Although this article has nothing to do with FAFO (not directly, at least), I am presenting it as one of a series of essays on various topics that hopefully will be interesting to readers and will provoke discussion. Or, you may not find it interesting at all, in which case you can bypass it, and no harm done.
Be forwarded that it’s kind of long. But, hey, it’s an essay.
It is not possible to prove by any scientific means that no god exists.
For one thing, science is not in the business of proof, but rather it is in the business of evidence and probabilities. Science cannot prove by argument that if one holds out an apple while standing on the Earth and lets it go, it will fall to the ground. What science can do is to state that, based on all available evidence, it is overwhelmingly probable that the apple will fall. The evidence is so extreme, and the probability is so high, that for all practical purposes we can predict the outcome as a certainly. Even so, this is not a “proof”. For example, it is possible that, at the instant I let go of the apple, an eagle will swoop down from the sky and snatch the apple before it hits the ground, or that at the instant I let go the entire universe coincidentally will evaporate into a colliding universe. There are infinite other possibilities even if for practical purposes we can assume none of them will happen.
Furthermore, it isn’t possible to prove a negative, unless the item in question is very specifically defined in such a way that the definition can be shown to be false. A statement as vague as “a god exists” cannot be disproven any more than it is possible to prove that seven is not a color. The word “god” is not sufficiently defined to demonstrate its non-existence.
Proof is a concept properly belonging not to science, but to mathematics and logic. These disciplines play a major role in science, of course, but the rigors of mathematical proof require a finite, deterministic data set, a luxury not afforded to us for most real-world situations much less a vaguely defined supernatural deity. As such, generally we need to substitute proof with probability so that we can systematically exclude absurdities without having to lean on the mathematical rigors of proof.
And yet, the provocative title of this essay suggests that the Christian god can be proven to be false. How can this be? In this case, the analysis is informed by science, but the “proof” is based strictly on Christianity’s own logic. This can be demonstrated without resorting to the intractable problem of proving a negative because the Christian god actually is defined in some detail.
To understand this, we should first provide context for what it means to be a Christian. It has been said that there are as many versions of Christianity as there are Christians, and while that may be overstating it, there are dozens of major and hundreds of minor variations of Christianity. Even so, all of these variations have certain things in common. Not all Christians have to believe that Moses parted the Red Sea or that Yahweh made the Sun stop in the sky, but there are certain doctrines required of all Christian denominations. For example, all flavors of Christians have faith in the following:
- Jesus was the virgin-born human manifestation of Yahweh, the creator of the universe.
- Jesus died as a human sacrifice to Yahweh to provide salvation to humans for Original Sin.
- Jesus rose from the dead – he was resurrected by Yahweh to complete his mission.
- Jesus ascended to heaven from whence he came, to take his place with Yahweh the father.
These are all central tenets of Christianity. They are universally accepted as unquestioned truth by all Christians. Indeed, Christianity is devoid of “spiritual” meaning and purpose if any of these central tenets are not true. Although each of these tenets is contradictory to science, for most of them science cannot disprove them because a negative for which evidence cannot be examined cannot be disproven. For example, it is impossible to prove that Jesus did not ascend to heaven, or for that matter to prove that heaven does not exist, even though these things are contradictory to all known scientific facts. We can make the case that a three day dead body cannot resuscitate because the internal organs would be liquified and the brain would be inert, and we’d be correct to point this out. However, the internal logic of Christianity does not preclude a “miracle” by which Yahweh preserved the body of Jesus in stasis until he was ready to resurrect it. For disproof, we need to look toward a case whereby Christianity breaks confirmed reality by its own internal logic in such a way that it can’t rescue itself with an appeal to un-disprovable miracles.
What else do Christians believe? Many things. For instance, Christians believe the Bible is the Word of God. They believe in its truth from the first book of Genesis all the way through to Revelations. Where Christians find disagreement, it is in human interpretation of the Bible. It is agreed that human interpretation will be inconsistent because humans are fallible and opinionated, but all Christians agree that the Bible itself is the inspired Word of God even if it is sometimes misinterpreted by humans.
