Karen Armstrong rubbished

Vic Stenger will have a new book out soon, called The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason. (He’s retired, so he’s allowed to crank them out.)

One of the things I was not too successful in having Stenger change during the course of writing was a few passages where he relied heavily on Karen Armstrong. As far as I’m concerned, Armstrong produces drivel, full stop. You certainly can’t rely on her for history.

Apparently Armstrong now has a new book out, The Case for God, in which I’m guessing she has nothing new to say. From what I’ve run into, she bashes the New Atheism as a mirror image of fundamentalism, but nowadays that inanity passes for conventional wisdom. I expect she serves that up with her usual string of liberal religious platitudes.

Hence it gave me great pleasure to read John Crace’s rubbishing of The Case for God in The Guardian today. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, and it really is a good summary of the sort of things Armstrong says in her other books as well.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Sorry to hear that Karen Armstrong has joined the insipid ranks of "new atheist" bashers like Alister McGrath and John F. Haught. This crowd offers some rather tepid arguments against Dawkin, Hitchens, and Harris, but mostly they are offended at their tone. Why, they are ANGRY!!! They say such MEAN things!!! They are just terrible, terrible men to say such awful, awful things about religion.

    Of course, this kind of response simply illustrates a point that D, H, & H make quite eloquently: Religion is supposed to get a free pass no matter how horrible its effects. This is not just what religious apologists assert, but dogma for many secular liberal intellectuals (or pseudo-intellectuals). People who would no sooner attend a prayer meeting than a monster truck rally or World Wrestling Smackdown get into their highest dudgeon when anything critical of religion is uttered.

    When a young man goes to a school that has one textbook–the Qur'an–and then later blows himslef up in a crowded market screaming "God is great!", how dare you say that religion had anything to do with his action?! He did it because he was jobless, or because he was poor, or because he felt powerless, or because he came from a broken home, or because his pet hamster died.

    One liberal commentator opined that criticizing religion was like criticizing people because of their race or gender. In other words, it is an expression of gross intolerance. What pluperfect bullshit. You cannot hold people responsibe for their race or gender, but you can and should hold them responsible for their irrational or fanatical beliefs, even if (gasp!!!) those irrational or fanatical beliefs are of a religious nature.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Keith Parsons: "One liberal commentator opined that criticizing religion was like criticizing people because of their race or gender. . . You cannot hold people responsibe for their race or gender, but you can and should hold them responsible for their irrational or fanatical beliefs."

    I don't know; that may be a bit too easy. I think the claim might be that for a significant number of people, religion is not a choice. It's what they were born into. It's central to, constitutive of, and deeply ingrained within their identity. Attacking their religion is, in a very real way, attacking who they are.

    In other words, by framing the question in terms of personal responsibility, you might be assuming too much of a background of liberal individualism, where even faith is a matter of individual choice. But especially for non-Western populations, that's problematic.

    Would it work better if you emphasized relevance instead? That is, regardless of to what degree your Muslim bomber had a choice in the matter, his religious orientation is relevant to the situation, and hence a legitimate matter for criticism.

    Imagine that it was the case that a Y chromosome made almost all males incurably warlike and violent. If so, even though no male would be responsible for choosing their gender, their condition would still be very relevant to discussions about violence. We would still want to do something to fix the male gender, rather than huff about gender intolerance.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Good point, Taner. Maybe holding the suicide bomber responsible for his crazy beliefs is really like holding the mad dog responsible for his rabies. I do think that we have epistemic duties, duties to critically examine our beliefs, but extreme indoctrination can infect like a virus, and induce a kind of madness that precludes any possibility of reflection. In fact, that kind of madness is precisely what the teachers of the radical Islamist school or "Jesus Camp" are trying to inculcate.

    Still, the point remains that some religious beliefs are pathological, however important they are to those who believe them, and that "intolerance' of such beliefs is not a vice. In fact, as Karl Popper says, in the open society we must be actively intolerant of the intolerant, opposing them with words when they use words, and with force when they use force.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Keith Parsons: "some religious beliefs are pathological, however important they are to those who believe them, and that "intolerance' of such beliefs is not a vice."

