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Touched by an angel #3

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By their sources ye shall know them

Third in a series responding to John Cornwell‘s Darwin’s angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion.1

See also: Touched by an angel #1 & #2

We should be able to deal with Cornwell’s Chapter 2: Your Sources2 quite briefly. Fitting really, as it is just more hors d’oeuvre before le plat principal (see Touched by an angel #1).

With fairly academic books, the sort with references at the back, sometimes quite a number of the author’s previous works are cited, sometimes few. I had never thought to question this. In my innocence I had assumed it was related to the author’s relative age, the volume of his or her output to date, his or her judgment as to the relevance of previous works to the current work, and so on. But I am now enlightened: it is nothing more or less than an index of arrogance.

Richard DawkinsThe God delusion3 has a bibliography over seven pages long – or perhaps I should say less than eight pages long, considering Cornwell’s verdict of ‘innocent of heavy scholarship’. It lists seven of Dawkins’ previous works, which is apparently excessive:

[T]he author most often cited (both in the bibliography and in the text) is yourself – your own works, your own sayings, thought experiments, speculations, conversations with experts, and favourable opinions of your works by others.

Cornwell would have liked to have seen the seven-plus pages extended to include the likes of William James, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Simone Weil, Martin Buber and Karl Rahner; references to Dawkins’ own ‘intellectual antecedents’ Denis Diderot, Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud; more on Islam, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism; and more anthropology and Christianity sources.

I think I see where Cornwell is taking this but it seems a bit ad hominem, as if offended that a mere scientist should dare to attack theology. It is hard to know how much contributions from the list above would have added to Dawkins’ 400+ pages, either by way of support for his arguments or obstacles for them to clear. Cornwell himself gives no clues.

As I mentioned in my first post, Cornwell’s book also has no references, no notes, no bibliography. There is a page of Acknowledgments, mentioning one review, one article and four books. I guess different rules apply to angels.

Dawkins defines his scope early on, and very clearly:

…bear in mind that I am calling only supernatural gods delusional.

…My title… does not refer to the God of Einstein and the other enlightened scientists [referred to in the previous section: Stephen Hawking, Ursula Goodenough, Martin Rees, Paul Davies]. That is why I needed to get Einsteinian religion out of the way to begin with: it has a proven capacity to confuse. In the rest of this book I am talking only about supernatural gods, of which the most familiar to the majority of my readers will be Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament.

…I am not attacking the particular qualities of …any …specific god… Instead I shall define the God Hypothesis more defensibly: there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.

…Having gestured towards polytheism to cover myself against a charge of neglect, I shall say no more about it. For brevity I shall refer to all deities, whether poly- or monotheistic, as simply ‘God’.

…I am aware that critics of religion can be attacked for failing to credit the fertile diversity of traditions and world-views that have been called religious. Anthropologically informed works, from Sir James Frazer’s Golden Bough to Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained or Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust, fascinatingly document the bizarre phenomenology of superstition and ritual…

But that is not the way of this book. I decry supernaturalism in all its forms, and the most effective way to proceed will be to concentrate on the form most likely to be familiar to my readers – the form that impinges most threateningly on all our societies. Most of my readers will have been reared in one or another of today’s three ‘great’ monotheistic religions…, all of which trace themselves back to the mythological patriarch Abraham, and it will be convenient to keep this family of traditions in mind throughout the rest of the book.

…I know you don’t believe in an old bearded man sitting on a cloud, so let’s not waste any more time on that. I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.

…For most of my purposes, all three Abrahamic religions can be treated as indistinguishable. Unless otherwise stated, I shall have Christianity mostly in mind, but only because it is the version with which I happen to be most familiar. For my purposes the differences matter less than the similarities. And I shall not be concerned at all with other religions such as Buddhism or Confucianism. Indeed, there is something to be said for treating these not as religions at all but as ethical systems or philosophies of life.4

Apologies for the lengthy quotes. It is important to remember that Dawkins’ book is The God delusion, not The religion delusion, and he is very specific about what kind of god – the god as defined in the paragraph quoted above about the God Hypothesis.

So the target is very clear, and at this stage I struggle to see what material from William James, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim et al would add. Perhaps Cornwell will clarify later on. As this is just a ‘softening up’ chapter, we should move on.


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

2 John Cornwell, 2007: 1 above.

3 Richard DawkinsThe god delusion, Bantam, 2006.

4 Richard Dawkins, 2006: 3 above.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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