The Bible vs. The Facts?

The Bible vs. The Facts? August 11, 2011

I am a Christian. I’m also a Baptist and we Baptists aren’t big on creeds. That’s not because we necessarily disagree with the substance of those creeds, just that we don’t agree with the idea that any authority should be permitted to compel or require every individual to assent to any given formulation of their faith. It’s the same Baptist principle of “soul freedom” that led Baptists to fight for the separation of church and state here in America.

But having made that anti-creedal Baptist caveat, the historic creeds of the Christian faith are a useful summary of what most, if not all, of us Christians believe and have believed over the centuries. Here, for example, are the words of the Nicene Creed, something most of us Christians have been reciting since 381 CE:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.


I’ve reproduced that here in order to point out one particular characteristic of its many affirmations: None of them is falsifiable.

“We believe,” we say, because this is what we believe, but we cannot prove that it is true. We are stating our faith — “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That conviction is firm, but it does not claim or require the certainty that only proof can supply. That is what separates faith from the certainty of fact.

What separates faith from folly is this: It cannot be disproved either.

Again I can’t avoid Wendell Berry’s indispensable distinction between religion and superstition. Religion, Berry says, echoing that passage from the book of Hebrews just cited above, is faith in that which cannot be proved. Superstition, he says, is belief in that which can be — and has been — disproved.

The creed quoted above is a religious declaration, but not a superstitious one. It affirms that “we believe” to be true a host of things that neither we nor anyone else can prove to be true. But nowhere does it affirm that “we believe” to be true anything that we or anyone else can prove, or has proved, to be false.

Christianity is a religion, not a superstition. My belief that Jesus Christ was God incarnate and rose again from the dead may be viewed skeptically, and it may be rejected by skeptics due to a lack of supporting evidence. But unlike, say, the belief that the moon landing was a hoax, it cannot be rejected on the basis of evidence to the contrary. Moon-landing denialism, unlike the faith expressed in the Nicene Creed, is a superstition. It can be and has been disproved.

What rankles me about Al Mohler’s creationist shtick is that he wants to equate “biblical orthodoxy” with superstition.

Not satisfied with the brevity of the Nicene Creed, Mohler adds to it a litany of further proclamations that he insists — in distinctly un-Baptist fashion* — must be affirmed as non-negotiable for all real, true Christians. But unlike the religious affirmations of that creed, the additions Mohler demands include tenets that are demonstrably falsifiable.

It’s likely you’ve noticed that I find that infuriating.

Not for any of the reasons Mohler always goes on about. He’s forever accusing Christians who refuse to deny science of chasing after “respectability” or “intellectual vanity.” That’s got nothing to do with it.

It’s infuriating because I’ve seen what it does to people. I’ve seen too many of its victims not to be furious with it.

When Christian teachers like Mohler insist that the non-negotiable tenets of the faith include beliefs that can be and have been proven false, they set their followers up for inexorable crisis and calamity. It turns Christians into ex-Christians with industrial efficiency.

“Test everything,” the apostle Paul wrote. “Hold on to the good.”

But what Mohler is teaching is, essentially, don’t test anything, and hold on to whatever we tell you.

“This stuff is unavoidable,” says Dan Harlow at Calvin College. “Evangelicals have to either face up to it or they have to stick their head in the sand. …”

“If so, that’s simply the price we’ll have to pay,” says Southern Baptist seminary’s Albert Mohler.

The problem with sticking your head in the sand is that you can’t see and you can’t breathe. Eventually you’ll come up for air and open your eyes and you’ll wind up catching a glimpse of whatever it was you were trying not to see.

And when that happens, it causes people to lose their faith. Not because their faith was weak and not because they were vainly chasing intellectual acclaim, but because Al Mohler or someone like him had taught them that belief in Jesus Christ was indivisible from some other belief that could not withstand testing. Taught to regard such things as inseparable, once they encounter the evidence disproving that superstition, they do as they were taught and jettison belief in Christ as well. They were taught that their faith must be bound up with folderol. And when that folderol falls apart — as folderol always will — it takes their faith with it.

