More on Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God

If I keep going, I am going to have to read this book. Here is an except:

A modern skeptic will find it impossible to accept Steiner’s conclusion that “what lies beyond man’s word is eloquent of God.” But perhaps that is because we have too limited an idea of God. We have not been doing our practice and have lost the “knack” of religion. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a time that historians call the early modern period, Western people began to develop an entirely new kind of civilization, governed by scientific rationality and based economically on technology and capital investment. Logos achieved such spectacular results that myth was discredited and the scientific method was thought to be the only reliable means of attaining truth. This would make religion difficult, if not impossible. As theologians began to adopt the criteria of science, the mythoi of Christianity were interpreted as empirically, rationally, and historically verifiable and forced into a style of thinking that was alien to them. Philosophers and scientists could no longer see the point of ritual, and religious knowledge became theoretical rather than practical. 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 meaning of the word “belief” changed, so that a credulous acceptance of creedal doctrines became the prerequisite of faith, so much so that today we often speak of religious people as “believers,” as though accepting orthodox dogma “on faith” were their most important activity.

This rationalized interpretation of religion has resulted in two distinctively modern phenomena: fundamentalism and atheism. The two are related. The defensive piety popularly known as fundamentalism erupted in almost every major faith during the twentieth century. In their desire to produce a wholly rational, scientific faith that abolished mythos in favor of logos, Christian fundamentalists have interpreted scripture with a literalism that is unparalleled in the history of religion. In the United States, Protestant fundamentalists have evolved an ideology known as “creation science” that regards the mythoi of the Bible as scientifically accurate. They have, therefore, campaigned against the teaching of evolution in the public schools, because it contradicts the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis.

Historically, atheism has rarely been a blanket denial of the sacred per se but has nearly always rejected a particular conception of the divine. At an early stage of their history, Christians and Muslims were both called “atheists” by their pagan contemporaries, not because they denied the reality of God but because their conception of divinity was so different that it seemed blasphemous. Atheism is therefore parasitically dependent on the form of theism it seeks to eliminate and becomes its reverse mirror image. Classical Western atheism was developed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, whose ideology was essentially a response to and dictated by the theological perception of God that had developed in Europe and the United States during the modern period. The more recent atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris is rather different, because it has focused exclusively on the God developed by the fundamentalisms, and all three insist that fundamentalism constitutes the essence and core of all religion. This has weakened their critique, because fundamentalism is in fact a defiantly unorthodox form of faith that frequently misrepresents the tradition it is trying to defend.But the “new atheists” command a wide readership, not only in secular Europe but even in the more conventionally religious United States. The popularity of their books suggests that many people are bewildered and even angered by the God concept they have inherited.

Why is this important? Because so far, few ‘God’ books have made an impact against the atheism of Dawkins, et al. I think that Karen has a strong arm effect in this debate. While she takes a philosopher’s turn at God – which is nothing new – she handles, from what I have seen, the atheists at their own game. In speaking with a dear friend of mine, who by chance is an atheist (for now, R, for now), we have been speaking about this very fact – that Atheists generally see Fundamentalism as the whole of Christianity.

Armstrong, who attracted a loyal following with her 1993 best-seller “A History of God,” is a brilliant woman and engaging commentator on the philosophical and theological foundations of the world’s religions. But she has an annoying tendency to explain the history of everything every time she wants to make a point.

Her point here is a well-reasoned response to the so-called “new atheists,” a trio of anti-religionists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens) who surprised the publishing world with their own series of best-selling books.

Armstrong rightly points out that these writers have committed literary sins – not so much with their disbelief in God – but in the way they seek to discredit all people of faith by focusing on the intolerant and sometimes violent message promoted by Muslim, Christian and Jewish fundamentalists.

In the process, Armstrong argues, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens are guilty of the same narrow-mindedness that they seek to expose. “Like all religious fundamentalists,” she writes, “the new atheists believe that they alone are in possession of truth; like Christian fundamentalists, they read scripture in an entirely literal manner.

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7 Replies to “More on Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God”

  1. Personally, I really like Karen Armstrong. I’ve read both “The History of God”, and, “The Battle for God”, and truly enjoyed each one. She’s a very smart cookie who weaves theology, philosophy, history, context, and culture together in a way the inevitably leads her readers to “ah-ha!” moments.

    This one will definitely be on my list next.

  2. Read my book “An Atheist Defends Religion” for a far more balanced interretation of the God Debate than that offered by Armstrong. One writer called my position “Atheism 3.0” because not only do I criticize atheist extremism but I also affirm the value of religion, despite my inability to believe in a Divine Entity.

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