the new ussr illustrated

assorted reflections from the urbane society for sceptical romantics

creation stories – a critique and an appreciation

with 4 comments

Howard Jacobson gazing at a mystery in the middle distance

I’ve just watched the first episode of a new SBS series The Bible: a history, which I wasn’t particularly keen to do, as I do get tired of religions and their over-rated texts and prefer to focus on matters more meaningful, to me at least. Anyway, Sarah talked me into it, and this first episode was predictably disappointing. Apparently each episode is written and presented by a different person, and with them we move chronologically through the Bible, focusing on its most interesting or influential aspects. This first episode, ‘Creation’, was presented by Howard Jacobson, a British Jewish comic novelist whose works I’m not familiar with.

This was first screened in Britain nearly two years ago, so there’s plenty of online commentary about it, for example here - and I might have more to say about that one, or not. Let’s go through the episode, though, piece by piece. Jacobson, a secular Jew, starts by reading what he describes as the ‘exquisite’ first lines of Genesis. As he puts it, there is no struggle, there is simply a ‘speaking’ of the world into existence in six days, followed by a well-earned rest.

I won’t dispute that this description of creation [Jacobson simply ignores the fact that there are two creation myths in Genesis, the second beginning at 2:4, immediately after the first account concludes] is poetic and serene. Its aesthetic qualities are often extolled – sublime, moving, powerful, and so forth – to such a degree that anyone who might demur on any ground whatever is pounced upon as a philistine and a boor. However, it does make a claim about the existence of our world, a claim to truth, and I was never convinced, even as a romantic teenager, by Keats’ remarks about the identity of Truth and Beauty.

Jacobson acknowledges this, but puts the issue in unnecessarily stark and divisive terms. ‘Today,’ he says, ‘a fierce battle rages between those who believe that Genesis is a true account of how life began, and those who think it’s childish nonsense.’ The fact is that most atheists have no such contemptuous attititudes towards this or any other of the innumerable creation myths that were put forward in earlier times. They were of their time, and they were genuine, serious and often powerful ways of trying to comprehend the given world around them. Atheists also accept that, in the west at least, the great majority of Christian believers don’t take this particular creation myth literally. Essentially, Jacobson has created a ‘straw battle’, for atheists are no more keen to take on Bible literalists than astronomers and geophysicists were keen to take on flat-earthers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Arguing with cranks doesn’t get you anywhere.

Jacobson makes the obvious point that the Genesis creation, like any and every other one, is either true or false, but then says ‘are these the only choices?’ It’s an all-too-familiar line, i.e that there are other ways of defining truth that ‘rescue’ the Biblical creation story. Yet this myth doesn’t need rescuing in this way. We don’t expect literal, historical truth from Hamlet or King Lear - this point is made later in the episode. What we get from these are thought-provoking insights into human psychology and behaviour. From creation myths, we are likely to get the same – more or less, depending on who’s doing the reading and interpreting. Nothing in this is new of course but Jacobson says that he aims to ‘find a path between the fundamentalisms of atheism and religion, to find a vocabulary to describe the wonderful poetry of the creation story which doesn’t leave it vulnerable to the absolutes of faith or denial, and to explore why, whatever we believe, it’s a story we cannot shake our imaginations free of.’ In other words he’s saying that there are surely psychological, poetical or ‘imaginative’ truths in the creation story and he’s going to find them, while taking a few cheap swipes at religious and atheist ‘fundamentalism’ along the way. Yawn. Time to change channels?

