A liberal case for why it’s OK to believe in creationism

Sat with a group of Ugandans, I found out most did not believe in evolution – in addition, most of them were also medical professionals and all but one (that I know of) are strongly religious.

The above constitute three facts ascertained through a couple of conversations. Facts which must be contextualized with another three statements: All of then are lovely people – they are all highly intelligent, well educated and I have a lot of respect for each of them.

None of this though stops me being slightly astonished that so many dismiss so easily the idea of Darwinian evolution (most hadn’t heard of Darwin). This was, for me at least, surprising.

If my face told of surprise though, it paled into insignificance with their jaws on the floor response to my assertion that I didn’t think there was a God (although of course I could never prove this) and that I thought some of the teachings in the bible were, at best, highly unpleasant.

A meekly worded statement in comparison to Dawkins’ comparable assertion in his book, ‘The God Delusion’:

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” 

Unlike many of Dawkins’ conversations with the strongly religious though, my conversation ended in good spirits. Importantly, I think we all came away from the conversation with a slightly more accurate understanding of the diversity of human thought. Even if I thought they were wrong and vice-versa.

However much I talk of the improbability of God, I cannot nor should not escape the importance of religion to both other people and societal structures here in Uganda and across the world.

This is a conclusion which is almost universal in its applicability.

In the UK, according to one poll, half of my fellow countrymen do not believe in evolution with one in five preferring the theory of creationism or intelligent design. When engaging, talking and debating them I have to be aware of their thoughts for the sake of friendships but also for the sake of open discussion and debate (something that I hold to be incredibly important).

There is a time and place for the Dawkins battering ram approach but I have rarely found it useful in my day to day life.

I think it important to acknowledge that humans are inundated with irrational beliefs and as such perform irrational actions. What sets religiosity apart however is the scope and impact it holds on contemporary society.

When I buy bottled beers because I think they taste nicer than in a can (although there is no evidence to support this) I am not hurting anyone or anything other than my bank balance.

Sadly, religion in too many of its current manifestations fail J.S. Mill’s basic harm principle – you can do (think) what you want as long as it doesn’t harm others.

Most people who are Christian – including most of my colleagues – would consider themselves on the positive side of J.S Mill’s basic harm principle and this is true for as long as you adhere to one basic liberal principle – your religion is your private affair, not your families, not your neighbours and not societies as a whole. It is there to be discussed and respected but not inflicted onto others.

This thought is contradictory though to the teachings of most institutionalised forms of religion who throughout history have bound themselves up interchangeably with power structures (monarchs, governments, schools etc etc).

If someone doesn’t believe in evolution, so be it – what harm is caused? If a school teaches creationism though, the harm to the children is clear – they are growing up learning in an atmosphere where scientific evidence is considered secondary to belief.

Worse still, if a religion teaches someone is a lesser person for their personal thoughts or feelings then it can actively encourages division and hatred – as commonly manifested throughout history.

If you want to believe a collection of (and again I quote Dawkins) “chaotically cobbled-together…disjointed documents, composed, revised, translated, distorted and ‘improved’ by hundreds of anonymous authors, editors and copyists, unknown to us and mostly unknown to each other, spanning nine centuries” then so be it – for as long as you don’t take those beliefs outside of your personal sphere.

The question is though; can you believe in the bible in an absolute sense without it impacting on others? Would the slave trade still exist if people took Exodus 21:7 too seriously? Or would we just of shrunk this global atrocity to an inter-regional one following the advice of Leviticus 25:44. Should we be putting to death anyone who works on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2)?

I cannot help but to conclude that only a highly selective relativistic understanding of the bible is compatible with many modern morals.

The belief in creationism flies in the face of modern science but, as far as I can see, the belief in itself doesn’t hurt anyone.

But the foundation on which this belief is often based – the absolute truth in a religious script or idea – is deeply problematic.  It is this belief that then spawns related problems – the teaching of children misinformation and the inability to debate because you believe in an absolute truth…to give just two examples.

