[27 August 2009]
In the introduction to her epic defence of religion, The Case for God: What Religion Really Means, Karen Armstrong attempts to disarm the so-called ‘New Atheists’ and their forceful rationality by claiming that “Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians have insisted for centuries that God does not exist and that there is “nothing” out there”. It is a bold statement and it puts Armstrong in the unenviable position of backing this up with the rest of the book. Of course, the subject (which is maybe the subject of human experience) is far more subtle than her opening claim suggests, but it sets the tone for this sensitive and eye-opening account which never talks down to its reader, nor drifts into spiteful polemic, but instead seems to revel in the endless ambiguities of God with a satisfyingly unfashionable glee.
The book has been promoted as a rebuttal to the modern atheist thinkers, notably Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, yet it doesn’t feel like a cynical cash-in on a recent publishing phenomenon. Armstrong chooses not to craft a point-by-point defence but instead undergoes the mammoth task of tracing the entire history of religion and its various functions, from the crude cave paintings dated around 12,000 BCE to the extreme relativism of the postmodernists.
The amount of research is admirable and, despite treading a lot of familiar ground that has been covered in her other books, this particular defence of God feels worthy and mature. In one beguiling passage from the epilogue, the reader is reminded of an old and wise woman of the world who finally decides to stop the inflammatory bickering of her children with a stern but humane summary of the limits of science and the basic function of religion:
Scientific rationality can tell us why we have cancer; it can even cure us of our disease. But it cannot assuage the terror, disappointment, and sorrow that come with the diagnosis, nor can it help us to die well. That is not within its remit. Religion will not work automatically, however; it requires a great deal of effort and cannot succeed if it is facile, false, idolatrous, or self-indulgent.
This shows Armstrong’s wonderful ability to speak directly to the heart of the reader, and after the acerbic polemics from both sides of the God debate it is a refreshing touch of wisdom.
Armstrong returns to two strong points throughout, as if to clear our minds of the fundamentalist noise we have had to put up with for the past few decades. One is the need to practice the faith, rather than to passively believe. Without undergoing the rituals we cannot hope to understand the outcomes. The other central point is the necessity of an ‘apophatic’ approach to God. That is, one that accepts the inadequacy of language in describing or conveying the holy experience, instead emphasising the role of silent contemplation.
We see the practical application of this when Armstrong describes the Brahmodya competition as practiced by the Brahmin priests of the 10th century. It consisted of familiar spiritual exercises such as fasting and breath control, followed by a stream of questions from a challenger to an opponent. The questions aimed to find a “verbal formula” to define the Brahman (Sanskrit for “the All”) and so were “enigmatic”, with the responses being similarly “inscrutable”. Inevitably this verbal interaction would break down and one of the contestants would have nothing more to say. In this silence the Brahman was present. It “became manifest only in the stunning realisation of the impotence of speech”.
The sheer scope of the book does open up some areas of weakness. While we get an enlightening and clear history of religion, it is too much to cover in any serious detail over 300 pages, and so some of the most interesting sections are cut short, with fascinating topics such as the Kabbalah and evolutionary theory given very superficial treatment. The endless roll-call of theological, philosophical, and scientific thinkers also tends to clutter up the writing at the times, especially towards the end where the cycle of history becomes apparent and the same names and theories make an appearance, only to disappear into the fog as quickly as they came.
If any book is going to convince rabid atheists and theists to calm themselves down and put more thought into their arguments, it is this one. Armstrong occupies the unique position of not coming from either side of debate, and so is able to criticise, say, the literalist thinking of many modern Christians, or the naïve certainty of atheists, without it sounding like the usual stock argument from a paranoid minority. At one point she laments the current state of the debating arena, where opponents focus more on scoring points with a shallow coup de grâce rather than furthering the argument (anyone who has seen a debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza will know what she means).
Armstrong wants a return to Socratic dialogue; debate not based on humiliation but fruitful interaction, where both sides have the integrity and courage to admit a good idea or approach even if they did not think of it. The Case for God will not provide much cheap ammunition for those looking to embarrass their (a)theist friends and Armstrong only dedicates a couple of pages to the popular atheists of today, but after this learned and controlled book a lot of the big names in the current God debate are going to have to rethink their tactics, and perhaps even their conception of God, before once again handling the topic of all topics.