To those who support young-Earth creationism by pointing to early scientists like Newton who held that belief, Phil Plaitt offers an excellent rebuttal. To summarize, Newton believed in a young earth not because he found scientific support for that view, but rather because at the time in which he lived nobody had yet observed enough data to develop a better theory of Earth’s origins. Had he lived today, he would have embraced the knowledge that others have accumulated since the early eighteenth century. I’m betting he wouldn’t wear his hair like that, either —
not even especially not for a photo portrait. But the question is pointless — were Newton born today, he would not be Newton in so many ways. We are all products of our own time, and tremendously influenced by the general world-view that is presumed as axiomatic by our temporal peers.
If Ptolemy lived today, would he believe that the Earth is at the center of the cosmos? Of course not. He would have been taught otherwise before he learned how to do long division (which must have been bothersome using a quasi-positional sexagesimal numbering system). Now that we’ve observed so much more outside our solar system and it appears that the universe has no known center, I suppose you could pick any arbitrary point and say “this is it!” — so you could choose the center of the Earth for that point. But that would be pointless (har), because it wouldn’t help you to explain anything — in fact it would just get in the way.
If Columbus had lived only a couple of decades longer, would he have persisted in his belief that America was India? Well, nowadays India is becoming America – so maybe Chris was right: he discovered the future of India. But seriously, this would be a whole lot harder of an idea to hold onto today. You’d have to believe that much of what is taught about geography, along with the travel experiences related by others, is either the result of an illusion or a deliberate misinformation conspiracy. If you traveled from one place to the other yourself, you’d have to think that much of your own experience was manufactured specifically to deceive you. Or at the very least that the unreliability of your senses created a massively complete and consistent illusion — which would be indistinguishable from reality.
It’s possible to believe anything, provided you give up enough belief in certain other things.
But I do admire the intellectual humility and, pardon the term, agnosticism of religious people who believe that all human explanations are flawed. They trust in God, and see Him/Her/It in every facet of their experience. They stand in wonder and in awe of (for lack of a better word) creation. So far, so good — until they open their mouth to talk about it. By putting their theology and cosmology into human terms, they can no longer escape the human framework of cause-effect relationships. As soon as they begin to embrace a causal explanation of things, they descend from the mountain of faith into the thorny vale of experience. “This, therefore that” soon leads to conflicts between what is observable and what is believed. Only the obstinate refuse to see those conflicts and continue to insist on the explanations they have been given.
Thus, in my opinion the greatest threat to faith, at least in the highly Christian part of the world, is the Bible. From the very first sentence, it offers a causal explanation: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The Hebrew word translated as “created” is bara’, which is the same word used for building a house or some other structure. Perhaps “constructed” would be a better translation, though not as poetic. But either way, “God created” = cause, “the heavens and the earth” = effect. It all goes downhill from there.
In the process of explaining things, the Bible brings in all sorts of contemporary human misconceptions about the universe, and where it touches on history it often confuses the facts. Most of those errors are not germane to its messages. But the Bible also documents the evolution of religious ideas over more than a thousand year period — sometimes deliberately pointing out evolutionary milestones. For instance, God tells Moses in Exodus 6:3, “and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them” — a clear affirmation of the merging of two distinct religions. An even more proudly preserved case can be found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, where he takes several commandments from the Torah (concerning murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, retribution, and neighborly love) and says, in effect, that they don’t go far enough. The God of the Pentateuch is at first a tribal, then a national deity. By the latter part of the Old Testament we are getting hints that He may be a universal god, but that isn’t fully realized until Saint Paul. Regardless of whether or not you believe in an eternal, unchanging God – the human perceptions about Him (sic) that are recorded in the Bible certainly did change, dramatically.
Thus, the Bible is a human document — or rather, a collection of human documents. They may be “inspired”, but they are not flawless. The decision to take them as inerrent and “believe” in them with a slavish literalism is just as much a denial of faith in an inscrutable God as is the decision to become an atheist.