thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Touched by an angel #1

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Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Gregor Mendel

Gregor Mendel

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

When I was in New Zealand recently for a family wedding I picked up a copy of Darwin’s Angel1 by John Cornwell. It is written as if by ‘an angel special to natural historians and biologists’. He watched over Darwin, then Mendel, and is now the guardian of Richard Dawkins, deconstructor of The god delusion.2 Tongue firmly in both cheeks, angel Cornwell intends

not so much to pick a fight with the good professor as to offer a few “grace notes” and marginal glosses in the interests of sharper logic, closer insight, and factual accuracy, not so much to settle the debate as to stir it once more.

First in a series responding to John Cornwell’s Darwin’s angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion.3

Songs of praise

Darwins angel

Darwin's Angel

First a bit of gushing. According to the publisher’s blurb from the back cover

Cornwell corrects Dawkins on his errors of judgement and fundamental misunderstanding of faith. …offering rational, reasoned opinions, defending religion with elegance and great imagination.

For Julia Neuberger on the front end-paper, Cornwell’s book is

never strident. …and is the most consummately crafted work of deadly opposition I have ever read…

Peter Stanford in The Independent suggests it

should, in an ideal world, be sold taped to every copy of The God Delusion as an essential corrective.

Michael Ruse in the Times Higher Education Supplement thinks

John Cornwell deserves a medal.

After the confusion and disappointment of Antony Flew’s There is a god4 (see Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest) I was clearly in for a feast.

You angel you

Or was I? Considering the length of Cornwell’s book (only 168 pages) I was surprised how much seemed to be hors d’oeuvre – as if softening up the opponent before the real fight. Perhaps it was tit for tat: if Dawkins had been unfair to believers, now it was his turn to see what it felt like.

Something close to misrepresentation begins in the first paragraph of the ‘letter’ proper (Chapter 1: A Summary of Your Argument):

In your mind there is essentially no difference between an Al Qaeda terrorist and your North Oxford neighbour who goes to church twice a year.

Dawkins would doubtless agree the two individuals had something fundamental in common. Or, perhaps more accurately, he would see the respective faiths of the two individuals as having something fundamental in common. But that is a long way from saying there is ‘essentially no difference’ between them. It is a bit early to sneak in a logical fallacy and hope no one notices.

Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela and Adolf Hitler share some fundamental features. Both human; both male; both imprisoned for political offences; both popular and charismatic leaders of political movements with military wings; both finally elected into power. Does that mean there is ‘essentially no difference’ between Nelson Mandela and Adolf Hitler?

As Matt Ridley points out in Nature via nurture5,

Similarity is the shadow of difference. Two things are similar by virtue of their difference from another; or different by virtue of one’s similarity to a third.

From a believer’s perspective there is a world of difference between the Al Qaeda terrorist and the occasional church visitor from Oxford. From a non-believer’s perspective they share an adherence to faith – which should be neither overstated nor understated. Having said that I am struggling to find a quote from The god delusion where Dawkins equates an Al Qaeda terrorist with an Oxford church visitor (which does not mean it is not there). But I can find a reference to a rather ‘milder’ kind of fundamentalist:

Fundamentalist religion is hell-bent on ruining the scientific education of countless thousands of innocent, well-meaning, eager young minds. Non-fundamentalist, ‘sensible’ religion may not be doing that. But it is making the world safe for fundamentalism by teaching children, from their earliest years, that unquestioning faith is a virtue.6

Any believer shocked or insulted by this milder parallel might find it valuable to consider for a moment the perspective of one who sees doubt and scepticism rather than faith as virtues.

But in the ‘rational’, ‘reasoned’, ‘never strident’ words of angel Cornwell:

The mere fact of belief is the mechanism whereby religion morphs into murderous fanaticism.

Cornwell needs language like this because he has a route in mind:

The poet W. B. Yeats once wrote: “Hatred of God may bring the soul to God.” For what many atheists loathe is not God but all those false representations, “the tinsel and trash” that obscure Him.

