E Jane Dickson: Absolutism in all forms is naive

You can debate the dimensions of the ‘true ark’ down to the last cubit. It doesn’t begin to pierce the essential mystery of faith. Noah’s rescue remains a potent allegory

The archaeologists went in, two by two. Hurrah! (as they say), Hurrah! I hate to rain on a parade, but I can't quite get my head around the jubilation occasioned, in evangelical circles, by the "finding" of Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat.

It was reported this week that a group of evangelical archaeologists from Turkey and China have unearthed the remains of a compartmented wooden structure, some 4,800-years-old, which might conceivably have been used to contain animals. "It's not 100 per cent that it is Noah's Ark," said Yeung Wing-cheung, spokesperson for the Hong Kong-based Noah's Ark Ministries Ltd, "but we think it is 99.9 per cent that this is it."

Presumably it just needed a full set of dinosaur bones in one of the compartments to clinch that elusive 0.1 per cent for the creationist claim (it is a tenet of creationism's all-accommodating argument that dinosaurs, contrary to the fossil record, were contemporaneous with man and therefore part of Noah's conservation project).

It's not the first time the ark has been found. In 2004 an £6m expedition was launched to investigate the "Ararat Anomaly", a roughly boat-shaped, petrified excrescence on the mountain side, but the site was closed by the Turkish authorities (it was part of a military installation) and the story lost momentum when National Geographic News questioned the authenticity of photos of the ark previously produced by the Turkish leader of the expedition.

In 2006, the Bible Archaeology, Search & Expedition Institute reported the discovery in Iran of an ancient wooden structure "roughly the size of an aircraft carrier", purportedly containing the fossilised remains of sea creatures, but could find no independent investigative body to substantiate its claims.

Let's just assume, for the sake of argument, that the Turko-Chinese find stands up to independent carbon dating. What would it prove? That successive theories of evolution were a disastrous wrong turning? Or, more prosaically, that ancient civilisations could build things out of wood?

It depends on your point of view. Ever since the first dinosaur bone poked through the chalk and the colossal impact of Darwinism forced science and religion into opposite corners, evangelical Christianity has been on the hunt for "tangible proof" of its own.

For creationists, archaeological evidence supporting scriptural belief is the golden key, the ultimate two-fingered "told you so" to unbelievers. The ark, freighted with centuries of salvationist symbolism, is pivotal to the argument. And it's a powerful image.

Christianity is by no means the only world view to embrace the notion of a great flood sent by a vengeful deity – it appears in everything from Greek mythology and Hindu scripture to the epic of Gilgamesh. But it seems to me that however powerful the imagery and however persuasive the facts, trying to bind the two together is like trying to stick soap to stone.

It's a seductive notion, using the hard matter of scientific evidence to complete a largely ideological jigsaw, building from fact to impassioned speculation without passing "go". Already there are lengthy treatises, based on the latest "ark evidence" to explain exactly how Noah and his wife dealt in their confined space with the effluent of all creation (some claim God put the animals into a state of hibernation; others that the poo problem was perfectly manageable with cunningly constructed runnels).

And just as there are zealots who believe in a biblical justification for everything from the marginalisation of homosexuals to the wearing of hats in church, there are those for whom science is an equally elastic authority (viz Nick Griffin's bonkers claim that the fossil record supports the notion of an indigenous British population).

In recent years, archaeology and palaeography in particular – presumably because these disciplines yield the kind of evidence that can be exhibited to and understood by the masses – have increasingly been pressed into service by those with an ideological axe to grind; there is considerable political impetus, for example, behind archaeology programmes which might establish the identity of original settlers in Israel.

When it comes to biblical archaeology, however, the usual checks and balances need not apply; if evidence is only revealed according to God's plan, you can't blame the scientists if some of the joins aren't perfect to mortal eyes.

There are a great many distinguished scientists who hold profound religious beliefs, but there is something about the idea of an "evangelical archaeologist", searching for physical evidence to "prove" the word of God, that troubles me. Not least because it hands the Richard Dawkins camp such a whacking great stick with which to beat the whole of religious experience.

I have always felt that when it comes to religious faith, depending, as it does, on a personal apprehension of the numinous, there can be no useful proof. For me, as a religious person, that's kind of the point of it. I am no more persuaded by Descartes' insistence that God must exist because he (Descartes) believed in him than I am by Dawkins' no less dogmatic insistence that God cannot exist because he (Dawkins) has no such apprehension. The arguments are equally arrogant and the debate is never going to be settled in this world; you might just as profitably argue over the sex of an invisible goldfish.

Similarly, you can debate the dimensions of the "true ark" down to the last cubit. It doesn't begin to pierce the essential mystery of faith. And yet Noah's rescue remains a potent allegory, never more so than in these last weeks of globally stranded passengers.

Odd, too, that when it comes to squabbling over who's liable for compensation, airlines and insurers are only too relieved to claim "an act of God". Sometimes, it seems, there are just no substitutes for an all-powerful deity. As Voltaire might have said: "If God did not exist, it would be necessary for Michael O'Leary to invent him."

For further reading:

The Bible Archaeology, Search & Exploration Institute: www.baseinstitute.org