Dante: Reason and Religion

Though it is immersed in the theological ideas of the Middle Ages, the cosmology of Dante’s Divine Comedy is sophisticated, sceptical and tolerant, argues James Burge.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the Florentine author of the medieval masterpiece of fantasy-fiction known as the Divine Comedy (la Divina Commedia), provides the modern observer with a unique insight into the worldview of a thinking man at the height of the Age of Faith. His great work provides a remarkable resource that is of interest to anyone, even those such as Richard Dawkins who are concerned that religious faith poses a real and present danger to post-Enlightenment rationalism. Dante is the outstanding representative of a period during which, as Dawkins would have it, the shadow of superstition was at its deepest. Since that time, goes the humanist view of history, humankind has slowly dragged itself into the light of reason. The concern that exercises today’s secular humanists and radical atheists is that, although the triumphs of scientific rationalism are all around us, backsliders and fanatics are still numerous enough to threaten to undo the whole project and plunge us back into the Dark Ages. Dawkins in particular is clear about the root cause of this state of affairs: religion. He and those of like mind are certain that it is faith itself which threatens rational thought.

If this is the case then Dante, who not only lived at a time when religion was all pervasive but whose unshakeable personal faith is evident in nearly every line he wrote, should have borne the full brunt of this intellectual pollution. Religion should have turned him into an unquestioning puppet of the pope, an intolerant fanatic blind to the benefits of rational discussion and opposed to anything resembling scientific enquiry.

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