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

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

John Noakes was everyone’s favourite presenter in the 1970s. It’s a shock to realise the eternal boy scout is now an octogenarian suffering from dementia  

How remarkable that John Noakes still has the power to affect me so

Matthew Norman
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy