A VERY NEW LOOK
Don Stoner leads atheistic scientists to Christ, or does he?
Posted on August 22, 2000
Don Stoner’s book “A New Look at an Old Earth” (Harvest House Publishers) has been printed 8 times, its latest edition dated 1997. It is subtitled “Resolving the Conflict Between the Bible & Science.”
Stoner must be given credit for having thoroughly researched his topic. Unlike some other writers who have produced books in the same vein, and claimed scientific degrees and the experience of scientists, Stoner does not mention having a scientific degree, although the blurb on his book’s cover tells us that he is an R&D scientist, the holder of two patents, having experience in the development of optical disks and the Precision Motion chiptester. Stoner has done a much better job of presenting some scientific facts than several of those alleged scientists with degrees, (for example Gerald Schroeder - see http://www.talkreason.org/perakm/schroeder.htm ) who sometimes display an astonishing lack of knowledge of their purported field of specialization and make ludicrous errors when scientific theories are discussed. Many examples of such ignorance and errors have been indicated in the reviews on this site.
Moreover, Stoner has also done a good job of explaining some not very simple concepts of science, in popular form, for example, in his clear and correct explanation of the relativity of time (Appendix 3, pages 193-197).
Stoner’s book differs quite favorably from books by some other writers pursuing the same goal of proving the compatibility of science with the Bible in that it contains no serious errors in its discussion of the facts of science, with the exception of the theory of evolution.
Having given credit where it is due, we can’t ignore those passages where Stoner inadvertently reveals that, while by and large he has done his homework, he sometimes lacks adequate comprehension of certain scientific theories. He is also not sufficiently familiar with the Hebrew language, which he tries to interpret on several occasions.
To illustrate the above statement, let us start with a wrong comment by Stoner on page 34. He wrote (as a footnote): “Actually, modern cosmology provides a sort of defense for the Inquisition position. According to the laws of relativity, any frame of reference can be taken as a stationary center of the universe. Of course, this argument supports Galileo’s position as well.”
Without discussing Stoner’s opinion that the Inquisition’s position might in principle have any merits whatsoever, let us note that his assertion betrays his insufficient understanding of relativity. The special theory of relativity does not claim the equivalence of all frames of reference, but only of all inertial frames of reference. This term means such frames of reference (i.e. such physical bodies) which move without acceleration. In any planetary system, including our solar system, if viewed within its own framework, the central body (e.g. sun) has no acceleration, while the orbiting planets (e.g. earth) move with a centripetal acceleration (even if we ignore the not very significant variable linear acceleration related to the orbit being elliptical rather than spherical). Therefore there is no equivalence between the frames of reference attached to the central body (e.g. the sun) and the frames of reference attached to any orbiting planet (e.g. the Earth). The situation also may be discussed in terms of the general theory of relativity, according to which an orbiting planet moves on a path that is curved due to the presence of a much larger mass of the central body. This interpretation is by no means equivalent to the situation in which the sun moves on a path curved by the much smaller mass of Earth. Therefore Ptolemy’s cosmogony, to which the Catholic Church adhered in Galileo’s time, and which the Inquisition tried to impose on everybody by force, was wrong, while Galileo’s views (i.e. Copernicus’s system) were correct.
Since Stoner does not claim to be an expert in relativity, his error in this case could be forgiven (except for his remark implying that the ignominious behavior of the inquisition could somehow be justified).
On the other hand, Stoner’s multiple references to various Hebrew words and expressions indicate his ignorance of that language. All of his familiarity with Hebrew seems to stem from his leafing through a dictionary by Gesenius. On that basis alone, Stoner endeavors to explain the meaning of various Hebrew words, often completely missing the target.
For example, on page 18 Stoner makes the ridiculous statement that the Hebrew language “has no past, present, or future verb tense.” Before making such statements, it would be advisable for Stoner to do a little more homework. No, Mr. Stoner, any Israeli school kid would tell you some elementary things about the Hebrew language, which certainly has quite definite verb forms expressing past, present and future tense.
Stoner’s references to Hebrew are redolent of similar assertions by Hugh Ross, who provided a very favorable foreword to Stoner’s book. Like Ross, Stoner thinks that the Hebrew word for “evening” is “ereb” rather then the correct “erev.” Stoner thinks that the Hebrew word “oph” (which he oddly transliterates as “awph”) means “wing.” For your information, Mr. Stoner, wing in Hebrew is either “agaf” or “kanaf” (depending on the context) while “oph” is a collective noun for birds (or any winged flying creatures), and in the contemporary vernacular, for birds’ meat, such as chicken meat.
