If you open Karen Armstrong's new book, The Case for God, expecting to find a list of mysterious cures, scientific curiosities, or certified miracles all pointing toward the physical presence of a divine influence in the world, you will be sorely disappointed. Armstrong has no interest in, and is in fact completely antithetical to, trying to prove God's existence. Despite this, her book is positioned -- both in marketing and from its opening pages -- as a direct challenge to books like Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation, and Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. How can you make a defense of God if you've no interest in the existence of God? Quite well, actually, and if you do it as sharply as Armstrong, you can make hundreds of pages of what is basically theological analysis both entertaining and informative.
Armstrong argues for an idea very similar to the "non-overlapping magisteria" that were put forward by evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould (and in fact, Gould gets several nice mentions in The Case for God). She refers frequently to the idea that, in the past, people tended to break arguments into two groups for which she uses the Greek terms logos and mythos. Logos reflects practical, immediate reasoning -- how do we build that aqueduct, what can we make from this wood, which crop would grow best in that field? Mythos is more aimed at the why -- what does it mean that my friend has died, how can I recapture the joy I felt in a moment of pure experience, how can I find meaning and peace among the world's noise and violence? This sort of approach could easily fall into a gooey cheer for "being spiritual," but Armstrong is not talking about having a nice little breathing session now and then. She focuses on the 3000 year history of monotheism and the great effort that was put into building flexible, thoughtful religions, on how those religions continue to have a meaningful role in the life of millions, and how the recent history of those religions has led to unfortunate developments that are unique over those three millennia.
No civilization of the past thought it could get by without logos. Pyramids were built with extensive use of mathematics and the most advanced technology of the time. The same could be said of the Acropolis and of medieval cathedrals. When we see those past societies as ignorant and driven out of unreasoning "myths" it's because we are the oddities of history. Having acquired so much new data to feed logos over such a short time, we've become completely centered in scientific reasoning and entirely dismissive of mythos -- perversely, that's even true when we talk about fundamentalist religion. We look back on some ritual of the past and dismiss it as mindless following of tradition and superstition. You don't need to plant at midnight, or sacrifice a lamb, or ferry a statue around the town to satisfy some some dumb animal-headed deity. We search for the hint of reasoning that might be behind these rituals, and discount the idea that they served to establish meaning in lives that were just as busy, joyful, tragic, and brief as our own. We've turned "myth" into another word for fantasy, or lie. In doing so:
We lost the art of interpreting the old tales of gods walking the earth, dead men striding out of tombs, or seas parting miraculously. We began to understand concepts such as faith, revelation, myth, mystery, and dogma in a way that would have been very surprising to our ancestors.
In particular, the concept of faith comes in for a close examination. We understand faith today as a kind of blind acceptance -- like Indiana Jones stepping off into space in his quest for the Holy Grail. Religious people cheer this kind of "faith" and many Christians tout this as the one and only qualification to be among Christ's chosen. But that's not what the word translated as "faith" meant in Biblical times. It's not even what it meant when the Bible was first translated into English.
The term used in most New Testament texts (the Greek word pistis) meant something closer to loyalty or commitment, than unreasoning belief. When Jesus chastised his followers for their lack of faith, or commended a non-Jew for having faith, he wasn't talking about some unspoken creed. He certainly wasn't praising them for seeing that he was divine. He was talking about follow-through, about living up to ideas of selflessness and humbleness. Even the word "belief" has changed from a Middle English sense of "prize" to our modern idea of "accept at face value." Imagine how different every Christian creed would sound today if we replace "believe in" with "value" and "have faith in" with "commit myself to."
Unquestioning acceptance doesn't figure into the vigorous ethical and theological debates that ran through street conversations and popular songs of previous centuries, and Armstrong sees it as an invention of modern religion. Unable to separate logos and mythos, and trying to view everything through a lens of the logos-based society in which they live, fundamentalists reacted not by rediscovering the transcendent ideas of the past, but by inventing something new. Instead of science and religion, they tried to build a scientific religion in which every aspect of the world must conform to a literal interpretation of scripture (one that ignores the inherent, and quite intentional, contradictions built into that text). Blind acceptance had to be inserted into the mix because only blind acceptance allows stepping around the wreck trying to force mythos to conform to logos makes of both. If you look for reviews of Amrstrong's book, you'll find that that the harshest reviews are not from the general "secular" press, but from fundamentalists. "Demon inspired" is one of the milder phrases you'll encounter if you make a search for reactions from Christian fundamentalists.
Though the heart of the book is a lengthy examination of theology that starts with the paintings of Neolithic caves and ends with twenty-first century philosophers, don't get the impression that Armstrong asserts that the meaning of religion can be found in a text -- whether that text is the Bible, the Torah, or her own book. The Case for God might as well be called The Case for Religious . And by practice she doesn't mean doing something once, she means doing it over, and over, and over -- like practicing piano -- until you discover the passion at the end of all that rote, mechanical repetition.
