The easy ride that ex-nun and ecumenical apologist for religion, Karen Armstrong, receives in the “liberal”/”left” press (New Statesman, Graun, etc), never ceases to amaze me. Below is an exception: John Crace’s concise demolition of her book “The Case For God,” in The Graun:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart make Dawkins and Hitchens burn in Hell, O Lord my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.
Much of what we say about God these days is facile. The concept of God is meant to be hard. Too often we get lost in what Greeks called logos (reason) rather than interpreting him through mythoi – those things we know to be eternally true but can’t prove. Like Santa Claus. Religion is not about belief or faith; it is a skill. Self-deceit does not always come easily, so we have to work at it.
Our ancestors, who were obviously right, would have been surprised by the crude empiricism that reduces faith to fundamentalism or atheism. I have no intention of rubbishing anyone’s beliefs, so help me God, but Dawkins’s critique of God is unbelievably shallow. God is transcendent, clever clogs. So we obviously can’t understand him. Duh!
I’m going to spend the next 250 pages on a quick trawl of comparative religion from the pre-modern to the present day. It won’t help make the case for God, but it will make me look clever and keep the publishers happy, so let’s hope no one notices!
The desire to explain the unknowable has always been with us and the most cursory glance at the cave paintings at Lascaux makes it clear these early Frenchies didn’t intend us to take their drawings literally. Their representations of God are symbolic; their religion a therapy, a sublimation of the self. Something that fat bastard Hitchens should think about.
Much the same is true of the Bible. Astonishingly, the Eden story is not a historical account, nor is everything else in the Bible true. The Deuteronomists were quick to shift the goalposts of the meaning of the Divine when problems of interpretation and meaning were revealed. So should we be. Rationalism is not antagonistic to religion. Baby Jesus didn’t want us to believe in his divinity. That is a misrepresentation of the Greek pistis. He wanted everyone to give God their best shot and have a singalong Kumbaya.
We’ll pass over Augustine and Original Sin, because that was a bit of a Christian own goal, and move on to Thomas Aquinas, in whom we can see that God’s best hope is apophatic silence. We can’t say God either exists or doesn’t exist, because he transcends existence. This not knowing is proof of his existence. QED. A leap of faith is in fact a leap of rationality. Obviously.
Skipping through the Kabbalah, introduced by the Madonna of Lourdes and Mercy (1459 – ), through Erasmus and Copernicus, we come to the Age of Reason. It was unfortunate that the church rejected Galileo, but that was more of a post-Tridentine Catholic spat than a serious error and it didn’t help that a dim French theologian, Mersenne, conflated the complexities of science with intelligent design, but we’ll skip over that.
Things came right with Darwin. Many assume he was an atheist; in reality he was an agnostic who, despite being a lot cleverer than Dawkins, could not refute the possibility of a God. Therefore God must exist, or we drift into the terrible nihilism of Sartre where we realise everything is pointless. Especially this book.
The modern drift to atheism has been balanced by an equally lamentable rise in fundamentalism. Both beliefs are compromised and misconceived. The only logical position is apophatic relativism, as stated in the Jeff Beck (1887- ) lyric, “You’re everywhere and nowhere, Baby. That’s where you’re at.”
I haven’t had time to deal with the tricky issues of the after-life that some who believe in God seem to think are fairly important.
But silence is often the best policy – geddit, Hitchens? And the lesson of my historical overview is that the only tenable religious belief is one where you have the humility to constantly change your mind in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
God is the desire beyond this desire, who exists because I say so, and the negation of whose existence confirms his transcendence. Or something like that.
And if you believe this, you’ll believe anything.
(back to me: JD)…
Armstrong’s defence of religion is based upon a rejection of rationality and an objection to the idea that people should even have to defend the ideas that they hold. Her irrationality -quite rightly – pisses off serious religious folk, who are capable of recognising a cop-out and an insult to the intelligence when they see it.
Anyway, I have long wondered whether Karen Armstrong is simply a bit thick, or is a deliberate obfuscator (ie: liar). Her review of “Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self” (phew!) by Marilynne Robinson, in yesterday’s Graun inclines me to the view that she is simply a liar and a charlatan. I mean, no-one can be this stupid, can thay?
In her predicatably enthusiastic review of Robinson’s attack upon reason, thought, the need for evidence before reaching conclusions, etc, Armstrong launches into a tired old attack on Darwinians (not, you notice Darwinianism itself – she’s not that stupid):
‘”Oh, to have been a fly on the wall!” Robinson comments wryly, when our “proto-verbal ancestors found mates through eloquent proto-speech”. In the same way, art may appear to be “an exploration of experience, of the possibilities of communication, and of the extraordinary collaboration of eye and hand,” but according to some neo-Darwinians, it too is simply a means of attracting sexual partners. “Leonardo and Rembrandt may have thought they were competent inquirers in their own right, but we moderns know better.”
‘This disdainful “hermeneutics of condescension” cannot function outside of a narrow definition of relative data. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the positivist critique of religion. Daniel Dennett, for example, defines religion as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought”. He deliberately avoids the contemplative side of faith explored by William James, as if, Robinson says, “religion were only what could be observed using the methods of anthropology or of sociology, without reference to the deeply pensive solitudes that bring individuals into congregations”. Bypassing Donne, Bach, the Sufi poets and Socrates, Dennett, Dawkins and others are free to reduce the multifarious religious experience of humanity “to a matter of bones and feathers and wishful thinking, a matter of rituals and social bonding and false etiologies and the fear of death”.’
Compare that description of Daniel Dennett’s alleged failure to comprehend “the deeply pensive solitudes that bring individuals into congregations“, with what Dennett himself writes about humanity, sympathy and emotion following a potentially fatal medical emergency:
‘Yes, I did have an epiphany. I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say “Thank goodness!” this is not merely a euphemism for “Thank God!” (We atheists don’t believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.
‘To whom, then, do I owe a debt of gratitude? To the cardiologist who has kept me alive and ticking for years, and who swiftly and confidently rejected the original diagnosis of nothing worse than pneumonia. To the surgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, and the perfusionist, who kept my systems going for many hours under daunting circumstances. To the dozen or so physician assistants, and to nurses and physical therapists and x-ray technicians and a small army of phlebotomists so deft that you hardly know they are drawing your blood, and the people who brought the meals, kept my room clean, did the mountains of laundry generated by such a messy case, wheel-chaired me to x-ray, and so forth. These people came from Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, Haiti, the Philippines, Croatia, Russia, China, Korea, India—and the United States, of course—and I have never seen more impressive mutual respect, as they helped each other out and checked each other’s work. But for all their teamwork, this local gang could not have done their jobs without the huge background of contributions from others. I remember with gratitude my late friend and Tufts colleague, physicist Allan Cormack, who shared the Nobel Prize for his invention of the c-t scanner. Allan—you have posthumously saved yet another life, but who’s counting? The world is better for the work you did. Thank goodness. Then there is the whole system of medicine, both the science and the technology, without which the best-intentioned efforts of individuals would be roughly useless. So I am grateful to the editorial boards and referees, past and present, of Science, Nature, Journal of the American Medical Association, Lancet, and all the other institutions of science and medicine that keep churning out improvements, detecting and correcting flaws.’
Dennett’s plain-spoken humanity, decency and honesty – while never for a moment reneging upon his rational beliefs – puts Karen Armstrong’s pretentious obfuscation, meaningless waffle and essential denial of humanity into the dark, foetid backwater of dishonour and shame in which it belongs.