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Sep 18 2013

What Karen Armstrong learned

Karen Armstrong tells her much-recycled story again. Once she tried to be a nun, then she got fed up with it and tried to be an academic and was all skeptical and shit. Then she sat down to read quietly and she discovered religion was right about everything after all.

I suddenly found that I was learning a great deal from other religious traditions. From Judaism, I learned to never stop asking questions — about anything! — and never to imagine that I had come to the end of what I could know and say about God.

But you don’t need Judaism to learn to never stop asking questions about anything. And then, why should you think there is a god in the first place, to never imagine you’d come to the end of what you could know and say about? How can you “know” anything about a presumed god?

Jews even refuse to speak God’s name, as a reminder that any human expression of the divine is so limited that it is potentially blasphemous.

Blah blah blah. So you always say, and you want us to be impressed, but I’m not impressed. I’m not impressed that people assume there is such a thing as “the divine” and then construct stupid rules about it, and I’m not impressed that gasbags like Armstrong come along thousands of years later to gape in bovine astonishment at the profundities people have uttered about this imaginary “divine.”

Divinity is a kind of candy, and much more useful than “the divine.”

From the Eastern and the Russian Orthodox Christians, I learned that Jesus was the first human being to be totally possessed by God — just as Buddha was the first enlightened human being in our historical era — and that we can all be like him, even in this life.

Blah blah blah. From watching Loony Tunes I learned that Bugs Bunny spoke with a Brooklyn accent; so what?

From the Quran, I learned that all religious traditions that teach justice, compassion and respect for all others have come from God.

Oh yes? For all others including the women stoned to death for “adultery” which includes being raped? Including the little girls raped to death by their “husbands”? Including the “infidels” and “apostates” put to the sword?

And I was enthralled to find this quotation from the great 13th-century Sufi philosopher Ibn Arabi:

Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest; if you do this you will miss much good. Nay, you will fail to realise the real truth of the matter. God the omnipresent and omniscient cannot be confined to any one creed, for he says in the Quran: “Wheresover ye turn, there is the face of Allah.”

Well then you’re very easily enthralled, I must say.

It seems odd to finish my quest by realizing how little I know. But that is the way human beings experience the world. No matter how much we know, something always eludes us. If we can just let go of our desire to know it all and be in control — which brings us so much anxiety — we experience great freedom. The world is no longer cut down to suit our tiny minds; instead, we see fresh possibility and mystery in every thing and everybody around us. Unknowing is built into the human condition.

No. Shut up. Stop saying that shit. It’s bad and dangerous. It’s not about any “desire to know it all,” it’s about a desire to know more than we do right now, and that is a good thing. Stop misrepresenting it and stop talking emetic bullshit about the joys of ignorance while simultaneously peddling the same old theistic crap.

24 comments

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  1. 1
    Reginald Selkirk

    Jews even refuse to speak God’s name, as a reminder that any human expression of the divine is so limited that it is potentially blasphemous.

    Even presuming the rules of her favoured religion apply, why should we accept that something spoken by Jesus would be a “human expression,” since Jesus was allegedly divine as well?

  2. 2
    michaelnam

    ‘gasbags like Armstrong come along thousands of years later to gape in bovine astonishment”‘

    I snorted my coffee and now I’m burned. Thanks a lot!

  3. 3
    Eamon Knight

    a reminder that any human expression of the divine is so limited that it is potentially blasphemous.

    Odd, how all human expressions of God are “too limited” and in the end we can’t really say anything definite about the Divine, ain’t it? If we can’t describe X, then what the hell does it mean to say “X exists”? So on one hand, we have people like Armstrong who sit around gassing ethereally about how indescribably-but-divinely divine the Divinity is, and on the other, we have the huge number of believers — many Jews included — who do have very definite ideas what God is, and wants.

    It’s not about any “desire to know it all,”

    I beg to demur. I wouldn’t at all mind knowing it all, I just accept as part of my condition that I’ll never know more than a tiny fraction. So I actually agree with the quoted paragraph, taken at face value. But again, there are two “sides” here: the dogmatic believers who think they really can know everything (or at least, be buddies with the Cosmic Know-It-All, which is the next best thing) by reading their holy book, and the ethereal Armstrongians who think it’s profound to notice our obvious limitations and sit around contemplating The Great Mystery.

    In the middle (or maybe on a different axis entirely) are the scientific-minded materialists who long ago accepted the reality of our ignorance, and have now moved on to the project of figuring out what we *can* know — which is certainly, as you put it, “more than we know now”.

  4. 4
    A Hermit

    How dare you take the name of B*gs in vain! Don’t you know that any human expression of the Leporidine is so limited that it is potentially blasphemous!

  5. 5
    Irène Delse, on dry land among seabirds

    From the Quran, I learned that all religious traditions that teach justice, compassion and respect for all others have come from God.

    Karen Armstrong is easily swayed indeed, if she thinks this is an example of inclusivity or open-mindedness. “Oh, yes, all those good things in your culture? They really come from our god, silly!”

    Gee, thanks but no thanks.

  6. 6
    Gregory in Seattle

    She has written some good stuff, but really, Armstrong is little more than a woo-peddler, no different than the nice people who push crystals or Echinacea or high colonics.

