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Everitt versus Midgley, Part 2

Rodin, The Thinker. Photograph: Frank Kovalchek, via Wikimedia Commons.

Popcorn in hand, I’m kibitzing on a dispute between two philosophers, Mary Midgley and Nicholas Everitt. In 2007, Midgley published a pamphlet entitled Intelligent Design Theory and other ideological problems (PDF), which Everitt is now criticizing in a forthcoming review (PDF; subscription required) in the Journal of Philosophy of Education. In part 1, I managed to address just two of Everitt’s criticisms. The first was about the definition of “creationism”. Although Everitt prefers a definition in which all Christians are creationists, I noted that there’s ample precedent for a more restrictive definition such as Midgley presupposes. The second, more important, criticism was about the connection between creationism (in the more restrictive sense) and Christianity. Everitt claimed that young-earth creationism is the “traditional position of Christianity,” as opposed to Midgley’s claim that it is a latter-day aberration, but his claim seems to me either to involve a fallacy or to be unsupported. Now read on…

I mentioned that Everitt ignores the fact that Christians often articulate in explicit terms what they consider to be central and traditional to their faith. I was referring to such statements of faith as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, which most Christians accept (in varying forms, to be sure) and which date back to the first few centuries of Christianity, and so have a strong claim to represent the traditional position of Christianity. The first two of these describe God as “creator” or “maker”—hence the justice of Everitt’s saying “all standard Christians are creationists” (p. 4), although there are legitimate uses of “creationism” on which it’s not true—but none of them unequivocally rejects evolution as a means by which or through which God creates. True, there’s no reason to suppose that every claim that’s central to Christianity is explicitly contained in such a credal statement. But surely it weakens Everitt’s claim that the distinctive claims of young-earth creationism are not so contained.

Two curious features about Everitt’s argument that young-earth creationism is a traditional central position of Christianity deserve passing mention. First, Everitt cites Philip Henry Gosse’s Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot (1857), which advanced the position that God created the Earth with the appearance of age. (Its title is from the Greek word for navel. Opinion is divided, both among theologians and artists, but Michelangelo, for example, held that Adam had a navel, despite his not having a mother to whom to have been umbilically connected, and painted the Sistine Chapel accordingly.) Gosse was a reputable naturalist—he invented the saltwater aquarium, was elected to the Royal Society for his work on rotifers, and was one of Darwin’s correspondents. But he wasn’t exactly a leading intellectual of mainstream Christianity, as construed in his time and place: he was a member of the low-church Plymouth Brethren, and, I feel confident, idiosyncratic in his beliefs even for that sect.

Second, Everitt quotes a 1984 letter from James Barr (1924–2006), “then Oriel Professor of the Interpretation of the Holy Scripture at Oxford University,” and, as it happens, a fierce critic of evangelical biblical scholarship. Barr’s letter circulates widely in fundamentalist circles, including Answers in Genesis, and indeed Everitt quotes it as posted on the personal website of a creationist in Australia, although the URL seems to be broken. Anyhow, in the letter, Barr states that the consensus of relevant scholars is that the writer or writers of Genesis 1–11:

intended to convey to their readers the ideas that: (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience (b) the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story [(c) Noah's flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark—in the original; omitted by Everitt].

The problem is that Everitt provides no reason to think that the “traditional position of Christianity” involves acceptance of Genesis 1–11 as understood by the authors (as understood in turn by Barr and his colleagues), and that’s precisely what Midgley was denying. To cite Barr as evidence against Midgley is, therefore, only to beg the question. (Later in his critique, Everitt cites Barr as evidence against Midgley’s denial that the books of the Bible “were never intended as literal records of fact” [p. 7]: this, in contrast, is not a question-begging use of the quotation.)

In the next section of his critique, Everitt considers what he takes to be Midgley’s implicit reply to his criticism: “The reply consists in denying that religion (i.e. in this context, Christianity) is committed to any claims about which science can be authoritative” (p. 7, emphasis in original); the ensuing discussion will bring to mind the familiar discussions of Stephen Jay Gould’s proposal to construe science and religion as non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), and indeed Everitt cites Gould as a precursor of Midgley’s. That’s a hard issue to try to adjudicate in a blog post. Fortunately, it’s not necessary to do so, because—as I’ve been suggesting—Everitt fails to establish that young-earth creationism is indeed a traditional central position of Christianity, even with respect to the single claim about the age of the Earth. (Everitt doesn’t mention its claims about a worldwide flood or about evolution only occurring within “kinds”; I don’t think that his argument would fare significantly better with respect to these.) Up in part 3: recommendations for the schoolroom.