    You and I agree in our overall outlook. But I want to see if I can imagine someone like your liberal commentator responding.

    He would agree, presumably, about a suicide bomber's behavior being pathological. He might even agree that there is a connection to religious beliefs here. But I would guess that he'd also add that if there's anything to blame here, it's a fundamentalist interpretation of religion: violent, androcentric, heterosexist, etc. etc. If you pick on religion per se in your criticism, you then overlook more humane interpretations of that faith tradition. Indeed, I expect your liberal commentator thinks that a more humane attitude is at the "ethical core" of the religion.

    In that case, criticizing someone's religion can still come across like criticizing their gender. After all, you're not specifically going after fundamentalism. By issuing a blanket condemnation of their religion, you're both insulting their identity and missing the opportunity to nudge them in the direction of a better interpretation of their faith.

    Moreover, they might add that being jobless, poor, powerless etc. is the root cause behind fundamentalism being attractive in the first place. If that is so, emphasizing the role of religion is a distraction from the more basic issues of social justice.

    How would you think this goes wrong?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Taner, you have expressed the line I am criticizing very clearly, and this gives me a chance to develop my points more adequately. First of all, I think we need to emphasize a point: Just because someone strongly identifies with an ideology, even so strongly that allegiance to that doctrine becomes part of that individual's personal identity, that does not make it wrong to criticize that ideology. Some Nazis were true believers; being a Nazi was part (maybe most) of what they were. Surely, it is OK to criticize Nazism, even if the effect is to mortally offend diehard Nazis (BTW, I am NOT implicitly equating Nazism and religion here, just offering what I take to be an obvious example illustrating a point). It cannot be a moral requirement that we refrain from criticizing an ideology just when people begin to take it really seriously! In short, it is not necessarily invidiously intolerant to insult someone's identity.

    What about the response, always offered by apologists for religion (even the liberal, secular ones) that the problem is not religion per se, but a fundamentalist perversion of religion? Now, I do not endorse a blanket condemnation of religion. The Dalai Lama sounds like a great guy. Great spirits are found in all religious traditions (even among Southern Baptists!). However, in agreement with D, H, & H, I also hold that just because a belief is a religious belief, it does not merit a free pass from criticism. To say that the problems arise not from religion but from a fundamentalist aberration is simply a semantic ploy. Fundamentalist religious beliefs are religous beliefs. They have theological content. They make straightforward dogmatic claims about God, scripture, humans, ethics, etc. What is the "core" of a religion? Fundamentalists say that they are the core. Even if they are wrong (I think they are), what we have here is a theological, i.e., religious, disagreement, not a conflict between religion on the one side and something else on the other. Besides, the very scriptures of the theistic religion (and you cannot get any more "core" than that!) contain many hair-raising condemnations and incitements to violence.

    Do social conditons promote fundamentalist extremism? Of course. As Jesus noted in the parable of the seeds, the message has to fall on fertile ground. Further, it is probably not possible to develop demarcation criteria to definitively distinguish within any religious ideology, Wahabbism, let's say, the elements that are "authentically" religious and those that are reflections of cultural bias or historical contingency. With something like Wahabbism, religious, cultural, and historical influences all flow together to create a potent witch's brew. But that religion is the "eye of newt" in that witch's brew is, I think, undeniable.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    BTW, Taner, I liked Karen Armstrong's A History of God. Although I am hardly an expert in comparative religion, it certainly does not seem like "drivel" to me. Can you refer me to a review by a qualified scholar that debunks the book? Thanks.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Keith Parsons: "I liked Karen Armstrong's A History of God."

    Actually, so did I. I think she went off the rails later. A History of God goes light on her annoying tendency to shove everything into a liberal theological narrative, and there's lot of interesting historical detail so you can overlook that. As a popular book on the history of religions, I'd still recommend it.

