Friday night I went to the presentation “A Scientist’s Journey from Skepticism to Faith” by Dr. Don Bierle at the McLaurin Memorial Baptist Church.
The crowd included 6 people from the Society of Edmonton Atheists, and only 33 others. The group was on average much younger and more interracial than most similar presentations I’ve been to. I was initially hopeful that this might mean that the old earth, intelligent design message resonates better with a younger crowd than the young earth perspective. However we discovered later in the presentation that the church congregation is actually young earth, and seemed unaware that they had recruited a speaker that *gasp* believes in the Big Bang! I’m still not sure that the audience had figured it out by the end of the night, so I’m hoping for a good show Saturday evening.
They started the evening by asking us to talk about our favourite scientist. The organizer selected someone from the crowd, who answered “abiogenesis”.
Given the title of the presentation, I was expecting a story about a hard core denier of the Christian faith dramatically converting to Christianity. Instead, we heard about how he was raised Christian, but during his education in biology he began to feel that “I didn’t need God. I could do pretty much anything I put my mind to. Thankfully, I never became an atheist though. I guess you could call me more of a deist.” He always believed that there must be a God because the universe was so complex, but he didn’t think it had any impact on his life.
Then, in graduate school, two chemistry professors convinced him of the evidence for Christianity, and he became a Christian.
It sounds like he was oddly similar to the Christian stereotype about nonbelievers, people who don’t really think about God or the big questions because they want to be able to live however they want. He wasn’t even actively doubting his religion, just ignoring it. And yet he uses the label “skeptic” to describe that time of his life. I bet he wouldn’t have used that label for himself then, especially publically.
Looking into his background online, his story gets even more murky. He grew up in rural South Dakota in the 1940s. In 1959 he went into Augustana College, which even today describes itself as “rooted in the liberal arts and sciences and a Lutheran expression of the Christian faith” and honouring “its roots and affiliation with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America”. At some point he transferred to Westmar College, an even more religious institution which at the time was affiliated with the Evangelical United Brethren Church. This is where he got his Bachelor of Arts degree in Biology in 1963. In 1965 he became a Christian while attending graduate school at the University of South Dakota.
So although he speaks of his peers in the sciences causing him to doubt the Christian faith, these doubts either arose while attending a devoutly Christian college during his undergrad, or his period of scepticism lasted less than 2 years. Also his big conversion took place at the prompting of two professors evangelising at the most secular college he ever attended.
The biography descriptions describing him as a scientist also seem greatly exaggerated. From one online biography:
“A research scientist for several years, Dr. Bierle was a team member on scientific expeditions to both the Arctic and Antarctic polar regions, and has published several articles in scientific journals.”
An journal search reveals that he was 2nd author on four papers during his graduate degree. After getting his PH.D he worked for two years under a National Science Foundation grant, and presented his work presented at some conferences but no publications. After that he took a position as Dean at St Paul Bible College, which doesn’t do research. At some point he got a second masters in New Testament Studies, and now he primarily does evangelical work.
When speaking about his ministry he noted that they were sharing evidence for the Christian faith in Russian public schools, to which an audience member remarked “wish we had that here!”
He complained about roadside banners in support of Minnesota Atheists, noting that “When I was young there was really no excuse to listen to atheists. But now it is everywhere.” It’s too bad we didn’t get those bus ads out this summer .
Then he got into intelligent design, saying that “over 800 scientists say there is support for intelligent design.” He later called that “plenty”. He even had an excuse for why it’s only old guys, stating that many stay silent until they secure tenure, then they come out.
His first evidence for intelligent design was that when SETI looks for intelligent life, they look for the existence of coded information on the signal. For example in the movie Contact, the aliens send a repeating signal of prime numbers. This was the series shown on his slide:
This set me off daydreaming about how scientists would react if they received a repeating sequence of the first 9 prime numbers which for some reason was arbitrarily missing 19. Is this sequence still “Too highly ordered to come about by chance?” Would the scientists, eagerly listing to the signal, be thinking “yes, this is definitely a message from an intelligent source” but then when it skipped 19 decide that no, it must be coincidence. If the line between obviously designed information and random chance is as clear and obvious as he was saying, shouldn’t the fact that he skipped 19 make his message unintelligible? After all, if you get DNA out of sequence “the thing dies”. Except for the 55 million known variations in the human genome, which he of course failed to mention.
