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Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou

Francesca Stavrakopoulou is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion in the Theology and Religion department at the University of Exeter.   She is a regular on television panel shows about religion and presented a three part-documentary series for the BBC on the Bible and archaeology entitled ‘Bible’s Buried Secrets’.  A staunch atheist, Francesca’s work involves looking at ancient religious texts from a scientific viewpoint, advocating a secular approach to religious studies.

 Everyday rituals like preparing food and eating food would have been completely imbued with religious significance.

On first memories of science

I got a microscope set when I was a kid, like a lot of children.  I had one of those magnet things with iron filings where you kind of learn about magnetism and all that kind of stuff. I collected bugs and frogs and that kind of thing when I was little and managed to kill quite a few accidentally on the way; that was my science.

On choosing humanities

I guess, actually, I’m half Greek and my Greek heritage has always played a really big part in me trying to understand how the world is.  I used to love the stories of the Greek gods and goddesses and what I particularly enjoyed about those stories was the gods could use all sorts of different animals and natural phenomena in the world to impact humankind, I suppose.  And that really appealed to me and I liked the fact that it challenged what we were being taught at school: that this is the way the world works, and this is gravity, and this is kinetic energy, and that kind of thing.  So I got really into ancient religion, why do people believe in these ancient ideas and what happened to those old gods and that old way of thinking about the world and how the world works.

And that led me onto studying the Bible - I’m an atheist, I always have been, I always will be - but I couldn't understand why the Bible in particular was being treated as any different from the ancient Greek gods and goddesses.  To me, Jesus and the God of the Bible just seemed exactly the same.

On the evolution of religion

One theory is that religion essentially…I don't like using the word “evolved” or “developed” because it makes us sound like we’re talking from a position of superiority and that these ancient people were somehow stupid or primitive and they weren't at all, but one idea is that it revolves around the idea of the dead body and what happens when we die.  So one theory is that the ancestors, so the corpse and its relationship to the idea of an ancestral presence or spirit, it retains some kind of social presence within the lives of the living.  So some people think that therein lies the kind of a root to divination, divinisation of deity, other people say it’s to do with human beings feeling insecure about the way the world is and the importance of rainfall, but I think that’s quite a simplistic idea.  I think, essentially, we’re really social beings and we always have been, that’s probably been the secret of our success, and that sociality isn't just confined to the here and now and the everyday experience of each particular human community or group; I think you need to have this idea about people in the past and your ancestors and where you come from and where you're going to.

On how science and religion can co-exist

Well I’m not an atheist of the Dawkins school at all, I think he completely misunderstands what religion is all about and misrepresents it.  On the other hand I think religion and science, I think they're doing two quite different things but they need each other.  I think understanding why religious rituals and religious practices still remain so important in contemporary and even seemingly Western secular society, I think it shows that science can’t answer everything and religion can tell you something about the sociality of people long since gone and the people that are to come, generations to come.  The very fact that we call this common ancestor, in science we call her Eve, is really interesting because it shows that we’re still kind of relying on those older religious motifs and mythic motifs to kind of express what we think about, in evolutionary terms, where we come from. 

On the possible need for religion

Again, within a context of sociality of human beings, we need music, we need laughter, and maybe we need rituals, and religions help us to pattern the kinds of rituals and to bring meaning to even the most ordinary and mundane things.  So in ancient communities, everyday rituals like preparing food and eating food would have been completely imbued with religious significance, there was no distinction between the religious and the non-religious in that sense, and I think there’s something within us that does the same thing.

But it might not be exclusive to humans, I’ve been reading stuff this year from animal behaviourists who argue that certain kinds of animals perform mourning rituals, for example. So it might be that it’s not something just inherent within humans, maybe other species exhibit that kind of need as well.

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