Sam Harris Responds to Karen Armstrong

Recently, Karen Armstrong wrote a defense of (her version of) God and religion for Foreign Policy.

So-called new atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have denounced religious belief as not only retrograde but evil; they regard themselves as the vanguard of a campaign to expunge it from human consciousness. Religion, they claim, creates divisions, strife, and warfare; it imprisons women and brainwashes children; its doctrines are primitive, unscientific, and irrational, essentially the preserve of the unsophisticated and gullible.

These writers are wrong — not only about religion, but also about politics — because they are wrong about human nature. Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. So God isn’t going anywhere. And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. Whether we like it or not, God is here to stay, and it’s time we found a way to live with him in a balanced, compassionate manner.

And now, we have a (surprisingly hilarious) response from Sam Harris:

I can’t quite remember how we got it into our heads that jihad was linked to violence. (Might it have had something to do with the actual history and teachings of Islam?) And how could we have been so foolish as to connect the apparently inexhaustible supply of martyrs in the Muslim world to the Islamic doctrine of martyrdom? In my own defense, let me say that I do get spooked whenever Western Muslims advocate the murder of apostates (as 36 percent of Muslim young adults do in Britain). But I now know that these freedom-loving people just “want to see God reflected more clearly in public life.”

I will call my friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali at once and encourage her to come out of hiding: Come on out, dear. Karen says the coast is clear. As it turns out, those people who have been calling for your murder don’t understand Islam any better than we do.

When did this sarcastic side of Harris come to life? I like it!

Karen Armstrong’s response? Not as funny:

I have written at length about the desecration of religion in the crusades, inquisitions, and persecutions that have scarred human history. I have also pointed out that, driven by political humiliation and alienation, far too many Muslims have in recent years distorted the traditional Islamic view of jihad, which originally referred to the “effort” required to implement the will of God in a violent world.

But these abuses do not constitute the whole story. Religion is also about the quest for transcendence, the discipline of compassion, and the endless search for meaning; it was not designed to provide us with the same kind of explanations as science, but to help us to live creatively, serenely, and kindly with the suffering that is an inescapable part of the human condition. As such, it continues to appeal to millions of human beings across the globe. To identify religion with its worst manifestations, claim that they represent the whole, and then demolish the straw dog thus set up does not seem a rational or useful way of conducting this important debate.

No one disputes the human “search for meaning.” But when humans create superstitious stories to offer such meaning and then claim there’s any truth to them, those ideas don’t deserve respect.

Furthermore, I don’t think the vision of god that Armstrong has in mind is the type that most religious people are thinking of.

Jerry Coyne has a response for her:

Armstrong goes on to deplore the “desecration” of religion represented by the Crusades, inquisitions, and persecutions conducted by the faithful, but asserts they are “distortions” of true faith. But who is she to tell millions of Muslims that their understanding of the Qur’an is simply wrong? What she doesn’t see is that religion by its very nature lends itself to this kind of persecution. It’s an autocracy not amenable to reason — which is a sure recipe for immorality.

It’s a struggle to search for the positive aspects of religion like Armstrong extols when we’re perpetual witnesses to the constant harm it causes.

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  • Iztok

    I do not have a problem with religion as “it should be”. Issue is that “it should be” is not reflected in reality. In reality we deal with religious that not only threaten our civil liberties but threaten our physical existence as well. There is idea of what religion is supposed to be as Armstrong says then there is this pesky thing called reality (and this is what Harris refers to).

    In theory there is no difference between them but in practice there is.

  • I agree with Armstrong.

    It’s not that someone’s opinion of Islam is wrong, it’s just that their opinion of Islam is not consistent with what the historical record indicates the early founders of Islam had in mind. I think she has the right to point that out.

  • Deiloh

    Let me see if I understand these clips:
    God is here to stay, at least for awhile, because dogmatism is a part of the human makeup. There are plenty of religious people who live their lives without becoming dangerous. However, dogmatism absolutely positively must be addressed because humans have the bad habit of turning “us vs. them” into violence and hatred.

    What is the best way to approach religious dogmatism in order to keep it from going nuclear?

  • Karen

    Polarized thinking in any form is what causes divisions in humanity. To say that one path is the only path to what we have called “transcendence” is what causes people to murder and condemn others with different ideas.

    We are predetermined with these abstract images in our mind and that’s why we have so many mythologies. Mythology is a good thing! Image-ination is a good thing! But, to call it “real” or literalize it, to concretize it, this is what gets us into trouble.

    I’ve read Karen Armstrong and I understand what she is writing about. That religion as a connective source to the Unconscious, is not something that people will give up so easily. Nor should they. People will always seek meaning through the invisible because it’s our curiosity that moves us forward and through.

