The Case for God
The Case for God by Karen Armstrong, is intended as a response to the “new atheists.” These passionate writers derive their energy from the recrudescence of sectarian violence which is such a prominent feature of our times. They cite science to deny the existence of “God” and then launch a withering critique of religion on the grounds that this “erroneous” belief foments violence.
Armstrong says religious violence is due to the false assumption that we can “know” God. The various systems of “knowledge,” — religions — mutually threaten one another’s claim to truth. Violence is the result. To attack religion on factual grounds, as the “new atheists” do, is to fall into the same error.
“God” cannot be known, she insists, and the religious history of Western humankind illustrates that insight. To prove her point she marshals a huge amount of historical data — battalions of witnesses to show that religion as it should be is “apophatic.” Apophatic means “ineffable.” Nothing coherent can be said about “God” and therefore there is nothing to fight about. Of all ideas, “God” should be the last one to be the source of conflict and violence. She claims God’s unknowability has been the basis of authentic religion for at least 30,000 years. If there is violence, it’s because that has been forgotten.
There is no denying the formidable scope of her research. She covers a vast array of historical events and personages. The amount of detail forces her, at times, to abbreviate. Summing up Thomas Aquinas in a few pages, however, or Spinoza in two paragraphs, can make her analysis somewhat cursory and her characterizations not entirely accurate. With Spinoza, for example, she stereotypically labels his vision “atheistic” with no further nuance, leaving completely unexplained how poets like Novalis, Coleridge and Shelly could all have called him a “God-intoxicated man” and Goethe referred to him as “theissimus.” It seems her strategy is to win the day by the sheer volume of evidence, even though any given item may not be all that elucidating or compelling.
The Case for God is a survey. She eschews establishing a “position.” Consistent with her thesis, such attempts at identifying a definitive “truth,” she suggests, can be examples of the vain pursuit of a “knowledge” of God that cannot be had. Disputation undermines the harmony that the appropriate relationship to “God” should engender.
I agree with elements of her thesis, but I take exception to her approach … and the approach always enters substantially into the vision. The “survey” genre necessarily involves questions of interpretation that are not indisputable, even though she gives little recognition to differences of opinion. I believe that claiming to avoid “disputation,” therefore, is something of a camouflage. She has a position, in other words, and the differences among her sources and possible alternative interpretations are submerged in some “general” agreement over which she alone presides.
Secondly, I believe she cannot prove her thesis from history. Western religion, at least since the beginning of the common era, has been anything but apophatic, harmonious and non-disputational. Like it or not, if she is going to make her point it means she will have to challenge and criticize this contentious religious history. That can only be done from outside history, with rational argumentation.
Mythos and logos
She begins by immediately characterizing religion as mythos which she sees as necessarily connected with religious practice. Mythos is poetic, non-literal narrative; it is distinguished from logos or speech that pretends to “know” and to say something “literally and rationally true.” It is when religion mistakenly tries to present itself as logos, she says, that the problems begin.
The first chapter starts 30,000 years ago with the cave paintings of Lascaux. She claims there are two “core principles” to be discovered in the study of the earliest religions: (1) there is no personified “God;” the Sacred is perceived as being, not “a being,” and (2) that myths are not facts that are meant to be taken literally. (p.10ff.).
On the first: She fails to acknowledge that such a statement about being is a philosophical-theological interpretation. She seems to be suggesting that the earliest religions were solidly apophatic and that all anthropomorphism was a later development. But too little is known about ancient people to make such sweeping judgments. Her interpretation, based on the Hindu Vedas, needs to be substantiated before it can stand as a premise. Even the scant historical sources that there are do not seem to support the claim that there was ever a period in which no anthropomorphic “gods” existed.
On the second: To urge that we should not take myth as a literal fact, does not acknowledge that the ancients actually did consider it a fact. There was no “scientific sense” in those days and so claiming they did not intend it scientifically is a meaningless distinction. The ancients had an anthropomorphic vision of the “gods” that they thought was an actual fact. All our current religions originated in pre-scientific times. What science has subsequently discovered cannot be ignored. Religion cannot be exempted from incorporating new knowledge and adjusting its God-speech accordingly. That is what the new atheists criticize — that religion is given the privilege of bypassing reality.
Logos and philosophy
For Armstrong, the mythos-logos division is sharp and exhaustive; there is no middle ground. She does not seem interested in the possibility that there may be a way to work between science and religion using a discipline compatible with each and useful as an interface. I am convinced that philosophy was once that interface, and could be again. But for Armstrong, philosophy is just more logos, the enemy of mythos.
She is not alone in her bi-polarity. There has been a general discreditation of philosophy in our times, and it has not only allowed inept scientists to pontificate wildly outside their area of competence, it has also rendered theology hopelessly inarticulate. Her position, which seems to defend religious practice without explaining exactly why, I would personally categorize as “inarticulate.” Without a “literal” way of speaking to the discoveries of science, or clearly defining the “realities” of religion, believers can do little more than hope that their opponents will understand the language of religious metaphor (even while denying any clear understanding of it themselves). Without philosophy religion has no other words to communicate with but its own, and if they are poetry, only believers will know what they mean.
