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Scripture and the Laws of Nature

You have climbed to the top of a high building with a Holy Bible in one hand and a Holy Qur'an in the other. If you like, you can hold a copy of The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins) between your teeth. On the count of three, leaning over the parapet, you consign the books to the mercy of Gravity. Your beautiful assistant, twenty floors below, watches to see which tome hits the ground first. I leave it to those who doubt the outcome to conduct the experiment.

The books are physical objects and subject to the forces of nature. My contention is that the claims made within their pages should also be measured against the discovered norms of the Universe and if found to fall short, should at least be held in doubt. I will go further and suggest that the more outlandish the claim, the more rigorously it should be scrutinised.

There is nothing wrong with doubt. Doubt is the engine of all inquiry, just as certainty is its enemy. Certainty, in the absence of proof or even of evidence, is also called faith, and is often upheld as a praiseworthy character trait. For some people, faith can be a 'buckler' or source of courage. For some it is a comforter in times of duress. But in others it can lead to extremism and intolerance. It is not hard to see why. Faith is not the elimination of doubt. It is the denial of doubt. Suppressed denial does not like being challenged, hence the extreme reactions.

45 score years and 10?

Of the land mammals, man has the greatest average longevity, with elephants and gorillas not far behind. Modern medicine has pushed the typical healthy human lifespan from around 70 to 85, with a very few making it past 100. Those who do cross the 100 mark are, without exception, on borrowed time, and to all intents and purposes worn out. The oldest credibly recorded age was 122 years. To look at a centenarian, it is impossible to believe that a human could live nine times longer. Impossible, that is, unless one suspends disbelief when reading the Old Testament.

Elementary, my dear Jesus

Apart from radioactive isotopes, elements are stable and immutable. Compounds, in some circumstances, can be broken down and the elements recombined as different compounds, but this does not change the elements themselves. Water, H2O, is a compound of Hydrogen and Oxygen. It can change state, to ice or steam, but is still H2O.

Wine is typically 86% water and 13% ethanol (and 1% mixed organic acids, aldehydes, unfermented sugars, etc). Ethanol, C2H5OH, contains Carbon. To make Carbon out of Hydrogen and Oxygen would not require a mere chemical process, but a thermonuclear reaction (read nuclear bomb!) Did Jesus turn water into wine at Cana? There is room for doubt.

950 year-old Patriarchs and nuclear sleight of hand are only two out of hundreds of prodigious events presented as truths in Scripture. They are far from the most outlandish. Both pale into insignificance when compared with the Creation story. But my aim here (though you might not believe me) isn't simply to prove the Bible unscientific. Why shoot fish in a barrel? Instead, it is to advocate the type of critical thinking that questions all unlikely claims, from whatever source, together with the discernment that distinguishes between a story and a report.

It is perfectly possible to suspend disbelief temporarily, yet remain aware that we are doing it. That is the best way to enjoy fiction, even children's fiction like Alice in Wonderland. We don't need to keep interrupting our reading to remind ourselves that caterpillars don't really talk or smoke hookah. We can simply enjoy the fun of it, while it lasts. But part of growing up is learning the distinction between reality and fantasy. St Paul said it as well as anyone:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

And what is a man, or a woman? Surely someone who has developed the physical and mental attributes of adulthood, who does not inhabit an over-simplified world of make-believe, who makes personal choices, by all means, but has the intellectual honesty to say - This is my choice, but I acknowledge there is room for doubt.

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