) or yell at furniture we've barked our shin on. This is also why we anthropomorphise weather patterns, diseases, and the seasons. It's why we believe in an alpha-male who lives in the clouds and has opinions on our sexual and dietary habits and campaigns for George W. Bush.

Part of this folk psychology, however, must of necessity rely on projection. We simply do not have direct phenomenological access to others' minds, and we have to make some inferences (aided by our biological wiring) as to what the purposes and mechanisms of those other minds are. From an evolutionary standpoint, projection really makes quite a lot of sense; after all, SETI relies on "projection" of a sort in that we assume the senders of radio signals will do so in such a way that they would be intelligible to human-like minds. We assume that other minds "click" the way ours do.

It's not hard to see this kind of folk-psychological projection in various social groups. "Tough Guys" like gang members or jocks assume that everyone else is in some deep, structural sense "just like them", and so their speech is filled with all kinds of macho posturing and strutting, because they think that kind of behavior is just the "natural" way for minds to be. The extreme bigot assumes that his raw hatefulness is a common characteristic among mankind; the religious fundamentalist cannot wrap her head around the notion of someone being an atheist, so atheism must be "just another religious belief system."

Then there are people like you, and like me before my own ill-fated confrontation with my family. I would hesitate to describe the mindset as "philosophically inclined", because it only has glancing contact with the actual academic institution of that name. I don't really have a name for it, but it's one of the first things I recognize in a person when I meet them: the attitude that facts and evidence matter, an insatiable curiosity about the universe, an impatience with casuistry and vacuity, etc. But you are still suffering from the limitations of your folk psychology. You are still projecting your attitudes about the nature of truth and knowledge onto them, and interpreting their "just your opinion" remarks as some philosophical observations on the relative veracity of your claims.

One of the most painful lessons I had, although it was also a growing experience, was the realization that day that at least 3 of my immediate family members, whom I had known literally my entire life, simply did not operate with the same cognitive mechanisms I operate with. This in turn meant that the disagreements we had been working on for years were not the result of simple differences in the evaluation of evidence, but because of a deep, fundamental divide in the utmost core of our being, one that unfortunately can never be bridged.

I was wrong to whip out my philosophy example with the pencil in the middle of that "conversation" (read: "shouting match"). I was wrong because I naively assumed, as you seem to in the way you phrased your post, that when they said "that's just your opinion", they were simply making a philosophical argument, albeit a confused one. Nothing could be further from the truth. They simply had their weird set of beliefs, and anything I said that challenged or even remotely, glancingly called them into question was interpreted as nothing less than an-all out assault. Because they are not "philosophically minded" (or whatever), they can't see that a challenge to a person's beliefs is not the same thing as an attack on the person. I mean this in the most literal possible sense. Most humans, for whatever reason, just don't see the distinction between persons and beliefs, and react to "I think you're wrong" with precisely the same cognitive and behavioural mechanisms with which they react to a literal, physical assault.

Holding that pencil suspended above the floor was thus a colossal mistake. In my mind, I was making a rather straightforward and uncontroversial philosophical point. But I was projecting. I should have realized that what I was actually doing, in their minds, was calling them idiots. They were no more capable of seeing the epistemological claim in what I was doing than a human is capable of seeing ultra-violet. They had already said "that's just your opinion", meaning "shut the hell up, this conversation is over", so the only thing I could possibly be doing must be some sort of unprovoked, mean-spirited assault on their beliefs, which is the same thing as a physical assault on them. No wonder they got angry, and did eventually progress to to more literal variants of "shut the hell up."

So your mistaken assumption, I think, is in treating your dispute with your family members as though it were, say, the dispute between gradists and cladists, or between nominalists and platonists. There is no response to "just your opinion", any more than there is empirical evidence that "shut the hell up" is false. That's just not the kind of argument they're making.

This really does strike pretty close to the heart of the intractability of many (but not all) creationists. Some of them are, to be sure, bone-stupid, though most are not. Some of them are pig-ignorant, but most are not. Some of them are malicious and wicked, but most are not. Some of them are quite insane, but most are not. The English language doesn't quite have the vocabulary to make subtle distinctions between insanity and certain... let's call them pathological structures of the intellect. I think the driving force behind (most) creationist fear of science and your relatives' "just your opinion" remarks is that science really does challenge people's beliefs, and most people are cognitively incapable of making the distinction between a challenge to a belief and an attack on the person. I have many friends of both the atheist and theist variety, and I find what separates the latter category from the theists for whom I have a real animosity is that underlying psychological respect for truth and curiosity about the world. I also think this explains why the Dembski and Johnson are so keen to point out that ID is "no friend of theistic evolution": the difference between a creationist and a scientist who is also a Christian is precisely this kind of yawning chasm of mindsets.

Because you have to live with your family, and because your family is not actively seeking to have their beliefs taught in public schools, and because they aren't shunning medical treatment for serious ailments, your best approach is to simply accept the fact that they are fundamentally, biologically incapable of changing their minds on the issue for reasons of evidence and logic. It was very painful for me to realize that I would never be able to truly contact or "connect with" my family in this way, and daunting to realize that dinner conversation would forever be limited to chit-chat about the weather and sports (but for God's sake, not politics, religion, science, philosophy, or art!). It's simply not worth the confrontation. I'm afraid you'll just have to learn to make your peace with it too.

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