That would also explain why Armstrong’s “argument” is simply an avalanche of stories about religious people, their programs and their practices … not a systematic presentation of what she thinks is true. By steering clear of reasoned argumentation on principle, however, she has a hard time identifying exactly what she thinks, and how she differs from others (and how they might differ among themselves). Moreover, without other sources of “proof,” she may be tempted to hear more from her historical witnesses than they are actually saying. Her treatment of Socrates is a case in point.
In chapter 2, “Reason,” her tack is to show that Socrates, despite his apparent rationalism, saw his mission not to teach knowledge but rather wisdom, which for her is not to know but to practice. She is, in effect, trying to nudge early Greek logos toward mythos … and she does it because that is the essence of her argument. The only valid logos is that which leads the practitioner to mythos. That Socrates was actually challenging the unquestioned belief in the myths of the Greek gods and their strange antics through the application of reasoned argument, she re-interprets to mean that he was rather, like a mid-wife, trying to help “the mysterious Sacred” emerge from the struggling minds of the youth of Athens.
Armstrong says that wisdom, for Socrates, is the unknowing that comes from experience. Knowledge, book knowledge in particular, is static, and falsifying. For Armstrong’s Socrates, valid ideas are never fixed or static, as one notional perception engenders another ad infinitum. Hence “mind” open to mythos is manifest in dialog, but not aimed at resolution. Mythic thinking is dialog in pursuit of wisdom — which is achieved only through dedication to self-improvement, praxis. Hence it is endless. There is no term. Even Plato’s Academy is described in ways that evoke a monastic or therapeutic community not a center of research and learning.
“Self-improvement,” without some logos determination, in my opinion, is open to anything. I wonder what someone like Adolf Hitler might imagine “self-improvement” to mean. The “unknowing” approach can be used to justify a dogmatic agnosticism, allowing entrance to destructive ideologies simply because we have no grounds for rejecting them. It is as if the goal were “not to know,” and as if merely “not knowing” were the same as the unknowing of the mystics. It is not.
Such unwillingness to seek clear answers leads to a kind of intellectual abandonment, where all matters of value remain irresolvable on principle. Does this sound familiar? To my mind, it is a formula for the maintenance of the status quo. We are, by these premises, confined to the inertia of the current system. You cannot challenge premises … that is logos — arrogant self-projecting rationalism — the bane of mythos. You cannot argue, you can only survey, report … and, I guess, pray.
She does not challenge those global religions which even today explicitly claim a literal absolutism of the most rigid kind. I am speaking primarily of Roman Catholicism, which in this regard is one of the great violators of her vision of authentic religion. But there are many others. She takes on none of them. She enunciates “principles” which are vaguely stated, supported by little argumentation, and with no direct explicit recommendations for the real world. She neither criticizes what she doesn’t like, nor promotes what she approves. All that is left up to us … and she doesn’t tell us what tools to use in making decisions or how we might go about applying them.
When she confronts the predilections of the age of reason and modern science (1500 to the present, Part II, p.161ff.), her argument takes a sharper focus. This was the moment of error, she says, when religion tried to turn itself into logos. She is out to correlate mythos with mystery and mysticism and oppose them to logos, scientism and literal fact. Logos is repeatedly accused of being over-weening scientistic rationalism, and she does not discourage us from concluding that atheism is its ultimate product.
Her earlier treatment of the mediaeval philosophers revealed her preference for Aquinas and Bonaventure over Scotus and Ockham. The latter she accused of reducing the divine to what human reason can understand, while the former, she says, were true mystics who used philosophy precisely to “jam” human reason. It is as if they were Zen masters, out to “confound human arrogance” and open to the apophatic. But in my opinion, if you read Aquinas, that wasn’t his intention at all.
This claim of hers is a reprise of her interpretation of Socrates’ maieutic method — also supposedly designed to lead not to knowledge but to unknowing. She implies that in religion there is no truth to be had, or at least no way of expressing it. Her projection retro-fits all of western history into her own scheme of things and supports her argument. Actually she uses it in place of argument. She does not like to argue. She makes assertions that she does not have to prove or defend but only illustrate, because by her premises there is nothing to say or defend: religion is mythos, not logos.
Religious evolution … or “business as usual”?
I believe the Case for God is a questionable project as presented. It proposes nothing less than to set religion apart from the rest of the ordinary human business of knowing what we are doing and justifying why we are doing it. It is not hard to see that it is a self-protective argument that thwarts any critique leveled against it. But it means no criticisms are ever valid, even those that challenge the most absurd religious beliefs or practices. Its ultimate effect, if not intention, is to shield the status quo. “You cannot criticize religion on factual grounds,” she says, “because religion is not that kind of thing.” What kind of “thing,” then, is it?
