This is especially relevant in discussions about religion, which tend to degenerate into a shouting match between confirmed sceptics (scientists and atheists mostly) on one side and religious fundamentalists on the other. I believe that atheism is the default rationalist position and that a belief in God is completely irrational. However, I have no quarrel with anyone who has a personal faith in God; it is their choice, and I respect that. It is with the extreme ends of the spectrum that I take issue. There is no doubt that militant atheists, Richard Dawkins being the best-known example, actually sneer at believers, even if they are not aware that they are doing so. Because they have reached their conclusions by a process of rational deduction, they look down on those who have reached their conclusions entirely on faith. Obviously, religious faith is, ipso facto, the acceptance of a set of beliefs without concrete evidence, but that is not a good reason to ridicule those who hold those beliefs unless, as a result of their beliefs, they stray into areas of thought about which they know nothing.
The problem with the fundamentalist viewpoint is that those who hold it know that they have the necessary evidence, a principle source of that ‘evidence’ being the Bible, the Qur’an or other ‘holy’ book. From this point, however, I will confine my commentary to the Bible, which is the only scriptural text with which I am reasonably familiar. A common phrase that you will read on Christian websites is “the Bible is inerrant”. In other words, everything that you read in the Bible is a true account. I think that the Bible contains a great deal of wisdom, the passage from Ecclesiastes that I referenced in Fact or Fiction being a classic example. However, to suggest that there are no errors in the Bible is a logically untenable point of view. Out of the many examples I could have selected, I put forward just two, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament:
3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.One is bound to ask, if the first thing that God allegedly created was light, how it is that he didn’t create the source of that light until the fourth day.
5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
16 And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.
17 And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
18 And to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness: and God saw that it was good.
19 And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.
Genesis 1 (Authorized Version).
1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,It is a reasonable deduction that these wise men will have come from somewhere in the region of Mesopotamia, so if they were following a star in the east, how is it that they didn’t end up in India?
2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
Matthew 2 (Authorized Version).
Of course, these are trivial errors that do not invalidate the Bible’s status as a valuable document. You will perceive a problem only if you believe that the Bible is the word of God and is therefore inerrant. On this subject, I came across an interesting article while researching this essay. The author starts by quoting an acceptable albeit imperfect definition of science as “knowledge of natural phenomena that is subjected to some degree of sceptical rigour and explained by rational causes.” He then states:
Natural, in this definition, is opposed to supernatural. Rational is opposed to philosophical, spiritual or theological. Science, according to this definition, only allows for the examination of the natural. It will not allow the possibility of the supernatural.…No matter what evidence these scientists see, they are not allowed to see God.…Evolution, therefore, begins on a godless foundation. You don’t arrive at evolution because the evidence demands God played no part. You arrive at evolution by removing God’s involvement before you even look at the evidence.You have to look very closely to see the flaws in this argument. First, the word ‘evidence’ is not used in anything like the sense that most people understand it. It suggests, misleadingly, the process used in a court of law to determine the guilt or innocence of someone accused of a crime. Evidence in the scientific sense is even more rigorous than its forensic equivalent: scientific evidence is verifiable, or it is not evidence. Claiming that the Bible is the word of God because you believe it to be so because it says so in the Bible is, unfortunately, a self-referencing or circular argument. It is certainly not evidence.
Franklin Church of Christ (The Origins of Man: Fact vs. Story).
Second, there is the a priori assumption that God exists, which violates the mediaeval scholastic principle known as Occam's razor (entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem: ‘entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’), explained by Sir Isaac Newton as “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” The bulk of the writer’s argument is therefore invalidated by the absence of verifiable evidence for his conjecture. However, this should not be taken to imply that science doesn’t make assumptions; it does. A classic example is Newton’s laws of motion, which do work well enough in everyday situations and were the best approximation to reality for 200 years. However, they are based on the assumption that space is absolute; in other words, Newton regarded space as a Euclidean three-dimensional grid that stretches unchanging into infinity, so it was inevitable that this limitation, pointed out at the time by Liebnitz, would eventually have to be confronted. And although the successor to Newton’s laws, Einstein’s theory of relativity, eliminates Newton’s assumption, it too is an approximation to reality, albeit a closer approximation than its predecessor. The interesting philosophical question that arises here is whether it will ever be possible to explain absolutely everything.
Science has also made plenty of wrong guesses in the past, the phlogiston theory of combustion and the aether theory of light transmission being classic examples. There may be more to come, although the theory of evolution won’t be among them: hard, real, evidence for this theory is being accumulated on an almost daily basis. However, I did suggest one possible candidate in Who’s Fooling Who? In fact, there are key areas of science where a measure of faith is a prerequisite. Theoretical physics is a case in point: modern entrants to the discipline have been schooled in mathematics and taught that experiment and observation are an inferior road to knowledge. This leads to concepts such as string theory, an elegant hypothesis for which there is no observational evidence and which produces no testable predictions. Another example is the Higgs boson, a subatomic particle the existence of which has been calculated mathematically but never confirmed experimentally. However, the difference between this and religious belief is that experiments are now underway (the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland) that will either confirm or deny the existence of this hypothetical particle. Science never stands still, while theism is frozen in time and space.
Third, there is the implicit assumption that the theologian is as much an expert in his field (the supernatural) as the scientist in his, someone whose opinions carry as much weight. And because the theologian deals in certainty, he assumes that the scientist does too. However, this is a delusion. The scientist deals with uncertainty; the scientist knows that there is a limit to what we can know, what we can prove beyond reasonable doubt. The scientific basis for this insight is Werner Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty, which relates to the subatomic world and states that if you know how fast an electron is travelling, you will have no way of knowing where it is. Conversely, if you know where it is, you will have no way of determining its speed of travel. I have to confess that this is a crude formulation of what is in practice a very precise law, one of the bizarre consequences of which is that an electron can be everywhere in its orbit at once. Well, not really. The orbit is merely the sum of the probabilities of all the possible positions that the electron may be in, a tolerance within which all possible information is confined.
I have used the word ‘tolerance’ here in its engineering sense, but it would be equally appropriate to use it in its conventional meaning. It is one of the grim ironies of history that within a few years of Heisenberg’s seminal work, Hitler had risen to power in Germany. The idea that science is an adventure on the borderland between knowledge and uncertainty was suddenly confronted by the arrogance of monstrous certainty, of dogma.
Dogma has its roots in beliefs that are unshakeable, beliefs that the holder will never countenance changing. Which is why I detest it. Dogma is a denial of the human spirit, a closing of the mind against questioning, against adventure, against discovery, against knowledge. Dogma would turn us into a regiment of ghosts, a tortured host of manipulated automata.
However, it is important not to confuse dogma with faith, and I do not do so. I close with a quote from Oliver Cromwell, a man not otherwise noted for his tolerance:
I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.