Now angels are being called into the war over science and belief. But they are powerless unless the two sides agree on what religion is, says Amanda Gefter

Darwin's Angel: An angelic riposte to the God Delusion by John Cornwell,Profile £9.99 ISBN 9781846680489

THE debate between science and religion has been brewing since the birth of modern science but its infiltration of popular culture has recently become too noisy to be ignored. With the rise of "new atheism" on the one hand and intelligent design on the other, the debate has been reduced to unseemly bickering back and forth that for the bystander feels like watching a never-ending tennis match.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in Darwin's Angel: An angelic riposte to the God Delusion. This is the fourth book written in response to Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, and in this one John Cornwell, the Catholic philosopher of science, addresses Dawkins in the guise of a guardian angel. One can only imagine the inevitable riposte in which Dawkins will perhaps speak through the character of an ape or a swatch of DNA. We can wait until Cornwell resorts to angry devils - or take a step back and ask whether the nature of the debate itself might be flawed.

"You think religion is 'a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence'," Cornwell's angel says to Dawkins. "And yet, for most of those who have studied religion down the ages, it is as much a product of the imagination as art, poetry, and music." He goes on to describe religious activities and rituals as "principally symbolic, appealing to deep levels of folk memory". For Dawkins to oppose this version of religion - a way of organising the cold, hard facts of the world into a meaningful and symbolic internal narrative - denies people the right to unfettered thought and erroneously assumes that science in itself can satisfy our innate, insatiable wonderment at existence.

It's an ace for Cornwell. But before celebrating a win he must presumably concede that in this version of religion. no particular set of religious beliefs can be taken as superior to any other. He must allow that "belief" is probably not the right word, and consider using "intuition" or "experience". And that if a sacred text like the Bible is, as he says, not to be taken literally, then its metaphorical and allegorical insights cannot be held in any higher esteem than those of other great works of literature. Would the average "religious" person concede so much?

In any case, it is clearly not this version of religion that Dawkins is calling "delusional". In The God Delusion, he talks about the supreme wonder some scientists experience at the inner workings of nature - wonder that might be called religious. "I wish that physicists would refrain from using the word God in their special metaphorical sense," Dawkins writes. "The metaphorical or pantheistic God of the physicists is light years away from the interventionist, miracle-wreaking, thought- reading, sin-punishing, prayer-answering God of the Bible, of priests, mullahs and rabbis, and of ordinary language. Deliberately to confuse the two is, in my opinion, an act of intellectual high treason."

Cornwell appears guilty of such treason. His image of religion is lovely - after all, it comes from an angel-but it's not the religion that most people who claim to be religious subscribe to. They adhere to a particular set of beliefs not only about what the world means but about how it works - how it began, how it evolved (or didn't evolve) and how it will end. Even Cornwell invokes physical and cosmological arguments for the existence of God, for example, the values of various physical constants that appear designed to ensure the universe is hospitable to life.

[This particular pile of nonsense is addressed on my page at Yahoo - LB]

This is where the problem lies. Once believers start to claim truths about how the physical world works - those who want to include intelligent design in biology textbooks, for example, or who believe that Jesus walked on water or Moses parted the sea - then they must be willing to debate with scientists based on evidence. Meanwhile, those who take religion to be an art or ethos should refrain from using facts about the world as evidence for their mythological intuitions, or abandoning their artistic post to squabble with scientists.

In turn, scientists should acknowledge that there are many different kinds of religion. A faith that purely seeks to find meaning in the world is presumably just as important, and just as subjective, as art, music, literature and mythology. It is also dangerous, and as Cornwell points out, perhaps even mathematically untenable, for Dawkins and others to assume that science is ultimately capable of explaining everything about the universe. Such an assumption is itself surely based on faith.
If the tennis match is to continue, can we at least settle on the rules of the game? •

22 September 2007 NewScientist