On page 43 Stoner discusses the meaning of the word “yom,” whose literal translation is “day” and asserts that “the next closest Hebrew word ‘olam’ usually means ‘forever.’” First of all, the word “olam,” although it was on several occasions used in the Bible to mean “eternity,” generally does not mean “forever,” it actually means “world.” “Forever” in Hebrew is “l’olam.” Second, the assertion that “olam” or, more correctly, “l’olam” is “the next closest word to ‘yom’” is a display of unsubstantiated self-confidence in a matter Stoner has very little knowledge about. While it is not quite clear what Stoner meant by “the next closest word to yom,” if it implied that the Hebrew language has no words for various periods of time (as Ross explicitly asserted in his books) then he shares with Ross an abject ignorance of the subject he and Ross have the gall to discuss. For your information, Mr. Stoner, there are many words in Hebrew for all kinds of periods of time. Examples of these words are shown, for example, at http://www.talkreason.org/perakm/ross.htm .
Since we have discussed Stoner’s ignorance of Hebrew (which would be irrelevant if he did not endeavor to provide the alleged explanations of Hebrew words) this is a good place to say a few words about Stoner’s dispute with the “young-earth creationists” regarding the proper interpretation of the word “yom” in the book of Genesis. Stoner adheres to the position of those creationists who insist that the word in question must be interpreted not literally as a 24-hour-long day, but rather as some much longer period of time, thus enabling one to reconcile the biblical story with modern scientific data. Stoner’s adversaries in this dispute, the so-called “young-earth creationists” maintain that the text of Genesis must be interpreted literally, thus viewing the word “yom” as indeed denoting the conventional 24-hour-long day.
In his refutation of the young-earth creationists Stoner provides a number of good arguments showing the absurdity of their pseudo-theories. However, while the overall position of the young-earth creationists is glaringly obscurantist and senseless, it is nevertheless logically unassailable. In particular, their arguments in favor of the literal reading of the word “yom” are much more convincing than Stoner’s feeble attempt to justify the non-literal interpretation of that word. Of course, the simplest and most reasonable explanation of the discrepancy between the biblical story and scientific data is not to attribute metaphoric meaning to the word “yom,” but to dismiss the biblical story as an unsubstantiated legend not based on any facts. This natural explanation is unacceptable both to Stoner and to his young-earth creationist adversaries, hence the latter simply disregard the scientific evidence, while Stoner tries to reconcile it with the biblical story by suggesting a non-literal reading of a word whose meaning is actually rather unequivocal.
Equally arbitrary are Stoner’s attempts to provide his own interpretation of some other Hebrew words, which supposedly would clarify the real meaning of the biblical story thus making it compatible with the commonly known facts of nature. For example, on pages 145-146 he discusses the word “rakiya” which KJV translates as firmament but according to Stoner (who actually refers to some earlier writers) should be rather translated as expanse. Stoner even makes an excursion into Hebrew linguistics telling us that the root of that word means “to spread out by beating.” In fact, translating rakiya as expanse, although can be found in some Hebrew-English dictionaries, is rather arbitrary and has no real foundation in Hebrew. The definitive Hebrew dictionary by Even-Shoshan provides a number of meanings for the word rakiya, but none of them is anywhere close to expanse. The closest common Hebrew noun to rakiya (resh-kof-yud-ayin) is reka (resh-kof-ayin) whose common translations are basis, foundation, background or backdrop. The verb raka (resh-kof-ayin) has in Hebrew several meanings, one of which indeed is to stretch. However, the translation which most closely conveys the meaning of rakiya, as it has been used in Genesis, is canopy or tent (a tent or a canopy indeed have to be stretched to serve their purpose). In some Hebrew-English dictionaries (for example the dictionary edited by David Shumaker, Avenel Books, NY, 1978) rakiya is translated as vault. All the mentioned translations fit in with the simple fact that those writers who compiled the biblical story thousands of years ago had no knowledge of the atmosphere’s structure and thus described what they seemed to see while looking up at the apparent blue cupola above their heads. Whichever of the possible translations of rakiya one chooses, expanse is the least justified one.
Equally unsubstantiated are Stoner’s interpretations of some other Hebrew words, like “erets” (meaning land or country) etc, the only reason for his interpretation being his desire to reconcile the word of the Bible with science.
