Friday, 8 March 2013

Religion and Science (I just had to say it. You don't have to read it)

Just to clarify, following my last post about religion and science: I believe in evolution as a fact, and natural selection as the most likely theory to explain its process. I prefer the label “Mendelian” to “Darwinian” as the guy who worked out how genetics operated doesn’t get enough respect.

To follow that up, I find the continued battle between supporters of Intelligent Design and Darwinians intensely tedious. As a theatre critic, I can only see bad drama. The most interesting work in this area comes from scientists who are also Christians, trying to explain natural selection to other Christians. If we can all pretend that this is what I am doing, I’ll feel less guilty about adding to the pile of bad writing on the topic.

My instinct is to side with the atheists-who-support-natural-selection. They share my worldview. Equally, my instinct is against Christian fundamentalists. Not only do they maintain a stubborn resistance to the inevitable rise of science as an ontological arbiter, they go out of their way to read The Bible in a manner that is contrary to The Bible’s purpose.

I thought I would start off with a little gift to the atheist debater. The next time the whole Genesis versus Natural Selection row begins, don’t simply throw alternative scripture at them. It doesn’t work: their belief is in God as Author, not Darwin as Philosopher.

Instead, deconstruct the ground of Creationism. Without Genesis, the argument falls apart.
First of all, read the damn thing. Read right up until Adam and Eve get thrown out of Eden. And here’s the first surprise: there are two creation myths.

The early books of the Old Testament (from this point inwards, to be called The Torah) are a compilation. That’s obvious enough – look at the different styles, and diversity of books. But within Genesis, there has been editing. Two distinct traditions (P and J, theory fans) have been put together. They had different creation myths.

It gets better. The two myths have very different agenda. One is the classic: God makes the world, has a snooze. The other gets into that Adam’n’Eve reverse burlesque. The first is closer to the fundamentalist’s idea (“this is how the world was made, sunshine. Now can we talk about something more important, like how much of your income belongs to the church?”). The second is an attempt to understand why the world is a bit crap.

It’s nice and easy to use this titbit as a diamond cut. You know: “if The Bible is literally true, which one of these versions is the right one?”

Resist that temptation, oh my brethren. Claims about truth are what make this argument so complicated.

Being a post-modernist, I have no qualms about my next trick. In the magic of contemporary dance, there’s a strategy employed by the best choreographers. The first ten minutes or so – the introduction – are used to give the audience a taste of what the work is going to be all about.

This technique is more common than just the magic of contemporary dance. Novelists do it: here’s the hero, or anti-hero. Playwrights do it (Rob Drummond sets up the tone and drama of Quiz Show in the first scene, by having a generic quiz show go subtly wrong).

The most well known use of this technique is foreshadowing, or Chekov’s Gun. That’s a slightly more obvious version. And doesn’t classical composition have something called a Prelude, to sketch out the musical territory?

I might be using the wrong word, but I think that this part of The Bible is programmatic. In the first chapters, the reader is being introduced to the best way to read and understand the whole narrative. In other words, the conscious choice by the editors to include two versions of creation attempts to encourage the reader to interpret.

Approaching both myths seriously presents a series of choices. If they are both true, then the question becomes: what does truth mean? If the stories are competing, then the only solution is for the readers to work it out for themselves.  

This isn’t just an abdication of responsibility on the part of the editors – throwing their hands up in despair at which version is true and deciding to let the reader decide. It is a deliberate insistence that truth is not simple, and that only through dialogue (in this case, between two stories) can truth emerge.

The creation myths of Genesis are a bit like a caveat at the start of The Bible saying: WORK IT OUT FOR YOURSELF. INTERPRET, THINK, CONSIDER.

A couple of hundred years later, another bunch of editors go the same route. Only this time, they put in four versions of the same story.

It’s just a bit much to insist that The Bible is literally true when its editors recognised the problems of the unreliable narrator over two thousand years before the modern literary critic.

(Although Ovid did say the same thing about Odysseus…)

I don’t see this trick as really undermining scriptural authority. It just encourages literalists to show the text the respect it deserves.

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