Science and the Old Testament: Reconciled

February 7, 2015

Today our lesson involves the scientific method and the Old Testament. Now, in today’s highly charged world, science and religion seem to be at odds with one another, and that’s a polite characterization. Read The Creation of Debate by Phil Plait for Slate, a year ago, for some background. (Mr. Plait covers the Bill “The Science Guy” Nye/Ken “Creation Museum Guy” Ham debate about evolution v. creationism, and more.)

I have a theory—not provable, at all—which actually reconciles the two positions. First, though, a bit of background.

The Torah, also known as the Five Books of Moses and the Pentateuch, dates back to 450 BCE, or some 2450 years ago. The Torah is a historical text, purportedly explaining early life on Earth. (It’s also a set of 613 commandments.)

Debate exists about who wrote the Torah. Early on and for many centuries, the conventional wisdom identified Moses as the author, having received the words directly from God. More recently, scholars believe the Torah was “assembled” from other texts. Regardless, the words got written down and they have survived through the ages.

In a 2007 Gallup Poll one-third of all Americans claimed the Bible is literally true! This view explains a 2009 dust-up in Alabama. Bradley Byrne was the Alabama Chancellor of the Department of Postsecondary Education. He was seeking the 2010 Republican nomination for Governor, when he was quoted stating “I believe there are parts of the Bible that are meant to be literally true and parts that are not.” The came upset, what with this being Alabama and all. Then, of course, he claimed he was misquoted, what with his being a politician and all. Mr. Byrne declared: “I believe the Bible is true. Every word of it.”

So here’s my take on all of this. I think the Torah’s historical aspects reflect the best understanding of its authors about natural history and the development of human civilization. These people did not have the math skills Einstein relied on to develop his theory of relativity. They had none of the tools Darwin used to reach his conclusions about evolution. And they lacked the vision to develop and articulate the view of the universe so well explained by Galileo and, before him, Copernicus.

Despite what they did not have, the Torah drafters did a pretty grand job of explaining everything in their midst. By today’s standards their notions ought to be compared with patent medicines of the late 18th century and, before, the use of leeches to bleed out diseases. Given the times, though, their attempt to explain the development of the universe, humanity and everything else is really very wonderful! It’s also wholly consistent with the scientific method.

Science represents an attempt to explain things. Certainly, the scientific method depends on observable, empirical, and measurable evidence. The Torah doesn’t! That said, the Torah provides an explanation for the existence of the universe and everything in it circa 5000 years ago. And, with no ability to conduct scientific experiments and test hypotheses, I think the Torah represents the science of its day, a narrative that explains everything.

I’m no fool! I know my thesis will not persuade Congressman Byrne—he did lose the race for governor, but he was elected to Congress this past November—or anyone else who shares the literalist view he set forth years ago. That said, on an issue which had bedeviled us for a very, very long time, I see nothing more than a long, slow and steady march toward a more complete understanding of the world in which we live.

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