Friday, October 19, 2012

Religion vs. Science, the Vast Gulf Part Three: Dust of the Ground

Last night, a big dust storm blew across Oklahoma. It was visible from outer space, and brought precious topsoil from Nebraska. It has been about seventy years since Hugh Hammond Bennett convinced the Senate to establish what was then called the Soil Conservation Service. Have we learned anything?

I now continue my series about the many ways in which modern science differs from the Biblical worldview--a series that does not include any discussion of evolution. The first essay is here and the second is here.

Most biology courses begin with atoms and molecules. Organisms are mostly made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorus, organized mostly into carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. You don’t usually hear any religious people objecting to this. But they should, if they are Biblical literalists.

Genesis 2 describes the creation of man (and later of woman, after he created the animals). And God made man from the dust of the ground. One time, back when I was a theistic evolutionist but a Christian believer, I taught in a Sunday class that this could include organic molecules. A creationist in the class said that this was not so; dust is dust, that is, very fine soil particles blowing in the wind. Not DNA, proteins, and such.

Well guess what. The dust of the ground consists of very different atoms from organic sources. The dust of the ground consists mostly of silicon and oxygen. You cannot take a handful of dust and turn it into an organism without changing the atoms.

And then there is the breath of life. Genesis 2 says that God breathed the breath of life into the lump of clay and made it a living soul. Now, both of the main Hebrew words (ruach for breath, and nephesh for soul) are broadly interpretable. Ruach (Greek: pneuma) can mean breath, wind, or spirit. Nephesh can mean body or soul. But to a literalist, it should be disturbing to realize that life results from the production of ATP by mitochondria. “Breath of life” and “metabolism by mitochondria” can be forced to reconcile, but this is not how the ancient mind thought of life.

One could say that Genesis 2 says that God made humans from pre-existing organic matter—actually, from pre-existing hominins. Many religious people use this as a way of reconciling Genesis with human evolution. But this is not satisfactory to a literalist creationist. How can a creationist accept biochemistry?

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