Review: Science and the Bible

Ted Burge's Science and the BibleTed Burge’s Science and the Bible: Evidence-Based Christian Belief is another book I found for myself at the library. It sounded like exactly what I was hoping my Christian friend would have recommended to me. I thought, “All right, if someone’s going to answer my problems with the bad science in and lack of trustworthy evidence for the Bible, it’s going to be this guy.” I figured that, since Burge is primarily a physicist who also did a brief stint in theology, he’d speak my language.

I’ll cut to the chase. If you’re looking for science about the Bible and its claims, you won’t find it here. If you’re looking for science that corrects the Bible’s mistakes, jumbled up with lots of scripture-based blathering about various concepts of Christian doctrine, this is the book for you — or perhaps the book for your young-earth creationist relatives. The title is an apt one; there are chapters about science, and then there are chapters about the Bible. Rarely do these topics intermingle, except for parts such as when Burge takes it upon himself to rewrite Genesis 1 in a scientifically accurate way. (I’m serious. It’s chapter 10, “Today’s Creation Story: January 1, 2000.” I was dumbfounded.) If you are looking for something to recommend to your Bible-thumping uncle that will explain important concepts in geology, cosmology, and evolutionary biology without making him defensive about his Christian identity, this book is probably a good choice. But that’s as far as my endorsement of it goes.

From very early on, Burge (like Myers) states explicitly that his investigation of Christianity begins by assuming that the Christian god exists.

The existence of God cannot be proved, and “absolute” scientific truth cannot be proved. But there is a difference: progress in science is generally believed to be an approach toward “absolute” scientific truth, but progress in Christian belief has to start from a belief in the existence of God, and the progress is in knowledge and understanding based on “theories” of what God is like, what humans are like, and the relationship that occurs. [p. 16]

The very essence of atheism is a disagreement with the validity of that assumption, so I already knew this book wasn’t going to change my mind. It didn’t help, of course, that Burge fell into the all-too-common habit among apologists of waving his hands in the direction of some unspecified mountain of evidence out there, then proceeding to cite the Bible as evidence for believing what the Bible says.

It is not possible in the context of this book to provide the wealth of evidence, based on speculation, revelation, and subsequent reasoning for those creedal beliefs. I shall list some of the New Testament passages that give evidence of the Trinitarian beliefs of the writers of the epistles. There is also the very explicit penultimate verse of Matthew (28:19)…. Many scholars question the authenticity of this verse, but it does link back to Matthew 3 where the Son is baptized (v. 16), the Father speaks (a voice from heaven, 3:17) and the Spirit of God descends (3:16). [p. 23-4]

Truly, for someone claiming to be interested in “evidence-based” belief, Burge’s understanding of what constitutes evidence is an odd one. Chapter 3 discusses “Evidence in the Bible,” chapter 4 deals with “Interpretation of the Bible,” and then in chapter 5 we finally get to “Evidence Other Than in the Bible” — but after a brief and wavering section dealing with Biblical chronology and mixed (but mostly failed) attempts to match it up with archaeological findings, he actually goes on to cite hymns and works of art as other forms of evidence. Later, he argues that the existence of Christians is evidence for Christianity, in particular for belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

There is no need to argue about the reliability of the details of the resurrection experience for the one certainty is that there was a rapid expansion of the number of believers. The preaching was extended to other places outside Palestine, and soon non-Jews were accepted into the community. The very existence of the Christian Church today is the firmest evidence of the resurrection, and the continuing experience of individual believers bears witness to the power of belief in the resurrection and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. [p. 117]

I wonder why Burge doesn’t believe that the existence of Muslims is evidence for Islam … or that the existence of young-earth creationists is evidence for young-earth creationism. At least he does a good job in his clear and accessible chapters on “Physical Evolution,” “Geological Evolution,” and “Biological Evolution.” There are even a couple appendices on how rocks are dated using our knowledge of radioactive decay. I was happy to see him warn readers against belief in a “god of the gaps”:

There used to be special emphasis, by those not convinced of the theory [of evolution], on the gaps in several sequences, particularly the sequence leading to human beings. Some Christians used this as evidence for the biblical story of “special creation” of each and every species. Over the decades, however, many missing species have been identified, often in new fossils, and the danger of believing in a “God of the gaps” is now well known. As each gap “reserved” for God is closed, such a God seems to be progressively squeezed out. [p. 76]

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly as this was printed by the Templeton Foundation Press, Burge’s good science is scattered amongst circular reasoning, desperate grasps to justify the irrational by appealing to what people find “comforting,” and a completely backwards statement of the anthropic principle. (He argues, as so many apologists are fond of doing, that the confluence of various physical constants and laws which allow human life to exist point to a creator since the likelihood of all those ducks lining up in a row is so small [p. 67]. The anthropic principle is actually a way to point out that any living beings would necessarily only observe a sort of environment in which those beings could survive, so the fact that we do is really not very remarkable.)

I don’t think I regret reading this book, though I certainly wouldn’t say it answered my doubts about the evidence behind Christianity. It was interesting to see what wasn’t written here; that almost sent a stronger message than what was. Ted Burge plugs two of his other books near the end of this one, claiming that in them he “made well-founded scientific beliefs the basis for certain Christian beliefs and attitudes” [p. 179], so I might add those to my list of books to read in the future. But I won’t be holding my breath.

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1 Comment

  1. Jojo the hun

     /  June 27, 2011 at 11:39 pm

    a completely backwards statement of the anthropic principle

    Unfortunately it seems a good number of people of both camps on this question misuse the term “anthropic principle” in the way you describe.

    The phrase “anthropic coincidences” muddies things more, in my opinion. Perhaps, taking your idea from another thread, we should call them “ferric coincidences” or “sequoiac coincidences”. I wonder…would that make them seem more, or less, remarkable?

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