I sat in the backseat of my grandfather’s brand-new Lincoln Town Car. At that time, it was, easily, the nicest car I’d ever ridden in: The unlikely marriage of plush and steel, a cream-colored body, seats I sank into like down pillows, and of course, the highlight of the car, the moonroof. It seemed, almost, like a limousine to me I was ten-years-old, and my grandfather was driving, with my grandmother in the passenger seat, back from dinner, at a place called Tunk’s, a wooden compound of a restaurant built atop a peninsula over Kincaid Lake. If it weren’t in Louisiana, you may have mistaken the building as a cavernous ski lodge at the top of a mountain. Tunk’s served crawfish and gumbo and catfish and french fries and raw oysters. Their walls were decorated with the taxidermic heads of deer corpses.
A few years prior, when I was around 7 or 8, the dead deer nearly gave me a panic attack. I remember locking eyes with the wall-mounted corpses and then suddenly, perhaps inexplicably, breaking out into tears: I imagined that, like the Disney movies I’d been watching, that these deer were a murdered family, that before they were stuffed and mounted as decorations, they were sentient. And in only a way that a child could, I thought about their voices. I had seen those deer for most, if not all, of my life, but until that day, I had never felt terrified.
A couple of years later, we returned, and by then, I was accustomed to the decor of carnage. My grandmother, grandfather, and I ate our catfish dinners and then piled into his Town Car.
It was pitch black outside. Steam was rising from the exhaust.
“Pawpaw, can you open the moonroof?” I asked. The moonroof is not to be confused with a sunroof; it is not retractable; it’s merely a sheet of fixed glass. We were careening through the dark and dusty streets, gravel rhythmically rolling under the tires, on our way back to his home at the opposite end of the lake.
“OK, boy,” he said, glancing back to me in the backseat.
With the roof open, I could see hundreds of bright, brilliant stars in the calm, serene panorama. My grandmother turned toward me. “Lamar, aren’t these beautiful?” she asked.
“Yes, Mawmaw, but I have a question.” It was a question that had been bothering me for quite some time, and no one seemed to know the answer. “If God created the stars,” I asked with a squeaky vote, “then who created God?”
“God has always been there,” she said earnestly and authoritatively. But her answer never satisfied me: If God created the stars, then who created God?
It seemed circular. Later in her life, she liked to tell me a story about how, when I was around five and was in church, repeating a prayer contained the line, “Forgive me, for I have sinned,” I said, afterward, very loudly and to no one in particular, “I was a good boy this week. Why should I be sorry?” People nearby could hear me, and they laughed.
I grew up in the United Methodist Church, but as a kid, I attended my fair share of worship services in other churches. I’ve seen dozens and dozens of evangelicals speak in tongues, flailing and convulsing near the alter. I once attended a Bible Study class led by a man who believed that the barcoding software we use at grocery stores like Wal-Mart was “the mark of the beast.” If you’re willing to count YouTube, I watched a local college President eat a live worm to prove his bonafides. I’ve heard Baptists ministers bullying children into accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior, binding children with the same type of phony legal document that we use in the DARE program. I know kids who have had exorcisms because they were (and still are) gay.
Despite this, though, I have many amazing and important memories from my childhood in the Methodist Church. The Methodist Church encouraged me to ask those questions, even when the answers weren’t satisfactory. My childhood church fostered and promoted intellectualism and inclusiveness; it celebrated the arts; it taught that wisdom and knowledge and science were not mutually exclusive with the Bible. My experience in that church compelled me to major in Religious Studies in college, and there, I learned that faith can by dynamic and that religion, itself, is only relevant if it adapts.
My questions, as a child, about existential realities and the rote repetition of prayer may have seemed precocious, but they weren’t naive. As a child who was born with a physical disability, I sometimes obsessed over the questions, “Why me?” or “What did I do to deserve this?”
In Buddhism, there’s a clear-cut answer: Bad karma from a previous life, an answer that I eventually came to understand as false and unfair. How could I atone for something I never did?
In Christianity, there is bogus faith healing, made for mass television consumption.
Earlier this week, the creationist apologist Ken Ham debated Bill Nye, the Science Guy, on the topic of New Earth Creationism. A lot of ink has already been spilled on this subject, so there is little reason for me to recapitulate what, precisely, went down. In many ways, I don’t think the details matter. Bill Nye, perhaps not surprisingly, won the debate. But what does this really mean? Was this actually a debate?
To me, it accomplished only one thing: It revealed the toxicity and the stunning dishonesty of New Earth Creationism. The “debate” is a “joke” because creationists have attempted to equivocate their religious beliefs with science. In so doing, they demonstrate a fundamental misapprehension and misunderstanding of the entire discourse. These aren’t amorphous or ambiguous concepts.
There aren’t ANY peer-reviewed scientific studies that support creationism. ZERO. ZILCH. NADA.
Evolution is a fact and a scientific theory. Creationism is not science, period.
Evolution is supported by 99% of the scientific community; it’s validated by practically everything we’ve been able to observe and test in geology, biology, astronomy, physics, genetics, and medicine. It’s reinforced by what we know from social sciences like anthropology, sociology, and history.
Indeed, there are more scientists named Steve who support evolution than all of the phDs who signed onto the creationist Dissent from Darwin project. Actually, there are more BIOLOGISTS named Steve who support evolution than all of the phDs in the world who believe in creationism. The “arguments” in support of creationism have absolutely nothing to do with science; they grossly misunderstand science.
So we’re left debating rhetoric and “respect” for people who choose to operate in a parallel universe of definitions, a universe in which “science” is conflated with religion. I don’t think that’s cool. I don’t think it’s productive. More importantly, I don’t believe we should promote willful ignorance under the banner or the guise of religious tolerance. To me, that seems cowardly and reckless and facile.
If anything, creationists undermine religion. It’s funny to me that the folks peddling creationism also reject the concept of moral relativism yet believe very strongly in factual and scientific relativism. For me, this is also about morality, because I believe it’s immoral to lie. The universe isn’t 6,000 years old. We should stop providing cover for folks who think they can hawk that nonsense as science. It’s insulting and intellectually dishonest.
Of course, none of us can know, with absolute certainty, why we’re spinning together on this crazy cosmic journey; we can’t know how we got here or where we’ll end up in the end. But regardless, if we cannot marvel at and appreciate the capacity of human beings to comprehend, objectively, the things that we can observe, if we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the ability of human beings to adapt and advance, then we diminish the divine. I’ve always thought evolution was a beautiful and brilliant approach, and I don’t know why it threatens anyone who considers themselves to be religious. To me, the cynical “belief,” the belief that strips human beings of their decency, is that God created everything only 6,000 years ago, planted an irrefutable collection of evidence meant to trick us into believing otherwise- everything from the fossils buried deep in the ground to the millions of stars at night, as if our time together on earth is nothing more than cheap theater. And then, for some impetuous reason, we’re also told that this God only rewards eternal life to people who refuse to question fairy tales and myths. If you believe in God, then it shouldn’t be difficult to understand: This isn’t the Truman Show.
And there I am, once again, in the backseat of my grandparent’s car, gawking at the stars and wondering who was created first: God or the stars? Because clearly the brain came much later.