Skepticism, Religion Archive

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Bible on The History Channel - A Disappointing Adaptation

The Bible on The History ChannelThe History Channel just aired the premiere of a new mini series, The Bible. Since I'm in the midst of reading the entire Bible right now (see my series, Friday Bible Blogging), and I'd just finished with the book of Numbers, I figured this first episode on the early books of the Old Testament would be right up my alley.

To be honest, I didn't pay very close attention to the commercials for the series, so my preconceptions weren't accurate. Since it was the History Channel, I was expecting a documentary, albeit one with a lot of special effects and reenactments of the stories (is 'reenactments' really the right word for myths?). Had I actually paid attention or looked at the History Channel's website, I would have known that this is a mini series. There is no commentary or analysis. It's simply a dramatization of the stories, with a narrator at points to help move the episode along.

Still, a mini series could be good. I thought it might be interesting to see some of the stories I've been reading about come to life on the small screen. Here's the description of the series from the History Channel.

The Bible comes to life in HISTORY's epic new series. From Genesis to Revelation, these unforgettable stories unfold through live action and cutting-edge computer-generated imagery, offering new insight into famous scenes and iconic characters. Created by producer Mark Burnett and featuring an international cast that includes Roma Downey, this 10-hour docudrama explores the sacred text's most significant episodes, including Noah's journey in the ark, the Exodus and the life of Jesus.

Sounds okay so far. What's more, while they're calling it a 'docu-drama', they're claiming to have consulted with a lot of experts in the making of the series. Here's a quote from the About page on, specifically from the section, Biblical Accuracy & The Bible.

According to an interview with Ms. Downey the miniseries, " being made with full hearts. We've had scholars and theologians help. We're not pretending to be biblical experts. We brought experts in once the scripts were created to take a look at the scripts to make sure we were accurate and true to the Bible, but obviously we're making a movie, and so we breathed creative expansion into that."

The Bible project advisors include:

Rick Warren - Pastor, Saddleback, Erwin McManus - Pastor, Mosaic, Jim Daly - Focus on the Family, Sam Rodriguez - National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Paul Eshleman - Campus Crusade for Christ, Bobby Gruenewald - YouVersion Bible, Brad Lomenick - Catalyst, Leith Anderson - National Association of Evangelicals, Frank Wright - National Religious Broadcasters, Tom Peterson - Catholics Come Home, Geoff Tunnicliffe - World Evangelical Alliance, Gabe Lyons - Q, Luis Palau, George Wood - Assemblies of God, Craig Groeschel - Life Church, Denny Rydberg - Young Life, Andrew Benton - Pepperdine University

That sounds so promising (well, at least from the point of view that they'd tried to keep everything as close to the Bible as possible). Unfortunately, after watching just a bit of that first episode, I was extremely disappointed. As happens so often with film adaptations of books, too much had been changed. That's unexpected for a supposedly sacred book believed to be the divinely inspired word of God, especially when the producers are Christians themselves. I was also disappointed in that it left too much out. I know it would have been impossible to include every detail from the Bible, but some of the omissions were significant.

To get into details, the series began with Noah's Ark. For some reason, this has always been one of my favorite stories from the Bible. But the amount of coverage it got was miniscule - just a few minutes showing Noah reciting a paraphrased version of the first creation story from Genesis to his family while they were getting tossed about in the ark, with cuts to scenes of the creation. And that was it. No scenes of Noah building the ark, loading the animals, getting everything off the ark when the flood was all over, sacrificing all the animals, getting drunk and cursing Canaan. It was as if Noah's Ark was used only because it provided a good opportunity for special effects. (As a side note, I was also struck by how roomy the ark was inside - not crowded at all for a boat carrying specimens of every land animal on Earth.)

When Abraham and Lot were doing their travelings, and it became clear that their herds were becoming too big to keep together, the Bible states, "8 Then Abram said to Lot, 'Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred. 9 Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.' " Not so in The Bible mini series. At the urging of his wife, Lot told Abraham that they'd decided not to follow Abraham any longer, and to go settle near Sodom. And Abraham was distraught, begging Lot to remain with him. Why? It wasn't to help shorten the story to fit time constraints. It was a needless change.

