Reviewed: The Serpent’s Promise: the Bible Retold as Science by Steve Jones

Creation myths.

The Serpent’s Promise: the Bible Retold as Science
Steve Jones
Little, Brown, 448pp, £25

The Bible shows little curiosity about subjects we normally place under the rubric of science, such as the origin, age, structure and diversity of the physical world. Aside from a stray verse in 1 Kings 4 that boasts of King Solomon’s wisdom (“He spoke about plant life . . . He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish”), the only time the good book seems to ask proto-scientific questions is in moments of poetry, dialogue or aphorism, such as in Proverbs or at the end of Job.

Because of this, a book that hopes to retell the Bible as science promises to be pretty thin gruel. The biologist Steve Jones’s latest book, on “the Bible retold as science”, isn’t thin but it is something of a curate’s egg. Jones is an unbeliever with a healthy contempt for religion. He protests that he wishes to avoid New Atheist vituperation, but when he does write about Christianity his attitudes are clear.

The Bible was not, as he claims, “a handbook to help comprehend the world”. Genesis is not “the world’s first biology textbook”. To criticise the opening line of Psalm 19 (“The heavens declare the glory of the Lord”) for “empty logic” is a strangely wooden way of reading poetry. The scroll that hints that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene is not “early”.

Jones sees religion as something invented by priests to keep themselves in power and the plebs in order. He explains how sorrow binds people together and then remarks that the Church has not been slow to notice this, with “grief and recovery . . . at the heart of the Christian message”, in the process revealing not only an impressive level of cynicism but also the bizarre idea that the Church somehow invented Good Friday and Easter Sunday as means of group therapy.

Were this all there was to The Serpent’s Promise, it wouldn’t be worth bothering with. Thankfully, it isn’t. The book’s guilty secret is that the Bible angle is really not much more than a marketing ploy, a hook on which Jones can hang some very engaging scientific discussions. He clearly knows this, since he notes that the Bible “has much more interest in the universe of the spirit than in the banalities of the physical world”. However, the mask is not allowed to slip entirely presumably because books about how science disproves, replaces or retells religion sell more than books about science alone.

Nevertheless, it is the science book hung on the odd verse from the Bible that is worth reading. Jones uses various biblical stories – a disproportionate number of them from Genesis – to discuss the origins of the universe, the origins of life, human evolution, the meaning of sex, the complex and unpredictable interactions of nature and nurture, life expectancy, floods, the development of language, and so on. Here, Jones is on home territory and he writes with the fluency and wit that make him one of our best science popularisers.

The book ends with a rousing prophecy about how, when the “shackles” of religion “are at last struck from [our] wrists”, we will be free “to form a single community united by an objective and unambiguous culture whose logic, language and practices are permanent and universal . . . science.” Mercifully, such rhetoric is rare today, being more suited to an age before nerve gas and nuclear weaponry. It is also rare in this largely entertaining and informative book, which reminds us that when scientists write about science, they are often readable and sometimes riveting – and when they don’t, they aren’t.

Nick Spencer is research director of Theos

The Bible was not “a handbook to help comprehend the world”. Genesis is not “the world’s first biology textbook”. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nick Spencer is director of studies at the think-tank Theos. His book Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible is published by Hodder & Stoughton

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.