The Dawkins delusion?

2009-09-17 00:00

WHILE The Case for God by religious commentator Karen Armstrong (The History of God, The Battle for God, The Bible: The Biography, as well as biographies of Mohammed and the Buddha) is clearly a response to the polemics of Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (The End of Faith) and Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything), she is not out to cross swords here so much as to gently slap wrists. There’s no attempt to match the put-down style of her three putative adversaries. “Somewhat immoderate” is her take on Dawkins, while elsewhere she comments that it “is a pity that Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris express themselves so intemperately, because some of their criticisms are valid”.

Valid enough for Armstrong to agree with them and give equally short shrift to religious fundamentalists and strident creationists. Armstrong considers much contemporary religious thinking undeveloped, even primitive. “People of faith know in theory that God is utterly transcendent,” she writes, “but they seem sometimes to assume that they know exactly who ‘he’ is and what he thinks, loves and expects. We tend to tame and domesticate God’s ‘otherness’.”

That “otherness” is the key to Armstrong’s take on God. Not for her a personalised God. The God she builds a case for is totally other and only approachable by a process of “unknowing”.

From the outset, Armstrong warns her readers that they are not in for an easy read. To the reader who complained that one of her books was tough going, she responds: “Of course it was ... it was about God.”

Once Armstrong has got us all sitting up straight in our seats, she embarks on a 300-page history of comparative religion, from premodern times to the current day. Although this serves to justify the book’s subtitle, “What Religion Really Means”, most readers will find it a rather lengthy and oblique response to the issues raised by Dawkins et al.

Armstrong focuses mainly on Christianity as, in her view, it’s borne the main brunt of the “atheistic assault”. When required, she summons to her aid the other two religions of the book, Judaism and Islam, while Daoism, Buddhism and Hinduism are cited when she needs to illustrate an argument from another perspective.

Where everyone has gone wrong when it comes to God is confusing our mythos with our logos. Logos is reason, “the pragmatic mode of thought”, that enables people to function effectively in a finite world. However, logos has its limitations when it comes to considering the “ultimate meaning in life’s struggle”. Seeking solutions to life’s big question people turn (or once did) to mythos or myth, stories “not meant to be historical or factual, but which expressed the meaning of an event or narrative and encapsulated its timeless, eternal dimensions”.

Nowadays, we all want logos, both in our science and our religion. But, says Armstrong, when it comes to God, the utterly other, silence is the best response. “A deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred was a constant theme, not only in Christianity but in the other major faith traditions, until the rise of modernity in the West,” says Armstrong. Or, as philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein has it: “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent”.

Unfortunately, the “spirituality of silence” gave way “to wordy debate” and mythos lost out to logos. Early Christians would be horrified at the idea that the Bible was to be taken literally. For them, as with Jews and the Torah, it was a case of ongoing dialogue and critique, reassessing texts and reapplying them to contemporary settings.

An aspect of religious belief that Armstrong emphasises is that of ritual and practice. “People believed that God exceeded our thoughts and concepts and could only be known by dedicated practice.” The implication being that out of practice comes belief. Is she seriously advocating that if Dawkins would only get down on his knees he’d find out how it all works? It’s an argument that doesn’t really get out of the starting blocks, after all, some religious practices are as loopy as the beliefs. Certainly, the practice of ritual or prayer and meditation can induce an experiential sense of something bigger than oneself. But so can looking up at the Milky Way on a midsummer night.

If God is essentially unknowable then all debate must ultimately end in silence. Like the Socratic dialogue designed to lead its participants to a “shocking realisation of the profundity of their ignorance”, as Armstrong pointed out in her book The Great Transformation, a dialogue that was the Greek, “rational version of the Indian brahmodya, the competition that attempted to formulate absolute truth but always ended in silence.”

Others, including atheists, would agree with Armstrong (and have) that the triad of militant atheists she takes on can be easily dismissed thanks to their lack of theological sophistication. They are a soft target. A more productive exercise in making her case would have been a detailed response to the questions raised in philosopher Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, his elegantly argued invitation to a Socratic dialogue with believers. Unfortunately, it’s an invitation that no one seems to have taken up. Instead, Armstrong batters us insensible with information on religious thought which, even if it is subtle thought, remains exactly that, thought. Which leaves us with God as a human construct.


• The Case for God by Karen Armstrong is published by Bodley Head.

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