This is the first of at least five articles I plan to write about the specific reasons I cannot accept the bible as fully true or inspired by a god. I put a huge amount of time over several years into studying it, and my goal all along was to reach the deepest and most objective understanding as possible. If you want to know how it feels to write about this, imagine a white Southern Baptist writing a serious article examining why they personally stopped believing in Islam.
During the entire time I studied the bible, I was a Christian and had no intention to stop believing, only to find the truth no matter what it turned out to be. Thus, most of the things I will say in these articles are not the conclusions of a nonbeliever reading a bible he’s already decided is untrue, but rather the things I learned as a Christian that ultimately led me out of the religion.
These are the reasons I stopped believing. It has taken me almost a year to reach a point where I think I can articulate them clearly. I first had to admit to myself that I was no longer a Christian. Then I had to grow a little in my new position by discussing these issues with both Christians and non-Christians, listening to what they had to say, and thinking about how exactly to put my concerns into words that hopefully most people will understand.
To kick off the series, I will start in the beginning, with the bible’s account of creation and the next several chapters of Genesis.
In order to make a point, let’s have a short thought experiment. Let’s start from nothing, no worldview, no religion, no ideas about how we came to be or how old the universe is. Set it all aside for the moment. Imagine that you have no idea where we came from and you want to find the truth.
What is the first thing you must do? Well, it would help to define what truth is. I would say that truth is ideas and facts that correctly represent reality. But then you have to define what reality is, and that’s a little more difficult. I think it’s best defined as the existence we experience. The “absolute truth” could be that we are part of a virtual reality, but if that were the case it wouldn’t matter at all to our lives because we still experience it. What matters to us, and what we think of as reality, is what we experience. Thus, the truth we are looking for is the collection of ideas and facts that correctly represent the reality we experience.
Note that even to get this far, to merely define what my goal is, I have to make an assumption. I have to assume that the universe is objectively, absolutely real. In most cases we don’t care about the possibility that we’re part of a virtual reality, but when we’re talking about the concept of what might exist beyond the universe, it is important to acknowledge our limitations. The only way someone could legitimately claim to know the absolute truth is if they could prove that the universe is not simulated. Since we have no way to test, observe, or interact with anything that may be outside of the universe, it is currently impossible to determine the absolute truth about it.
So let’s set aside absolute truth and talk about the truth of the reality we experience. If we assume that what we experience is objectively real from any real or theoretical perspective, is it reasonable to believe the bible’s account of creation is accurate? I am addressing the literal interpretation here; I have no problem with interpreting it as a metaphorical legend.
There are several problems with a literal reading of the creation account in Genesis. If the whole bible is taken literally and used to calculate the age of the earth through the given genealogies, the upper limit is around 10,000 years. We can see light from objects so far away that it would take nearly fourteen billion years just for that light to reach us. That’s the distance the light traveled, not the distance the objects are from us at this moment. Because of the expansion of space, those objects are now much farther away than they were when they emitted the light we can see.
None of the explanations I’ve heard for how the universe could be young while appearing so old are reasonable. They would have to present a viable alternative to general relativity, and not even the astrophysicists working on a new theory to combine GR with quantum mechanics have figured it out yet. Perhaps this would be a good area for Christians who take the bible literally to research. If they could come up with an elegant theory of quantum gravity that also works with a 10,000 year old universe, and experiments validate the predictions implied by it, then they’d have a much stronger case. Currently all they have is wild speculation about things that maybe could’ve happened, and such speculation is no more likely to be true than speculation about universes forming inside black holes.
We have another problem with the age of the earth itself. Radioactive elements are a great way to determine the age of ancient things like rocks, because the decay of such elements happens at a constant rate. By looking at the ratio of the radioactive element to the resulting stable element it decays into, we can determine how long it must have been since the rock was formed (and since we know how rocks are formed, we know what its composition would’ve been in the beginning). The results from radiometric dating put the age of the earth at 4.54 billion years, plus or minus 0.05 billion. There are many other ways to determine that the earth must be far older than 10,000 years.
Again, the response given to refute these methods of dating is never actual science but wild speculation, often about how god could have created the earth to look old. This is no more likely to be true than speculation about the earth being created five minutes ago, and all our memories being filled in to make us think we’re much older than five minutes.
But what if we insert a gap between the first and second verses of Genesis, and assume god created the universe and then let it age for nearly fourteen billion years before creating life? Well, aside from the fact that Genesis claims everything else in the universe (the sun included) was created after plants arose on the earth, we have another problem with interpreting the rest of the creation story as literal. That problem is human genetics, which shows that it’s impossible for the current population of the earth to have arisen from a single pair of humans (or even from the eight humans who supposedly survived a worldwide flood). Whatever method you use for estimating the minimum population in humanity’s past, the number is at least a few thousand.
In fact, staying within the study of genetics, we can map out how we are related to modern apes, just as we can determine that two people are related by analyzing their DNA. The same goes for the remains of ancient apes and humans we have dug up all over the world. Then, if you bring in the massive amount of evidence from the rest of biology and paleontology, it’s obvious that all life on earth had a common ancestor. It’s simply so well supported, by every source of evidence, that it’s now essentially fact.
Contrary to the common claim that there are no transitional fossils, we do have a lot of fossils showing the transitions between various types of creatures. We have also observed and directly caused speciation. That is, with species being defined as a group of organisms capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding. It’s quite difficult to divide organisms into distinct species because there are exceptions to most definitions and such division only makes sense in a small window of time. On a much larger scale, there is no clear delineation between one species and another descended from it, as they are connected by innumerable tiny alterations much like the unnoticeable daily changes of human aging.
So maybe god used evolution to create life. At this point, we’re interpreting the first nine chapters of Genesis as a metaphorical legend, because a literal interpretation is incompatible with human genetics and with evolution in general.
There is much more that could be said, for example the unique animals in Australia could not have gotten there from the Middle East, where Noah’s ark was supposedly grounded, and there is no evidence that such isolated animals have ever existed anywhere else in the world. The spread of animals after the biblical flood would not have resulted in such genetically distinctive creatures in isolated areas after such a short amount of time. But I’m trying to keep these articles from getting too long, so some things will have to wait. If there’s any particular issue you think I should address, feel free to mention it in a comment.
Next time we’ll look at the nature of the god portrayed in the bible, and consider whether or not such a god could exist and what evidence we might expect to see if he did.
There are five articles in this series:
Image: Desktop Nexus