    I think I first got seriously pissed off at her when she devoted a book to Muhammad and early Islamic history. Muhamad stuck me as not a work of history at all, but a regurgitation of liberal Christian platitudes combined with an appallingly uncritical acceptance of the basic outlines of orthodox Muslim salvation history. It's theology of the most intellectually flabby sort. That would be no big deal, except that I also happened, at that time, to run into many people who were taking her as some kind of authority on Islam.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Like you, Taner, I find the the "liberal theological narrative" deeply offensive. It has offended me since I was first abundantly exposed to it 35 years ago at Emory University's Candler School of Theology (Yes, I briefly considered becoming Parson Parsons). In fact, I think it was the sheer intellectual dishonesty and spiritual inanity of that narrative that did more to drive me to atheism than anything fundamentalists ever said or did. What really shocked me was the gaping chasm between what my professors said in class and what they said in chapel. In class we got the full force impact of modern biblical scholarship. All Christian tenets were radically "demythologized," i.e., debunked. God was about as vague as The Force in Star Wars, and the Creed was replaced by attenuated spiritual values somehow squeezed from the Christian tradition. Indeed, for most of my professors, Christianity seemed to be no more than a pleasing emotional tone to which they spiritually "resonated" (Yes, that is actually the term one of them used.). Then, in chapel, I could have thought I was back at First Methodist. The very professors who gleefully debunked in class would lead us in intercessory prayer, praying for the Lord to succor the suffering of so-and-so, etc. They also led the recitation of the Apostle's Creed, as though they really meant it. I asked one of these sorts one time how he could dismiss the contents of the Apostle Creed in class, yet speak it, with a straight face, in chapel. He replied that in chapel he was not asserting the Apostle's Creed, merely chanting it. My reply was that I didn't care if he was tap dancing it, it still seemed duplicitous. I soon decided that if you went so far as these guys did, the only honest thing was to become an atheist.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00763792476799485687 J. J. Ramsey

    Keith Parsons: "Besides, the very scriptures of the theistic religion (and you cannot get any more 'core' than that!)"

    In evangelical strains of Protestantism, it is true that scriptures are treated as "core," at least in the sense of being the last word on doctrine, but that is hardly true of theism in general.

    Keith Parsons: "But that religion is the 'eye of newt' in that witch's brew is, I think, undeniable."

    Here, you are making a statement about religion contributing to violence, but the "eye of newt" is metaphorical in about the same way that "God" in extremely liberal religion is metaphorical. Supposedly, the metaphor is a stand-in for something, but that something is hazy.

    Unfortunately, this seems all too common in discussions of how religion in general leads to violence. It is pretty easy to cite examples of particular religious beliefs being violent, but getting from there to a more general claim about religion seems to involve unstated assumptions at best and hand waving at worst.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Taner Edis said: “[A liberal commentator] would agree, presumably, about a suicide bomber's behavior being pathological. He might even agree that there is a connection to religious beliefs here.

    Well, obviously there is a connection between religion and a suicide bomber crying “God is great” just before blowing himself up. There is also a connection between scientific knowledge and the construction of weapons of mass destruction. So? Actually the latter connection is much stronger, for if one were to eliminate science then surely the construction of weapons of mass destruction would stop, whereas if one were to eliminate religion then suicide bombings would not stop. Indeed I marvel about how often atheists who deride religion as a self-delusion do themselves imagine that there is a causal link between religion and suicide bombings. After all there is a lot of religion with no suicide bombing present, and there is a lot of suicide bombing which no religion present. Let’s not forget that the modern phenomenon of suicide bombing for terror purposes was initiated by the secular Tamil Tigers, who have reputedly killed more people through suicide bombings than all extremist Muslims put together. To any dispassionate observer it should be obvious that the cause of terrorism is nationalism combined with a sense of real or perceived injustice and humiliation combined with the inability to strike back using conventional means; religion plays at best a peripheral role. Not to mention that when conventional means (read: weapons of mass destruction) are available and are used and cause far more death and destruction somehow nobody speaks of terrorism anymore. I find the hypocrisy of the whole name-calling thing breathtaking.

