Armstrong, Karen - The Case for God

  (09 May 11)

 The Case for God




A review of Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God (Random House 2009) by Peter Bore.




(Reviewed April 2010)




It is usually assumed by both fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists that belief in god is a necessary precursor to religious activity (I will not at this point digress into what one might mean by ‘belief’ or by ‘god’.) Shortly after leaving a Catholic Convent some 40 years ago Karen encountered several people from various religious traditions who insisted that belief was not central to their religious practice. (See her autobiographical work “The Spiral Staircase”). She has alluded to this in other writings and ‘The Case for God’ continues this theme. It is a simple but profound insight into the history of the way we think about god. The book can be condensed into a few sentences (in bold below).


Mankind has (at least up until about 1500 CE) regarded stories about god as myth not fact.


Physicists often talk of frames of reference. Should you view a sequence of events from within the situation or from some external viewpoint? A view of the solar system from Earth gives the clear impression that the sun and moon travel around the Earth but a view from another frame of reference (eg one from a view point outside of the solar system) would be very different.


At different times both have their uses. Imagining God provides us with an external framework which we can use to contemplate the human condition. The very human qualities with which the Greeks endowed their many gods elegantly illustrate this. But even a mythical god is useful. The ‘god view’ assists us to see the world not from our own personal perspective but from the standpoint of someone looking at the world from without. It thus helps us to see ourselves as one individual amongst many similar individuals which is a prerequisite to formulating an ethos about the value and rights of other humans.


From about 1500 CE, as science began its ascendency in the Western world, a view developed that god had to conform to scientific standards. God had to be transformed into a real entity with which humanity could interact on a personal basis. Belief (Meaning A - see below) in god became transformed into a belief (Meaning B) that god existed.


The Greek word pistis (loyalty, commitment, trust) became in verbal Latin fides but in written Latin credo (I give my heart). It was ultimately translated into two English words. One was ‘belief’. At that time belief had the meaning of the Latin credo. Its origins go back to Gothic, Aryan and Teutonic and its root is the same as that of ‘love.’ It meant to hold dear, to love, to have confidence in, to trust. This is Meaning A. This meaning still exists. One may say that one believes in or does not believe in, for example, capital punishment. These are not statements which imply an acknowledgement or a denial of the factual existence of capital punishment but statements that say I agree with and support or do not agree with and do not support capital punishment.


However belief has now acquired a second meaning which is the intellectual acceptance of something as factually true as in ‘I believe that the earth is a sphere’ (Meaning B). This usage is relatively new and dates from the 18th century.


Interestingly, there is a third meaning of belief. If asked what is the population of Sydney you might reply ‘I believe that it is 5 million.’ In fact the sense that you are trying to convey is that you think that it is 5 million but you are not sure. In other words you are saying that you are not confident that your assertions are factually true. The word believe is being used paradoxically to indicate that you do not believe, as a fact, what you are saying you believe. This third meaning will not concern us here but the Oxford Dictionary traces it back to the thirteenth century so it is perhaps a derivation of meaning A.


The second English word used to render the Greek pistis was faith which is defined in the OED as belief, trust, confidence. Use of the word is traced back to the 14th century. Thus, though the word faith in modern use could have the same two meanings as belief, in the 14th century belief had not yet acquired meaning B. Thus the presumption must be that in a religious context faith is a synonym for belief (meaning A). One should only accept that meaning B is intended if either the user makes it explicitly clear or if the context leaves no room for ambiguity.


God was never going to fit into the constraints of science because, whatever god is or was, he/she/it was not something that was amenable to investigation by the tools and methods of science.


God may not exist in a scientific sense but then neither does justice, compassion, freedom, beauty or democracy. Science can only make pronouncements about matters which can be examined by the scientific method. It is legitimate for it to speculate or hypothesise as it often does about string theory or dark matter but dogma should not emanate from speculation. To elevate science to the status where it alone can comment on the world and give it the authority to declare any other form of discourse invalid is perhaps the greatest misuse of science that humanity has perpetrated. The result has been the denigration of contemplative practices which seek to give some insight into questions which science cannot (yet) address. The emergence of the many ‘new age spiritualities’ is perhaps a symptom of people’s frustration with the straightjacket of science.


Humans look for something transcendent, not necessarily something ‘out of this world’ but something that rises above the individual. The common question is what is the meaning of life. Though life is, as far as I can tell, a chance happening with no intrinsic meaning at all, humans often give their individual lives meaning by committing themselves to (having faith in) a cause which will usually involve other humans. In its most common and mundane manifestation is simply a commitment to ensure that their offspring survive.


The transcendent relationship will involve a much greater proportion of humanity when one offers a commitment to something like justice or democracy.


For the last 200 or so years the notion of the death of a realist god has been gathering momentum.


