I'm not referring to hell, although hell definitely enters into the discussion. I'm referring to the banquet hall of the Liberty Baptist Church of Hartwell, Georgia, where on September 27 of this year, United States Representative Paul Broun denounced most current scientific thinking as the work of the devil. The horned creatures, by the way, were an astonishing number of stuffed deer, which provided a fitting backdrop to Broun's evocation of the pit of hell as the source of embryology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology.
Broun's remarkable diatribe has been well documented and commented upon throughout the online community, but his remarks actually clarified something I have been pondering recently regarding the insistence of the evangelical right wing on a young earth. Broun gives the age of the earth as 9,000 years, which is generous compared to Bishop Ussher, who in 1650 published his chronology of the earth, stating that creation occurred in the year 4004 BC. (The actual cosmic birthday is coming up soon: October 23. Buy lots of candles!) But where Ussher was using the best scholarship and calendrical methods at his disposal, Broun is tying into something completely different. Follow me below the fold on a literal and figurative hike through the West Woods and past the gates of hell.
Despite my Dkos handle, I am currently living in Connecticut. I grew up on the shores of Long Island Sound, where rocky woodlands meet tidal marshes in an unending display of subtle beauty. Lately, I've been spending a lot of time in those woodlands, especially in Guilford's West Woods, where a wonderful trail system winds around and over spectacular granite formations. I am accompanied on these walks by various imaginary companions, about whom I'll write later, and my iPhone. One of my favorite iPhone apps is a field geology guide called Geology New York, which (fortunately for me) includes New Jersey and Connecticut. I consult it occasionally when I encounter some obviously new terrain, and as it turns out, most of the West Woods is underlain by a granitic gneiss, closely related to the famed pink Stony Creek granite used for the base of the Statue of Liberty. Some of this stone is a billion years old, and every once in a while, I'll reach down and touch the exposed bedrock, just to see if those billion-year-old vibrations run up my arm into my brain.
A billion years here, a billion years there, and pretty soon you're talking about the age of the universe. A few years back, I entered into an ill-considered discussion about evolution with a family member. This relative is a wonderful person – a hard-working teacher who has raised three children and held a family together through difficult times. Normally, I don't argue with people who deny evolution, since anyone who has ignored all the available evidence to date is unlikely to be persuaded by me. But since my relative is a teacher in the public school system, I made an exception, and I have regretted my decision ever since. I didn't harangue or criticize, but I allowed myself to butt heads with someone who was not susceptible to logic or argument, and I felt demeaned and ineffectual. The topper, though, was the end of the discussion, when this hard-working, admirable teacher said, "And by the way, you probably think the earth is a lot older than I do. It was created ten thousand years ago."
This floored me. The evidence for evolution is irrefutable, but it requires a fair amount of knowledge and intellectual effort to really understand. The evidence for an old earth confronts us in every highway cut, every beach, every mountain range. How could an intelligent, college-educated person believe this? More puzzling, why do they believe it? Why is a young earth an article of faith with so many evangelicals? In the case of evolution, the easy answer is "Evolutionary theory conflicts with the biblical account of creation." In the case of geology, the biblical evidence is much hazier – it took Bishop Ussher a significant amount of time and effort to come up with his chronology, based largely on the genealogies of the Old Testament – and there have been disputes about the accuracy of his system ever since. But neither evolutionary denial nor young earth enthusiasm is really about biblical inerrancy, and neither was Broun's rant.
In his presentation to the god-fearing deer hunters of Hartwell's Liberty Baptist church, Broun referred to the bible as "the manufacturer's handbook. It teaches us how to run our lives individually, how to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society." In fact, it does no such thing. Unless Broun is following the Levitical injunctions to the letter, or holding up David as a moral model for the young men of Hartwell, Broun is picking and choosing which parts of the bible he pays attention to, and how he interprets those acceptable parts. Is he really arguing for a monarchy? For animal sacrifice? For voluntary poverty? Well, maybe – Broun is pretty far out there. But for most evangelicals, the bible is prescriptive and inerrant only when it fits their basic inclinations.
Of course, there is a long tradition of selectively interpreting sacred texts in every religion, and creative interpretation always favors the mindset of the interpreter. But once again, why? The objection to an old earth – to deep time, in one of my favorite phrases – is closely linked to the denial of evolution. Without billion-year time spans, evolution could not have generated the past and present diversity of life. Again, so what?
We humans have had a lot to be afraid of in our relatively brief time on earth. Famine, disease, predators, scorpions, snakes, violent weather, droughts, and of course, other humans. It's comforting to think that we are here for a purpose, that we are loved and understood by a benevolent power, that all the terrible things that happen on earth have a good purpose, and that the death which we all face will be followed by another, better life. It's no wonder that we have developed elaborate belief systems, complete with rituals and practices, to help us deal with this fear. These belief systems are so powerful, so comforting, that anything which appears to contradict or threaten them raises that old primal fear all over again. For some, the theory of evolution is the ultimate threat to their belief system, and Evolution's handmaid, Geology, is equally suspect.
Relatively few of us in the West are worried today about wild animals, but to the already long list of feared things we can add pollution, noise, microwave radiation, overcrowding, and even more violent weather. I understand why, in these difficult times, some of us will cling even more tenaciously to the beliefs that give us comfort. But denying the facts, or at least the facts as we best know them, won't help. Denying that the flood waters are rising gets you killed: accepting the fact gets you to high ground, and maybe even prompts you to build a levee or dredge a channel or consider moving away from the river. Many of us have been successful in adapting religious beliefs to an emerging view of the world and the universe – that seems healthy and constructive to me. I think we can function without belief systems that rely on supernatural explanations, but that's just me. Excuse me while I touch a billion-year-old mass of granite.
If the bible really is the manufacturer's handbook, as Broun claims, it is the kind of handbook with which most of us are sadly familiar. It appears to be a translation from a foreign language, it doesn't seem to describe the product we're trying to operate, and parts of it are demonstrably inaccurate. In such cases, many of us put that handbook down, and try to figure things out on our own. Others might try to call the manufacturer directly, and get answers to the problem from the source of the problem. Good luck with that, Congressman Broun.