Like Antony Flew’s book7, Darwin’s angel has no index. Unlike Flew’s book though it has no notes or references either, despite all the names on the carpet. The quotes above are in fact from Yeats’s Supernatural Songs: V. Ribh considers Christian Love insufficient.8

Cornwell follows this with an unreferenced quote from Iris Murdoch:

“No existing thing could be what we have meant by God. Any existing God would be less than God. An existent God would be an idol or a demon.”

Fellow anoraks out there may be interested to know this is from her Metaphysics as a guide to morals.9 They may also be interested in how the quote continues:

(This is near to Kant’s thinking.) God does not and cannot exist. But what led us to conceive of him does exist and is constantly experienced and pictured.10

I have been unable to track down his next quote – from Don Cupitt – but it is so typical it could be from a number of his books:

“The dissolution of God, and our attainment of perfect union with God, are one and the same thing.”

Cornwell also mentions Spinoza, al-Hallaj and Meister Eckhart, all of whom

found God by dismantling every last paltry doctrine of Him.

These are sophisticated theological threads. Terry Eagleton touches similar ground in his own 2006 review of The god delusion, ‘Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching’ (which I discuss in Eagleton on Dawkins):

Nor is [God] a principle, an entity, or ‘existent’: in one sense of that word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist.11

Then Cornwell shows us what his target has been all along:

Yet such dismantling of God, especially when it is attended by contempt of fellow human beings who continue to believe in Him according to their different fashions, can lead, as Iris Murdoch warned, to the substitution of a rival godhead. Idolatry.

He acknowledges Dawkins’ wish that science could replace religion. But the good angel is honour-bound to guard him from something even more dreadful:

I should hate to think that you are on the way to substituting yourself for God.

To get beyond just reassuring his fellow believers Cornwell has to get beyond this. There may be atheists who loathe ‘those false representations’ of God, Yeats’s ‘tinsel and trash’. And, yes, an atheist typically does not loathe God – but this is because an atheist has no god to loathe.

For Cornwell and his fellow apologists to come close to convincing non-believers they need to take on board what atheism is: doing without a god. An atheist does not believe in a god and, regardless of individual spiritual or intellectual biographies, an atheist qua atheist can to all extents and purposes be assumed never to have believed in a god.

An atheist’s soul is unlikely to be brought close to a god who does not exist, and is therefore not hated. Borrowing Iris Murdoch’s terminology, the atheist does not even conceive of a god, or constantly experience or picture what makes him or her conceive of a god. There is nothing to dissolve, nothing to dismantle, no godhead to be replaced.

This is not to assume that atheists are immune from megalomania or idolatry. My point is that if Cornwell really wants to stir the debate, really wants to engage his opponent, he needs to step into his opponent’s corner and have a good look round; and keep on looking until he fully and finally comprehends that there is no god-shaped hole there and there never was.

In Cornwell’s own corner the slide from ‘substituting science for religion’ to ‘substituting yourself for God’ could well appear so seamlessly significant as to gather a round of applause or at least a knowing nod or two. The other corner would see it as at best a non sequitur and at worst a cheap insinuation unworthy of an angel.

More angelic discourse in the next post


1 John Cornwell, Darwin’s angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion, Profile Books, London, 2007.

2 Richard Dawkins, The god delusion, Bantam, 2006.

3 John Cornwell, 2007: 1 above.

4 Antony Flew (with Roy Abraham Varghese), There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, HarperCollins, 2007.

5 Matt Ridley, Nature via nurture, HarperCollins, 2004.

6 Richard Dawkins, 2006: 2 above.

7 Antony Flew, 2007: 4 above.

8 WB Yeats, ‘Supernatural Songs’, in: Parnell’s Funeral and other poems, 1935.

9 Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a guide to morals, Chatto & Windus, London, 1992.

10 Iris Murdoch, 1992: 9 above.

11 Terry Eagleton, ‘Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching’, London Review of Books, Vol. 28 No. 20, 19 October 2006.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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