Reason, Science and the Church

Excerpt from When God Speaks for Himself: The Words of God You’ll NEVER Hear in Church or Sunday School, by Mark Tier and George Forrai (Inverse Books, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Mark Tier.

From Chapter 4: Reason, Science and the Church

“Nothing is to be accepted save on the authority of scripture, since greater is the authority of scripture than all the powers of the human mind.”
St. Augustine in De Genesi

“Before Adam’s sin none of [the animals] attempted to devour or in any wise hurt one another; the spider was as harmless as the fly!”
John Wesley, founder of Methodism

“[Stephen] Hawking is attempting [in his book A Brief History of Time], as he explicitly states, to understand the mind of God. And this makes all the more unexpected the conclusion of the effort, at least so far: a universe with no edge in space, no beginning or end in time, and nothing for a Creator to do.”
Carl Sagan, in his Introduction

“Your Highness, I have no need of this hypothesis.”
Pierre Laplace to Napoleon on why his works on celestial mechanics made no mention of God

The Supremacy of Faith

When Christianity was declared Rome’s monopoly religion in 380 CE by Emperor Theodosius, all competing religions — including Christian sects not obeying the doctrinal edicts of Rome — and Greek knowledge were violently suppressed by the combined forces of church and state. Books were burned, the library at Alexandria was pillaged, faith and revelation replaced reason and experimentation as the only sources of knowledge, literacy plunged, and Europe entered the “Dark Ages.”

The Bible was in Latin, the language of Catholic services (a practice only discontinued in the 1960s). Access was, therefore, restricted to people who could speak and read Latin — mostly monks and nuns. So the populace at large was entirely dependent on their priests for their knowledge of what God and the Bible actually said.

Christendom, in other words, was one enormous Sunday School.

Unsurprisingly in the context where the authority of the scriptures became absolute, they became the source of scientific pronouncements.

The Science of the Bible:

The Creation

The Bible begins [Genesis 1]:

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.

God created light on the first day — but he doesn’t get around to creating any source of light until the fourth day. And there’s no known scientific basis for the existence of light without a source.

And what does it mean to “divide the light from the darkness”? Darkness, after all, is merely the absence of light.

On the third day, God created grass, herbs, fruits, and (presumably) the other plants which all flourished before the creation of a life-giving sun.

Eventually, on the fourth day, God gets around to creating the sun and the moon:

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.

So God created “two great lights”: the sun and the moon. But the moon, as we know, is not a light, it’s a reflector of light. And why did he need to “set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth” and “to divide the light from the darkness” when he’s already created light and divided it from the darkness? Isn’t he repeating himself?

At the end of the sixth day “God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” [Genesis 1:31].

But didn’t take long for him to see the “error of his ways” “And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart” [Genesis 6:6].

So he decides to destroy his creation by drowning everyone (and every thing).

The Flood

Why a flood? Since God created man why not simply strike all the evil people dead? And since his rationale for the flood is that he “saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth” [Genesis 6:5] why does he also decide to destroy every animal — and why does “it repenteth me that I have made them”? [Genesis 6:7]. No reason is given.

And if he “repenteth” at his creation of the animals, why then enlist Noah’s aid to save them?

Be that as it may, it’s worth examining the story of the flood in some detail — and the details provided in the Bible are unusually clear.

The cause of the flood: rain. “And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights” [Genesis 7:12]; “And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered” [Genesis 7:19].

So the entire world was covered with water — every patch of earth, no matter how high.

The results were predictable [Genesis 7:21-23]:

21 And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man:

22 All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died.

23 And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.

That seems pretty straightforward…but Genesis 7:20 specifies exactly how deep the flood waters were:

20 Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered.

Considering that the highest point of the earth is the tip of Mount Everest, 8,848 meters, one cubit must be a pretty long measure.

Except it isn’t.

Like the foot, the cubit is a measurement based on the human body. If you bunch your fingers onto the tip of your thumb, the cubit is the distance from the tips of your fingers to your elbow.

Used as a unit of measurement in Babylon, Persia, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Arabia and elsewhere in the ancient world, cubits varied considerably in length, from 428.1 mm (16.85 inches) in the First Temple period of Israel to 650.2 mm (25.6 inches), the Arab cubit.[1]

Which means the 15-cubit depth of the flood was somewhere between 6.42 and 9.75 meters.

Whichever cubit you use, it’s way short of the 8,848 meter height of Mount Everest. Nor does it make much of a flood at the top of the somewhat closer Mount Sinai, 2,285 meters high.