And then there was the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Even the way the angels found Lot's house was different from in the Bible. Instead of simply meeting him and being invited in, they were being chased by an angry mob and were in need of help. When the mob tried to get into Lot's house, there was no mention of their wanting to 'know' the angels, and Lot never offered his daughters to the mob in exchange for the strangers' safety. Those omissions would have taken less than 30 seconds to include. But perhaps worst of all for this chapter of the story, when it came time to flee the city, it was a battle. And the angels were the warriors. I read one review that called them angel ninjas. It was ludicrous.

Abraham's story had so many interesting points that were left out. Sara never became the wife of the Pharaoh. Abraham never built his altars and made his sacrifices (there was a telling omission of animal sacrifices in general), nor dug his wells. The Tower of Babel and other stories were left out entirely. I understand that some details had to be omitted, but when there were gratuitous scenes like the ninja angels, or another invented scene where Moses fought with his step brother, you know that the producers did have the time to include some more actual details from the Bible rather than invent things out of thin air. It also seemed to me that some of the omissions were sanitizing the stories.

I could go on, but the main point is that this adaptation played very fast and loose in its interpretation of the Bible. Just about every part I watched (at least until I fell asleep some time around the Exodus from Egypt) had glaringly obvious differences from the book. Obviously, I'm not troubled by this for any theological reasons myself, but the nerd in me just hates to see film adaptations butcher their source material. If you really want to know what's in the Bible (and it's not pretty), go read it for yourself.

Image Source:

Update 2013-03-08 Added sentence about Abraham being distraught when Lot decided to leave. Also clarified sacrifices as animal sacrifices.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Noah's Impossible Ark - Some Comments and Links

Noah's Ark, by Edward Hicks, croppedOver the past few week's I've heard a few conversations of people discussing Noah's Ark like it actually happened. Now, I know that Biblical literalists are out there, and I even knew that some of those people I overheard were of that bent, but it's always a bit jarring to here people seriously discussing something so obviously untrue.

I've mentioned Noah's Ark on this site a few times, but always in passing. I thought it might be fun to put together a blog post explaining why it couldn't have happened. But then I started looking around on the Internet a little, and there are already fairly comprehensive pages and articles dedicated to debunking the flood myth. So anything I wrote would just be duplicating work that's already been done. So instead, I decided to provide links and highlights to a few of those already existing discussions of Noah's Ark, with just a little bit of my own commentary.

The myth of Noah's Ark breaks down on so many levels, that it's hard to believe that people take it seriously as a literal story. First, there's the implausibility of building a wooden ship that big to begin with. Then there's the problem of gathering all those animals to Noah's location (how did the sloths get there). Then Noah had to somehow fit all the animals aboard, along with all the food, water, and other supplies that would have been required. And for the entire time they were on the ark, a crew of 8 were all that were available to care for all those thousands and thousands of animals (just look at the staffs modern zoos require). Then once the flood was over, there's the little problem of getting all the animals back to where they belonged. (Why did most of the marsupials head straight to Australia? And how did the kangaroos cross the Pacific to get there?) And on top of that is the problem of re-population without inbreeding, and without the predators eating the only remaining specimens of those now endangered animals. And the story totally ignores plants and non-land animals. (Freshwater fish can't survive in salty conditions, and vice versa.)

But all that's granting some plausibility to a global flood happening in the first place. In reality, there's just no evidence that such a flood happened, especially in the time-frame that Biblical literalists claim. And there's no known mechanism by which it could have happened, even if every last speck of ice on the planet was melted (sorry Kevin Costner).

Ignoring all the previous objections, what would such an occurrence say about God's character? Actually, I wrote a bit about this in a previous entry of mine, Friday Bible Blogging - Genesis 1 to Genesis 10.

Children's books show Noah, his family, and the elephants and giraffes surviving happily on their boat. But just stop and imagine if something like this had actually happened. Think of all the newborn babies, toddlers, precocious seven year olds, expectant mothers, new mothers, proud fathers, newlyweds. Think of the puppies and kittens and baby koalas and cute cuddly polar bear cubs. Think of the hawks and eagles and their fledgling chicks. Think of the ants, and frogs, and freshwater fish. Think of all the life on the entire planet save one boatload full. And now think of them watching the floodwaters come, the fear they felt as they kept climbing to higher ground, wondering when the rising waters would stop. The terror when they finally realized that the waters were going to swallow them, and there was nothing they could do about it. The desperation of trying to save their children, of looking for something, anything, to keep them afloat and keep them from drowning.

