It’s almost Christmas and I had thought to desist from blogging for the duration of the celebrations. Then I caught a link on the Guardian website to a video of an interview with the great Sir Terry Pratchett. So, here we go again…
I will not hear a word against Terry Pratchett. His books (especially the Discworld series) have been holiday reading for me for years and he is one of the very few authors to make me laugh and think in equal measure. I still think Small Gods is wonderful and should be read by anyone who claims to be a theist. But, I am mystified at how such a bright man can make such elementary mistakes when it comes to writing off theism. That said, however, at least he does it with the charm and self-effacing humour that advocates such as Richard Dawkins singularly lack.
I don’t know who the audience is (in the Guardian video), but they are clearly on his side and haven’t engaged their critical faculties. Well, why should they? After all, this is entertainment and not the place for having your assumptions challenged, isn’t it? Well, let’s start with a few quotations:
We [human beings] are shaped by the universe to be its consciousness. We tell the universe what it is.
I’d love to see that unpacked. He hints at an unpacking a little later:
I’d much rather be a rising ape than a falling angel.
This statement follows a romp through evolution and the assertion that we are monkeys who have achieved rather a lot. But here is where the problems start. Pratchett is working with what used to be called ‘the conflict metaphor’ which assumes that science and faith are in a battle for either/or supremacy: we can either have religious faith or we can trust science. This false positioning is given away when he says (earlier):
In my religion the building of a telescope is the building of a cathedral.
He dismisses the Judeo-Christian tradition on the basis that he read the Old Testament through in one sitting, thought that God comes over as a maniac who sanctions genocide and rejected Genesis as anti-scientific nonsense. Oh dear…
First, humanity is neither ‘rising ape’ nor ‘fallen angel’, but (according to Judeo-Christian thought) what Bruce Cockburn called ‘the angel-beast’ – made in the image of God, yet as frail as strong, always needing to learn and grow and develop. Science is integral to this ‘project’, not antithetical to it. This is the bit that leaves me a bit boggled: why does someone as intelligent as Pratchett not allow himself to get beyond false alternatives such as ‘faith versus science’ – when (to put it crudely) science is addressing questions faith does not, and faith asks questions for which science has no remit?
Have you seen the latest Hubble photos? They are amazing – awe-inspiring. I don’t understand a lot of the science around this sort of work, but I do marvel at what it shows us of the universe(s). The cathedral and the telescope are not inimical to one another – they open us up to awe and understanding and faith and worship, but in different ways. Why does Pratchett think they must be alternatives or opposites?
Understanding the workings of the universe is no threat to Christian faith – rather, it is integral to it. We are made to explore the world and why it is the way it is and how it came to be the way it is. But, as the ethicists always insist, you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ – so we need a different way of asking about meaning, values and significance in that universe. The creation-evolution divide is a false divide and most Christians got over it a long time ago.
Second, Sir Terry would be horrified (presumably) if we read his books as if they were scientific text books. The genre of the literature matters and shapes how we read what we read. So, couldn’t he show a little more literary respect to the material he dismisses and read it for what it is and not for what it isn’t? His assumptions underline for me the charge I continue to make: that many of the loud new atheists such as Richard Dawkins are not stupid, but they are illiterate. They want us to read every text as if there were only one genre of writing. (Fundamentalist creationists fall into the exact same trap…)
Third, the great man goes on to say:
God help me if I ever become a Christian. You lot would suffer, I’ll tell you…
It seems to me that there is nothing here that should stop him from becoming a Christian (even if he was just having a laugh). Evolution would become more interesting, reading ancient texts (with a different set of questions) would become enriching and challenging, and the world would become more colourful. And I’d love to see him using his amazing creative imagination and humour to expose the false contradictions and dichotomies he once espoused.
I am off for a few weeks of uninterrupted reading in January. You can bet your life there will be the odd Pratchett book in the bag. And I’ll be wondering if people like Sir Terry – justifiably popular and sadly now experiencing Alzheimer’s – ever get challenged, or if their fame and popularity simply make every statement they utter acceptable without question.