Culture Nature Other

40 Days and 40 Nights by Matthew Chapman

Full title: 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin®, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania. In other words, it’s about the trial in Dover, Pennsylvania where the school board tried to put Intelligent Design into the biology classes and were found to be in breach of the constitutional separation of church and state.

evolution mural from Dover High School

I’m not quite sure why I felt the need to read a second book about this; the blurbs promised a more entertaining read, and it’s certainly livelier and bitchier than Monkey Girl, but didn’t tell me anything new. And despite what Hollywood would have you believe, trials are not inherently charged with drama. Especially this trial, which, with eleven plaintiffs and a bucketload of lawyers and expert witnesses, lacked a personal dramatic focus.

Chapman largely concentrates on personality and anecdote and glides past a lot of the technical evidence; understandably, I guess, but I would have liked more to get my teeth into.

» The photo above, which I found rather unexpectedly on Flickr, is of a mural painted by a student at Dover High School which helped kick off the whole controversy when one of the school board took offence at it and took it on himself to take it away one weekend and burn it. It’s used under a by-nc-sa CC licence.

Culture Other

‘Sacred’ at the British Library

I went yesterday to see Sacred at the British Library. I nearly missed it; the exhibition closes at the weekend. I’m glad I didn’t, as it was extraordinary.

Maghribi script

It’s an exhibition of sacred texts from Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and the selection is seriously impressive. For example, the show includes the Lindisfarne Gospels and a bit of a Dead Sea Scroll as just two exhibits among many. They also have one of the two oldest Christian bibles, from the C4th, an C8th Qur’an, the first printed Mishnah, Henry VIII’s psalter, copies of the Qur’an made for various sultans, a Tyndale New Testament and so on. They haven’t even bothered to include a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, presumably because they have one of those on display in their permanent exhibition anyway.

The Holkham Picture Book

Staggeringly, with a very few exceptions like the Dead Sea Scroll, all these books were part of their own collection. It’s odd to think of all these books, culturally interconnected but originally separated by many centuries and thousands of miles, having made their way, by who knows what means, from monasteries and mosques in Syria, Armenia, Ethiopia, India; and all ending up in a basement in North London.


Whatever my disagreements with religion, I do feel a reverential instinct towards ancient artefacts and books, so I had no difficulty feeling a sense of the sacred. And many of them are extraordinary objects in their own right. I have a new-found passion for Syriac script.

Syriac writing

There are zoomable high-resolution images of 67 of the texts available on the website, so those of you who can’t make it London this week can take a look. That’s where all the images illustrating this post came from. I have to say, generally, kudos to the British Library; all the exhibitions I’ve seen there have been excellent (and free).

» Pictures, from the top: 1) An example of Maghribi script from a C13th Spanish Qur’an. 2) One of the people drowned in the Flood in the C14th Holkham Bible Picture Book. 3) Micrographic decoration (i.e. made up of tiny writing) from The Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch, c. 1300. 4) The bible in Syriac, dated by the scribe to 463/4 AD.

Nature Other

More on the atheism/science malarkey

At Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers comments on the Jake Young article I linked to earlier. The bit of his post I would pick out is this:

Once again, science is a method. It’s a general set of procedures that rest on skepticism, induction, empiricism, and naturalism. Atheism is a conclusion. We look at the universe using the tools of science, and it does not fit any description of the universe derived from religious perspectives: we therefore reject religious dogma. We also see that the nature of the universe does not reflect any of the orthodox conceptions of what a god-ruled universe would look like. We arrive at the conclusion that there is no god.

Science=method. Atheism=conclusion. They’re different.

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument, but with substantial reservations.

I agree with the argument this far: if you assembled a team of neutral observers to take a scientific approach to the question of the existence of God, looking at all the evidence and considering different hypotheses to explain it, I think they would reject the God hypothesis. Absence of evidence is not proof, but it certainly leaves you with a very weak case.

But still… I’m uncomfortable with saying that atheism is the conclusion reached by the scientific method. I guess the reason is this. When someone says ‘Science tells us [something]’, they are claiming a certain kind of authority for that idea. That authority has been painstakingly acquired over a couple of centuries via the slow, methodical, rigorous accumulation of data and the testing of ideas. It comes from millions of man-hours spent observing nature, collecting and classifying specimens, and devising and implementing experiments.