When religion is reduced to superstition, a crisis of faith becomes inevitable. You can read the stories of those crises in the testimonies of the wounded souls profiled in Stefan Ulstein’s Growing Up Fundamentalist. You can measure the effect of this reduction to superstition at any of the alumni reunions held each year at Bob Jones University. (“Has anyone heard from Jim?” “Oh, poor guy, he accidentally picked up a copy of Smithsonian magazine at the dentist’s office and his faith shattered into a million pieces. He won’t be back this year.”) Richard Dawkins hasn’t produced a fraction of the ex-believers that Bob Jones churns out every year.

By declaring falsifiable beliefs to be central tenets of Christianity, Mohler warps our faith into a superstition. That renders it something that can be, and will be, disproved, dismissed and abandoned.

And superstition ought to be dismissed and abandoned — because it’s not true.

It’s strange even to have to say this, but apparently it needs to be said: Believing things that aren’t true is not good.

And it’s not good for a host of reasons — ethical, theological, practical, effectual — that have nothing to do with a desire for respectability or intellectual vanity. If those are really the only reasons Mohler can imagine for wanting not to believe in something that isn’t true then I’m not sure how to begin convincing him otherwise.

I suppose I could understand Mohler better if he seemed to recognize the high stakes of this game he’s playing. If he showed a bit more urgency in acknowledging that The Bible vs. The Facts is not a tenable position to try to sustain.

I’ve known many fundamentalists who believe, as Mohler believes, that the facts as established by sound science are incompatible with what they believe the Bible teaches. Like Mohler, they choose to side with the Bible, but they cling, white-knuckled, to the hope that some day scientists will find another set of facts — some new, revolutionary discovery that will show they had been mistaken and that the Bible, as these fundamentalists understood it, hadn’t really been disproved after all. Theirs is a desperate hope, but for them it’s a necessary one — it’s the only way they can see out of the bind they have created for themselves by elevating their own dubious interpretations of the Bible to equal status with God on high.

I’ve also known many more fundamentalists who shared Mohler’s The Bible vs. The Facts framework and who therefore have declared war on science in just the same way that the moon-landing denialists have declared war on NASA. They latch onto the arcane fantasies of Ken Ham and the Discovery Institute, ferociously promoting the latest iterations of credulous urban legends supposedly “debunking” the grand hoax of science. They speak in sinister tones of a shadowy scientific “conspiracy.” The media is in on it too, they say. And the libraries. And the Internets.

Neither of those responses is a healthy one, but at least those responses recognize what is at stake for them due to their belief — mistaken and self-inflicted — that The Bible and The Facts are incompatible.

Mohler apparently shares that belief, yet he doesn’t share the urgency of either of those responses. He seems almost complacent about his assertion that his doctrines cannot be reconciled with the proven facts of science. I can understand the deniers choice to live in denial. And I can understand and almost even admire the fretful, desperate hope of those longing for a scientific revolution that might reinstate the validity of their beliefs. But Mohler’s response — or, rather, lack of a response — just baffles me.

If incontrovertible science disproves what he declares to be doctrine, then he says he will side with the doctrine. And that is that.

But how do you …? I mean, how can you …? But if …?

Just baffled.

“But … but … but when the facts disprove what you believe, that means you’re wrong,” I splutter.

Very well, then, Mohler says. “That’s simply the price we’ll have to pay.” And if people like you want to be real, true Christians, he says, then you ought to be wrong too.

So I surrender. I’m not giving up the argument, mind you, but if wrong and right and true and false are all going to be used interchangeably, then I’m mystified as to how to continue it.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* I had some fun a few years ago with a post on this — “Can we please stop calling them ‘Baptists’ now?” — in which I noted that:

The “statement of faith” has replaced the creeds in most evangelical churches, and these statements are enforced with a dogmatism rivaling that of Athanasius. … The Southern Baptist Seminary’s … “Abstract of Principles” is 1,230 words long — more than 10 times as long as the Apostle’s Creed.”

But that AofP, at least, does not explicitly require a belief in a “historical” Adam and Eve, or explicitly call for a rejection of genomic science.

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  • hapax

    Jim Daniels, Andrew G., thank you for your responses.  I get now where I went formally astray.

    I’m afraid I have to contradict you on one point;  *I* believe in an (empirically) untestable God.

