Skepticism, Religion Archive

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Does the Bible Really Say Pi = 3

PiI spend much more time on this site debunking religious arguments than atheist arguments, but I've just been reminded of one of the stupider arguments that some atheists use, so I thought I'd deal with it. Obviously, if you've read the rest of this blog, you know I'm an atheist myself, but I think that stupid arguments are bad no matter who's making them.

In 1 Kings 7:23, discussing Solomon's Temple, the Bible describes some of the furnishings thusly:

He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it.

Now, as everyone should remember from elementary school, circumference and diameter are related by the formula:

Circumference = Pi * Diameter

Or, to rearrange that equation a bit to solve for Pi:

Pi = Circumference / Diameter

Using the passage, we could then calculate Pi as follows:

Pi = 30 / 10

or

Pi = 3

Again, thinking back to elementary school days, everybody should at least know a 3 digit approximation of Pi as 3.14. And so the argument goes, since the Bible gives such an erroneous value for Pi, it obviously can't be the inspired word of God. Here's one example of someone trying to use this argument, but I've seen it many other places.

In short, I think this is a rather stupid argument.

Pi is an irrational number. In other words, it doesn't matter how many decimal places you want to carry it out to, you'll only ever be able to write it as an approximation, and never an exact value. If you're still not following what that means, if you say that Pi is approximately 3.14, I could say - true, but it's really a bit closer to 3.142. But if you use 3.142, then I could say it's actually a bit closer to 3.1416. But if you use 3.1416, I could counter with 3.14159, and on and on forever. There's just no way to write pi as an exact value*. What this also means, is that even if you know the diameter exactly, you won't be able to write the circumference exactly, and vice versa.

So, when a scribe was describing Solomon's Temple, and wanted to give measurements of furnishings, there's no possible way he could have given exact values for the circumference and diameter of circular objects. It wasn't a limitation because the ancients didn't know enough. Even today, we couldn't do it. It's just a physical impossibility. So, the scribe rounded off his numbers.

Some people might still want to argue that the Bible would at least have been more accurate if it had used 31 cubits for the circumference of a 10 cubit diameter circle. I say - who cares? It's necessarily an approximation, so the scribe only used a single significant figure. Besides, there are plenty of sillier passages from the Bible, such as Genesis 30:37-43 or Judges 1:19, that skeptics can use in these types of arguments.


*This reminds me of the nerd obsession with knowing as many digits of Pi as possible. While this is certainly interesting for a variety of reasons, it's not really terribly practical. For example, if you use an approximation of Pi out to 10 decimal places (3.141 592 653 6), for a sphere the size of the Earth (diameter = 7917.5 miles), your calculation of the circumference would be off by less than 0.006 inches. And that's assuming you knew the diameter exactly. In reality, the uncertainty in your measurement would swamp the discrepancy from using your approximation of Pi.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Book Update

Book Cover to Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff LewisI'm copying this in the original entry where I announced my book, but I figured I'd give it its own entry as well. My self-published book, Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff Lewis, is now available through the print on demand company, Lulu, for the low, low price of $4.99. What makes this announcement different than the first, is that I've finally received my copy of the book to review, and it looks good. The few changes I'd made from the first review copy did help a lot with the layout. I'm not planning on making any changes to it for a while, so you're safe if you order the book now.

As a reminder, the book contains the essays from my Religious Essays section. You can still read the essays for free by following that link, but if you particularly like them, or want to share them with someone, you may want the book.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

My New Book Is Now Available

Book Cover to Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff LewisI've published a book (sort of). It's the collection of essays from my Religious Essays section. The book is available through the print on demand company, Lulu, for the low, low price of $4.99 Here's the link to buy it:

Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff Lewis.

The essays are still available for free on this site, but I figured some people (okay, just me) might want a nice, professionally printed and bound copy of the essays.

I say that I only 'sort of' published the book, because it's super easy to publish on Lulu. You don't have to convince anybody that your book's good enough. You just upload it, hit the publish button, and anybody can buy it. It's the modern version of a vanity press, but without having to pay for a print run.

I've only looked over 1 review copy, and haven't actually ordered this latest version, yet. I think it should be okay, though. The review copy I got looked pretty good already, and I only made minor changes. So, if you order the book, I think you'll be safe.


Added 2011-01-12 I finally got the review copy that incorporated my revisions. It looks good. The changes did help with the layout and made the book easier to read. So, you're definitely safe if you order the book now.

