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Noah’s Flood

Today I’m introducing a new post series on Daylight Atheism, “Do You Really Believe That?” The purpose of this series is to highlight religious claims that are so extravagantly bizarre, so manifestly at odds with everything we know about the universe, or so just plain ridiculous that even religious believers shouldn’t be able to take them seriously. I’ll begin today with one of the most obviously ludicrous and implausible parts of the Bible, the story of Noah’s flood. As absurd as this ancient tall tale is, it is taken literally by many believers even today. Consider the following from Answers in Genesis’ Statement of Faith:

The great Flood of Genesis was an actual historic event, worldwide (global) in its extent and effect.

There are far more absurdities in this story than a single post can cover, and regarding the perennial issue of where the flood waters came from and where they went, I refer readers to the excellent Talk.Origins article Problems with a Global Flood. This article will highlight some of the problems that would have arisen within Noah’s ark.

First: How in the world did Noah gather all those animals? The number of known, described species in existence has been estimated as 1.5 million, and there may be as many as ten times more that have not yet been discovered or described. The Bible is adamant that all land animals not on the Ark died in the flood (Genesis 7:21-23), so everything that survived must have been taken on board. Even if, as some creationists postulate, different species just represent variation within a smaller number of fixed “kinds” and the post-flood world underwent a period of ultra-rapid evolution to produce today’s present biodiversity, it is still clear that any plausible catalog of the pre-flood world must have included tens of thousands of animals from wildly different habitats all across the globe, including many that live on islands, deserts, mountains, jungles, and other remote and inaccessible habitats. Even granting the 900-year pre-flood lifespans the Bible mentions, there is no plausible way that Noah and his family could have trekked, climbed and sailed all over the planet to find all these animals, capture a healthy breeding pair of each species, and bring them all back to the Middle East in the allotted time. A hundred lifetimes would not be enough to do this. And even if Noah somehow did manage to gather that many, how would they all fit in the Ark?

Second: How did Noah keep the animals from killing each other, or from dying in the cramped conditions? By definition, for every prey animal, the Ark carried its predators – and not just large predators like lions and wolves, but every species of infectious microbe and parasite: bacteria, viruses, lice, fleas, ticks, worms, flukes, fungi, and many others that can only survive on or in the living bodies of their prey. In the necessarily cramped and unsanitary conditions, the Ark would have been a hothouse of sickness and disease. How did the Ark’s passengers not die off in droves?

But again, discounting such problems, there is the inherent hardship of the voyage itself. Few animals adjust well to captivity, even in conditions that attempt to recreate their natural environments. The Ark would have been a far worse environment: living in necessarily tiny cages, in densely crowded, dark, dirty conditions drastically unlike their natural habitat (did animals from the polar zones and from the tropics live side by side in the same temperature and humidity?), in the constant turmoil of rough seas for months on end. The stress and terror of such a voyage would certainly have killed many of these animals, and left many others so weakened and traumatized that their long-term survival would be in serious doubt.

Third: How did just eight people care for such an enormous menagerie for so long? Zoos today, which represent a far smaller fraction of the earth’s biodiversity than the Ark was claimed to carry, require thousands of employees just to keep the animals healthy and happy. For example, the U.S. National Zoo has a staff of 350 full-time employees and over 1,500 part-time volunteers to care for 2,000 animals representing 400 different species. Does it make any sense at all to claim that just eight people, for an entire year, could have seen to all the needs of a far greater number of living things requiring far more diversity of treatment and care? Feeding and watering the animals, cleaning their cages, keeping them healthy and exercised, treating medical problems that surely would have arisen – eight people working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week could not possibly have done this.

Fourth: How was the world repopulated after the flood? Once the waters receded, the Earth must have been in a terrible state: a dead planet of mud, debris, rotting bodies, and decaying vegetation. The smell would have been indescribable. Even discounting the months it would take to plant and harvest new crops, most would have died in the briny, salt-soaked soil. There would have been nothing to eat for the herbivores, and no food for the carnivores but the herbivores that had just disembarked – and once they consumed all their former shipmates, they would have starved in turn.

But even assuming this problem could be somehow surmounted, there is a more serious one. Living things are not islands – they can only exist and thrive in a complex, interconnected web of relationships that cannot just spring up overnight. Releasing all these animals into the wild and expecting them to spontaneously return to their correct habitats and reconstitute their former ecosystems would be ludicrous. The certain result would be not repopulation, but chaos. The serious problem of invasive species shows what happens when living things are thrown together at random without regard for the intricate relationships among them – multiplying these scenarios by a thousand gives some idea of what the post-flood world must have been like.

The flood story teems with impossibilities, and can be rescued only by postulating a parade of miracles at every turn. Maybe the animals obediently trooped to Noah’s side from all over the world, laid down side by side without harming or attacking each other, and went into hibernation for a year on the Ark without needing food, water or exercise. Maybe miracles produced all the water for the flood from nowhere, held the boat together in rough seas, and made the water drain back into nothingness at the end. Maybe more miracles cleared away the millions of rotting bodies, replenished the soil so it would give crops again, and then made those crops grow in super-sped-up time so that the Ark’s passengers would have had something to eat. Maybe yet more miracles prevented the deleterious effects of inbreeding so a whole species could be repopulated from just two individuals, resorted the animals all over the world, and recreated their former ecosystems.

If continual and arbitrary violations of physical law are invoked at every turn, any chain of events, no matter how ridiculous or impossible, can be allowed. But the sheer number of miracles that would be needed gives some idea of just how implausible the flood story is. Nevertheless, there are a significant number of theists who believe this silly story really happened and want to see it adopted into the scientific canon and taught in public schools as fact. Yet most of these people, I’d wager, want this only because they have been told by their trusted religious authorities that this story is true and have never thought through its implications for themselves. To theists who fit this description, I suggest you take a closer look at the story of Noah’s flood and all it entails, and then ask yourselves: Do you really believe that?

Other posts in this series:

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...