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26 January 2010

The importance of myth

Howard Jacobson defends “Creation”

By Sholto Byrnes

When I began blogging on religion and unbelief for the New Statesman, I introduced the strand on our website with an article in which I lamented that debate in this area had ceased to be a conversation and had become dominated instead by aggressive assertion. After watching Howard Jacobson’s excellent programme on Creation in Channel 4’s new series The Bible: a History, I feel that I have found an ally.

“Let’s confront the absolutists: those who absolutely believe, and those who don’t,” said Jacobson. “Blind faith is fatuous. So is blind doubt.” It was touching to hear the novelist and columnist, who is not a believer, admit that he still feels strongly drawn to the poetry and mystery of religion, both in its texts and in its practice. “There is something there that is not negligible,” he said. “I want to honour that.”

His strongest message, however, was that science is too reluctant to allow for any mystery about our existence and purpose. I noted down this exchange with the moral philosopher Mary Midgley, still feisty at 90:

MM: Science’s purpose is the search for certainty.
HJ: Like religion?
MM: Oh yes, but not so nutritious.

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I thought that a delightful — and mischievous — way of putting it. Jacobson argued that one thing which infuriated him was the suggestion that mankind had been mired in stupidity for thousands of years until science came along to enlighten us all. I agree with him: that’s surely wrong, as well as astoundingly arrogant. As Jacobson said towards the end of the programme: “A myth does not shrivel at the first dry touch of science.”

We can debate their truth and we can even debate if they’re provable (though that’s really to miss their point), but those myths have provided us human beings with meat and drink for the soul throughout our history. Such nutrition should not lightly be cast aside.

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