    I just hope that those who seek “god” as a literal idea, as one with “qualities,” will soon be a thing of the past. It’s, yes, dangerous, and ultimately meaningless.

  • This is the very topic of today’s daily blog on DangerousTalk. I actually love both of these authors.
    -Staks

  • Ron in Houston

    I think it was Shakespeare who said “things are neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.”

    I’d probably say the same thing about religion:

    “Religion is neither good nor bad, but it is the practitioner who makes it so.”

  • Thornavis.

    Oh dear some mushy thinking here from Modern Girl and Karen. “Religion is a connective source to the unconscious”, what on earth does that mean ? As for the idea that the modern followers of Islam ( or other religions ) are distorting its truth, well what is that truth? Is it something set in stone at the foundation of the faith, if so there’s plenty of evidence for the violent and anti-human nature of Islam. If it is an unfolding revelation through tradition, as Catholics would believe, why are the results of that usually so bad ? Armstrong is intellectually fraudulent and imbued with her old Catholic mind-set that religion has a literal truth, which she then subtly converts into subjective relatavism which cannot be logically contradicted, the ground of her arguments as with all apophatic approaches is constantly shifting, as Jerry Coyne says, it’s pure sophistry.

  • If every religious person in the world tomorrow became a practitioner of Armstrongism (meaning Karen, not Herbert W. ;-)), I would cease to have any quarrel with religion except as a friendly debate over beers. It would be a controversy of no more import than the respective merits of rival sports teams.

    But this ain’t that world. Russell Blackford lays out the reasons for continuing the debate — even with the moderates and liberals — in article linked to here:
    http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2010/01/voicing-disbelief.html

  • Marshmellow

    God is a construct of the human mind and everyone who believes constructs their own God and bolsters him/her/it up with whatever ancient template (holy scripture) they follow. Therefore judge the god/religion by actions of the person because not everybody is influenced to be violent, homophobic or a misogynist.

  • Iztok

    It’s not that someone’s opinion of Islam is wrong, it’s just that their opinion of Islam is not consistent with what the historical record indicates the early founders of Islam had in mind. I think she has the right to point that out.

    She surely can. But she should go there (to hoses Islamic environments) and tell them that. That is if she thinks she can get away with her life.

    “Excuse me Mr. Islamist Jihadist, do you know that your interpretation of your holy book is wrong?”

    Now that would be something to see.

    I bet the reaction would be more in line with why Harris wrote his response.

  • medussa

    I would venture to say that the vague, positive energy, conciousness seeking, meaning investing spirituality which Karen Armstrong promotes is unrecognizable to theists everywhere, and wouldn’t suffice to feed the need for judgement, punishment and revenge that I see displayed by Christians and Muslims alike. I don’t think her bland attempt to only view the good sides of religion would be accepted by either of them.
    It seems there is a need among many to see others suffer for being different. It might be as simple as xenophobia (curable) or genetic (not so much), and I have no real way of knowing which it is. But regardless, religion is the tool of the ignorant and mean spirited, as they have shown over, and over, and over, ad nauseum.

    Yes, there are members of both belief systems that are kind, giving and forgiving, who do charitable works and justify them with serving their god, but I believe those are good people in spite of their religion, not because of it.

    And, as this crowd knows plenty well, there are untold millions of instances of abuse and violence justified by religion, ranging from the routine subjugation of women to the World Trade Center.

    Laughing at Iztok above, I’d like to see her try that, too.

  • Vas

    But these abuses do not constitute the whole story. Religion is also about the quest for transcendence, the discipline of compassion, and the endless search for meaning;

    Who cares about the whole story? When there are so many documented victims I want to get to the bottom of the crimes, go tell the whole story to someone else, I’m not interested. Ed Gein had a whole story, but somehow I think it was more appropriate to focus on his crimes than his whole story. You can’t just run around killing people and then say ” hey man, I’m also about transcendence, compassion, and the endless search for meaning” all the while still running around killing people. Desecration, and distortions my ass, and by the way, screw your transcendence.

  • Richard Wade

    You are what you do, not what you say you are.

    If you claim to be a person of peace and love, but consistently do violent and hateful things, then violent and hateful that is what you really are.

    So too with religions. If their scriptures claim to be the religion of peace or the religion of love, but consistently the followers of that religion do violent and hateful things in the name of their religion, then that is what the religion really is.

    Religion is a mixture of vitamins and cyanide. It doesn’t matter what benefit the vitamins give you; you’re still dead.

