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Sep 18 2009

The lack of foresight in the Bible

Religious people like to dwell on the virtues of their holy books. They also like to claim that those books were either directly dictated by god or at least divinely inspired. But what is remarkable is that there is not a single thing in any of those books that shows any insight that could not have been held by an ordinary person living two thousand years ago or so with the knowledge that was at hand at that time. The lack of any hint of divine foresight in the Bible is striking.

For one thing, modern science has revealed that the universe is, by any measure, absolutely huge. Even the craziest of the religious crazies do not claim that the Earth is the center of a small universe and that the sky we see is just a bowl with holes in it. But as Carl Sagan pointed out, “[T]his vast number of worlds, the enormous scale of the universe, in my view has been taken into account, even superficially, in virtually no religion, and especially no Western religions.”

As Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York-Lehman College, says in reviewing Sagan’s book The Variety of Scientific Experience, which was based on his 1985 Gifford Lectures:

Sagan imagines how God could have dictated his books to the ancient prophets in a way that would have certainly made an impact on us moderns. He could have said (I’m quoting Sagan directly here): “Don’t forget, Mars is a rusty place with volcanoes. … You’ll understand this later. Trust me. … How about, ‘Thou shalt not travel faster than light?’ … Or ‘There are no privileged frames of reference.’ Or how about some equations? Maxwell’s laws in Egyptian hieroglyphics or ancient Chinese characters or ancient Hebrew.” Now that would be impressive, and even Dawkins would have to scratch his head at it. But no, instead we find trivial stories about local tribes, a seemingly endless series of “begats,” and a description of the world as small, young, and rather flat.

Sagan’s challenge is virtually ignored by theologians the world over. And for good reason: it is impossible to answer coherently while retaining the core of most religious traditions. The various gods people worship are simply far too small for the universe we actually inhabit, which is no surprise once we accept the rather obvious truth that it is us who made the gods in our image, not the other way around.

Images from the Hubble telescope reveal a universe of stunning beauty. But there are no hints in the religious books that the lights in the night sky are anything more than uninteresting dots. How hard would it have been for god to tell one of his prophets, say Elijah, to preach something along the lines of “Listen up, people! When you learn how to put two pieces of curved glass together to make distant objects seem larger, you are going to see things in the sky that will knock your socks off. Trust me on this.”

More recently, Sam Harris has made a point similar to Sagan’s :

But just imagine how breathtakingly specific a work of prophecy could be if it were actually the product of omniscience. If the Bible were such a book, it would make specific, falsifiable predictions about human events. You would expect it to contain a passage like, “In the latter half of the twentieth century, humankind will develop a globally linked system of computers-the principles of which I set forth in Leviticus-and this system shall be called the Internet.” The Bible contains nothing remotely like this. In fact, it does not contain a single sentence that could not have been written by a man or woman living in the first century. (emphasis added)

Why doesn’t the Bible say anything about electricity, about DNA, or about the actual age and size of the universe? What about a cure for cancer? Millions of people are dying horribly from cancer at this very moment, many of them children. When we fully understand the biology of cancer, this understanding will surely be reducible to a few pages of text. Why aren’t these pages, or anything remotely like them, found in the Bible? The Bible is a very big book. There was room for God to instruct us on how to keep slaves and sacrifice a wide variety of animals. Please appreciate how this looks to one who stands outside the Christian faith. It is genuinely amazing how ordinary a book can be and still be thought the product of omniscience.

It would not have taken much for god to indicate that he was behind books like the Bible or the Koran. The lack of such hints is surely a telling sign that these books are nothing more than the writings of people who lived in those times and were creating a narrative that would serve their immediate purposes.

More thoughtful religious people are sensitive to this obvious defect of their holy books. What they do is try to retroactively claim credit for predictions by (as this Jesus and Mo comic amusingly points out) tortuously reinterpreting the language of their books whenever a new scientific discovery comes along. The atheist barmaid has the best question to ask when someone makes this kind of absurd claim.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity on the Bible

8 comments

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  1. 1
    Evan

    Maybe not a bowl with holes in it, but the craziest of the religious crazies do claim that the Earth is the center of a small universe: http://www.geocentricity.com/

  2. 2
    Steve

    The Old Testament is full of Profits that predict exactly what is to happen in the New Testament hundreds of years later.

  3. 3
    Mano

    Steve,

    Can you give us a couple of examples of the prophecies you had in mind?

  4. 4
    zac

    i, being in egypt (a considerably muslim country), have run into the same issue. i’ve met muslims who say that the qurán predicted things that no one knew beforehand… but the predictions i was shown were in commentary books; books that skewed what the qurán itself said. granted, translations have an ambiguity, but they were QUITE afar from the actual word-to-word translation, and THAT (from what i understand) is why the qurán is printed word for word… to disallow interpretation… the same as the torah.

    the second comic you comment on is exactly like retconning. it’s a comic book thing that, when something doesn’t fit between stories, just change it. this is VERY strong when it comes to religious ideals. for example, jesus being born on 25-december, when historically before christianity, this date may have been taken from pagan history. conquer-and-assimilate is the name of the game.

    speaking of sacrificing a variety of animals, i calculated the numbers sacrificed here just for fun.

  5. 5
    Mano

    zac,

    Thanks for the information on retconning. I had not heard of the word before but you are right, it does apply to religious revisionism.

  6. 6
    Derek

    Steve’s claim is slightly unorthodox. I know Christians who would insist that the OT contains prophecies that are later fulfilled in the NT (though upon examination, they all turn out to be vague or false).But, I’ve never run into anybody claiming that folks in the OT were actually turning a profit, let alone the more astounding claim that such financial good-fortune was in itself capable of predicting the future.I figured such faith belonged only to Wall Street, these days.

  7. 7
    Steve

    Hi Mano,

    i dont have anything specific to contribute to this discussion, however i just wanted to say that i really enjoy your writing and wanted to let you know.

    cheers,

    Steve.

  8. 8
    Andrew - Hypnotherapy Melbourne

    It doesnt matter how postdated an event, there will always be individuals that misinterpret or spin religious materials for whatever cause.

    It’s the journey that needs to be enjoyed :)

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