I agree that “God” is unknowable. But I believe that statement has to be clarified and justified, and those that claim otherwise, refuted. I also claim that religion is poetry and those that think it is a roster of alternative “facts” about universal and human history are deluded. In the context of a literalist Roman Church, the claim that religion is mythos will have to be defended against Catholic dogmatism, as well as other fundamentalisms. That can be done, but it will take argument. And finally, I believe the current varieties of religious poetry (“doctrine”) must be critiqued in the light of our reasoned understanding of the “Sacred.” Religion should be encouraged to evolve under the guidance of thoughtful analysis and discussion. All this is the work of logos. It’s what we do. Religion is not exempted from the human project.
The conclusions she draws, based on her historical survey, tend to militate against what I consider the necessary steps in religious evolution.
First, I believe her approach ironically shields those fundamentalists who consider their beliefs to be literal “facts.” In effect, her mythos defends all religions even those that are the very essence of logos. No matter how much she claims that religious doctrines were never meant literally, they have in fact been taken that way by the masses of believers since time immemorial, and are so even today. But if you are convinced, as I am, that taking doctrine as fact is the source of the horrors, individual and social, perpetrated in the name of religion, then you do not want people to continue in their delusions. But to accomplish that, you will have to argue.
Literalism did not begin with Descartes. From the days of the earliest apologists, Christianity claimed it was based on historical truth and ridiculed the legends of the gods and their cults as “mere myths.” (Cf the very early Open Letter to Marcus Aurelius by Athenagoras c.175 c.e. and the writings of Clement of Alexandria, c.190.)
Even the original NT testimonies presented religious beliefs quite unambiguously as “facts.” Here’s a prime example from Paul, 1 Cor 15 (RSV), written about 54 ce:
3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died …, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day …, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, … he appeared also to me. . . . 14And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise. … 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. … 19If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
There is no way the above passage could possibly be interpreted as anything but an emphatic assertion of literal, historical, factual truth — witnessed and verifiable — of the resurrection of Jesus. To claim that the resurrection was originally understood and proclaimed as myth is sheer nonsense. If you want to say those people were deluded, that Jesus did not factually rise, as Armstrong clearly suggests on p.82, … and that religion does not require such a “fact” to be true to what it symbolizes … you have a perfect right to do so. I do it myself. But you can’t just ignore Paul of Tarsus. You will have to argue with him and those that believe him. She, of course, will not do that. Hence, those who hear in 1 Cor. the unmistakable ring of sincerity and the indisputable evidence of early authenticity, have every right, in the name of reason itself, to claim that the resurrection is a fact and therefore that the definitive answer to the human “problem” is to be found in Christianity alone. It makes the subsequent history of Christian intolerance that includes pogroms, crusades, inquisitions and conquistas to “spread the faith,” understandable, if not predictable. The claim that a providential all-seeing “God” could possibly have permitted such a global travesty and suspended the laws of nature to insure its accomplishment, makes traditional Christianity so internally incoherent, that it renders me, for one, utterly speechless.
In the final analysis, you have to decide whether the resurrection of Jesus was an historical fact or not. And to resolve this issue and many others, you have to enter the arena of literal, factual truth … on one side or the other. Her belief that religion is “myth” may very well be right on the money. I might agree totally. But you cannot prove it with historical reporting alone without entering into substantive scientific, philosophical discussion and critical historical analyses.
Secondly, her approach serves to prevent the real integration of science into the overall religious life of western culture. It justifies a “two-track” mentality that has come to characterize western thought, i.e., science and religion each inhabit their own domains. She cites Stephen Jay Gould, apparently with great approval, for this position. His concept of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) is exactly the kind of formula that supports her real intention: defend current religious practice against the “new atheists” and call for mutual respect and tolerance … business as usual.
Such integration as I suggest, however, involves the unambiguous acknowledgement that religious doctrine is not “fact” of any kind, but poetry. But you can imagine the outcry from the churches. The reaction will prove that any claim that religion knows itself to be myth is simply wishful thinking. Armstrong may consider all doctrine mythos, but that can only be established and its meaning clarified by recognizing that religion is ancillary to scientific fact. That has to be stated, explained, proven and defended — argued.
Yes, I believe the issue can be resolved. But not on the basis of historical illustration alone, nor by avoiding the thoughtful analysis that will inevitably precipitate dispute. Philosophy and science, reason and facts — logos — must collaborate in determining the role of religion in our lives, and the nature of the Sacred. Otherwise religion will do what it has always done — mystify us — based on its own dubious sources, premises and methodology. Religion has an historical track record in this arena that is abominable. Fail to change the terms of the debate and you are in for more of the same.
That is the ultimate result, if not intent, of Armstrong’s project: more of the same.