Q:What makes the best ‘case for God’ to a skeptic or non-believer, an open-minded seeker, and to a person of faith and Why?
1) The message of scripture?
2) The scientific evidence for an Intelligent Designer?
3) The ‘words’ that God has ‘spoken’ – Torah, Jesus, the Qur’an?
4) A compassionate lifestyle?
5) Personal, subjective experience?
— Karen Armstrong
None of the above. There is no “scientific evidence” of the existence of an intelligent designer. And the fact that there are many Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, and atheists whose lives are models of concern for their fellow humans–and many whose lives are sinkholes of selfishness–suggests that religious belief, or the lack of it, has little to do with our daily decisions on behalf of good, evil, or apathy.
One might as well try to cut one’s way through fog with a sword as attempt to engage Karen Armstrong’s “case for God” with rational discourse. In the end, her arguments for the divine always boils down to “it’s a mystery.” She tells atheists that they are wasting their time by “magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life.” Only if atheists “translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action” will they discover “the truth or falsehood of religion.”
In other words, even if religion makes no sense to you, just go ahead and act as if you were religious and you’ll see what I mean. Or: try it, you’ll like it. I could say the same thing about atheism, and my statement would be as meaningless as Armstrong’s dictum. What is it about this “religious way of life,” anyway, that necessarily differs from the ethical precepts of a nonreligious person? What there is to learn from the golden rule is no mystery, and one need not believe in any any transcendent power to understand that doing unto others as you would have them do unto you it is a better way of living than “do unto others before they do unto you.”
Armstrong’s ideas about “fundamentalist atheism” are as strange as some of her ideas about religion itself. First, atheists don’t “magisterially” evaluate the teachings of religion–and most of us did not became atheists from reading the arguments of Bertrand Russell or Richard Dawkins. Many of us rejected religion because we (especially Americans) were brought up in some faith and what we were taught simply did not make sense to us. We became atheists through the same process that Armstrong hopes people will become religious–by firsthand exposure to the rituals and practices of faith communities. Some religious dropouts (like Armstrong, who was once a Catholic nun) feel too lonely in a world unmoored from religion and eventually work their way back to a form of faith–call it liberal religion, whether in eastern or western forms–that seems more compatible with reason than they faith of their youth.
And some of us are content to experience “the transcendent” (a term Armstrong uses with irritating frequency) through the greatness of human art, the power of human love, and the glories of the human mind at its best without any nudge from the divine. One of Armstrong’s chief arguments is that there is something extra-natural about “the transcendent”–that awe and insight are best and most fully experienced through religion. She visits the stunning Lascaux caves, first decorated during the Stone Age, and thinks about the relationship between art and religion. I too had the privilege of visiting those caves in the days when they were still open to the public, and I was awed not only by the beauty and liveliness of the frescoes of animals who seemed ready to leap off the ancient walls but by the evidence of human aspiration at a time when our species knew so little.
For Armstrong, such feelings are “ephemeral” if they are not embedded in some sacred myth. The caves were probably places for sacred rituals and therefore show that “religion and art were inseparable from the very beginning.” Armstrong goes on to say that myth, like art, “will make no sense unless we know it wholeheartedly and allow it to change us. If we hold ourselves aloof, it will remain opaque, incomprehensible, even ridiculous.”
Of course religion and art were inseparable from the beginning. One need not accept or even understand what Stone Age people believed about the animals they painted to see the magnificence of human endeavor, any more than one needs to believe in the Garden of Eden to appreciate Masaccio’s frescoes on the walls of the Brancacci Chapel. If art and religion were inseparable, no atheist or freethinker should ever have become a painter or sculptor. Art would have come to a dead end with secularism: one would experience nothing of “the transcendent” in the paintings of Monet, Matisse and Picasso or, for that matter, in any paintings of secular subjects since the Renaissance. Art, like religion, is a human invention.
Armstrong’s version of both religious and secular history is skewed by her need to make a case for a form of religion that does not directly assault reason. “The best theology,” she writes, “is a spiritual exercise, akin to poetry. “Religion is not an exact science but a kind of art form that, like music or painting, introduces us to a mode of knowledge that is different from the purely rational and which cannot easily be put into words.” What a narrow definition of rationality!
Rationality and emotion are not necessarily opposed (although they can be, when either is placed in service to anti-rational premises). Thomas Aquinas, for example, placed logic in service to the idea of the Roman Catholic church as the arbiter of revealed truth. But Armstrong presents a completely ahistorical portrait of Aquinas, whom she sees as a thinker who understood religion not as “something that people thought but something they did.” This was a man who believed, absolutely, in the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church, and his life’s work was the reconciliation of church doctrine with classical Greek philosophy. The very idea of absolute truth as the property of a church claiming to represent the “one, true faith” is in as incompatible with rationality as modern biblical literalism is. Aquinas would certainly be surprised to find himself transformed into, well, a Unitarian or a Sufi by Armstrong’s amorphous notion of religion.
Armstrong’s book really ought to be titled, “The Case For A God Who Is Anything You Want Him To Be–As Long As You Have Faith.” To this end, she sets up religious fundamentalism and “atheist fundamentalism” as straw opponents. The concept of “atheist fundamentalism” is necessary to believers who wish to place themselves and their form of faith as superior to both atheism and orthodox religion. In this scenario, it is possible to define atheists as people who don’t believe in God because they mistakenly confuse all religion with ridiculous biblical literalism.
I do not regard “moderate religion” as a threat to freedom of thought, but that does not make moderate religion rational. The fundamental mistake Armstrong makes is her insistence on distinguishing between emotional experiences of “transcendence” and rational thought and description. Emotion, awe, and rationality all flow from the human brain. The awe we feel when experiencing a great work of art or the most transcendent forms of love is a function of the human mind, as it has evolved for eons. If believers need to believe that their experience of transcendence is superior to my experience of transcendence because it is a mystery, I have no desire to convince them otherwise. And I have no desire to change the views of religious believers–as long as they do claim that their beliefs should set the standard for society. I will confess that I do not understand why so many believers devote so much energy to denigrating atheism. It’s a mystery.