"Scientific" Literalism

September 2000By Brendan Hodge

Brendan Hodge is a Classics major at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.

Creation Rediscovered: Evolution and the Importance of the Origins Debate.  By Gerard J. Keane. TAN Books. 397 pages. No price given..

The “information age” barrages us with more data than any person could possibly absorb or synthesize. The sort of universal knowledge which was sought by the philosophers of the classical age and reached its medieval height in St. Thomas’s Summa is no longer seen as achievable by today’s educators. Instead we find ourselves in an era of unlimited expertise. Most people receive not so much an education in the classical or medieval sense as training in some specific field (usually technical).

The dominant figure in today’s learning is thus neither the philosopher nor the Renaissance man, but the techno-serf. Like his feudal counterpart, he is highly skilled in his own area of experience, but is not accustomed to thinking about matters outside his limited domain. When the techno-serf turns his gaze to concerns outside his common experience, he finds himself without an appropriate intellectual framework with which to analyze and systematize what he sees.

This lack of intellectual context in fields outside his immediate experience makes the techno-serf an easy victim for pseudo-knowledge, conspiracy theories, “new agey” religion, and a host of other follies rooted in the inability to distinguish what is likely to be true from what is not. This radical narrowing of intellectual pursuits results in highly polarized ideological debates, as people find themselves divided not only by their beliefs but by their inability to understand thoroughly what exactly their opponents are saying.

Nowhere can this phenomenon be seen more clearly than in the current creationism vs. evolution debate raging in our courts and classrooms. Christians with basic misunderstandings about the nature and methods of science try to judge its conclusions, while scientists with even less understanding of religion try to attain transcendent philosophical truths through “scientific” processes. Both groups then bring their cases before members of the legal and journalistic professions who understand neither religion nor science. Those few refreshing authors who show facility in dealing with both religion and science are lost amid media chasers propounding sensationalist conclusions. The result is both farcical and intellectually destructive.

In the introduction to Creation Rediscovered, Gerard Keane proclaims himself to be neither a theologian nor a scientist but rather a peculiar synthesis of the two which he terms an “Origins Researcher.” Given such ambitiousness, it is clear from the beginning that his book will be either the product of an unusually broad and well-educated mind or a desperate floundering between two disciplines, neither of which is well understood.

Keane begins with a thorough run-through of all the standard creationist rebuttals of evolution. He does not claim great originality, and most of his best arguments are lifted wholly from other authors in quotations of a page or more. Although all of these are scientifically flawed to one extent or another, the sheer quantity is certainly enough to leave some seeds of uncertainty about evolution lurking in the minds of many readers.

Once Keane feels he has cast sufficient doubt on the scientific claims of evolution, he launches into what seems to interest him more: the “scientific explanation” of the most literal possible interpretation of Scripture. The problem with this approach is obvious. The book of Genesis, whether or not it is accurate in the most literal sense possible, is a description of events which are — by their nature — supernatural rather than natural. The attempt to explain supernatural events through natural processes ends up seeming fantastical, whether from the standpoint of science, theology, or mere common sense.

For instance, he suggests the earth was formed in a black hole and later placed near a white hole whose enormous gravity slowed down the passage of time on earth to six 24 hour days whilst billions of years passed in the rest of the cosmos (allowing the light of distant stars to reach a 6,000-year-old earth, a standard creationist problem). In order to provide a source of light to divide night from day before the sun is created on Day 4, Keane posits a glowing cloud of gas which lights one side of the earth. As regards Adam and Eve, Keane considers it necessary that Eve be created literally from the side of Adam, but rejects as unscientific the idea of his rib being used. Instead, he suggests that God took several cells from Adam’s side, removed their Y chromosomes, and then caused them to multiply rapidly, thereby creating Eve.

The historical occurrence of a flood covering literally all land on earth is another creationist tenet, and Keane spends almost as much time on that as on the actual question of evolution. Rather than simply allowing the flood to be miraculous, Keane insists the flood had a scientific basis, and brings forward a set of theories (best described as ludicrous) in which a planet between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter explodes, peppering the earth with tens of thousands of giant asteroids. A crack forms in the earth’s crust “like the seam of a baseball” and a mixture of water and sediment sprays out at such high velocity that some of it shoots straight into space, falling back as supercooled hail. In 40 days he has the world entirely covered by water and all animals killed except for those aboard the Ark. This whole scenario displays ignorance of the most basic physics. Even if such a planet had exploded, such a sudden rain of asteroids would be impossible because the energy released would have not only vaporized all the water on earth, but melted the entire earth’s crust and cremated poor Noah in his Ark! In addition, the date Keane sets for the flood (judging by his 6,000-year-old earth and the Genesis chronology he provides) works out to 2344 B.C., several hundred years after the building of the great pyramids and well into the recorded histories of both Egypt and Mesopotamia.

What is more disturbing, however, than Keane’s nonchalant attitude toward science is his treatment of theology. To prove that Catholics absolutely must reject evolution and an old earth in order to be orthodox, Keane ties creationism to two beliefs: Original Sin and “God as the primary author of scripture.” The first of these in no way relies on biology or the age of the earth, but Keane is eager to make it do so, blithely writing off such figures as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas when they disagree with him.

Keane’s concept of God as “primary author” of Scripture is not what it might seem to be and is dangerously simplified. He seems to believe that a passage can be either literal or symbolic but if it be anything other than literal, it is in effect a lie. This flies in the face of the writings of John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger, and the Pontifical Biblical Commission, not to mention numerous Fathers of the Church, whom Keane either ignores or accuses of incipient Modernism. To back his claims he asserts that the Church has infallibly taught that Genesis must be literally true in every detail. In light of this, one can only assume that Pius XII and John Paul II, both of whom have asserted the compatibility of evolutionary theory and Catholic doctrine, are at best highly misinformed pontiffs. Indeed, by the end of the book Keane is ready to dismiss out of hand any Church authority who disagrees with him while at the same time maintaining that the Church as a whole is somehow on his side.

To the extent that Catholicism is a thinking man’s faith, we are constantly called to review our beliefs and seek a fuller understanding of truth. Catholics like myself have been asked by the Church in recent years to re-examine our conclusions on capital punishment. Catholics such as Keane have in effect been advised by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Pontifical Biblical Commission, and the Pontiff himself to consider the possibility that evolution is correct.

Because John Paul II acknowledges that evolution has become “more than a hypothesis,” it is incumbent upon those Catholics like Keane — who would rather retain a strictly literalist interpretation of creation — not to embarrass the Church by claiming the Church is committed to a teaching to which she is not. The dangers involved were pointed out by St. Augustine in the fourth century, and can be seen in the Galileo fiasco of the 17th century, which still has repercussions today. Rather, let us follow the lead of John Paul and “fear not” — even in a world that is increasingly difficult to completely understand.

Back to September 2000 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
Be the first to comment on this note!