Saturday, May 09, 2009

A Flood of Nonsense

A couple of days ago, while travelling on a train into London, I spotted a chap sitting opposite me reading a small black book. I figured it was something special - maybe a holy book - as it had gilt edges to the pages and a fancy red cloth bookmark. Also, the reader was moving his lips as he read as if in prayer. Then I made a terrible mistake. I made eye-contact.
"It's all true", he said. He waved the book at me. "Every word. It's all true."
"Is it", I said, smiling benignly.
"Every word. This is the word of God given to Man. Do you read your Bible?"
"I don't own a Bible", I said. "I'm an atheist."
He looked at me and smiled. I can't quite put my finger on the expression I saw in his eyes but the closest I can get is smug. He looked smug, as if he'd suddenly thought to himself 'I'm better than this chubby chap' or, more likely, 'Aha! A chance to get a convert!'
"You should own a Bible", he said. "Everyone should. Whether you believe in God or not, he's there and he's watching everything you do."
"And I'm sure you believe that", I said, "But I don't."
I returned to reading my book which, incidentally (and appropriately), was Thirteen things that don't make sense by Michael Brooks, in the fervent hope that my silence would signal an end to the conversation. It didn't.
"Don't you worry about your immortal soul?" he said.
"No. I don't have one as far as I'm concerned", I explained.
"That's a terrible thing to say", he said.
"Not a bit of it", I said. "I am just a big old bag of atoms with a beard. The particular arrangement of those atoms led to me. When I die, those atoms will fall apart and be redistributed and, in time, parts of me will be parts of other people, animals, plants, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the very Earth itself. It's a beautiful, elegant, recyclable system. Why does there need to be anything beyond that?"
He looked at me again and waved his Bible.
"It's all true! Every word is true! You should take note and ask for forgiveness!"
Thankfully, we then pulled into Wembley Stadium train station and he got off. He did get me thinking though ... while his faith was strong, did he really believe that every word in the Bible is true? The thought stayed with me all day.

Then, last night, I was an invited guest at the filming of Episode 1 of the new series of QI at the London Studios. Stephen Fry was on fine form, as were the panellists. The subject of the show was animals beginning with G. Inevitably, mention of giraffes led to discussions about their curiously long necks and evolutionary theory. During the course of this, Creationism was discussed and my mind drifted back to the conversation on the train. Later, in the Green Room, I kicked off some discussion about the story of Noah's Ark and related the story about the strangely intense locomotive evangelist I'd met. All of which led me to scribbling down a series of notes about why 'every word (in the Bible) is true' is a nonsense. That's the kind of thing I do.

If you believe the absolute literal 'word of God', as contained in the Book of Genesis, Noah was told that the world was wicked and corrupt and that God planned to flood it and destroy everything. My first question therefore is ... why a flood? I mean, if what you're trying to do is clear the world of evil, why not just make all the bad people explode or melt or something? It would be a powerful message to the rest of humanity to behave itself, wouldn't it? A flood seems to me an unnecessarily slow and cruel method of genocide. Plus, it's a bit haphazard. Someone is bound to have built a raft or clung to a log. And what about all of the fishermen and other boat owners? Hell, you could build your own boat in 40 days and 40 nights while the rain is falling. Secondly, there's the question of guilt. Why drown all of the innocent 'living things that moved on the earth'? What have they done wrong? And were newborn human babies and young children really who God was talking about in his 'all the people on earth had corrupted their ways' speech?

Anyway, putting all of that aside, let's look more closely at the story of the ark itself. Noah was told to build an 'ark of cypress wood (...) 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high'. That's a pretty specific build but, I guess, if God can make a universe designing an ark the right size would be a doddle. So, 450 x 75 x 45 gives us an internal cubic capacity of 1,518,750 cubic feet. Can you fit two of every species on the planet within that space? Assuming an average of one cubic foot per 'living thing' as an average (remember, we have everything from bull elephants to bacteria on board), and we need a minimum of two of each species, that means we can store around 750,000 species. Oh dear. Science has already identified 2 million species. And it is speculated that there may be as many as 100 million species. One conservative estimate says that there are 350,000 different species of beetles alone. And, as if this were not problem enough, the Bible actually says that Noah was to take 'seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth'. So there would be even more space needed.

Of course, I'm making an assumption here that we haven't included storing the 79 different species of whale. Nor the other sea mammals. Nor the turtles, sea snakes and marine iguanas. Nor the 20,000 odd fish species. Oh, and all of the corals, sponges, medusans, crinoids, molluscs, crustaceans and other arthropods that live in our lakes, rivers, ponds, seas and oceans. Actually, now I think about it, Noah must have accommodated them. If the world was going to be flooded with rain water, that would have had a huge impact on the salinity and chemical composition of both fresh and sea water. I have a suspicion that so much brackish water would have killed most aquatic species. Noah must have had an aquarium deck big enough to take two (or seven) of everything ... including a couple of blue whales of course. Otherwise, where did all of the underwater life we have nowadays come from?

