When your retreating forces draw back across a river, it’s often a good tactic to blow up the bridge, so that your adversary can’t keep up the pursuit.
According to an interview on NPR earlier this month, some fundamentalists are doing just that, throwing theological hand grenades at one of their own most important constructs — the story of Adam and Eve.
In the interview, Dennis Venema, an evolutionary biologist at nearby Trinity Western University — and here I have to say that the juxtaposition of “evolutionary” and Trinity Western, the local theological college which for decades was the destination of many of my own students, is quite jarring! — conceded that the story of Adam and Eve just doesn’t hold up in the face of the scientific evidence.
Venema is a senior fellow at the BioLogos Foundation, a Christian organization (with funding assistance from the Templeton fortune) with the goal “to reconcile faith and science.”
Specifically, he said that the literal existence of Adam and Eve “would be against all the genomic evidence that we’ve assembled over the last 20 years, so not likely at all.”
John Schneider, until recently a theology instructor at Calvin College, agrees with Venema about the First Couple:
Evolution makes it pretty clear that in nature, and in the moral experience of human beings, there never was any such paradise to be lost. So Christians, I think, have a challenge, have a job on their hands to reformulate some of their tradition about human beginnings.
Karl Giberson, another 21st century theist, calls the crisis of dogma over evolution “a Galileo moment.”
Indeed, returning to the opening military parallel, religious dogma (as opposed to faith in God, which is quite a different thing, altogether) has been in slow retreat for a very long time. Wind gods and river spirits, geocentrism, the “young Earth” calculation, and now Adam and Eve. As science advances, religious teachings adapt, abandoning the indefensible forward ground and regrouping further back.
That’s the approach adopted by the BioLogos Foundation in its official response to the NPR article. The Folundation’s two key points are stated early in their response:
…[T]he debate over the historicity of Adam and Eve is primarily a theological debate, one that is more complex than the [NPR] story lets on. All science can say is that there was never a time when only two people existed on the earth: it is silent on whether or not God began a special relationship with a historical couple at some point in the past. This subtle but extremely important point was missed entirely in the NPR story.
Here’s an admittedly satirical translation:
There’s this talking serpent … No? OK, well, how about the parents of mankind? … Still no sale. … Once upon a time there was this couple, and God talked to them … Tough crowd! Well, you can’t prove that there was never a time when there were only two people, and who knows, their names just might have been Adam and Eve. Could be!
At some point, whenever — and wherever — the retreat finally reaches solid ground, the last step is always: “Therefore, God.”
Not all fundamentalists agree with this backpedaling, of course. There are still ardent Bible literalists — the NPR article cites surveys showing that 40% of Americans say that they believe in the literal story of the Garden of Eden.
And prominent literalist theologians warn that without Adam and Eve, there’s no original sin, and that means that there’s no point to the Crucifixion — and that means no Christianity. These literalists obviously are not buying the BioLogos suggestion that Adam and Eve came along later in human evolution, not as our first biological parents, but merely as the first children of God.
It’s always a bit sad to see smart and sincere people twisting themselves into knots in an effort to fit their unalterable beliefs into a world whose real nature doesn’t accommodate them. I’m reminded of the growing body of neuroscience research that shows how we feel, then believe, and only later search rationally for reasons to support our feelings and beliefs.
In logic, this form of deduction would win approval from Aristotle and Descartes. Assume X to exist, then interpret everything on that basis.
There’s an elephant in my garage. No one can see him. He must be invisible.
The contrasting, inductive methodologies of science work to eliminate, or at least substantially to reduce, the blindering effects of lock-step deduction.
To a very large extent, that’s what makes science more convincing than religion.