Archive

Posts Tagged ‘atheism’

A Ticket to Heaven

May 23, 2017 Leave a comment

When my wife arrived at her cafe a few days ago she found a whole pile of “tickets” stuffed under the door. Regrettably they weren’t tickets to the Ed Sheeran concert here next year (not a fan myself, but she seems to be) but they were for something even better: heaven!

According to the ticket: “Entry to Heaven requires that you have lived a perfect life and never broken one of the Ten Commandments. Have you ever told a lie? Or stolen anything (regardless of value)? If so, you will end up in Hell.”

This seems rather harsh, especially for people who have no idea what the 10 Commandments even are (less than half the world are Christians), but reading further it seems there is a certain amount of wriggle room, because “But God in His mercy provided a way for ALL sins to be forgiven. He sent His Son to take your punishment: God commended His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

There seems to be a few odd aspects to this system. First, if God is so mercifull why didn’t he just forgive us instead of allowing His Son to be tortured and killed? In fact, God didn’t just allow it, he required it, or there would have been no sacrifice. After all, who requires the forgiveness? God does. So in order to allow that he needed Jesus to be horribly tortured. Very strange when you look at it logically, isn’t it?

But it gets a lot worse than that. It says here that anyone who sins (and since no one has a perfect life that would mean everyone) will definitely go to Hell, no matter how minor the sin. But everyone can be forgiven their sins, no matter how bad, if they make some sort of commitment to Jesus. Later on, the ticket recommends prayer to God listing your sins (that would be a long prayer for some people), stating that you put your trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour, and requesting forgiveness and everlasting life. After the prayer you must read the Bible every day and follow what it says.

So a person who told one small lie (even one which was for the good of the person being lied to) and didn’t pray would go to Hell, but someone who spent a life murdering, stealing, etc, then prayed just before his death would be fine. What kind of messed up god is this? This is not a ticket to Heaven, it’s a “get out of jail free” card – or should that be “get out of Hell free”.

There’s a URL (www.2besaved.com) on the ticket which leads to a web site which is one of the ugliest I have seen in recent times. Apparently God doesn’t believe in hiring good web designers. At the site you can “CLICK HERE IF YOU NEED TO BE SAVED” (I didn’t feel the need) or “CLICK HERE IF YOU’RE A CHRISTIAN” (I’m not) or “CLICK HERE FOR FURTHER STUDY” (that sounded like me). By the way, sorry about the all caps, it’s just that kind of site.

The further study was a bit disappointing though, because even the bizarre ticket made more sense than the material in that section. There was a complicated argument about which day is the sabbath, an even worse discussion on how to pronounce God’s name (Yahweh), and a rather alarming essay on the correct way to eat meat (hint: it’s best not to).

But I’m not even sure why all of this detail is so important, because I can do whatever I want, then get forgiveness from God later.

Now you might have noticed a rather flippant, facetious tone to this post so far. That is because the whole things is just so silly that it’s hard to take seriously. But many people do, and that’s why I like to write these “anti-religion rants”.

Many atheists, even really “strident” ones, like Richard Dawkins (I don’t really believe he is strident, of course), seem to back away from criticising the New Testament and the alleged teachings of Jesus in particular.

There’s a certain amount of sense in this because the New Testament undoubtedly has a more forgiving, accepting, and positive tone than the Old. But there is one thing about it which is at least as damaging and negative as anything in the Old Testament: the mythology regarding Hell.

Because in the OT, Hell is just a place with no particular function of punishment. In fact both the righteous and unrighteous go there (to two separate areas) and it is best thought of as “the underworld”.

It is only in the NT, with the teachings of “kind, forgiving, loving Jesus” that the idea of Hell as a place of eternal torment is introduced. And that place is reserved for whom? Is it morally corrupt people like murderers? No, it is for people who fail to accept Jesus as their “saviour”. So Jesus seems to offer salvation but only from a hideous torture that he himself introduced. And not only that, salvation is not given to those of high moral standing but to those who are prepared to become slaves of his particular movement.

If any other leader of any kind resorted to these tactics would we celebrate him as a wise and loving leader or as a hideous despot? I think we all know the answer to that.

