The real challenge to the biblical literalism held dear by creationists is in the Bible itself
An academic conference in Louisville, Kentucky, provided me with an opportunity to visit the Creation Museum in nearby Petersburg with a friend who is also an Anglican priest. Opened in 2007, this $25m museum's mission is not only to prove the veracity of a literal reading of Genesis but also to present Darwinism as one the most dangerous and corrupting ideologies yet known to humankind.
The museum is not for woolly-minded creationists. The six days of creation are six 24-hour days (no fudge there) and the earth is just over 6,000 years old. The cosmic contest is between the word of God and human reason. Intelligent design is dismissed as a mere concession to frailty. The museum is really the Museum of Biblical Literalism: Darwinism is responsible for war, drug abuse, societal breakdown and racism. The account of racism and the ways in which evolutionary theories fuelled notions of racial superiority in the 19th and 20th centuries does have a degree of historical traction to it. But the existence of all these evils, including slavery, before the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 is strangely absent from the analysis.
One of things that struck us as visitors is just how many dinosaurs were about in Eden – and there is nothing like some animatronic dinosaurs for appealing to schoolchildren, or to a pair of priests. Especially toothy creatures look benignly at Adam and Eve as they relax in what appears to be a prelapsarian Jacuzzi. Much to our surprise, we learned that the dinosaurs survived Noah's flood – it didn't provide a convenient way to write them out of the narrative. We should have known better: as Genesis maintains that "two of every kind" made it on to the ark, this included a pair of Tyrannosaurus rexes, blessedly vegetarian before the flood like every other living creature, clearly shown by the size and shape of their teeth in the fossil record.
That our world is now impoverished by the absence of dinosaurs is the result of either human beings hunting them to extinction (our fault) or climate change (definitely not our fault). The point at which we both needed a cup of tea was the short film explaining how legends such as Saint George and the dragon might well be a fragment of collective human memory of dinosaurs, since the flood was less than 4,000 years ago.
All this is easy for a smug Anglican like me to mock, although the recent appointment of a bishop for Peterborough who is in print as saying "what the Bible teaches us about history or geography … all this is to believed and obeyed without reservation" takes some wind out of my denominational sails. And I can already hear the "sky-pixie" brigade rushing to tell me that what I believe is no different in kind from the beliefs of the creationists and that the last 200 years of scholarly biblical criticism is just a form of cheating for people who don't have the courage of their convictions.
But the real challenge to biblical literalism and fundamentalism is to be found in the Bible itself. The first two chapters of Genesis contain two creation stories, not one. In Genesis 1-2:3, the earth, the plants, the animals and the first two human beings ("male and female he created them in his own image and likeness") are created in that order. In the rest of Genesis 2, Adam is made first, then all plants and animals, and then Eve. Awkward. This crucial and intriguing feature of the Genesis text is ignored in the Creation Museum presentation – perhaps reading the first 1,500 words of the Bible carefully is giving in to human reason. For those who believe as I do, that the Bible is be to read both as a historically conditioned set of texts and as the word of God, Genesis chapters 1-2 can be seen as an inspired elephant trap – or should I say an inspired dinosaur trap? – for biblical literalism.
By Judith Matlby