As an antidote to Christopher Hitchens I've been reading Karen Armstrong's The Case for God: What Religion Really Means. It's a summary of religious thought from prehistoric times to the present - I found it exhilarating.
Armstrong spent seven years as a Catholic nun but became disillusioned with the God thing after being sent to study English literature at Oxford. She then wrote a memoir about the absurdity and pettiness of convent life. But some years later she discovered a new side to religion and decided to explore it by writing history books. The rise of fundamentalism - the Salman Rushdie fatwah occurred at about this time - gave her a potentially wide audience, and she is now much in demand as a commentator on religious matters.
Armstrong's idea, articulated in most of her writings, is that Western theism is a modern invention. Go back and look at the traditional texts and you'll find that religious and spiritual thinkers insisted that God is unknowable. They would be baffled by modern notions of God as a supreme being who runs the universe and answers prayers. Far from prescribing how to behave, most religion is based on the Golden Rule 'do as you would be done by' first articulated by Confucius.
Armstrong also insists on the distinction between myth-making and reason. In the ancient world, she says, Biblical myths such as the Genesis story were seen as a way to grasp truth imaginatively, but weren't meant to be taken literally. Religion was meant to be practiced, in prayer, contemplation and ritual; only by these means can it be properly understood, not by the application of reason.
She is interesting on the origins of the idea of belief, which is one of the things that always baffles me about Christianity. In most versions, belief in a set of propositions - the holy Trinity, that Jesus is the Son of God, etc - is what makes one a Christian; it's not just about being nice to other people (this includes liberal Anglicans as well as fire-breathing Evangelists) To modern ears, the words 'Believe in me, and you shall have eternal life' sound like an invitation to suppress reason, a sort of magic spell. But why did Jesus insist on faith, when other religions do not?
The answer is he didn't, says Armstrong. The word used in the original Greek Gospels is pistis, which means 'trust, loyalty, engagement, commitment'. In other words Jesus was asking his followers to commit to his teachings, not to believe in his divinity. In Middle Ages English, the world bileven meant 'to prize, to value, to hold dear', from the German belieben meaning 'to love'. It was only during the seventeenth century that the concept of knowledge became more theoretical, and the world 'belief' became used to describe 'an intellectual assent to a hypothetical - and often dubious proposition'.
I've always empathized with Armstrong, from having similar backgrounds - not the nun thing, obviously, but Oxford English Lit graduates turning against Christianity and then rediscovering a quite different kind of religion in later life, influenced among other things by Buddhism. In a book that is mainly about Western religion, it's interesting that her very last paragraph should be about the Buddha. A Brahmin priest comes across the Buddha seated in contemplation and, struck by his serenity and self-discipline, asks if he is a god or an angel or a spirit.
No, the Buddha replied. He explained that he had simply revealed a new potential in human nature. It was possible to live in this world of conflict and pain at peace and in harmony with one's fellow creatures. There was no point in merely believing it; you would only discover its truth if you practised his method, systematically cutting off egotism at the root. You would then live at the peak of your capacity, activate parts of the psyche that normally remain dormant, and become fully enlightened human beings. 'Remember me,' the Buddha told the curious priest, 'as one who is awake.'
Armstrong now calls herself a freelance monotheist. Clarifying her ideas in an interview she says:
Religion is a search for transcendence. But transcendence isn't necessarily sited in an external god, which can be a very unspiritual, unreligious concept. The sages were all extremely concerned with transcendence, with going beyond the self and discovering a realm, a reality, that could not be defined in words. Buddhists talk about nirvana in very much the same terms as monotheists describe God.
Critics generally complain that her view of ancient religion is rose-tinted. I think that's quite possible. But with so many extant texts to choose from there can be many different approaches. Atheist historians prefer to highlight those that are cruel and dogmatic. But is their view more true than hers?
A more serious accusation is that she fudges the question of whether or not God exists. Here's Richard Dawkins:
Now, there is a certain class of sophisticated modern theologian who will say something like this: "Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists. Existence is such a 19th-century preoccupation! It doesn't matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me. If God is real for you, who cares whether science has made him redundant? Such arrogance! Such elitism."
Well, if that's what floats your canoe, you'll be paddling it up a very lonely creek. 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. If sophisticated theologians or postmodern relativists think they are rescuing God from the redundancy scrap-heap by downplaying the importance of existence, they should think again. Tell the congregation of a church or mosque that existence is too vulgar an attribute to fasten onto their God, and they will brand you an atheist. They'll be right.
The comment doesn't do her justice. Armstrong is no post-modernist, she's a historian helping secularists understand the complexity of religious thought through the ages. As a bridge builder this is important work; there's a purpose to the fudge. If Westerners can be brought to believe that religious Muslims, to take the most obvious example, are not malignant zombies bent on blowing us all up but followers of a tradition that gives meaning and richness to their lives, it may help to take the temperature down a notch or two. But Dawkins has a point. In the scientific age the 'existence' question is one we're bound to ask.
These days 'God' is a loaded term. In a recent post Robert Perry draws attention to the way that the New Age prefers terms like 'energy', 'consciousness' or 'the Universe'. Interestingly, we don't doubt that these things exist - the question is, what is their underlying meaning? How significant are they, in a metaphysical sense? But even then, it's not clear exactly what we mean by 'significant'.
For many people, myself included, the way forward is to ask, not 'does God exist?' but 'Does consciousness survive the death of the body?' Then we are on surer ground, as we have a lot of potentially significant data to work with.
This is where I'm at odds with Armstrong, who thinks the question of afterlife is a red herring. She objects to it on moral grounds.
I think the old scenarios of heaven and hell can be unreligious. People can perform their good deeds in the spirit of putting their installments in their retirement annuities. And there's nothing religious about that. Religion is supposed to be about the loss of the ego, not about its eternal survival.
I agree there's a moral tangle here but I'm not convinced these things, true spirituality and an awareness of the possibility of surviving death, are mutually exclusive. This damns at a stroke an awful lot of earnest spirituality seekers in the Christian tradition in the past few centuries. It's possibly true that looking forward to another life made some of them egotistical, but they couldn't all have been blind to that problem - indeed many Christians are powerfully aware of the 'sin of spiritual pride'.
So I think that questions about survival of consciousness are fair enough, especially when there are so many indications of it. To establish it would not be the same as establishing the existence of God, but it would be a meaningful first step.