His next example was about how software, like DNA, is so complex it cannot be evolved, which is why Microsoft has to spend a lot of money hiring programmers. He was apparently unaware of how much Microsoft has invested in evolutionary algorithms.
Thus convinced that the Universe must have been designed (note that above when talking about how he was not an atheist but a deist he seemed to imply that he never doubted that), Dr Bierle then went on a journey to find out “who this God might be”. Not surprisingly this journey involved closely examining only the God of his friends, family, and University. Somewhat surprising was his justification for this, that Christianity was the only religion that can point to their God existing in history, and that therefore the claims can be examined scientifically.
He starts by talking about how the Biblical authors all claim to be eyewitnesses (which they don’t, except possibly for John) and we have many more copies of Bible manuscripts than any other document from the same time. And yet “no one says read Homer with caution.” Apparently he has never seen the introduction to pretty much any book of Homer, because every copy I’ve seen says exactly that. He can’t even say this is a recent development, because my 1909 edition of the Harvard Classics contains 4 pages of disclaimers. Also if someone told me that Homer or Julius Caesar was infallible wisdom from God that I should base all of my life decisions on I might care a bit more about their level of accuracy.
Then he says we have a copy of the Gospel of Matthew from just over 30 years after Jesus’s death – 66AD! He is using Dr. Carsten’s dating of P-64, which the rest of the academic community dates to the 2nd century. In fact you’d have trouble finding more than a handful of scholars that believe the Gospel of Matthew was even written before 66AD.
And of course, if manuscripts existed that early they must be true. After all, “If it didn’t happen the way they said it would be challenged. But that didn’t happen.” So there were no challenges whatsoever to early Christianity. No schisms, no divisions, no controversies, not even the ones mentioned in the Bible itself. Not to mention that as Dr. Carrier pointed out, if it happened the way the Bible says it happened and everyone knew that, there would have been challenges! A man crucified by the Roman Empire came back from the dead and the Romans just ignored this situation?
Next he went on about the reliability of Luke, and how the people he names have been proven to exist by archaeological finds. “Luke claimed he researched everything very carefully before he ever wrote”…but wait, didn’t he just say Luke was an eyewitness? Why did it take research to know who was governor if he was an eyewitness? And what about all the things he got wrong, like the unrecorded census where everyone had to return to their homeland, over multiple day journeys, that no one else seemed to notice?
Then he concluded with a lot of random preaching about his conversion, and how he read the book of Job and that’s when he became a Christian. (Seriously? Job!?!)
Followed by a short question period.
The first was from an education student with a minor in biology. “In this economy I’m more likely to be employed as a biology teacher than a English teacher. But I am a young earth creationist and I know evolution is a lie and I don’t want to teach it.”
He responded “you should teach the evolutionary paradigm in your classes.” Children need to understand evolution because that world view is very important in today’s society. The Supreme Court has ruled that alternatives to evolution can be taught in schools as long as they are based on nature. (Wrong country dude)
Next was a question about what was wrong with believing in evolution being directed by God. To which he responded “Can God guide an unguided process?” The mechanism in the two are contradictory.
Next was “What do you make of the evidence of gravitational waves?” This was obviously asked by someone who did not realise that Dr. Bierle accepts the Big Bang. After admitting that he is not a physicist, he added that the discovery of the Big Bang forced scientists to admit that the Universe had a beginning, which was a step forward for Christians.
Alexander asked a question about the probability of our universe arising, but he rambled off topic in the answer. It involved “Show me some illustrations where chance has led to order, macro not microevolution” but then later said it just had to be something small, “not the big picture”. Given that the big picture is pretty much the definition of macro evolution versus microevolution I found this confusing.
The final question was “do you feel that science is always playing catch up with the Bible?” To which he basically answered no, science is good, we should be doing science. Scientism is the problem. The scientific method has to acknowledge that it is limited, it can’t tell you you are beautiful for example.
This caused several young earthers in the room to get uneasy, but unfortunately we were out of time.
This weekend he is also doing a “fellowship meeting” for men only at the church this morning, and talks Saturday and Sunday evenings. He is talking Sunday morning during church service, which is supposed to be largely a repeat of Friday night’s talk.
Saturday night’s talk is free and open to the public, starting at 7:15PM.