Anyone who writes or cares about religion will have questioned of late whether they should attempt some sort of answer to the current bout of God-bashing dominating the bestsellers' chart. The caricature of all church-goers as simple-minded fundamentalists provided by Richard Dawkins, and the sheer factual inaccuracy of Christopher Hitchens's rant, God Is Not Great, deserve a decent response. But how to fashion it? First, you need a catchy title. God Is Sort of Alright Some of the Time If You Don't Take Him/Her Too Literally doesn't quite do it. Then there is the insatiable taste for negatives. A qualified positive is unlikely to catch the imagination.
And what of content, since in many ways the language of religion and science simply don't go together? This is where John Cornwell comes in. A former seminarian turned non-believer and now a typically wavering Catholic who, in Graham Greene's phrase, doubts his own doubts, he writes successfully on religion. But he is also director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge.
His title – Darwin's Angel – is robust enough. He manages a healthy dose of negatives. He accuses Dawkins, for example, of "substituting yourself for God". But the core is his dismantling of Dawkins's answers and sources. Perhaps the most telling point is just how small and self-serving was the reading list for The God Delusion.
Cornwell does, however, start to get sucked in to Dawkins's fact-based approach. And religion is hard to fit in to that agenda, for it simply isn't about facts. The basic premise that has dominated our world since the scientific enlightenment is that unless you can put something under a microscope and prove it is what it says it is, you can't believe in it. Religion fails utterly this test. You cannot prove God exists because religion is not primarily about belief, as we understand the word today, but faith. Dawkins would call it blind faith. It is an intuition, a sense of something more than meets the eye, a glimpse of transcendence, of a higher purpose, but nothing more tangible.
Quite how you capture it in a book is a challenge that most religious writers fail to answer. In the meantime, Cornwell has done an excellent job in providing a book that should, in an ideal world, be sold taped to every copy of The God Delusion as an essential corrective.
Peter Stanford's biography of C Day-Lewis is published by Continuum
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