The similarities of creationists and atheists
Regular Network Norwich & Norfolk columnist James Knight continues his theme of psychological patterns and sees the similarities in the thinking of new-wave atheists and creationists.
Continuing the theme of psychological patterns – those who have been tuning in so far in this series will have seen that we’ve already reached a pretty important realisation regarding not just the polarising power of these psychological driving forces, but also the internal conflict they cause individuals too. My realisation that the new-wave atheists and the creationists are displaying the same psychological patterns (albeit with different matters of detail in their sound-bytes) has been particularly important in this project.
That the new-wave atheists use creationist material with which to bash mainstream Christians is absurd, and indicative of the fragility of their own case, particularly given that the contemporary mindset is unlike that of the Biblical writers, so any science issue are remiss. In fact, the differences between ancient Hebrews and modern Americans are about as far apart as one can imagine - it seems crazy to think that the Genesis writers were delivering a commentary that we could interpret scientifically five or six thousand years later. So the mainstream Christians (who make up the vast majority) find that their opposition from both sides largely consists of a similar, and pretty incompetent, group. In that sense there is a further commonality between atheists and fundamentalists in that both seem oblivious to the power of the mythological narrative and all its broad resonances, and both only seem able to view the more complex subjects through an over-simplifying lens of black and white.
As those who read the recent very poorly reasoned article from fundamentalist Gary Burchnall would have seen, the language employed by the likes of the Answers in Genesis cult directed at theistic evolutionists is the same sanguinary and abrasive language they use on atheists too. Terms like “Putting words into God's mouth”, “Applying your opinion to scripture”, “Compromising God’s word”, “God means what he says”, “Ignoring God’s word”, “Believing atheistic systems” and threats about turning Christianity into something 'natural' are all part of their repertoire of dismissive intimidation.
I wonder if this is in some part due to the American influence, which as a nation has an imperial feel about it, where its citizens believe that God is doing something special there (exclusive to them), and that to be a part of the great awakening is to have the bestowment of a personal identity with God's word that requires no interpretation or critical analysis. I don’t think this factor can be underestimated, particularly if one bears in mind that the vast majority of this anti-science fundamentalism comes from America (or an implicitly American influence). By dismissing anything that has in the past been associated with church rivalry or even mild deviation while awaiting the full facts, they claim to have God’s direct authority in keeping their fellow men and women on the straight and narrow. Naturally, they have become so accustomed to using implicitly threatening language and hegemonic spiritual duress that those who can be manipulated must feel that they are authority figures who proclaim genuine authority in a world that's gone wrong, whether that ‘authority’ contradicts known facts or not.
That we have a Western world of superficiality, consumerism, spiritual tricks, and increasing departure from the faith makes them feel justified in lumping in things like science and philosophy in their repudiations too, because it isn't difficult to adopt a 'My way or the wrong way' message where the wrong way leads to any one of the un-Christian lifestyles that are exclusively at odds with Christ's teachings. Furthermore, if you can entrap gullible acolytes with creationist mantras that claim the necessity of an alternative to 'naturalistic' science, then you can probably get people to open up their wallets and purses too and invest in movements like Answers in Genesis and the Discovery Institute; institutions that lie to children about the natural world, and peddle distortions on just about every important subject. They are a minority cult-type organisation for which the majority of Christians are forever apologising or having to put the record straight. All this fits nicely for them into a set of sleight of hand tricks where genuine ignorance and delusion become entangled with the desire for power, control, prestige and leadership influence.
The patterns are all too familiar - they resemble the sectarians and the cults in thought and in behavioural patterns, and I guess that before long those who can manipulate others find themselves adopting all sorts of tactics that they would find quite contemptible in any other group environment.
In summary, the symptoms of this kind of Christian seem to be a toxic mix of self-righteousness (how I see God’s infallible world cannot be challenged) and self-negation (I’m not worthy to put my own interpretation on God’s truth), which makes for a pretty frustrating Christian fundamentalist. Thus, the mainstream Christian is really up against it because both atheists and creationists make their living by distorting the true picture of scripture by adding spurious literalism to parts of the Bible that the vast majority of their fellow Christians realise are not to be taken that way.
Furthermore, there is another important point, about which I have written a chapter in one of my books - about how the word of God is not static, but dynamic. One thing is quite clear - one isn't required to take Genesis literally in order to recognise the power of its concepts; just about every Christian I know has no trouble appreciating sin and salvation through the grace of Jesus, so clearly seeing Genesis non-literally hasn't impeded Christians' clarity on sin and the need for a saviour. That fundamentalists place so much emphasis on something that has no bearing on people accepting Jesus shows the first fault - but there is more, because I can formulate a question for which they have no answer, and it takes the following form;
What is added to the reality of sin and falleness in a literal historical Genesis act or event that would be absent in a mythological or allegorical Genesis expression?
