Sunday 1 February 2015

Word O'God

Last Wednesday at The Institute, I noticed a a small blue book on a random windowsill and assumed it was a pocket dictionary dropped by a student.  If it had been bright red, I would have assumed it was the Thoughts of Chairman Mao [L] but that only dates me as old enough to remember the Cultural Revolution. Turned out that it was a Bible.  An hour later, I saw another copy of the same edition on another shelf, which I brought into my next class and made some hay about the utility of reading The Book.  After class, and looking for my lunch, I saw two elderly chaps in the main concourse handing out bibles from a stack.  "Ah ha!" I cried, "you're The One . . . who's been handing out the bibles".  Nothing daunted the old chap said "We've met before" and proceeded to tell me <TMI alert!> where I had got my very expensive education, that I'd won the Junior Scripture Prize and that I was now masquerading as an evolutionary biologist.  hmmmm, worrying: either this chap reads The Blob as well as The Book, or he knows where I live.  But it turned out that we had indeed met, in very similar circumstances two years before . . . and I'd blurfed out all these personal details. (note-to-self: must button lip!).

I told him that, while I no longer read a chapter of the bible a day and had no useful place for gods in my daily life, I was also critical of "atheists" who were certain that gods did not exist. Citing my brother, I maintained that atheism was not a tenable position for a skeptic and that it was far too embedded in Certainty to make me feel comfortable.  I especially dislike people like Richard Dawkins who take the fight to the Christians and disturb their equanimity.  But then again, I don't live in a country where half the people refuse to accept evolution and also condemn people of the gay persuasion.

The Bible-pusher, let's call him Bill, tried to convince me a) that the Bible was a true historical record rather than delivered to Moses & Co. from heaven like the Book of Mormon b) that its moral precepts should therefore be taken on board - as part of true history. That's what I thought he said, anyway. I proceeded to argue that his side would make better progress if they ditched the historical truth part and concentrated on The Message, which has, after all, profoundly informed our current system of morality.  So much so, that it is hard to find people who a) don't hold with the sanctity of life, b) think adultery is fine c) are supportive of theft to equilibrate incomes. Anti-churchists will say that we get this worldview from Mithraism or the Greek philosophers but their arguments get to sound weaselly and dishonest. There are plenty of ancient texts - Ἡρόδοτος Herodotus and before him Ἡσίοδος Hesiod who both claimed to be setting down things as they really were - which don't have much of a message beyond the observation that there have always been wicked, deluded and saintly men on the planet. Being true history is not necessarily a certificate of utility.

For a bottom line I'm with Thomas Henry "Darwin's Bulldog" Huxley, coiner of the word agnostic, in recommending that young people read the bible, and I'm also with me in recommending that young scientists read the Origin of Species.  Either or both are better, more challenging and more rewarding than any Harry Potter.

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