    Taner Edis said: “But I would guess that he'd also add that if there's anything to blame here, it's a fundamentalist interpretation of religion: violent, androcentric, heterosexist, etc. etc. If you pick on religion per se in your criticism, you then overlook more humane interpretations of that faith tradition.

    Well of course for New Atheism to work religion must be equated with fundamentalism, or at least to be defined as its “core”. Which is obviously false, but care for truth does not really characterize New Atheism, does it? Indeed the superficiality of the whole enterprise is striking. After seeing Stenger’s “Quantum Gods” recommended in this forum I bought it and have just started to read it. (As it happens I think that quantum phenomena do not comport with a mechanistic understanding of reality so I was curious to see what this philosopher and physicist would have to say about this issue.) Well, in the foreword written by the well-known Michael Shermer I read that physicist Amit Goswami had said “The material world around us is nothing but possible movements of consciousness. I am choosing moment by moment my experience.” Shermer then informs us that in his monthly column in Scientific American he publicly challenged Goswami to leap out of a twenty-story building and consciously choose the experience of surviving the experiment. Impressive, no? Only on page 38 of his book Stenger makes explicitly clear that when Goswami says “I” or “you”, as in “you make your own reality”, he means the “all-pervasive cosmic consciousness” and not some individual human. So what is one to make of Shermer’s huge equivocation in the foreword? Perhaps he did not read the book to which he wrote the foreword? But then again didn’t Stenger read Shermer’s foreword he put in his own book? Hardly likely. It’s far more likely that they just don’t care. Like fundamentalist preachers on the right feeding on peoples’ gullibility and need to feel superior, here we have probably the same phenomenon on the other side of the scale.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith Parsons said: “ In fact, I think it was the sheer intellectual dishonesty and spiritual inanity of that narrative that did more to drive me to atheism than anything fundamentalists ever said or did. [snip] I asked one of these sorts one time how he could dismiss the contents of the Apostle Creed in class, yet speak it, with a straight face, in chapel. He replied that in chapel he was not asserting the Apostle's Creed, merely chanting it. My reply was that I didn't care if he was tap dancing it, it still seemed duplicitous. I soon decided that if you went so far as these guys did, the only honest thing was to become an atheist.

    Interesting. So in your case too it was ethical considerations that moved your ontological beliefs.

    But what about now? Don’t naturalism’s many conceptual problems trouble you?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04213914791604385761 Modusoperandi

    Shorter Karen Armstrong: How dare these people criticise the God that I leave entirely undefined!

    (That said, I liked "A History of God" and "The Battle for God", although she tends to use words like "fact" and "truth" differently that I do)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04213914791604385761 Modusoperandi

    Dianelos Georgoudis "Don’t naturalism’s many conceptual problems trouble you?"
    What…
    …that there are things about the universe (like the time right after the Big Bang, not to mention the whole concept of "before time") that we probably can't know?
    …that things tend to be what they appear to be?
    …that there's no one at the cosmic switch? (Or, at least, that the one at the switch doesn't intervene)
    …that free will in a deterministic universe is an illusion?
    …that subatomics can't be modeled on any level finer than probalistic (as with half-life)?
    …that the quantum world makes no sense (when viewed by a mind that evolved in a macro-world), but that it nonetheless averages out to "normal" on the macro scale?
    …that, rather than dualism, mind is what brain does?
    …that "I" is an illusion?
    …that without divine mandate morality gets a lot messier? (unlike when it does have God behind it. That's why they, say, spent 1,800 years arguing for slavery based on God's word, then from the same book argued for it's abolishment. Clear like mud, apparently.)
    …that I will die?
    Not liking the conclusions is no reason to ignore them. Disbelief in gravity because it troubles me won't save my head from hitting the floor when I fall down the stairs.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Dianelos Georgoudis asks me:

    Don’t naturalism’s many conceptual problems trouble you?