For example, the vast majority of Christians accept the Genesis account of creation to be broadly the truth. Even the subset of Christians who accept the scientific findings of cosmology, geology and evolution nevertheless agree with the Genesis account of Yahweh’s creation narrative, and the first humans in the form of Adam and Eve. For example, the Vatican, representing the single largest Christian sect encompassing one sixth of the human population, officially acknowledges and accepts evolution as fact. According to current official Vatican doctrine, Catholics believe “God initiated and continued the process of his evolutionary creation, that Adam and Eve were real people”, and affirm that “all humans, whether specially created or evolved, have and have always had specially created souls for each individual.” Fundamentalists, of course, take a radically different view. Many reject science in entirety and affirm the literal interpretation of Genesis, often affirming the creation as a literal six day event that occurred less than 10,000 years ago.
It is not possible to have a reasoned debate on religious grounds alone. By definition, religion is a belief system based on the supernatural, and supernatural beliefs cannot be disproven by any means. Faith, by definition, is the firmly held belief in things despite evidence to the contrary of those things. Supernatural claims cannot be observed, measured, or analyzed by natural mechanisms (e.g., our senses and instruments) and are immune to any restrictions of logic. Without evidence and without logic, there is no basis for reasoned debate: one either believes or one does not.
Therefore, we have to confine our discussion to the intersection of religious doctrine with the realm of real things – that which we know from senses and observation, and which complies with the rules of the universe and logic. This is the realm that is informed by the scientific method and is fully consistent with all known observation and evidence and is subject to reasoned discourse.
Let’s begin with the book of Genesis. What does science tell us that is relevant to the content of Genesis? Lots of things, but for the purposes of this discussion we’ll focus on what we know as a certain fact about the way living things relate and the way humans came into existence. What we know as a scientific fact is that all known living things are related, as shown conclusively by analysis of DNA, the “programming language” of life. One could accept for the sake of argument that Yahweh is the creator of that language and the mechanisms by which it works, but there is no argument of any kind about the fact that it does exist and that it does work.
Because all living things are related, we also know that all living things have common ancestors. Just as it is possible to look at the DNA of two people and from that make a very accurate assessment of how closely those two people are related (e.g., they share a grandfather), we can also look at the DNA of two animals and make a similar assessment (e.g., they had a shared ancestor approximately 100,000 years in the past). The same can be done for an animal and a plant, or an insect and a bacterium. All known living things are part of a singular family tree, where any two leaves share a common branch somewhere between the topmost twigs to the very trunk.
What does this really tell us? It tells us that there is no such thing as a “first dog” or “first banana”. Such a thing is a nonsense concept. We can never identify the “first human” because there was no first human.
As an analogy, we can think about what it means to be an adult man. Every adult man knows he was once a boy, but it is impossible to identify the precise instant that the boy became the man. Even everyday society cannot make such a distinction. Does the boy become a man at the instant he turns 21 when he can legally drink alcohol? Or is it age 18 when he can legally vote? Or age 16 when he can legally drive? Rental car companies recognize 25 as the magical age. Disneyland and movie theaters recognize 12 as the magic age for an adult ticket. Or is it the age of the first pubic hair? The first production of sperm? The point where the brain is fully developed?
There is no doubt that the boy becomes a man, but the process is so gradual and the definition of “adult man” so ambiguous that the notion of a defined moment of the emergence of the man is completely nonsensical. What we recognize as the man is the result of an accumulation of changes over a stretch of several years, and we do not recognize it until after the fact and by a sort of unstated common consensus.
So it is with the emergence of a species. There is no defined moment where it happens. Species emerge gradually from an accumulation of generational changes that occur over time. If a given population becomes subdivided into two populations, separated by geography and with distinct environmental conditions, then the changes that accumulate for population “A” will be different from the changes that accumulate for population “B”, a divergence that increases over time as more and more changes accumulate.
Eventually, if the two populations come back into contact with one another, they may be no longer able to interact as a single population. After the passage of sufficient time, if these divided populations come back together they may have diverged sufficiently that they cannot or will not interbreed. It is at this point (after the fact) that speciation is recognized, but it is impossible to pinpoint an exact magical moment of speciation since it is the sum total accumulation of changes over time, not one specific change at one specific moment.
Further, the definition of “species” has meaning only in the relation between two groups, and not within the group’s own timeline. An animal at any given generation is the same species as its parents and its children, in an unbroken chain going back to the original “shared ancestor” joint population, so there is no point where a new species suddenly appears. Rather, the distinction that we call speciation happens between two parallel populations as each isolated subgroup accumulates a different set of changes from the other subgroup.
Chimps are fairly close cousins with a more recent common ancestor with humans than any other species, but the first human did not simply appear the day after that ancient population became geographically isolated into two groups. Each generation, starting from that shared ancestor right up to today, was the same species as its parents and its children. There is no moment of new speciation for that population, and as such the concept of “first human” is a nonsensical idea that does not match scientific reality. Thinking otherwise simply reflects scientific ignorance.
