Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Including the Bible in a debate over creationism

Some creationists are surprised when the subject of the Bible is raised during a debate. Most of them are prepared only to discuss the scientific issues, particularly those relating to evolution and the age of the Earth and the Universe. But if you think about it, you realize that of course a debate about creationism and evolution is about more than just science. Creationism, at its core, is an attempt to reconcile the Bible with science. Clearly the Bible is, or should be, at least as much a topic of discussion as is science.

It makes sense, therefore, to look at the Bible itself in some detail and ask and try to answer a few questions about it.

I would say that the Bible is unarguably the most influential and important book in Western Civilization. It is certainly the best selling book of all time. Between 2.5 and 6 billion copies of the Bible are estimated to have been sold[1].

I’ve been told that Shakespeare has some 1300 Biblical references in his works. I doubt that Shakespeare used any other resource that provides close to so many references[2].

So if you want to understand Shakespeare, you would do well to have a good understanding of the Bible.

Moreover we use Biblical references all of the time, often without realizing it.

What is a Good Samaritan?

What is an Epiphany?

Why is the human female common ancestor named “Mitochondrial Eve” (rather than “Mitochondrial Betty”)?

What does it mean to be as old as Methuselah?

What is a “David and Goliath” match-up?

When can you call someone as “wise as Solomon”?

What sorts of things can happen in forty days and nights?

What is a prodigal son?

Surely these and other examples can be understood by many people who have never read the Bible. But having read the original account in the Bible surely helps someone’s understanding. Furthermore other references are more subtle and may not be adequately understood by people who have never read that book.

I would argue that you can’t consider yourself to be a well-read person unless you’ve read the Bible (both the Old and New Testaments) or at least large parts of it. That’s true regardless of your religious beliefs.

The evolutionary scientist Dr. Stephen J. Gould who was, as creationists are generally quick to point out, an atheist or at least an agnostic, often inserted Biblical passages into his literary works. He did so because he considered the Bible to be “great literature”.

Which brings us to one of the problems with Biblical literalism: it actually tends to diminish the importance of the Bible. Attempts by Biblical literalists to make every word inerrant inevitably focus the debate on those parts of the Bible which are the most difficult to reconcile – such as the stories of the Garden of Eden and the Flood of Noah and the sun stopping in the sky for 24 hours for Joshua.

One can ask: Did David as a young man really slay a giant named Goliath with only a stone and a sling? It sounds a bit fanciful. Moreover there is no evidence that it actually took place outside of the account in the Bible. So are people wrong to believe that this event actually took place?

On the one hand, because of the minimal amount of available supporting evidence, some people surely can’t be blamed for being a bit skeptical about that story. But on the other hand, there is no way to disprove this account (or “falsify it” as a scientist would say). There is no physical evidence proving that this took place, but it is unrealistic to expect that such evidence would necessarily be present thousands of years later. After all of these years, it would be difficult to imagine that someone would find something like a giant’s head with a stone in the forehead on a former battlefield. It should also be pointed out that no laws of science are broken by anything in this story. So this is one of those cases where it can be said, that “a lack of evidence does not mean evidence against“. I can’t imagine anyone who would strongly protest that such a thing could not have happened.

But some things in the Bible should have supporting evidence, which does not exist.

Consider the sun stopping in the sky for Joshua. The relevant passage in the Bible is this one (from Joshua 10:12-14):

[12]On the day the LORD gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the LORD in the presence of Israel:
"O sun, stand still over Gibeon,
O moon, over the Valley of Aijalon."

[13] So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar.
The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.

[14] There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the LORD listened to a man. Surely the LORD was fighting for Israel!

In contrast to the example of David and Goliath, this passage actually says things that can be tested or analyzed in the context of our understanding of how the solar system operates.

If you believe that the Earth revolves around the Sun, then if this passage is accurate the Earth suddenly stopped rotating on its axis. Furthermore, when the 24 hours were completed, the Earth started back up again at exactly the same speed that it had been rotating before.


The Earth’s circumference is about 25,000 miles. Since the Earth makes a complete rotation in 24 hours anything on the Earth’s surface at the Equator are moving at a bit more than 1000 miles-per-hour.