So I think it is fair to label Jesus (let’s just assume he actually existed for the purpose of this discussion) in that negative way, but we should also have some balance and admit that there is a lot of good stuff in his alleged thoughts too. In the end, he’s just like anyone else: a mixture of good and bad. And the New Testament is just like any other book of mythology/philosophy/theology: a mixture of good and bad.

The key thing is that the good doesn’t come from the religion. What good is there is recognised because humans, as a social species, have moral standards which are more or less consistent, although they vary to some extent across cultures and across time. We don’t get a ticket to heaven through mindless servility to a deity. We get that (metaphorically, because heaven doesn’t really exist) through doing the right thing.

Do It Yourself

March 3, 2017 Leave a comment

I was going to post this comment as part of an anti-creationist rant but I realised that there was so much to it that I really needed to post it as a separate item. The issue I wanted to tackle was how many believers in mysticism base their beliefs on revealed sources, such as holy books, but the same criticism could be made against “rational” people, like myself, because I also use sources (such as science books, Wikipedia, etc).

So basically what I wanted to do was to show that anyone can discover significant things about the real world by themselves without relying on any information from existing sources, and that they can show anyone how to do the same observation/experiment which would prove their point beyond any reasonable doubt.

I decided to choose the age of the universe as a suitable subject, because it was a controversial subject (there are many young Earth creationists), and it was relatively easy to test. Of course, as I intimated above, it got more complex than I imagined. However, here is my proof – which anyone with a bit of time and a small budget can follow – that the universe, and therefore the Earth, is much older than the 6000 years the young Earth creationists claim.

I could start by trying to establish the age of the oldest things I know of. I could use biology, archaeology, chemistry or physics here, but I know a bit more about astronomy, so let’s use that.

We know the light from stars travels through space at the speed of light. If the stars are far enough away that the light took more than 6000 years to get here then the universe must be more than 6000 years old, so creationism is wrong. I know there are some possible objections to these initial assumptions but let’s leave those aside for now.

First, how fast is the speed of light? Can I figure this out for myself or do I need to take it on trust (some would say faith) from a book? Well it is actually quite easy to figure this out because we can use a highly regular event at a known distance to calculate the time it took for light to reach us. The most obvious choice is timings of Jupiter’s moons.

The moons of Jupiter (there are 4 big ones) take precise times to complete an orbit. I can figure that time out by just watching Jupiter for a few weeks. But we would expect a delay in the times because the light from an event (like a Moon going in front of or behind Jupiter) will take a while to reach us.

Conveniently, the distance from the Earth to Jupiter varies because some times the Earth and Jupiter are on the same side of the Sun, and others the opposite side. So when they are on the same side the distance from the Earth is the radius of Jupiter’s orbit minus the radius of the Earth’s, and when they are on opposite sides it is the radius of Jupiter’s orbit PLUS the radius of the Earth’s. Note that the size of Jupiters orbit doesn’t matter because the difference is just double the size of the Earth’s (in fact it is double the radius, or the diameter).

So now we need to know the size of the Earth’s orbit. How would we do that? There is a technique called parallax which requires no previous assumptions, it is just simple geometry. If you observe the position of an object from two locations the angle to the object will vary.

It’s simple to demonstrate… Hold your finger up in from of your eyes and look at it through one eye and then the other. The apparent position against a distant background wall will change. Move your finger closer and the change will be bigger. If you measure that change you can calculate the distance to your finger with some simple maths.

In astronomy we can do the same thing, except for distant objects the change is small… really small. And we also need two observing locations a large distance apart (the further apart they are, the bigger the change is and therefore the easier it is to measure). Either side of the Earth is OK for close objects, like the Moon (a mere 384000 kilometers away) but for stars (the closest is 42 trillion kilometers away) we need something more. Usually astronomers use the Earth on either side of its orbit (a distance of 300 million kilometers) so the two observations will be 6 months apart.

So getting back to our experiment. You might think we could measure the distance to a star, or a planet like Jupiter, or the Sun using this technique but it’s not quite so simple because the effect is so small. What we do instead is measure the distance to the Moon (which is close) using parallax from two widely separated parts on the Earth. I admit this needs a collaborator on the other side of the Earth, so it involves more than just one individual person, but the principle is the same.

Once we know that it can be used to measure other distances. For example, if we measure the angle between the Moon and Sun when the Earth-Moon-Sun angle is a right angle we can use trigonometry to get the distance to the Sun. It’s not easy because the angle is very close to 90 degrees (the Earth-Sun side of the triangle is much longer than the Earth-Moon side) but it can be done.

