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There is grandeur in this view of life…

Touched by an angel #6

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It seems to be getting worse. In Chapter 4 (Beauty)1 John Cornwell takes issue with Richard Dawkins’ attack on the ‘argument from beauty’ in The God delusion.

Sixth in a series responding to John Cornwell’s Darwin’s angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion.2

See also: Touched by an angel #1#2; #3; #4; & #5

From the sublime

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

First, what Dawkins actually says, including the first two sentences which Cornwell omits:

[A] character in the Aldous Huxley novel [Point counter point]… proved the existence of God by playing Beethoven’s string quartet no 15 in A minor (‘heiliger Dankgesang’) on a gramophone. Unconvincing as that sounds, it does represent a popular strand of argument. I have given up counting the number of times I receive the more or less truculent challenge: ‘How do you account for Shakespeare, then? (Substitute Schubert, Michelangelo, etc. to taste.) The argument will be so familiar, I needn’t document it further. But the logic behind it is never spelled out, and the more you think about it the more vacuous you realize it to be.3

Cornwell starts by countering Dawkins’ autobiographical statement (‘I have given up counting the number of times…’) with ‘Is this really a popular claim?’ Maybe I am gullible, but I am prepared to accept that a famous atheist does get presented with arguments like this fairly frequently. And that maybe angel Cornwell, defender of the faith, does not. Move on?

In fact Cornwell takes us on quite a tangent:

When people invoke religion in a work of art they generally mean that a religious theme or idea has inspired the work. It seems perfectly understandable, doesn’t it, that an artist should be moved by a religious story without necessarily adhering to orthodox beliefs…

Perhaps. But this is not Dawkins’ point, as his use of the example of Shakespeare – as opposed to, say, Dante – clearly demonstrates. Although there are plenty of biblical references in Shakespeare, there is little if any religion per se, little if any evidence of inspiration by a ‘religious theme or idea’. The ‘argument from beauty’ (in retrospect perhaps more accurately labelled the ‘argument from artistic creation’?) is effectively: God must exist, because otherwise how can we account for the works of (eg) Shakespeare and our experience of those works? The idea is that God reveals himself as the creator of artistic creation (via the creation of artists) and by our aesthetic appreciation of artistic creation. The artists themselves could be atheists. The argument is not: how can we account for Shakespeare’s religious inspiration?

This misunderstanding is probably why Cornwell finds Dawkins’ next passage so ‘curious’:

Obviously Beethoven’s late quartets are sublime. So are Shakespeare’s sonnets. They are sublime if God is there and they are sublime if he isn’t.4

Cornwell asks:

Whose standpoint are you adopting? The poet’s? The reader’s? God’s? Or Richard Dawkins, as an angel, surveying all three?

Sistine Chapel

Sistine Chapel

Why is standpoint suddenly so problematic? Dawkins has described Shakespeare’s sonnets as sublime, as he has described the Sistine Chapel as inspirational and John Lennon‘s Imagine as magnificent. So it is surely from Dawkins’ own standpoint – in the most obvious, subjective, unproblematic, unangelic sense? From the standpoint of the person making the evaluation – in the case of a poem, typically the reader or listener. Not, typically, the poet’s: I would like to tell you about this sublime poem I have just written? And, no, not God’s. (We will pass over Cornwell’s amnesia about who is supposed to be wearing the wings.)

To add weight to this interpretation it might help to quote a passage twenty or so pages later, from a different context, where Dawkins says:

As in the case of our ability to appreciate a Beethoven quartet, our sense of [moral] goodness (though not necessarily our inducement to follow it) would be the way it is with a God and without a God.5

Cornwell is in his own world though:

I think you might mean that a poem can have sublimity – whether the poet believes in God or not. That’s fair enough, except it doesn’t quite fit now with the next stage of your argument. You write that it’s as if readers would require that Cathy and Heathcliff really exist in order to enjoy Wuthering Heights!

Let’s take this step by step. No, it’s nothing to do with the poem having sublimity whether the poet believes in God or not. Dawkins is saying a sublime poem is sublime whether God exists or not. End of story. Cornwell may not agree with that statement, he may disagree with Dawkins’ evaluations of various artworks, but that is what Dawkins is saying – very clearly.

So the bit about Cathy and Heathcliff is beside the point. Except I am beginning to doubt whether Cornwell is reading the same version of The God delusion as I am. In the next paragraph Dawkins describes his surprise that his interviewer on Desert Island Discs could not understand how an atheist could enjoy Bach’s St Matthew Passion:

You might as well say, how can you enjoy Wuthering Heights when you know perfectly well that Cathy and Heathcliff never really existed?6

So, no, Dawkins actually seems to be making the very uncontroversial claim that someone can enjoy Wuthering Heights while being perfectly aware that Cathy and Heathcliff are fictional.

Cornwell has not quite finished with those poor ‘sleepers in that quiet earth’, but the next bit of angelspeak I think I understand:

Although the Gospels are not history in the modern sense, they can be read in the reasonable confidence that Jesus Christ actually lived and walked the earth 2,000 years ago; that he chose followers, preached a striking message about love, told parables, and was crucified. Accepting that Christ was the Son of God, performed miracles, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven certainly requires something more than routine credibility: it requires faith. But is this comparable to requiring that to “enjoy” Wuthering Heights, a reader must believe that its characters actually existed? Surely not. A willing suspension of disbelief such as one adopts when reading plays, novels, and poetry is not at all the same as faith; and your insinuation that people are incapable of making such a distinction betrays a poor regard for the reading public.

Now this does connect with Dawkins’ response on Desert Island Discs. But its strange positioning is presumably so Cornwell can level his charge of ‘insinuation’. Dawkins may have been referring to ‘willing suspension of disbelief’, but not necessarily. All he was actually saying was that he could enjoy (rather than “enjoy” – whatever that means) a novel without believing the fictional characters were real; and that, for him, was similar to his being able to enjoy Bach’s St Matthew Passion without believing in God – or, perhaps more specifically, without having the same sort of belief as a Christian might have in the full reality and significance of the events in the life of Jesus which the composition refers to.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama

A person or character depicted in (say) narrative could be completely fictional, completely factual, or somewhere in between. For example Titus Andronicus in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is completely fictional; Barack Obama in a news report about his inauguration is completely factual; and Richard III in Shakespeare’s Richard III is somewhere in between. I think it would be fair to say that Dawkins the atheist would see God as completely fictional, and the Jesus of the gospels as being at least in the category of the Shakespearean Richard III. Hence his unsurprising parallel between listening to the St Matthew Passion and reading Wuthering Heights.

But there is no reference here to the ‘reading public’, and therefore no insinuation about them. Dawkins wasn’t even referring to the ‘reading public’, let alone generalising about them. It is actually Cornwell who is generalising about the reading public, by implying that fiction always and only works via a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. He is also generalising about the Christian reading public by implying that there is one and only one kind of ‘faith’ and it is totally unlike the willing suspension of disbelief which typically but not necessarily accompanies the enjoyment of fiction.

Phew. But we are not finished yet…


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.

5 Richard Dawkins, 2006: 3 above.

6 Richard Dawkins, 2006: 3 above.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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