So a statement like ‘humans are descended from apes’ can be backed up carefully and in detail on the basis of the fossil record, comparative physiology and genetics. There are, presumably, thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers discussing the idea. One could make similarly scientific statements about the chemical composition of tears, the weight of the electron, and thousands of other subjects.

‘There is no God’ is not, it seems to me, a scientific statement in the same way as ‘humans are descended from apes’. Most scientists may believe it to be true, and may believe that it is the conclusion most consistent with a scientific view of the world, but that doesn’t mean that it is a product of science.

The public authority of science—the willingness of people to accept what scientists say—is already probably less than it was a few decades ago, having been attacked by a peculiar combination of the religious, New Agers, alternative medicine and cultural relativists. But it is still high. What scientists say carries weight. That authority should be valued, and not invoked lightly. When a professional scientist like P.Z. Myers says that atheism is the result of science, it seems to me he is claiming that cultural authority inappropriately, and risks weakening it.

Myers rightly makes fun of the proponents of Intelligent Design for pretending to be doing science when they’re not, and frequently points out their complete lack of published scientific papers. He rightly sees that they are trying to appear to be scientific in part because they are trying to take some of the cultural authority of science for themselves. They know that if they can convince people they are scientific they will be taken more seriously. But it seems to me that he risks doing the same thing: invoking spurious authority.

Nature Other

Science ≠ Atheism

There’s a post over at Pure Pedantry about the dangers of presenting science and atheism as equivalent or too closely connected; suggesting, for example, that atheism is the natural or inevitable end result of a scientific mindset.

It’s understandable that they sometimes get run together. There is a connection; it’s not a coincidence that scientists are disproportionately likely to be atheists. And because the atheist of the moment, Richard Dawkins, is a biologist by training, much of the coverage of his book and the ensuing controversy has framed it as an argument between science and religion, even though very little of The God Delusion is about science.

I really think this is a mistake, though. And I really think it would be unwise for scientists and atheists to encourage it. Partially this is for the strategic reasons that Jake Young gets into in the post I linked to above: if you link science and atheism, it is likely to make religious believers more suspicious and hostile towards science. It will also make people who for whatever reason dislike science—or are just bored by it—less receptive to atheism. Even if you are keen to promote both science and atheism, blurring the two ideas together is probably counterproductive.

But it’s not just a marketing issue. I’m keen to treat the ideas separately because I actually think they are separate. I’m not making the argument that science and religion are inherently different kinds of idea which operate in parallel (Stephen J. Gould’s ‘Non-Overlapping Magisteria’), because I think that’s a cop-out; a way of ducking the question.

No, it’s that, with the glaring exception of Genesis, I can’t see any conflict between science and scripture. Or much connection at all, really. Scientists are obviously going to be sceptical at stories like Christ turning water into wine, but as it happened (or didn’t) two thousand years ago, it’s not really open to testing. Science can point out that’s it’s impossible to turn water into wine or walk on water, but that’s beside the point; everyone knows it’s impossible. That’s why it’s a miracle. Scientists may find the idea awkward, but if a God who works miracles does exist, science will just have to live with it.

When a religion does make a scientifically testable claim—that prayer can help recovery from illness, perhaps—by all means test it, and if, necessary, challenge it. The big one, in this context, is the claim that God made the Earth in seven days. As long as there are a significant number of people who believe in the literal truth of Genesis (or any other pre-scientific creation myth), there is a real and substantial conflict of ideas between science and religion, and I would expect biologists and geologists to argue their case accordingly. And if someone comes forward today who says he can turn water into wine and walk on water (or bend spoons with the power of his mind), then test his claims.

But most of the time, that doesn’t apply. The subjects don’t generally overlap. A mathematical model for the internal structure of the proton is no more in conflict with the sermon on the mount than Aristotle’s idea of catharsis is in conflict with a recipe for fairy cakes.