Well, I’ll stick with it at the risk of boring even myself. I don’t believe that ‘fundamentalist atheism’ and ‘absolute atheism’ are coherent terms. A fundamentalist in religious terms is a person who takes the sacred texts of their religion literally and tries to live by them, or pretends to [it would be impossible to actually do so and not be, with great justice, thrown into prison]. We might quibble about this definition, but there’s no doubt that such religious people exist, and they can reasonably described as fundamentalists, extremists or absolutists. And there is no equivalent in atheism, which has no sacred texts, and which is characterised as an absence of belief in supernatural beings and supernatural causation. It makes little sense to speak of a fundamentalist absence or an absolute absence. Atheists simply don’t believe in these things. All of this has been pointed  out zillions of times, of course. It does, however, make sense to speak of fervent atheists, people who want to argue strongly for their position and who demand proofs from believers as to the existence of their particular deities. This is an important distinction.

Jacobson tells us that the Biblical creation myth is the first ever written account of a single all-powerful creator god, and that this is a monumental contribution to civilization. Maybe, but the question may be asked as to whether it’s been a positive contribution, given the nature of that particular god as presented in the Old Testament. When educated Romans learned about the Judaic god, to whom the Jewish people showed an obsessive allegience unheard of from other subject peoples, in a world where people exchanged and shared gods with equanimity, they were astonished and disgusted at his capricious cruelty and obsessional jealousy. He was a problem for the early Christian community too, with some of them being keen to jettison the old god and start afresh with Jesus.

Jacobson visits Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, for more of the low-down on this particular god, but unsurprisingly, we get a distorted account. Sacks goes on about the gods of other religions ‘hacking each other to pieces’ and so forth in order to bring the world into being, which he contrasts with the ‘serene’ creation of the sole god of Judaism, but he fails to point out that his god doesn’t stay serene for long. Beginning with the expulsion from the garden, this god is a bullying if not terrorising presence, culminating in the wholesale murder of the entire human species, bar one family, and of course every other species, in the flood. And there are countless other instances of signal cruelty and specious favouritism, matched by no other god that I’ve heard of. The Graeco-Romans gods as represented by Homer, for example, may have had violent histories, but they generally get along quite well and with only minor squabbles, much like any human family, and their interference in human affairs, too, is relatively minor.

Of course there’s a big problem with presentations of this kind. They rely heavily on visuals [roiling clouds presumably representing a god, orthodox Jews swaying entranced at the wailing wall, Jacobson staring contemplatively into the middle distance etc] and are short on analysis, since this doesn’t make for great viewing. Interviews with intellectuals rarely last more than a minute, and no flesh is added to the bones of any arguments.

Things do get a little more interesting when Jacobson talks to the archaeologist Oded Lipschits, who argues, on sound evidential grounds, for the gradual emergence of a monotheist god, which corresponds with the consensus of scholars that the first Biblical authors wrote some time in the eighth century BCE, well after the time of Moses [if he ever existed] – and around the same time that Homer was writing about his gods. In fact, there is consensus that the creation story which begins Genesis is of later origin than the one beginning at 2:4; its emphasis on the sabbath suggesting that it was written in the sixth century BCE, during the Babylonian exile, when Jews felt the need to remind themselves of their rituals. Yet the second story, the earlier one, also features a single deity, which casts doubt on the claim, made in the episode, that monotheism was forged out of the Babylonian exile, though it’s likely that the exile reinforced this belief. Certainly the exile may well have led to a particular characterisation of the god, as difficult to please and always ready to punish his chosen people. These early scriptures are arguably an attempt to ‘work the god out’, so as to regain favour with him in the future. And indeed it seems that this unhealthy obsession with an unhealthily obsessional god continues to this day in the yeshivas of the holy land.

Jacobson takes us in for a glimpse at an ultra-orthodox branch of his family, who ‘relive’ the creation story every Friday, but he more or less admits that he doesn’t share their faith in its literal truth. So he returns to the question of how to find truth in something he knows to be literally untrue, and again takes what I consider to be a cheaply and falsely combative stance, ‘confronting’ the ‘absolute’ believers and unbelievers – as if they were equally misguided and that he, balanced in the middle, understood that here was the place of truth. He speaks rhetorically of militant new atheists and their Darwinist shrine, the Natural History museum, with its exhibits ‘testifying’ to evolution. How tediously familiar it all is. Yet Jacobson clearly accepts the truth of natural selection, so why the attempt to dress it up as religion? It’s inexplicable to me.

