Myth, Metaphor and Literalism
The teaching of creationism with its proclamation of a relatively recent creation of the world and its denial of an evolutionary development of life depends entirely on a literal interpretation of the Bible.
And yet - there are two different creation stories in the first two chapters of Genesis. One tale directly follows the other - and they are different, both in sequence of events, and in the details.
In my view, the biggest difference is that in the first version, found predominantly in Chapter 1, man and woman are created late on the sixth day, after the plants, after the birds, after the fish, and after the animals. In the second version, the man (Adam) is created, then all the other forms of life, and only then is woman brought into the picture, apparently as an afterthought.
Thesis: Creation as described in the Bible is literally true.
Given the differences in the two creation tales in Genesis, the thesis cannot stand. The differences between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 cannot logically be explained away by any amount of exegesis. "Creation as described in the Bible is literally true" is falsified by the differences in the details of the two creation stories.
Thesis: One of the accounts of creation in Genesis is literally true, but the other is figurative.
As far as I can determine, this claim is not accepted by any proponent of the literal truth of the Genesis creation story. Rather, they combine the two stories into one - accepting Genesis 1 up to the creation of man halfway through verse 27 , then skipping to Chapter 2, verse 21 for the creation of woman (so as to have biblical authority for the fundamentalist subjection of woman under man) then back to Genesis 1 verse 28. What we have is pick-and-choose from the two stories to fit preconceived notions, rather than an attempt to consider that the two tales are different. They chose to consider as literally true that which is convenient, and simply ignore the rest.
The actions and beliefs of those who accept biblical creation demonstrate that even they do not make the claim that one version is literal and the other figurative. Nor does anyone attempt to make a rational case why either version should chosen as the literal truth.
We can reject this thesis on the grounds that even those who believe in literal interpretation of the bible are not able to support it.
Thesis: Both of the accounts of creation in Genesis are figurative.
To accept this is to remove support for creationism. This is what those Christians who are able to accept science as consistent with their faith believe, as do the vast majority of Jews. They can understand that the two Genesis creation stories, considered as metaphor, are entirely consistent with a 12 billion year old universe, a 4 1/2 billion year old earth, and life developing through evolutionary forces.
This thesis cannot be disproved.
Thesis: Both of the accounts of creation in Genesis are myth.
This is the overwhelming view of atheists and agnostics and is entirely consistent with a 12 billion year old universe, a 4 1/2 billion year old earth, and life developing through evolutionary forces.
This thesis cannot be disproved.
The difference between the last two theses is minor compared with the gulf between these latter two and the first two.
We tend to draw a line between those who have religion and those who do not. Those of us who disbelieve are in a minority. We should not disregard the fact that many believers are able to combine rationalism with belief; and these people, regardless of their belief in a deity, are our logical allies in the battle against ignorance and obscurantism.
- As one of our occasional challenges to literalist believers, we invite them to attempt this - logically explain the differences between the two version of creation in Genesis in such a way as to resolve every difference in sequence and detail and thus permit both versions to be considered literal truth. No prize offered, other than publication in Debate and Discourse for this article; but, if we are particularly impressed, we may award a Doctorate in Exegesis.