If Richard Dawkins Was An Historian

Posted in Bible, DBT01, Medicine on  | 10 minutes | 1 Comment →

Sorry for the delay. I’ve been waiting for Peter to clarify himself, but I think I’ll just go ahead and post what I wrote last week.

I closed Round 1 of DBT01 by addressing Peter Hurford’s claim that, “knowledge of germ theory of disease contained in the Bible […] would prove God’s goodness and glory beyond a shadow of a doubt.” I supplied examples of Old Testament hygienic commands which I argued were consistent with Peter’s gauntlet, enough that he had no rational alternative but to abandon his atheism and acknowledge the God of the Bible. Peter proudly claimed that he “busted” my proof, but as we’ll see, he misrepresented my argument more than once and his response is chock full of irrelevant links suggesting that his history is on par with Dawkins’ philosophy.

Clarifying My Argument

Peter presented my argument as,

  1. the Bible contains amazing knowledge of sanitation more than two millennia ahead of its time;
  2. such amazing knowledge is only possible if God really wrote the Bible;
  3. Christianity is true.

…but I never said that. I don’t endorse that argument. I accept the first premise, but I wouldn’t say, “such knowledge is only possible if God really wrote the Bible” because I don’t believe that’s true and I don’t think that’s the best way to run the argument. Nor would I argue from, “the Bible contains advanced hygienic knowledge,” directly to, “Christianity is true.” The premise doesn’t support such a strong conclusion. Further, the argument would remain unsound even if the premises were true. Christianity’s truth doesn’t hinge on whether or not the Bible contains advanced hygienic knowledge. Peter lifted my argument completely out of it’s original context: a response to specific criteria he established. My argument—which I suppose we can refer to as the Argument From Hygiene—is not intended as a stand-alone argument proving Christianity. It’s certainly a pillar in my meta-argument, but it’s part of a cumulative case consisting of several other arguments. Simplified for brevity, the Argument from Hygiene would go something like,

  • P1: the Bible contains advanced hygienic knowledge;
  • P2-PN: (support for P1);
  • PN+1: advanced hygienic knowledge is evidence that God inspired Scripture;
  • C: this, along with other arguments and evidences, justifies provisional belief that God inspired Scripture.
Why Wasn’t Peter Sold?

Fortunately, Peter responded with falsifiable objections:

  • this conclusion does not follow because this knowledge of sanitation is actually normal for its time and was well-known by other contemporary cultures that did not have access to the Bible.
  • Whatever the Isrealites were doing sanitation and waste disposal-wise, other cultures were doing it to, despite not having the alleged help of the Abrahamic God.

Okay, there’s quite a bit to unpack there. When he says, “this knowledge of sanitation,” Peter refers to six Old Testament commands I cited in our debate. He paraphrases these commands as,

  • (1) rats are dirty and to be avoided
  • (2) dung is to be buried outside the city limits
  • (3) bodily discharges are to be avoided
  • (4) cleanse that which comes in contact with bodily discharges
  • (5) remove mildew from houses
  • (6) quarantine to prevent disease

Peter assures us “all” of this knowledge was “already known” to “many” other ancient civilizations living in the same time period. Notice that Peter’s claim is vague at best, yet people mock me for demanding firmly-cemented goalposts! At any rate, le pregunta es: What state(s) of affairs would you expect to see if Peter’s claim is true? Well, I would expect him to cite at least 3 mid-fifteenth century B.C. sources, each containing all six of the aforementioned commands. That should be a cinch if this knowledge really was well-known by other contemporary cultures. OTOH, if said sources are not cited, Peter’s claim has not been demonstrated.

Peter Didn’t Deliver

(1) Regarding rats, Peter writes, “Ancient Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians all understood that rats were pests to be avoided,” but Leviticus doesn’t just say, “rats were pests to be avoided.” Peter’s caricature robs the text of nearly all hygienic import. For example, Leviticus says anything a dead rat falls on must be washed with water (11:32), unless the object is a clay pot, in which case the pot must be broken (11:33). Further, Leviticus condemns food or liquid from any pot into which a dead rat has fallen (11:34). By caricaturizing the command as, “rats are pests to be avoided,” Peter builds a strawman—but even then he can’t knock it down.

He cites five links for support in Section 1. The first link doesn’t contain anything remotely close to the detailed instructions above, but what appears to be an Egyptian poem dating to the 19th dynasty, anywhere from 250-350 years after Leviticus. Peter’s link references the Ebus Papyrus, an actual medical source contemporaneous to Old Testament Israelites, but he fails to cite any commands relating to rats—let alone dung, mildew, bodily discharges or quarantine. The second link simply notes that Appolo was, “…known as the destroyer of rats and locust.” The third link is to a Wikipedia entry for “miasmic theory of disease,” and the fourth link is to an Amazon entry for a book claimed to document Hippocrates’ citation of “animal carcasses as a potential source of disease.” Finally, his fifth link cites another book which purportedly “mentions that it wasn’t until around 90 AD when Romans fully understood the specific connection between rats and disease and Emperor Domitian ordered a thorough removal of rats.” Confident, Peter boasts,

This is equal to or better than that mentioned in Leviticus, cited by Cl.