    Armstrong refuses to admit that the cyanide cannot be separated from the mix. The 911 attacks and the bloodshed around the world over the centuries are the inevitable consequence of believing in absolute truths backed up by unquestionable and unavailable authorities.

    There are better ways to fulfill people’s search for meaning than believing in spooks and magic.

  • far too many Muslims have in recent years distorted the traditional Islamic view of jihad, which originally referred to the “effort” required to implement the will of God in a violent world

    Yeah, they took the word jihad and made it something violent and scary.

    Jihad can refer to a personal struggle, sure, But, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, combating “satan” in a personal temptation (Jihad against one’s self ) or cutting down an infidel (Jihad of the sword) are and always have been fully accepted as jihad.

    Karen is really trying define the word in the most transcendental interpretation possible and say that all others definitions are “abuses” of the concept, which just isn’t so.

    Truly passive people will most likely seek out a passive religion, and truly violent people will most likely seek out violent ones. But, this would have nothing to do with the religion and everything to do with their character. And this would assume people have the personal freedom to seek out their own religion, which many do not have. Religion in it’s present state is a freedom killer, especially to the hoi polloi that have better things to do than sit around and think about epistemology.

  • If all religious people were like Karen Armstrong, I would love religion. But Iztok has it right on: What religion should be and what religion is are two very different things.

    I still love many of the stories of religious tradition and think we can learn from them. The problem is with people who can’t accept that something might be just a story.

  • Jamie

    Thanks, Whore.

    I like both of these authors as well. I have to say, though, that calling a strawman when you see one gives Karen the upper hand in this case.

    In every kind of human institution we see a need filled and extremism at some point – governments, social movements, religions and even family structures. When you take a metaphor literally – you’re doomed. Jesus as myth? Bible as fable? Sure. Same with science. The more materialistic you make it, the more you demand some sort of physical proof of every detail of human life, the more you stray into extremist thinking. You also deny yourself the broad kind of thinking that keeps things in perspective:

    The only true reality is the one that the current view of science reveals? If you are a true skeptic then how can you possibly be religious at all? Every religious thought or behavior is a “slippery slope?” Really?

  • llewelly

    Karen Armstrong:

    I just wish this debate could be conducted in a more Socratic manner. Socrates, founder of the Western rationalist tradition, always insisted that any dialogue must be conducted with gentleness and courtesy, and without malice.

    Unfortunately, people like Karen Armstrong use gentleness and courtesy as a false front for introducing sophistry, nonsense, and misdirection. A silk cloth, behind which the sharp knife of deception hides. Religion kills people, and Karen Armstrong pretends it is impolite to point this out. When she does so, she defames gentleness and courtesy in ways Harris and Dawkins never could; she uses them as tools of confusion.

  • Argentum

    It’s not that someone’s opinion of Islam is wrong, it’s just that their opinion of Islam is not consistent with what the historical record indicates the early founders of Islam had in mind. I think she has the right to point that out.

    Are we talking about the same early founders of Islam that devolved into a murderous blood feud over who was the true inheritor of the faith before rigor had even set into Mohammad’s limbs? The ones responsible for the Sunni/Shiite schism that still exists to this day? Yeah, they were such enlightened, transcendent people.

    I agree with the others who have pointed out that Armstrong’s concept of the divine is vague to the point of meaninglessness. I think she’s missing the essential point that there is no evidence to support the idea that god is anything more than a concept, and that the vast majority of believers have a much more concrete, anthropomorphic concept of god than she does.

    The “us vs. them” mentality prevalent amongst humans has always been with us; its certainly arguable that it was vital to our survival in ancient times. We’ve demonstrated our capacity as a species to override that tendency with logic and compassion, but we have a long way to go. Religion is just one example of a social construct that provides an platform for superiority complexes and dehumanizing wordlviews to manifest in peoples’ thoughts and actions. Armstrong’s approach to religion is a step up from the standard approach, I’ll grant that, but again, if you’re going to relegate it to nebulous vagaries, why ultimately bother with it at all?

  • It seems that Armstrong has the position that religion is here to stay so we should work with and try to popularize the theological moderate doctrines of each religion. Harris has the position that moderate theological doctrine unwittingly functions to perpetuate the extreme elements and to get rid of the extreme elements, the moderate doctrines must also be challenged.

    If Armstrong (and a group of other liberal theologians) were to rewrite the world’s holy books and try to pass off the new moderate versions as what everybody should go by, they would probably have to go into hiding for the rest of their lives.

    I would like to see the books re-written, but I wouldn’t want my name associated with the exercise.

