Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Hector Avalos on the Wisdom of Debating Creationists

Hector Avalos, of Iowa State University, has a thoughtful piece called Why Academic Biblical Scholars Must Fight Creationism.  His reasoning is very simple:
...Academic biblical scholars are the best persons to debate creationists. The reason is simple. The Achilles’ Heel of creationism is its biblical illiteracy, and not just its scientific illiteracy.

True enough, scientists have done an excellent job in pointing the scientific flaws in creationism. However, the problem is that scientists usually don’t have enough knowledge of biblical scholarship to address or defeat some of the arguments creationists use to harmonize the Bible with science.

Scientists are not trained to recognize how creationists are distorting biblical texts. Thus, Jerry Coyne’s Faith v. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible (2015) does an excellent job of explaining scientific theory and methods, but one will not find any discussion of how most creationists are misreading Genesis 1-3.

Creationists in the pews tend to shrug off arguments about DNA, radioactive dating, and other technical subjects because they are not familiar with them. But one need not even go into these scientific intricacies if the Bible does not even say what creationists claim.
Those of us who are educated in a branch of science that bears on this debate tend to think that the science ought to be obvious and scratch our heads in amazement when people reject it.  This is especially compounded by the numerous instances when creationists go out of their way to intentionally distort the science to reflect things it cannot possibly mean.  I found myself in rueful agreement when a leading creationist was described as “horrifically, pathologically dishonest.”

On the other hand, these theological issues with creationism are not new.  Paul Seely, for example, was writing about the theological problems with creationism in the 1970s.  This has had no effect on the masses that accept the young earth model or those that teach them.  Why does this happen?

I think because learning curves are the same no matter what sphere of knowledge you examine.  Dr. Avalos comes from a background in theology, and has knowledge in that area that is far greater than your average church goer, who sits down, sings some hymns, and then opens a copy of their favorite bible, where there it is in black and white: God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.  Why should they believe otherwise?  In order to “get them up to speed,” it would require effectively the same amount of theological education as it would to do the same for the scientific aspects of the argument. To Dr. Avalos, it is patently obvious that people have misinterpreted scripture, just as it is patently obvious to me that they have misinterpreted the scientific evidence.  To the average person, this just isn't so. 


  1. Hector Avalos is a treasure in many ways, but I had not thought of him--until now--as an ideal debate opponent for a creationist. I would pay a meaningful price for a ticket to hear Dr. Avalos take on a creationist (I couldn't recommend that any creationist debate Avalos unless I had no personal sympathy for the creationist--it would be hopelessly one-sided for Avalos.

  2. It's great to see somebody of academic stature state this. I've been saying for years that creationists are better informed about science than about the Bible. It's easy to attribute to the Bible what actually comes from our culture and tradition. Great blog. Thank you.

  3. You are welcome. I tend to think, however, that creationists are generally ignorant of both the scriptures and science. That is why they tend to be dismissed by both scientists and theologians. It is in the cultural sphere that they tend to be a formidable presence.

  4. Maybe it's not quite as hard as you claim, Jim.

    First you offer an example of how the Bible is enculturated in surprising ways. For example: "Did you greet one another with a holy kiss when you went to church last Sunday? If not, why did you disobey Paul's clear command?"

    Then you talk about how eminent theologians--no, make that Bible scholars--have seen that you need to account for culture when interpreting Genesis 1-3, just like when you interpret Paul's command in 2 Corinthians 13:12. Augustine and Charles Hodge are 2 great examples.

    Five minutes, tops.

    Of course, for most YECs it's not about information, but about identification and distinction. Make this simple pitch in a YEC-leaning congregation, and a lot of dear folks would be wobbling on their feet as they walk out.

    My point is simply that you don't need Ayalos' erudition to make a cogent case.

  5. I think I was a little glib in my first comment. The point I am committed to is that I have helped some of my friends move from YEC enthusiasm to something more thoughtful, if not evolutionary creationism, with considerably less erudition than Avalos possesses.

  6. It is almost like there is this gut-wrenching paradigm shift that has to happen that leaves people with no anchors. The young earth and especially anti-evolutionary models are so central to many people's faiths that to show them that they are incorrect about these things is tantamount to attacking the very core of their being. It is absolutely unfathomable to them that they have been educated by people who don't know the first thing about geology or palaeontology.