The Unimpressive Bible

August 17, 2010

I’ve encountered a curious position among atheists with respect to the nature of the Bible that I think now warrants some attention here.  I’ll call it the “Unimpressive Bible Objection”, or UBO.  Proponents of the UBO seem to promote the following general argument:

The Bible contains stories that don’t exhibit the type of information that God supposedly would wish to convey to us.  For example, there’s nothing in there about DNA, the germ theory of disease, or safe and efficient nuclear energy.  So if God wanted us to know that the Bible is really His word to us, then He would have included this type of information to make the fact more obvious.  Therefore, since the Bible doesn’t contain this type of information, it probably is not His communication to us.

I’ve searched briefly to look for some professional form of this argument, but unfortunately wasn’t able to find anything.  But for a popular example of this position, see this video from NonStampCollector.  I’ve also encountered this position on other blogs, in the form of: “what can the Bible tell us that wasn’t already known, or couldn’t have been recorded, by goatherders, ancient near-east nomads, and the like?”.

Now, let’s expand the argument a little more to try and give it a fair treatment.  The first thing to do would be to clarify what type of information the objector seeks and doesn’t find.  What can we say regarding knowledge of DNA, or the germ theory of disease, or safe nuclear energy?

For one thing, I think it’s fair to say knowledge of such things can extend our life, make it more comfortable, or perhaps ultimately more fulfilling if it allows us to spend our time on self-edifying pursuits like the arts or valuable pursuits like charity and service to others.  So this type of knowledge exhibits an improved quality of life property – call this property “IQL”.

Next, this type of knowledge would have been novel to the time period associated with biblical times.  Now if certain information were unique to just the culture that recorded the Bible, then perhaps this decreases the plausibility that this knowledge could have resulted from the incremental, progressive growth in human knowledge with which we are familiar in the present day and which we can rightfully infer occurred thousands of years ago.  In other words, since this knowledge would seem to have “come out of nowhere”, then this rules out the possibility that it would have come from the incremental, progressive growth in human knowledge.  So this type of knowledge exhibits a revealed property – call this property “R”.

The next step would be to formalize the argument.  Here’s my most basic charitable attempt:

(1)  If God exists, He would communicate in the written word with those He has created.

(2)  If God communicates in the written word with those He has created, then that communication will have some combination of properties IQL and R.

(3)  The Bible does not contain any information exhibiting properties IQL and R.

(4)  Therefore, the Bible is not communication from God.  (From 2 and 3)

(5)  Therefore, either God does not exist or some other written word is communication from God.  (From 1 and 4)

That’s the simplest form which I’ve been able to give the argument.  For anyone out there who might defend something like this or hold similar beliefs, are there other properties of the written word that you might expect to see?  Or, do you have a version of this kind of argument that you think is stronger?  Any references would be helpful.  I’ll wait a bit for any responses before moving on to a critique.


  1. Hi Reidish,

    I’ve looked at this several times hoping that someone would turn up to defend the argument, since I’m not that sure about it myself. Anyway, I just wanted to register my interest for your next post – perhaps you’ll be able to explain my doubts to me.

  2. TaiChi,
    Thanks for your comment. I was hoping for some defenses myself – I’ve seen enough variances of it on other blogs that I was guessing there’s been some kind of professional presentation of it, but maybe there hasn’t been. Regardless, I’ll still at least post a critique of what I presented here.
    Did you watch the video to which I linked? Would you agree that I captured the essence of the argument?

  3. Yes, to both questions. The video does reference, in addition to IQL and R properties, certain moral properties which we might expect to see in the Bible. But I’ve no objection to you ignoring this and treating the IQL and R properties separately: the argument as I’ve seen it made often does so as well.

  4. Keep going with this. I’ve never been impressed by this argument, either.

    TaiChi: FWOW, the moral properties you mention might fall under the rubric of IQL.

  5. I don’t care for this argument, but I don’t think any atheists actually use the argument that way…in particular, the “IQL,” though I think you’re right about “R”. Although medicine to improve life is mentioned in the linked video, I don’t see that as being the point. I think it’s just an early part of the thought process that leads people to the argument from divine hiddenness and would formulate it extremely roughly like this:
    (1) The God of the Bible is supposed to have inspired the content of the Bible.
    (2) Perhaps one of the strongest ways to provide evidence for (1) would be if God had included information that the authors of the Bible could not possibly have known at the time without God telling them.
    (3) There’s no information in the Bible that the authors could not possibly have known at the time without God telling them.
    (4) Therefore (from 2 and 3), one of the perhaps strongest ways to provide evidence for (1) was not pursued.
    (5) Some other method of producing evidence for (1) will need to be offered.

    I really think that’s all that video is saying, and what other atheists mean by it. (A video of Sam Harris in a “BigThink” interview springs to mind with a similar message: start at 4:36
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgN5pAPTALc&feature=related )

  6. Thanks for the comments so far. I’ve got a response brewing, just on a low burner.

  7. Reidish
    I’d say chop off the first premise and the conclusion from that premise. I doubt many atheists use the fact that the bible does not contain R to provide evidence that God doesn’t exist. It is merely given as a reason to doubt the divine inspiration of the Bible.

  8. Yeah, I think it’s an interesting objection. My main problem with most religious texts is that they don’t have a God supportive of Equal Protection Under the Law or Human Rights.

    Also, I’d like to point out that this argument is mostly used when someone claims that their religious scripture is like a science textbook. Ex: “Oh my God, the Bible identifies blood as a life source!” in which case you can point out that it fails miserably in explaining all the forces of life.

  9. […] a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." James 4:14 « The Unimpressive Bible The Unimpressive Bible – A Response April 15, […]

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