  • AxeGrrl

    Iztok wrote:

    I do not have a problem with religion as “it should be”. Issue is that “it should be” is not reflected in reality. In reality we deal with religious that not only threaten our civil liberties but threaten our physical existence as well. There is idea of what religion is supposed to be as Armstrong says then there is this pesky thing called reality (and this is what Harris refers to).

    Nicely said:) I was having a similar conversation with a friend once (who classifies herself as a pantheist) who said “but religion isn’t about certainty, a central part of it is about asking questions” to which I responded: “that sounds good on paper, unfortunately many believers (and what ‘makes up’ religion but the people who practice to it?) exhibit the opposite approach/attitude and are all about certainty and having ‘the’ Truth“.

    Sidenote: on another message board yesterday, a believer literally said: ‘when you have ALL the answers, wouldn’t you want to share it with others?’

  • Paul

    “These writers are wrong — not only about religion, but also about politics — because they are wrong about human nature. Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus.”

    I am not privy to all the details but do any of the new-atheists deny what is in human nature? I’ve taken it for granted that their view is not one of denial of human nature but rather an attempt to try and change it.

  • “Communism is good in theory too. All those people working together to better each other, no one being left cold or hungry. Oops, but it seems that pesky Human Nature gets in the way. Oh well! Go Communal Utopia! ”

    Something being good ‘in theory’ doesn’t always translate very well to reality, as has been mentioned already. Poor Karen Armstrong’s idea of religion is right alongside that Communal Utopian Illusion where everyone gets along, populated by unicorns and faeries.

  • Thanks for posting this. I’d read Ms. Armstrong’s piece, Mr. Harris’s reply, and Ms. Armstrong’s reply, but hadn’t seen Mr. Coyne’s response to it all.

    When did this sarcastic side of Harris come to life? I like it!

    Me, too! When I first read this (via RichardDawkins.net), it made me smile. It sounds like Mr. Harris is really getting tired and frustrated of answering these same objections again and again — with humorous results, including the sarcastic writing.

  • Here is the crazy part that folks like Karen Armstrong seem to miss. I know quite a few muslims who most of us would not consider radical on any scale. if you ask them, they will tell you that they are “liberal.” But mention Ayaan Ali’s name, and you will hear the worst vitriol froth from their mouths.

    Yesterday, I encountered an older woman who happened to be a Jehovah’s Witness. When I pointed out the genocide found in the book of Joshua, she stood there and justified it.

    So I pulled out my dictionary and had her read the definition of genocide. She continued to justify it.

    That’s what I am afraid of: no critical thinking skills and blind allegiance.

  • Casimir

    From Karen Armstrong’s original piece:

    In claiming that God is the source of all human cruelty, Hitchens and Dawkins…

    Sheesh, and she’s complaining about straw dogs?

  • Aj

    Armstrong defines religion as supernatural beliefs that are benign or neutral in their consequence, and non-contradictory to science (albeit incoherent alongside it). Apart from being irrational, unnecessary, and counter to scientific attempts to understand the unknown (as documented in Neil Degrasse Tyson’s talk at Beyond Belief 2006) there’s nothing really objectionable about it. Of course she doesn’t tell anyone she’s doing this, I think Socrates would take issue with Armstrong’s lack of honesty.

  • Colin Day

    Ms. Armstrong fails to distinguish between God and belief in God. Atheists will probably have to put up with the latter for awhile, but perhaps not the former.

  • Thornavis.

    K. A’s arguments are quite simple to follow, they amount to: literal belief is false, metaphorical belief is true, if people don’t accept that it’s all Richard Dawkins’ fault. Sophisticated stuff.

  • Barnab

    Wow. Karen Armstrong–does anyone else write so much and so well, but say so little?

  • Cafeeine

    There is a pattern to religious thinking that underlies many arguments for god, and is also present in Armstrong’s argument.
    There seems always to be an unstated assumption. About God, that he exists, or religion, that its beneficial. When faced with contradictory evidence, instead of abandoning the assumption, the thinker instead tries to redefine the original term at worst so that the assumption just fits, at best so it is undisprovable.. I’ve been seeing this pattern of thought all over lately. The classical arguments for god are based on it. The prime mover argument, Anselm’s ontological argument, Armstrong asserts all destructive expressions of religion as being abuses.

    I suppose this is a trap everyone is capable of falling in, when they incapable of pondering a certain proposition may be false.

  • Edmond

    I just liked the part where she said,

    As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions.

    Pretty much just admitted that she believes religion is all made up.

  • Neon Genesis

    But who is she to tell millions of Muslims that their understanding of the Qur’an is simply wrong?

