I am going to give a detailed account of why I think Bill Nye, the science guy, failed in his attempt to debate creationist Ken Ham at the bizarro-world Creation Museum last month in Kentucky. But before I get to that, I will post this pre-cursor: an essay I wrote about a similar debt that took place when the Dover school system here in Pennsylvania attempted to add creationism to the science curriculum. My point here and in the next analysis is that anthropology provided a way to make sense of these sort of debates in a way that either a scientific or a religious approach do not.

 

Egyptian Spit, “Intelligent Design,” and Other Tales of the Origin of the World

The belief system called “intelligent design” (ID) that is being debated for inclusion in the Dover school curriculum is certainly not scientific, and there is no benefit in redefining science just to fit in this one, narrowly focused, newly-minted origin story. But it is disconcerting to hear opponents of religious origin stories like intelligent design state that there is no place in a school curriculum for a discussion of beliefs about the beginning of our worlds.

There is some benefit, as anthropologists around the world have often noted, in examining and comparing different systems of religious principles in order to understand why people believe certain things and how they act on those beliefs. The place, then, for the discussion of religious origin stories and their related cultural agendas is certainly in a classroom, a classroom of anthropology.

But a warning: an anthropological approach would place ID and creationism into some pretty fascinating and quite provocative company, and ID supporters will find that their simple tales may not hold up to such cross-cultural competition. For example, the Australian Aborigine creation time, roughly translated as “The Dreaming,” conveys the work of spirits who designated features of the landscape that are still lived in by today’s original people of Australia. In the Southwest United States, there is a breathtaking description of emergence from an underground lake by the first Pueblo people and their subsequent spread across the harsh but magnificent landscape.

The ancient Maya left an account called the Popol Vuh which tells the story of gods who simply thought the world into being and then, wanting to be admired, populated it with flawed humans made out of maize. Native Hawaiians can describe the creation of the natural world from a gourd that was split in half and the creation of people from red earth. Over time the ancient Egyptians had several ideas about creation, some involving mucus, spit, and other bodily fluids, one involving a goose that lays an egg, and all designed to be integrated with the contemporaneous political situation. Creation gods have been male or female or sometimes both at once; they have been sneaky shape-shifters, bizarre jokesters, good teachers, bold thieves, dangerous animals, and aspects of the sky, the water or the land. They have been both kind and really, really nasty.

What would quickly become evident in a cross-cultural comparison of intelligent design with other origin stories is that they all have similar mythological elements and characters: the divine beings who dramatically create the natural world, tricksters who try to deny or thwart that creation, humans who leave on journeys that separate them from the divine or from nature, and human beings who have forgotten how to trust each other. They also have similar functions: to make sense of today’s problems and issues by using origin stories that are supposed to explain why things are they way they are.

All the world’s belief systems are rich in myths and rituals and symbols that prove the creativity of the human mind and the vibrancy of human social life. It would be a shame if intelligent design supporters and opponents alike, by trying to limit religious ideas about creation to one spare tale, kept us all from seeing this bigger picture of the world’s religious beliefs painted on a huge and diverse canvas. Science is another canvas altogether, and it would be a disservice to both religion and science if they had to live by each other’s rules