When it comes right down to it, the tensions between science and biblical literalism boil down to epistemology: how do we go about knowing things, and when is it reasonable to say, “I know something”? In this, the scientist, in his or her epistemic practice, is very different from the theologian. Unlike the theologian—who sees virtue in a person committing to a hypothesis absent evidence—the scientist works to be objective and rely on evidence. The scientist, in other words, attempts to be a dispassionate and rational practitioner of critical thinking and hypothesis testing. He or she tries to go where the evidence leads, not where his or her prejudices lead. It’s what a scientist is trained to do: it’s the scientist’s ideal. Indeed, science emerged in the 17th century as a reaction to the epistemic impasses that theologians had run up against. It was in that century that people really started insisting that there has got to be a better way to get at the truth of things.
And, of course, there is. It’s called the scientific method. Now, in the 21st century, going to the scientific community on a matter is like meeting—on learning that you have a serious disease—with a panel of doctors: it’s something that one does when it’s important to focus, gather evidence, and think clearly about options. There’s a reason, for example, that the President of the United States has scientific advisors, but not theological advisors. One group can offer the President conclusions based on evidence; the other cannot.
The scientific enterprise—in its innovative methodology, its commitment to honesty in dialogue, and its respect for the mind—is arguably the greatest and most noble thing that human beings have ever tried to do together. That scientists inconsistently live up to their own high ideals is not a reason to think that the enterprise itself is flawed or that it’s just another humdrum human activity that gets things wrong at about the same rate that other human activities get things wrong. Prior to the arrival, in the 17th century, of Baconian science, the world was a far, far poorer place (intellectually and materially). Now, the things that we can be confident about (in terms of how our world really is) have risen exponentially.
And so the chief problem that I have with young earth creationism is that it doesn’t acknowledge science’s historic and game-changing epistemic power. Instead, it reifies a retrograde epistemic method and makes it the “true knowledge trump card”: the young earth creationist looks in the opening chapters of an ancient Bronze Age text (Genesis), reads them for scientific information (even as they show genre markers for being poetic/literary constructions), and then uses what is found there to contradict, critique, and cast aspersions upon an epistemic method that actually works (science).
To be a young earth creationist is to insist that the whole edifice that science has built up since the Baconian Revolution is largely—in fact, spectacularly—wrong. By the young earth creationist’s lights, the high hopes that Francis Bacon placed upon the scientific method have proved disappointing. In its actual functioning, science, far from bringing us to greater truths, too frequently blinds humanity. In this sense, it is a historic failure. And it has failed because of sociology. Bacon’s dream of an objective scientific community has proven to be a mirage. Like all utopian projects, science has never properly taken into account original sin: how pride, hubris, the will to power, and the evil inclination can distort perceptions and conclusions, and poison the direction of social groups. The result is that the scientific community, playing off its cache of authority and aura of expertise, has displaced the clergy as the purveyor of a new and delusional orthodoxy: evolution. The biases of alpha-male scientists, and the pressures that they have put upon junior scientists to conform to this orthodoxy, overwhelm any sane resistance from within the scientific community itself.
Because of this entrenched evolutionary dogma, the scientific community (again, according to the young earth creationist) has not only failed to interpret correctly the geological features laid down by Noah’s global flood, it has also failed to track properly human languages back to the Tower of Babel. And it has mistakenly traced the first people back to Africa (when we know from the Bible that God placed the first humans in the Garden of Eden between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia, and radiated the human family out from there). Science has also got it wrong concerning the origin of the cosmos, the age of the earth, and the origin of species (to name just three more of science’s breathtaking bloopers). Put bluntly, a concerted effort by the scientific community to apply scientific methodology to the fields of biology, physics, geology, and astronomy have yielded dominant paradigms that bear no relationship to reality. Bacon’s dream of science removing blinders from humanity’s eyes was nice in theory, but a catastrophe in practice. Contemporary scientists are now so confused, they even think that the dinosaurs died from a meteor impact and that the continents drift. Reading the Bible literally, however, we know that such things cannot possibly be true. The Bible achieves what science has thus far been unable to: it gives people a true correspondence with reality. In other words, the Bible is the sole epistemic method that gets you the right answer 100% of the time. Science, by contrast, consistently errs where it counts, and errs dramatically. That is the young earth creationist’s thesis in a nutshell.
Does that sound right to you?
Isn’t the most parsimonious explanation for the tensions between science and biblical literalism this: the epistemic method practiced by the biblical literalist is simply wrong?