thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Touched by an angel #9

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Trying to have your Eucharistic bread and eat it too?

Ninth 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; #3; #4; #5; #6; #7; & #8

Get real

Thus spake the seraph (Chapter 5: What is religion?)2:

[Y]ou insist that religion must be scientifically or empirically verifiable. And yet, for most of those who have studied religion down the ages, it is as much a product of the imagination as art, poetry and music… [My emphasis.]

Cornwell then lists a number of artefacts (ritual, myth, hymns, prayers, taboos, incense, holy water etc etc) which are

principally symbolic, often appealing to deep levels of folk memory. [Again, my emphasis.]

Rather than being true versus false, symbols like these are better characterised as strong or weak,

in so far as they participate in that which they attempt to make intelligible.

If so, why did no one tell the 34% of Americans who, in 1991, believed that ‘The Bible is the actual word of God and it is to be taken literally, word for word’? (See previous post.)

Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim

Cornwell then quotes from Emile Durkheim, one of the scholars sadly absent from Dawkins’ bibliography3 (see Touched by an angel #3):

[I]n reality there are no religions which are false. All are true in their own fashion: all answer, albeit in different ways, to the given conditions of human existence.4

What Durkheim says sounds eminently sensible but, in the present context, so what? We are not talking about scholars who have studied religion, but about religious believers – people not outside religion but inside it.

I am sure there are some Christians for example who would agree with Durkheim’s statement. There are certainly Buddhists and Hindus who would. But someone believing in the literal truth of the Christian bible could not consistently do so.

Or take an example more up to the minute and closer to (my) home. 33 million people around the world have HIV. 67% of those live in sub-Saharan Africa, which in 2007 accounted for 75% of the world’s AIDS-related deaths. Something like 17% of the population of Africa are Roman Catholics. Africa is Catholicism’s fastest-growing region, but it is in competition with Islam and evangelical churches. This is the context in which Pope Benedict XVI, on his way to Cameroon, was reported as saying that condoms were not the answer to HIV and AIDS and could make the problem worse.5

Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI

Please now read that quotation from Durkheim again.

It is interesting that Catholicism is one of the world’s religions which is particularly rich in rituals, mythologies, hymns, meditations, prayers, chants, poetry, images, parables, legends, taboos, candles, incense, oils, vestments and holy water. But do Pope Benedict XVI’s lucky audiences understand that he is only dispensing his wisdom on the authority of a symbol or a metaphor?

Sorry – I forgot. Cornwell only claims the activities and artefacts of religion are principally symbolic. So presumably the wisdom addressing Africa’s AIDS pandemic proceeds from that minor part of the pope’s authority which is not just symbolic?

The argument from infinite redefinition

The rest of the chapter seems to flip-flop between these two poles of ‘religion is really symbolic’ and ‘religion is about the existence of God’ – as if you can have it both ways.

Cornwell talks of religious rituals and symbols marking and celebrating birth, growth, death, the changing seasons, the ‘mystery of existence’:

The great world religions … continue to enact and celebrate those cyclical experiences and underlying mysteries. It is exciting to think of the deepening of our awareness of the world through the scientific dimension, …and yet science cannot encompass the multi-dimensional symbols of religion, which by their nature resist explanation and control.

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas

And then immediately flips back into ‘God exists’ mode to remind Dawkins and ourselves of a long philosophical tradition which sees religion as a kind of ‘virtue’:

Thomas Aquinas… locates this virtue in the area of justice… [which is] …a matter of giving people or things their proper due; religion is a matter of giving God His proper due…

All very well, but you cannot give a person or thing their proper due unless that person or thing exists in an appropriate sense. Thomas Aquinas presumably did think God existed in an appropriate enough sense to be a recipient of his proper due. Cornwell goes on, this time summarising Aristotle:

Behaviour that fails to exhibit the virtue of religion is behaviour that either treats God as a creature, or treats a creature as God – idolatry.

The two alternatives are not collectively exhaustive of course. In a trivial sense, playing football is ‘behaviour that fails to exhibit the virtue of religion’ – in the sense that it does not exhibit it because it is entirely outside the relevant domain. But the expression ‘fails to exhibit the virtue of’ seems to imply it applies to contexts where the correct behaviour would to exhibit the particular virtue.

I can understand the negative ethical connotations of treating a creature (eg a human or an animal or a statue) as a god. But treating a god as a creature only has negative ethical connotations in a context where the god is taken to exist – with full god-like features – but is at some point or for some reason downgraded to be a mere creature. In a context where gods are seen only as creatures (artefacts, inventions, …metaphors? symbols?) there can be no negative ethical connotations in seeing the god as it is – unless of course the god really does exist.

So again the concept of religion as a variant or dimension of the virtue of justice presupposes the existence of the relevant god in a more than symbolic or metaphorical sense.

Or perhaps this is an example of that ‘argument from infinite redefinition’ which Dawkins did not include in his list of Arguments for God’s existence in Chapter 3 of The god delusion6, but which is frequently employed by his critics.

More about this in my next post…


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 Emile Durkheim, The elementary forms of the religious life, 1912.


6 Richard Dawkins, 2006: 3 above.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


One Response

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  1. The Pope is only trying to force his belief system on africa. I wrote about it myself in my blog:

    check it out if you want too 🙂


    23 March 2009 at 5:14 am

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