Will we ever hear the Archbishop of Canterbury give a Festival of Ideas talk on the genetics of snails? No, probably not. And yet, an interesting asymmetry: in the last few years it has not been uncommon for leading science writers to weigh-in on matters of biblical exegesis.
Take Steve Jones, a familiar face at the Festival who returns on Tuesday 7th February 2017 to ask Did God Evolve?, one of the issues raised in his book The Serpent’s Promise: The Bible Retold as Science (Hachette UK, 2013). For Jones, an atheist, there is no God – so let us be clear that for him it must be the idea of god that might have evolved. Why let the small matter of the absence of the Almighty get in the way of a good public science lecture?
The serpent’s promise was the one given to Eve about what will happen upon eating the forbidden fruit: ‘then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.‘ Jones will be the first to admit that his science fails to address moral questions head on; going beyond good and evil he applies tools from population biology, archaeology and linguistics to pick apart select events described in the Bible that can bear scientific analysis.
This event, presented in association with Bristol Humanists, is sure to demonstrate Jones’ flair for telling eyebrow-raising tales of correlation between our cultural and genetic heritages; suggesting how different belief systems emerge from different demographic contexts. Why is it, for example, that were I born into a small hunter-gatherer community, I’d be far less likely to end-up believing in a vengeful deity, intent on punishing me for my sins? And is a godly future inevitable given that those areas with the most accelerated population growth are the most religious parts of the world?
If previous talks are anything to go by, the pleasure will come not so much from the systematic unravelling of grand-theory, but exhilarating fugues from one insightful anecdote to the next. Flights always full of quips and Jones’ trademark wry wit.
One thing I find with Jones is that – for all the provocatively hyped titles and subtitles designed to bait us, he ultimately comes clean, making clear in his smaller print what is speculative, and what are the more substantive conclusions being presented. He is master of the worthwhile detour, and will relish the opportunity to use, of all the source texts he might have exploited, the Bible, as a springboard into more rationalist territory.
There will be much to debate in the Q&A, both within and rubbing up against Jones’ scope. Sure it is a great entertainment to retell the Bible (or choice extracts thereof) as science, but what’s being left out of that retelling? Besides the spiritual, what about the literature, myth, ethics, philosophy – dimensions that those of all faiths and none should feel free to take an interest in. Going back to my starting point, that asymmetry of expectation – science encroaching on religious turf – does Jones concede there is a place for moral authorities intervening in what he gets up to in his lab?
In a Guardian review of The Serpent’s Promise, Jones was accused of having us: ‘believe a number of intellectual contortions including the claim that Genesis was “the world’s first biology textbook”.‘ Six days of God’s graft, and so much subsequent begat-ing makes for a lot of life, but not an objective study of it. Yet, is it not the place of the science-populariser to be a contortionist? To twist and fashion hard-nosed studies into delectable morsels we masses will want to ingest?
A Washington Post review was more scathing, about Jones’ ‘wooden literalism‘ about the Bible, accusing him of ‘effectively contrasting a childish view of the Bible with a grown-up view of science.‘ Perhaps criticising Jones for what he’s not trying to offer is unfair. He is no theologian (grown-up or otherwise) but we can look forward to a feast of very grown-up and thought-provoking science. All we must do is g along with Jones in his shamelessly knowing use of the Good Book as an excuse for it all.
This is something I struggle with. Prior to this event, I’m not ready to believe Jones when I read claims he doesn’t choose to write on sacred topics because he’s an atheist; that he just happens to be one. I cannot quite accept there is no clear sighted calculation in the gentle provocations he poses to the faithful. It is not that I think an unbeliever has no right to dwell upon holy scripture (Christians or not, the Bible is one hell of a major cultural inheritance bestowed on us all; for better, for worse) but I think it’s only polite for playful advocates of the Devil to declare themselves as such. There is nothing for it but to get a seat near the front, and to closely observe the emeritus professor’s cheek, for signs of tongue.
In Steve Jones, we don’t need to choose between expert or showman. He may side-step the moral questions the Serpent foretold we’d be left with, but Jones is no snake-oil merchant. He returns to do what he does best: spinning colourful yarns and weaving them into engaging, statistically supported, science stories.
What better way to celebrate Darwin’s 208th birthday in the week of the event? Come along and hear – as it was put in the Sunday Times: ‘a re-cranking of the Darwinist barrel organ – accompanied by the monkey of New Atheism, of course, as it screeches petulantly at religion.‘ (A comment which, by both accounts I’ve seen, seems to amuse Steve Jones as much as it does me.)