  7. 7
    Simon

    The only secularists I know who have mostly stopped asking questions are certain hardcore communists.

  8. 8
    steve oberski

    From the Eastern and the Russian Orthodox Christians, I learned …

    Would these be the same Russian Orthodox Christians who are the driving force behind Russia’s new anti gay laws ?

    What lesson did you lean from that Karen Armstrong ?

  9. 9
    Stevarious, Public Health Problem

    From Judaism, I learned to never stop asking questions — about anything! — and never to imagine that I had come to the end of what I could know and say about God.

    She may not have stopped asking questions, but she has long since given up on trying to understand the answers.

  10. 10
    John Kruger

    The world is no longer cut down to suit our tiny minds; instead, we see fresh possibility and mystery in every thing and everybody around us. Unknowing is built into the human condition.

    What the heck is so great about mystery? Leave your mind so far open that nothing can stick, and I guess you really will know nothing and everything will be mysterious. Hooray? I prefer knowledge that is independently verifiable and objectively true, but I guess that is not for Armstrong.

    Even Scooby Doo actually solves mysteries instead of reveling in ignorance. The appeal to empty-headedness is pathetic.

  11. 11
    aziraphale

    Towards the end she writes:

    “Albert Einstein brought us quantum physics and presented us with an indeterminate, incomprehensible universe. Yet this was not frustrating, but a source of great joy. ”

    Einstein certainly didn’t do it single-handed. Planck had the basic idea of quantization in 1900. Born, Heisenberg, Pauli, Schrodinger, Dirac and others contributed to its present form.

    Also, quantum indeterminacy was frustrating for Einstein. So much so that he refused to believe it, saying famously “As I have said so many times, God doesn’t play dice with the world.”

  12. 12
    Randomfactor

    “Wheresover ye turn, there is the face of Allah.”

    That happens when you’re holding a mirror in front of you. Especially if Allah seems to agree with your own prejudices.

  13. 13
    iknklast

    From watching Loony Tunes I learned

    From watching Loony Tunes, I learned more than I ever learned in Sunday School, or from reading the Bible! Bugs had a wonderful way of inserting interesting information in an entertaining cartoon. Armstrong just needs to watch more Saturday morning television.

  14. 14
    sailor1031

    OFFS; is this silly, silly woman mouthing off again?

    It seems odd to finish my quest by realizing how little I know

    Believe it Karen, you know even less than you think you do. OBTW Albert Einstein gave us relativity and he was unable to harmonise that with the quantum mechanics primarily developed by those other physicists mentioned by Aziraphale above – not forgetting Nils Bohr….

  15. 15
    AJ Milne

    Wheresover ye turn, there is the face of Allah…

    Sooo… he’s like one of those slasher movie villains, then?

    (/Pretty much fits.)

  16. 16
    maddog1129

    Fool me once …

    I bought Armstrong’s “History of God” because I had thought that it would be a realistic, skeptical and scholarly examination of the development of ideas about theism. I was very confused as I went along, but when I got to the chapter introducing Islam and Armstrong recounted — as if it were a literal and actual history — the story of Mohammed hearing the angel commanding him to “Recite!” and then essentially taking dictation from the angel to produce the Islamic scripture, it became abundantly clear that her “History” was not a proper history at all. I have had no inclination since that moment to take anything Armstrong says seriously.

  17. 17
    dzd

    Just the usual wedge-strategy bullshit. Draw in everyone who thinks that these deepities are something worth saying. The important thing is to get you to start believing in things that aren’t real; then the aggressive marketing arms of the actual religions to take over and tell you which specific not-real things to believe in.

  18. 18
    dshetty

    I learned that Jesus was the first human being to be totally possessed by God
    Doesnt karen armstrong say she is an atheist/agnostic? How does she square statements like the above ? She would have to be a theist or theistic agnostic for this statement to make any sense , even to her.

  19. 19
    Acolyte of Sagan

    From the Quran, I learned that all religious traditions that teach justice, compassion and respect for all others have come from God.

    Where else would a religious tradition come from, if not from a god*? Isn’t that the very point of religion? If she’s only just cottoned on to this simple fact then Ms. Armstrong has to a numb-nut of the highest order.

    *Yes, we all know the real answer, but several billions of people apparently don’t.

  20. 20
    Claire Ramsey

    So does this mean she is officially announcing the end of her quest? Where will she be turning her attention from here on? (I am hoping for Astrology).

  21. 21
    ttch

    Ophelia wrote:

    From watching Loony Tunes I learned that Bugs Bunny spoke with a Brooklyn accent; so what?

    Actually, according to Mel Blanc, the man who voiced the character for almost fifty years, Bugs spoke with a combination of Bronx and Brooklyn accents.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bugs_Bunny#Voice_actors

    </pedantic>

  22. 22
    Margaret

    So, Armstrong became an academic and a skeptic, but only later after she started reading about religion did she learn to start asking questions? She wasn’t doing either “academic” or “skeptic” right if she wasn’t asking questions.

  23. 23
    rnilsson

    Isn’t that the guy who fut a poot on the moon, or something? Confusiousnessered.
    Maybe Astrology is the answer after all.

  24. 24
    Al Dente

    Armstrong may have learned not to stop asking questions, but she seems to neglect to find the answers.

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