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The Case For God by Karen Armstrong
John Loftus tells us what various fundamentalists get wrong.
In this astounding book, prolific author Karen Armstrong has written an intellectual history of the notion of God, focusing on Western Christian conceptions. In many ways this book covers much of the same territory that Robert Wright did in The Evolution of God, but whereas Wright focuses on the evolution of morality in conceptions of the divine, Armstrong focuses on the practice of religion. I was astounded as time after time she got so many things right in those areas I know something about.
This is an amply-documented, massive book, and an intellectual feast. If you want to be brought up to speed on religion in the Western world, this book is what you need. From paleolithic to post-modern thinking, it’s all here, for the most part. And Armstrong covers it masterfully, from the Hebrew God Yahweh, to the Greek Logos, to the rise of Christianity, the era of Constantine, the rise of science, the Enlightenment, down to the present day.
Her main concern throughout the book seems to be the rise of religious fundamentalism and the atheist backlash, seen best in the so-called New Atheists, vanguarded by Harris, Dawkins, Dennett and Hitchens. Against both sides she claims that religion is not a set of doctrines to be believed, but rather something practiced in ritual and experienced through introspection, art and music. As such, the New Atheists do not adequately debunk religion when they debunk the Bible, creationism, and/or religious ideas of the divine.
“Religion was a matter of doing rather than thinking” she says on p.25. Therefore Christian fundamentalism “is in fact a defiantly unorthodox form of faith that frequently misrepresents the tradition it is trying to defend… Religious discourse was not intended to be understood literally because it was only possible to speak about a reality that transcended language in symbolic terms. The story of the lost paradise was a myth, not a factual account of a historical event… Like any myth, its purpose is to help us to contemplate the human predicament” she writes on pps.xvi/15/28. As such, the creation account “was emphatically not intended as a literal account of the physical origins of life” (p.44). She challenges fundamentalists to therefore “face up to the implications of the Darwinian vision of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’… if a Biblical text appeared to contradict current scientific discoveries, the exegete must interpret it differently” (p.324).
Armstrong also claims the New Atheist’s “analysis is disappointingly shallow, because it is based on such poor theology” (p.xvi). She says, “Religion was never supposed to provide answers to questions that lay within the reach of human reason… Religion’s task, closely allied to 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; morality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life.” (p.318).
Armstrong claims that just like the religious fundamentalists they argue against, “the new atheists believe that they alone are in possession of truth… they read scripture in an entirely literal manner and seem never to have heard of the long tradition of allegoric interpretation, or indeed of Higher Criticism” (p.303). Thus, Dawkins is “not correct to assume that fundamentalist belief either represents or is even typical of either Christianity or religion as a whole” (p.304). It is also wrong to go to the other extreme and claim that “God is a scientific hypothesis, that is, a conceptual framework for bringing intelligibility to a series of experiments and observations” (p.305). Armstrong shares these criticisms of the New Atheists with liberal theologian John F. Haught in his book God and the New Atheism.
Yet Armstrong’s analysis is itself problematic on a number of fronts. Armstrong places her liberal theological grid on religion all through history. She’s right about ‘primitive religion’: this religion was in the rituals, the dances, the human/child/ animal sacrifices, the chants, and the drum music. But somewhere along the evolutionary line, especially within Christianity, religious adherents developed doctrinal beliefs. We see this development in the historic creeds of the church, a few of which are in the New Testament. If Christianity hadn’t developed doctrinally, there would have been no reason for the Inquisition, or the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants, or the wars between the Protestants themselves. This creedal development happened long before ‘Christian fundamentalism’ arrived on the scene, by Armstrong’s account.
Armstrong seems to misunderstand that there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to describing religion. This means that she cannot fault the New Atheists for attacking fundamentalism, as fundamentalism is what religion is for many, many people today.
Armstrong’s book uses the results of Higher Criticism, which is more or less the scientific method applied to historical texts like the Bible. In it she faults the New Atheists for treating God or religion as scientific hypotheses, but then she uses the scientific method when deconstructing Biblical texts. Can she really have it both ways? Even if she didn’t think the scientific method should be used to examine one’s religion or concepts of the divine, she still needs to articulate and defend an alternative method which can deliver results. What’s the alternative methodology for her? Introspection? Art? Music? What kind of method is that? Such methods would never have allowed her to come to the conclusions she’s reached about religion in general, and about Christian fundamentalism in particular.
I find Armstrong’s religion-as-psychology thesis metaphysically unfulfilling and deeply inadequate. Her God is a distant God, and as such, can be safely ignored as having no relevance for life. She’s practically an atheist. So rather than targeting the New Atheists, who are promoting scientific thinking, denouncing religious violence, and proclaiming the follies of authoritarian fundamentalism, why doesn’t she stand up with them against the fundamentalists, who are the source of much, if not most, of the problems with religion?
Think of it this way. What can Armstrong fault the New Atheists for in comparison to the religious fundamentalists? Misunderstanding, at worst? That’s insignificant in comparison to the problems that fundamentalist faith can produce, and she knows this. She’s nitpicking when there’s a world that needs her help. After all, how much does it matter if the New Atheists are attacking what she doesn’t consider representative of true religion? Regardless, the New Atheists are attacking a real threat to world peace! And if religion doesn’t poison everything, as Hitchens proclaims, religion still causes a great deal of suffering. In response to criticisms like Armstrong’s, I highly recommend Victor Stenger’s latest book, The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason.
© John W. Loftus 2010
John Loftus founded the blog debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com and is author of Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (2008) and editor of The Christian Delusion (2010), both published by Prometheus Books.