LOL! Folks, Peter is out of his mind. To pass those five links off as hygienic commands of “equal merit” is absurd. The first is inconclusive and the other four are wholly irrelevant. A document noting Apollo’s reputation as a destroyer of rats cannot be submitted as an example of contemporaneous medical knowledge. A Wikipedia entry for miasmic theory of disease is irrelevant. Hippocrates and Domitian post-date Leviticus by over a thousand years, which means they’re aren’t even remotely contemporaneous. Peter has not demonstrated that “many” contemporary cultures had access to this information.

(2) Regarding the practice of burying dung outside the camp, Peter writes,

Cl makes it sound like the Isrealites were the first people to bury refuse outside city limits, and other societies didn’t catch on until well after the Middle Ages, but this is completely false.

That’s false. All I said was that God commanded the Israelites to bury their dung outside city limits, implying that obedience to this command would have helped curtail bubonic plague. That people buried dung before the Old Testament strikes me as a non-controversial claim. Even so, we see the same pattern of false confidence bolstered by shoddy scholarship. For example, Peter writes, “Tulchinsky also references Hippocrates’ call to clean streets of trash, lest people get infected by disease,” and, “Pitchell cites Athens as being sweeped of trash daily and Rome as having massive sewer systems drain streets of trash with periodic water flow.” As with the previous examples, Hippocrates wasn’t contemporary to Israelites reading Leviticus, and Cloaca Maxima—assuming that’s what Peter meant by “massive sewer systems” in Rome—wasn’t built until roughly the mid-eighth century B.C., which means Peter’s supposed evidences are complete non-sequiturs.

(3) & (4) Of bodily discharges, Peter provides nothing except passing reference to the Laws of Manu (200 B.C.) and Hippocrates (400 B.C.). Of cleaning things with water, Peter gives vague allusion to the fact that people took baths in Rome. He writes, “the Greeks and Romans frequently washed their hands,” citing an article about cleanliness in first-century Rome. Lastly, Peter provides a link to a book about ancient Egyptian culture, purporting to prove that the “ancient Egyptians” washed their hands. Again we see the pattern: five of six links cite cultures post-dating Leviticus by over a thousand years, which means they are entirely irrelevant to that which he intends to prove. The sixth link simply suggests that ancient Egyptians washed their hands. Is that, by any stretch of the imagination, a demonstration that “many” contemporary cultures shared the biblical sanitation principles?

(5) & (6) With regard to mildew, Peter’s first link is to a Wikipedia entry for a Roman dog sacrifice to protect grain fields from disease. There is nothing specific about mildew anywhere in the article. IOW, he gives us yet another wholly irrelevant link. His second link simply mentions that Greeks and Romans sprinkled cucumber leaves on vines in hopes of preventing mildew. His third link simply states, “trial and error resulted in Egyptian food being stored adequately protected from mildew,” but this is hardly evidence of Peter’s claim that “many” contemporary cultures had access to biblical sanitation principles.

Peter says that the practice of quarantine was “fairly well known throughout history,” but again, we’re given ambiguous statements lacking any specifics whatsoever. The CDC reports that,

The practice of quarantine, as we know it, began during the 14th century in an effort to protect coastal cities from plague epidemics. Ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. This practice, called quarantine, was derived from the Italian words quaranta giorni which mean 40 days.

Nova lists A.D. 549 as the first recorded use of quarantine. It’s unclear just what Peter thinks he’s established by claiming that quarantine was fairly well known throughout history. Perhaps he can clarify.

Peter mentions some Greeks again, but we’ve already established that Greeks are irrelevant. Finally, near the end of his essay, Peter mentions his first instance of pertinent medical knowledge that can be reasonably called contemporaneous or even preceding Leviticus, a Sumerian who called for quanrantine of a patient. Peter tells us this is “before 2,000 B.C.,” but research seems to disconfirm Peter’s claim. It’s actually from 1780 B.C. Now, you can say, “That’s still older than Leviticus,” and you’d be correct. However, Leviticus demonstrates superior understanding by requiring infected people to be placed outside the camp. The Sumerian doctor simply said to keep the patient isolated inside the palace. The former is more in tune with modern germ theory than the latter.

In Conclusion

It should be evident that Peter badly missed the mark in this reply. The above six are only a small handful of the Old Testament’s 200+ commands relating to cleanliness, health and hygiene, and I only focused on them because of their usefulness in preventing moral evils like the bubonic plague, which was a subject in our debate. Peter’s scholarship was shoddy at best. If one’s objection is that contemporaneous cultures shared the Bible’s knowledge, it’s irrelevant to cite events that occurred over a thousand years later. When we discard the non-sequiturs, his entire objection amounts to, “people buried poop before Leviticus and a Sumerian doctor prescribed quarantine for a patient.”

That’s all he came up with in 3 months of research, and it’s nowhere near sufficient to justify his claim that “many” other cultures shared “all” of the knowledge in question. I will expand this Argument from Hygiene in a future post, but for now, Peter’s got some explaining to do. He still needs to supply a rational reason for denying my argument.

One comment

  1. Crude


    Pretty interesting argument, Cl. I wasn’t aware of the rat rule, or much of the rest.

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