Jacobson enters this ‘shrine’ and speaks to a prominent ‘new atheist’, A C Grayling, in what is for me the highlight of the program. Grayling makes the point about innumerable creation myths, and that what they have in common is an attempt to tell a story to account for or to cover up their ignorance of how and why their world came to be. Jacobson is forced to agree that the Biblical creation story is no more true than any other, and all he has to cling to is the idea that the story is ‘not negligible’, because it, along with other religious fancies, has inspired so much art and literature and so forth. Grayling’s response is to argue that human creativity and emotional depth doesn’t need to be fastened onto these ancient and outmoded myths – and indeed in modern western times, these ancient sources of inspiration have been jettisoned in favour of more nourishing, if more modest, fare.

Of course Grayling, like most commentators here, is given little time to develop his points, and Jacobson controls the framing. Yet he doesn’t come up with a response, instead coming up with the Jewish joke of the rabbi telling the atheist – ‘that god you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in him either’, which is presumably meant to suggest that Grayling misrepresents the Judaic god, though in fact Grayling says nothing about him – so, a pointless jibe. Even taken as a general statement – that believers just don’t recognise the god that atheists don’t believe in – it’s far from being profound. Of course atheists don’t recognise the properties of a god most salient to believers. After all what more salient property can a god have than actual existence? Since atheists aren’t prepared to concede that any god has this rather vital characteristic, they’re obviously going to misrepresent the god pretty well absolutely.

Next Jacobson takes us to a creationist congregation and its pastor, seeking to juxtapose two ‘extremes’, this church, and the Museum of Natural History. He interviews the cleric, who argues that science is on the side of the Bible, that it proves the flood and so forth. While Jacobson clearly has little time for these absurdities, he uses this pastor’s certitude about the truth of the Bible as an absolute to pose against the absolutism of atheism, which he clearly associates with some kind of ‘absolutist’ science, and then poxifies both houses. We should open ourselves up to mystery and uncertainty, he pontificates, without appearing to observe that the creation story he so cherishes contains no taint of uncertainty, and that the science he affects to despise is utterly reliant on scepticism, doubt and wonder.

Jacobson takes us to Cambridge to visit an [apparently rare] ‘appreciator of beauty’ – that’s to say, an appreciator of the mystery of creation. This is John Polkinghorne, physicist and Anglican minister. They are quickly onto the subject of Richard Dawkins, and Polkinghorne comes out with the most jaw-dropping lump of bullshit in the whole program. Asked about Dawkins’ puzzlement at his faith, Polkinghorne says that ‘He’s puzzled because he has such a distorted and caricatured view of religion. He thinks for example that a typical creationist who believes that the world is six thousand years old and came into being in the course of a hectic week is the typical religious believer.’ He then has the cheek to talk about Dawkins as a creator of straw men! Pot, kettle, black, come on dit. 

Dawkins of course has no such view of religion, though as an evolutionist and prominent promoter of science he’s understandably concerned about creationism because of its anti-evolution and anti-science shrillness, especially in the US. In any case Polkinghorne’s creationist views, as he describes them, are hardly Biblical. He bases his belief in a designer on the fact that the universe developed in such a way as to permit carbon-based life. He considers this too fortuitous to have been accidental. How such vague Deism is transformed into Polkinghorne’s Christian convictions isn’t explored in this, again brief, interview. Jacobson comes away from the interview convinced, he says, that you can be both religious and scientific. This is hardly disputable. Many of the most prominent scientists of earlier ages – Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, Georges Cuvier and Louis Agassiz among them – were religious, often fanatically so. It’s notable, though, that very few of today’s most prominent scientists are. A fact worth exploring, but you can bet it won’t be explored by Jacobson. Instead he comes up with this complacent old conclusion: ‘it’s a nonsense to say the creation story fails as science, for the two are on entirely different errands.’