    So, Karen Armstrong can’t argue that true religion is peaceful but Sam Harris can tell peaceful Christians and Muslims all the time that they’re not being true Christians and true Muslims unless they’re going around raping and murdering people and that they’re just enabling extremists? If we’re going to complain about non-Muslims speaking for Muslims on what “true” Islam is, then why don’t they interview actual Muslims, like Reza Aslan, who is a Muslim that probably would actually agree with Karen Armstrong?

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Sam Harris:

    I will call my friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali at once and encourage her to come out of hiding: Come on out, dear. Karen says the coast is clear.

    Gee, Harris, strawman much?

  • Aj

    Neon Genesis,

    …Sam Harris can tell peaceful Christians and Muslims all the time that they’re not being true Christians and true Muslims unless they’re going around raping and murdering people…

    That Sam Harris… all the time… talking about… not being… …True Christians(tm)… …unless you…

    RAPE AND MURDER

    If we’re going to complain about non-Muslims speaking for Muslims on what “true” Islam is, then why don’t they interview actual Muslims, like Reza Aslan, who is a Muslim that probably would actually agree with Karen Armstrong?

    That’s called cherry picking. How about we just look at surveys taken in majority Muslim countries about what they think? Probably because you won’t like the results. Better just selectively pick one Muslim that’ll agree with Karen Armstrong.

  • muggle

    Am I the only one taking offense at the implication that nonbelievers are somehow not quite human — you know since all humans have a need for imaginary friends to get them through it? And must not have any meaning in their uncreative lives?

    This woman is not peaceful. Her weapon of choice is words instead of the sword but she’s fairly violent with them. Everything she says is a put-down of the godless while she condemns the new Atheists for putting down the godly. It’s all putting on superior airs. And if you don’t play along, eat your salad with the wrong fork, slurp your soup, you are just to be shut out. This is not peaceful and all inclusive. It’s just trying to shut the undesirables (that would be us evil Atheists) out of society to begin with. What an elitist asshole.

    I too would love to see her follow Iztok’s suggestion. C’mon, hon, put your money where your mouth is! What? Are you demurring? Hmm, why is that?

    Love the sarcasm. Love, love, love sarcasm period. And, yes, Harris wore it well. I haven’t read his book yet. Maybe I should.

  • Neon Genesis

    That’s called cherry picking. How about we just look at surveys taken in majority Muslim countries about what they think? Probably because you won’t like the results. Better just selectively pick one Muslim that’ll agree with Karen Armstrong.

    Here’s what a billion Muslims really think: http://www.upf.tv/upf06/portals/InsideIslamWhataBillionMuslimsReallyThink/tabid/319/Default.aspx

    This woman is not peaceful. Her weapon of choice is words instead of the sword but she’s fairly violent with them. Everything she says is a put-down of the godless while she condemns the new Atheists for putting down the godly. It’s all putting on superior airs. And if you don’t play along, eat your salad with the wrong fork, slurp your soup, you are just to be shut out. This is not peaceful and all inclusive. It’s just trying to shut the undesirables (that would be us evil Atheists) out of society to begin with. What an elitist asshole.

    So atheists can get upset when moderate believers argue for a more peaceful religion because “OMG, that’s elitist!” yet it’s not offensive when Sam Harris argues that all believers are either delusional or violent or at best they’re distrustful enablers of violence simply for existing? And wasn’t Sam Harris the guy who argued elitism in politics was a good thing? Yet I never heard any outrage from atheists over that article. So, elitism is ok, just only ok when atheists do it.

  • “Real” Christianity (and the same can probably be said about Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. but I’ll stick to what I know best) is all over the map, morally. You’ve got the (pacifist) Mennonites and the Crusaders; the church relief agencies (whose workers could probably be making more money in less stressful conditions back home in a regular job) and the Prosperity Gospel televangelists in their mansions and limos; the lets-get-along secularists and the Dominionists; the Spong-style ultra-liberals and the ultra-literalist fundamentalists; and a continuum of people between each of those extremes. All of these are “Real” Christianity; none of them are definitive of the whole — both Armstrong and some of the atheist critics (eg. what I recall of Sam Harris) are wrong on that count.

  • I stand by what I said over on the ForeignPolicy site: Karen Armstrong’s response-to-the-response is nothing but a wordy concern troll.

  • Aj

    For instance, Pakistan has a population of 180 million people (UN 2008 est). 96% of those people 172 million people are Muslims (CIA 2009). What were the responses to a Pew Poll in 2009?

    78% favor death for those who leave Islam; 80% favor whippings and cutting off hands for crimes like theft and robbery; and 83% favor stoning adulterers.

