Mini-Dialogue with an Atheist
This is from my analysis of the deconversion story (i.e., from Christianity to atheism) of “Anthrotheist”: a very pleasant, enjoyable dialogue. I have slightly revised it and added many links. His words will be in blue.
I honestly didn’t ever intend to claim that the Bible was meant to be a science textbook, but hasn’t it served at various points in history as exactly that?
Sometimes it is misunderstood as that, by less sophisticated and insufficiently educated Christians.
Wasn’t the position of the church for at least some time that the Earth must be the center of the universe exactly because of a passage about the Earth being set on its foundations and the sun and moon moving about it?
Yes. Later it was better understood that that was phenomenological language: the same sort that all of us use every day: “the sun comes up and goes down.” Or some of the language was poetic and not intended to be literal (as was done in describing God Himself too: what is called anthropomorphism and anthropopathism).
Without knowledge of heliocentrism (or any science at all), it’s perfectly logical (and not absurd) to assume or conclude that we are stationary and it’s the sun that is moving. And many great scientists did that, too (backed up also by Aristotle and other notable philosophers). At least one great scientist did even after Copernicus (Tycho Brahe).
I know that it describes the creation of the world, and that description counters many current understandings of the order in which things had to happen; literal readings of scripture aside, when a text says “First this, second this, third that,” and so on, that isn’t at all poetical or allegorical.
The ancient Hebrews had very different conceptions of chronology and time, and often, texts that we casually interpret as literally chronological, were not intended to be (I’ve written about the Hebrew conception of time). Early Genesis is a combination of symbolic language (trees and picking fruit, talking serpents) and some real, literal things (the earth did have a beginning — as science also tells us –; there was a primal human pair, who did “fall” and rebel against God).
The word for “day” (yom) was understood to not have to be literal, at least as far back as St. Augustine (d. 430). Nor do Catholics believe that the Flood was global. The language there was partially figurative or non-literal.
I suppose the point that I am trying to make is that it is all well and good to say in modernity, “the Bible isn’t a science textbook,” exactly because we now have science textbooks. Prior to that invention, far more stock was put in the Bible’s capacity to explain the world, and that stock has only receded in response to the epistemological successes of science.
Yeah; science (originating in a Christian worldview, not an atheist one; formulated in Christian and medieval minds) was a great advance in human knowledge about the material world, and even interpretation of the Bible was improved because of it. I think that’s great. It didn’t prove that the Bible was wrong; only that we interpreted it wrongly in some respects. Biblical interpretation is a human field of knowledge where we can improve and do better over time. The Bible itself didn’t change, but over time our understanding of it can improve.
That is the loss that I refer to. It isn’t that the church has tried to stymie science, just that by its own hand it has limited the Bible to spiritual matters (whether that amounts to a diminishing of the Bible’s stature is another matter, and I suspect that you don’t believe that it is at all).
The Bible is primarily about spiritual matters. When it touches upon matters that are scientific in nature it is not inconsistent with science. We believe that God created the universe ex nihilo. Science eventually figured out that it began in an instant with a Big Bang (the theory was formulated by a Catholic priest-scientist), which was not inconsistent with our existing view at all. It’s quite harmonious with it. Science came up with evolution (conceived in a then-theist — not atheist — mind, by Charles Darwin).
Nothing in the Bible requires us to believe that Adam was necessarily created in an instant. It says that God made Him from the dust (“the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground”: Gen 2:7, RSV). The “formed” could very well have been a process of millions of years, from matter. It’s interesting that it doesn’t say that God created man out of nothing, but rather, from the dust (matter). To me, that almost implies process itself.
Thus, there is no necessary contradiction. The real contradiction comes with materialistic science, that attempts (inconsistently, among some scientists) to rule out God as impossible in the whole process (even with regard to ultimate origins). That contradicts Catholicism and the Bible (and I would say, logic as well). But evolution itself does not, as long as God isn’t arbitrarily / dogmatically excluded from the process.
And so on and so forth. No unanswerable contradiction between Christianity and science has been demonstrated.
See my related papers:
Old Earth, Flood Geology, Local Flood, & Uniformitarianism (vs. Kevin Rice) [5-25-04; many defunct links removed and new ones added: 5-10-17]
Galileo: The Myths and the Facts [5-11-06]
Dialogue on the Galileo Fiasco and the State of Scientific and Astronomical Knowledge in 1633 (vs. Eric G.) [5-13-06]
Noah’s Flood & Catholicism: Basic Facts [8-18-15]
New Testament Evidence for Noah’s Existence [National Catholic Register, 3-11-18]
(originally 8-14-18 on Facebook; rev. 2-18-19)