    Dianelos, in a number of your posts, you have asserted the existence of these. I know that a number of authors like Plantinga have alleged the existence of such conceptual problems, but his arguments are, not to put to fine a point on it, ignorant bluster. Please do me the favor of listing and succinctly characterizing three of these so-called conceptual problems, and I'll address them in a future post (may take a week or two, as–believe it or not–I have other work to do besides putting up comments on Secular Outpost!).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith:

    Even though I think that Plantinga has done some remarkable work, my claim that naturalism is plagued by conceptual problems is based mainly on reading naturalists, e.g. about the problem of consciousness (David Chalmers and al), about how difficult it is to conceive a mechanistic reality compatible with quantum phenomena (“Quantum Reality” by Nick Herbert, “Boojums All the Way Through” by David Mermin, “Quantum Enigma” by Rosenblum and Kuttner), as well as self-critical philosophical books such as the anthology “Naturalism in Question” edited by Mario De Caro and David Macarthur.

    By “naturalism” I understand any mechanistic ontology, i.e. any ontology where all knowledge about objective reality can be expressed using mathematical models. The most current naturalistic understanding of reality is “scientific naturalism” according to which there is nothing more to reality than what science describes through its models. As science only deals with material objects, scientific naturalism belongs to both the set of naturalistic ontologies and of materialistic ontologies. I claim that any naturalistic ontology in general, and scientific naturalism in particular, suffers from a long list of conceptual problems, such as:

    The problem of free will. The way we experience free will and the language we use to describe it are incompatible with naturalism. Compatibilist definitions of free will are not compatible with the concept of personal responsibility, for in a deterministic world where not only one’s actions but also one’s beliefs and desires that lead to one’s actions could not possibly be different than what they are, it’s absurd to hold one personally responsible for them.

    The problem of meta-ethics. The way we experience value and the language we use to describe it are incompatible with naturalism. Indeed it’s not clear what value actually refers to in a naturalistic reality, nor is it clear on what naturalistic grounds one can argue that a particular invented ethical system is better than another.

    The problem of intentionality. The way we experience cognition and the language we use to describe it are incompatible with naturalism. Indeed it’s not clear how in a mechanistic reality anything could be about anything else, and specifically how such objects as “beliefs” (never mind “true beliefs) could exist.

    Now, up to here a naturalist might bite the bullet and claim that the language used above is unscientific and represents a folk-psychological understanding of reality. The above problems exist only because our brain is massively fooling us into using concepts such as freedom, value, and beliefs which are all illusory and do not represent anything that exists in objective reality.

    To answer your challenge I describe bellow three conceptual problems which do not allow for this defense. I am really curious how you would deal with them:

    1. The problem of consciousness. Consciousness is a scientifically unnecessary concept, because it does not refer to something observable, nor is the hypothesis that it exists necessary for explaining anything observable. Thus consciousness lies beyond the scientific field of investigation. According to scientific naturalism nothing exists but the objects of science, which implies the non-existence of consciousness. But consciousness clearly does exist, and cannot be construed to be an illusory concept.

    2. The problem of the non-relevance of our brain. If materialism is true and our consciousness is produced by some mechanism, that mechanism may not be our brain, but rather some mechanism which simulates the world we experience around us. But as there is only one objective world, but there may be a great number of simulated worlds running in parallel, it is reasonable to hold that it is more probable that we live in a simulated world in which our brain is simply one more simulated part and has no causal power of its own, rather than that we live in the objective world in which our brain produces our consciousness.

    [continued in the next post]

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    3. The problem of science. Modern science has made it hard if not impossible to believe several implications of naturalism, such as that there exists an objective reality which is independent from us (or from conscious observation), that the reality which produces the phenomena we observe works on mechanistic principles, and that there are objective means to find out how reality is.

    3.1. Scientific naturalism is based on the premise that scientific models describe reality. So, for example, when general relativity models gravitational phenomena by saying that mass bends spacetime, according to scientific naturalism that’s exactly what happens in reality. But the same standard is not used in all cases. So, for example, according to Quantum Electrodynamics if an object is observed at positions A and B, in between that object has traveled through all points in space, but no naturalist claims that this is precisely what happens in reality. On what grounds does naturalism decide which scientific models describe and which don’t describe reality? For if no such grounds exist, then the whole project of scientific naturalism is rendered arbitrary.

