Howard Jacobson: Nothing like an unimaginative scientist to get non-believers running back to God

Never mind that you have science and reason on your side. There is something else that humans crave

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Exciting times for religion, what with the Vatican telling Judas he can return to the Celebrity Big Brother house and Professor Richard Dawkins, in his role as evangelist of disbelief, offering a walk-on part to every crackpot who ever took the name of God in vain. How many humanists, sceptics and agnostics Dawkins contrived to lose to religious faith in the course of his two-part extravaganza Atheism: the Musical there is no scientific way of quantifying, but at a rough emotional count I'd say he recruited a million new believers for every minute he was on the box. Nothing returns one quicker to God than the sight of a scientist with no imagination, no vocabulary, no sympathy, no comprehension of metaphor, and no wit, looking soulless and forlorn amid the wonders of nature.

On the eve of his television series, Professor Dawkins explained to this paper where beauty resided for him - in Darwinian evolution. "It starts from primeval simplicity (relatively easy to understand) and works up, by plausibly small steps, to complex entities whose genesis, by any non-gradual process, would be too improbable for serious contemplation..."

Have you ever heard anything sadder in your life? If Dawkins had a little more bend in him, and I had a little more of the milk of human kindness in me, I would throw wide my arms and gather him to me. "But my dear, dear Professor," I would say, "do you not see that primeval simplicity working up by plausibly small steps to complex entities is not what anyone means by beauty? Never mind that you are right. Never mind that you have science and reason on your side. Something else there is that human beings crave, not dreamed of in your philosophy, some other way of grasping meaning, some other sort of elegance and harmony your deafness and blindness to which leave you stranded in the universe like a stranger."

The intellectual nullity of Dawkins' argument - that what you cannot scientifically prove cannot be, and that it is only religion that makes good men do evil things - follows, as surely as complex entities follow primeval simplicity, from the sorry blankness of his imagination. Take as an example his brutally illiterate reading of Abraham's near sacrifice of his son Isaac. For Dawkins, this hairspring parable of covenant, initiation and love, balancing obedience to God with devotion to your own flesh and blood, and explaining to a community the history and meaning of its abandonment of human sacrifice - a myth of civilisation, in other words - demonstrates nothing except the blood thirst of the Patriarch. That the ambiguities of the story have for centuries engaged and moved not only biblical commentators and the devout of three divergent faiths, but philosophers, anthropologists, historians, psychologists, poets and novelists, Dawkins doesn't know or chooses not to remember. Not very scientific, either way.

We do not deny the existence of Bible stories unpretty in their implications. The story of Judas - another soul left stranded like a stranger in the universe - for one. Great plot. Disciple betrays son of God with kiss in garden, leading to an arrest, leading to a crucifixion, leading to an ascension, leading to Christianity. Same disciple, meantime, suffers paroxysms of remorse, gives the money back, coughs it up from his entrails, keeps it and goes mad, hangs himself, or wanders the earth in a perpetuity of shame, depending which legend you believe. But becomes byword for greed and betrayal, forever associating the Jew with those vices (Judas/Jew - not an association that would have worked as well with Andrew, James, John or Bartholomew), and in the process lopping away the Jewish origins of a faith which its promulgators would rather you forgot ever had a Jewish component at all. So no, from a Jewish point of view, not an example of religion at its most conciliatory.

I made a television film about Judas some years ago for Channel 4. Sorry, Judas, it was called. Some serious theological discussion, some art criticism, a few film clips, a bit of fooling about, but at its heart the argument that Judas was more fiction than fact, that it is theologically inconsistent to have traduced him for bringing about the will of God, and that it was by the agency of his perfidious character that anti-Jewishness became from earliest times embedded in Christianity. Not an original argument. I got it from that brilliant work of angry and impassioned erudition, Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil, by the late Hyam Maccoby. Mr Maccoby turned out to be disappointed by the programme, for which I continue to be sorry. I think he would have liked it to be more sober and more scholarly, which is not what television does. He wasn't alone in not liking it. Correspondents to The Times complained of its flippancy, its irreligiousness, and its untruths. There was, they said, no justification for re-evaluating Judas, no reason to quibble with scripture, and no anti-Jewishness embedded in Christianity.

And now - ha! - I am vindicated by the Vatican. Or rather, Hyam Maccoby is. They haven't said "Sorry, Judas". And they haven't said "Sorry, Howard" or "Sorry, Hyam" either. But they are seriously reconsidering Judas's significance to Christianity, and his part in the history of its relations to Judaism. Which is a start.

So there you are, Professor Dawkins: even that which religion appears to have set in stone, and which in your terms, yes, has been the cause of innumerable injustices and deaths, is susceptible to change. It has taken an unconscionable time, I grant you, but we should be grateful at least that more flexible minds than yours go on bending themselves to interpreting scripture.

But there is something else I want to say to you. You cannot rout your enemy if you are determined not to know him. Religion comes in many more shapes than you appear to be aware. Not everyone who goes to church or synagogue believes that God made the world in five minutes the day before yesterday. Some of them don't believe in that sort of God at all. And of those who do, only a few are what you call fundamentalists. If I made a programme about atheism and wheeled in Stalin and Pol Pot as prime examples you would have something to say about it. At the last, it is not religion that is the root of all evil; it is certainty. And the secular can do certainty every bit as well as the religious.

It is a great thing to attack fundamentalism. But it would be an even greater thing to save religious people from it. And yours is not the way.

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