Stoner’s odd interpretations (and transliterations) of various Hebrew words obviously stem from his ignorance of that language which forced him to rely on Gesenius’s lexicon. Otherwise he would have referred to some authoritative Hebrew dictionary which explains the meaning and usage of words without resorting to their translation into another language. A commonly known dictionary of that type in English is, for example, that by Webster. There are similar excellent Hebrew dictionaries, for example, by A. Even-Shoshan. Being not able to understand Hebrew, Stoner, like his fellow propagandist of the Bible’s inerrancy Hugh Ross, relies on the translations of Hebrew words into English found in Hebrew-English dictionaries. It is a very common situation – somebody not familiar with a certain language tries to use it by relying on a dictionary that translates the words of the unknown language into one’s mother tongue. Recall an episode from the famous movie Casablanka. A husband and wife, preparing to emigrate to the USA, decide to speak only English, which is not their mother tongue. One of them wants to ask: “What is the time?” Relying on the literal translation of the words from their native language into English, as found in dictionaries, she asked: “Which watch?” Her husband answered: “Ten watch” (by that he meant “Ten o’clock”). Stoner’s (and Ross’s) interpretation of Hebrew words is as good as the English of the two would-be emigrants in the above movie.
Reading Stoner’s book, a reader repeatedly encounters statements allegedly defining the book’s goal. For example, on page 16 we read: ”This brings us to the reason for this book. Scientists who are atheists are in error and need salvation as much as anyone does. Showing Christians how to witness to them effectively is one important goal of this book. Another goal is to show Christians how to be more effective politically…”
Whereas the above statement sounds like a clearly defined program, a reader who expects to find in Stoner’s book convincing arguments in favor of his stated position must be prepared for a disappointment. The reason for this disappointment is not the quality of Stoner’s arguments, but simply the sheer absence of any. What Stoner has actually spent his energy on is a fight against the young-earth creationists.
Indeed, if Stoner wished to argue against atheism (or agnosticism) the first and most crucial question to discuss would be whether or not there is a God, creator of the universe. One cannot find in Stoner’s book a single sentence which would qualify as a discussion of that most crucial point of disagreement between believers and non-believers. Simple statements asserting that atheistic scientists are in error hardly can be persuasive for those who do not share Stoner’s beliefs. In some other place in his book Stoner says bluntly that “One goal of this book is to prepare Christians to lead scientists to Christ” (page 23). Hence, we see that Stoner’s proclaimed goal is not just to convert atheists (and agnostics) into believers, but to specifically “lead” them to his particular brand of beliefs. However, this declaration remains just a slogan since Stoner completely avoids any discussion of why atheists or agnostics or those scientists who are non-Christian believers (such as Jews or Moslems) should abandon their beliefs and join Stoner in his faith.
There are, among scientists, believers (both Christian and non-Christian), atheists and agnostics. While some studies of the beliefs of scientists have been conducted, their scope was limited so there are no clear data which would tell us the percentage of believers, atheists and agnostics among the scientists. Without pretending that I have any statistically valid information in this respect, I may though share my personal impression in regard to the prevalent trend I observed among my colleagues during my half-century of being a practicing scientist. My impression is that the largest fraction of scientists tend to be agnostics. The numbers of firm atheists or believers seem to be substantially smaller than that of agnostics, divided more or less equally between the two.
The above trend is easy to understand. Scientific activity teaches skepticism. Moreover, scientists are trained to look for rational basis for any assertion. Both atheism and religious faith are not based on any rational foundation. For the skeptical mind of a scientist, all arguments purporting to either prove or disprove the existence of God do not sound convincing. Being accustomed to keeping an open mind, a scientist is not inclined to accept any set of views or beliefs just on somebody’s authority but needs a convincing set of rational proofs to accept or reject a view or opinion. From a scientist’s viewpoint, neither believers nor atheists have been able to provide such convincing arguments in favor of their position. Therefore, it is natural for a scientist to leave the question of God’s existence open. On the other hand, in her practical work a scientist behaves as if she is an atheist, even if she actually is a believer. While conducting experiments, or interpreting data, or developing a theory, a scientist does not resort to any supernatural explanations. Otherwise she would illegitimately trespass the boundary of science.
The multiple assertions by Stoner that atheists are in error and that he as a Christian knows for sure that both the universe and the Bible are God’s creations can hardly be viewed as having any evidentiary value and therefore have no chance of converting a single skeptic to Stoner’s faith. The only arguments Stoner discusses in detail are those rebuffing the views of the young-earth creationists. Let us talk a little about this dispute of Stoner with the young-earth creationists.