You'll find in the cases of early Genesis, the answer is nothing at all. In fact, it's fairly obvious that the reverse is true - were it a literal event it would diminish much of the power of the concept. That's the key word - 'concept' - you see, a concept is a thought or an idea belonging to the mind by taking the generic form of being abstracted from various particulars within the sphere of sense-data. They must realise that sin and being fallen apply here, and that they are not literal objects that can be touched or felt - they are implicitly concept-based, just as pride or happiness or generosity are concepts that are known by what they amount to in the context of literal scenarios.
By imputing a literalism or a physicalism to sin there is the question of the difference between perceptions and conceptions. A sinful action like, say, witnessing a murder is an action that is implicitly 'perceived' by the witness, because it fits the criteria required to fall under the sense-based category distinction. Objects like people and murder weapons have physical properties, their composition constitutes objects that can be experienced with our senses - they can be seen, touched, smelt, heard, and tasted, if one so wishes. And of course, there is naturally an overlap between perception and conception because the murder can be conceived in an explicitly conceptual form (like a memory or in further ideation).
Now non-perceptive aspects of reality are different - they are not physical objects that can be seen or touched or smelt - they are implicitly conceptual because they take the form of an idea or a mental abstraction. So take the concept of sin or goodness or generosity or love or beauty or sublimity - each of these falls into the category distinction of being implicitly conceptual, because they are not shared experiences in the same way that sense-based observations are shared, and they are not 'common sense' friendly. They elicit meaning throughout shared experiences, because they are concepts that have significance conferred upon them in commonality of experience, and communication of those experiences. For that reason it makes no sense to talk of sin being more than a concept.
Trying to define ‘sin’ without the conceptual form is as futile as trying to run away from your own legs. So all this talk of the importance of a literal Genesis is moonshine, because it fails to take from the account the most powerful part of the story – the power of the concept and its reification in actionable form throughout one’s journey with Christ. Forgetting the hermeneutics for a second and concentrating on the psychology that drives it - I have to say few things upset me more in Christianity than a believer who has been indoctrinated to the extent that he has suppressed his faculties of reason to the point that they appear dormantly locked in to the 'inner man' bursting to get out. They are not only a product of brainwashing, they are trapped in a hellish one-dimensional discourse that is stifling the development of the abilities God gave them. And they fool themselves into thinking they're content with this - but I sense they're not; how could anyone be, their continual threads and discussions about this are simply a subliminal method of trying to express the division within themselves. On the one hand all they have on the surface is what authoritarian elders have drummed into them - yet in the oceanic depths of their selfhood is an instinctively rational creature with so many facets of ability and creativity just bursting to get out.
And, of course, to contend that evolution militates against our being sinful or fallen is nonsense – it should be so obvious really. Any evolved being is going to be in a fallen state when fallenness is qualitatively measured against God. We cannot legislate sin or wrongdoing or imperfection out of the system; and of course even the angels bow to Jesus as Lord. But there is a bigger failing of literalism, and we just mentioned it - to stubbornly accept it as a real event and deny its broader conceptual implications is delimiting, because it shuts off the Christian from one of God's key plans for His word - its dynamic development in conceptual form throughout the spread of Christianity in every age, right up to the present day. Not only will God resource His wisdom in contemporary context by having His Holy Spirit help us invest new meanings in the concepts, He will use the present conceptual developments to plant seeds for those unborn folk that are to follow. It is no surprise that this faulty application of literalism where it isn’t warranted is yet another pattern that emerges in both creationist and new-wave atheist alike.
A similar thing happens in ethics - the biblical ethics are not literally history either - they are concepts that are applied to historical events (as seen in the Old and New Testaments) but that can be invested in with new developments as humanity progresses. That's why we have things like business ethics, medical ethics, environmental ethics, to name but three, that we never used to have, but were assimilated into present cultural zeitgeists with recourse to antiquity.
The concepts of sin and falleness work in a similar way to ethics - they are part of a foundational truth applicable to all of mankind, but they cannot be compacted into one historical event with one person because they acquire new contexts when added to different situations in different times. For the same reason that we find the true significance of sin in the power of the concept, we find the true significance early Genesis in the power of the concepts it elicits. To try to package all that power into a literal Adam and Eve is simply to divest it of conceptual power, and in doing so, you unwittingly attempt to rob scripture of some of its spiritual gravitas.
When it comes to a man in relation to God, a man in 2011 is fallen in the same way that a man in 1654 or 1729 is fallen - all of them can only rely on the grace of Christ for salvation. But how they relate that falleness to their own surroundings will differ greatly, just as how a man relates the ethical blueprints to his day depends very much on the period of history in which he lived.
It is on that note that I will close, because next time out I will be tackling the most difficult theological question I have ever faced – one I have been asked by another to tackle; in fact, the only one for which I haven’t managed to construct concepts that have to my satisfaction clearly defined answers.
See you next time
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James is a Christian writer and local government officer based in Norwich. You can access his current collections of columns here
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