The Bible Is Not About The Origins Of Things
Recently, while wandering about the internet, I encountered someone attempting to argue with the Bible. They focused on the story of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1–9), stating that the purpose of the story was to explain why people speak different languages and cited a modern theory about the spread of languages to “prove” that the Bible narrative was wrong. The actual argument wasn’t very interesting, but it did get me started thinking about the commonly held belief that the creation stories of religions are there to explain how the world came into existence and took on the form that it now has.
This theory was certainly advanced by an anthropologist who was attempting to explain the origin of religion. There were a lot of people working on this problem in the early twentieth century and I’m not inclined to track down who first suggested that religions were trying to explain how the world came into existence and became covered with living beings. Whether it was Radin or Levi-Strauss doesn’t matter — the fact is, it is now an accepted belief. Check the Wikipedia entry for “tower of Babel” — they take it as given that the story is etiological, explaining the origin of different languages.
If it’s true that the purpose of the story is to explain why there are different languages, then it is demonstrably false. This is true of most of the Bible’s narratives about the origins of things. The creation stories in Genesis 1:1–2 simply can’t hold a candle to what scientists have learned and shown about how our planet formed and has changed over millions of years. And still, billions of people all over the world continue to read the Bible and use it to guide their lives. (The origin stories of non-Biblical religions are just as easily disproved by science, but I am focusing on the Bible because it is what I am most familiar with.) There are a relative few fundamentalist Christians who claim to take everything the Bible says literally, but the vast majority of Jews, Christians and Muslims are aware that the creation stories in Genesis are not literally true. Clearly, these people are finding something of value in the Bible that is not disrupted by modern geology.
Many people imagine that people living in the past were less intelligent than people are now. This is not true. People in the past had access to much less accumulated knowledge, but they were not less intelligent. The authors of the Bible, especially the Hebrew scriptures, were clearly intelligent people — the entire Bible, especially the Hebrew scriptures, is a very well-crafted work, filled with symbolism and internal cross-references. The authors were certainly aware that there were contradictions in the two creation stories they included. I would suggest that explaining how the world came into being — or why people speak different languages — was not their intention. The Bible was never intended to be a science textbook; it is — and always was — a collection of writings by different authors, which were edited by very talented scribes, describing the relationship between God and people. Those of us who believe the Bible is true do not claim that it accurately describes natural events; we claim that it accurately describes how God has chosen to interact with His human creatures.
As I stated above, the idea that religions attempt to explain the origins of things was surely proposed by an anthropologist, a scientist who was trying to explain the origin of religion. This seems like a clear case of projection, one of the most common mistakes anthropologists make. The plain fact that the overwhelming majority of religious people do not look to their religious texts for explanations of natural phenomena would seem to refute the claim.
The creation stories in Genesis, as well as the tower of Babel story and others, are not attempts to explain how the world came into being and took on the form it now has. They are symbolic narratives designed to convey truths about God and His relationship with His human creatures. Science can neither prove nor disprove them because science is an unrelated field of study.