Sunday, July 05, 2009

Karen Armstrong and the case for God

[Modern theists] give the name of 'God' to some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves; having done so they can pose before all the world as deists, as believers in God, and they can even boast that they have recognized a higher, purer concept of God, notwithstanding that their God is now nothing more than an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrines. (Freud, The Future of an Illusion).

In The Case for God: What religion really means, former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong reiterates a now-familiar line of defence against the new wave of atheism. This generally amounts to the complaint that atheists such as Richard Dawkins have a theologiclly-uninformed, and mistakenly literalist interpretation of religious scripture. Thus, amongst those of an educated, literary-ecclesiastical background, religion is defended by advocating a metaphorical interpretation of scripture, and an aesthetic-mytho-poetic concept of God.

Wary of the power of science to overthrow religious worldviews, as demonstrated in the Copernican and Darwninian revolutions, the modern theist ushers God into an ontological safe-zone, where he cannot be subject to refutation by empirical means. Realising, however, that even this stronghold cannot resist the barbs of logic and reason, God is blindfolded, and bundled unceremoniously into a waiting limousine, whence he is taken at breakneck speed to a supra-logical and supra-semantic realm, beyond all human understanding.

"God is, by definition, infinitely beyond human language," writes Christopher Hart in The Sunday Times. "Yet thanks to the misapplication of science to religious faith, we remain literal-minded and spiritually immature, frightened of the silence and solitude in which the Ancient of Days, the Unnameable, might be experienced, though never understood.

"We need to think of God not as a being, but as Being. Armstrong points us towards a vast tradition in all religions in which, in essence, you can ultimately say nothing about God, since God is no thing. In Islam, all speaking or theorising about the nature of Allah is mere zannah, fanciful ­guesswork. Instead, try 'silence, reverence and awe,' she says; or music, ritual, the steady habit of compassion, and a graceful acceptance of mystery and 'unknowing'...God is dead — but, Armstrong suggests, all we have lost is a mistaken and limited notion of God anyway: a big, powerful, invisible man who does stuff."

All of which will come as a surprise to the majority of monotheistic religious believers in the world, who believe that the universe was created by God, that God answers prayers and performs miracles, and provides the means for an afterlife.

Hart's proposition that God is not a being, but Being itself, is the familiar doctrine of pantheism, which is inconsistent with the personal nature of God enshrined in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The notion espoused by these religions that God is a transcendent, supernatural, personal being, who created the natural universe, is inconsistent with the pantheistic notion that God is an immanent, non-supernatural, non-personal being, equivalent to the natural universe. But, of course, it is precisely the existence of such irritating contradictions which explains the modern theist's desire to push God into a supra-logical realm.

To propose that the notion of God is beyond all human understanding, language and logic, is to acknowledge that there is no coherent, comprehensible content to belief in God. Not only is belief in God belief without reason or evidence, but it is a belief without coherent content. The proponent of the modern educated defence against atheism is, in effect, admitting:

'I have a belief, without reason or evidence, in a meaningless proposition.'

At which point, I rest my case.


The Dandy Highwayman said...

I know little about Karen Armstrong, although I did once witness her giving a rather tedious talk about scripture at the Hay-on-Wye Festival, but I doubt that her claim that "God is Being" has much to do with pantheism.

She is (or was?) a Catholic. I would therefore guess that she is far more likely to be referring to the Aristotelian concept of God, as elaborated by Aquinas and friends, than any sort of pantheism.

Catholics, those of them that worry about theology anyway, tend to go in for Thomistic philosophy. They do not advocate a metaphorical interpretation of the New Testament, although they do sometimes promote a mythical interpretation of the Old Testament. They certainly do not advocate an "aesthetic-mytho-poetic concept of God."

There are Christians who have accepted the work of modern philosophers, which begins with the rejection of Aristotle's metaphysics, and who therefore find themselves condemned to rely on metaphor and poetry. They tend to be Protestant, usually Anglican, and it is very hard to tell the practical difference between their views and atheism or pantheism.

There are other Christians who reject the work of modern philosophers and retain an Aristotelian metaphysics. They tend to be Catholic and, whether right or wrong, at least make some effort to be rational.

As you can probably tell, I prefer the Catholics. I am not convinced by their arguments but I find them a lot more interesting than the wishy-washy Anglicans. They believe that the existence of God can be shown by reason alone and they present good arguments to do so. They do, however, all seem to rely on Aristotelian/Thomistic metaphysics, which most modern thinkers have rejected.

Anyway, Freud was a fraud. Yes, We Have No Neutrons debunks him rather amusingly.

Gordon McCabe said...

As usual, an excellent post. It was Hart, not Armstrong, who asserts that God is Being itself, so I've corrected that inaccuracy.

Sean said...

The answer is easy Mr Mc, God is Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, especially at the end.

Gordon McCabe said...

I haven't seen Gran Torino, but I hear Clint goes around grumbling at things, which sounds quite good.

Philip O'Neill said...

An English Victorian divine got it right when stating, "We may not know much about God but of one thing we can be certain, he has all the marks of an English country gentleman"

Anonymous said...

Theological tosh, Gordon, but you really do have a future in literature. That image of panicky patriarchs spiriting God away to an ontological safehouse (with a blanket over His head?) where microscopes and calculators don't work is Nobel Prize quality stuff.

Unknown said...

Dear Mr. McCabe:

Regarding the traditional controversies on religion, to which current theorists like Karen Armstrong have given renewed spirit, I'd like to recommend that followers take up readings on the last 50+ years of neurological research on the attempts and achievements of scientists to "map" the brain's wiring/chemical network on human emotions. Results so far are impressive. They appear to be leaning in the direction of explaining why humans feel and react to circumstances the way they do.
Their research is entering the realm of "spiritual" thought and the need for a belief in supernatural phenomena, including god.
One interesting theory links the need to believe in a supernatural being with the human preservation system: a way to allay, cure desolation and despair. The human brain is exquisitely and uniquely creative, and the preservation of the species has presented challenges since its evolutionary origin that continue to be dealt with today.
Our continued religion-related debate --that has lasted thousands of years-- must contemplate our newest knowledge. I'm sure that religion, being of a chameleonic (adaptive) nature, will find a suitable response.

Anonymous said...

Succinct and exceptionally clear. You obviously have not understood the purpose of philosophy which is to write copiously and say nothing.

By the way, who painted the bit of art at the top? I like it very much.

Gordon McCabe said...

Thankyou, anonymous Saskatchewan person, that's the nicest compliment anyone's ever paid me!

It's a Jackson Pollock painting, I believe.

Unknown said...

For God to be or not be - that is not up to McCabe.

Gordon McCabe said...

Not just McCabe, no, anyone with a logical capability immune from delusion will suffice.