I was raised to believe without question that every word of the Bible was true, breathed from the lips of God and miraculously preserved over thousands of years. And not just any Bible: the King James Version (Authorized Version) is the preferred, almost idolatrously revered version for a lot of Reformed Presbyterians and other Christian sects. Don’t try to convince a KJV-only believer that there’s anything better than their 17th-century translation! If you can’t understand the antique English phrasing, that’s your problem. You are obviously a lazy modern Evangelical, and not a true yoke-fellow. You should get comfortable with “thees,” “thous,” and the horrible “dung” of 400-year-old patriarchal bias, or you may be smitten with emerods. (I just had to look up what the heck an emerod is, and I was raised on the KJV!)
However, this article isn’t about versions of the Scripture, although I find it hilarious that the King James, of all the versions of the Bible in existence, is so adored by anti-gay fundamentalists. It was commissioned by King James I, who most likely had several male lovers in his lifetime. Not to mention that it was commissioned for the “apostate” and “Papist” Church of England. But that’s a story in itself. You can still be a Biblical literalist even if you use a different version.
Literalism is a way of interpreting the Bible that holds that every word is inspired by God and therefore infallible. According to this view, there are no mistakes in the original works as they came from the pens of various writers. Any errors or contradictions are either tortured into harmony or explained as an error of transcription from the originals. Even with literalism, though, there are different shades of interpretation. I wasn’t raised to believe that the Earth was flat and that the Sun revolved around it, as described by the ancients. I was, however, taught that the creation story in the book of Genesis was absolutely true in a literal sense. My siblings and I memorized a song about the days of creation, naming the various things created on each day and culminating in the seventh day of rest. We made little booklets and drawings of the events during science unit studies. Adam was real, Eve was real, the serpent in the garden was real, and the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was as real as the apples on the kitchen counter.
The Earth, we were told, was approximately 6,000 years old, based on Ussher’s chronology. Any ideas to the contrary were suppressed. We didn’t have many books on dinosaurs, because such books were full of references to “epochs” and “millions of years.” We were taught that humans co-existed with the dinosaurs, and that the dinosaurs probably died out after the Great Flood of Genesis, which actually covered the whole earth with water and drowned everybody except Noah, Mrs. Noah, and the kids. (Side note: it is such a relief to me that I no longer have to believe in the Great Flood. It just doesn’t make sense, and I think it bothered me subconsciously for a long time).
When I got into my teen years, I had access to “science” books “debunking” evolution. Darwin was practically the Antichrist, and Ken Ham was a true prophet of the Lord. I feel a little sad looking back, because not accepting evolution as a legitimate explanation for the world as we know it cut off so many avenues of study and interest. Anthropology, astronomy, zoology—you’re most likely not going to get very far when you hold a viewpoint contradicted by the evidence. At best, you’re going to waste a lot of time inventing workarounds for the contradictions.
I remember being probably 9 or 10 years old and attending a “Creation Seminar” put on by the Institute for Creation Research, or ICR. The seminar consisted of the usual explanations and defenses of Young-Earth Creationism, but what I remember most (besides being thrilled by apocryphal tales of dinosaurs still living in remote rainforests) was talking to my parents about how I’d heard of a view called “Old-Earth Creationism,” which accepts the evolutionary process and doesn’t interpret the days of Genesis as literal 24-hour days. I was pleased by this idea. It made sense to me. But when I mentioned the theory, it was shot down immediately. I was disappointed—I still remember that disappointment—and I retreated back into the hard-core fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis.
I want to stop and make a point here. Young-Earth Creationists are not necessarily stupid. They really aren’t. My parents are highly intelligent people who excelled in college before they “went fundie.” I’ve known lawyers, teachers, accountants, business professionals, and other highly-skilled, highly-educated people who held to a literal interpretation of Genesis and the rest of the Bible. I was well out of college with a 4.0 GPA before I began to question the Genesis account. It’s not stupidity; it’s a huge blind spot. I know some people assume that creationists are stupid, but it’s like assuming that people in cults are stupid, when psychology assures us that we are all vulnerable to the cult mindset. In fundie circles, there’s a lot of pressure to believe a certain way.
But why is Creationism such a big deal? Why can’t fundamentalist Christians just accept the evidence of how the world came to be? Evolution does not preclude God. You can believe in the divine and in the process of evolution simultaneously.
The reason that Creationism is such a big deal is that once you begin to question the literal interpretation of the book of Genesis, you might begin to question everything. If you believe that the entire Bible is literally true, contains all the answers, and has no mistakes, you can live your life in a closed system of belief. But when doubt creeps in and evolution starts making sense, you’re on a path that leads beyond the walls. When you realize that the creation story is a metaphor, an ancient praise of the divine essence lacking in scientific validity, it opens up a whole new can of amoebas. What else might be interpreted metaphorically? The story of Abraham and Isaac? The story of Jonah? (Yes, for over twenty years I firmly believed that Jonah really was swallowed by a giant fish and lived in its belly for three days until being vomited out.) The Virgin Birth? Should it be taken literally? Oh, heresy, heresy!
For me, the shattering of my belief in Biblical literalism took many years to happen. A crack here, a chip in the plaster there, until the walls crumbled around me. Questions about the validity of the Bible weren’t really encouraged—everything was biased in one direction. If someone were to ask the deep questions, like: “Is there a God?” they’d be promptly answered by “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” (Psalms 14:1). The serpent in Genesis (yeah, the one that literally spoke) was a questioner, asking if God had really said not to eat the fruit of Knowledge. So if you questioned the Bible, you were on a par with the serpent.
No longer believing in an infallible Divine book has left me with a lot of uncertainties and mystery, but I find myself delighted at the freedom to question. I also feel relief from the burden of disliking God. A God who suggests killing little babies by smashing their heads on rocks and ripping up pregnant women with swords (Psalms 137:9) is really hard to love. I was so tired of the trite explanations for how we should love a God like that. Fuck, I didn’t want to love a God like that, but we were supposed to. So I tried, I tried, I really, really tried. Cognitive dissonance is forcing your conscious mind to believe that you love the fundie-Christian God while deep, deep down inside you…you know he’s an asshole.
It’s such a relief not to have to believe in a divine asshole. I believe in the Divine, but not in God the genocidal maniac who created people and then drowned them in a fit of rage. It gives me joy not to believe in that. And I have the freedom now to ask questions, and the freedom to look for answers.