    Source: http://pewglobal.org/reports/pdf/265.pdf

    So what do over an eighth (1/8, 12.5%) of a billion Muslims really think?

    How many Muslims want strict sharia law as the only source for legislature?

    Egypt (’09) 65%
    Indonesia (’09) 49%
    Pakistan (’09) 76%
    Morocco (’96) 76%

    http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/pdf/feb09/STARTII_Feb09_rpt.pdf

    Populations Egypt 83m (CIA 2009 est), Indonesia 229m (UN 2009 est), Pakistan 180m (UN 2009 est), Morocco 31m (UN 2009 est). Over a quarter (1/4, 25%) of a billion Muslims support strict sharia law in four majority Muslim countries? I wonder what the penalty for apostasy under sharia law is.

    I’m sure this is highlighted in the Karen Armstrong supported documentary film by Unity Productions Foundation, Inside Islam: What a Billion Muslims Think. It’s not like they would narrowly define freedom of speech as commentary on social, political, and economic subjects (a topic seems to be missing). John Esposito, from Gallup, says this documentary that one of the biggest concerns of Muslims is denigration of Islam. So I guess commentary on religion included in this “freedom of speech” is not going to be allowed. They forget to mention this when they’re going on about how similar Egypt and the US is on the issue of free speech though, because it’s a bit too inconvenient a truth.

  • So atheists can get upset when moderate believers argue for a more peaceful religion because “OMG, that’s elitist!” yet it’s not offensive when Sam Harris argues that all believers are either delusional or violent or at best they’re distrustful enablers of violence simply for existing? And wasn’t Sam Harris the guy who argued elitism in politics was a good thing? Yet I never heard any outrage from atheists over that article. So, elitism is ok, just only ok when atheists do it.

    Perhaps you should read Harris’ article. It was an attack on Sarah Palin and the celebration of mediocrity, quite distinct from Armstrong’s constant presumption that she needn’t form concrete positions, since any demand for clear arguments is a sign of intellectual simplicity.

    I have a response to Armstrong’s article here, which I won’t reproduce due to its length. The main problem I have with Armstrong is that she frames herself as an opponent of Harris and Friends because it gets her magazines in like FP, but she avoids any real clash of ideas and simply chides the atheists for being too angry.

  • she avoids any real clash of ideas and simply chides the atheists for being too angry.

    I just shorthand that as “concern troll” 🙂

  • Pseudonym

    A lot of people on this thread seem to be missing one crucial piece of information: Karen Armstrong is NOT defending religion as it is currently practiced by the majority. She is a religious reformer, and quite an active one at that.

    Having said that, she is going to go into Muslim countries to tell them they’re doing Islam wrong. She’s encouraging Muslim leaders to do that instead.

  • Neon Genesis

    For anyone interested, Sam Harris actually did have a debate with Reza Aslan which you can watch here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5og-hyD3A7A

  • Casimir

    A lot of people on this thread seem to be missing one crucial piece of information: Karen Armstrong is NOT defending religion as it is currently practiced by the majority. She is a religious reformer, and quite an active one at that.

    ..and it’s a fool’s errand. “You can’t reason someone out of something they didn’t use to reason to arrive at”. Sure, you could try to convince some people “to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate”, but how exactly? The only way you’ll convince people across religions is through reason, and considering the core problem of religion is its defiance of reason, that’s a problem. Armstrong’s distracted by window dressing, looking at the symptoms and not the cause.

    That’s what needs to be “expunged from human consciousness”, that unwarranted respect for irrationality. Compassion can not only be the center of morality for rational people, it already is the unstated view of virtually every atheist out there.

    Not only that but rationality beats every other method, most people understand that, even if it’s sometimes unconsciously. That’s why creationists try to wrap themselves in the mantle of science. You’d never hear a scientist do the reverse, and say, “I’ve got this hypothesis about prions. But really it’s a religion! Please rise for the reading from the Journal of Molecular Biology. Ommmm.” That’s why you can only change the mind of someone of another religion. Reason is a rock. It’s the only solid basis around. Anything not based on reason is built on shifting sands. You successfully “reform” religion, yeah you’ll convince some people, through reason. Maybe some will just follow their religious leaders uncritically, whether it’s compassionate or not. The ones you can’t convince through reason, well religion not only doesn’t help you reach them, it insulates them.

