Monday, October 19, 2009

Karen Armstrong's The Case for God

I just finished reading Karen Armstrong's latest book, The Case for God. Like everything else that I've read by her, I liked it a lot. She is obviously well read and passionately interested in religion. She is not an academic, but she isn't afraid of using big words or difficult concepts. More importantly, she isn't tied to a denomination---like many religious writers---which means that she can follow her ideas where they lead without fear of suffering professionally from her candour. (I think that this effectively muzzles a great many religious leaders who fear retribution from both church hierarchy and the people in the pews.)

Armstrong's basic thesis is that modern religious concepts have been badly damaged by apologists for religion who tried to use the authority of modern science to justify belief in God. As a result, the traditional tendency to emphasise the ineffability and transcendence of God was lost. Once God stopped being beyond our ability to comprehend, people started to emphasise the necessity of belief in specific creeds, which in turn led the way to Biblical literalism and all the intolerance that flows from that.

Armstrong believes that this is a form of idolatry in that once one accepts the notion that people can have clear and distinct ideas about what God is, then it becomes almost inevitable that these ideas become not much more thatn what believer's project upon him. This is the point where God stops being outside of human history and begins to look (at least to Americans) like a sort of cosmic "commander in chief" with a paid-up membership in the Republican party and who is a regular listener to Rush Limbaugh. (And, of course, in Saudi Arabia he keeps his wife in a veil and supports Osama Bin Laudin---.)

I'm don't think that Armstrong actually "makes her case", but I'm not sure that this would bother her. One of her key points is that religious "truths" don't actually get settled by discursive argument. Instead, she repeatedly asserts that whatever wisdom does come from religion is a result of regular personal practice---either individually or as part of a community. Moreover, she believes that the truths imparted are cannot be universally understood (like scientific truths) but instead are intelligible only to specific people using a specific shared language and who are tied into a particular relationship with each other. (This is not so much an epistemological claim---that is talking about the nature of knowledge---but more a recognition of the practical limits or our ability to communicate difficult ideas.)

Two ideas that she keeps returning to in her text are those of "bricolage" and "midrash". The first comes from architecture and refers to a process where one restricts one's materials to a specific set in order to expand one's creativity. In the same way, Armstrong believes that religions grow through the process of re-interpreting and reformulating their specific core myths. The Jewish process of creative interpretations of scripture that inspired Armstrong to use the bricolage analogy comes from the practice of creating a "midrash" to re-explain the value of ancient texts in a new historical context.

She ends the book by referring to the so-called "New Atheists" and suggests that they are trapped in the same nasty circle as the fundamentalists they despise because both have limited their definition of "God" to a idolatrist projection and "religion" to the empty positing of creedal formulas instead of ritual, spiritual practice and good works. Unless society is able to step out of this rut and rediscover the ideal of God as being manifest in our ignorance and how we live our lives, we are doomed to have to choose between these two fruitless options.


Green Monk said...

This book has been on my to read list. Thanks for the review. Now I am more sure I want to read it!

Anonymous said...

Another thanks for the review here. Karen Armstrong has an interview on, which is good. In the same vein, Huston Smith, another historian of religion, is featured there too, and his interview is stunning (well, I liked it):

Anonymous said...

the case for God is talked about in this lecture(about 70 minutes long). also throws some light on dao.
i request your patience to go through the 8 parts of this talk and share your comments.

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


I generally don't respond to people who just throw books or videos at me without at least making an attempt to formulate what they are saying in their own words. But in this case I did go through the eight-part lecture, which is quite interesting.

Miller is trying to create a logical theology for Islam, which is exactly what people have done in all religions for thousands of years. I think he makes a very good case. But I noticed when he was answering questions he slipped out of his reasonable stance when he started talking about resurrection. He made some weird analogy with cloning mastodons from frozen DNA to the bodily resurrection of individual human beings.

It would seem on the face of that, that there are elements either in the Koran or the Islamic community that force him into the same sort of belief system that screw up Christians. Once you start believing in things that simply do not fit into our experience of the world, you leave the barn door open for fundamentalists and other dangerous mental predators.

So much of what he says could be of use, but I think that he is protecting a hidden, medieval world-view that I would just as soon see the end of----.

Navaid said...

I genuinely appreciate your taking time out and going through the audio.

I think Miller being a mathematician is explaining his understanding, and appears to me very iconoclaustic. but i don't agree that he is creating a new logical theology. Just as you cannot stop fundamentalists from interpreting the text to serve their own agenda, there is nothing wrong in a refreshing but not necessarily new interpretation. So which one to take: consistency is the key. and it will always be beneficial if we moved closer to the truth.

all normal humans are forward-looking so i agree that 'medieval world-view ' must be discarded.

this lecture is very old, probably around 20 years old but this guy is to be found nowhere, so i don't beleive he has/had any hidden agenda.

i don't understand why do you thinkg that the cloning analogy is wierd?

Please don't take offence from what i have written as none is meant. Again i must thank you for giving your time.

Anonymous no more

The Cloudwalking Owl said...


No problem. I liked listening to the lecture. I count on readers to help me by exposing me to new things.

I don't think you understood what I was trying to say when I wrote that "Miller is trying to create a logical theology for Islam". I'm not trying to slam him, just say that he is doing something that has been done before by many people in many different cultures. In Medieval Islam this was a very common and influential practice. The difference is that society's understanding has increased dramatically since that time and as a result, this sort of process will create a different result. This is exactly what Armstrong was talking about when she referred to religious thinking moving forward through briccolage and midrash.

I had problems with the reference to cloning for several reasons.

First of all, the theology that Miller laid out can work quite nicely without reference to supernaturalism---such as the idea of a bodily resurrection. I don't know anything about Islamic ideas on this score, so I'm assuming that this is one of the ideas that people accept on authority from the Koran.

In the interests of consistency, I would have much rather that Miller had said that things like the resurrection are extra-ordinary claims so they require extra-ordinary proof. When we see the proof, we can then think about accepting it. Until then, the best we can do is be dubious.

I got the feeling that if he had said that he would then have been in trouble for denying some sort of creedal statement, so he danced around it.

He got the science totally wrong with regard to the Mammoth. If you clone an animal you do not copy the animal, you create a copy that is similar, but not identical. On a physical level, the genes express themselves very differently based on their environment when developing. (Identical twins are identical because they have both identical DNA and the same developmental environment.) A clone of a cat can look very different from the source of the original cell.

Beyond that issue, there is also the fact that a man (or an animal, for that matter) is more than a body. They also have memories, personality, etc. A clone of a human being would be a different person unless you could "download" a copy of their memories, etc, into an empty mind. At this point we're into a realm where God is an entity that is directly intervening in people's lives in a way that undercuts just about everything that Miller has said up until that point.

It might be that it is True that Allah does do this sort of thing. But that is not the Allah that Miller was talking about up until that point. Moreover, if we accept the existence of that sort of Allah, then we are bound to accept all sorts of other things---using the same reasoning---that most believers would wish we didn't.