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Review of Darwin's Angel: An Angelic Response to the God Delusion

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A Review of Darwin's Angel: An Angelic Response to the God Delusion by John Cornwell

THIS BOOK IS A PIECE of sheer heaven. It kicks Richard Dawkins's self-aggrandising polemic, The God Delusion, into touch with featherlight footwork and is deliciously wise, witty and intellectually sharp into the bargain.

John Cornwell's mouthpiece is a likeable seraph, who follows the dictum of G. K. Chesterton that angels fly "because they take themselves lightly". Cornwell clearly believes, as I do, that angels are not wispy, winged beings in ethereal nightgowns, but something far more subtle and profound: archetypal images that dramatise the invisible realities. As such, they can act as symbols for the formless elements of physics; but also for the creative imagination.

The seraph begins by politely nailing Dawkins's first sleight of hand which, as loads of people have now pointed out, dishonestly bundles all religious belief and practice into one crude bag that supposedly equals fanaticism.

This is rather like suggesting that all science is dangerous because it has brought nuclear weapons; or that all education is mistaken because children have been whipped by so-called educators.

It is child's play to denounce a subject by pointing to the myriad ways in which it may be misapplied; misuse and misapplication are rife in all areas of human understanding: politics, science, education, medicine, religion. But it is faulty logic to conclude that this is necessarily the fault of the set of ideas being traduced. I attended a primary school where the strap was still applied. Does it follow that I should not have attended primary school? Is psychiatry a bad thing because schizophrenics were once made to take bromide?

Next the seraph gently takes Dawkins to task for his breezy disregard for — some might say ignorance of — serious theology. You cannot criticise a theory until you have made some proper attempt to come to grips with it, and Dawkins hasn't; or doesn't show us that he has tried. He overlooks the big theologians altogether in favour of some pretty low-key, unknown figures.

His account of the Bible is equally undiscriminating. For a start, only religious nutcases take the Creation story literally; it is not a new or radical supposition that even the first readers of Genesis would have been aware of its symbolic nature — or rather, would have distinguished between the fact of fact and the fact of fiction, a distinction that escapes Dawkins, who appears to have no concept of the "reality" of a thought, and only a very immature concept of the "reality" of a play, novel or poem. (As I used to ask students, is Hamlet real?)

Nor is the Bible "a book" but, as the affable seraph points out, a miscellany of stories, letters, polemic, histories, fables and certainly some great moral teachings, as well as some outmoded and unacceptable social prejudices.

Therefore, it is perfectly respectable to "pick and choose" when reading the Bible, something that Dawkins takes Christians to task for. As for the pseudo-history of the Gospels: "history" wasn't invented when they were written. "History", as we know it, is a wholly modern concept. For the ancients, a history would be a mixture of reportage, received wisdom, narrative and story.

The life of Jesus is told in a series of stories to convey the essence of a life that, however you look at it, was demonstrably an influential one and continues to be so. (Where would Dawkins be without Jesus's extraordinary impact on the Western world? Quite a bit poorer, for one thing.)

Just as Jesus told stories to get across his points, the Gospellers told stories about him. It doesn't follow that they are false because they are stories — any more than a history is true because it is a history. (The allegedly objective relaying of a series of "facts" is often far more partial than the creation of fictive truths. Stalin was considered a great historian in his time.)

But what is most worrying in the Dawkins ideology, as the gracefully admonishing seraph points out, is the violently biased language in a book that claims to reveal the deleterious effects of bias. Dawkins uses the image of a virus and employs a Darwinian model to explain how cultural ideas spread. It is far from clear that the spread of ideas has much in common with biological evolution; but that ideas do travel, and fast, is undoubtedly the case. Hence it especially behoves the professional spreader of ideas to watch his or her language.

Religion as disease, and more pertinently, the religiously inclined as disease-carriers, this is dangerous talk. Dawkins might try substituting "Jews" or "blacks" for "religiously inclined" and he would see why.

Not that any of this is likely to alter the minds of the antiGod squad. They "know" they are right — that least scientific of attitudes since it precludes changes of heart or openness of mind. If only Professor Dawkins and Co would remember that Socrates was deemed the wisest of men because he "knew that he didn't know". Those who think that not knowing is safer and more attractive than its opposite should treat themselves to this elegant little book.

DARWIN'S ANGEL An Angelic Riposte to the God Delusion by John Cornwell



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