Whichever way you look at it, God didn’t achieve his aim of destroying “All in whose nostrils was the breath of life.”

The Ark

Noah’s Ark, according to God’s instructions, was to carry “every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shall thee bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female” [Genesis 7:19] (but seven of “every clean beast[2]…[and] fowls also of the air” [Genesis 7:2-3]).

Exactly how many animals is “every sort”? Today, there are 1,250,000 known animal species (including insects, fishes, reptiles, amphibians, mollusks, and, of course, mammals) — and, perhaps, many more. Assuming Noah didn’t need to take the 30,000-odd salt-water fishes, he “only” had to carry 1,220,000 species — or 2.4 million insects and animals, with one of each sex. Plus the food to keep them all alive for 150 days.[3]

To put this in perspective, the San Diego Zoo is the world’s largest. It covers 100 acres and employs 1,900 staff to look after just 4,000 animals from 800 species — 0.07% of the number of species Noah and his family had to contend with.

So exactly what sort of vessel was the ark?

God’s instructions on the design and building of the ark are very clear [Genesis 6:14-15]:

14 Make thee an ark of gopher wood;[4] rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.

15 And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.

Using the standardized measure of one cubit = .472 meters, the ark’s length of 300 cubits is 141.6 meters or 464.5 feet; its height of thirty cubits is 14.2 meters or 46.5 feet.

God doesn’t specify the beam (or width). So let’s look at a similar ship, the six-masted schooner Wyoming, which is the largest wooden ship ever built in recorded history; it was completed in 1909 in Bath, Maine.

The Wyoming was 100.4 meters long (140 meters including the jib and spanker booms — about as long as a 30-storey building is high) and 15.3 meters wide; nearly as big as a modern-day US Navy frigate.

The Wyoming’s draft was 9.3 meters — so it needed a depth of 10 meters at the bare minimum or it would run aground. Given that God’s flood covered the world only to a depth of 15 cubits, or 7.08 meters, if the ark was anything like the Wyoming it would never have left the ground.

Of course the Ark, unlike the Wyoming, wasn’t going anywhere. But if the tip of Mount Everest was covered at low tide, with no land to disperse storms the seas would have been ferocious — not to mention the blinding rain and icebergs (ice floats on water, so the polar icecaps would break up), some, no doubt, bigger than the Titanic. So the Ark would have had to have been a very strong ship — and Noah an excellent sailor.

The Wyoming had a cargo capacity of 8,600 cubic meters. If Noah’s Ark had a similar capacity, the two animals of each species could be allocated an average space of just seven cubic millimeters. That’s a tiny cube just 2.65 millimeters or about one inch per side. And that calculation doesn’t allow for any storage space for the animals’ food.

So the ark must have been significantly bigger than the Wyoming — bigger, at least than the world’s largest supertanker!

The Wyoming was built in a shipyard by hundreds of experienced carpenters, shipwrights, and workmen using modern technology. Nevertheless, when the Wyoming put to sea it had a serious problem: due to the length of its wooden construction it flexed in high seas — and constantly leaked. Its crew of thirteen to fourteen had to continually pump water out to keep the Wyoming from sinking.

The Ark, by comparison, had a crew of just eight people. And while the crew of the Wyoming only had to sail their vessel, the crew of the Ark also had to look after two and a half million animals: not only feed them, but shovel their excrement over the side. (Think of hippopotami, giraffes, rhinos and elephants — just to start with!)

In sum, the Ark had to have been a far bigger vessel than the Wyoming — and so far more complex. There’s no mention in the Bible that God helped Noah build the Ark, or sail it — and nor is there any suggestion that Noah had any expertise as a shipwright.

There is just one clue to a possible solution, however: Genesis 5:32 tells us that “Noah was five hundred years old.” The rains that caused the flood began on Noah’s six hundredth birthday [Genesis 7:11]: perhaps because it took him a hundred years to build the monster Ark with the available, primitive, technology.[5]

One other thing: Genesis 7:4 tells us that God gave Noah just seven days’ notice of the coming flood. Only then did Noah set out to collect the animals — all 2,440,000+ of them.

A super-human effort indeed!

After the Flood

After the flood “God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply” [Genesis 9:1].

Reading the rest of Genesis chapter 9 and beyond, it’s quite clear that’s exactly what Noah and the animals did.

There’s just one problem.

After being under water for 150 days, all vegetable life would die. The whole land would be a muddy desert. So after the flood, what did Noah and the animals he carried on the ark eat?

