The Bible’s Confused Relationship with Science

The Bible’s Confused Relationship with Science November 23, 2015

Bible science

Christian apologists are eager to tell us that scientists didn’t inform us of many facts about cosmology, physics, and biology. No, they were in the Good Book all along if we just had the faith to trust it!

One supportive source they often cite is a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, Arno Penzias. He said in 1978:

The best data we have (concerning the Big Bang) are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.

Really? From the Old Testament you get at 13.8-billion-year-old universe? Expansion from a point? A universe that’s not only expanding but whose expansion is accelerating? Dark matter and dark energy?

If it’s all there in the Bible, tell us the rest: what caused the Big Bang, if anything? Is there a multiverse? How are Relativity and quantum physics unified? While you’re at it, tell us if string theory is correct.

It seems to me that the Bible is as useful at informing us of scientific realities as The Bible Code is for predicting the future, but let’s consider some of the Bible verses that apologists think are so clairvoyant and see if the wild claims hold up.

Claims about cosmology

1. The Bible says that the earth is a sphere.

[God] sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers (Isaiah 40:22).

Well, we’re actually looking for the earth as a sphere, but that does sound intriguing. First, though, consider another verse in the same book of the Bible:

[God] will wind you up tightly into a ball and throw you into a wide, open land. There you will die. (Isaiah 22:18)

The first word means typically circle in the sense of a perimeter—think of a guard walking the perimeter of a camp. The second verse shows that Hebrew had a word for sphere, and if the author wanted to identify the earth as a sphere, the correct word would’ve been used. Notice also that Isaiah 40:22 isn’t written as if it’s sharing scientific knowledge. It touches on the earth as a flat disk only in passing.

2. The Bible knows that the earth is in empty space.

He stretches out the north over empty space and hangs the earth on nothing (Job 26:7).

This is scientifically vague and gives no clear description of our solar system. The earth isn’t just there; it moves around the sun. If you’re hoping that Job had a planetary model in mind, just four verses later we read about the “pillars of heaven.”

3. The Bible knows that the number of stars is uncountable.

Therefore there was born [of Abraham] as many descendants as the stars of heaven in number, and innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore (Hebrews 11:12).

How many descendants did Abraham have when this book was written in the first century? A million people? Whatever it was, “As many descendants as stars in the sky” is hyperbole. The author can’t have meant that there were then 1021 Jews in the world (which is roughly the number of stars). Again, the Bible is saying nothing remarkable.

If the point of any of these verses were to give new, surprising scientific knowledge, they would make that clear. Each reads as if it’s using ideas accessible by the people of the time.

These passages have been picked by modern Christians because they vaguely sound like information that science has taught us. But that’s backwards. Instead, imagine giving each to an unbiased reader of that time. Would they derive the science that these apologists imagine? Would they see a heliocentric solar system, for example? The apologists need to show that these facts came from biblical insights rather than modern science, but they can’t.

Claims about earth science

4. The Bible knows about the water cycle.

Many verses are cited to argue that the Bible understood the water cycle where water evaporates from the ocean, condenses into clouds, falls as rain, and flows back to the ocean.

He causes the vapors to ascend from the ends of the earth; who makes lightnings for the rain, who brings forth the wind from His treasuries (Psalms 135:7).

For he draws up the drops of water, they distill rain from the mist, which the clouds pour down (Job 36:27–28).

All the rivers flow into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, there they flow again (Ecclesiastes 1:7).

This shows nothing that an observant person from Old Testament times couldn’t have figured out. Water left in a pot will gradually vanish into the air. If that pot is heated, the water vanishes faster. Rain comes from clouds. The sea doesn’t get deeper even though rivers keep flowing in, and so on.

And the primitive understanding of meteorology is evident when these passages are taken at face value. God is given credit for water turning to vapor and falling as rain, but we know that physics is sufficient. Imagining treasuries to store the wind (from the first verse) would be cute coming from a child, but this is not wisdom from the omniscient creator of the universe.

Or take the third passage above. Just two verses earlier we see the geocentric solar system of the time:

The sun rises and the sun sets; and hastening to its place it rises there again (Ecclesiastes 1:5).

5. The Bible knows that wind circulates as cyclones.

Blowing toward the south, then turning toward the north, the wind continues swirling along; and on its circular courses the wind returns (Ecc. 1:6).

Here’s a time lapse simulation of the jet stream in the northern hemisphere. Sometimes the air flows in a circle, though usually not.

Yes, wind comes from different directions. This verse tells us nothing remarkable.

6. The Bible knows about ocean currents and undersea mountains.

The Bible tells us of “the springs of the sea” (Job 38:16). It also talks about birds and fish traveling “the paths of the seas” (Psalm 8:8), whatever that means. David imagines God blowing away the water to reveal “the channels of the sea” (2 Samuel 22:16), and Jonah, thrown into the ocean, imagines descending to “the roots of the mountains” (Jonah 2:6).

Why is this impressive? Fishermen of the time surely observed that the ocean has currents, and swimmers and sailors would have noticed that some parts of the Mediterranean dropped steeply, just like on land.

The Bible could’ve told us something new. Science has only recently revealed the deep sea geothermal vents and the ecosystems that live there. And the deep trenches created by tectonic forces at plate boundaries. And the magma flow that drives oceanic spreading at mid-oceanic ridges. Why didn’t the Bible reveal this?

Continue with part 2.

Acknowledgement: an article in RationalWiki was helpful in writing this post.

Once your forefathers and foremothers realized
that [the scientific method] generated results,
in a few generations your species
went from burning witches and drinking mercury
to mapping the human genome and playing golf on the moon.
David McRaney

Image credit: NASA

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