Karen Armstrong’s new book The Case For God is billed as a rebuttal to the New Atheists. And a rebuttal it is, although anyone expecting Hitchens-like vitriol will be sorely disappointed. Instead, it’s a reasoned look at how we got to where we are in this fundamentalist shouting match currently going on in the Western world, and why both sides have it wrong.
Armstrong begins with a description of the Lascaux caverns and their 15,000 year old shamanistic paintings, using it as an example of the intrinsic religious nature of humans – a concept with which I totally agree. She says “religion was not something tacked on to the human condition, an optional extra imposed on people by unscrupulous priests. The desire to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic.”
Most of the book is a brief history of Western religious thought. There is some overlap with her earlier book A History of God, though The Case for God focuses mostly on Christianity. Her main argument is that from the dawn of time until the Enlightenment, people understood the difference between mythos and logos – whether a myth (including a religious myth) is literally true is beside the point. People were content with not knowing – they understood some things were beyond their capacity to know.
Enlightenment thinking and the rise of science changed Western culture, and religion changed with it. As more and more of the natural world was explained, people began to expect that everything would eventually be explained and should be explained, and in the process we lost the sense of mythos. Only then did theologians and other religious leaders begin to read the Bible literally. When science began to show that the Bible was not literally true, some couldn’t accept it and began the reactionary movement we know as fundamentalism.
It is literal interpretations and fundamentalist religions that the New Atheists rant against. Armstrong spends only a few pages pointing out the weakness of their argument. She says “the new atheists show a disturbing lack of understanding of or concern about the complexity and ambiguity of modern experience, and their polemic entirely fails to mention the concern for justice and compassion that, despite their undeniable failings, has been espoused by all three of the monotheisms.” Also, “the danger of this secularization of reason, which denies the possibility of transcendence, is that reason can become an idol that seeks to destroy all rival claimants.”
Most of the book describes the historical precedent for, and the advantages of, a better way. But it isn’t an easy way: “Religion is a practical discipline, and its insights are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle” and “The truths of religion are accessible only when you are prepared to get rid of the selfishness, greed and self-preoccupation that, perhaps inevitably, are ingrained in our thoughts and behavior but are also the source of so much of our pain.” It is only through spiritual practice (meditation, prayer, ritual, study) that the wisdom of religious myths begins to speak to us, and it is only through ethical practice (acts of compassion and a refusal to harm others) that the true power of religion manifests in the material world.
As you might expect, not everyone agrees with Armstrong. Many of the book reviews I found on-line were negative, some to the point of ridicule. In a Wall Street Journal piece, Richard Dawkins called Armstrong an atheist because her God isn’t the God Dawkins doesn’t believe in either. More dispassionately, Ross Douthat of The New York Times states the primary objection:
Most people, though, are not mystics and philosophers, and they are hungry for myths that are not only resonant but true. Apophatic religion [silent religion that embraces unknowing] may be the most rigorous way to go in search of an elusive God. But for most believers, it will remain a poor substitute for the idea that God has come in search of us.
Armstrong admits that some people need a literal religion. If they practice it diligently and with compassion, it can still be meaningful to them and helpful to the world – look at the charities run by Catholic church or the disaster relief work of the Southern Baptist Convention.
But the rest of us – a group that includes most Pagans and virtually all UUs – find ourselves caught between those that say we believe too little and those who say we believe too much. We don’t have to convert them or defeat them. We just have to have the confidence and the courage – and the determination – to practice our faith to the best of our abilities.
From almost the very beginning, men and women have repeatedly engaged in strenuous and committed religious activity. They evolved mythologies, rituals, and ethical disciplines that brought them intimations of holiness that seemed in some indescribable way to enhance and fulfill their humanity. They were not religious simply because their myths and doctrines were scientifically or historically sound … they were not bludgeoned into faith by power-hungry priests or kings. The point of religion was to live intensely and richly here and now. …
Instead of being crushed and embittered by the sorrow of life, they sought to retain their peace and serenity in the midst of their pain. Those who applied themselves most assiduously showed that it was possible for mortal men and women to live on a higher, divine, or godlike plane and thus wake up to their true selves.
May we have the courage to wake up!