One of the fun things about doing public lectures is the questions. Some of them are simple enough, others will show an unexpected depth of knowledge, then along comes one that seems to be completely out of context. Those odd questions are a good reminder that some of the audience will have a very different view of the world from which they have interpreted the subject matter of the talk. However, when you are trying to think on your feet and give a coherent answer, sometimes all the brain can offer is “Whoa! Where did that come from?”.
One such moment arose at the Ilkley Literature Festival a few days ago. The event was an ‘in conversation ‘ with Joann Fletcher, Egyptologist and all-round good egg. Her latest book The Story of Egypt had been introduced and discussed and questions from the floor were underway, questions about archaeology and Ancient Egypt. A female voice at the back spoke up. “In the Bible, we read that God slayed the firstborn sons of Egypt. Have you found their remains?”.
To Joann’s credit, only the briefest moment of alarm showed on her face, then she managed to deflect the answer to shoe-horn in a mention of Merenptah’s Victory Stela, with its earliest written reference to Israel. With the benefit of hindsight, one might have said no, no evidence at all because the book of Exodus is a blend of legend and metaphor, not history, though that would hardly have satisfied someone who clearly believed that Exodus is an historical account.
I was quite startled to hear such a fundamentalist mindset being aired at a literature festival, to be reminded that there are people walking the streets who take Old Testament stories at face value. What should a lecturer do in such a situation? There is the danger that an over-diplomatic answer will seem to lend credibility to a point of view that does not deserve it. On the other hand, no-one wants to be offensively blunt, apart from David Starkey. Speaking to a meeting of Yorkshire farmers and National Park staff some years ago, I did hear myself answer a point from the floor with the words “No, that’s codswallop”, before the internal censor kicked in. Fortunately they were a robust audience and it was a matter of sheep, not religion. Religious faith is, by definition, not susceptible to objective evidence and proof, which makes it especially difficult to deal with.
Personally, I am of the opinion that it is wrong and dishonest to shift one’s position on a subject in deference to another’s religious faith. If someone tells me that ‘they’ (it is always some vague ‘they’) have found remains of Noah’s Ark, I will disagree with them but try to do so politely. I will certainly not smile, nod and politely change the subject, leaving the impression that I have accepted their assertion as fact. Opinions are fine, and arguments over aesthetic matters of art, music and literature are decidedly refreshing. Tell me that the music of Eric Satie, currently playing in the background here, is simplistic and lightweight and I will argue with you but accept that as your point of view on a matter that is not susceptible to objective factual evidence. Tell me that Satie died in the trenches of the Great War, and I will show you evidence that you are wrong on a point of verifiable fact. That is simple enough, so why is religion such a minefield, to be tip-toed around in avoidance of even polite confrontation?
Archaeologists will not find the mass burials of the Egyptian firstborn any more than they have found or will find material evidence of the scorched-earth genocide that Joshua’s Israelites unleashed on the Promised Land. They will not find the grave of Arthur Pendragon either, nor the ruins of a stately pleasure dome at Xanadu. Sadly, I will never find the bones of a unicorn. As the fictional Dr Indiana Jones observes in one of the movies “Archaeology is about facts”, and we should be prepared to confront belief with facts when the two are contradictory. The challenge to the startled public speaker is to do so without compromise but without causing undue offence. Good luck with that.