  • Neon Genesis

    Yeah, we’ll just pretend Christianity never went through a reformation in its history because religious reformations are impossible, only anti-theism is the new messiah. If moderates don’t do anything against extremists, they’re evil enablers but if they do something against extremists, they’re not doing it right because they’re not following the one true way. Pseudonym, I don’t think moderates can win against some people because apparently for some people, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

  • Aj

    From the original article and her reply, cases where Karen Armstrong suggests that anything negative is a misuse, perversion, or corruption of religion, i.e. not actually religion:

    …often tragically abused
    …the desecration of religion…
    …driven by political humiliation and alienation, far too many Muslims have in recent years distorted the traditional Islamic view of jihad…
    …But these abuses do not constitute the whole story…
    A truly Socratic dialogue with atheists could help to counter many of the abuses of faith that Harris so rightly deplores…
    …In their anxiety, some fundamentalists distort the tradition they are trying to defend…

    From the original article and her reply, cases where Karen Armstrong defends religion:

    To identify religion with its worst manifestations, claim that they represent the whole…

    “God Breeds Violence and Intolerance.”

    No, humans do. For Hitchens in God Is Not Great, religion is inherently “violent … intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism and bigotry”; even so-called moderates are guilty by association. Yet it is not God or religion but violence itself — inherent in human nature — that breeds violence…

    All fundamentalism — whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim — is rooted in a profound fear of annihilation. Qutb developed his ideology in the concentration camps where Nasser interred thousands of the Muslim Brothers…

    Religion is not simply a matter of subscribing to a set of obligatory beliefs; it is hard work, requiring a ceaseless effort to get beyond the selfishness that prevents us from achieving a more humane humanity…

    But this anti-science bias is far less common in Judaism and Islam, where fundamentalist movements have been sparked more by political issues, such as the state of Israel, than doctrinal or scientific ones…

    Lets be clear, Karen Armstrong willfully remains ignorant of the “whole of religion”, so she can live in her fantasy world where Dawkins and Harris aren’t right about religion. The analysis of religion she supports and conducts are full of ignorance, denial, and delusion. When Karen Armstrong speaks on religion, she comes out with widely held conventional “wisdom” statements, acceptable to the unquizzical, to reinforce the view that religious belief is good without and despite evidence.

    Guilt by association? If she disagrees with the argument that moderates enable fundamentalists, there’s no need to misrepresent it in such an ignorant and stupid manner.

    I particular liked the part when the so called “expert” on the history of religion blames political factors on fundamentalists fear of annihilation, when there’s clearly quite a bit of scriptural inspiration on the matter.

    Religion isn’t just about beliefs, it’s about all the good stuff, you know, charity, unselfishness, and puppies. It’s also about art, music, and education. These things couldn’t possibly exist without religion. See: God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

    Considering the rejection of evolution is stronger in Muslim majority countries than the United States I think perhaps Karen Armstrong is deeply ignorant of contemporary religion. Also to blame rejection of science on fundamentalism just shows that she hasn’t looked at any opinion polls on the subject, many more people rejecting evolution than there are fundamentalists, biased towards membership of one of the monotheisms.

  • Casimir

    I particular liked the part when the so called “expert” on the history of religion blames political factors on fundamentalists fear of annihilation, when there’s clearly quite a bit of scriptural inspiration on the matter.

    That’s another thing wrong with Armstrong’s piece, she tries to paint suicide bombings as a political problem.

    In a study of suicide attacks between 1980 and 2004, American scholar Robert Pape concluded that 95 percent were motivated by a clear strategic objective: to force modern democracies to withdraw from territory the assailants regard as their national homeland.

    The problem is the “territory the assailants regard as their national homeland” is in part influenced by their religion, at least in the case of Islam. Islam is somewhat unique in its emphasis on what lands belong to Muslims. Jihad not only refers to self-defense of Muslims themselves, but Muslim territory as well. There’s a reason OBL talks about “the tragedy of al-Andalus”, and it doesn’t have a lot to do with politics.

  • Neon Genesis

    Lets be clear, Karen Armstrong willfully remains ignorant of the “whole of religion”, so she can live in her fantasy world where Dawkins and Harris aren’t right about religion.

    So, you know more about religion than historians do? Even the agnostic biblical scholar Bart D Ehrman has argued fundamentalist Christianity is a later invention. Why is it that there was no moral outrage from atheists when Ehrman argued that fundamentalist Christianity is a later invention yet if Armstrong does the same thing, it’s outrage? Is it because Ehrman is a non-believer and Armstrong isn’t and non-believers are automatically more trustworthy than believers by default? All believers are liars, is that it but if a non-believer says the same thing, there’s no outrage? This view that religious fundamentalism is a later invention is not simply the view of one obscure religious historian but it is the consensus view among historians and scholars, but hey, if you think you know more about history than historians and scholars do, that’s your prerogative I guess.

