The diversity of the planet’s many religious impulses and institutions prompted William James to write a book titled Varieties of Religious Experience. Even casual observers of the religion scene will have noticed that this variety includes a diversity among creation stories. However, any conflict between the varied creation stories is largely overlooked in a contemporary uproar between one creation story and the scientific accounts initiated by Darwin and his contemporaries.
The key conflict herein is one based around purportedly discrepant versions on the origins of Life. This is an old conflict whose fires have been fanned by a movement toward so-called intelligent design. But the old conflict between Bible and science has never been anywhere near to great as some preachers prefer to have it, and the intelligent design movement will likely face tougher challenges from the planet’s most popular version of the Bible than from science and law.
In the fall of 1999, Bruce Alberts, then president of the National Academy of Sciences, said controversy over teaching evolution in the schools had become “rancorous.” Writing for an online life sciences journal, The Scientist, Alberts pointed a finger directly at “those who believe in the literal accuracy of the Bible” as the major opponent to teaching evolution in America’s classrooms.
There is more than one version of the Bible, but the version likely to be most relevant to this debate is King James. This is the world’s most widely distributed Bible, and is favored by many who take the Bible literally.
There is widespread interest in the alleged conflict between evolutionary biology and King James, and not only in the United States, where it runs strongest. For example, in late November, 2005, a British newspaper, the Guardian, ran a story on the fundamentalist v. science controversy under a headline proclaiming that “America is Caught in a Conflict Between Science and God.” Many in America seem to agreee.
However, despite the pervasiveness of this view, a literal reading of the Bible reveals that the supposed discrepancies between the word of God and the word of Darwin are far less important than popularly imagined. One need be a religious scholar to find compelling points of agreement on the origins of species; the Bible is exquisitely explicit about them.
For example, the very first chapter of Genesis says that plants were here first (1:11-12), then animals (1:20), and only then, (1:24) humanity. Darwin certainly had no argument with that view. Even more interesting, and probably more relevantly controversial, Darwin’s inquiries might even be taken as scientific confirmation of this Biblical account.
In fact, a literal reading of Genesis reveals that when it came time to bring living things to life, God said let the earth and waters do it. Thus, a literal reading opens a question of whether evolution was a command performance, and perhaps the world’s first case history of sub-contracting or, outsourcing, or joint venture.
At Genesis 1:20: “God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life.” At Genesis 1:24, this — “God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature.and beast of the earth.” Darwin certainly had no argument with and posed no challenge to statements that life was brought forth by the earth and waters. In his view, and in the overall view of evolutionary biology since Darwin’s day, it is indeed the earth and waters that brought forth the living creatures.
But what about the bringing forth–i.e., the creation–of the human being? Once again, the Bible is exquisitely explicit in its account. After the waters and the earth had brought forth the lives of many living things, Genesis 1:26, states the process clearly: “God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”
Whether or not we take the Bible literally, two rich tidbits catch the eye Genesis 1:26. First, if we are really to take that passage literally, God did not say, “Let me make man.” Stating a point similar to let the waters and let the earth bring for the species that were originated prior to people, God said, “let us make man.”
Thus, God either “created” humanity in league with the likes of grasses and beasts, or the earlier life forms did it in response to God’s command. This is remarkably similar to Darwin’s view, and Genesis is not the only reference to it. It shows up again at Ecclesiastes 3: 18-21: ” they themselves are beasts a man hath no preeminence above the beasts, for all is vanity.”
Second, if we are to give the literalists/fundamentalists a fair reading of Genesis 1:26, God did not say, “Let us make man in my image, after my likeness.” He said, “Let us make man in our image and after our likeness.” Although Darwin would later phrase this origin of humanity differently, he would come to the same conclusion. Again, while the language of King James and evolutionary biology are not identical, it could be argued that biology has confirmed the pre-scientific view presented in the Christian world’s most-favored Bible.
However, only a heartbeat later than the passages of 1:26, at 1:27, Genesis tells us, “So God created man in his own image”
An apparent contradiction and a burning question raise their heads at this point. How can the Bible say, at one point, that people were created in “our” image and, at a later point, that God created man in “his own” image? We begin to find the answer by asking three questions: What does so mean, did God create man in man’s own image or in God’s own image, and what is God’s own image?
“So God created man” seems to be another way of saying “Thus God created man…”, by subcontracting the job to prehuman life. It is much harder to know whether a literal reading of “his own image” means God’s own image or man’s.
As for the question God’s own image, Genesis 1:27 is far from the Bible’s last word; further clarification is found at Genesis 2:7 “And God formed man of the dust of the ground.”
Life After Death?
If God indeed formed man from his own image, and if God did it by forming man of the dust of the ground, lowly dust deserves much more respect than it gets in the origins of life. Morever, if the Biblical emphases on dust are to be taken literally, the supposed gap between science and God is nowhere near so wide as many assume. Numerous scientists have been studying interstellar dust, including dust that existed long before our solar system was formed, as an originator of life on earth.
In Scientific American’s 1970 special issue on the biosphere, Edward S. Deevey, Jr. wrote, “What can be said with assurance is that there is a unique and nearly ubiquitious compound, with the empirical formulaH(2960)O(1480)C(1480)N(16)P(1.8)S, alled living matter. Its synthesis, on an oxidized and uncarboxylated earth, is the most intricate feat of chemical engineering ever performed–and the most delicate operation that people have ever tampered with.”
Therein may lie some hints on the concept of afterlife, and even on the location of Heaven. For example, the concept of human life beyond death is explicitly challenged at Ecclesiastes 3:19, where a strictly literal reading reveals a strong theme: “that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts: as the one dieth, so dieth the other . All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?”
The same point is stressed again at Ecclesiates 9:5-10, in a strong theme where ” the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished . for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”
But Ecclesiates isn’t the only place to find clarification on what becomes of humans when we die. Jesus himself offered some important clues on the location of Heaven, and I am much reminded of dust as I read through them.
According to Thomas O. Lambdin’s translation of The Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “It will not be a matter of saying, ‘Here it is’ or ‘There it is.’ Rather, the Kingdom of the Father is spread out on the earth, and men do not see it.”
In King James, at Luke 17:20-2: “And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation. Neither shall they say, Lo here! or lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”
Jesus’ wording differs in the Revised Standard Edition: “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
The place of chance
Leaders of the intelligent design movement insist that evolutionary science differs from their alleged “science” in that evolution relies on chance. In the case of complex organisms, the intelligent design folks insist that this isn’t plausible. Their view has already encountered challenges from the scientific community. And as Christmas 2005 neared, they faced a challenge from a federal judge appointed by GW Bush. But their toughest challenge seems to lie ahead, when they face down a Bible that many believe is the unerrant world of God.
Ecclisiastes 9:11 states part of that challenge as explicitly as any other passage in King James: “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” Darwin could have hardly said it better.
LANCE OLSEN is Project Director of the Missoula, Montana-based Cold Mountain, Cold Rivers. This article is adapted from a longer booklet, Profoundly Green, in preparation, which extends the argument from the Bible’s prescientific insights about evolution to its mandate for conservation of all living things. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org