on 8 April 2012
Before I get started critiquing the book I think that it would be best that I let the reader know where I'm coming from. I'm an unbeliever and have been for a good decade or so. Whilst I am critical of religion and the claims made by theists, I try not to be unfair or dismissive. If you were to look at the bookshelves in my bedroom then you would find hundreds of books on the subject of God and faith with titles like "Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology" and "Faith and Praxis in a Postmodern Age". So, that's me then. Faithless, but not without some sympathy for the theists' side.
So on to the book. If you are looking for a sensible and well-grounded response to Dawkins and the New Atheists then this book definitely isn't for you (instead you might want to try Keith Ward's "Why there Almost Certainly is a God", which is at least fair and clear-sighted). The main problem with "Darwin's Angel" is that it continually misses the point, and wastes time fishing for red herrings. For instance, there is a chapter which begins by correcting a common misunderstanding of Dostoyevsky's book "The Brothers Karamazov" - a misunderstanding that Dawkins had made in passing in one line of "The God Delusion". I can't help but feel that this is beside the point. Dawkins makes one very brief reference to the book, and doesn't even use it as evidence or as a way to buttress his argument. What's the big deal? Anyway, the real purpose of the chapter is soon revealed: to unfavourably compare Dawkins to the character of Alyosha, who espouses a form of spirituality which is not amenable to rational discussion. So, the take-home message of this chapter is that religion is great, that it protects us from nihilism and suffering, and that it is not open to rational debate. Oh, and if you disagree then you're a simple-minded philistine. This questionable line of fideistic reasoning might be taken to encapsulate the overall thesis of the book: "religion can't be debated, so there!"
At one point the author poses this rhetorical question:
"For what is religion if not a product of the imagination straining to connect everyday life with the transcendent incarnate, the mystical?" (hardback edition, P11)
That's fine, as far as it goes. However, the author ends the discussion prematurely by not inspecting or following up on this idea. Can we not debate the likelihood that there is such an ontologically/metaphysically transcendent dimension, or that it has the characteristics attributed to it by believers (they say that God is a self-aware, and feels love for his creation, for example)? Can we not legitimately question whether this transcendence is the source of our "mystical" experiences in the first place (as opposed to some other natural cause)? Is it not possible to point to incoherencies and contradictions in theology as suggestive of their factual falsehood?
Cornwell and his fans apparently find such questions to be unworthy of consideration. That is, of course, their prerogative. Still, it's a shame that they insist that nobody else can ask them either.
As if to pre-empt such sensible talk Cornwell elsewhere writes:
"It is interesting that one of the great sociologists of religion, Emile Durkheim, stated boldly in his book The Elementary Forms of Religious Life that "in 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." Much the same could be said, of course, of art. Religious rituals and symbols, from the dawning of human history, marked and celebrated birth, growth, age, death and burial, the making of families and communities, the coming together for feasts, husbandry, hunting, journeys, the life cycles of plants, animals, and human beings, the changing seasons, the diuranal, lunar, and annual rounds, the mystery of existence. The great world religions, tried and tested, as sources of flourishing over three millennia, continue to enact and celebrate those cyclical experiences and underlying mysteries." (P45)
Ah, so we're now being told that religion is about everything EXCEPT God and dogma. Also, what's this about there being no "false" religions? Perhaps if we interpret religions in a strictly non-realist fashion, or in a consciously utilitarian manner then that might be the case. Unfortunately, that's not how the Abrahamic faiths are generally practiced or understood - least of all by their practitioners. Cornwell focuses on celebration and ritual as being emblematic of what religion is "about", and yet he completely ignores the doxastic and political aspects of religion. What are we to make of the fact that many (if not most) Islamic scholars today still suggest the death penalty for apostates, as well as for homosexuals? Perhaps Cornwell will say that they have misunderstood what religion "really" is, but how then is he to justify his own definition? Surely if most people use the word in a certain sense then that should be the sense that we define it by. It's called a semantic shift. In any case, why bother with the word "religion" at all, when we can just as readily fall back on (admittedly clumsy) phrases like "theism-driven actions"?
Staying with the above quote for a while more, please also note the lack of any mention of the eschatological aspect of the Christian faith. For 2000 long years we've been told that we must be "redeemed" or face eternal torment in the afterlife; this was supposed to be the whole point of Jesus' life and death. And yet, here we have a follower of Christ who talks as though there is no afterlife, no eternal fate to consider, no miracles, no God... All we find here is an insistence that religious traditions are useful to people as "sources of flourishing". Is it me, or is there something disingenuous (not to mention reductive) about all of this?
Throughout his book Cornwell tries valiantly to slander Dawkins one way or another. He boldly claims -without any reason or evidence- that Dawkins would "applaud" the nineteenth century vogue for Social Darwinism ( p71). Anyone who's actually read Dawkins' work will know that he has vociferously denied that Darwinism should be used as an excuse for ruthlessness in society (he reads and writes for The Guardian, for pity's sake!). Likewise, on page 34 Cornwell reaches a crescendo of self-satisfied smugness:
"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." (P34)
Oh, please! There's an ENTIRE CHAPTER in "The God Delusion" which deals with the value of the Bible as literature. Incidentally, I wonder if Cornwell knows (or cares) that Dawkins is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He's also written at least one book which deals with the compatibility of Darwinism with a sense of awe and wonder at the universe ("Unweaving the Rainbow"), as well as another book which was inspired by "The Canterbury Tales". More recently he's written a piece which was modelled on the style of "Jeeves and Wooster". I could go on. Another straw man bites the dust.
On and on it goes, with Cornwell consistently missing the point, fudging the issue or -on the few occasions when he's at his best- just leaving us with some inconclusive and underdeveloped musings. To be fair, Cornwell's quasi-fideism comes and goes. There are some points where he appears to be on the verge of thinking clearly (such as his chapter "Does God Exist?"), but he always stops short of admitting the vulnerability of traditional theism to criticism. He frames religious beliefs in the most minimalist sense possible, so as to avoid defending any specific doctrines.
In short, here's the basic gist of the book's arguments, with the relevant responses:
*Dawkins misunderstood Dostoyevsky!
So what? You misunderstood Dawkins.
*The meaning of the word "religion" is contested!
So long as we are clear on what Dawkins is attacking - (1) an unfounded and irrational propositional belief in the existence of a deity who wants his followers to do his will on earth, and (2) a willingness on the part of the believers to act upon this perceived masterplan- then the signifier that we attach to this phenomenon is irrelevant.
*You can't use Darwinism to explain everything that people do!
Dawkins never said that we could. If you had gotten to the end of "The Selfish Gene" then you would know this already. Do your research.
*You can't have a theory that explains everything!
So what? That doesn't justify fideistic faith in Yahweh.
*Belief in God doesn't need to be defended, because it's a spiritual experience!
Religious people often make factual claims about miracles, providence and all manner of other things. Can we not discuss the reasonableness of such claims, or of their cultural and political implications, without being dismissed as simple-minded fools?
There's also some irrelevant stuff about memes and atheistic regimes. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
I found very little to like about this book. If you're looking for a decent defence of theism then try either "The Existence of God" by Richard Swinburne, or his more accessible "Is there a God?"; alternatively, you could try "The Agnostic Inquirer" by Sandra Menssen and Thomas D. Sullivan, which is another fair and sensible work that deserves respect and consideration. For a decent stab at rebutting Dawkins head-on then I'd recommend Keith Ward's "Why there Almost Certainly is a God". I may disagree with Ward on many points, but he at least grapples with the issues fairly and clearly, which is more than can be said for Cornwell.