Friday, February 05, 2016

Evolution is Not Incompatible With Religion, Part 1 - Why Literalism Is Wrong

I'm getting really sick of Creationists. And the thing that especially bothers me is how they equate creationism with Christianity and evolution with Atheism.

Well, there are plenty of Christians who believe in evolution, my own parents included. You don't have to hide your head in the sand and ignore the overwhelming evidence in favour of evolution, just to keep your belief in God. You can instead see evolution as the tool that God used to make all life, including us.

A related idea is the idea of taking the Bible literally, thinking every bit of it is the literal word of God. Which is quite frankly ridiculous, given the history of the Bible and its' stories.

When I was a kid, at some sort of summer camp (might have been Girl Guides, I can't remember), one of the camp leaders led us in a game called 'telephone'. In that game, the kids sit in a row, and the teacher hands the first kid in line a note. The kid reads the note and whispers what it says, word for word, in the ear of the kid beside him or her. Each kid down the line then whispers the message to the next kid, doing their best to copy it precisely.

Of course, the message seldom comes through exactly the same. Every single time we played this game, the message was changed - sometimes it was almost unrecognisable. And the same must be true of the Bible.

Historians are not certain exactly when the books of the Old Testament were written. We do know that by the time they were first written down, most of the tales they contained were already very old. Before the Bible was written, these tales were passed down by oral tradition. And no matter how precisely people tried to maintain these stories, the game of telephone shows us what happens when a message is passed from person to person orally - it gets changed.

Even siblings can disagree on what happened during a memorable childhood event - neither of them lying, but instead simply remembering the same events differently. And this can be seen in the New Testament, which was written by a mix of the Apostles and some of the early Christians. Most, if not all, of the New Testament was written many years after Jesus' death. Even the parts written by the original twelve Apostles don't all agree, just as any story told by many people will not perfectly agree. And other parts were written by men who had joined the church later, such as the Apostle Paul (who was not one of the original twelve).

Furthermore, the Bible was not written in English. The Old Testament was written in Old Hebrew, the language of the Israelites at the time, and the New Testament was written in Koine Greek (an older form of Greek, which was used in the eastern half of the Roman Empire during the time of Jesus). Both testaments were translated into Latin in 400 AD (though Greek translations of the Old Testament were available, the Hebrew version was used, as it was felt to be more accurate).

This Latin version continued to be used throughout the Middle Ages, long past the death of Latin as a living language (which meant there were only second-language speakers of Latin). During that time, translation of the Bible was forbidden, for fear that a Bible that could be read by laypeople would be misinterpreted by them. Although a few translators broke this rule, it was not until 1604 that the most widely accepted English Bible, the King James Bible, was written, translating from the Latin version.

In 1604, of course, English was spoken differently than it is now. This was during the lifetime of Shakespeare, and just as many people today find Shakespeare's plays hard to understand, they have similar issues with the King James Bible. So many versions of the Bible today have been translated yet again, into a more modern form of English, using the King James Bible as a base.

So, the Bibles owned by most people today are either a translation of a translation, or a translation of a translation of a translation! This is important because translations are also a source of error. Many concepts don't map perfectly across languages. I'm French-English bilingual, and I can think of some examples where French concepts don't map perfectly to English - for example, there are certain verb tenses that are not shared across the two languages. (A more relevant example is that in the form of Greek used in the New Testament, homosexuality and pedophilia are both described by the same word, arsenokoitai, making it unclear whether the Apostle Paul condemned gays, pedophiles, or both.) The more distantly two languages are related, the worse this incomparability becomes. While Greek, Latin and English are all Indo-European languages, Hebrew is a Semitic language, so the Old Testament Hebrew->Latin translation must have been especially tricky. This makes any literal interpretation of the English Bible especially prone to error.

Besides that, from the quotes of Jesus' parables, it's clear that Jesus did not speak literally. When he talked about a man sowing seeds that either grew or failed to grow, he wasn't just giving farming advice - he was drawing an analogy between seeds and believers. Since Jesus' parables are so clearly intended to be interpreted rather than taken literally, why would we expect the rest of God's word to be literal? Why can't Old Testament tales be just as figurative as Jesus' parables?

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