Touched by an angel #5
I thought I could make a dash to the next chapter but alas no. Just a few lines down from John Cornwell’s jibe about King Lear and Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”1 (see: Touched by an angel #4) sparkles a real gem.
Fifth in a series responding to John Cornwell‘s Darwin’s angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion.2
Remember Cornwell is an angel, addressing Richard Dawkins his wayward protégé:
[Y]our separation of fact and fiction, true and false, reality and imagination, science and everything else, could not be more plain. The only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the gospels,” you pronounce in your God Delusion, “is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction.” That settles the hash of the Four Evangelists, you maintain. The Da Vinci Code, which is not factual, is fiction; the Gospels are not factual (because they have all those factual inconsistencies, as you note), therefore the Gospels are fiction. So are you inviting your readers to infer that poets, dramatists, novelists are not concerned with truth-telling either? It’s one thing, I suppose, to suggest that Christ’s Sermon on the Mount contains no truths, but do you really wish your readers to accept that writers such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoyevsky … the entire canon of world literature … is just so much untruth? Fiction?
Does anyone understand the point Cornwell is making? I think I understand the point I think he thinks he is making. He seems to be painting Dawkins as a philistine, with no appreciation of art, creativity and aesthetic truth – and therefore not a writer worth taking seriously?
Let us look at what Dawkins actually says, and in context. He is going through a set of different Arguments for God’s existence which have been used over the centuries. One is The argument from scripture:
There are still some people who are persuaded by scriptural evidence to believe in God…3
A version of this argument is that God exists because Jesus said he was the Son of God. Five pages of reasons follow why, in Dawkins’ opinion, this argument falls down, on the basis that the gospel accounts cannot be taken as factual because collectively they contain so many inaccuracies and contradictions.
For the moment we are not discussing the merits of the case, just the structural logic. The ‘argument from scripture’ presupposes that the gospels are to be taken as factual accounts. If they are not factual accounts they cannot serve as evidence for any substantive reality which they might refer to. They could of course serve as evidence for something else, for example something about themselves as texts. Word usage or, perhaps more specifically, atrocity count in the text of Titus Andronicus could count as evidence for or against Shakespeare’s authorship of the play. But nothing in the text of Titus Andronicus has any bearing on the historical Titus Andronicus because there was no historical Titus Andronicus. It is pure fiction, adapted from a story in Ovid‘s Metamorphoses.
Either the gospels are factual accounts or not. If they are, then they could support the argument from scripture; if not, not. Dawkins gives reasons why they cannot possibly be taken as reliable factual accounts and concludes they are fiction. Because they are fiction they cannot support the argument from scripture, which is what this section of The God delusion is about.
The section ends:
Dan Brown‘s novel The Da Vinci Code, and the film made from it, are arousing huge controversy in church circles. Christians are encouraged to boycott the film and picket cinemas that show it. It is indeed fabricated from start to finish: invented, made-up fiction. In that respect, it is exactly like the gospels. The only difference between The Da Vinci Code and the gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci Code is modern fiction.4
I have no idea what Dawkins thinks of The Da Vinci Code5, or whether he has even read it. It is irrelevant. Dawkins’ reason for using The Da Vinci Code as the example here rather than The Canterbury Tales, Titus Andronicus or Oliver Twist is that although it is a work of fiction it had a significant recent impact among certain religious communities. The point of the example is to show that a work of fiction can have an impact on religious believers. There is nothing in the example to suggest anything Dawkins may or may not think about imagination, literary creativity, or the aesthetic truth or value of any novel, legend, poem, play or opera libretto, be it The Da Vinci Code or anything else from ‘the entire canon of world literature.’ Or indeed anything else anyone might get from the gospels. It is purely about the factual status of the gospels and whether anything they say can support a truth claim about the existence of God.
Perhaps this is an example of the ‘sharper logic’ and ‘closer insight’ our generous angel promised us? (See Touched by an angel #1.)
The chapter ends in a lament for (and a quote from) the Richard Dawkins of The selfish gene, with its redemptive appeal to what Cornwell has to call ‘imagination’ to make his point, but which is actually (and very clearly) moral consciousness:
We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism – something that has no space in nature, something that has never existed before… We… have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.6
See how Cornwell bends it:
Such an affirmation would accord with the intellectual and imaginative freedom of poetry, literary fiction, art; would be in accordance, too, with a measure of human liberty and moral agency. [Emphasis added.]
Dawkins’ paragraph was about human liberty and moral agency. It is consistent with intellectual and imaginative freedom. Not the other way round. But because Cornwell has decided Dawkins was talking about imagination, he now feels free to unpack what imagination means to an angel:
Imagination enables human beings to contemplate and model their past and their future, their origins and their destiny, their meaning and their nature: to make choices; to think scientifically and religiously too.
See how religion sneaks in? The author of The selfish gene and the author of The god delusion would doubtless agree that human beings have the power to think religiously. But that is not what Dawkins is saying here. If he had been he might have added something about what happens when religious imagination results in metaphysical conviction about the inhabitants of a supernatural realm.
Scientific and religious imagination are different, says Cornwell, but both have
the capacity… to make metaphors. But you appear… to have retreated from a trust in the dynamic, protean power of imagination when it comes to religion. Have you retreated because you no longer believe in the power of the imagination to impart literary, poetic, religious, and moral truth either?
The rhetoric is so preposterous it is hard not to labour the point. Dawkins defined his target: see Touched by an angel #3. His target is not religion in general. It is not religious metaphor or religious imagination. It is quite specifically the god of the ‘God Hypothesis’, the hypothesis that
there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.7
A superhuman, supernatural, super-intelligent creator does not need to be sneaked in through a list of creatures of human imagination. Anything less is not the target of The God delusion.
The rhetoric continues:
Or because trust in the imagination threatens your militant atheism? Even a guardian angel cannot enter into the soul of a protégé’s conscience.
Some rhetoric is so preposterous it really can stun you into silence. But not for long.
1 John Cornwell, Darwin’s angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion, Profile Books, London, 2007.
© Chris Lawrence 2009.