It has been a while since I’ve addressed a New Atheist meme. However, whenever I find a new one, it rarely disappoints:
I don’t know know if there really are grown adults who really believe this. Maybe there are. However, far too many New Atheists get into their “Nailed it!” pose after making this “argument” alone. And their Inner Robert Frosts are most content. Don’t remember him? Allow me to remind you:
He looks pretty happy, doesn’t he?
The problem with this meme, like most New Atheist memes, is extremely simple: it gets the basic facts wrong. Specifically, it assumes the wrong genre when interpreting Genesis. As Robert Barron writes:
One of the most important principles of Catholic Biblical interpretation is that the reader of the Scriptural texts must be sensitive to the genre or literary type of the text with which he is dealing. Just as it would be counter-indicated to read Moby Dick as history or “The Waste Land” as social science, so it is silly to interpret, say, “The Song of Songs” as journalism or the Gospel of Matthew as a spy novel. By the same token, it is deeply problematic to read the opening chapters of Genesis as a scientific treatise. If I can borrow an insight from Fr. George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and astrophysicist, no Biblical text can possibly be “scientific” in nature, since “science,” as we understand it, first emerged some fourteen centuries after the composition of the last Biblical book. The author of Genesis simply wasn’t doing what Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and Hawking were doing; he wasn’t attempting to explain the origins of things in the characteristically modern manner, which is to say, on the basis of empirical observation, testing of hypotheses, marshalling of evidence, and experimentation. Therefore, to maintain that the opening chapters of Genesis are “bad science” is a bit like saying “The Iliad” is bad history or “The Chicago Tribune” is not very compelling poetry.
So what is the author of Genesis trying to communicate? In Barron’s words, an “exquisite theology”:
[T]he opening of the Bible gives itself to us in all of its theological and spiritual power. Let me explore just a few dimensions of this lyrical and evocative text. We hear that Yahweh brought forth the whole of created reality through great acts of speech: “Let there be light,’ and there was light; ‘Let the dry land appear’ and so it was.” In almost every mythological cosmology in the ancient world, God or the gods establish order through some act of violence. They conquer rival powers or they impose their will on some recalcitrant matter. (How fascinating, by the way, that we still largely subscribe to this manner of explanation, convinced that order can be maintained only through violence or the threat of violence). But there is none of this in the Biblical account. God doesn’t subdue some rival or express his will through violence. Rather, through a sheerly generous and peaceful act of speech, he gives rise to the whole of the universe. This means that the most fundamental truth of things—the metaphysics that governs reality at the deepest level—is peace and non-violence. Can you see how congruent this is with Jesus’ great teachings on non-violence and enemy love in the Sermon on the Mount? The Lord is instructing his followers how to live in accord with the elemental grain of the universe.
Secondly, we are meant to notice the elements of creation that are explicitly mentioned in this account: the heavens, the stars, the sun, the moon, the earth itself, the sea, the wide variety of animals that roam the earth. Each one of these was proposed by various cultures in the ancient world as objects of worship. Many of the peoples that surrounded Israel held sky, stars, sun, moon, the earth, and various animals to be gods. By insisting that these were, in fact, created by the true God, the author of Genesis was, not so subtly, de-throning false claimants to divinity and disallowing all forms of idolatry. Mind you, the author of Genesis never tires of reminding us that everything that God made is good (thus holding off all forms of dualism, Manichaeism and Gnosticism), but none of these good things is the ultimate good.
A third feature that we should notice is the position and role of Adam, the primal human, in the context of God’s creation. He is given the responsibility of naming the animals , “all the birds of heaven and all the wild beasts” (Gen. 2:20). The Church fathers read this as follows: naming God’s creatures in accord with the intelligibility placed in them by the Creator, Adam is the first scientist and philosopher, for he is, quite literally, “cataloguing” the world he sees around him. (Kata Logon means “according to the word”). From the beginning, the author is telling us, God accords to his rational creatures the privilege of participating, through their own acts of intelligence, in God’s intelligent ordering of the world. This is why, too, Adam is told, not to dominate the world, but precisely to “cultivate and care for it” (Gen. 2: 16), perpetuating thereby the non-violence of the creative act.
That’s all well and good, one might say, but what about Noah and his blasted penguins? Barron addresses this, indirectly, in his review of the movie Noah. Rather than focusing on whether penguins waddled all the way from Antartica before the Great Flood, Barrons sees the ark as a theological metaphor of the church:
During a time of moral and spiritual chaos, when the primal watery chaos out of which God created the world returned with a vengeance, the Creator sent a rescue operation, a great boat on which a microcosm of God’s good order would be preserved. For the Church Fathers, this is precisely the purpose and meaning of the Church: to be a safe haven where, in the midst of a sinful world, God’s word is proclaimed, where God is properly worshipped, and where a rightly ordered humanity lives in justice and non-violence. Just as Noah’s Ark carried the seeds of a new creation, so the Church is meant to let out the life that it preserves for the renewal of the world.
It makes no sense at all to read the Book of Genesis as a scientific text. Rather, the reader needs to understand the theological lessons the writer is intending to teach. It may be convenient to laugh at those who might read the book more literally than it should, but that doesn’t mean those teachings aren’t there. Whether they are true is certainly a matter to debate. To ignore them, however, is to not argue.