And we haven't even touched on the subject of how Noah actually built the ark and how he managed to avoid being lynched by all of the lumberjacks, nail makers, carpenters, shipwrights, animal wranglers and tar makers he planned to leave behind when the rain started. However, let's put all that aside. Let's say that he somehow managed to build the ark and to pack all of that lot inside it. Noah's problems weren't quite over yet. Firstly, there's environment to consider. Some animals need cold environments, some need heat. Some are nocturnal, others diurnal. Some need the moist humidity of leaf litter or rain forest, others scorching desert. Creatures live in a bewildering variety of caves, drays, burrows, nests, setts, holes, tunnels and, occasionally, other creatures. How would this be arranged? And how would parasites be accommodated? Someone or something would need to carry the various types of fleas, ticks, mites and lice. And let's not forget the pubic lice in that list. Most troublesome of all, where would you put the venomous creatures? Or the vampire bats? Or - good grief - the woodpeckers, woodworms and death watch beetles? They'd be a bloody liability.

The parasites would have food by living on a host, but everything else would need food and water too don't forget ... and that raises yet another huge issue. God said to Noah, 'You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them.' Imagine the storage problems and the complexity of sorting out the dietary requirements for 100 million different species. And what would the carnivores eat? They can't eat the other animals as they're needed to repopulate the Earth. Could Noah have used Quorn instead (Quorn is a protein made from fungus. Are fungi counted as plants or animals? And what about bacteria and viruses and germs generally?)? The vegetarian animals would need a lot of food. Just one elephant will eat 200-440 lbs of food per day. And, presumably, as God was planning on destroying the entire surface of the Earth, they'd also need to take lots of living plants on board to be planted out when the waters subsided. I just hope someone was keeping an eye on the locusts. All of that food and water would eventually be processed and would reappear in the form of faeces and urine. Just imagine that job; clearing out the bodily waste of 200,000,000 creatures, sometimes several times a day.

We have to assume that Noah checked every animal for pregnancy as it came aboard as space would be tight and new births discouraged. Otherwise I'm not sure how he'd have coped with the short gestation times of some species. The ark was afloat for 150 days. The average pregnancy of a rat is just 22 days. Some other rodent pregnancies are even shorter. Many insects can produce a new generation every few days and they often have thousands of offspring at a time. How would Noah have dealt with the population increases? And what if an animal died or fell sick? Did he have a vet on board? I don't remember it being mentioned. Would he have chucked a single remaining animal over the side? After all, one giraffe is pretty pointless keeping if its partner is dead and God has destroyed all the others. Is this what happened to the unicorns?

For five long smelly months the ark bobbed about with Noah and his extended family (wife, three sons and their wives) desperately trying to cope with the eating, drinking, shagging, pooping and peeing of 200 million living things. All this as they scratched at their own bed bug, flea, mosquito and lice bites. And the noise! How did they sleep? Whatever the answer, 150 days later, God caused a wind to blow and 'the water receded steadily from the earth'. To where exactly? And how much water are we talking about? Dr Marty Leipzig has worked it out and it's 4.525 x 10 to the ninth cubic kilometres (4.525x1009 km3) Or, to put into a more sensible number, 4,525,000,000,000 cubic kilometres (if you want to see how the figure was arrived at and much, much more, visit his site here). Over 40 days and 40 nights, the rain would have fallen at an average rate of 5.5 inches per minute - that's means the water gets six feet deeper every 13 minutes. He also usefully points out that if we are taking the Bible literally and all of the Earth was covered, that would include the highest mountains such as Everest and K2. The temperature of a planet flooded so quickly to that kind of depth would rise by something like 1800 K or 1,526.84C (that's 2,780.33F) in which case water could not exist in a liquid state and Noah and all his animal chums would just be so much steamed meat.

So, if we stretch our credulity to accept that up to this point 'every word is true' ... what of the aftermath? If we imagine that all of that water was able to recede, what kind of a world would Noah have faced? It would be a place deep in soft, silty, salty mud; a place covered in the wreckage of villages, towns and cities; a place of great pestilence stacked deep with the corpses of billions of dead people, plants and animals. Thanks to God, only two of each kind of beetle, fly, rat or other scavenger was left. Their task was hopeless. They stood no chance of clearing up that kind of a mess. There would be no food other than what was on the ark and most drinking water would have been polluted by salt or decaying corpses. Disease would be endemic and deadly and the weather system would have been thrown into chaos. Into this sad new world stepped 500 year old Noah and his wife. He may have been a bit old to sire any more children himself so it was up to the three boys, Shem, Ham and Japheth and their wives to repopulate the world. We are therefore asked to believe that it is from these six people, and in only a few thousand years, that the four billion white, black, oriental, arabic, mediterranean, inuit, oceanic and other peoples of this world are descended. Incidentally, in doing so, they changed physical features, body shape and skin colour to suit their environment and therefore, with delicious irony, quite splendidly prove that Darwin got it right.

