Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The Story of God (Robert Winston)

--The blurb--
"From a leading voice in the debate on genetic engineering comes a look at the contemporary relationship of science and religion. It begins with the primitive worship of our early ancestors, and concludes with a vivid portrait of faith in the modern world."

--The review--
Sir Robert Winston is, one could say, the biggest scientific household name in Britain today, alongside his potential arch nemesis, Richard Dawkins. This existing status of popularity should have made it easy to reach out to the people of Britain via mainstream writing, and to a degree, this ambitious interdisciplinary project is a successful one, binding together sociology, history, religion, science and psychology in one concise volume. Winston also does not set out to deliberately rebuff his famous colleague's ideas on religion, although he does address these once, and in a respectful manner.

The chapters are set out in roughly chronological order (though Lord Winston does jump around a bit in places where it's appropriate) and are further broken down into readably-sized chunks, with subtitles to further focus ideas. This is good in itself, but its effectiveness is lamentably reduced by a simple issue of formatting: by not including the chapter names and the name of the individual section that you're reading at the time at the top of each page, it can be all too easy to lose the thread of thought. This is a shame given how easily fixable it is.

The scope of The Story of God is of epic proportions and the amount of research and thought that has clearly gone into it should not be underestimated. However, there are a few weaknesses, mostly relating to various nuances of Christianity, though whether this springs from Winston's own Jewish faith, or from gaps in his research, or from missing leaps of logic, or something else, is unclear. Firstly, at some stage Winston describes Christianity as a religion where personal goodness is key. While this is correct to an extent, it is not a wholly appropriate moniker for a belief system where faith rather than works is touted as the entry card into Paradise (i.e. that it doesn't matter how good you are; only belief that Jesus is Lord etc will get you in! see Ephesians 2:8,9). However, this is a complex issue, and Winston perhaps could have explored the nuances of this further, by referring to the Bible passages that are often used in this debate (Romans 3:28, 5:1, Galatians 3:24, James 2:24, as well as the Ephesians passage mentioned before).

The second issue regarding Christianity as pointed out by Lord Winston is equally complex. He refers to the church and the state being separate when talking of the United States, when this is clearly untrue. While the author does briefly address the fact of the Pledge of Allegiance being recited in American schools, the point is missed on two levels: one is that the Pledge does mention God, which would not be permitted in a truly secular schooling system, and the other is that Lord Winston compares this to the recitation of the Lord's prayer in Christian schools in the UK, which I'm not even sure to be the case any longer. In any case, even if in British Christian schools the Lord's prayer is still recited, this certainly does not apply in all British state schools, as it does for the Pledge of Allegiance, which is recited mandatorially in all American public schools. The US is certainly far from being secular and is arguably a religious state in all but name (what are the odds of a citizen subscribing to any other faith apart from Christianity, or a citizen proclaiming themselves to be atheist, ascending to the American presidency?).*

However, to be fair to Lord Winston, these are fairly detailed and complex Christian battlegrounds and are perhaps more suited to another book, especially given that The Story of God is already fairly Judeo-Christian centric, dealing mainly with Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Other religions are mentioned (from the Aztecs and Ancient Greeks, to Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism, through to cults and splinter religions such as Wicca and Reverend Moon's Unification Church), but only on a cursory level. While initially this seems unjust, it is in fact a relevant proportion given the relative numbers of people devoted to the vast number of religious beliefs existing in today's world. Terrorism is also dealt with maturely and commonly held misconceptions are settled.

Other issues that are not addressed are interpretation, story vs truth (at times Winston does not back up some of what the Bible talks about with any historicity), and the power of rhetoric (which at times is surely crucial to a religion's momentum and success). Nevertheless, despite these possible shortcomings, what is produced is impressive in its scope, with Winston remaining intelligent and accessible in his writing without being patronising. Anyone who has only ever seen this famous polymath express his ideas on television should be urged towards his books; if they are all like this one, they are rewarding and educational reads that leave readers wanting to know even more.

(*This document is a fairly interesting one for those wanting to know more about religion in American public schools.)

Other works by Robert Winston
Human Instinct (2003)
The Human Mind (2004)
What Makes Me Me (2005)^
Human (2005)^
Body (2005)^
A Child Against All Odds (2006)
It's Elementary (2007)^
Evolution Revolution (2009)^
Bad Ideas: A History of Our Inventions (2010)

^for children

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