Imagine that you are riding on an airplane; a very fast airplane. Then it stops. Immediately. The speed of the airplane goes instantaneously from 1000 mph to zero.

What would happen?

You’d die, right? You’d slam into the front of the airplane at 1000 mph and be crushed.

Moreover, the Earth’s atmosphere is rotating with the Earth. If the Earth’s surface was to suddenly stop moving the atmosphere would continue to move resulting in winds of about 1000 mph.

So what happened to the people in the desert?

According to the Bible, nothing!

They simply kept fighting. No effects, good or bad.

This might be a possibility if the universe, or at least the solar system, is centered on the Earth. But if, instead, the solar system is centered by the sun, then this is absolutely impossible.

But there are other, more practical problems.

The primary one being that everyone lives on the same Earth. This is true regardless of whether or not the Earth is the center of the solar system. Therefore if the sun stops in one place for 24 hours, then everyone on Earth sees a very long day or a very long night.
(Some would see a very long sunrise of sunset.)

If the sun stops for 24 hours in the Middle East, then – even if you live in Australia or Greenland or Europe or Hawaii or Peru – the sun stopped for you as well.

Societies which were contemporary with Joshua knew how to keep time. They might have not been able to detect time down to the second or the minute or possibly even the hour. But would any society not have noticed an entire day going by without any movement of the sun?

As they say in New York: forget about it! It couldn’t happen. Case closed.

So what we should see is that every (or nearly every) culture should have some sort of story about a very long day (or night) that occurred chronologically at about the same time that the Joshua event supposedly occurred. We should even be able to predict which societies had long days and which had long nights.

Where are these stories?

They don’t exist[3].

So some things in the Bible can be effectively falsified. We would expect evidence of an event such as this. We don’t see any. We should therefore be very, very skeptical. That is only reasonable.

What would seem to be a more realistic explanation of this event is that it merely seemed that the battle took an extra 24 hours (with a bit of hyperbole thrown in). We’ve all experienced instances where the clock seemed to drag on very slowly (for me, it generally occurs when I’m sitting in a dentist’s chair). Couldn’t that have happened here?

But more to the point of this discussion is it really important whether or not this really happened? Would the Bible’s fundamental message be different if my suggestion is accurate?

Not really. Much of the Old Testament speaks of wars and battles that took place in those wars. This account is just one of many. Nothing really makes this battle more significant than those others except for the fact that the sun supposedly stopped in the sky for 24 hours.

But because the Biblical Literalists insist that this event actually did take place and that the sun actually did stop in the sky, this battle takes on extra importance. That’s not because of any theological implications. Instead it becomes important only because of the need to reconcile this account with what we know about science and various historical records around the Earth.

Ironically, therefore, a belief in Biblical Literalism actually changes the relative importance of various passages in the Bible. It can often increase the importance of what should be fairly trivial accounts thereby diminishing the relative importance of the more significant events.

Which, because of the real importance of the Bible, is a shame.

Moreover, the insistence that such accounts are historically accurate tends to make other people who have not read the Bible start to think of the book as just a collection of fairy tales. They might put the Bible just below “Grimm’s Fairy Tales” and just above the stories of Hans Christian Anderson on their reading lists.

To be sure, some of the things that Biblical literalists believe to be actual events do indeed have theological importance. The Garden of Eden is the source of “original sin” which has implications regarding the mission of Jesus. Even then, many theologians seriously debate the need for the story to be literally true.

But at least some of the stories in the Bible that stretch our credibility have so little theological importance that an emphasis on insisting that they are true tends to diminish the overall theological importance of the Bible.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books, referenced on January 31, 2009. There is a chance that the “Little Red Book of Chairman Mao” has sold more copies than the Bible, but the sales records of books in China are not very reliable.
[2] Some of Shakespeare’s Biblical references are a bit obscure. That’s because he used an earlier version of the Bible than most of us are familiar with. He retired in 1613 and the King James Version of the Bible was not published until 1611 so there was very little overlap. There is no evidence that the KJV was used in any of Shakespeare’s works.
[3] Some creationists claim that these references really do exist. In particular they point to a book by Immanuel Velikovsky titled “Worlds in Collision”. This is a more technical subject than I prefer to discuss in the main text of this book so I address Velikovsky in Appendix A.

No comments:

Post a Comment