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.”)