Religion... was not primarily something that people thought, but something they did. It's truth was acquired by practical action. It is no use imagining that you will be able to drive a car if you simply read the manual or study the rules of the road. You cannot learn to dance, paint, or cook by perusing text or recipes. The rules of a board game sound obscure, unnecessarily complicated, and dull until you start to play, when everything falls into place. There are some things that can be learned only by constant, dedicated practice, but you find that you achieve something that seemed initially impossible. Instead of sinking to the bottom of the pool, you can float, you may learn to jump higher and with more grace than seems humanly possible, or to sing with unearthly beauty. You do not always understand how you achieved these feats, because your mind directs your body in a way that bypasses conscious logical deliberation, but somehow you learn to transcend your original capabilities. Some of these activities bring indescribable joy. A musician can lose herself in her music, a dancer becomes inseparable from the dance, and a skier feels entirely at one with himself and the external world as he speeds down the slope. It is a satisfaction that goes deeper than merely "feeling good." It is what the Greeks called ekstatis, which means a stepping outside the norm.
Religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart. ... It is no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth of falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth -- or lack of it -- only if you translate those doctrines into ritual or ethical action. Like any skill, religion requires perseverance, hard work, and discipline.
Not only does Armstrong see the blind acceptance of doctrine as an impediment to religious practice, she discounts the idea that religious beliefs can have any value unless they are placed into a framework of daily practice, commitment, and ethical action.
If you're waiting for her to stop explaining where the fundamentalists went wrong and start her case against "Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens," you're going to be disappointed again -- because Armstrong seems them as both as flip sides of the same coin.
Like all religious fundamentalists, the new athesists believe that they alone are in possession of the truth; like Christian fundamentalists they read scripture in an entirely literal manner and seem to never have heard of the long tradition of allegoric or Talmudic interpretation... Harris seems to imagine that biblical inspiration means that the Bible was actually "written by God." Hitchens assumes that faith is entirely dependent on a literal reading of the Bible, and that, for example, the discrepancies in the gospel infancy narratives prove the falseness of Christianity: "Either the gospels are in some sense literal truth, or the whole thing is a fraud and perhaps a moral one at that." Like Protestant fundamentalists, Dawkins has a simplistic view of the moral teaching of the Bible, taking it for granted that its chief purpose is to issue clear rules of conduct and provide us with "role models," which, not surprisingly, he finds lamentably inadequate. He also presumes that since the Bible claims to be inspired by God it must also provide scientific information. Dawkins' only point of disagreement with the Protestant fundamentalists is that he finds the Bible unreliable about science while they do not.
Armstrong is not worried about the claim that God can't be found in science. Which is, in fact, a very old claim.
In fact, the new atheists are not radical enough. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians have insisted for centuries that God does not exist and that there is "nothing" out there...
Her concern is that the Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins camp concern themselves only with tackling a theology that is itself "decidedly unorthodox" and limited -- they want to knock down a sickly child and then proclaim they've won the heavyweight title.
By taking on fundamentalism at both ends of the scale, Armstrong has assured that her book will draw the ire of both camps. In the process she's written a book that's fascinating, packed with information about the history of religion and philosophy, and illuminating when it shows the paths we followed to end up where we find ourselves today (from a political point of view, it's very instructive to look at the origins of modern Christian fundamentalism and in particular to look at how mainstream Protestantism fanned the flames of a dying fundamentalist movement by heaping on ridicule). If nothing else, The Case for God is a terrific reference -- and a splendid bit of long form argument. If you've read any of Karen Armstrong's books in the past -- including her biography of the Buddha, or her personal account of losing faith as a young novitiate -- you'll find some of the same points repeated here, but in new historical contexts. If you haven't read her works before... well, she warns you right in the introduction that this isn't exactly light reading. If you don't want to face detailed descriptions of theological conflicts and the development of religious frameworks, turn back now.
Whether anyone will find that argument convincing, in a world that's increasingly divided into extremes, is difficult to say. But at least it should inspire some good conversations.
Update [2009-11-8 11:6:2 by Devilstower]: One thing that I greatly regret leaving out of the initial review: if there is a "hero" in this book, it's not God. It's Socrates. You can see the admiration that Armstrong has for that Socratic dialog -- a deep challenging of beliefs, but one that takes place in a friendly and open environment. The point of drawing a line between the fundamentalists and the Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris camp isn't to make an equivalence in beliefs, but an equivalence in approach. That is, yelling past each other doesn't lead to either side moving toward the middle. In fact, that kind of approach has, many times in the past, been the spark for more extremism. No matter what position we hold, I'd like to think that in this place we can take that Socratic approach -- challenging, tough, but still friendly and not resorting to punching below the belt.