Darwin’s Angel: An angelic riposte to The God Delusion
Author: John Cornwell
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN 13 9781846680489
Book Review by David Ingleby was formerly Head of Computing at Huddersfield Technical College. He has a degree in Biblical Studies and is currently a church leader at Lindley Evangelical Church, Huddersfield.
‘And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon …’ (Rev. 12.7).
Cornwell v. Dawkins is a sort of ‘war in heaven’ but, of course, not quite on the scale of the encounter in the Apocalypse. The title of our book assures us an angel is involved and the dragon is elsewhere described as ‘that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan’ (Rev. 20:2) – the slippery one who questions and undermines the relation between God and man. This, to a point, seems to fit Dawkins’ ambitions in ‘The God Delusion’, to which ‘Darwin’s Angel’ is a response. My hesitation is because I do not find the subtle questioning used so typically by Satan in Eden, or the book of Job, or the temptations in the wilderness. Dawkins provides an eloquent but all-out frontal attack – this is war. But the effect is very much the same. As Cornwell points out the metaphors chosen (e.g. ch.19) and the adjectives used (pp.140-141), by their nature and quantity, subvert the reader’s view. Cornwell is especially masterly in the exposure of Dawkins’ choice of evidence, showing how it is frequently selective, partial and quirky. And the impression of hubris is gently countered by: “I should hate to think that you are on the way to substituting yourself for God.” (p.22) – quite a Miltonian view of the old adversary.
Now what of the angel? We are told this ‘conceit’ introduces the vital role of ‘imagination’ to the conversation, where previously it was absent. Cornwell artfully shows how imagination has been essential to Darwin, science and a full understanding of life. But using an angel as the vehicle for one’s message has wider implications. An angel of light will have in mind fairness, honesty and truth. The book displays this in a balanced, informed and at times inspired way. From their exalted positions angels are able to bring a width of response – necessary because of the wide ranging content of Dawkins’ attack. (It must be added that a scan of the chapter headings whets the appetite, not only as an appropriate coverage of the issues, but as topics in their own right – the appetite is answered by a gourmet feast.) Angels, as traditionally conceived, will respond not because they are threatened but out of a concern for others; ‘a duty of care’ as we say these days. This is one of the most appealing attributes of the book. The caring, gentle and appropriate nature of the response leaves Dawkins’ voice sounding thin and petulant. The combination of fairness and gentleness is illustrated in the process of reflecting Dawkins’ accusations back on himself. For instance the angel writes: “Do you think that it is just as possible to be a scientific fundamentalist as a religious one?” (p.95) If readers find themselves at odds with ‘the angel’ on, say, fundamentalism, evolution, or other faiths (and I do not) then the spirit of fairness and gentleness still preserves the book as a pleasure to read.
Dawkins’ war on heaven is subverted by presenting a new view; that of a ‘guardian angel’ dealing graciously with a refractory child. Here is a book of the Christian era – full of grace and truth.
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