Monday, December 20, 2010

This Season, Celebrate Reason - Updates to Religious Essays Section

This Season, Celebrate ReasonI've revisited my Religious Essays section, and made a few changes. There's nothing major if you've already read that section and followed this blog. The biggest change was adding a few recent blog entries to the essays. I also made a few formatting changes. In particular, I've made the pdf version nicer, with a cover and even an index. (Actually, I'm working on getting it published on Lulu.com. I was hoping to have a link to it by now, but it's been three weeks since Lulu said they shipped the first copy to me, and I still haven't received it yet, and I'm not about to let other people order until I've had a chance to see what it looks like.) I also cleaned up the index page a bit, hopefully making it easier for people to get to the essays they want to read.

Oh, and all that stuff about celebrating reason this season, I only wrote that because of the timing of updating my religious essays. Celebrate the season however you like.


Added 2010-01-12 - My book is now available, if anyone's interested.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Yes, Virginia, There Are Liars

Santa is no moreChristmas isn't here quite yet, so let me get one more Scrooge post out of the way.

With all the Christmas movies showing on TV right now, there's a frequent theme that really irritates me. It's been around a while, and is typified by the old New York Sun editorial from 1897, Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus, or in the more modern movie, The Polar Express. It's this idea that it's good for kids to believe in Santa Claus. It's not just that it's okay for small children to believe. It's the idea that when they get old enough to notice all the problems in the story and start questioning it, that they should put their doubts aside still try to just believe. Why?

I've already written about my feelings on these childhood myths in regards to lying to children, and I'm not even going to get into the aspect of Santa making children question their worth (I've been good, so how come Santa gave the lawyer's daughter more presents than me?), so here I'm going to focus more on that mindset of blind faith.

I'm guessing that this is partly, and even perhaps mainly, a spillover from religion. Most branches of Christianity make it a virtue to believe even without evidence. The story of doubting Thomas is probably the worst example of this (“You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.”). And obviously, there are some big similarities between Santa and God. He knows what you're doing even though you can't see him, and he rewards or punishes you based on how naughty or nice you've been. So, perhaps this religious motivation to believe in something unseen is being carried over to Santa.

But at least religious people believe their God actually exists. What sane adult actually believes in Santa? I mean, as a parent, it's pretty hard to ignore who's actually putting the presents under the tree. It's not just insisting that children believe in something without evidence. It's insisting that they believe in something without evidence that we know isn't true.

I would argue that believing anything without evidence is bad. Skepticism is a good thing. It's what keeps most people from buying time shares, responding to those e-mails saying they've won the British Lottery, or sending their credit card number to the princess from Nigeria who needs help getting out of the country. If people were a little more skeptical, we wouldn't need Snopes, and I wouldn't have to write so much debunking stupid chain mails. Skepticism and critical thinking are the methods we use to figure out how the world really is, and they're skills that should be cherished and nurtured. We shouldn't promote practices that require children to suspend their skepticism. Gullibility and blind faith are not virtues.

I've read articles where people say that Santa gives children a sense of wonder. You want wonder? Just go look up in the sky some night. One of those stars is so big that if it took the place of the Sun, it would swallow up all the planets out to Jupiter. Most of them are hundreds or thousands of light years away. If you know where to look, you can see a group of stars 2.5 million light years away. Or, since it's Christmas time, you could catch a snowflake, squint your eyes, and take a good close look. They're beautiful. Or how about watching geese on their migration, gliding in for a landing on a smooth lake, wings outstretched, feet planing the water just before settling in at the last. The universe is full of so many things that are beautiful and awe-inspiring, that I don't see why anyone would have to resort to myths to try to give children a sense of wonder.

I'm not saying to get rid of Santa from the holidays. I think he's a great tradition (even if he was invented mostly by one poem, some comics, and Coke advertising), and a fun one. I just don't see the need to lie to children and insist that they believe he's actually real. Just look to another holiday for an example - Halloween. Everyone has fun pretending about monsters at Halloween. Kids enjoy getting in on the act, decorating houses, getting scared, and obviously dressing up themselves. But no one insists that you have to believe in werewolves to enjoy that holiday.

I don't even mind movies with Santa Claus. I just hate the subplots of believing vs. not believing. When we watch Santa movies, we know he's not real, so we accept that we're watching a fantasy. We suspend our disbelief, and pretend that the movie world is one in which there is a toy factory at the North Pole and a jolly old elf who delivers toys on Christmas Eve. And in that fantasy world, of course everyone would believe, because how else would they explain where those toys came from. It would be like watching The Lord of the Rings and getting upset about the magic, or expecting that the characters in the movie would be skeptical about magic. Just make a consistent fantasy world where Santa exists and everyone knows it.

So, no, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus. He's no more real than fairies. But love and generosity and devotion certainly exist, and there are still wonders unseen and maybe even unseeable in this world. And if you want to play make believe and pretend there's a Santa, well, that's fine, too.

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