Of course there is a natural tension between science and religion. The scientific emphasis on scepticism, logic and measurable evidence sits uneasily with ideas of revelation, faith and subjective religious experience. Religion’s apparent view of humanity at the centre of creation sits uneasily with the idea of evolution as a contingent, undirected process. As an atheist with an interest in science, I find the two things complementary, but they are not equivalent or inseparable.

And the main arguments against God are not scientific arguments. They may be in a similar intellectual tradition, but they certainly aren’t the result of scientific research or scientific knowledge; I imagine they had been thoroughly argued over well before most of modern science existed. The broad-brush arguments are philosophical, and the arguments against details of scripture are mainly drawn from history, archaeology, textual criticism, comparative theology and so on. Science, by providing enormous explanatory power without reference to religion, may have weakened the authority of religion, but largely without directly contradicting it (with, again, the glaring exception of Genesis).

If I was trying to convert someone to atheism, I can’t think I’d even invoke science at all. Assuming they weren’t a creationist, it just wouldn’t seem relevant.

Culture Other

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

I bought The Satanic Verses in irritation at all the fuckwits who were complaining about Rushdie getting a knighthood. Not surprisingly perhaps, having bought it as a gesture rather than because of an urgent desire to read it, it ended up at the bottom of my to-read pile. It didn’t help that it has a bit of a reputation as being unreadable.

section of ‘Satan in His Original Glory’ by William Blake

You know what, though? It’s actually a really good novel.

It’s full of inventive ideas and images, playful use of language, barbed social comment and, you know, good novelly things generally. It’s magical realism – two men mysteriously survive falling from an exploding plane, only to find themselves transforming, one into the image of the archangel Gabriel and the other into Satan – but the realism part of the equation is strong enough to keep the book grounded in the real world of London and Bombay.

I can understand why quite a few people found it hard to finish, though. It has that rambling quality that quite a lot of Serious Literary Novels have had ever since modernism: lots of characters, lots of narrative threads which are only loosely connected, long digressions which seem a bit irrelevant. I have to admit it’s not a quality I find particularly attractive. It seems like an excellent recipe for a book which is less than the sum of its parts. And a great way of reducing the book’s forward momentum; I don’t demand that everything I read is an un-put-downable page-turner, but I do like to feel it’s going somewhere. There were times, reading The Satanic Verses, when it felt a bit becalmed.

On balance, though, I enjoyed it.

detail of a mosaic of the Archangel Gabriel from the dome of St Sophia Cathedral, Kiev

I suppose I can hardly review the most controversial novel since Lady Chatterley’s Lover without some comment on the controversy. Mohammed is a character in the book – or at least the Gabriel character has dream visions in which Mohammed appears – and he is presented as self-serving, opportunistic and not a real prophet. Which I can understand might irritate Muslims. But actually it wasn’t nearly as inflammatory as I thought it might be. Compared, for example, to the portrayal of Moses in Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted On The Voyage, it’s really very gentle. It just portrays Mohammed as human.

picture credits: the first is a detail from William Blake’s ‘Satan in His Original Glory’ from Tate Britain; the second is a detail of a mosaic of the Archangel Gabriel in the dome of St Sophia Cathedral in Kiev.

Culture Other

Elizabeth by David Starkey

I’ve just been reading Elizabeth by David Starkey, a book about the early life of Elizabeth I. It covers the very start of her reign, but most of it is about her relationships with Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary Tudor.


It raises the question: when little girls want to be princesses, what kind of princess are they thinking of? The modern princess, who gets to live under relentless, unforgiving media scrutiny and has no possibility of publicly expressing any opinions? Or the medieval type, with a bunch of scheming old men arranging her a dynastic marriage to a corrupt, inbred foreign prince – if she’s not imprisoned or disposed of by the monarch as a potential threat to the succession.

The book was also a fine example of how toxic the mixture of politics and religion is. That period of English history would have been messy anyway, because of the lack of a clear line of succession, but the switching back and forth between Catholic and Protestant certainly didn’t make it any easier for anyone.

It’s a good book – Starkey knows how to tell a story – and an interesting period of English history. I’m just glad I didn’t live through it.