And finally, Noah's Ark isn't even an original legend. It's just a retelling of the Mesopotamian Flood Myth, common to many cultures of that era.

Okay, let's move on to linking to other websites like I said I was going to do, which will also address a few of the specifics from above.

Talk Origins - Problems with a Global Flood

This is probably one of the best online resources on the subject. Just to show what it covers, here's the index from the page:

1. Building the Ark
2. Gathering the Animals
3. Fitting the Animals Aboard
4. Caring for the Animals
5. The Flood Itself
6. Implications of a Flood
7. Producing the Geological Record
8. Species Survival and Post-Flood Ecology
9. Species Distribution and Diversity
10. Historical Aspects
11. Logical, Philosophical, and Theological Points

The first two of those points are only covered briefly, but the rest are covered pretty well. It's not a book length thesis, but it's enough detail to show the implausibility of it all.

Here are a few short excerpts.

What is a kind? Creationists themselves can't decide on an answer to this question; they propose criteria ranging from species to order, and I have even seen an entire kingdom (bacteria) suggested as a single kind.
Were dinosaurs and other extinct animals on the ark? According to the Bible, Noah took samples of all animals alive at the time of the Flood. If, as creationists claim, all fossil-bearing strata were deposited by the Flood, then all the animals which became fossils were alive then. Therefore all extinct land animals had representatives aboard the ark.
Fresh foods. Many animals require their food to be fresh. Many snakes, for example, will eat only live foods (or at least warm and moving). Parasitoid wasps only attack living prey. Most spiders locate their prey by the vibrations it produces. Most herbivorous insects require fresh food. Aphids, in fact, are physically incapable of sucking from wilted leaves.

Talk Origins - Review of John Woodmorappe's "Noah's Ark: A Feasibility Study"

This article is a review / refutation of a creationist book attempting to show that the flood myth was plausible. By being a direct response to creationist arguments, it shows just how strained those arguments are. Here are a few excerpts from this page.

Woodmorappe attempts to solve the feeding and care problems by comparing the ark to modern mass production farming methods. But there is no justification given to approaching the problem in this fashion. It is not clear that solutions applicable to the care of 8,000 hogs, requiring the same food, water and space, can be applied to 8,000 different animals each requiring a different set of food, water and environmental conditions. Every care and feeding problem is attacked by this approach. And yet he suggests that some of the snakes can be coaxed into eating inert food by stuffing snake skins with meat. He notes that pandas can survive on diets lacking bamboo, but a check of the references shows that the replacement diet is more time-consuming to create than bamboo. This type of feeding is precisely why so many have wondered whether Noah and company had sufficient time to feed thousands of animals.
Woodmorappe states (p. 27) that the urine could be drained overboard by gravity. He does not tell how this is possible from the lowest floor level which was below the water line. At one point he suggests that the animals could be trained to urinate and defecate upon command while someone holds a bucket behind the animal. Assuming that this can be accomplished for the largest quarter of the animals and that they need to be serviced three times per day, each person must service 125 animals per hour, 2 animals a minute. What a fun job that must have been.
Animals outside of the ark were supposed to have survived in pockets of floodwater suitable to their requirements (whatever those requirements were). He appeals to gradual acclimatization of amphibians and fish to the salinity of the flood waters. But exactly how a global flood was able to gradually occur is unexplained. He has plankton be buried and then re-excavated to survive the flood.

EvoWiki - Noah's Ark

This was a short entry looking at the displacement of the ark, and whether it would have even been possible for it to carry what creationists claim. They even generously granted the assumptions of the creationist, John Woodmorappe, about a reduced species count on the ark (allowing many animals to have somehow survived without being on the ark, and necessitating a type of 'hyper' evolution after the flood waters receded to generate the current biodiversity), and the food requirements of those animals. Here's the takeaway.

Exactly how does a vessel whose displacement must have been less than 45,000 tons, manage to carry cargo and animals whose aggregate weight is more than 70,000 tons?

As a side note to the above, here's a discussion of the largest wooden ship, which included a link to the following picture:

Solano Ferry vs. Wyoming (Big Wooden Ships)

Those ships were some of the biggest wooden ships every built, and they were only on the order of 5,000 tons. And they had the advantage of modern materials like steel in addition to the wood. - Noah's ark and the flood: Comparison of the Babylonian and Noachian flood stories

This article describes how similar the Noah's Ark story is to another Mesopotamian flood myth. Here's the introduction, describing the other flood myth.