    3.2. Quantum mechanics describes a non-concrete reality of potentialities. To describe how reality actually is the naturalist must create a naturalistic model which mathematically comports with QM, a so-called interpretation of QM. The problem is that it is possible to develop many different interpretations of QM (to-date there are some dozen major ones), which are deeply mutually contradictory (not to mention wildly fantastic). Which raises the question on what grounds can it be said that scientific naturalism amounts to an objective understanding of reality.

    3.3. According to QM reality remains in a superposition of potential facts until an observation is made (and not: until an observation is made we may know about facts). But this contradicts the materialistic understanding of reality according to which consciousness is contingent and factual reality objectively exists at the absence of conscious observation. (As Einstein complained QM implied that the moon has no factual position if nobody is looking.)

    3.4. In addition to the above, according to QM, matter has a dual nature (the so-called wave-particle duality). The problem is that which nature matter will exhibit depends on what we decide to measure. It is as if reality were like a closed box with various lids, and depending on which lid we choose to open we find something different inside. That the nature of objective reality should be contingent on personal choice contradicts the very notion of objectivity. What’s worse, experiments have been carried out in which a current choice may change the nature of reality in the past (see Wheeler’s delayed choice experiment).

    3.5. QM predicts and experiment (e.g Aspect’s) has verified that particle pairs may remain “entangled” even if located far away from each other, in the sense that an observation made on one particle instantly affects the nature of both. Such non-locality may be “spooky” (to use Einstein’s words) but is at least a coherent view. The problem is that according to special relativity which particle is first observed and thus fixes the entangled pair’s nature depends on the observer’s frame of reference. Therefore it is possible for two observers observing the same event and using the same logic to arrive at two contradictory inferences about objective reality, which renders naturalism epistemically incoherent.

    3.6. It could have been the case that the scientific models of the smallest parts of a system were trivially simple, and that a system’s complexity emerged from the interaction of its many parts, but this isn’t the case. Indeed an elementary particle such as an electron exhibits computationally very complex behavior. If naturalism is true then the question arises of how exactly (barred magic) can a primitive element without any internal parts or access to any computing mechanism display such behavior.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09010421115826273321 Rourke

    Just throwing this out there: I think a big problem that arises when we secularists try to engage theists is that, simply put, it's impossible to define what a religion "really" is about. Conservatives claim a religion "really" is about their version of truth and only that; liberals claim a religion is "really" about open-minded spirituality and tolerance; moderates split the difference by evading the question.

    Whenever religious fundamentalists do something horrible, and we (secularists) are in the middle of a discussion about theism, invariably we hear: "Terrorism/bigotry really isn't the core of x religion!" But when we try to discuss a religion's legitimacy with a presumably more open-minded liberal, they always say "Stop, you have a hurtful agenda against us" like a conservative. And the moderates, as aforementioned, tend to offer a little of both.

    Therefore, yes, I agree with you Keith: I think religion does get a free pass whenever anyone's trying to talk about its legitimacy. That is, it seems no matter who's talking about religion with us — a theological liberal, a fundamentalist fanatic, a "spiritual" liberal defender of religion, etc. — the answer is always "stop criticizing!" And yet, of course, theists love criticizing any of us secularists as irrationally angry, when of course it's quite often the theists who're being irrationally confrontational.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02113192159669193981 Apashiol

    Dianelos Georgoudis
    "Let’s not forget that the modern phenomenon of suicide bombing for terror purposes was initiated by the secular Tamil Tigers"

    Actually, the idea that the Tamil Tigers are non-religious ignores the fact that Sri Lankan liberation is informed by Hindu ideas of the regenerative power of self-sacrifice and deification of heroes.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02113192159669193981 Apashiol

    Sorry, that should have been 'Tamil Liberation'.

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