Literalism: Some Thoughts on Nye versus Ham

I knew that the debate was scheduled. I saw articles about it in the news. I had no intention of watching it. But there I was: in front of the computer last evening viewing parts of the science versus creationism debate from a YouTube link. (I blame this on one of my friends who posted the link on Facebook. What was I to do other than check it out?)

On Tuesday evening, February 4, “The Science Guy” Bill Nye and the founder of Kentucky’s Creation Museum, Ken Ham, debated the merits of two views of the origins of the cosmos and human life itself. What I watched was very predictable. Bill Nye explained basic elements of science and the role of the analysis of evidence to support scientific conclusions. Ken Ham clearly stated that he has a different starting point: The Bible. He examines the world to look for evidence that supports his beliefs. Of course, Ham isn’t able to recognize that when he’s attempting to prove his beliefs, he’s not engaged in a scientific process. Science is the investigation of what exists. A scientific investigation begins when a researcher suspends biases and preconceptions in order to engage in a credible study. Trying to prove an assumption only functions to bias an investigation and lacks basic scientific rigor. That’s commonly referred to as “junk science.”

As far as the Nye vs. Ham debate, the presentations were polite, nothing new was discussed, and I suspect everyone left the debate with the same convictions that they had before the debate.

Watching the debate, a recurring question came to mind. It’s stuck with me since Tuesday evening: Why do people assume that a literalist understanding of the Bible is central to traditional Christian beliefs? When the history of Christianity is examined, biblical literalism is not an accepted doctrine. None of the foundational creeds of early Christianity mention the Bible in any way. The Bible was not the main focus of the Christian religion for centuries. Instead, the central message was about Jesus and living in a way based on the teachings of Jesus. Beyond that, biblical literalism has been called a heresy at different times in the history of Christianity.

The Christian Bible as we know it today was compiled toward the end of the fourth century of the Common Era. There were a series of church councils between 360 and 410 in both the Eastern and Western Empires as well as in Egypt debating the merits of various writings for inclusion in the collection of books. Two people who held significant influence in this process were St. Jerome, who is often viewed as the first great biblical scholar of the Christian tradition, and St. Augustine of Hippo. They both said repeatedly that the Bible must be understood with knowledge, reason, and common sense. Jerome favored what’s called a homiletic interpretation of the Bible. This approach takes lessons from the biblical narrative and attempts to apply them to real life. For example, Jerome approached the Bible by looking to apply basic teachings like, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” to his time in history. Augustine commented on the “allegories” in the Bible and explored the meaning of these allegories in his own preaching.. Both were keenly aware that the Bible contained a great deal of contradictory information and wasn’t factual. They didn’t expect it to be literally true. When reading the sermons of great preachers throughout much of Christian history, it’s clear that the approach of Jerome for homiletic application and Augustine’s view of the stories of the Bible as allegory were the norm.

It wasn’t until after the publication of the writings of Rene Descartes, who lived around 1600, that the first stirrings of biblical literalism can be found. But they were rejected, particularly by the church of that era. Biblical literalism was viewed as a contradiction to the doctrine accepted in the fourth century stating that the Bible is inspired writing. Being inspired does not mean that it’s literally true. It means that it’s “up-lifting” to the human spirit. In other words, as soon as biblical literalism emerged, it was labeled as heresy.

Most scholars date the popular understanding of biblical literalism to the 1878 Niagara Bible Conference. It was at this conference that a fourteen point declaration was made called the Niagara Creed. This marks the birth of Fundamentalist Christianity and what has become the Evangelical Movement in Christianity that we know of today.

In less than 150 years, Fundamentalist and Evangelical Christians have expertly marketed themselves as the essence of Christianity. Yet, their essential doctrines including biblical literalism, personal salvation, and understanding themselves as “the elect” would have been viewed as heretical at any other point in Christian history. Proud of their values to be anti-intellectual, they approach the history of Christianity in the same way they approach science: they pick out those pieces which prove their point and discard the rest.

If this were just a matter of personal belief, Evangelical Christianity would be a curiosity to me rather than an offense. But, as an organized religion, I find Evangelical Christianity to be dangerous because:

  • It is dedicated to making its own beliefs the policy and law of governments.
  • It actively works to create the illusion that a religiously inspired understanding of the world be taught as science rather than as religion;
  • As an aberration of Christianity, it imposes beliefs about moral issues like abortion on others;
  • It aims to limit the rights and freedoms of all women;
  • The literalist Biblical view supports the opposition equal rights to a variety of groups.
  • It has influenced legislation in African countries that is leading to the murder of gay and lesbian people. The Evangelic Christian religion is active in preventing children from being taught about cultural diversity while also working to stop the implementation of anti-bullying programs in schools.

In the end, I don’t view people like Ken Ham as some sort of religious oddity or as a kind of cultural buffoon. Instead, I view the Evangelical Christian religion as very dangerous. It is actively eroding the foundation of the United States and our Constitution by replacing egalitarian concepts of “freedom and justice for all” with their view of a religious state. Further, its understanding of Christianity, which emerged less than 150 years ago, is a serious aberration of the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs shared among Christians for two millennia. They bring harm to individuals and society while they demand respect based on Constitutional protections for the freedom to practice one’s own faith.

While it was disturbing to watch portions of the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, it’s good that I took time to watch segments of the exchange. It reminded me how much in really at stake in the United States and throughout the world because of the rise of fundamentalist religion.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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One Response to Literalism: Some Thoughts on Nye versus Ham

  1. Ken Day says:

    Thanks Lou – A great ‘expose’ of the dangerous and deluded basis of much of Christian fundamentalism.

    I was in the grips of a fundamentalist group and mindset of many years.

    Thankfully I am free now and continue my spiritual development in a loving Catholic Benedictine community.


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