Coming back to our original point, science tells us that there was no first man and no first woman. As such, there could not possibly have been an “Adam and Eve” that popped into existence as fully modern humans without prior ancestors or that had parents of a different species. Yet Genesis makes this claim, stating that Adam and Eve were specially created without prior ancestor, as fully formed modern humans, although ignorant of the knowledge of right and wrong (good and evil). Thanks to science we know for a certain fact that this is not true.
Genesis then continues the story by claiming there was a magical tree in a magical garden, containing magical fruit that would confer the knowledge of right and wrong to the humans, and that there was a sentient snake conversant in human language, botany, and philosophy who had a discussion with these non-existent people and convinced them to eat the magical fruit. Science can’t tell us that these individual things are false, regardless of how silly and anti-scientific they are, but science does tell us that the described sequence of events could not have happened because the prime players, Adam and Eve, could not have existed as described.
We can’t prove an evidence-free negative, so we can’t prove there was no magical talking snake, no matter how silly the idea might be. But we can say definitively that there was no Adam and Eve because the notion of a first human is logical nonsense and scientifically ignorant.
If there was no Adam and Eve, then they could not have been tempted by the magical snake to eat the magical fruit. If the magical fruit was not eaten, then there was no Original Sin. If there was no Original Sin, then there was no need for a savior from that sin, therefore Jesus could not have been a savior for an event that didn’t happen. The notion of a savior is the very foundation of Christian belief. The entire career of Jesus, as defined by universal Christian doctrine, was based on a provably false foundation.
This is not to say that Jesus necessarily did not exist, did not preach certain things captured in the Gospels, and that he did not believe what he was saying. What we can say for certain is that the belief that his death somehow saved humans from a non-existent “group sin” is a belief that is contrary with known reality and is therefore false. Because there was no Original Sin, there was no salvation from that sin, and therefore salvation doctrine is false. If salvation doctrine is false, Christianity is false because this doctrine is a central tenet of Christianity.
Christianity, stripped of salvation doctrine and therefore supernatural justification, is largely indistinguishable from humanism. The Sermon on the Mount, stripped of its falsified supernatural baggage, is “Secular Humanism” ahead of its time. Christians could embrace that with pride while discarding the falsified supernatural baggage if they would so choose.
We also know from the Bible that Jesus personally believed that Adam and Eve and the Genesis story were real, but we know from the scientific study of reality that these things were not real, so this means Jesus was wrong. According to Biblical doctrine, Jesus believed he was being put to death as a sacrifice to save humanity from Original Sin, so again Jesus was wrong. By definition, God cannot be wrong, therefore Jesus could not be God. The Christian concept of God includes three “persons”, one of which is Jesus. Since it has been shown by internal Christian logic that Jesus could not have been God, then the Christian god is false. Both the Christian god and Christian doctrine is definitively proven false strictly based on its internal logic, and we have not needed to resort to proving an evidence-free negative.
This can be summarized as a syllogism:
- Christianity can be true only if the doctrine of salvation from Original Sin is true.
- Original Sin was committed by the first man and first woman.
- Science shows there was no first man and first woman.
- Therefore Christianity cannot be true.
- Christianity can be true only if Jesus is God.
- God is all knowing.
- Jesus believed that Adam and Eve existed as the first man and woman.
- Science shows there was no first man and woman, so Jesus was in error.
- God cannot be in error, so Jesus could not be God.
- Therefore Christianity cannot be true.
This proof will have no meaning to those who reject science, because although it is Christianity’s own logic that provides the proof, the discussion does require an acceptance of scientific realities. But to those who recognize the reality, validity, track record, and power of the scientific method, it reveals Christian doctrinal faith as completely untenable.
Notes: Confirmation of this perspective by believers
Do We Need to Believe in Adam and Eve? by Mike Reeves
Mike Reeves is UCCF’s Head of Theology, before which he was an associate minister at All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London. He holds a doctorate in Systematic Theology from King’s College.
“…it is simply impossible to remove a historical Adam from Paul’s gospel and leave it intact. To do so would fatally dehistoricize it, forcing a different account of the origin of evil that would require an altogether different means of salvation.”