So now we know the difference in distance between the Earth and Jupiter in the two situations I mentioned at the start of this post. If we carefully measure the difference in time between the timings of Jupiter’s Moons from Earth when Earth is on either side of its orbit we get a difference of about 16 minutes. So light is taking half of that time to travel from the Sun to the Earth. We know that distance from the previous geometric calculations, so we know the speed of light.

Note that none of this is open to any reasonable criticism. It is simple, makes no assumptions which can fairly be questioned, and anyone can do it without relying on existing knowledge. Note that if you want to derive the basic trig calculations that is fairly easy too, but few people would argue about those.

So the Sun is 8 light minutes away meaning the light we see from the Sun left it 8 minutes ago. We are seeing the Sun literally as it was 8 minutes in the past. This means it must have existed 8 minutes in the past. But who cares? Well this is interesting but looking at more distant objects – those not just light minutes away but light years, thousands of light years, millions of light years away say more about the true age of the Universe.

So we can use this idea in reverse. Above we calculated a distance based on a time difference and the speed of light. Now we will calculate a time based on distance and the speed of light. If a star is 10,000 light years away the light left it 10,000 years ago, so it existed 10,000 years ago, so the universe is at least 10,000 years old.

There is only one direct method to calculate distance and that is parallax. But even from opposite sides of the Earth’s orbit – a baseline of 300 million kilometers – parallax angles are ridiculously small. But with a moderate size telescope (one which many amateurs could afford), and careful observation, they can be measured. The parallax angle of the closest star is about 800 milliarcseconds, or 0.01 degrees. That gives an angle which is the equivalent of the width of a small coin about 5 kilometers away.

Do this observation, then a simple calculation, and the nearest star turns out to be 40 trillion kilometers (4 light years) away. When we see that star we see it as it was 4 years ago. In that time the star could have gone out or been swallowed by a black hole (very unlikely) and we wouldn’t know.

The greatest distance so far detected using parallax is 10,000 light years, but that was with the Hubble Space Telescope, so that is beyond the direct experience of the average person! However note that using this direct, uncontroversial technique, the universe is already at least 10,000 years old, making young Earth creationism impossible.

Another rather obvious consequence of these distance measures is that stars are like our Sun. So if we know how bright stars are we can compare that with how bright they appear to be and get a distance approximation. If a star looks really dim it must be at a great distance. The problem is, of course, that stars vary greatly in brightness and we can’t assume they are all the same brightness as the Sun.

There is another feature of stars which even an amateur can make use of though – that is the spectrum. Examining the spectrum can show what type of star produced the light. The amateur observer can even calibrate his measurements using common chemicals in a lab. The chemicals in the star are the same and give the same signatures (approximately, at least).

So knowing the type of star gives an approximation of the brightness and that can be used to get the distance. The most distant star visible to the naked eye is 16,000 light years away. This would be bright enough to get a spectrum in a telescope, determine the type of star, and estimate the distance. Of course, it would be hit and miss trying to find a distant star to study (because we’re not supposed to use any information already published) but enough persistence would pay off eventually.

There are objects in the sky called globular clusters. These are collections of a few hundred thousand to a few million stars, quite close together. To the naked eye they look like a fuzzy patch but through a small telescope they can be seen to be made of individual stars. A simple calculation based on their apparent brightness shows they are tens of thousands of light years away. A similar technique can be applied to galaxies but these give distances of millions of light years.

In addition, an amateur with a fairly advanced telescope and the latest digital photography equipment – all of which is available at a price many people could afford – could do the investigation of red-shifts originally done by Edwin Hubble over 100 years ago.

A red shift is the shift in the spectrum of an object caused by its movement away from us. As I said above, the spectra of common chemicals can be tested in the lab and compared with the spectrum seen from astronomical objects. As objects get more distant they are found to be moving away more quickly and have higher red shifts. So looking at a red shift gives an approximate measure of distance.

This technique can only be used for really distant objects, like galaxies, so it is a bit more challenging for an amateur, but it will give results of millions to billions of light years, meaning the objects are at least millions or billions of years old.

There are some possible objections to everything I have discussed above. First, maybe the speed of light was much faster in the past meaning that the light could have travelled the vast distances in less time than assumed, meaning the universe could still be just 6000 years old.

