Fresh Air, Stale Philosophy: Karen Armstrong

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I love Fresh Air and I think Terry Gross is a great interviewer.

I was not as impressed with yesterday’s interview with Karen Armstrong, whose latest book is called “The Case For God.”

From the 40-minute interview, I still don’t know what her case is. It seems like she doesn’t believe in God as a being, but she still feels a need to describe all the good in humanity as other-worldly when in fact, it is just as human as anything else about us. Terry lets her get away with this, which disappoints me a bit. Below are some excerpts, but you can of course listen to the entire interview online or read the transcript.

Here, Armstrong explains this abstract concept of God:

Well, the idea of God as a supreme being means that he is simply like us, writ large, and just bigger and better, the end product of the series; whereas this divine personality that we meet in the Bible was, for centuries, regarded simply as a symbol of a greater transcendence that lay beyond it.

Some theologians call this the God beyond God. And this God isn’t just a being like you or me, or the microphone in front of me, or even the atom, an unseen being that we can find in our laboratories. What we mean by God is, some theologians have said, is being itself that is in everything that is around us and cannot be tied down to one single instance of being.

What? See, I struggle with this, because it still requires a belief. It’s more spiritual, but it still claims a “something” where there is “nothing.” She’s basically saying that God is anything that cannot be defined. If God can’t be defined, then wouldn’t “God” mean nothing? And yet, she offers that God is exactly what should instruct how we live our lives. It’s flowery, but ultimately it’s making a case for something that doesn’t need a case made for it.

Later in the interview, they get into a conversation about mythos and logos, the two different kinds of thinking that take place. Mythos is the “discourse,” “stories,” and questions that don’t have “easy answers,” while logos is the science and reason. Armstrong explains what happens when the two get “mixed up”:

Well, if you’re going to organize a hunting expedition, you need to be absolutely focused on the practicalities of your situation – where the animals are and the man force and the terrain. You can’t go off into a dream about gods, and you can’t mix myth into politics or the economy, though that’s been done sometimes recently, I think, and it’s not a good idea.

Now, if your child dies, or you experience a terrible natural disaster, you want a scientific explanation. But a scientist will be the first to tell you that it cannot help you to find some ultimate meaning and come to terms with this tragedy. That lies outside the remit of science, to find that kind of meaning.

I think she has some good points to make about not letting logos interfere with societal affairs, but then she totally loses me. What is “ultimate meaning”? I don’t think there is such a thing. It would depend on fate. It would depend on higher purpose. There is no reason to make such assumptions. In fact, I would say that kind of “meaning” has everything to do with rationality. The question, “Why did this happen?” has no answer. People move forward by addressing, “How can I learn from this?,” “How can I grow from this?,” “How do I move forward in my life?” The answers to those questions aren’t necessarily easy and they certainly are subjective, but they still come from reason (“logos”), not some deeper meaning that can’t be thought out or grasped.

Armstrong explains a lot about how religion and science grew and eventually came together (because of Newton and Descartes) but that led to the big divide we see between fundamentalism and the new “atheism” in more modern times:

Yes, because really, the certainty that people were beginning to expect from religion was unsustainable. Once you’ve got people like Laplace, who says – a French physicist of the early 19th century – who says that he doesn’t need the god hypothesis, he can account for the universe perfectly well without God – and finally Darwin. Then no longer is the advanced thought of the day with religion as it had been for 200 years.

Now, people are expecting absolute certainty. They’re expecting scientific proof. And when they don’t get it, and when science no longer comes up with the goods they want, atheism becomes inevitable for some people.

I really don’t like the way she uses “inevitable.” She clearly doesn’t think atheism is the way and her language reveals her bias. She paints it as a trap, a forsaking, a foreclosure. That’s the same way all the research on “spiritual development” reads. Terry asks her how she responds to atheists like Richard Dawkins and the arguments they (we) make against religion.

Very often people hear about God when they’re little and when, at the time they first learn about Santa Claus. And over the years their ideas about Santa Claus have changed and developed. But their ideas of God have got stuck in this rather infantile mode, which mistakes the symbol that God is supposed to be for hard fact. And so I think that in pointing out that you can think about God in this way, Dawkins could have done a service to religion in getting people back to a more developed and symbolic sense of the divine that lies beyond us.

That’s a back-handed compliment if I ever heard one! She continues to operate on the assumption that there is a divine that we should all be on track towards. That is definitely not what Dawkins suggests, but again, Terry lets her get away with it. “…but where do you start to disagree with him?”

