Daytime TV: Burden of proof

Does religion give us purpose, or has history been tailored to give one version of events, asks Gary Day

September 30, 2010

The debate between science and religion seems to be all the rage these days. On Tuesday, historian Dr Thomas Dixon wondered whether we had any further need for the concept of God (The End of God? A Horizon Guide to Science and Religion, BBC Four, Tuesday 21 September, 9pm). On Thursday, a piece appeared in this very magazine asking whether it was time to bring hostilities between the two to an end.

But can two such fundamentally opposed systems of thought ever be reconciled? Thomas rather doubted it. One proceeds by observation, the other by revelation; one is based on fact, the other on faith. It is in the laboratory, not the church, the temple or the mosque, that we learn about the laws of gravity, the speed of light and the chemical basis of life. God doesn't cause volcanoes to erupt or rivers to flood: these are more easily explained by movements in the Earth's crust and fluctuations in climate, although a dedicated believer could always argue that it is God who shuffles tectonic plates and puts the weather in a spin.

But he or she would have a much harder time dealing with the claim that spiritual experience is the result of a physical process. The sense of divine presence can be simulated by passing magnetic fields across the temporal lobes. Whether you are a Buddhist monk or a Franciscan nun, the feeling of oneness with the Universe comes down to the amount of blood in the parietal lobe.

Frankly, it wasn't looking good for God. But then, you wondered, why was Thomas being filmed in a church? Was it because he had taken possession of the defeated enemy's territory? This was a safe assumption until the last five minutes of the programme, when Thomas suddenly declared that believing in many universes was just as much a leap of faith as a belief in the deity. What's more, he added, our brains are hard-wired to believe in a supreme being.

Well, I am not a scientist, but I do know that the notion of many universes is not a belief but a hypothesis, based, among other things, on observations of the quantum world. And it's not that we are hard-wired to believe in a supreme being, it's that the infant's dependency on their all-powerful parents is easily transferred to an omnipotent father in heaven. Thomas' conclusion was that religion gives us meaning and purpose in life. Or, to put it another way, the sole way life makes sense is if you accept a set of propositions for which there is not only no evidence, but which have been systematically shown to be false. Whatever happened to the doubting Thomas who started the programme?

Peter Owen Jones is an Anglican vicar but he dresses like Indiana Jones. He has the hat, the jacket and the jeans, but not the whip. And, like his hero, he is in search of ancient artefacts. In his case, The Lost Gospels (BBC Four, Tuesday 21 September, 10pm). Most of them were unearthed in Nag Hammadi in 1945 by farmers digging for fertiliser. What they got was a set of papyri that revolutionised our understanding of early Christianity.

The Gospel of Peter claims that Christ never died, while that of Philip intimates that Jesus had a physical relationship with Mary Magdalene. The text says he kissed her on the - and then there's a gap. "Ants," sighed Professor Bart Erhman, "they ate the missing words." He shook his head and explained that in the ancient world, breath was regarded as spirit and to kiss someone was to give them spiritual knowledge. But did that mean that Jesus kissed the male disciples too? There's a thought.

Pete made a convincing case for why these mostly Gnostic works were suppressed: they asserted that salvation came by way of secret knowledge, not Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. Such thinking was of little use to the early Christians, who looked to Jesus' suffering to give them the strength to cope with their own. The Gnostics proposed a recondite form of Christianity when, to survive, the religion needed a broad appeal. Sitting on top of a mountain, Pete said it was a pity these early works were banned, but then if they hadn't been, Christianity would probably never have got going.

Bouquet of Barbed Wire has finally come to an end after three emotionally draining weeks (ITV1, Monday 20 September, 9pm). I can take the incest. I can take the mother-in-law sleeping with her son-in-law. I can take the boss sleeping with the new girl in the office. But what I can't accept is that when someone says they have lost everything, they still drive around in a four-by-four and live in a stone cottage in the country. Some things are just beyond belief.

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