He was a scientific advisor to the World Health Organisation's programme in human reproduction from 1975 - 1977, and the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science from 2004 to 2005. He is currently Emeritus Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College and researches male germ cell stem cells and methods for their genetic modification. He has published over 300 scientific papers in peer-review journals.
The Story of God - A personal journey into the world of science and religion
Most compelling thought:
The Divine Idea is, for whatever purpose, natural to humans. Even so natural that all religions tend to gravitate towards identical or similar expressions and theologies.
Buy this book for:
People that are interested in a popular history of religion in general.
Professor Doctor Lord Robert Winston (known from some fabulous BBC science series) holds honorary doctorates from fourteen universities.
A brief review of:
Robert Winston is charming, darling and immensely erudite. I read The Story of God on a flight from Krakau via Munchen and Chicago to San Diego, starting at 7 am on page one during take-off, and finishing the final ten pages fighting fatigue and the memory of two of the lamest movies ever made in my hotel room 28 hours later.
The Story of God
Winston's personal journey into the world of science and religion is strongly slanted towards a Jewish experience of what he calls the 'Divine Idea.' Winston is a Jew himself, but as he writes for a predominantly Christian audience, he talks about Christianity most, and that in a truly endearing fashion. Robert Winston is simply a very nice guy, who admits to not understand any of the religions and even has major trouble believing in any of it by means of reason. But then he finds himself deeply attracted and moved as he (frequently) attends Temple and, on occasion, a Church. Winston experiences God but can not make any system that is driven by scientific reason lift up the veil of God's concealment a single bit. For the scientist that he is, this makes for the wild paradox that has left few mad, others angry, but Winston wide-eyed like a child with an IQ of 200: How come there are so many religions? How come religions are everywhere and all the time? How come so many religions came up with the same imagery? Could there be an inherent sense of God imbedded in the human mind? And a standard vocabulary of religious jargon (opted by many from Jung to Joseph Cambell...)?
Hand in hand, we stroll through the history of Dad's lab, from the calculated estimations about pre-historic divine experiences to the invention of monotheism/Buddhism/Hinduism, the writing and compilation of 'the world's greatest book,' to Jesus (Winston seconds some popular idea's about the Messianic tradition, the historic Jesus and the birth of the Church, which may not go down some throats without a few hardy swallows), some wonderful insights into Islam, the Enlightenment and finally the scientific age, where Winston lives and defends embryo research.
Why exactly Winston's thoughts on embryo research should appear in a book about the Divine Idea is not immediately clear, except perhaps by Winston's stating that religious fundamentalism is bad and those fundos also hamper his research. But, Winston argues, a) an embryo of fourteen days is not implanted yet so the mother isn't actually pregnant; b) an embryo of fourteen days may still split into a twin and can therefore not have one single soul and is therefore not a human individual; c) lots of infertile couples are now very happy parents because of embryo research.
As much as we would like to agree with Winston, his arguments are easily overthrown: a) we are not supposed to murder anyone and it doesn't matter if someone is pregnant with our victim or not; b) we are not supposed to murder anyone, and we are also not supposed to murder a still united twin; c) we are not supposed to murder anyone and it doesn't matter how many people will be very happy because of it.
But the key issue is Winston's insistence that the individual is the focus of divine revelation and should also be the focus of ethical considerations. This is perhaps true on any other platform but Biblically, the 'human being' is defined as a large group of humans who separately could not have existed as such. Any human phenomenon from zygote to crowd should not be murdered. As embryo research has so much to offer, ways should be devised to harvest embryos that were rejected by the mother in a natural way, and not for any reason horse around with viable human life forms of any stage. The question of when an embryo becomes either human or a person seems to suggest that all of us arose from the dust and had to obtain our humanities through growth, maturing through stages in which we were as worthy as amoebas, then worms, then frogs. A dire error. No human creature was ever outside the human collective and was never sub-, proto- or unhuman.
Among the axioms and arguments that Winston offers in his introductory chapter and in defence of the general Divine Idea (the notion that divinity exists or the experience thereof, as found in all recorded human cultures) are brilliant bits of thought, some obvious cries for consilience, and unfortunately some detrimentally wrong ideas about God and religion:
Winston writes, 'God and science are essentially two totally different ways of looking at the natural world, though each gives important insights into the nature of the other.' but that's a mere consolatory notion of arbitrary. God is a person and not a way of looking, while science is an art through which people seek to describe reality as efficient as possible and man's most beneficial response to it. Religion and science are indeed alike as both try to come to terms with the world around us and both teach mankind how to live. Religion and science even equally require the faith of those who profess them; both utilize logic to minimize the margin of error and both lean heavily on inspiration and imagination. It should therefore never be forgotten that religion is an 'art of knowing' just like science, and science requires belief before proof (called hypothesis), and faith in proof (called theory) just as religion does. In fact, there's not a lot of difference between scientific approach and religious approach. The main difference probably lies in the definition of proof, although (we should also never forget) both systems deduct their dogmas from unproven assumptions and weave their webs of reason within the boundaries that these assumptions set.
In an attempt to prove that the religion we inherited from our sense of God by itself is not good or evil, Winston states that the technology that we inherited from our pursuit of science is also not good or evil in itself. Winston follows his own argument and arrives at: 'Religion stands in relationship with God as technology does in relation to science.,' which is again a total missay. First of all, Winston fails to solve the riddle of what exactly good or evil is. This is admittedly a very old riddle but we can not simply ignore the fact that we have no idea just because it's been like that for so long. Some people are sure they know, and some entire systems of belief do too. But by stating his claims Winston insists that the phrase 'good and evil' should be understood unanimously and homogeneously by the entire humongous realm of religion plus the entire humongous realm of science and technology! But what is evil in the sight of one God + religion, namely some other God + religion, happens to be totally good in the sight of that second God + religion, who in turn deems the first one evil. Science on the other hand rarely ventures into the moral arena and when it does it is under the spoke called ethics of the umbrella of the philosophy of science. (But to give a hint: on a scientific stage the phrase 'good and evil' probably translates most accurately into 'stable and instable').
Secondly, one of the most persistent themes in the whole of religious thought is that God created the universe, interferes with it in some form or other and can be learned about by looking at what He has made or is making. God is the cause of everything, and both religion and science try to deal with that 'everything'. For religion that 'everything' contains God + whatever we know + whatever we may come to know next. Science acknowledges a completely identical sense of everything, except that for science God (a mighty popular hypothesis, like, say, String Theory) is contained in the whatever-comes-next part.
It is folly to state that between science and religion science is the only one that produces technology because there are scientific disciplines that produce no machines or ways to build them, but merely thoughts and ways to group thoughts and ways to group measurements. If that is considered technology as well then religion produces technology just the same.
But despite its few slight inconsistencies Robert Winston's The Story of God remains one of the most charming books-about-everything out there. Any reader should however not lose sight of the subtitle of the book. The Story Of God is a casual - yet royally funded - conversation with a doctor-slash-documentary maker about a subject of which he has great knowledge and little insight.
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