A friend of mine is doing her DPhil in Oxford. She's American, and out of term she goes back to her home in middle America. She recently went to see the newly refurbished museum in her home town. When she was looking at the displays on human evolution, a museum guard, who had been observing her, suddenly said "So, what side are you on: the Bible or evolution?" Whereupon my friend replied "What do you mean what side am I on? This is not a football game, you know".
I am deeply troubled by the incipient creationism, which treats biblical literalism as a serious intellectual contender to scientific inquiry. I want my children to grow up with normal biology textbooks, not with Of Pandas and People. If creationists win their lobbying efforts to make creationism mainstream in schools and the public sphere, that is a loss for everyone (including the creationists). Debates don't seem to do any instrumental good. If we are not going to fight creationism through debates, how can we - as public intellectuals - ensure that creationism doesn't encroach even further upon our schools and public life?
So if anything, debates entrench and further polarize beliefs. This probably explains Karl Giberson's attempts to debate Intelligent Design creationists sensibly have turned out fruitless:
The ID folk are now assuring their readers that their guy won; my defense of evolution was apparently pitiful: “Where was the new evidence?” the reviewer asks. “Where were the cutting-edge studies supportive of [my] view? Such questions seem profoundly irrelevant, given that evolution has been an established scientific theory for many decades"
So how can we stop the tidal wave of anti-scientific creationist beliefs that are flooding our schools and public life? For one thing, instead of debating the intellectual "virtues" of creationism versus evolution (a method that misleadingly puts these positions on an equal footing), we can point out that biblical literalism is a very recent way of reading the Bible, only emerging in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Augustine and Origen, as well as other Patristic and post-Patristic authors, insisted that some elements of the creation stories should be read metaphorically. For example, Origen observed that the day and night in Genesis 1 can't be read literally, since "lights in the vault of the sky [Sun and Moon] to separate the day from the night" were only created on the fourth day. If those lights were only created on Day 4, how can we make literal sense of "And there was evening, and there was morning" in the previous days? Augustine seemed pretty exasperated at the nonsense some of his fellow Christians declaim (a feeling that seems to echo with some people today)
Even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for a [nonbeliever] to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.
Also, as Mark Harris has recently pointed out in The nature of creation - a point that has been rarely acknowledged - even the staunchest Young Earth Creationist doesn't read the Bible literally in its entirety. For example, they don't literally think that the sky we observe is a vault (canopy) that separates the water from above from the water from below (Genesis 1: 6-8), even though it seems plausible that the author of Genesis 1 thought there was literally a vault. So why do they insist the days of creation should be understood literally, but not the vault? Also, the Bible has several other passages that have creation narratives (e.g., Job), which cannot be easily harmonized with Genesis 1 and 2. Indeed, even harmonizing Genesis 1 and 2 is a notably difficult exercise.
I find it ironic that it is mainly Evangelical Protestant churches who are pushing their reading of the Bible on believers, yet Protestants insist that individual believers can read and interpret the Bible as they feel it speaks to them personally. If every believer has authority to interpret the Bible, why willingly accept all the extra interpretation as offered by Ken Ham and his ilk? It is not without some schadenfreude that I read a review of the evangelical blockbuster God isn't Dead in Answers in Genesis (a creationist website), where the author laments:
In other instances, the Christians endorsing the movie are happy to accept the big bang and biological evolution as proof of God’s work in the universe. In fact, the number of Christians insisting on that explanation is growing rapidly, and this film may serve to cause an inflation in those numbers. Regardless, this movie may cause people to think about God, but it will lead them away from the foundational truths of Genesis because of its unbiblical foundation.
So perhaps we need to press harder on the diversity that exists within Christian communities, and stress the personal autonomy to read and interpret the Bible, rather than listen to pundits like Ken Ham (ironically, people who follow Ham and others uncritically think they are being critical).
Aristotle already observed in his work on rhetoric that people aren't just convinced by evidence and arguments, although these certainly play a role. Emotions and trust in the speaker also play a role. By just emphasizing the evidence, proponents of evolutionary theory present an uncompelling and one-sided picture. Worse, some of them alienate religious believers or agnostics who genuinely doubt and wonder what to believe by discounting their beliefs as ridiculous. I thus concur with Roberta Millstein that theist scientists and philosophers, like Kenneth Miller, Francis Collins, or Francisco Ayala are great potential allies. They not only show that is is possible to be a Christian and endorse (and produce novel scientific results in) evolutionary theory. They are also effective communicators that reduce the polarization that affects such debates and elicit trust that self-avowed atheists cannot gain easily.