God’s instructions to Noah do not include collecting the seeds of all plant species to re-vegetate the dead, post-flood earth — or carrying enough food to last until the first harvest came in.

The Earth: Flat or Round?

While not made explicit, the idea that the earth is flat is embedded in the Bible.

For example, Isaiah 48:13 tells us “Mine [God’s] hand also hath laid the foundation of the earth,” implying that the earth was built like a house, the land standing on a solid foundation (or held up on pillars, if Job 9:6 is to be believed: “Which shaketh the earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof tremble”).

While Jesus is fasting in the desert for forty days and forty nights “the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world” [Matthew 4:8]. This view of the earth’s size is repeated in Matthew 24:30: when Jesus is in heaven “then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory,” and repeated in Revelation 1:7.

If, from the top of a high mountain Jesus can see all the “kingdoms of the world,” and if “all the tribes of earth… shall see” him ascending to heaven, the earth must be a small, flat disc.

The Inhabitants of the Antipodes?

In the four hundred years before Christianity became the monopoly religion of the Roman empire, it existed as a “minnow” in the “sea” of Graeco-Roman thought and various concepts of Greek cosmology crept into Christian theology.

One was Aristotle’s theory of the “heavenly spheres,” with a stationary (and round) earth at the center, surrounded by spheres holding the moon, planets, sun and stars. This view is in harmony with passages stating “the world also shall be stable, that it be not moved” [1 Chronicles 16:30], “the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved” [Psalm 93:1] and the story in Joshua 10:13 where, after Joshua spoke to God, God commanded the sun and moon to stay still:

13 And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.

In the ninth chapter of his City of God, “Whether We Are To Believe In The Antipodes,” St. Augustine relies on Aristotle’s cosmology when he writes:

“But as to the fable that there are Antipodes, that is to say, men on the opposite side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets to us, men who walk with their feet opposite ours, that is on no ground credible.”

The reason?

“For Scripture, which proves the truth of its historical statements by the accomplishment of its prophecies, gives no false information; and it is too absurd to say, that some men might have taken ship and traversed the whole wide ocean, and crossed from this side of the world to the other, and that thus even the inhabitants of that distant region are descended from that one first man.”

In a similar vein, Father Procopius (c. 465-528 CE) claims that the Antipodeans are theologically impossible. “If there be men on the other side of the earth, Christ must have gone there and suffered a second time to save them; and therefore there must have been, as necessary preliminaries to his coming, a duplicate Adam, Eden, serpent, and Deluge!”

Christopher Columbus

When Columbus was trying to sell King Ferdinand of Spain on his idea of reaching India and even the Holy Land by sailing west instead of around the Cape of Good Hope, the King assembled a council of astronomers and cosmographers. Known as the Council of Salamanca, in 1487 it solemnly decided against Columbus’s theory of the rotundity of the earth and the antipodes, declaring that texts of Scripture and “the Fathers” were opposed to such an idea; that, as Father St. Augustine said, “If there were any antipodes, the Bible would have said so.”[6]

Excerpted from When God Speaks for Himself by Mark Tier and George Forrai. Copyright © Mark Tier and Pronto Express, 2010. All rights reserved.


[1] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubit.

[2] That can be eaten according to Jewish dietary laws.

[3] “And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days” [Genesis 6:24].

[4] What is “gopher wood”? Nobody knows. Various possibilities suggested include cypress, pine, cedar, “squared timber” or possibly even willow-branches and palm leaves woven together like basket-work with bitumen on the inside — this type of vessel was known as “kufa” (From the Jewish Encyclopedia: “kufa” (Arabic, “kufr” = Hebrew “kofer” = “gofer”).

[5] But if Noah was 600 years old, how come he had only three children.

[6] Five years later, Columbus persuaded Queen Isabella, Ferdinand’s wife, to finance his expedition.

Mark TierMark Tier, an Australian based in Hong Kong, started writing when he was 14 – and hasn’t stopped since. His first work, Understanding Inflation, was a bestseller in his native Australia in 1974. That was followed by The Nature of Market Cycles, How To Get A Second Passport, and The Winning Investment Habits of Warren Buffett & George Soros, which has been published in 3 English (New York, London, & Hong Kong) and 11 other-language editions. Once labelled “the Eclectic Investor” for his wide range of interests, he co-edited two science fiction anthologies which won a Prometheus Award in 2005, an analysis of Christianity, When God Speaks for Himself, and a political thriller, Trust Your Enemies. His website is marktier.com.

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