So there you go. As I've said so many times before, I have no beef whatsoever with religion or faith. What I do have a real problem with ignorance and inflexibility. Fundamentalism is the very worst kind of wrong. The Bible is a splendid book full of allegorical stories told in a way that suggest to people how best to live their lives. But it was written by men not God. It's full of inconsistency and paradox. In some places, God is Love. In others, particularly the Old Testament, he's a wrathful, vengeful God that slaughters the innocent and demands murder in his name. He also admits his own failure, which is not what you expect from a supposedly Supreme Being. By creating the Great Flood, he was destroying his own creations, the in-bred descendents of Adam and Eve who swarmed over the Earth, committing evil acts and sacrilege. They were rubbish creations. What kind of a deity makes that kind of fundamental mistake?

Fundamental. Mistake. Two words that sit very well with each other.

Patently, and obviously, the Bible is not meant to be taken literally, word for word. That's just madness. So, when and if I ever meet that man on the train again, I'm going to tell him so rather than listen to his blinkered and uninformed pronouncements.

Or I may just pop on my i-pod and sit in a different carriage.


Karen Redman said...

Hear, hear! I also see "that" expression in believers' eyes when they start to spout and agree that there is smugness about it, but also perhaps wide-eyed ignorance? I definitely like the principle of us all being magically re-cyclable - in fact, I adhere to it religiously. Amen! x

trev said...

Excellent work, my own blog needs improving now. You have made me feel lazy.

Winifred said...

I've only been on the Tube a few times and I've seen some characters. I'm sure it's a haven for nutters. Oh you said train maybe it wasn't the Tube!

How arrogant of that bloke to be so rude and patronising. I hate it when people try to convince you they're right and you're wrong, whether it's about religion, politics or choice of music. My faith is mine and I don't presume to tell other people they're wrong. I'd get the sack if I was was a Jehovah's Witness or a locomotive evangelist!

You lucky devil getting to a QI recording. That Stephen Fry is fantastic. His Podcasts are wonderful.

Rob The Builder said...

There are only two types of book from which the commited reader looks down upon those who question the book's importance with distain - the Bible and Harry Potter novels.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Karen, Trev, Winifred, Rob - Thanks all for your kind comments and interesting observations. Once again I'm delighted that people like what I write. I'm not evangelical myselfin the way that Richard Dawkins and others are. I have my own views on religion but I respect that others do too. It only becomes an issue and provokes me speaking out when it either affects my personal life or appears to be causing harm. Faith doesn't do that. Fundamentalist dogma does. The Bible brings great comfort to many. But to a very odd few it's a book to beat others with.

punk in writing said...

Fundamentalists are usually just a pain. I've run into one or two on the train too.

Like my grandfather says, sometimes all you can do is lift your hat and move on.

The Factory said...

I don't for one moment think that these people submit their beliefs to any scrutiny. Faith is a decision to believe in something that there is no proof of. It isn't logic based, it is pure hope.

The reason so many people are religious is that it's a seductive fantasy, the idea that one's life has a greater meaning than is apparent and that it continues after death. I think many people need this belief, even if it isn't true.

In order to disregard religion, one must accept that we are nothing more than, as Bill Hicks said, a virus with shoes, and that we have little or no significance to creation overall. This is easy in good times when we have health and good fortune, it's harder when we are seriously ill, or grieving.

Sadly I must accept the bare facts that I am just a bag of atoms, although I'm not always happy that I have to do so.

Angpang said...

That guy: 'LOSER!'

Does this qualify as 'intelligent comment and observation'?

Lisa said...

You should have just asked him to explain how, if God made Adam and Eve and then they had Cain and Abel, how the hell could Cain go get himself a wife in the land of Nod?

Andrew Kerr said...

Just read that someone's enjoyment of SpringWatch was spoiled by talk of evolution and that Darwin's book was only a theory.

Stop saying Theory you religious Nuts.It's just a Name of the Book not the idea.

god or whatever it is is an imaginary friend from Foster Home for imaginary Friends.

Sorry Mr Colgan but rant over and thought this place best place for it.

Great blogs as always! 8-)