Would you Adam and Eve it? Why cre­ation story is at heart of a new spir­i­tual di­vide

The Guardian Australia - - Environment / Science - Cather­ine Pepin­ster

The bib­li­cal ac­count of cre­ation and the fate of Adam and Eve, pro­gen­i­tors of the hu­man race, con­tin­ues to in­spire artists and writ­ers. But ac­cord­ing to a ground­break­ing new sur­vey, it is also at the heart of a deep mis­un­der­stand­ing be­tween re­li­gious and non-re­li­gious Bri­tons.

A YouGov poll, com­mis­sioned by New­man Univer­sity in Birm­ing­ham, has found that 72% of athe­ists polled be­lieve that some­one who is re­li­gious would not ac­cept evo­lu­tion­ary sci­ence. In fact, only 19% of re­li­gious re­spon­dents in the poll re­jected Dar­winian think­ing in favour of a lit­eral read­ing of the Book of Ge­n­e­sis.

Ac­cord­ing to the re­search, nearly two-thirds of Bri­tons – as well as nearly three-quar­ters of athe­ists – think Chris­tians have to ac­cept the as­ser­tion in Ge­n­e­sis that God cre­ated the world in six days and rested on the sev­enth. But just 16% of be­liev­ers ac­cept the cre­ation myth – ac­cord­ing to which, in the words of the ques­tion­naire, “hu­mans and other liv­ing things were cre­ated by God and have al­ways ex­isted in their cur­rent form”. Only 9% of all Bri­tons re­ject evo­lu­tion­ary the­ory.

Ac­cord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Fern Elsdon-Baker, who led the re­search, the find­ings sug­gest a need to re­vise stereo­types when it comes to Chris­tian be­lief in Bri­tain. “In a so­ci­ety that is in­creas­ingly non-re­li­gious, this mis­match in per­cep­tion could be seen as a form of prej­u­dice to­wards re­li­gious or spir­i­tual groups,” she said. “It may be one of the con­tribut­ing fac­tors in re­li­gious groups or in­di­vid­u­als say­ing they see a con­flict be­tween sci­ence and re­li­gion.”

Ac­cord­ing to the Bri­tish At­ti­tudes Sur­vey, re­li­gious be­lief is con­tin­u­ing to de­cline in Bri­tain, but the former arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury, Lord (Rowan) Wil­liams, says the YouGov sur­vey con­firms that a pre­sumed in­com­pat­i­bil­ity be­tween sci­ence and re­li­gion is “a phoney war”.

“The num­ber of main­stream Chris­tians – cer­tainly in this coun­try – who have qualms about evo­lu­tion­ary the­ory is very small in­deed,” said Wil­liams. “But per­cep­tions are dif­fer­ent, and the pres­ence of USstyle fun­da­men­tal­ism in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion means that a grow­ing num­ber who know noth­ing of the ac­tual his­tory of in­tel­lec­tual dis­cus­sion of th­ese ques­tions as­sume that all re­li­gious be­liev­ers must be com­mit­ted to com­bat­ing sci­en­tific ac­counts of the uni­verse’s be­gin­nings.”

The New­man Univer­sity re­search also re­vealed an in­trigu­ing misconception about sci­en­tists who are also re­li­gious. One in three peo­ple polled said that they thought a sci­en­tist who is re­li­gious is much more likely than an athe­ist sci­en­tist to find it “very dif­fi­cult, dif­fi­cult or some­what dif­fi­cult to ac­cept in­for­ma­tion about evo­lu­tion­ary sci­ence, in ref­er­ence to their own per­sonal be­liefs or way of see­ing the world”.

Ac­cord­ing to a sep­a­rate sur­vey by the Sci­en­tific and Med­i­cal Net­work (SMN) – a group de­voted to mar­ry­ing ev­i­dence-based sci­ence and spir­i­tual prac­tice – 25% of pro­fes­sion­als work­ing in sci­ence, medicine and en­gi­neer­ing de­scribe them­selves as athe­ists, and 45% as re­li­gious (prac­tis­ing or not) or “spir­i­tual”.

Guy Hay­ward, re­search fel­low at SMN, said: “It is clear from this sur­vey by New­man Univer­sity that non-be­liev­ers have very lit­tle idea about what be­liev­ers be­lieve. They seem to be re­spond­ing to a car­i­ca­ture based on Amer­i­can cre­ation­ists, rather than re­al­ity. Even in Amer­ica, cre­ation­ist be­liefs in the lit­eral truth of Ge­n­e­sis are not shared by most main­stream Chris­tians. In fact, many sci­en­tists have re­li­gious or spir­i­tual be­liefs and do not see th­ese as con­flict­ing with sci­ence.”

The story of God’s cre­ation of Adam and Eve, and their even­tual ex­ile from the Gar­den of Eden, is a bedrock of cul­tural his­tory. This month, Har­vard hu­man­i­ties pro­fes­sor Stephen Green­blatt pub­lished an ac­claimed new vol­ume on the sub­ject, The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, which re­counts the im­pact of the Bi­ble nar­ra­tive on Michelan­gelo, the poet John Mil­ton, and Ger­man artist and print­maker Lu­cas Cranach the Elder, among oth­ers. Green­blatt also points out how the role of Eve, who breaks God’s law by eat­ing an ap­ple from the tree of knowl­edge, has been used to jus­tify misog­yny and was used by thinkers such as St Au­gus­tine to de­velop the­o­ries of man’s es­sen­tial sin­ful­ness.

Ac­cord­ing to Wil­liams, Bri­tain’s churches should be do­ing more to ex­plain mod­ern the­o­log­i­cal think­ing on the ori­gin of life. “Chris­tians need to be clearer about what the doc­trine of cre­ation does and doesn’t mean,” he said. “To say that all things de­pend uni­lat­er­ally on the eter­nal ac­tion of God is not the same as say­ing that spe­cific steps in the uni­verse’s his­tory must be the di­rect re­sult of di­vine in­ter­ven­tion.

“Chris­tians and sci­en­tists need to be more ready to dis­cuss the his­tory of sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery, they need to recog­nise that their sup­posed ‘war’ is just fic­tion. Sci­en­tific ed­u­ca­tion badly needs to de­velop an aware­ness of this in­tel­lec­tual his­tory and to ac­knowl­edge that old-style mech­a­nis­tic ac­counts of the ma­te­rial world are no longer ad­e­quate.”

A pre­vi­ous sur­vey of Bri­tons, in 2014, in­di­cated that 19% of peo­ple held cre­ation­ist views, sug­gest­ing a siz­able (10 per­cent­age points) drop in the past three years, al­though this could be due to vari­a­tions in sam­pling meth­ods.

The Gar­den of Eden with the Fall of Man, 1615, by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens Pho­to­graph: Alamy

Rowan Wil­liams, the former arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury Pho­to­graph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

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