    On the other hand, the God I believe in isn’t precisely “in” the (material) universe, either, so it’s probably a moot point. 

  • So what does your empirically untestable god do? anything?

    (Being “outside” the material universe, whatever that’s supposed to mean, isn’t really relevant to the question of testability.)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I’m assuming zie became an ex-Quaker before becoming a Marine. Quakers disagree on a lot of stuff, but pacifism is usually up there with social equality in terms of important Quaker values. But there are all types…

    Friend of mine recently asked her friends what religion or denomination they’d think they’d be (including none), if not the one they actually are. For the atheists, what denomination would they pick. A largely light-hearted discussion. I reckon I could be Quaker in another incarnation*. Would you guys have me?

    *Figure of speech

  • You really think that you, or I for that matter, can just say, ‘Well, I’m going to ignore everyone else in the world — when I say “Christian”, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less!’?

    Cc: Well, yes, obviously, since that IS how it works. Let me give you some examples of religions that do just that.

    1) The Church of the New Jerusalem (a.k.a. the Swedenborgians) does not accept God is trinitarian, that Jesus is God’s Son, that there is only one true church or that Jesus will come again to judge people at the end of the world. The founder of the faith stated that God was one being who revealed Himself wholly through Jesus. Jesus started as a human being but perfected his nature to the point where he got rid of all human flaws, united his will to God’s, and became divine.

    The New Church also believes that the world goes through phases which end with judgments on the spiritual plane but not the physical one. The last of these occurred in 1757.  A Swedenborgian could not say that Jesus “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end” because Swedenborgians do not believe that Jesus will come into this world physically but rather make the world new again through revelation and spiritual enlightenment.

    Finally, Swedenborgianism does not believe that “there is one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Followers believe that salvation is available to ALL people, whether they choose to follow Jesus or not. The point is living a good life according to your beliefs and principles.

    2) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints does not accept the view of the Nicene Creed that God is three persons in one deity. Rather, the Mormons believe that there is one Godhead comprised of three gods: Elohim (a.k.a. God the Father), Jehovah (a.k.a. Jesus) and Michael (yes, the archangel Michael, whom the Mormons view as a god–though I’m not sure whether they regard Michael as the Holy Spirit or not). Also, in Mormonism, the Father and the Son are NOT co-equal, as they are in the Creed; rather, the Son is subject to the authority of the Father.

    They likewise believe that the souls of all those who are and were and will be were all born of God the Father and of his wife, the Heavenly Mother. Jesus was the firstborn of these spirits, but NOT the only one. Basically, every human is a son or daughter of God, and every human can achieve godhood. Nor do they view Jesus as “eternally begotten of the Father” because the Father existed twice before becoming God of this world–once as a spirit and once as a living man. This is not eternity as most other believers in Jesus would think of it.

    3) Jehovah’s Witnesses, as fits their name, believe that Jehovah is the only true God and that he’s not part of a Trinity. They also believe that Jehovah’s sole unassisted creation was Jesus (which is why Jesus is considered “begotten of the Father”).

    Jehovah’s Witnesses also believe that the end times have already started, that Jesus has been reigning in Heaven since October 1, 1914 and that Satan and his followers got kicked out of Heaven and onto earth on that day. And they certainly do NOT look for “the life of the world to come.” They take the Book of Revelation’s assertion that only 144,000 will go to heaven quite literally, and that for most of them, their best bet is being resurrected and placed on a post-Armageddon earth that’s been cleansed of all evil.

    4) Unitarians believe that Jesus was a great teacher and a prophet, but NOT that he was God. Jesus’s authority in Unitarianism derives from his moral teachings and not from divinity. Unitarians also do not accept that a Triune God exists. They are divided over whether Jesus existed before his birth in Bethlehem. Some say that he did not, while others believe that he was a divine spirit or angelic being called the Logos before being born as a man–a being greater than a human but much less than God.

    Finally, Unitarians believe that human nature is not tainted and does not contain any tendency toward evil that separates us from God; rather, humans have free will and the ability to choose between good and evil, as God intended. This contradicts the whole notion of “for us men and for our salvation, [Jesus] came down from Heaven.” In fact, Unitarians hold that the idea that God would need a blood sacrifice to reconcile Him to humanity smears God’s character.

