Secular Right | Reality & Reason



Metaphorical religion

Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins have companion essays on the implications of evolution for religion in the Wall Street Journal.  I am not very familiar with Armstrong’s writings.  I tried her book on Islam and found it saccharine, and I know that supporters of traditional religious belief regard her tolerant relativism with deep suspicion.  Her argument here strikes me as so revisionist that it must grow out of some broader intellectual or ideological agenda of which I am unaware. 

Armstrong blames the 17th century scientific revolution for the belief in a literal God.  Until then, she claims, Christians were highly sophisticated consumers of religious myth, well-aware that

what we call “God” is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence.

It was Newton who made people think that God actually created the universe, Armstrong says, and set them up for unbearable anguish when evolution showed that “there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos” and that “God had no direct hand” in making human beings (Armstrong’s addition of “direct” to “hand” here is  supremely disingenuous.  Did he have a hand in creation or not?) 

The idea that Medieval crusaders, relic-seeking pilgrims, or Europe’s warring sects possessed an ironic, purely metaphorical conception of “God,” one requiring scare quotes, strikes me as preposterous.  The New Testament purports to be a historical account of a real God incarnate and his miraculous life on earth.  The earliest cathedral iconography stressed just those miraculous aspects of the Jesus story, such as the resurrection and Jesus’ faith healing. 

Armstrong claims that the pre-Christian world also regarded cosmology not “as factual but [as] primarily therapeutic, . . . recited when people needed an infusion of that mysterious power that had—somehow—brought something out of primal nothingness.” 

Just as the religious construct the God that they want to believe in, it would appear that spirituality fans construct the religion that they want to believe in.  Armstrong is surely projecting her own favored understanding of religion onto a phenomenon that doesn’t necessarily conform to her ideal.  Perhaps some ancient believers regarded their religion as “therapeutic” and had no desire to tap into a supernatural power that would respond to their needs, but I doubt whether they represented the majority of believers.  Armstrong also embraces what strikes me as a rather literal functionalism: 

Religion was not supposed to provide explanations that lay within the competence of reason but to help us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace.

“Not supposed to” according to whose plan?  

Dawkins’ essay and Armstrong’s do not immediately seem to intersect.  Dawkins concludes, however, by  mocking contemporary theologians who are willing to jettison the idea of a literal God in favor of a purely pragmatic one.  Don’t think that you are representing actual believers, Dawkins says.  He could as easily have directed his critique to Armstrong. 

As for Dawkins’ assertion that life in every corner of the universe must always have evolved from simplicity to complexity, is such confidence justified–unless he is not simply stating a tautology?  Might there not be realities out there beyond what our own mental capacities can ever hope to grasp or foresee?   (And I don’t mean “God.”)



  • Author comment by David Hume · September 13, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    Armstrong is surely projecting her own favored understanding of religion onto a phenomenon that doesn’t necessarily conform to her ideal.

    yes. i’ve read several of her works (though her first “big book,” the history of god, was probably her most interesting). she acts if the vast majority of religionists were logicians like aquinas or mystics like eckhart. to a great extent the protestant fundamentalist reaction to the enlightenment was the triumph of religious populism and the overthrow of theological subtly or mystical obscurity in favor of plain readings (though often “fundamentalists” engage in a lot of tortured misreading to maintain some coherency within the text). this plain reading fundamentalism emerged during the reformation as well. it naturally had to wait for the printing press and widespread literacy to emerge as a force which could push aside elite control of religion.

  • Clark · September 13, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    I don’t know Armstrong, but while that description might apply to Eckhart or even Anselm I have a hard time seeing it as a general statement. I’m pretty skeptical she could make that case. If anything I suspect the typical religionist up until modernism believed too much. i.e. believe not only Christianity but a lot of paganism as well in a fairly literalist way. If anything it was the movement of modernism that allowed Christian fundamentalism to be both naively literalist but simultaneously reject a lot of beliefs that I think Atran and folk argue we are cognitively predisposed to believe.

    It is interesting though that the rise of modernism and the place of mechanism did transform what it meant in the average thinker’s eyes to be a creator. Whereas I suspect prior to then it was rather ill defined except for the scholastic philosophers.

  • Ploni · September 13, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    Karen Armstrong’s job is to manufacture pleasant lies about religion for consumption by nice suburban liberals. Most of the things she says in the article have at least a grain of truth, but the article as a whole was a lie. You can see this if you pay attention to her phrasing: “many of the most influential…thinkers” (in other words, elite theologians disconnected from the religion of the masses); “cosmology was not regarded as factual but was primarily therapeutic” (not regarded by whom as factual? which cosmologies, when?). She’s got an image of religion to sell, and she’ll do whatever it takes to make the sale.

    The bit about the so-called Genesis creation hymn was kind of funny. Presumably this “hymn” (actually written in prose) is Genesis 1:1. Her interpretation depends on the factual claim that the source (called P for Priestly) is dated to the Exile. But many source critics would dispute that – I think it’s even a minority position. Some would date it to the Exile, but many date it as pre-exilic and many date it as post-exilic. And besides, there are plenty of other creation stories in the Old Testament, hymns and otherwise, outside the Book of Genesis. Genesis gets Armstrong’s exclusive attention simply because some redactor decided to place it, and not other biblical creation stories, at the beginning of the Bible.

    Armstrong shouldn’t be taken seriously. To borrow her own phrase: her writings should be regarded not as factual but as therapeutic. And speaking of not-to-be-taken-seriously, I didn’t bother reading Dawkins’ article.

  • Snippet · September 14, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    To a certain type of liberal, the whole human race was enlightened UNTIL the “enlightenment,” after which point, everything went to hell.

    I’ve read about Armstrong, but not her work directly. From what I’ve heard here and elsewhere, I don’t think I could stomach it.

    The Enlightenment really was the ultimate triumph of true, genuine liberal thinking – it l-i-b-e-r-a-t-e-d on so many levels, including the religious, yet somehow, a large subculture (sub?!) of contemporary liberalism hates the whole thing and wants to go back to before that terrible thing happened, which (apparently) made people MORE religious and stupid than they had been.

    I think there’s a grain of truth there in that the modern world has its unique psychological stresses that may send some people fundamentalism-ward, but I think I’d prefer it to the pre-Enlightenment world.

    Unless I was super rich, and had no serious health issues.

    And perfect, indestructible teeth.

  • Secular Right » Rule by Good Men · September 29, 2009 at 11:13 am

    […] Heather’s post on Karen Armstrong I’ve heard her a lot on the radio hawking her new book, The Case for God. […]



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