Touched by an angel #11
Eleventh in a series responding to John Cornwell’s Darwin’s angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion.1
Find out what it means to me
[W]henever you refer to the mystery of, for example, the Trinity – by which Christians believe that there are three persons in the one God – you get abusive: you call it a “weird thing”, and you go on to write that believers “are not meant to understand”. Finally you lecture your readers: “Don’t even try to understand one of these, for the attempt might destroy it.” You add that believers think that they “gain fulfilment in calling it a mystery”.3 [My bold emphasis.]
The quotes are accurate. But a little context might help. The quotes are all from one example in a list of ‘religious memes’ which Dawkins includes in his presentation of the ‘memetic theory of religion’. (According to memetic theory a meme is a self-replicating cultural idea, symbol or practice.) Here he is talking about religious ideas which might be good survivors (in the sense of making many copies of themselves in human minds, human cultural artefacts etc) either because they have good survival value on their own, or because they have good survival value as part of a set of related ideas (a ‘memeplex’).
The first on the list is:
- You will survive your own death.4
The idea is that this is something which, on balance, human beings will want to believe, and that therefore it is a belief which, other things being equal, is likely to spread (compared to, say, the converse: you will not survive your death). It is a meme which would have good survival value on its own. It is also fairly universal – found in most if not all world religions. However different religions might expand the meme in different and incompatible ways, generating further sets of more specific memes relating to concepts of heaven, hell, reincarnation and so on.
- Belief in God is a supreme virtue. If you find your belief wavering, work hard at restoring it, and beg God to help your unbelief.5
This idea recognises, and builds on, the fact that belief in God is not always easy. It is an example of a meme whose survival value would depend on (or be at least enhanced by) other beliefs about eg the inadequacy of human faculties. This meme is not a feature of every religion. It is however found in those Christian traditions which recognise faith as one of a small number of theological virtues.
Beliefs relating to the Trinity are also specific (in fact unique?) to Christianity. But they were not universal throughout Christian history, and are not universal now. The full quote referring to the Trinity is:
- There are some weird things (such as the Trinity, transubstantiation, incarnation) that we are not meant to understand. Don’t even try to understand one of these, for the attempt might destroy it. Learn how to gain fulfilment in calling it a mystery.6
The idea is not just that of the ‘Trinity’ or ‘transubstantiation’ or ‘incarnation’ memes themselves. The idea is of a meme with specific content (eg the doctrine of the Trinity), where that specific content is such that it resists human understanding; or is, at the very least, opaque to human understanding. In fact it is presented explicitly as a ‘mystery’ – indeed as an example of a mysterium fidei (mystery of the faith).
According to James Bretzke’s Consecrated Phrases7, a mysterium fidei is:
An element, or doctrine, of the faith which because of its sacred and/or supernatural[*] character is difficult to explain completely in rational and/or logical terms and which therefore must be accepted finally on faith. [Asterisk added.]
(*If Cornwell had included this quote he would no doubt have inserted ‘[there you go again]’ after ‘supernatural’ – as he did when quoting Dawkins’ ‘God Hypothesis’: see Touched by an angel #10. But be that as it may.)
Reason in no way contributes to faith. …For reason is the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things.8
By now I think we are pretty close to Dawkins’ characterisation of the ‘weird things’ meme.
Remember he was not suggesting that all believers believe all these memes. There may be few Christians, Jews and Hindus for example who believe the second on his list:
If you die a martyr, you will go to an especially wonderful part of paradise where you will enjoy seventy-two virgins.9
His claim is merely that each of the ideas in the list has spread by replication through some human population.
Sock it to me, sock it to me…
Cornwell’s claim is that Dawkins’ reference to the Trinity is ‘abusive’. (This is what this post is about, not about whether the ‘memetic theory of religion’ is correct, or even makes sense.) Even with the quotes excerpted in Darwin’s angel the charge is hard to substantiate. With the context filled in the accusation is, quite frankly, weird.
On which subject: it is OK – in fact virtually obligatory – to call the doctrine of the Trinity a mystery. Which must mean it is OK to describe it adjectivally as mysterious? But it is not OK to call it weird? In my copy of Roget’s Thesaurus10, under 864 Wonder, I find:
Adj. …wonderful, …84 adj. unusual; weird, weird and wonderful, unaccountable, mysterious…
‘Mysterious’ and ‘weird’ may not be exact synonyms, but they seem hardly so distinct that substituting one for the other could be described as abusive?
This whole allegation seems a perfect example of what Dawkins warned about at the start of The God Delusion – that
widespread assumption… that religious faith is especially vulnerable to offence and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other.11
Hence his disclaimer:
I shall not go out of my way to offend, but nor shall I don kid gloves to handle religion any more gently than I would handle anything else.12
1 John Cornwell, Darwin’s angel: an angelic riposte to The God Delusion, Profile Books, London, 2007.
7 James T Bretzke, Consecrated phrases: A Latin theological dictionary, second edition, Liturgical Press, 2004.
© Chris Lawrence 2009.