The god for which Karen Armstrong is making a case is not a realist god who exists independently but the transcendent god conceived of by the human mind. We all possess the god concept as a framework or standpoint from which we contemplate the human condition but some of us choose not to use the word god because of the aura of meaning(s) which now, often unhelpfully, surround the word. This god is as real (and as unreal) as other abstract concepts of the human mind such as justice, freedom or democracy.


Consider the following sentences. Commitment to the idea that a model created by the human mind (which we call the scientific method) can tell us something about how the world works cannot, in the light of history, be regarded as abnormal, delusional or unreasonable.


Commitment to the idea that a model created by the human mind (which some chose to call god or religion) can tell us something about how we might live our lives, cannot, in the light of history, be regarded as abnormal, delusional or unreasonable.


Those two sentences are in no way incompatible. It is easy to subscribe to both. Steven Jay Gould would say that the two models are non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). At the present time he is probably substantially correct though I think that there is some overlap.


My presumption is that as our scientific understanding of the workings of the brain increases that overlap will increase. But for the present we must make the best use we can of the tools we have. The creation of conceptual models which seek to give us a way of exploring some of the issues of which science cannot speak may be analogous with conceptual models which scientists use, such as string theory and dark matter. One day they may be testable by scientific tools but not yet.


Unfortunately the simple message of this book is embedded in a lot of detailed examples which eminently justify the author’s conclusions but which at the same time tend to hide the underlying thesis. If my editorial advice had been sought I would have recommended some modest changes in the way of more explicit chapter headings and sub-headings within chapters. This could have transformed this book. As it was I almost gave up after about 50 pages because, from the profusion of examples, I found it difficult to gain any sense of direction. Moreover the title is opaque though perhaps it was intended to be provocative.


There is gentle but cogent criticism of the fundamentalist atheists for their lack of theological literacy and for their obtuse insistence that religion is totally dependent on belief and that the word belief can only mean what is implied by meaning B.


I was still reading The Case for God when the November Bulletin arrived with the comments of Harry T Cook.


He says that if he could endow a university he would probably place Religious Studies in the department of abnormal psychology. Thus at a stroke he would use his financial influence to deny academic freedom whilst demonstrating his lack of understanding of what is meant by ‘normal’ when applied to human populations. He confesses that his essay is an “eruption of spleen” and “barely contained rage”. If he is the rationalist he claims to be I can only presume that in telling us about this emotional state he is inviting us to not take him seriously. Is this another fundamentalist atheist preoccupied with an impossible love for god? (see Don Cupitt Impossible Loves)


Karen Armstrong left the convent some 40 years ago. I did not detect any “nun-like way” in her discourse if, in fact, such a generalisation credibly exists. Harry Cook, though accusing her of this characteristic, neither defines it nor does he cite an example. Perhaps old habits die hard. Making pronouncements without citing evidence is a characteristic that we have all encountered in clergymen. And I wonder why he is so uncomplimentary to Hitchins and Dawkins. In describing them as “militant agnostics” he is saying that they are prepared to go to war over something which they cannot decide exists or not. Now that might qualify as abnormal psychology.


God, he tells us, is a word devoid of intrinsic meaning. True enough; nearly all words are merely symbols or signifiers whose only meaning is that which we chose to ascribe to them. If we dispense with all the words without intrinsic meaning we will be left with little more than the onomatopoeic baa, moo and miaow. But perhaps they may be sufficient if all you wish to convey is an “eruption of spleen.”


Despite Harry Cook’s assertion to the contrary, it is possible for a search for god to lead to thoughts which are verifiable by rational analysis because the search for god will undoubtedly lead some to the psychological studies which he seems to, rightly, value. The search will also lead to thoughts which are not verifiable by rational analysis but that is true of many human activities. Concepts like hate, love, beauty and freedom may not be verifiable by rational analysis but they exist and they have consequences. I frequently complain about the irrationality of others but I am also aware that a world totally dominated by rationality might be a pretty grim place.


But perhaps the most cogent criticism of Harry Cook’s essay is that he accuses Karen Armstrong of wilfully ignoring (Page 1 col.2 para 2) the very issues which are central to the book. Despite the fact that much of the book is devoted to arguing that believing (meaning B) is not the central feature of religious activity, Cook appears to insist on assuming the opposite (Page 3 col.2 para.2). That the god that Karen Armstrong is making a case for, is the god Harry Cook explicitly agrees is credible (the god who is a product of the human mind) is something he seems to fail to recognise. Perhaps in his rage he did not actually read the book.



I have used the term “fundamentalist atheist” to describe a particular subset of humanity. Its most notable members are Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins. Many other epithets are in use, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. They include “militant atheists”, “celebrity atheists” and the elegantly simple “Ditchkins” of Terry Eagleton. I prefer “fundamentalist atheists” because it embodies what I think is their most irrational and most dangerous characteristic and one which is fundamental to fundamentalism namely the belief that they and they alone have access to the truth. I am indebted to David Miller who first introduced me to this description. In my attempts to clarify some of the linguistics I have alluded to, I have found the writings of Wilfred Cantwell-Smith helpful.   




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