A valentine for Karen Armstrong

Good old NPR, always middlebrow to a fault. Talk about atheism and religion? Well you know what will be said, because NPR wouldn’t allow anything else to be said.

Sometimes the debate between atheism and religion can be enlightening, showing us how both of these different approaches dive deeply into the currents of human experience. Sometimes, however, it can be deeply depressing, devolving into hard lines and acrimony. As an atheist, I often find myself exasperated with what I call “strident atheism.”

The banality, it…well it doesn’t burn. It stifles with fuzzy fluffiness. Atheism and religion are “approaches,” which are different but not more or less accurate. They are approaches that dive (how can an approach dive?) “deeply into the currents of human experience.” Well that sounds profound, but is it right? Not particularly. It’s approximate, and it sounds deep to the unwary and inattentive. If there’s anything I dislike it’s writing that sounds deep to the unwary and inattentive and to no one else.

And then the atheist winds up brightly informing us that he has a brand new label for argumentative atheism, and that brand new label is “strident.”


People in this vein seem intent on ignoring the long narrative of human spiritual endeavor. They often reduce it to histories of ignorance and intolerance. Believers in strident atheism convince themselves that it’s OK to ignore the scholarship on the long and ancient history of human spiritual endeavor. And that brings me to my Valentine.

Oh, god, that is shitty writing. Every word of it is bad. “People in this vein”? And what’s the long narrative of human spiritual endeavor that those people are ignoring? Religion isn’t that narrative. Religion isn’t history of religion. And nobody is a “believer in strident atheism” and the rest of the sentence is just baby talk.

It’s insulting, to use such bad writing on what’s supposed to be a serious news show.

Adam Frank ends with a hymn of praise to Karen Armstrong, despite admitting that she’s not much good.

Armstrong has been criticized for shallowness and for skipping over the subtleties that formal scholarship would reveal. I am sure some of that criticism is true. I can see that she is, indeed, often painting in broad strokes. But like a good science writer, she is opening doors into the history of ideas and experience that we can all follow.

No she isn’t. She’s giving people an illusion of knowledge and a distorted view of the subject.

There is another reason I, a scientist, love Karen Armstrong. All of her writings are illuminated by a deep and resonant compassion. As a scientist I am always interested in universals, things that are always true. Armstrong, who founded the wonderful Charter for Compassion, is interested in the same thing when it comes to human behavior as an expression of spiritual longing. Compassion, she tells us, must always come first, must always be the first concern of a religious life. I am not religious but I could not agree more.

Thank you Ms. Armstrong. Will you be my Valentine?

Gag me. But she doesn’t only tell us compassion must come first; she also insists that all religions put it first, and that’s a damn lie.




  1. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    No. Nor the cooing in one’s ear. . .the breathy sex/cookies voice that tries to be your mom and your mistress at once. BLECH.

  2. Mattir - now will you PLEASE go your own way already? says

    I have never been able to stand Karen Armstrong. And I say this as someone who keeps the collected works of Alain de Botton for the occasional furtively enjoyable read.

    Armstrong is *that* bad.

  3. edithkeeler says

    I read her biography of the Buddha and it was fine but whenever I’ve read anything in which she’s expressing her actual opinions, yeah. This stuff particularly annoys (Frank not Armstrong): ”

    In their ranks, you will often find folks who have never read William James, Rudolf Otto, Emile Durkheim, Mircea Eliade or Wendy Doniger. Failing to explore these domains is like rejecting all of physics after spending 20 minutes in an intro class. ”

    Well newsflash, 99% of religious believers have never read and probably never heard of those folks either. Does that make their faith shallow and an insult to the long history of human spiritual endeavour, Adam?

    I googled Mircea Eliade and he is described thus at the link Frank gives: “Despite his focus on the history of religions, Eliade never relinquished his philosophical agenda. That said, he never fully clarified his philosophy. There has been radical disagreement over his thought, some seeing it as a crucial contribution to the study of religion, and some seeing him as an obscurantist whose normative assumptions are unacceptable.” Yeah great, sounds like a productive way to spend my time. o_O

  4. edithkeeler says

    Which is not to say things that are obscure are irrelevant or anything but naming a list of people that atheists simply must read to be allowed to express opinions (but never making same demand of believers) is one of the tiresome tactics of anti-gnus. See also Eagleton demanding you must read Duns Scotus before venturing any views on theological claims. Of course, if one has read Duns Scotus another of the endless list of medieval theologians will be substituted to shift the goal posts.