The Chaldean Flood Tablets from the city of Ur in what is now Southern Iraq contain a story that describes how the Bablylonian god Enlil had been bothered by the incessant noise generated by humans. He convinced the other gods to completely exterminate every person on Earth as well as land animals and birds with a great flood. One of the gods, Ea, went against the decision of the rest of the gods, and told Ut-Napishtim to build an ark to save a few humans, and some animals.

How Stuff Works - Could Noah's ark really have happened?

This is a little less specialized site than most of those linked above. But they still point out the obvious.

Before we dive into the question of whether Noah and his ark existed, let's first ask if there's any evidence of ancient worldwide flooding. Scientifically speaking, such a flood would be impossible. It would take more than five times the amount of water in the oceans and atmosphere to submerge the earth up to its mountaintops. And if that amount of water entered the atmosphere, the resulting pressure would crush people's lungs.

This article does discuss a possible historical basis for the legend - local flooding of that particular region.

Here's where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers come into play. The two waterways that slice through modern day Iraq served as the main thoroughfares for trade at that time, and were the setting for the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Because both rivers flood each summer, scholars think that Noah's story may be based on that actual event -- a greater than usual flooding of the Tigris or Euphrates. In fact, archeologists have uncovered evidence of such a great flood in Mesopotamia, dating back to around 2900 B.C., that quickly wiped out a number of Sumerian cities.


Well, for an entry I was expecting to be rather short, this grew longer than I expected. I guess it's just that there are so many problems with the Noah's Ark legend. Like I wrote above, it's hard to believe that people take it seriously as a literal story.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Website Update - Reorganized 'God- or Gorilla?' Entries

God or Gorilla PicWhen I first posted the entries in my 'God - or Gorilla?' series, I posted them in both my Books and Skepticism, Religion categories. But just playing around and looking over my site, I realize that the 'God- or Gorilla?' posts kind of clutter those categories if you're just wanting to browse. So, I decided to make a subcategory under books called God - Or Gorilla?, and to move all of those posts into that new category. I left the first post in the 'Books' and 'Skepticism, Religion' categories so that people browsing through those will at least know of the existence of this series. So, if you're really interested in the 'God- or Gorilla?' posts, you can now find them all in one place. And if you don't like them all that much, you don't have to wade through them when reading the other entries.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Debunking an E-mail on Charities

CharityGiven the time of year and knowing that many people will be donating to charities around this time, I figured this was a good time to address this. A friend of mine got an e-mail supposedly listing charities that don't do a good job of spending donations, and other charities that make your dollars go farther. He knew I'd want to see it, so he forwarded it to me. He was right - the e-mail was one that I couldn't pass up.

This e-mail was actually already covered pretty well by Snopes:
Charitable Compensation

And of course, the Mickelson's covered the e-mail pretty well, but I still wanted to add a bit more.

Needless to say, most of the information in the e-mail was wrong or misleading. But what if it wasn't? Several of the supposed facts in this e-mail are about CEO salaries, not overall spending of these organizations. And while a part of us wants everybody involved in a charity to be charitable themselves, the real question is, what's best for the charity? Look at it this way. The Red Cross is a big organization with a big budget. They need someone at the top who knows what they're doing. Now maybe, they could get someone charitable enough to be CEO for a low salary, but what would be the qualifications of that person? Or, they could decide to spend some money and hire the best CEO they can get - maybe not a particularly charitable person, but well qualified. Which would be better for the organization, and which would help them be more efficient overall?

In my mind, the measure of efficiency of a charity should not be how much the top person gets paid, but how much of their money is going into actual charity, not overhead. Luckily, a few organizations have already done the hard work of researching the finances of several charities to come up with this information. The chart below summarizes a few charities - the top 10 by revenue, the other charities listed in the e-mail, and a few that I included just out of personal interest. All of the data for the table below came from Forbes magazine's The 200 Largest U.S. Charities. Clicking on any of the charity names will take you to the Forbes entry for that organization.