    5) Conservative Quakers (Wilburites) reject the idea of “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”  They do not believe that a physical baptism is necessary. They also reject all written creeds–including the Nicene.

    Let’s not kid ourselves. Christians have been following Christ’s teachings for thousands of years. But different sects find different things important, re-interpreting some ideas and rejecting others. That’s just people being people.

  • hapax

    So what does your empirically untestable god do? anything?

    “outside” the material universe, whatever that’s supposed to mean,
    isn’t really relevant to the question of testability.)

    Well, in my speculations (I emphasize this because it isn’t like my personal “credo” or anything, it’s just a viewpoint that at the moment I find intellectually and aesthetically satisfying) God is “outside” the universe as an author is “outside” a story;  but acts “within” the universe

    a) as the source, sustainer, and final purpose of all that is (which isn’t empirically testable because basically it’s an assertion that if something is, it’s of God, so anything that isn’t of God, well, doesn’t exist)

    b) directly on occasion, but at “the free will of the Spirit” — every direct action of Divinity (most perceived subjectively, but sometimes on rare occasion objectively) within Creation is, technically, a “miracle” (which isn’t empirically testable because by definition a “miracle” is neither predictable nor repeatable)

    There’s also the problem that being outside of the Universe, God is also outside of time, which (from the perspective of a human tester) totally mucks with any perception of causality.  (Classic example — the very specific, unpredictable, and non-repeatable miracle of the Incarnation makes the salvific grace of the Atonement available not just to those who lived after the first century CE, but to all who ever lived prior to that date as well)

  • I reckon I could be Quaker in another incarnation*. Would you guys have me?

    We’re a rag-tag bunch of misfits, that for sure. Not all Quakers consider themselves Christians or even theists, for example.

  • Tonio

    It’s appropriate here to mention Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi. I’ve rot13ed the rest of my post to hide spoilers…

    Znegry’f cebgntbavfg Cv
    nethrf gung fvapr bar pnaabg cebir be qvfcebir gur rkvfgrapr bs “Tbq”,
    bar fubhyq pubbfr gb oryvrir naljnl fvapr vg’f n orggre fgbel. Jurgure
    “Tbq” vf n orggre be jbefr fgbel guna gur nygreangvir vf fhowrpgvir, naq
    bar pna nethr gung gur rkvfgrapr bs gur Byq Grfgnzrag’f qrvgl jbhyq or
    jbefr guna ab qrvgl. Ohg zl erny vffhr vf jvgu pubbfvat gb oryvrir gung
    fbzrguvat vf gehr onfrq ba rzbgvba. Uhznaf orvat snyyvoyr perngherf, jr
    qb guvf nyy gur gvzr gb bar qrterr be nabgure, ohg gung qbrfa’g znxr vg
    evtug be jvfr va rirel vafgnapr. Crefbanyyl, vs V gbbx gur Cv’f nqivpr
    naq oryvrirq jung sryg tbbq be sryg gehr sbe hasnyfvsvnoyr dhrfgvbaf, V
    pna irel rnfvyl vzntvar zlfrys nyfb qbvat gung sbe snyfvsvnoyr barf,
    yvxr jnagvat gb rng qrffreg sbe rirel zrny. Zbzragnevyl svyyvat ohg
    hygvzngryl abg abhevfuvat. Gung vf n ovt ernfba V pubbfr gb gnxr ab
    cbfvgvba ba hasnyfvsvnoyr dhrfgvbaf, orpnhfr zl rzbgvbaf ner haeryvnoyr
    va gryyvat zr nalguvat nobhg bgure crbcyr be gur jbeyq.

  • Joshua

    In reply to Nathan Bernhardt and Kiba (I’m not even going to try to work out how to reply to two posts at once in Disqus), those are weird news stories.

    Part of me is happy that an obscure field of study that I’m interested in gets a little bit of limelight, but the larger part of me is crying, “Well, what did you think textual critics of religious scriptures did with their careers?”

    In other news, we interview a builder who is putting up a shed, and a fund manager who’s looking at the stockmarket.

  • I believe in God and keep my faith but the undeniable facts of science are there. Some things cannot be explained or denied. My hope is that the answers that I seek to those thing I can´t refute will be given to me in heaven.