Second, the light from the objects could have been created in transit. So a galaxy could have been created 2 million years ago but its light could also be created already travelled 99% of the way to the Earth.

Finally, maybe there is a supernatural explanation that cannot be explained through science or logic, or maybe all of the evidence above is just the malicious work of the devil trying to lead us all astray.

The second and third objections aren’t generally supported, even by most creationists, because they imply that nothing we see can be trusted, and God is not usually thought to be deliberately misleading.

The first one isn’t totally ridiculous though, and there is some serious science suggesting the speed of light might have been faster in the past. But do the calculations and that speed would have to be ridiculously fast – millions of times faster than it is now. If it was changing at that rate then we would see changes over recorded history. So that claim could also be checked by anyone who was prepared to dig into old sources for timings of eclipses, the length of the day, etc.

Astronomy is an interesting science because so much of it is still do-able by amateurs. Follow the steps above and not only will you get a perspective on some of the greatest work done in the past, but you will also make for yourself a truly fundamental discovery about the universe: that it is really old.

It requires no faith in authority, no reference to trusted texts, and no unfounded assumptions. It just involves a few years of dedicated observation and study. I admit I haven’t done all of this myself, but it’s good to know I could if I wanted to.

The Opium of the People

January 13, 2017 Leave a comment

In this blog I have often portrayed the advantages I see in being an atheist compared with following a religion. But like all worldviews, atheism has some disadvantages as well. Religious people have three advantages over atheists, as I see it: they have a church which provides a benefit to their social life, they tend to donate more to charity, and they are happier.

All of these factors are documented in fairly credible studies so I don’t think they can easily be explained away. But, of course, I am going to try!

First, the social aspects of religion. There is no doubt that attending church helps bond people and gives them a group they feel they can belong to, get support from, and generally identify with.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping non-religious people from forming groups based on their shared values or interests, such as skeptics in the pub, atheist outreach, or groups based on any other activities (amateur astronomy, computer users, stamp collecting), but there is no doubt that church groups just seem to have an extra element the others lack.

There are negative aspects to this too, because being part of an in-group means that others are the out-group. So strongly bonded church groups do create a sort of “us and them” mentality. I have heard many members of one particular Christian sect ridiculing other Christians just because they belong to a slightly different group with almost indistinguishable beliefs. And their opinion of other religions and the non-religious can be even more extreme.

Another problem with these groups is that it discourages receptiveness to new ideas. If a person socialises with others who believe the same thing – however ridiculous those beliefs might be – they are unlikely to expand their horizons to encompass anything new. So a church group is like a trap which is hard to escape from.

What about charity? There are stats which indicate religious people do donate more than others. Unfortunately the stats don’t distinguish between donations which go to genuine charities and those which just go towards the church they belong to. Looking at the money involved in running some churches and the lavish lifestyles of some of the church leaders I would say that a lot of that charitable giving is wasted.

So now the big one: happiness. Research indicates that religious people are often happier. This observation is complicated by the fact that the most happy societies are those which exist in the least religious countries (Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, etc). What’s going on here? Well it seems thet religion gives some individuals greater happiness but it reduces the happiness of society as a whole.

Why are religious people happy? Research indicates it is almost entirely due to the social cohesion they get from belonging to a group, but surely some of it must also relate to blissful ignorance!

So religious happiness might be a bit like the state of euphoria some people get from taking drugs. It’s not real, but it’s good while it lasts. And also like using drugs or alcohol, some people become happy and good natured and others turn bad.

As Karl Marx said: “religion is the opium of the people”. He realised the good and bad aspects of religion. Here is the full paragraph containing that quote: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” And following that: “The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.”

So the analogy of religion as a drug leads to the idea that by being a “user” of religion the person avoids confronting real problems of the world and possibly improving the world to the point where real happiness is possible. Certainly denial seems a common attitude amongst religious people. And that is where the problem really arises.

But real happiness seems very difficult to achieve, so maybe the fake version provided by the opium of religion is the best alternative we can hope for. But that’s a rather unhappy thought!

The Power of Anecdotes

November 1, 2016 1 comment

I recently discussed a range of subjects with a quite intelligent and thoughtful religious person (yes, they do exist). These included topics such as whether “god did it” is a useful answer to questions we might have about the real world, what limitations science should have on the questions it attempts to answer, and the nature of morality.

