According to some polls, 60% of the American population regards the Biblical account of the creation of the world – and that it occurred about 6 000 years ago – as the literal truth. Now, 'truth' is a slippery concept, as philosophers have been saying for millennia. There is normally no problem with analytical truth, the one you may come across in mathematics or logic. 'All spinsters are single' is truly the truth and nothing but.

But the sort of truth that witnesses promise to tell in courts of law is a muddier affair. Memory is infamously unreliable. We can be almost certain that a witness account of 'what really happened' is not 'the whole truth and nothing but the truth'. But it might not be entirely false either. If cross-referenced by other witness accounts, it may even turn out to be legally useful, in spite of its lack of 'literal truth'.

Literally refuted

What about maintaining that the biblical creation myth is 'literal truth'? The 'literal' part seems to indicate that it means that all the detailed biblical descriptions (the order in which various cosmic components were created, that creation lasted six days, etc.) correspond to factual occurrences in the real world. And such a statement is of course easily and utterly refuted by geology, paleontology and most other well-established sciences.

So the real problem is: how come that America is not coming apart at its seams and plunging into abject poverty, when close to two thirds of America's population, living in a scientific society, seem to entertain a totally non-scientific outlook? But in fact America is not cracking up and most of its population is even today wealthier than folks in many other places on Earth. Also, most of its population is engaged in workplaces where acceptance of scientific facts and of having a scientific outlook is an absolute necessity.

Communal coercion

How can this paradox be resolved? Are Americans simply lying to their pollsters? Yes, some probably are. But it's unlikely that the the majority is not telling the truth, or actually – not telling what they perceive as the truth. Could it then be that American perception of truth has somehow been distorted, at least – or rather in particular – when it comes to biblical statements?

America has a long tradition of being a highly religious society, on par with present-day Iran, but luckily without the state coercion of Iran. Religious coercion certainly exists even in America. But its origin is social and it operates subtly enough to be perceived by most as 'voluntary'. This subtlety stems from the fact that to most Americans church-going is foremost a community affair, quite apart from its religious significance.

Almost every American sees his/her 'church' as a community where he/she finds friendship, support, a sense of belonging and social identity. The religious elements embedded in this socially important community are hence accepted without much thought. The biblical statements, repeated over and over again, cease to be statements and instead become parts of a social ritual. And as in every ritual, the actual meaning of the statement fades in importance. It simply becomes the community truth – the 'ritual truth' of the community.

Removing the scare from scary tics

So it is not surprising that an American county geologist can honestly tic the box 'The account of the creation in the Bible is literally true; it happened about 6 000 years ago' in a questionnaire, and at the same time know perfectly well the age (perhaps 500 million years) of the rocks beneath the local city hall. He is not lying at all; he is just telling his 'ritual truth', something completely different from his professional truth.

The results of American polls regarding faith and personal philosophy often make Europeans shiver: is America a nation of stone-age madmen? Aside from the fact that Europe has its own share of stone-age madmen, it could well be that the (unquestionably scary) American poll results are mainly artefacts, merely cases of 'ritual truth'. So maybe they shouldn't scare us all that much, after all.

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