Although Reeve’s conclusion is consistent with mine, his approach is to start with the assertion that the salvation doctrine cannot be wrong, and therefore Adam, the “first man”, must be true. Of course this is a circular argument that is not logically sound. A logical argument requires that we start with assertions that are accepted as true in order to determine a true conclusion; Reeve’s argument is the opposite, starting with a desired conclusion of assumed truth, and then discarding facts that are contradictory to that assumption.
Reeve’s full conclusion is damning of his backward thinking process:
When theological doctrines are detached from historical moorings, they are always easier to harmonize with other data and ideologies. And, of course, there are a good many doctrines that are not directly historical by nature. However, it has been my contention that the identity of Adam and his role as the physical progenitor of the human race are not such free or detachable doctrines. The historical reality of Adam is an essential means of preserving a Christian account of sin and evil, a Christian understanding of God, and the rationale for the incarnation, cross and resurrection. His physical fatherhood of all humankind preserves God’s justice in condemning us in Adam (and, by inference, God’s justice in redeeming us in Christ) as well as safeguarding the logic of the incarnation. Neither belief can be reinterpreted without the most severe consequences.
In other words he is saying that the historical reality of Adam is so critical and fundamental to the truth of Christianity that it must be accepted regardless of contrary facts or Christianity falls apart. He is exactly correct. A rational person would side with the unassailable scientific truth that there was no “first man” and therefore Christianity is necessarily false.
For a fascinating review of how easily theologians can get hopelessly lost in the labyrinth of apologetics, Reeve gives a description of an alternative “Third Way” view by Denis Alexander.
Denis Alexander has proposed that there is a way of avoiding the sharp dichotomy between the traditional view of a historical Adam and the view that such a position is now scientifically untenable. That is, while we should definitely view Adam as a historical figure, that should not entail believing that he was the first human. According to Alexander’s preferred model, anatomically modern humans emerged some 200,000 years ago, with language in place by 50,000 years ago. Then, around 6,000-8,000 years ago, God chose a couple of Neolithic farmers, and to them he revealed himself for the first time, so constituting them as Homo divinus, the first humans to know God and be spiritually alive.
It is an ingenious synthesis, to be sure, deftly side-stepping the theological chasm opened by denials of a historical Adam; it has, however, created for itself profound new problems. The first is raised by the question of what to make of Adam’s contemporaries, those anatomically modern humans who, he says, had already been populating the world for tens of thousands of years. He wisely maneuvers away from understanding them as anything less than fully human, emphatically affirming that ‘the whole of humankind without any exception is made in God’s image, including certainly all the other millions of people alive in the world in Neolithic times’. To have stated otherwise would have landed him in a particularly unpleasant quagmire: the aboriginal population of Australia, who, according to Alexander, had already been living there for some 40,000 years before Adam and Eve were born, would otherwise be relegated to the status of non-human animals; and presumably the parents of Adam and Eve, also being nonhuman animals, would then, along with the Australian aborigines, be a legitimate food source for a hungry Homo divinus.
Alexander’s approach at least avoids the biologically and morally unpleasant requirement that humanity arose from incest (Adam’s sons would have had to have had sex either with Eve or with their own sisters) while being consistent with Bible passages that clearly indicate that the world was already populated by other people (e.g., those in the land of Nod who would scorn Cain). But the complexity of these apologetics is too much for Reeves.
Quite apart from the sheer awkwardness of such a position, its consequences would quickly snowball. If, as Alexander maintains, being in the image of God is about having a personal relationship with God, then all those humans in God’s image who had not received the revelation of what that meant must have been sinning. Created in God’s image, to relate to God, they were not relating to God. In fact, though he does not use the word, the picture Alexander paints is one of humanity immersed in idolatry, for, he says, ‘religious beliefs existed before this time [of Adam and Eve], as people sought after God or gods in different parts of the world, offering their own explanations for the meaning of their lives’. Thus the model has sin before the fall.
To Reeve’s credit, he dismisses Alexander’s third way as a big can of worms theologically. To his discredit, Reeve’s own solution is to take the simpler approach of merely refusing to accept scientific truth rather than get twisted into knots working around it. He only needs to go one step further to the even simpler solution: accepting that Christianity is demonstrably not a reliable path to truth. Science gives the answer – there is no such thing as a first man and first woman, therefore they could not have committed Original Sin, therefore the doctrine of salvation is false, therefore Christianity is false. Embracing this simple reality would also give Reeves the side benefit of tossing away all of the other complexities and absurdities that the theology imposes, including talking snakes, magical fruit, virgin births, resurrected corpses that float into outer space, and so on.