Since I don’t have any particular religious view to defend I am open to look at all possibilities, but because of this I recognise that if I took all the possible sources of knowledge (all the religions, all the paranormal claims, all the philosophies, all the informal logic, and all the rigorous science) I would never arrive at any conclusion.

I would have to spend a lot of time carefully examining claims with little physical, objective evidence supporting them. I would have to reverse direction after taking a wrong turn because I followed misleading anecdotal evidence. I would spend so much time trying to collate all the various claims that I would have no time left to evaluate them.

That’s why anecdotes don’t count. In fact, everyone knows that anecdotes don’t count because they only look at a tiny proportion of them, specifically the ones which support the worldview the person favours. So a Christian will take a lot of notice of people who say they have been healed by Jesus but ignore claims of the power of crystals, or how a disease was cured after a person was abducted by aliens, or how the Asvins (Hindu gods of healing) helped a person who couldn’t be cured by conventional medicine.

I’m not saying all of these anecdotes are untrue, or that in a perfect world they shouldn’t be investigated. What I am saying is that an anecdote by itself has very little value. If we gave equal weight to all anecdotes in a fair way we would have to believe in a huge number of mutually incompatible ideas. We would have to believe dozens of gods were performing healings. We would have to believe in the power of crystals, of herbal remedies, of homeopathy, of alien interventions, and of hundreds of other things as well.

Just saying that (for example) Christian healing through the power of prayer is true but all the other stuff isn’t is classic cherry picking. If you believe in using anecdotes as evidence then you should believe all the anecdotes, not just the ones which agree with your preferred religion or new-age belief.

Or, you could believe none of them. And that is the far more rational approach that I take.

But we shouldn’t just totally dismiss anecdotes. If there is sufficient reason to think that a consistent pattern is emerging then the idea should be tested using more objective, systematic methodologies. I would suggest two approaches to testing whether the anecdotes have merit: first have an unbiased expert look at the evidence objectively; or second, set up a scientific experiment or trial of some sort.

For example, if a lot of people report that their health improves after friends and family pray to Jesus to help them (and remember that the Christian God will answer prayers according to numerous Bible verses such as John 15:7) then let’s test that claim. We know that people sometimes get better spontaneously, that they sometimes feel better because they think they should, and that there are many other confounding factors, so let’s test the claim using a double-blind trial.

And when we do we get very conflicting results. Most show no effect. Some show that the people prayed for get worse. Some show they get better. These are exactly the results we get when we test other ideas which have doubtful prior probability, such as homeopathy. Therefore, whatever the anecdotes tell us, we can say that our interim conclusion is that prayer offers no consistent solution to health problems. In other words faith healing and prayer don’t work.

Or, if we hear of an apparently miraculous cure of some sort, such as that attributed to Saint Teresa of Calcutta, then let’s have a closer look at the claims. It turns out in that case, that almost all the claims were untrue and that the conclusion that a miracle occurred is embarrassingly absurd (see my blog post “Sinner or Saint?” from 2016-09-07 for details). So we can reject that anecdote based on better evidence.

Remember, that these are interim results, but all results in science are interim so we shouldn’t treat them as any less certain than other conclusions reached in the same general area of human knowledge.

You might object and say that by dismissing anecdotes as evidence in themsleves that I potentially miss out on new discoveries. Well that is a risk I must take because if only one in a million anecdotes genuinely represent something new and real then I really can’t take any of them seriously and risk being mislead by the other 999,999. It’s that simple.

God Did It

June 17, 2016 33 comments

One of the most common tricks that religious people use to escape the fact that their beliefs have been refuted by scientific knowledge is to try to assimilate the new ideas into their own, but add the element of divine intervention.

Here’s an example: Traditionally Christians have believed that life was created by God in a few days and that nothing much has changed since then. But since the Theory of Evolution was developed and since the extraordinary amount of evidence supporting it has been discovered that original myth is no longer viable. So now a common response (apart from just denying the facts as many fundamentalists do) is to say “Sure, evolution is true. That’s how God works with life”.

Another example might be the origin of the Universe. The Bible gives an account of this in Genesis and that’s exactly what people believed until science uncovered the real facts regarding the Big Bang event about 13.7 billion years ago. So the Christians (again, those who don’t simply deny the overwhelming evidence) now say “But who started the Big Bang? Of course, it was God”.