First, let us note that as far as the principal position regarding the validity of the Bible and the existence of God who created the universe is being discussed, Stoner is fully in agreement with the young earth creationists. He simply is annoyed by their dismissal of scientific data because such an attitude, in his view, can only discredit the biblical story if it is accepted literally. In the proclamations of his unshakable beliefs in the Bible’s inerrancy Stoner sometimes sounds very funny. Here are a couple of quotations. On page 56 we read the following statement by Stoner (with a reference to Corinthians 1:18-23): “We must not make our preaching more foolish than it absolutely needs to be.” Well, Mr. Stoner can sleep well, there is no need for his preaching to be any more foolish than it actually is. At least he frankly admits that foolishness is a necessary component of his views. This is commendable frankness.
On page 58 we read another quite funny assertion: “When young-earth creationists read the heavens they appear almost as blind as the atheistic scientists…” Note the word almost. If young-earth creationists are almost as blind as the scientists, it means that, according to Stoner, they are still less blind than the “atheistic scientists.” In other words, Stoner wants readers to believe that the bunch of religious fanatics whose preposterous views he himself vigorously rejects as being fatally erroneous, are still ahead of Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac, Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking.
Stoner’s dispute with the young-earth creationist is two-prong. One of his theses relates to the contradiction between the young-earth creationists’ views and scientific data, and the other – to the interpretation of the word of the Bible.
To Stoner’s credit, even though he, unlike some of his fellow adherents of the Bible’s inerrancy, (for example Hugh Ross) does not hold a scientific degree, his excursions into science, with just one exception mentioned earlier, are correct and well written. Unlike in the books by Ross and some other propagandists for the Bible’s inerrancy, there are almost no errors in Stoner’s presentation of the facts of science. His refutation of the claims by the young-earth creationists are well substantiated and his conclusions indicating the egregious errors of the latter are quite logical and reasonable. Having said this, I have however very serious doubts that Stoner’s arguments, despite their logic and factual basis, will succeed in persuading a single young-earth creationist. The latter have heard similar arguments before and remained unmoved by them. To any argument against their beliefs, however reasonable and factually based, they have a ready answer. They just adhere to the view that whatever scientific data contradict their Bible-based beliefs, they are illusions. If the discussion is about fossils or geological data indicating the age of the earth, they reply that God created the earth with the fossils already deposited thus creating a false impression of age. If the discussion is about the remote galaxies, which have been found by science enormously far away from the earth, so therefore their light must have needed billions of years to reach our telescopes, they answer that God made the light in question already on its way to the earth, thus creating a false impression of an enormously large and very old universe. Of course, the young-earth creationists do not share with us the source of their uncanny knowledge of what God has done and why he would resort to such tricks. Justifiably, Stoner rejects the unsubstantiated alleged explanations by the young-earth creationists. It is hard not to agree with Stoner on that point. However, contrary to Stoner’s view, there is no way to logically or scientifically prove that the young-earth creationists’ explanation is wrong. It is based on blind faith and therefore cannot be scientifically disproved. It seems appropriate to note, that Stoner’s own unshakable belief in the Bible’s inerrancy has no better factual or logical basis than the blind faith of the young-earth creationists whose views he so energetically rejects.
When Stoner argues against the literal interpretation of the words of the Bible by the young-earth creationists, he is in a much weaker position. The arguments by the latter maintaining that, for example, the word “yom” in the book of Genesis indeed literally means the conventional 24-hour-long day, are much more convincing than Stoner’s insistence on some non-literal interpretation of that word as allegedly denoting some much longer period of time. Of course, the conclusion offered by the young-earth creationists according to which we have to reject the scientific data and believe that the world was created in six days, is nothing but a unsubstantiated effort by the extreme obscurantists to save their blind faith by ignoring indisputable facts. The most reasonable conclusion is that, while the interpretation of words in the Bible, adopted by the young-earth creationists is much more reasonable than that by Stoner, both they and Stoner are on ridiculously shaky ground in their assertion that the Bible is the word of God and hence tells the truth.
Of course, the question of whether the world was created by an invisible God or exists by itself, is quite apart from the question of the Bible’s authorship and veracity. A believer in God, Creator of the universe, has no reason to necessarily also believe in the divine origin of the Bible. Since Stoner does not bother to provide a single word in favor of the divine origin of the Bible, except for repeating time and time again that the Bible is God’s word, his book seems to be actually addressed only to those who already share his particular kind of beliefs. The “atheistic scientists” whom he allegedly wants to lead to Christ and to salvation, can hardly find in his book a single argument which could sway them toward Stoner’s faith.