A review of religion scholar Karen Armstrong's answer to militant atheists and thumping fundamentalists. This piece appeared in WETA's Book Studio.
Religion poisons everything… God is a delusion… the end of faith... these are phrases lately found among the burgeoning supply of books by "new atheists" who take arms against a sea of holy rollers and jihadis. In an age of faith-based politics, resurgent creationism, and religious terrorism, aggressive atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have become bestselling authors.
A new book attempts to take a stand against both the religious fundamentalists and their militant atheist foes. The Case for God is a landmark work of intellectual and theological history by the renowned scholar of religion Karen Armstrong.
The book is nothing less than a comprehensive history of human religion in just over three hundred pages. From painted traces of Paleolithic hunter-shamans on the Lascaux Cave walls to hip postmodernist theology, Armstrong offers a lucid narrative of humanity’s relationship with the divine. In her telling, the story of God and man unrolls like an ancient tapestry richly embroidered with scholarly insights and references from the world's many religious traditions.
It is a compelling story, but it isn’t clear that many people—secularists or religionists—will find it persuasive. After all, The Case for God is only the latest entry in a seemingly eternal dispute over the roles of reason and faith in human life. Regardless, the book is a fascinating read and the product of impressive intellectual courage and scholarly ambition.
Karen Armstrong employs some Ancient Greek terms as shorthand: logos for practical, scientific knowledge and mythos for a sense of the transcendent. Are they locked in eternal struggle? Or, as Armstrong argues, is human life built on mutually reinforcing pillars of both logos and mythos? This is one of the central questions of the book—and our times.
A brief review cannot do justice to the scholarship and subtle arguments underpinning The Case for God , but a simplified outline might go something like this:
The ancients, Armstrong writes, “saw no opposition between reason and the transcendent”--each had their sphere.
Premodern religion understood that texts and symbols and parables were mere symbols of a "God beyond God"--an unknowable divinity. All faiths, according to Armstrong, “have been at pains to show that the ultimate cannot be adequately expressed in any theoretical system, however august, because it lies beyond words and concepts.”
The modern advent of rationalism drove the faithful to attempt to "prove" the existence of God and to take literally the texts and beliefs of their religious tradition. This intrusion of logos into the realm of mythos has, in turn, led to both religious fundamentalism and militant atheism. Armstrong holds that Westerners, in particular, “fell in love with an ideal of absolute certainty that, it seems, may be unattainable.”
When religion became overly literal and simplistic, it inspired an atheist reaction, which, in turn, hardened fundamentalist sensibilities. As an alternative to this destructive dialectic, Armstrong lays out a sort of spiritual division-of-labor:
"Religion was never supposed to provide answers to questions that lay within the reach of human reason. That was the role oflogos. Religion's task, closely allied with that of art, was to help us to live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: mortality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life."
In her search for a form of religion that meets those needs, Armstrong excavates a religious view she believes was predominant before the spread of scientific rationalism. In her telling, the pre-modern faithful didn't take their creation myths and Biblical or Koranic behavioral dictates nearly as literally as today's believers. Armstrong draws a sharp distinction between mere "beliefs" and true faith... something she describes as a kind of silent awe.
"True" religious wisdom, according to Armstrong, has no use for the retail doctrines that have defined (sometimes bloodily) the boundaries among sects and faiths. Instead, Armstrong advocates an "ethical practice" of compassion and adherence to theGolden Rule.
But, there’s a tension between the lived experience of billions of religious believers and what Karen Armstrong presents as true faith. Anti-atheists looking for ammunition may decide that The Case for God is a dud.
Armstrong's quarrel with atheists is mostly about their tone and tactlessness. Her strongest objection seems to be to their avowed certainty. She argues that no one should be so sure about anything. She sees outspoken atheists as just another side of a literalist coin shared with many religious believers. In fact, Armstrong's postmodernist suspicion of certainty extends into territory that even very progressive religious believers will find unsettling.
Praying to a personalized deity, feeling some Godly presence, conversion experiences, fears about “end times,” seeking specific moral and social guidelines... these and many other things are dismissed by Karen Armstrong with terms like "infantile" and "literal-minded." Richard Dawkins, prince of the new atheists, might approve such vocabulary.
Many believers will find Armstrong’s vision of religion almost as alien as the atheists' views. With her conception of a remote and unknowable God, Armstrong's true faith offers something like a postmodern variation of the barely-there God of Deism.
For the growing number of people who describe themselves as "spiritual" but unattached to organized religion, Armstrong's tenets will be profoundly compelling. For other readers, theist and atheist, it will appear as though Karen Armstrong has plucked a single mystical strand from the huge interwoven tapestry of religion and declared it the one, true essence of faith.
Instead of a full-throated response to atheist agitation, maybe it is better to think of The Case for God as a personal religious meditation dressed in scholarly robes. Karen Armstrong was once a Catholic nun. She left the convent and her faith and spent many years as an unbeliever. On a visit to Jerusalem, she rediscovered a sense of spirituality and devoted her life to exploring religion in all its global variety. The Case for God features wisdom gleaned from every major religious tradition, vast historical knowledge, and profound philosophical depth. In search of answers for personal questions and spiritual needs, Karen Armstrong has applied a subtle, supple intelligence to thousands of years of theology and philosophy. The result is a compelling, immensely erudite personal statement, but not a book that will alter the landscape of deadlocked trench warfare over reason and faith.