Poor Karen Armstrong has been ploughing a lonely furrow in recent years, trying to show that there is a valid Third Way between increasingly defensive religious groups and increasingly forthright ‘new atheists’. Neither side thinks much of her. For those of us a bit more detached from the arguments, she often seems like the only one talking any sense.
Her main problem can best be summarised by saying that she and I share almost identical views on religion, and yet I would call myself an atheist whereas she describes herself as a ‘freelance monotheist’. In other words, she succeeds in finding a definition of ‘God’ which I am happy to accept, but only by defining it pretty much out of existence.
The arguments in here build on her extraordinary back-catalogue of books on theological history, two of which – [b:A History of God|3873|A History of God The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam|Karen Armstrong|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1165367092s/3873.jpg|2011826] and [b:The Battle for God|27309|The Battle for God A History of Fundamentalism|Karen Armstrong|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320511875s/27309.jpg|2229866] – are absolutely essential reading for anyone who wants to enter into the debate. This book, which is designed as a sort of ‘comeback’ against the attacks of Hitchens, Dawkins et al., mostly rehashes work from those two masterpieces, so I can only really give it three stars although much of what is in here is brilliantly done.
Again, the point she is keen to stress is that religion and science represent different types of knowledge – what the Greeks called mythos
. The latter deals in rational thought and the former in poetic truths. (Thus she immediately sidesteps any claims that religion has to scientific knowledge about the world: she has as much scorn as any atheist for those religious people who think that holy books are records of facts.) She makes a convincing case that, in the pre-modern world, most religious thinkers and mystics saw religion as having symbolic, not factual, importance – hence the bizarre doctrines which to the modern world seem so impossible.
In the early modern period, when the West was developing a wholly rational way of thinking about God and the world, philosophers and scientists were appalled by the irrationality of the Trinity. But for the Cappadocian fathers – Basil, Gregory and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus (329-90) – the whole point of the doctrine was to stop Christians thinking about God in rational terms. If you did that, you could only think about God as a being, because that was all our minds were capable of. The Trinity was not a ‘mystery’ that had to be believed but an image that Christians were supposed to contemplate in a particular way.
Such ideas were thus thought-exercises – like Zen Buddhist koan
– designed to free up your mind to think about the impossible. For many of these mystics and religious thinkers, ‘God’ was not some supernatural entity – rather ‘God’ was a sort of codeword for ‘existence’, ‘reality’, or ‘the universe’, a way of contemplating ultimate truths.
The problem came with the Enlightenment, when religions felt under threat from science and tried to argue that they too had scientific knowledge about the world. For Armstrong, this is where it all went wrong: Western Christians became ‘addicted to scientific proof and were convinced that if God was not an empirically demonstrable fact, there was no sense in which religion could be true.’
This doesn't mean that religion is ‘only’ a myth – or rather, it does, except that Armstrong believes that myths, far from being ‘just stories’, are of supreme value to the way human beings experience the world. Here I agree with her, and this is also my problem with the so-called new atheism, which often seems to take a very reductionist and intolerant view of religion. To see a scientist as brilliant as Richard Dawkins reduced to explaining, in book-length form, that the idea of a benevolent omnipotent god is incompatible with such facts as childhood leukaemia or Auschwitz, makes me feel depressed and a bit embarrassed. The point is not that he's wrong, it's that it's so obvious. You'd have thought we'd be beyond this by now.
Armstrong relates a story Elie Wiesel tells about Auschwitz:
one day the Gestapo hanged a child with the face of a ‘sad-eyed angel’, who was silent and almost calm as he climbed the gallows. It took the child nearly an hour to die in front of the thousands of spectators who were forced to watch. Behind Wiesel, one of the prisoners muttered: ‘Where is God? Where is He?’ And Wiesel heard a voice within him saying in response, ‘Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.’
Two things should be crystal clear reading this. The first is the literal truth that no kindly all-powerful being could watch such scenes take place. But the second is the extraordinary poetic beauty of the response that Wiesel suggests. This, to me, is the power of religion – the same sort of truth as that offered by King Lear
or Anna Karenina
, something which helps you sympathise with others and which invites you to understand that there is a sense in which all reality is affected by what happens to any one individual.
My only concern is that Armstrong is overplaying the extent to which this premodern view of religion is really representative of the ‘silent majority’ of faithful (I can't remember if she says this outright or just implies it). Certainly there is a huge amount of thought and intelligence behind what's in here, and it succeeds in locating the value in something that many people nowadays find valueless. However, I can't help thinking (not without some satisfaction) that religious believers who pick this book up looking for a quick comeback to a YouTube Hitch-slap might find themselves with more to chew on than they expected.