Date of writing : 23/03/2014
Well. Having recently rambled about open-mindedness and not needing to agree or disagree with people’s conceptions of God, Tuesday evening’s religious meeting presented me with a slight challenge. It’s normally fairly benign as these things go – it’s a meeting just for our wing, and we have visitors from outside churches and laity giving talks or leading discussion on Bible passages. This is usually preceded and sometimes interspersed with some singing accompanied by guitar. Think ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Shine Jesus Shine’, with the occasional ‘Our God is a Great Big God’ (always makes me chuckle, that one). I like the chance to sing, if I’m honest.
The most unfortunate thing we usually have to contend with on these occasions is the minor distraction of Hazardous Henry and his harmonica. HH has been in prison for the best part of 30 years, and is what you might call ‘an institutional man’. Probably in his early 60s, he is a ‘born again’ Christian – with all the enthusiastic conviction that entails – having repented for his past crimes (which must surely have been significant for him to be held for so long), and seen the light of Jesus. He’s a portly, waddling, oddball of a character, who is actually quite likeable and entertaining at times. I’ve borrowed his guitar on a few occasions, although it’s sadly impregnated with the general ammoniacal redolence that permeates his cell. Inexplicably, the man himself never seems to be particularly malodorous, but I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone who’s actually chosen to enter his lodgings voluntarily. Merely passing when the door is ajar is enough to deter most.
Henry’s guitar playing is pretty solid in terms of rhythm, and he can freestyle lyrics around a theme to much genuine amusement. Chords though, and tunes, and indeed notes, are not his forte. When he walks to the front on a Tuesday evening, clutching his harmonica, the smile on the face of the visiting guitarist could politely be described as tolerant, or more honestly, as rictus. As I’ve said, his rhythm is good, but the notes he plays bear almost no relation whatsoever to the song in question. I’m pretty sure the harmonica (he only has one) is usually not even in the right key, but he certainly plays it with enthusiasm – indeed, sometimes with such feeling that he can’t help but hold one hand high in the air, fingers outstretched. I’m told that this ‘raising of the antenna’ helps get better reception.
Anyway, I digress. This week, once the singing had stopped, and Hazardous Henry’s harmonica hilarity had halted, the guitarist got up and asked us to name some mythical creatures and stories. A few things were suggested: dragons, Beowulf, the Loch Ness monster, Harry Potter . . . these and others he wrote on a whiteboard. ‘Where is this going?’ I wondered, with a mounting sense of unease. Doing nothing to alleviate this, he then proceeded with a clumsy segue-way onto the topic of dinosaurs. ‘Scientists say that people and dinosaurs didn’t exist together, but the Bible tells us all God’s creatures were created on the same day’ . . . That’s right, we had a genuine creationist on our hands.
He went on to talk about how radiocarbon dating was unreliable, and how someone had found a T-Rex skeleton that was only a few thousand years old, according to some scientific paper that had been published. His reference for all of this? A well-thumbed book, entitled ‘The Dinosaur Mystery : Solved!’ (gotta love the exclamation mark). I felt that I had been patient enough in letting him have his say. However I’m afraid that, tolerant and respectful as I am of the sincerely held beliefs of others, I couldn’t let this preaching of unmitigated b*llocks go unchallenged. No, the Earth is not 10,000 years old, and yes, evolution is real and demonstrable. Throughout his presentation I resisted the urge to mumble ‘citation needed’ after each extraordinary claim, and waited for a lull.
I made my points as gently and amiably as I could: I had a wish neither to upset nor ridicule him. But with many impressionable and trusting minds present, I felt the need to counterbalance, so people could see that this views shouldn’t just be taken as ‘gospel truth’, so to speak. I talked of the strata of the fossil record, of dendrochronology, radioactive half-life, and the coelacanth. He waffled vaguely about there being no proven examples of ‘vertical evolution’, missing links, and that we can’t go muddying the Truth Of Genesis by interpretations. I countered by discussing the literal interpretation of Leviticus, and asking what he might do if he found that the Lord had sent mildew on his house, whether he ate shellfish, and if he had plans to sell any of his offspring into slavery.
In short, it became a lively – and thankfully friendly – debate, mostly between the two of us. I did in the end declare my interest as a physicist, and someone who has spent significant time working at an institution dedicated in one way or another to the study of the natural world, and hence, evolution. After a time, there were signs of unrest amongst the others. ‘Great’, I thought, ‘my arguments are not falling on deaf ears.’ But, it seems the objections were much simpler than that: half the audience had no idea what ether of us was talking about.
Those present had come expecting to hear and discuss the Gospel, yet instead they were baffled by an almost academic discussion about the Christian creation myth. It was Hazardous Henry himself who cut in with something along the lines of ‘This is all very well, but what’s it got to do with Jesus?’ This seemed to summarise the mood of the room. Thankfully, the objections weren’t directed at me, but rather the source of the unusual topic. I was quite pleased at how HH had managed to succinctly cut to what was really the heart of my own objection: things like creationist dogma can really detract from the positive message they should be trying to promote. It’s the sort of thing that allows people to dismiss organised religion as the realm of crackpots. Some sides of the Church really don’t do its public image any favours.