Phil Mundt,
A Scientific Search for Religious Truth
(Bridgeway, 2007)

I wanted to review A Scientific Search for Religious Truth because I found its title promising. Dr. Phil Mundt's objective was a worthy one; his experience and Stanford Ph.D. in geology make him a credible author, and he has clearly put a great deal of effort and energy into the project. An objective review of the scientific evidence for and against religious belief would be welcome indeed in the midst of today's highly politicized and emotional arguments between atheists who see religion as the source of all evil and proponents of intelligent design who can't imagine a moral order without a religious basis.

Unfortunately, A Scientific Search for Religious Truth doesn't live up to its title. It would have been more accurate to call it A Christian Rationalizes His Beliefs. Mundt believed in Christianity and intelligent design before he wrote the book and still does -- not because he has reached a scientific conclusion, but because he believes in the Bible and in the resurrection of Christ. His overview of the scientific support of his views adds nothing new to the discussion. His main argument is that many people saw the empty tomb and hundreds more saw the resurrected savior. More than a few, he points out, were so strongly impressed that they became willing martyrs.

But the only evidence we have for the resurrection is the reports of devout believers written roughly 10 years or more after the events described (and we don't have the original manuscripts). There are no collaborating reports in the works of historians such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger or Suetonius. There is a passage in Josephus referring to the resurrection, but based on textual analysis it is generally believed to be a third-century addition to the original, made by the Christian writer Origen. The lack of independent confirmation severely damages an attempted scientific proof. Resurrection, earthquake and darkness in the middle of the day are called miracles because they are extraordinary events. If they were observed by hundreds, it is difficult to explain why they went unreported outside of the Bible.

Willing martyrdom also fails as a scientific proof since every religion seems to have its share of martyrs. Christians are unlikely to accept the daily reports of Iraqi suicide bombers as proof of the truth of Islam.

The bulk of Mundt's book is devoted to a wildly ambitious attempt to lend credibility to his views by summarizing the history and beliefs of the world's major religions and the latest advances in the most significant sciences from biotechnology to cosmology. It is an impressive display of extensive research, but largely off the subject of the book's title except for occasional references to the necessity of intelligent design (to explain the Big Bang and Cambrian explosion, for example). Nor can I recommend the book for these summaries. They are an amazingly complete survey of important topics, but somewhat disorganized. They also contain a number of errors in spite of indicated proofing by other scientists.

The diameter of the universe is given as "a few billion light-years." Thirty billion is more like it. The solar system is tagged at 20 trillion miles. That's too large by a factor of more than two if Pluto is taken as the limit. It's too large even if the limit is taken to be the maximum estimated distance to the outermost part of the Oort Cloud of comets. The neutralino is said to be a "likely" candidate for the makeup of dark matter when it is but one of many possibilities.

Were it error free, I still could not recommend the book as an overview of religion, contemporary science or intelligent design. Try the felicities of Huston Smith for religion, Bill Bryson for an entertaining overview of modern science and William Dembski for design-based arguments for the existence of God.

Lack of scientific proof doesn't necessarily mean that anti-religionists such as Paine and Russell, or more recently Harris, Dawkins and Dunnett, are correct. Religion is a matter of faith -- according to Kierkegaard, an absurd leap-of-faith, necessarily made without scientific proof. And so my comments have addressed only the idea that Dr. Mundt may have given us the scientific proof referred to in the title of his book. The validity of Christianity itself, or any other religion I leave to another day. Please issue me no fatwahs.

review by
Ron Bierman

6 June 2009

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