Well, I think some of his characterizations of religion are a bit sort simplistic and uninformed really. I don’t like the way he says that we should withdraw all respect from religion because whether he likes it or not, the vast majority of human beings on the planet wants to be religious, want to live in relation to transcendence. And it seems to me that you don’t want to wipe out a species or to exterminate it. You want to nudge it perhaps, into a more healthy form of evolution, if I can put it that way, and I don’t like his aggression. I think that in our very polarized, dangerously polarized world, we can’t afford yet another divisive discourse that puts us at odds with one another.

In other words, Armstrong is saying that it doesn’t matter whether Dawkins is right and everybody else is misguided, because he’s not nice. His ideas are too upsetting. We should let people continue to subscribe to ignorance and delusions because at least they’re happy. Oh, and we’ve had too many fights between religions, so an argument with reason would just be too divisive!

I really struggle with this attitude. It’s sort of at the heart of apologetics: Ignorance is bliss. It’s almost too easy for folks to see past all of the consequences of humoring that “search for higher meaning,” in favor of not causing too much trouble with all this complicated thinking stuff.

Armstrong, like so many religious apologists, too easily sees the good as good enough reason to maintain religion. Here’s what she thinks religion is for:

Religion is about helping us to deal with the sorrow that we see in life, helping us to find meaning in life and helping us to live in relation to that transcendence that I was speaking about earlier. Religious people are ambitious. They want to feel enhanced. They want to feel at peace within themselves. They want to live generous lives. They want to live beyond selfishness, beyond ego.

All the world religions say that the way to find what we call God or Brahman, Nirvana, or Tao is to get beyond the prism of egotism, of selfishness which holds us in a little deadlock and limits our vision. That if we can get beyond that, especially in the practice of compassion, when we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, we live much more richly and intensely.

Again, she automatically assumes there is “meaning in life” and “transcendence.” Just about everything in the above quote is just as applicable to nonbelievers. We have to deal with sorrow, we are ambition, we want to feel at peace, we want to be generous, we want to live beyond ego and selfishness. We also “live much more richly and intensely” as a result. None of that makes a case for religion.

Here are two other quotes from the interview that I think totally demonstrate how her case for religion is without much foundation:

Religion – all the world faiths have developed their own version of what’s been called the Golden Rule, don’t do to others what you would not like them to do to you. And they’ve said, all of them, that that is the essence of faith.

Well, atheists follow the Golden Rule too. As I, and many others, have written, that sense of morality is an evolved human trait. It has nothing to do with faith or higher meaning; in fact, it couldn’t be more human. Just because belief structures hijacked it as their own doesn’t mean it doesn’t function without belief.

It requires a daily effort to overcome the ego that holds us back from enlightenment. And a lot of people don’t – are not quite ready for that.

Armstrong uses this quote as a reason to be more committed to faith, but isn’t it just a reason to be more committed to humanity?

I’ll end my critique of the interview with one of my favorite quotes from the interview, where Armstrong is commenting on the differences between England and the US in regards to religiosity:

Oh well, England is just not interested in religion at all, and I think only about six percent of Britons attend a religious service regularly. And atheism is almost de rigueur among the chattering classes of London which makes it a rather lonely existence for me here. I mean friends will actually ask me not to speak about religion when I come around to dinner, as though this was some kind of really a retrograde subject and find it difficult to imagine why I should bother with this discredited stuff.

Haha, exactly! I wonder the same thing.

I encourage you (my reader) to listen to the full interview. I’ll say it here and now: I think Armstrong’s brand of faith is going to be the next “good enough.” People will see it as a compromise to let go of their strict belief in God the being in favor of God the essence. Much like “Love the sinner, hate the sin” still ostracizes the gay community, ignorant believers will continue to ostracize the atheist community. It’s not good enough, because it’s still unreasonable. Flowery is nice, but that alone doesn’t justify it.

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There are 2 Comments to "Fresh Air, Stale Philosophy: Karen Armstrong"

  • J. Allen says:

    It’s like she’s saying ‘God doesn’t exist, but humans can’t handle that, so we should keep imagining he’s there.’

    Of course, totally ignoring everyone who can handle it, and possibly selling our species short…maybe she hasn’t gotten over original sin.

    Her philosophy might be a nice stepping stone to atheism for some believers, but she should not be surprised when some people would rather have a God they can define, or not bother with one at all.

  • Will says:

    There’s a great juxtaposition of articles by Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins here:

    Dawkins gave an eloquent debunking of Karen’s crazy idea of a deity-beyond-a-deity-that-isn’t-there-but-really-it-is-so-stop-asking-questions-and-WORSHIP!

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