Friday, 7 September 2007

Darwin's Angel

Richard Dawkins briefly faces 'Catholic writer' John Cornwell, author of "Darwin's Angel: an angelic response to The God Delusion" (here, about 22mins in, it's after Nessun dorma).

Cornwell (the new Alister McGrath?) gets rather hungup on Dawkins's comparison between religion labelling and brainwashing children and child sexual abuse. Which is a valid point as I'm certainly not convinced by Dawkins's argument, or at least I'm not convinced that his comparison is enlightening or helpful (although he moderates it somewhat here).

But he gets onto pretty dodgy territory claiming that Dawkins is stirring up hatred against the religious in a manner akin to the Nazis. Dawkins tackles Cornwell's book here, but I wanted to have a look at Cornwell's arguments in a little more detail.

He wrote an article on Dawkins and the God Delusion in the Guardian a few days ago. He starts poorly with the obligatory reference to Stalin trying to wipe out 'religionists', and strangely Hitler - as he is presumably an intelligent man (director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge) I can only assume he is referring to the Holocaust with Hitler because there is no evidence he had much of a problem with the idea of religion in general (he was also not a vegetarian while we're knocking myths on the head). It isn't clear what point he's trying to make, but it sets the scene nicely.

His argument then basically runs that Dawkins doesn't recognise that theists can exist in a secular pluralist society, then something about Graham Greene and "faith as "doubt of doubt" as opposed to faith as certitude". It is worth repeating the line about Greene:
"So which central doctrine, I asked Greene, enabled him to describe himself as a Christian?...he felt he had an distinguish between fact and fiction. When he read the story in John's gospel of the two disciples racing each other to the empty tomb after Christ's body had disappeared, he felt that it was "authentic reportage". It was this, he went on, that "enabled me to doubt my doubt about the resurrection". Doubt my doubt! What is more, he saw the resurrection less as a literal historical fact and more as a powerful symbolic notion that could be reinterpreted from age to age."
Yep, you read that right, by believing in the resurrection he was being doubting in his faith (doubting his atheism I guess, nice piece of meaningless wordplay), but as well as believing in the resurrection it is also just symbolic and not 'literal' (nah, nah, your rational arguments and evidence can't touch me!) - can anyone say bait and switch?

Quoting Dawkins he then says:
"Then he asserts: "I do everything in my power to warn people against faith itself, not just against so-called 'extremist' faith. The teachings of 'moderate' religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism."

Through the excited syntax he is declaring that if you go to church, synagogue, mosque or temple only once a year, you are just as liable to perpetrate fanatical deeds on the basis of faith as an al-Qaida terrorist."
Which strikes me as a complete misreading of Dawkins, who is arguing against the way we are told to prize faith, that is belief in the absence or in the face of evidence, he is arguing that prizing evidence free beliefs we open the door to extremism by failing to ground people's beliefs in the real world.

After making the perfectly valid point that extremism doesn't require religion (I doubt I need to tell you which of our favourite dictators get mentioned) and mentioning two fairly mild commitments made by the Catholic church towards pluralism in the `1960s, Cornwell makes a quite extraordinary assertion that:
"Dawkins claims, however, that religious believers deserve neither respect nor rights in any circumstances."
and backs this up with:
"One of his constant explanations for the spread and lethal nature of religion is based on the idea of cultural traits transmitted by what he calls "memes", items of information that behave like viruses. He writes of those "afflicted with the mental virus of faith, and its accompanying gang of secondary infections". The idea of religious believers as disease carriers is not trivial, for it suggests a contrast between the disease and the theoretically healthy body of society, along with the necessity for antidotes."
"Nazi, Nazi!!!" I can hear him cry through the not so subtle subtext, and in fact, I need not search for he makes it explicit:
"Nazi ideology subscribed from the very outset to the idea of the German people as a type of anatomy subject to bacilli...The Nazi plenipotentiary Dr Gerhard Wagner wrote of the volkisch body being in need of "cleansing", while the language of "immunity" and "radical therapy" became routine."*
So it seems his argument boils down to the standard template of theistic responses to Dawkins: "there is too a God", "you can't argue against my God because actually he's a metaphor for the purposes of this debate", "I want my special treatment, stop oppressing me you Nazi!!!"

*I should probably point out the line "Dawkins' recourse to the analogies of disease and medicine is, of course, entirely well meant, and I know him to be a man of the most liberal sympathies..."

UPDATE: The ever irritating Madeleine Bunting shares her wortheless view on this topic at Comment is Free, note this comment:
"He has repeatedly refused a head-to-head with protagonists such as his Oxford colleague, Professor Alister McGrath"
Note that the McGrath-Dawkins interviews is now available here. Ah Madders, daft as a brush.

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