Few religious thinkers have eased the consciences of spiritual liberals, anti-fundamentalist religious moderates, and functional nonbelievers unwilling to stake any affirmatively atheistic ground than Karen Armstrong. For years she has been making the assertion that her scholarship proves that the “great” monotheisms ought not be associated with the fear, xenophobia, irrational faith in the absurd, violence, or misogyny that so they so often encourage, but that they have their “true” foundations in love and tolerance–and anyone who doesn’t think so hasn’t been doing it right. As much as that assertion causes many skeptics to arch their eyebrows, it at least sounds like a good thing to which the faiths could aspire if they were so inclined. Alas.
Her latest book, The Case for God, is not meant to explain the various faiths’ dispositions or ideological foundations, but to convince the reader that the most commonly held notions of God, those of a being that created the universe and “exists,” are false, and that in actuality, God is an unknowable, unfathomable concept for which the very term “existence” is too limited. If you think that sounds like a pretty weak basis for an argument when dealing with such a grand concept’s veracity, you’re right. And despite Armstrong’s impressive breadth of knowledge and her nuanced grasp of various thinkers’ positions throughout the generations, her case never adds up.
Part of the trouble, of course, is that her book’s premise is challenged by her own explanation of what God is. It is nigh impossible for me to understand how someone can build a case for God if the central thesis is that God is an unknowable pseudo-entity-but-not-really, something that mere humans are wholly incapable of defining. Where does that leave your book?
One would hope that an intellect like Armstrong’s would note this paradox. Instead, she throws her lot in with apophatic explanations of God from a chosen slate of theologians, limiting the “correct” discussion of the nature of God to defining what Godis not. Thus, The Case for God is not so much a set of proofs for God’s existence, but a selection of and elaboration on the apophatic positions of particular religious thinkers, united in their unwillingness to pin God down to the realm of the perceivable. It is not a case, per se, but a series of similarly-themed guesses.
There is another paradox in Armstrong’s venture. Repeatedly throughout the book, she laments how “rationalist” notions of God (pretty much all of them since the Enlightenment, a period about which she seems to have mixed feelings) that picture a supreme being of some form that “exists” in the way most (okay, just about all) people define the term, and she is quite clear that such a position is flatly incorrect and–what might be the worst sin in her eyes–”idolatrous.” But by the very act of asserting that some notions of God are incorrect, she gives the lie to her position that God is an unknowable. If it is not, how can she know who is and is not correct in their beliefs?
Armstrong has a particular bone to pick with what we understand today as atheism, most vigorously with the New Atheists, who she says choose the idol-God of the incorrectly-religious to assert the non-existence of. But Armstrong herself, as many have pointed out before me, defines God out of all notions of existence anyway, leaving nothing to believe in to begin with. Speaking for atheists (if I may for the moment), I think it is safe to say that whether we are talking about a vengeful Old Testament Yahweh or a non-definable, quasi-existent infinite ultimateness of the divine logos, both are equally unprovable, devoid of evidence, and not worthy of acceptance. Like many of the New Atheists’ critics, she complains that they are not sufficiently well-versed in theology, and are therefor in no position to weigh in on the question of God’s existence. This is akin to saying that one cannot assert the nonexistence of the Starship Enterprise unless one has studied every episode of every Star Trek series, earned a degree in startrekology, and published scholarly articles on the debate as to whether resistance truly is futile.
To Armstrong, this rationalist line of thinking shuts out alternate means of arriving at “truths,” for Armstrong rests on the also-unprovable notion that truth is a fluid, utterly subjective concept that can be realized by means other than reason. This mindset obviously opens up a formidable can of worms, as any cockamamie “methodology” that someone chooses, and any absurd answers they turn up, suddenly become equally valid. For Armstrong, there is rational truth and religious truth, and religion–something she insists should be viewed as a discipline and practice rather than a belief system–is equally capable of arriving at truth as science. What truths religion is supposed to reveal is, of course, not terribly well defined, and one is forced to infer that the correct truths are those that Armstrong has revealed to us; God is too out-there for mere existence, thinking otherwise is wrong, and we should only talk about what God is not, though we’re pretty sure it’s all about love and tolerance. Throw in a few dashes of meaningless terms like “the infinite,” “ultimate truth,” “inner essences,” and things that have “no qualities,” and you have some idea of what Armstrong is talking about. Or, more likely, you don’t.
I would be remiss if this review did not also highlight what was particularly troubling about the book; Armstrong’s twisting of the practice of science to imply that at its best it is grounded in some theological inspiration. Armstrong praises those greats of ages past, Newton, Descartes, Kepler, and claims that they practiced a “science rooted in faith” because they were personally inspired by religious feeling to pursue knowledge. Now, it may very well be that all these men were driven to discovery out of religious fervor, but that does not in any way make the method they chose, the scientific method, somehow dependent upon or tainted by superstition. Their motivations may have been faith-based, their science was not, and could not have been. Her assertion otherwise is as meaningless as saying that their work was rooted in money if they were paid for their research. She also offends the sensibilities by looping in modern physicists who, since they often deal in invisible abstracts, are examples of science-as-faith-exercise. I would imagine that most of those physicists would balk at the idea of their work being classified as religious in this way.
And while she praises those scientists who have been open to the supernatural, she castigates Galileo for that same disposition. The difference is that Galileo was punished for his pursuit of actual truth, and that punishment was delivered by the earthly representatives of the ruling faith tradition. This is apparently an uncomfortable and inconvenient bit of history for Armstrong, as it is an instance in which religion actively suppresses and penalizes understanding of reality, and so she is careful to let us know that Galileoshares the blame with Pope Urban VIII for his house arrest and public shaming, because Galileo was “pe
rversely intent on reconciling” his scientific findings with scripture. This kind of faith-inspired science is perverse to Armstrong. Is it because he, unlike Kepler and Newton, was punished for it by the ministers of that very faith?
There is more to be said about Armstrong’s puzzling take on the purpose of religion; something of a set of rituals designed to make one a better person in some undefined way, the vaguest kind of self-improvement. But if every believer on Earth were religious in the Armstrongian sense, there probably wouldn’t be too much of a need for affirmative atheism or a secularist movement. Goodness knows, she has won the congratulations of the fuzzily-spiritual and not-quite religious all over the mainstream press, particularly from liberals. But her God is as flimsy of a hypothesis as any other more “idolatrous” version, whether she would deign to allow her position to be subject to such earthly terms as “hypothesis” or not. The case for God is not only a weak one, but it is, like Armstrong’s own God, for all intents and purposes non-existent.