The pleasant poetry of Genesis

the creation of adam

The 1925 trial against John Scopes for teaching the theory of evolution in Tennessee was the first U.S. trial to be broadcast on national radio and is still making waves. Today many of the states in the US require public schools to teach the creation of the world according to the book of Genesis on par with Darwin’s theory of evolution. I find this defense of Creationism appalling in this day and age and with our level of enlightenment and scientific methodology and inquiry.

While I was at the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden working on an exhibition called “Darwin and Darwinism”, I went on a research trip, and one of my stops was Dayton, Tennessee, where I visited Bryan College, named after William Jennings Bryan, the prosecuting attorney at the Scopes trial. Needless to say, this is a creationist college. But I realized there that these professors of science truly believe, word-for-word, in the book of Genesis. I was positively gobsmacked how educated, cultivated and responsible people can take an ahistorical, acultural look at the historical and cultural artifact that is our Bible.

Now, I think that people are entitled to believe whatever they want to believe. Freedom, including religious freedom, is at the very top of my list of values. But I draw the line at brainwashing under the guise of “science”. You can’t simply “listen to both sides,” and “treat both theories fairly”, side by side. Science is a process, and it needs to be allowed to work. This process has taken so long to grow into what it is today, and theories are its crown jewels. Dr. Eugenie C. Scott, head of the National Center for Science Education explains:

“Most lay people think that theories are guesses or hunches or something that you don’t have to take terribly seriously, it’s not such a big deal. Completely opposite in science. … When scientists talk about “facts”, they’re talking about confirmed observations. … Facts are a dime a dozen …  Theories are the most important things in science. “Theory” to a scientist means “explanation”.  And these are logical constructs of facts, of tested hypotheses, of laws, of all kinds of stuff that taken together and put in a logical, descriptive fashion help us understand some kind of natural phenomenon.”

Listen to the Scientists

YouTube channel “Listen to the Scientists”

Now, religion plays a much larger role in the USA than it does in Germany. Coming face to face with religious America comes as a bit of a shock to many Europeans, who think the USA is just different. But in fact it’s Europe which is the global exception to the rule: Europe, and especially Germany, has the most secular society in the world. It wasn’t always like this. The written word of the Bible is at our cultural roots. Just listen to the beginning of the first book of Genesis, in the King James version:

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”

Does it give you goosebumps? Hearing or reading a religious text outside the church is strange, isn’t it? Why is that? Are we allergic to religion? Is it irrelevant? Does it remind us of religious wars or recall the Europe of the Holocaust? Does it make us uncomfortable about issues of conscience as we live the lives we want to?

I don’t go to church, I’m not a member of a congregation, I don’t currently sing in a choir. But sometimes I miss that “home” of being part of a congregation. Thinking about religion is one of those open-ended, life-long projects. New-age bores me, religious sects scare me, but religious discourse, the kind that makes you think, that interests me. Religion is more than just community or secondhand words.

There is a wonderful scene from “Inherit the Wind”, a drama based on the Scopes trial, in which Spencer Tracy responds to the question “Is it possible that something is holy to the celebrated agnostic?” by saying:

“Yes. The individual human mind. In a child’s power to master the multiplication table there is more sanctity than in all your shouted Amens and Holy, holys and Hosannas. An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral. And the advance of man’s knowledge is a greater miracle than all the sticks turned to snakes through the parting of the waters. But now: are we to forgo all this progress because Mr. Brady now frightens us with a fable?

Inherit the Wind

Gentlemen: Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, ‘Alright, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote, but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind a powder puff or your pettycoat. Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline. Darwin took us forward to a hilltop from where we could look back and see the way from which we came.  But for this insight and for this knowledge we must abandon our faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis.”

Resources:

  • A study by the Economist comparing British and American attitudes found the greatest difference to be in regard to religion. Thanks to Frank Steele for presenting the study at the MELTA workshop on Americana.
  • Brilliant Bobby Henderson started The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster in 2005 to protest the teaching of “Intelligent Design” (modern Creationism) at schools, writing a satirical Open Letter to the Kansas School Board, demanding that his alternative theory also be taught. He explained, “I don’t have a problem with religion. What I have a problem with is religion posing as science. If there is a god and he’s intelligent, then I would guess he has a sense of humor.” Visit the Pastafarian website.

spaghettimonster

Learning English tip of the week

Turn off the sound on the “Inherit the Wind” video and lip-sync the text of Spencer Tracy’s soliloquy, which begins at 0:50.

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Anne

Teaching English for business communication skills, writing online for learners, translating, sailing whenever I can, from Washington, D.C.

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