In reality, this brand of believer (it’s not just Christians) could summarise their ideas in three simple words: “God did it”.

I recently heard an interesting analogy. When I walk into a room and turn on the light most people would accept that closing the light switch simply allows the electricity to flow to the bulb which then emits light. But using the “God did it” gambit I could say instead that the “Light Fairy” did it. Flicking the switch is simply a signal for the fairy to do her magical work and provide me with light.

What I’m saying is that God and the fairy aren’t necessary. Adding that extra element provides no extra level of knowledge we didn’t already have. It just makes things unnecessarily complex.

In addition to this it is entirely arbitrary. If we were going to add an extra layer of control to evolution (or any other phenomenon) why should it be God? Why not advanced aliens? Or psychic powers? And if it is a god, then which one? What’s so special about the Christian God? Could it be Thor or Zeus instead?

Some people say there are particular aspects of these processes which indicate a supernatural power must be involved. After all, how could a “blind” process like the naturalistic form of evolution lead to advanced life? Wouldn’t a “guided” form be more likely?

Well no. Let’s look at how evolution has worked. Over 99% of species which have existed in the past have gone extinct. Does that sound like how a god would operate? It seems very inefficient to me. But let’s just say that is a viable process for a god to use. What would have happened if we found the exact opposite: that every species was successful? That would have sounded even more like a god, wouldn’t it? And, no doubt, the religious people would be pointing out how their god was responsible.

So it doesn’t matter what the facts are, the “God did it” hypothesis can be invoked and it can never be proved wrong. It can’t be wrong, because it isn’t something that can be tested. But because of that, it can’t be right either. It’s actually worse than something that is wrong.

If we test evolution instead we can find many ways it might be wrong. If every species was successful evolution would immediately be disproved because elimination of some species while others survive is its main mechanism. If one type of life didn’t lead to another through gradual change evolution would also be disproved because small mutations being selected and eventually dominating is an evolutionary mechanism.

And what about the Big Bang? Well for it to be true there has to be some precise observations which agree with theory. The universe has to be expanding, there has to be certain abundances of elements, there has to be background radiation left over from the initial expansion, and several other more minor points. So what do we find? Well all of those requirements are satisfied, including a cosmic microwave background exactly as expected if the Big Bang is true.

But God could still be involved, right? Maybe the cosmic microwave background is just a remnant of the process he used. Sure, maybe. And if there was none then God could still be involved. And if the temperature had been 1 or 5 or 100 or 500 instead of 2.72548 then maybe that was the sign of God. Again, anything is possible because “God did it” is just not a theory.

Not only is it not a theory, but it is nothing. It’s a childish, meaningless inanity which isn’t even worthy of discussion – yes, I understand the irony in the fact that I have just used a blog post to do just that!

If anyone wants to use this in a serious discussion then we need a few details. You know, the sort of details which science gives us, like when, how, or where God did it. Then we can do some serious testing and see whether there really is any merit in the idea. Until then, these religious types should just keep the silly fairy tales where they belong and let the adults get on with the real discussions of reality.

Biblical Science Again

May 4, 2016 Leave a comment

Before I move on to a new topic I would like to finish off the discussion of the remaining “proofs” that the Bible contains scientific knowledge unknown to other people of the time. Despite Richard’s opinion that this is pointless (he’s probably right) it would be untidy to leave the rest of this material unanswered.

I don’t have the time or space to go into the same level of detail as before but I will quickly list the claims, give the Bible verse involved (I use the NIV because it’s the easiest to understand), and say why I don’t find the claims convincing.

I did a fairly thorough analysis of the first claim in my previous blog post so refer back to that if you are interested. All of the remaining claims follow the same general form. Here they are…

2. Bible says: Incalculable number of stars (Jeremiah 33:22). Science says: Incalculable number of stars. What was known: Only 1,100 stars.

The actual verse: I will make the descendants of David my servant and the Levites who minister before me as countless as the stars in the sky and as measureless as the sand on the seashore.

My comment: Clearly this is meant as a poetic statement rather than any precise mathematical fact and nothing of any relevance can really be drawn from it. I also can’t find any reliable statement on how many stars were recognised at the time, except that Hipparchus made a catalog of over 1000 of them.

