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There is grandeur in this view of life…

Touched by an angel #4

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Whose imagination bypass?

Fourth in a series responding to John Cornwell‘s Darwin’s angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion1

See also: Touched by an angel #1#2; & #3

Martin Rees

Martin Rees

More preliminary softening up to respond to, I’m afraid. In Chapter 3: Imagination2 Cornwell has a go at Dawkins’ dismissal of theology. Earlier he had quoted Martin Rees:

The preeminent mystery is why anything exists at all. What breathes life into the equations of physics, and actualized them in a real cosmos? Such questions lie beyond science, however: they are the province of philosophers and theologians.3

Dawkins dismisses this acknowledgment as ‘folly’, says Cornwell.

What Dawkins actually says is:

I would prefer to say that if indeed they lie beyond science, they most certainly lie beyond the province of theologians as well (I doubt that philosophers would thank Martin Rees for lumping theologians in with them). I am tempted to go further and wonder in what possible sense theologians can be said to have a province…4

So yes, Dawkins does doubt if theology qualifies as an academic discipline.

In Chapter 3 Cornwell continues:

You find theology, the study of God, meaningless, unworthy of a moment’s serious study. In your view theologians are engaged in make-believe: the object of their investigations no more real than the Tooth Fairy. Compared with scientists, theologians in your view are mere fantasists. Yet while it is true that theology has its own special discourse, theologians draw on an impressive range of academic disciplines – including history, philosophy, anthropology, literary and scriptural criticism – and they bring together dynamic intellectual capacities – of the imagination.

That word ‘imagination’ is important, because Cornwell is about to use it to weave another of his insinuations.

Dawkins actually says:

I have yet to see any good reason to suppose that theology (as opposed to biblical history, literature, etc.) is a subject at all.5

So there is a core of accurate representation, but Cornwell adds a misleading spin. For Dawkins the central domain of theology is a pseudo-subject because its object of study is an entity whose existence is highly improbable. But religion as a historical, psychological, literary, anthropological etc phenomenon is a genuine object of study.

Cornwell’s spin is effectively this: how can you say theology is a pseudo-subject when what theologians actually do is a highly intellectual and imaginative synthesis involving history, philosophy, anthropology and other bona fide academic disciplines?

He then adds another layer:

[B]ut you are also disturbed by the dimension of imagination, aren’t you? It’s so close to art, music, poetry – stuff that’s made up rather than facts that can be reducible to physics, chemistry, and biology.

He cites an illustrative passage from Climbing Mount Improbable6 in which Dawkins allegedly reveals his true scientistic colours. Cornwell’s gloss:

Biology is true whereas the other stuff is just made up! It sounds as if you would substitute a set of case-notes on senile dementia for Shakespeare’s King Lear; or a horticultural fact sheet for Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”.



The relevant passage is actually how Dawkins introduces his theme right at the start of Climbing Mount Improbable. He describes attending a lecture on

the fig in literature, the fig as metaphor, changing perceptions of the fig, the fig as emblem of pudenda and the fig leaf as modest concealer of them… [etc]7

The lecturer ended by recalling

the Genesis story of Eve tempting Adam to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Genesis doesn’t specify… which fruit it was. Traditionally, people take it to be an apple. The lecturer suspected that actually it was a fig.8

Cornwell represents Dawkins’ response to this parting shot as a failure of imagination. From Climbing Mount Improbable:

The speaker obviously knew that there never was a Garden of Eden, never a tree of knowledge of good and evil. So what was he actually trying to say? I suppose he had a vague feeling ‘somehow’, ‘if you will’, ‘at some level’, ‘in some sense’, ‘if I may put it this way’ it is somehow ‘right’ that the fruit in the story ‘should’ have been a fig. But enough of this. It is not that we should be literalist and Gradgrindian, but our elegant lecturer was missing so much. There is genuine paradox and real poetry lurking in the fig, with subtleties to exercise an inquiring mind and wonders to uplift an aesthetic one… But the fig story is only one out of millions that all have the same Darwinian grammar and logic…9

I read in this a degree of impatience with the lecturer’s speculation that an unspecified, non-existent fruit of a non-existent tree in a non-existent garden described in a Middle-Eastern myth might have been a fig rather than an apple, when a real fig story of almost incredible richness – like the one towards the end of the book (in Chapter 10: ‘A Garden Inclosed’10) – goes untold and ignored. What I do not read is any mention of wanting to substitute that story for (say) DH Lawrence‘s erotic poem which the lecturer referred to:

The proper way to eat a fig, in society,
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower…

What part of ‘our elegant lecturer was missing so much’ does Cornwell not understand? It seems yet another attempt to misrepresent: Dawkins saying ‘but as well as X there’s all this Y you’re ignoring’; and Cornwell choosing to hear Dawkins wanting to replace X with Y.

John Keats

John Keats

All the more intriguing considering that Dawkins followed Climbing Mount Improbable with Unweaving the rainbow12, an extended and highly respectful response to the ‘sensitive genius’ of John Keats,

who believed that Newton had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colours. Keats could hardly have been more wrong, and my aim is to guide all who are tempted by a similar view towards the opposite conclusion. Science is, or ought to be, the inspiration for great poetry…13

But please don’t just take my word for it. Among the reviews inside my 1999 Penguin edition of Unweaving the rainbow is this one:

Marvellously written… a powerful argument for reconciliation of aesthetics and science

John Cornwell, Sunday Times (Christmas Books)

More imagination next time…


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

2 John Cornwell, 2007: 1 above.

3 Martin Rees, Our cosmic habitat, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2001.

4 Richard DawkinsThe god delusion, Bantam, 2006.

5 Richard Dawkins, 2006: 4 above.

6 Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable, Viking, 1996.

7 Richard Dawkins, 1996: 6 above.

8 Richard Dawkins, 1996: 6 above.

9 Richard Dawkins, 1996: 6 above.

10 Richard Dawkins, 1996: 6 above.

11 DH Lawrence, ‘Fig’, in: Birds, Beasts and Flowers, 1923.

12 Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the rainbow, Allen Lane, 1998.

13 Richard Dawkins, 1998: 12 above.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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