This is the old non-overlapping magisteria [NOMA] claim of S J Gould, refuted many times over, by Dawkins among others. To me, it’s obvious that, in this area, creation, their errands are the same – to explain how the world came to be. It’s a nonsense to suggest otherwise.

Nonagenarian philosopher Mary Midgely is next on the agenda. In another brief interview Midgely says a number of questionable things which I won’t go into in this already over-long critique, but her last remarks are perhaps the most revealing: science and religion, she declares, are on a similar quest for certainty, but science is ‘not so nutritious’. Both Jacobson and Midgely laugh smugly at this sally. It’s one of the more insufferable moments in the episode. It takes me back to the remark I made earlier, in commenting on Grayling’s views. Scientists have turned their backs on the creation stories precisely because of their lack of nutrition. In earlier days we didn’t realize there were quite so many of these stories, and their proliferation has tended to reduce their value. The quest for certainty [though I would prefer to call it a deeper understanding] has forced us to develop more reliable tools and methods. In doing so we have uncovered laws and relationships and forces never before dreamt of, and the quest to understand more, about the big bang and its implications, its first instants, its possible antecedents, all of this currently nourishes not only an army of particle physicists, astrophysicists and cosmologists, but an even larger army of fellow-travellers – journalists, philosophers, academics, armchair theorists and dilettantes like myself, who delight in and puzzle over the latest pieces of research and the questions they raise. If there’s anything out there more nutritious to the intellect and the imagination, I’d love to know about it.

Jacobson rounds it all off with a remark about having more sympathy for religion after having made his program. It seemed to me that he found what he wanted to find. I’m more interested, though, in the journey we’ve taken away from the creation story that begins the Bible. That story is very human-centred. Man is made on the sixth and last day of creation, the crowning achievement, after which even the one and only God must rest. Verse 26 of that opening chapter says:

‘And God said ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth’

Humans like God, humans with dominion over the entire earth and everything upon it, humans with oodles of power. Is this what makes the story so nourishing to Midgely? Our newly emerging and still developing scientific creation story is very different. We’re barely a blip in the universe, far from its centre, a small planet revolving around a nondescript sun in a nondescript spiral galaxy,and as humans we’re one of innumerable species that have evolved on this planet, 99% of which have passed away, as we expect to do while striving not to, as other species have before us. We have no idea how much of the story has been told, but surely it’s the merest fraction, incalculable, for it looks as though the story will go on and on for a long time yet.

Written by Stewart Henderson

November 11, 2011 at 12:40 am

4 Responses

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  1. Excellently written piece. “Is God real?” is an enormous and important question. Frankly I found his total focus on how artistic and wonderful religion can be, totally insulting to religion, as if that’s what religious people were primarily concerned about.

    People are focused on the absurdity of myths and the awesome power of science because they help us distinguish reality from fiction. To imply that this pursuit of knowledge somehow makes the world an uglier or duller place is ridiculous. I watched this programme genuinely hoping for an academic explanation of how the bible had been formed. (Misleading title much?) I could not have been more disappointed.

    The remark about how science is “not so nutritious” and proceeding smug laughter was unbearable too. Anyone who doubts the marvels that the scientific method has given us throughout history and thinks that somehow science has not been tremendously “nutritious” for humanity is fooling themselves.


    December 20, 2011 at 11:36 pm

  2. Thanks for your response. What can I say? It seems to me these science bashers suffer from insufficient curiosity. They’re always worth avoiding.


    December 21, 2011 at 7:52 am

  3. [...] irritate me in the way that Howard Jacobson’s shallow claim to moderation did in the last doco I reviewed. Much of it deals with history – the history of the Mayans’ treatment at the hands of [...]

  4. [...] some of the History of Christianity docos they’re showing, one of which I treated in detail here. Recently, Cherie Blair, high-flying lawyer and wife of Britain’s former PM, fronted up for [...]

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