3. Bible says: Free float of earth in space (Job 26:7). Science says: Free float of earth in space. What was known: Earth sat on a large animal.

The actual verse: He spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing.

My comment: There were some cultures whose beliefs involved the Earth being balanced on various animals but there are many others with different views, including many involving the Earth being suspended in a void, so the description seems misleading.

4. Bible says: Creation made of invisible elements (Hebrews 11:3). Science says: Creation made of invisible elements (atoms). What was known: Science was ignorant on the subject.

The actual verse: By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

My comment: To claim that this is referring to atoms is rather disingenuous. The idea seems to be more to say that God used nothing to create the world and that humans should accept this on faith.

5. Bible says: Each star is different (1 Corinthians 15:41). Science says: Each star is different. What was known: All stars were the same.

The actual verse: The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

My comment: This seems to simply refer to the fact that different stars have different brightness. This would be apparent to anyone who bothered to look.

6. Bible says: Light moves (Job 38:19,20). Science says: Light moves. What was known: Light was fixed in place.

The actual verse: What is the way to the abode of light? And where does darkness reside? Can you take them to their places? What was known: Do you know the paths to their dwellings?

My comment: I can’t see how this can be possibly construed as saying that light moves, and I also can’t find any reference to say that anyone thought light was fixed in place anyway.

7. Bible says: Air has weight (Job 28:25). Science says: Air has weight. Air was weightless.

The actual verse: When he established the force of the wind and measured out the waters,…

My comment: Everyone knew the wind has force. This would seem to imply that air has weight, but if it does then that knowledge was shared by everyone.

8. Bible says: Winds blow in cyclones (Ecclesiastes 1:6). Science says: Winds blow in cyclones. What was known: Winds blew straight.

The actual verse: The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.

My comment: I can’t find any definitive evidence on what people thought about this subject but it only seems to make sense that if the wind blows in all directions that some sort of circulation is occurring.

9. Bible says: Blood is the source of life and health (Leviticus 17:11). Science says: Blood is the source of life and health. What was known: Sick people must be bled.

The actual verse: For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.

My comment: What was known is that “sick people must be bled” and this verse is suggesting a blood sacrifice. This is science how, exactly?

10. Bible says: Ocean floor contains deep valleys and mountains (2 Samuel 22:16; Jonah 2:6). Science says: Ocean floor contains deep valleys and mountains. What was known: The ocean floor was flat.

The actual verse: The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at the rebuke of the LORD, at the blast of breath from his nostrils.

My comment: There is evidence that people were diving under the sea surface about 4500 BCE (yes, that’s before the world was created according to the “scientific Bible”) so it seems likely that they noticed that the sea floor wasn’t flat. Where the claim that people thought that it was flat came from is anyone’s guess.

11. Bible says: Ocean contains springs (Job 38:16). Science says: Ocean contains springs. What was known: Ocean fed only by rivers and rain.

The actual verse: Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?

My comment: The word “springs” here is better translated as “source” or “origin” so the claim is again rather dubious.

12. Bible says: When dealing with disease, hands should be washed under running water (Leviticus 15:13). Science says: When dealing with disease, hands should be washed under running water. What was known: Hands washed in still water.

The actual verse: When a man is cleansed from his discharge, he is to count off seven days for his ceremonial cleansing; he must wash his clothes and bathe himself with fresh water, and he will be clean.

My comment: This is clearly a reference to some sort of religious ceremony which was made if the person had recovered from a disease (probably leprosy) after 7 days. So you don’t wash your hands until the 7 days are done?

It seems fairly obvious that all of these claims are completely fatuous. The author really only succeeds in doing the opposite of his presumed intention. Instead of making the Bible and Christianity look credible it makes them look ridiculous.

Why is it necessary to justify the (alleged) truth of the Bible by using such obvious poor reasoning and flawed information? And (as I said above) why aren’t there genuine pieces of previously unknown knowledge in a book inspired by God?

The obvious answer is that the Bible is a book written by bronze age desert nomads and contains no special knowledge beyond their limited understanding of the world at the time.

Biblical Science?

April 28, 2016 Leave a comment

I was recently shown a small card which contained some religious propaganda. It was left at a lecture held in a science department at a university and purported to demonstrate how the Bible must have a supernatural origin considering it presented so many facts later shown to be real science where other sources of the same era got the same fact wrong.

