Saturday, November 15, 2014

Darwin's Angel by John Cornwell

Darwin’s Angel by John Cornwell was not what I expected. It’s written from the perspective of an angel speaking directly to Darwin’s heir, Richard Dawkins. So it’s interesting, but a little odd. 

He states his purpose in writing as such, “I intend not so much to pick a fight with the good professor as to offer a few ‘grace notes’ and marginal glosses in the interests of shaper logic, closer insight, and factual accuracy, not so much to settle the debate as to stir it once more.” And he definitely approaches his subject with the respectful, but authoritative demeanor you would expect from an angel.

The angel starts off discussing Dawkins’s sources. He states, “Your book is as innocent of heavy scholarship as it is free of false modesty.” He notes the author most often cited is... Dawkins. I like his ironic tone, and I imagine he speaks with a British accent!

He points out Dawkins’s tendency to dismiss certain things out of hand. Imagination, poetry, beauty, religion are all suspect because they are not reducible to scientific principles. The angel gently chides him for his close-mindedness. 

As to theologians, the angel points out the flaws in Dawkins’s criticism of them by noting, “Your impatience with the general untidiness of the Scriptures and the different ways in which theologians, and indeed most believers, read them betrays your neglect of even minimal enquiry into the nature of scriptural scholarship.” In addition, after dismissing the entire field of theology as so much rubbish, the angel points out that Dawkins indignantly comments that theists have made no attempt to answer him. Odd seeing as there is thousands of years worth of literature Dawkins has clearly never read.

Since Dawkins seeks to replace religion with science, the angel reminds him of both the Nazi and Communist regimes that did just that with disastrous results. When Dawkins states that science will create “the honest and systematic endeavor to find out the truth about the real world,” the angel hears echoes of “I am the Truth, the Way, and the Life.” Maybe Dawkins just seeks to substitute one religion over another. The religion of science combined with atheism has never worked out well.

Another aspect of religion that Dawkins shares with his fellow true believers is a type of fundamentalism that seems “to have never encountered the wavering shades of skepticism experienced by most religious believers.” His unwavering belief in Science gives the angel pause, as most believers in God readily admit to doubt. In fact, Dawkins takes his beliefs to a place where he seems to suggest others have no right to believe anything else. Few religionists would go this far.

The angel shutters when Dawkins agrees with a fellow atheist that raising children in a religious home amounts to child abuse. In an understated manner he says, “I suspect that children are more in danger of being passive recipients of pompous self-righteousness than they are of religious training.” Apparently Dawkins and his fellow believers will decide what exactly constitutes the “bad ideas” they seek to shield children from. I think it’s interesting that the Bible states in Malachi 4:6 that the Messiah “will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” Yet here we have a group intentionally turning the children away from their fathers. 

The angel is also mystified by Dawkins attempts to replace the consolation of an afterlife offered by religion. Dawkins seriously believes that knowing one looked in the face of a meaningless universe and truthfully acknowledged its meaninglessness will give one so much comfort that an afterlife, and the idea of meeting loved ones who have gone on before, is irrelevant. “Tell that to a teenager dying of cancer, and his family.” Surely the thought of a meaningless universe where death is just a stage and the final death is no more or less meaningful than the death of anything else will comfort that family. Easy to see why 90% of the world’s population has rejected Dawkins’s view.

This short book is a fun read. It’s the conversation I’m sure the author wishes he could have with Dawkins. So he uses Dawkins’s own words and then responds. In the person of the Angel, he brings beauty and poetry to his writing and a depth rarely experienced outside of religious writings.

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