Karen Armstrong vs. Richard Dawkins

The Wall Street Journal asked religion writer Karen Armstrong and uberatheist Richard Dawkins to answer the question “where does evolution leave God?” Their responses forced me to ask some serious questions about my beliefs, but in the end I’m even more confident I’m on the right path for me.

On first reading, I instinctively sided with Armstrong. She explains the difference in logos and mythos: how they are complementary and not oppositional, and how we need both to live lives that are materially rewarding and spiritually fulfilling. And she explains how modern-day fundamentalism that attempts to read myths as literal truths is a product of rationalist, Enlightenment thinking taken too far.

Dawkins uses evolution to argue that not only is God unnecessary, God is so improbable as to be impossible. His facts are undeniable; his error is in assuming that the God of Western Monotheism is the only possible God. He goes so far as to say that those – like Armstrong – who worship a “God beyond God” are really atheists.

And yet… Dawkins is right when he says “The mainstream belief of the world’s peoples is very clear. They believe in God, and that means they believe he exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists.” And while Armstrong is correct that the theologians and philosophers of antiquity understood “it was only possible to speak about the ultimate reality … analogically,” that’s not how our pagan ancestors understood – or related to – their gods and goddesses.

So where does that leave Pagans in the era of Darwin and Einstein? Where does that leave those of us who readily use science to refute the claims of “Young Earth Creationists” but who also have had personal experiences of God, gods and goddesses that are undeniably real?

For starters, Dawkins’ case isn’t as strong as it seems – he subtly changes the rules in the middle of the game. He uses science and reason to argue against one view of God but uses populism to argue against another view. Dawkins calls Armstrong (and by proxy, me) an atheist because she believes in a God who isn’t the God Dawkins doesn’t believe in. Huh?

Throughout history, “the elites” Dawkins ridicules have seen and discovered things ordinary people couldn’t or wouldn’t. Scientific knowledge was advanced by Aristotle, Galileo, and Newton, not by ordinary people. Religious knowledge was advanced by Lao Tzu, the Buddha, and Jesus, not by ordinary people. The works of these great people were validated by their results, not by their popularity.

Science and reason have built a convincing (though far from certain) case that the God of Western Monotheism does not exist. But Armstrong’s “God beyond God” is either beyond science or beyond the capabilities of our current science – we have no way of knowing which. And there’s still the matter of mystical religious experiences.

I could rationalize my experiences down to fluctuations in brain chemistry, and if I am completely honest, I must admit that’s a possibility. But something inside me, something at the core of my being, whispers that it’s more – so I choose to believe I have experienced the Divine in several of its facets, forms and subdivisions. I find this belief to be meaningful, helpful, and relevant, so I act as though it’s true, even though I can never be sure. That belief causes me to do my best to live in community with others, to honor the Earth and work for its care, to see the Holy and the Divine in women as well as men, and to stand in wonder and awe at the majesty of Nature and the miracle of Life.

So where are Pagans in the era of Darwin and Einstein? We are where religious people have been in every age: responding to the human religious impulse and responding to the call of the Goddess in a manner that speaks to our specific needs in this particular place and time. We are under no illusion that we have discovered, invented, or been handed the “One True Faith.” But for now, we are growing a tradition of belief and practice that is timely, relevant, and helpful.

Blessed be!

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  • I pondered some of these questions in my post Theism- irrational ghost story? and was surprised to find some physicists thinking along similar lines You may also find this post and this one relevant.

  • Excellent post Jon!

    I believe in God, indeed I can very honestly say that I *know* that God exists. Just like Carl Gustav Jung did. . . It sounds like you may be close to being able to very honestly say the same thing. Yes, I and other mean that we believe or indeed know that God exists in objective reality, just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists or as surely as the purely symbolic total solar eclipse "Eye of God" exists in readily verifiable reality. Ancient pagans did not go to great lengths to build Stonehenge and other ancient eclipse calculators for nothing. . . Likewise they created their gigantic ground drawings of various kinds for a reason.

  • Obviously I meant to say – Yes, I and other *people* mean

  • Robin, I grew up listening to Baptist preachers claiming they *knew* God's will on this or that, and that they *knew* they and theirs were going to heaven and everybody else was going to hell.

    So I trust you'll understand when I say I have a very strict definition of *knowing*.

    Your experience of God may be so strong you can't conceive of God not existing, and your faith may be so strong your actions wouldn't change a bit if you had proof of God's existence that even Richard Dawkins couldn't dispute, but that's not the same as *knowing*.

    Or at least, it's not the same as I understand *knowing* to be.

  • Well perhaps you can let me know how you define knowing but I generally use standard dictionary definitions for understanding the meaning of words. For the record, while I do claim to know that God exists and that God has certain fundamental attributes that theistic religions have asserted God has for some millennia now, I do not claim to know God's will at any particular moment nor do I claim to know whether Heaven or Hell exist. Based on what I have experienced however, and it includes a few different forms of spiritual phenomena, I can very honestly say that it is not just a "coincidence" that the sun and moon have virtually identical apparent diameters when viewed from the surface of the Earth. Likewise it is not a meaningless random chance "coincidence" that when our sun is totally eclipse by our moon it produces an "optical illusion" of sorts that distinctly resembles the pupil and iris of an eye. The message I received loud and clear is that it is no accident that the total solar eclipse so distinctly resembles an gigantic eye staring down from the sky and that this highly meaningful cosmic symbolism is intended to serve as a recurring symbolic reminder that the Creator is highly aware of what happens in the world. Interestingly enough a good number of ancient pagan religions perceived this and other profound cosmic symbolism manifested during total solar eclipses and responded to it in their religious beliefs and practices whereas the major monotheistic religions seem quite oblivious to it.

    Here are the dictionary definitions that fit my understanding of the meaning of the word "know" –

    :To perceive directly; grasp in the mind with clarity or certainty.

    I have perceived God very directly and I perceive God's "handiwork" very directly with both clarity and certainty.

    :To have a practical understanding of, as through experience

    I do have *some* practical understanding of God as a result of a profound revelatory religious experience and subsequent contemplation thereof.

    :To have experience of

    Been there, done that, as they say.

    I could go one further and add the definition:

    :To discern the character or nature of

    As a result of my experience and considerable contemplation of it as well as plenty of just rational logical assessment of the things that God has made, as per Romans 1:20 I can honestly claim to know *some* of the character or nature of God but by no means all of it.

    Do you have a different definition of the word "know"? Does it align well with dictionary definitions of the word "know"? There is only one dictionary definition I know of that could prove to be mildly problematic, which is precisely why I omitted it from the list of dictionary definitions that do align with my understanding and use of the word know, but it does not pose that much of a problem. I omitted it so as not to complicate matters.

  • I read the dictionary definition of *know* and yes, my personal definition of it is more narrow.

    I think we understand each other, so I see no point in debating the definition.

    Thanks for the comments and the links – they are quite interesting.

  • You're welcome JeanFranc,

    Glad to know that you *appreciate* them. 😉

    No need to debate the meaning of the word "know" any further. I just wanted to make it clear that I can very justifiably use that word with relation to my beliefs about God. I expect that Carl Jung and I have had very similar experiences that allow us to use the word "know" with honesty and integrity when talking about knowing that God exists and even knowing a few things about God.

  • Anonymous

    It wasn't The New York Times–it was The Wall Street Journal. What are we to make of the rest of your statements if you can't get this simple fact right?

  • What are we to make of anonymous commenters who harp on minor errors and ignore the content of the posts???

    But thanks for pointing it out – it's been corrected