Darwin’s Angel

A relative of mine proclaimed over the weekend … “Nadeem, I have a book you might find really interesting” and presented me with this: John Cornwell’s Darwin’s Angel – an Angelic Riposte to The God Delusion.

 I started reading it as soon as my cousin handed it to me, in fact I didn’t put it down till I’d finished it! It’s not a very long book, only about 160 pages, it should be noted though that the pages have unusually wide margins and considerably less text per page than most books I’ve read do. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s both an engrossing read but also a lot shorter than you might think when you pick it up, and whilst most people probably wouldn’t want to read it in a single sitting it’s definitely possible.

The book is basically written as an open letter to Richard Dawkins in which Cornwell, adopting the persona of a guardian angel attempts to correct the lapses of judgement in The God Delusion. Where this book differs from many of the critiques written in response to Dawkins various works is that Cornwell doesn’t fall into personal attacks, anger, or vitriol. Instead Cornwell exposes the inadequacies of Dawkins’ arguments in a gentle way which is far more devastating in its effect than anything I have ever read by Dawkins.

In fact I was hugely disappointed with Dawkin’s The God Delusion. After all his posing and positioning as an intellectual, a man of reason, a skeptic, a Humanist, I was horrified to see him use pseudo-medical terminology to try to describe religion as a virus and believers of religion as carriers of a fatal disease that is infecting the body of humanity. I mean, wasn’t it the Third Reich that used this kind of language to justify it’s atrocities against ‘Jews’ and many others? I honestly thought it was shameful for Dawkins to resort to these methods. It rang alarm bells in my head … the language and irrational venom was the sort of the thing I’d expect from a theo-fascist like Sam Harris, and the fact that Dawkin’s wont distance himself from Harris finally begins to make sense to me. Harris was the one who infamously wrote:

Certain beliefs place adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self defense.

I distinctly get the impression, these days, that Dawkin’s and Harris’ brand of militant atheism is little more than a personality cult. Whenever I’ve visited www.richarddawkins.net I always get the uneasy feeling that Dawkin’s wishes to replace what he sees as a belief in a fictitious God with belief in a utopia that he himself has imagined or has Cornwell accuses him of  “substituting yourself for God”… and why not it’s big business right … ask the Scientologists 😉 Sadly what seems to escape Dawkins’s and his followers is that the militant form of atheism they are advocating is no different or less irrational than any other organised religion.

Anyway I’m digressing … back to Darwin’s Angel.

I guess one of the reason’s I found Cornwell’s book so enlightening is that it calmly and rationally exposes how Dawkin’s and his followers have failed to see a distinction between benign religion and dangerous fanaticism … in fact I’d go as far as to say that not only have they failed to see it but they are guilty of the very same fanaticism they attribute to religious believers. In fact Cornwell starts off the book by pointing out to Dawkins that it is wrong to bundle all religious beliefs and practise into a bag that supposedly equals fanaticism – it’s no different to saying that all science is dangerous because scientists created the nuclear bomb.

I think it was Cornwell’s chapter on Imagination that touched me the most. I found myself agreeing with him when he argued that you couldn’t simply ban religious imagination without banning the same impulses that have inspired artists and poets:

.. but you are also disturbed by 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 … Biology is true whereas the other stuff is just made up! It sounds as though you would substitute a set of case notes on dementia for Shakespeare’s King Lear; or a horticultural fact sheet for Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”. Elsewhere you permit a role for literature in a science-ruled utopia, provided that it is confined to anodyne tropes about “ineffable” sunsets and “sublime” landscapes …you appear in this new book to have definitely retreated from a trust in the dynamic, protean power of imagination when it comes to religion. Have you retreated because you no longer believe in the power of the imagination to impart literary, poetic, religious and moral truth either? Or because trust in imagination threatens your militant atheism? 

This really is a wonderful book and in many was serves a robust corrective to Dawkin’s The God Delusion … I thoroughly recommend it!