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Karen Armstrong and The Case for God

Caseforgod 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.


After reading The God Delusion when it came out I thought I'd give a miss to Christopher Hitchens's version, God is Not Great. You can have too much of a good thing. But I'm catching up with it now and rather enjoying it - a whisky-sozzled rant, but erudite and entertaining, and spot on in many ways.

In fact I'm slightly disquieted by not finding much in it that I strongly disagreed with, although I would probably have expressed it differently. It's very polemical - Hitchens uses the word 'stupid' a lot, which not many writers can get away with - but applied to the absurdity and cruelty that institutional religion is so richly capable of that seems fair enough.

Unlike other God-bashers Hitchens is quite interested in religion and knows a bit about its history. He engages with the devout parents of female partners, and visits churches, synagogues and mosques. He also argues amicably with religiously-inclined friends, to the extent that they consider him a 'seeker', implying that he is on some sort of spiritual journey.

This annoys him, as he considers himself a born sceptic. He cringed, he says, when, aged nine, a favourite teacher suggested God had kindly arranged for all trees and grass to be green, a naturally restful colour (as opposed to orange or purple), intuitively knowing that eyes were adjusted to nature and not the other way about. He didn't know any science then; he 'simply knew, almost as if I had privileged access to a higher authority...' This clear insight at such an early age intrigues me. I can personally remember being vaguely bothered by these sorts of God-questions as a child, but I put them off as being far too difficult to deal with.

Of course Hitchens targets that very literal view of scriptural religion which I'm tempted to say no serious person could believe, except that unfortunately so very many people do. It's especially alarming to us secular-ish Europeans to see how the wave of fundamentalist religiosity is lapping ever closer to the centres of power in the US, and presidential candidates like Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann with their religious certainties, public prayer meetings and social intolerance.

Reading Hitchens it strikes me over again that the New Atheists' quarrel is really with religion as a social and political force, not as a private, interior relationship with the divine. Not that they are at all tolerant towards New Age-type faith, but here, just as in Dawkins's book there's nothing at all about religion as an inner experience: it's just not on their radar. They give it a sideswipe but don't think of it as 'real' religion, of the kind that they can stick a boot into. Actually I thought Hitchens might have a go in a short chapter headed 'There is no eastern religion', but this turned out to consist of - entirely justified - complaints about dodgy cults and gurus and an equally brief comment on the propensity for warfare and persecution indulged in by those nice peaceful Buddhists.

A key point for atheists is that religion is not necessary for people to behave well. That's true in the most obvious sense. Secularists are not noticeably less principled than religious believers, while some believers seem devoid of conscience (eg sadist nuns and paedophile priests.)

But I wonder if it really is so simple? There's a lot of bewilderment just now, in the aftermath of the riots in British cities, about how even many well-off young people saw nothing wrong in helping themselves to stuff from shops that were being looted, even if they didn't initiate it. Commentators are shocked, as if it's a mysterious aberration. I don't think it is. When I was a student in the 1970s it was considered quite in order not to pay for books, and even friends or people who I respected cheerfully nicked one or two a week. I can't even say it was moral principle that stopped me doing likewise; it might just have been a reluctance to break the law, or sheer cowardice, for that matter. I think it was trendy socialism that justified this - ie education should be free - and I get the feeling that this lot have a similar sense of entitlement.

But any religion tells you theft is wrong, and once you start to engage with it you clean up your act in all sorts of ways. From my own experience, and from what I have observed with friends and acquaintances, contact with religious teaching of more or less any kind actually does sharpen the moral sensibility, even for those who already consider themselves decent and law-abiding. On the other hand these teachings tend to be of the spirituality type, and not the traditional theism that seems so often to breed intolerance and cruelty.

Also atheists rather under-estimate the power of ideology in their own thinking. Intellectually they imagine themselves to be free agents. Hitchens says:

Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically...

Well yes, he says that. But I wasn't surprised to find James Randi listed prominently in his list of acknowledgements. As parapsychologists know from bitter experience, the commitment to free inquiry and open-mindedness go out the window as soon as the fundamentals of the secular world view are challenged.

It's absolutely fair to 'distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason'. But 'science' may simply consist of an unchallenged accumulation of assumptions, while 'reason' may have been moulded by personal inclination, temperament, peer pressure and the like. In that case a person's commitment to free inquiry is seriously compromised. And if he is constrained in his thinking, how will he ever know?

London (Not) In Flames

Great excitement with the riots, which came within a couple of hundred yards of my front door two nights ago. Several shop windows were smashed and a few shops got looted - not too seriously, as the police were out in force, but deeply disturbing for the owners.

It doesn't surprise me that jobless youths with no education and prospects let off steam like this. In fact it's more surprising that it happens so seldom. Stand by for a year or two of handwringing (where did we go wrong?), government commissions led by earnest elderly judges, recommendations for social changes that will never get enacted - and then the whole thing will be forgotten until the next time.

Social media has obviously played a big part, with Blackberry's encrypted messaging apparently being used to invite gang members to particular areas across London - which is why my otherwise quite peaceful locality got hit. So it's not as though it's all completely spontaneous.

It does bother me that the international reaction has been so hysterical. From some of the coverage you'd think the whole country is going up in flames. The Germans are particularly bad - the Spiegel correspondent compared London to Mogadishu and talked of Londeners fleeing to the continent. Such cobblers, considering what an infintesimally small fraction of the population has been affected.