Needless to say I was somewhat skeptical of the claim, but I decided to give it a fair chance and did some research on the subject. Because properly researching a subject like this takes a significant amount of time and effort I thought I should look at the first claim initially and then maybe move onto the rest later.

So here’s the first claim: according to the Bible the Earth is a sphere (Isaiah 40:22). And according to modern science the Earth is a sphere. But according to “science then” the Earth was a flat disk.

The phrase “science then” presents a few problems. First, science in its modern form has only existed for a few hundred years so what “science” thousands of years ago thought is very hard to establish. Next, when was “then”. The authors and dates of Biblical verses are not well known so the time we should be comparing the knowledge level of is hard to establish.

Then there’s the other, perhaps bigger, problem of Biblical interpretation. What do Bible verses really mean? Has meaning been lost in translation? Which meaning should we accept when many possibilities exist? And how literally should we take this material?

Well it actually doesn’t matter much because whatever criteria you use the claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Let me explain why…

First, here’s Isaiah 40:22 from the New International Version: “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.”

I looked at the translation of the verse in over 20 different Bible versions and 16 of them used the word “circle”, one used “disk”, one used “globe”, and the rest didn’t really specify any particular shape. So it seemed that the intention was to indicate a two dimensional shape (apart from the one which used “globe”, the Douay-Rheims Bible, which isn’t considered one of the more accurate translations).

But I wasn’t happy with that. I found the translation for the Hebrew word “chug” which seems to translate to circle, circuit, or compass. I also checked a few sources (all pro-Christian) for how the word “circle” is used in other parts of the Bible. In every case it is used to indicate a flat shape rather than a sphere.

Here’s a quote from a Christian site, the Christian Resource Institute: “We certainly affirm that Scripture is fully inspired by God… Yet what is interesting is that even with inspiration, God allowed these ancient ways of looking at the world to stand without correction. In other words, God did not reveal modern scientific knowledge to the ancient Israelites, or correct their ancient views of the way the world works.”

So this is saying that the Bible contains the deliberate error that the Earth is flat rather than spherical just to make it easier for the ancient Israelites. I thought the Bible was supposed to be a source of knowledge, but that hardly matters because the clear conclusion (from a pro-Christian source remember) is that Isaiah thinks the Earth is flat.

So from that perspective alone the original claim fails. But the problems for this claim go far beyond that…

The authorship of Isaiah is highly uncertain. Most modern scholars think there were at least two authors. The first was Isaiah himself (although the Biblical character almost certainly never existed) and the first 39 verses were written by him. But the rest were done by another unknown prophet many years later and those include the verse in question (40) as well as others containing the so-called “Prophecy of Cyrus” (which, of course, wasn’t a prophecy at all).

So the date this material comes from is unknown but the earliest date is likely to be around 500 to 550 BCE. What did “science” know about the Earth then?

The idea of a spherical Earth dates back to around the 6th century BCE, when it was mentioned in ancient Greek philosophy, and the Egyptians observed a phenomenon consistent with it around 610–595 BCE. So even if the Bible had stated the Earth was spherical (which it didn’t) that wasn’t unique knowledge at the time.

And even if both claims were true (that the Bible stated the Earth is a sphere and that no one else knew this) then the claim is still weak because, with all the claims made in the Bible we would expect some to be true and some false based purely on chance. Since there are undoubtedly hundreds of parts of the Bible (the creation myth, for example) which are false, finding one small part which might be construed as being true according to certain interpretations might not be surprising. But this even fails that rather minimal test.

Finally, plenty of other books (and other sources) claim to contain secret knowledge. Muslims use a very similar argument to support the Koran but I often see Christians ridiculing it. And various conspiracies exist claiming that the Egyptians, Dogon, Aztecs, and many others had advanced knowledge given to them by gods, aliens, etc. It’s all utter nonsense.

So the claim that the Bible contains unique science regarding the shape of the Earth unknown to others at the time fails in every way. I would hope that any intelligent person – like those likely to be at a science lecture – would recognise this frivolous nonsense for what it is, so the propaganda was pointless. It’s actually rather pathetic that anyone in this day and age would even have the slightest disposition towards treating this stuff seriously.

On the other hand, maybe some of the other 11 claims are more realistic. But I won’t really know that until I research those too. Sounds like a good subject for a future blog post!