People can think what they want, we all do. Belief isn’t the problem but the basis for beliefs and the actions it spurs is.

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5 Comments

Filed under Religion, Uganda

5 responses to “A liberal case for why it’s OK to believe in creationism

  1. David Heap

    Oh golly Steve. What a can of worms. 30 years ago no-one except the rare fundamentalists would have questioned evolutionary theory.
    As a starter – do those opposed question the DNA proof (for me and, well, most of us) of mankind’s spread from africa 70 to 50 thousand years ago?
    Given that, it kind of makes the creationist or creative design arguments hard to defend, no?

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  2. Wow – three well thought out measured comments with no trolling. Thank you to the three of you.

    @Christopher – I am in agreement with you to an extent. I find myself closer and closer to evolution because of the probability of it being true (based on my limited knowledge) – I think as you allude to (and indeed Dawkins states) the test is how quickly someone is willing to reverse or move their view in light of new evidence.

    @qohel… – Religions, like most ideologies have been used and abused throughout history. I tried in this post to avoid the extremes (Stalin was an atheist…so what?) – I tried to pull out themes, averages, the way ordinary people interact with their faith.

    @Graham – Thanks for your comment. On your first point, I was hoping to break down an absolutist myth…by doing this I of course picked out a few crass references there does not begin to the whole text justice – but that was not my intention. There are far more talented and well read theologians that can do that for me. I hope my views leave space for those who do want to consider the bible,in all its complexity in a wise way (one of my pet hates has been my inability to find a bible studies class that doesn’t start with supernatural assumptions that cannot be challenged).

    On your second point, I agree with you 100% and wish I had made the point clearer in the article. A tolerant society is one where you can publicly state your religion. On that note, it is worth mentioning that (despite perceptions in the West) Uganda is one of the few countries I have lived in where this feel possible!

    Thanks to all three of you for your comments. Appreciated!

    Steve

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  3. Graham

    Interesting article which I find much to agree with but a couple of quick points I’d like to make:

    Your conclusion that “that only a highly selective relativistic understanding of the bible is compatible with many modern morals” is not the only conclusion and does a disservice to the sensible and consistent approaches to the complex task of Biblical interpretation that have been developed (i.e. taking account of wider Biblical narrative, contextual understanding, reading in the light of revelation in Jesus etc.) By plucking a few verses here and there you are countering bad Biblical application with bad Biblical application. I’m not saying reading the Bible is simple – rather that because it is difficult it needs to be considered wisely.

    Secondly, it is a mistake to consider that reducing religion to the private sphere is respecting religion. How diverse and contrasting religious (and non-religious) beliefs are expressed in the public sphere is a complex issue with no easy solution. But the point remains that most committed religious adherents would not consider themselves respected if they do not feel entitled to consider the potential universality of their beliefs and to promote them to others.

    It seems its a funny and messy world we live in!
    Thanks for the thought provoking piece.
    All the best for your time in Uganda,

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  4. On the other hand, I cannot fathom why anyone with a rational mind can possibly believe in the theory of Darwinian evolution. Not that I am in the traditional Creationist camp either, although I do believe that God created the universe and you and I. Yes, Christianity (espe ially), as well as other religions, has been responsible for driving people to the most horrible cruelty and inhumanity towards others. But Christianity (and other faiths) has also been a prime driver in the establishment of social ethics and equalities, including the outlawing of slavery, in justice systems, and in countless individual acts of mercy and philanthropic movements and religious orders. There are two sides to most stories. But in ypur post I particularly appreciated your evident willingness to listen as well as speak when engaging in a discussion.

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  5. Part of the problem, I think, is that people cling to evolution so religiously. It is a good theory based on very limited objective evidence. But so many of its proponents hold so tightly to it as the poster child against religion.
    On the other side are creationists whose heads are buried so deeply in the sands of their institutionalized bief systems that they refuse acknowledge the sound acheologocal evidence that the earth has been around for a very long time. It’s far far older than 7,000 years. That’s for sure.

    God bless

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