  • Neon: I don’t know what Ehrman (of whom I’ve become something of a fan) was addressing in whatever you’re implicitly citing there, however: of course fundamentalism, as such, is a late development — it is a specific movement arising in American Protestantism, starting roughly 100 years ago. While it can be meaningfully extended to cover similar movements in other faiths, the term gets tossed around rather too freely, by folks on all sides (usually as an epithet against someone else). That hardly erases the real historical nastiness that has been committed by the major faiths, nor does it license Armstrong’s claim that “real” religion is all kittens and rainbows.

  • Thornavis.

    Neon Genesis, your reformed Christianity is, I take it, that of the likes of Luther and Calvin, the anti-semite and the leader of an intolerant theocracy. The only reformation that actually produced something worth having was the Enlightenment, an essentially anti-religious movement which was so successful that religion was forced to submit for the first time to truly secular society. I’m not interested in cooperating with religious “moderates” and “reformers”, or in giving the time of day to Anderson and her kind.

  • Neon Genesis

    Neon: I don’t know what Ehrman (of whom I’ve become something of a fan) was addressing in whatever you’re implicitly citing there, however: of course fundamentalism, as such, is a late development — it is a specific movement arising in American Protestantism, starting roughly 100 years ago. While it can be meaningfully extended to cover similar movements in other faiths, the term gets tossed around rather too freely, by folks on all sides (usually as an epithet against someone else). That hardly erases the real historical nastiness that has been committed by the major faiths, nor does it license Armstrong’s claim that “real” religion is all kittens and rainbows.

    It was in the faq of the paperback edition of Misquoting Jesus. Ehrman was addressing a question about literalism and he said in it that the biblical literalist doctrine of fundamentalist Christianity is a modern invention and that literalism was not a central doctrine in Christianity before then.

  • Aj

    Casimir,

    The problem is the “territory the assailants regard as their national homeland” is in part influenced by their religion, at least in the case of Islam. Islam is somewhat unique in its emphasis on what lands belong to Muslims. Jihad not only refers to self-defense of Muslims themselves, but Muslim territory as well. There’s a reason OBL talks about “the tragedy of al-Andalus”, and it doesn’t have a lot to do with politics.

    Karen Armstrong would only emphasize the positive relationship between religion and politics, therefore if someone attributes unselfishness of a political action to religion then she use that as an example of how great religion is. However, if after reading of Islamic conquest and establishment of a caliphate, an Islamist were to attribute a political act to religion then Karen Armstrong would just say it’s a distortion.

    Another trick they’ll use is after someone has demonstrated that indeed religion in part influenced a terrible act, then they’ll say it doesn’t matter because there’s a “root cause” not related religion. However their designation of a “root cause” is established by whether they would like it to be so. Can a religion be the “root cause” of something terrible? Never.

  • Ed-words

    It’s not just violence that makes religion harmful.

    It’s dragging kids off to “First Holy
    Communion” and forcing creationism
    and original sin on them.They are
    not supposed to think or question.

    It’s the abortion and euthanasia and
    gay political wars they are constantly
    waging. They can’t mind their own
    business!

  • Neon Genesis

    Karen Armstrong would only emphasize the positive relationship between religion and politics, therefore if someone attributes unselfishness of a political action to religion then she use that as an example of how great religion is.

    Have you even actually read any of Armstrong’s books to know what she says about religion or do you just read random quotes of her on the Internet? I suggest starting with her book, The Bible-A Biography.

  • Armstrong’s argument could be summed up this way:

    1. It is inevitable that people will be religious.
    2. This means religion is inherently good.
    3. This remains true despite the deleterious nature of some religious expressions.
    4. Pay no attention to religious extremists; be religious anyway.

    Sorry but this doesn’t wash. Human nature includes lots of features which are not desirable. We should not embrace or celebrate them; instead, we need to work them out of our collective systems.

    It remains to be seen whether or not religion is something we should absolutely expunge from human nature, as Harris et al propose, however, Armstrong’s position is utterly ludicrous on its face and is certainly no better.

  • muggle

    Neon Genesis: for cripe’s sake, I was specificially talking about the quotes above. I haven’t read either Armstrong or Harris and, all joshing aside about Harris’ indeed amusing sarcasm above, I don’t really have any plans on reading either.

    My offense was taken at the implication that Atheists are less than human because:

    they are wrong about human nature. Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. So God isn’t going anywhere. And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. Whether we like it or not, God is here to stay, and it’s time we found a way to live with him in a balanced, compassionate manner.

    All that above boils down to you’re something less than human if you don’t buy into religiousity since she’s claiming it’s inherent to human nature. Look, I may say a lot about religion, but I do stop short of calling believers subhuman.