In the Beginning, Man Pondered Creation

Fiala on ethics: In the beginning, man pondered creation

Fresno Bee, originally published March 9, 2013; published online March 12, 2013

By Andrew Fiala

The debate about creationism and evolution is clearly not over. Nearly half of the American population believes that God created human beings in their present form about 10,000 years ago.

According to the Gallup Poll, the percentage of Americans who believe this has not changed much in 30 years, going from 44% in 1982 to 46% in 2012.

In Ohio last week, the state Supreme Court heard arguments about a teacher, John Freshwater, who was fired because he taught intelligent design. Freshwater’s attorney argued that intelligent design is “a scientific theory that happens to be consistent with the teachings of multiple major world religions.” Defenders of intelligent design argue that there are signs in nature that an intelligent designer either planned or is guiding natural processes. Defenders of evolution will interpret the data differently. But however we interpret the data, it is not clear that intelligent design really is consistent with the teachings of multiple world religions.

Some creation stories lack an intelligent designer. Babylonian, Greek and Roman myths talk about the gods arising out of primordial chaos, with battles, patricide and violence among the gods. In those traditions, there is a struggle and elemental power but no apparent designing intelligence.

The idea of intelligent design obviously has more in common with Christian theology. Traditional Christian theology points toward an omniscient, omnipotent and loving God who created the universe. But the all-knowing and all-powerful God of theology is different from the God of the Genesis story. The God of Genesis is surprised by human misbehavior and the wily ways of the serpent. It is hard to make sense of an intelligent and loving designer who is so frustrated with his creation that he floods the Earth and kills everyone in order to start over again.

Many liberal readers of the Bible will claim that these stories are not meant to be taken as literally true. Rather, such tales are supposed to impart a moral or spiritual lesson. There is no denying the importance of fables and parables to warn, inspire and exhort. But if they are read as parables and fables, they lose their explanatory power and their value as a competitor with the theory of evolution.

Someone might claim that despite the allegorical nature of many creation stories, these tales point toward an intelligent designer behind the myth. But some religious ideas aim in entirely different direction. Ancient Christian heretics — the Gnostics and Manichaeans — believed that the material world was created by a malicious bungler. That might explain all sorts of problems, like evil, cancer and natural disasters.

Other traditions are not focused on creation. Buddhism emphasizes the repetition of vast eons of time instead of a moment of creation caused by a creator god and a final judgment or endpoint of creation. From this standpoint, time involves eternal or infinite cycles. Within those cycles, consciousness can evolve through a long process toward enlightenment.

How would we decide which religious account is true: that the universe is an eternal cycle, or that this world is a failed creation, or that an intelligent designer created the whole?

While it is interesting to speculate about the origin and purpose of the world, it is important to acknowledge that there is no consensus about these metaphysical ideas. Nor is there a commonly agreed upon method for deciding which account is true.

Critics of evolutionary theory want to “teach the controversy,” as Sen. Rick Santorum used to put it. However, the controversy runs quite deep. While it is doubtful that science teachers could reasonably cover the gamut of creation stories in their classrooms, a course in religious studies might help, along with a course in the philosophy of religion and the philosophy of science. Americans need more information about the history and diversity of religion and about the scientific method.

It might be that almost half of the population accepts a literal account of creation because they have not been exposed to the depth of the controversy about creation and design — even among the world’s religions.

Defenders of intelligent design may not want to open that particular can of worms. But it is fascinating to consider how our ideas about creation have evolved and developed.