Organization Total Revenue, millions Total Expenses, millions Program / Charitable Expenses, millions % Spending on Charitable Expenses
Top 10 Charities by Revenue
Lutheran Services in America $18,310 $17,520 $15,050 85.9%
Mayo Clinic $7,970 $7,430 $7,110 95.7%
YMCA $5,920 $5,670 $4,790 84.5%
Catholic Charities USA $4,670 $4,220 $3,710 87.9%
United Way $4,230 $4,230 $3,600 85.1%
Goodwill Industries International $4,040 $3,820 $3,380 88.5%
Salvation Army $3,750 $3,240 $2,660 82.1%
The Arc of the United States $3,730 $3,610 $3,240 89.8%
Cleveland Clinic Foundation $3,730 $3,450 $3,110 90.1%
American National Red Cross $3,710 $3,350 $3,090 92.2%
Other Charities from E-mail
March of Dimes $218 $206 $155 75.2%
United States Fund for UNICEF $456 $447 $405 90.6%
The Veterans of Foreign Wars $87 $85 $54 63.5%
The Disabled American Veterans $125 $126 $87 69.0%
Select Other Charities
American Cancer Society $956 $951 $681 71.6%
American Heart Association $600 $580 $437 75.3%
Doctors Without Borders $275 $204 $181 88.7%
Susan G. Komen for the Cure $353 $337 $279 82.8%
Data Not Readily Available
The American Legion -- -- -- --
The Military Order of Purple Hearts -- -- -- --
The Vietnam Veterans Association -- -- -- --

Here's another way of looking at the data. I took the last column from the table above, % Spending on Charitable Expenses, and plotted it for the included charities, sorted from highest percentage to lowest.

Charity Spending on Charitable Expenses

I'll add that there are other considerations. For example, in a previous entry of mine, The Salvation Army - To Give, or Not to Give?, I discussed how the Salvation Army spends its money. As it turns out, they spend money on causes that I don't agree with, so I've decided to donate to other organizations that perform similar functions.

What to do with all this information is up to you. It depends on how much overhead you think is an acceptable amount, and whether or not there are any other organizations dedicated to performing the same mission as those charities.

More Info (including links already given):

For anyone interested, the e-mail that prompted this entry is available below the fold.

Image Source: ATR International

Continue reading "Debunking an E-mail on Charities" »

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Brief Thoughts After Watching Life of Pi

Warning: Spoilers ahead

Life of PiOver the weekend, I watched the movie, Life of Pi. I liked it, though it was very sad. I really hadn't known much about the story beforehand, so I didn't realize that there would be so much discussion of religion. Honestly, I didn't think there was anything truly profound about the religious discussions - I thought it was just a part of the story. Perhaps the book was different, or perhaps I missed it, but apparently, the religious aspect was a big part of the story. One critic, Brian Bethune, called the book a "head-scratching combination of dense religious allegory, zoological lore and enthralling adventure tale, written with warmth and grace". Even President Obama said, "It is a lovely book -- an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling."

Now, I'm not completely blind to the religious themes in the movie. In fact, I think it nailed one aspect of religion particularly well, if not necessarily intentionally. [Warning - here come the spoilers]. Pi told two different stories of how he survived on the lifeboat. The first was the fantastic tale that took up most of the movie, where Pi had to share the lifeboat with the Tiger, Richard Parker, and had many improbable experiences. The second was a harsh story of survival, where the ship's cook killed two other people on the lifeboat, and Pi killed him in revenge to be the sole survivor of the ship's sinking. After telling the writer these two different stories, Pi asked him which story he preferred, and the writer chose the story with the tiger. Pi replied, "And so it is with God."

Accepting one story means embracing reality for what it is, no matter what the consequences or how it makes you feel. Accepting the other story means closing your mind to reality, and picking the story that makes you feel better. "And so it is with God" indeed.

To tell the truth, I'm not sure I'm taking away the same message as what was intended. I think the story was supposed to be more ambiguous, and seen in an almost post-modernist light. That is, how can we tell what's true exactly, so why not pick the story that we prefer? Obviously, I disagree with that mindset. Of course, there are limitations to our knowledge - things we don't or even can't know for certain. But there is only one reality. We can't pretend that our limitations in discerning reality mean that we can pretend reality is whatever we want it to be. Our goal should be to narrow those limitations as far as we can, to get our understanding as close to reality as possible.


Selling Out