  5. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    Krista Tippett.

    She’s the fucking worst. And her vocal affectations are supremely irritating:

    “I’m . . . .Kris. .ta. . Tip. . .ett. And this is. . .Speaking. . .of. . . Faith.”

  6. Genius Loci says

    William James, by the way, might be considered the great-grandfather of Truthiness. His rationale for a religious belief unjustified by any sort of evidence whatsoever runs thus: “I may not have proof that what I believe is true, but it sounds true enough to me and I think it will make my life better, and that’s good enough for me.”

  7. kevinkirkpatrick says

    I find it tremendously easier to listen to a sermon my wife’s Lutheran church or be amused for an hour straight by some self-proclaimed “The Bible Guy” radio ministry, than to listen to 5 minutes of any random episode of “Speaking of Faith”. I have literally experienced physical revulsion at the mix of tone and content of several of the 8 – 10 random samplings I’ve had of the show, and am actually now paranoid on Sunday mornings of flipping on the radio, worried that I might find it bleating out that particular program.

    But maybe that’s just me.

  8. Martha says

    It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I actually really liked Armstrong’s autobiographical book, Through the Narrow Gate, on her experience as a pre-Vatican II nun, and why she left.

    I never made it through A History of God, but I remember being struck by her characterization of Christianity as being a religion of doctrine, with Judaism and Islam concentrating more on practice. I’ve never seen that view supported elsewhere and wonder to what extent it holds true. Similarly, if I recall correctly, she posits that earlier cultures saw their myths as just that, not as literal truth. Again, I wonder to what extent it is true that fundamentalism is a (relatively) new development in response to “modern” science, very broadly defined– maybe starting with Copernicus and Bacon?

    Can anybody recommend (specific) better sources addressing these issues?

  9. leftwingfox says

    No. Nor the cooing in one’s ear. . .the breathy sex/cookies voice that tries to be your mom and your mistress at once. BLECH.

    Anyone else have the “Schweddy Balls” SNL skit running through their heads now?

  10. Physics or Stamp Collecting says

    When I was a Christian, I read Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane and thought he had some points about the idea of sacredness and kept the book around.

    I recently reread it, and my only reaction is a giant set of [citation needed]s.

  11. Stacy says

    It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I actually really liked Armstrong’s autobiographical book, Through the Narrow Gate, on her experience as a pre-Vatican II nun, and why she left.

    Martha, me too. Too bad she’s never quite been able to leave that convent behind.

  12. stewart says

    “People in this vein seem intent on ignoring the long narrative of…”

    … repressive violence in the name of what’s now masquerading as cuddly spiritual values?

  13. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    the long and ancient history of human spiritual endeavor.

    But what were they spiritually endeavouring to do?

    Does god believe in Karen Armstring?

  14. Owlmirror says

    I’ve been trawling through some old Sb Pharyngula posts, and found this gem by Sastra

    Theist: I believe in God.

    Armstrong: Yes. What I understand you to be saying is that you believe that reality exists. God is its mythic personification, and lies beyond our comprehension. God is nothing.

    Theist: No, I believe that God exists, and that God is real, and He acts in the world.

    Armstrong: Of course God is real. It is a symbol which points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence.

    Theist: You’re not listening. God created the universe, and revealed His purpose in the Bible.

    Armstrong: I hear you. The Bible was never intended to be historically or scientifically accurate or explain anything: no, it is a myth which helps you cope psychologically, akin to poetry or music. I really honor and respect that. Good for you.

    Theist: A myth? A symbol? No, God is our creator. He will judge us according to our sin. He’s not something I made up to feel better. There’s salvation and damnation in the afterlife!

    Armstrong: All of which is a metaphor for the cultivation of the human capacities of mind and heart as you discover an interior haven of peace. Believe me, I understand what you’re doing, and it’s okay. It’s more than okay; its what makes us human.

    Theist: Fuck you.

    (Sastra deserves all the valentines)

    (even heddle praised her!)

  15. says

    Conservative activists have been running NPR for some years now.
    The only amazing thing is how much they’ve been able to restrain themselves from turning it into Fox News.

  16. says

    The banality, it…well it doesn’t burn. It stifles with fuzzy fluffiness…

    This does so perfectly capture the essence of the whole miserable genre, I’m actually finding it hard to breathe.

    Air! Clarity! Please… Open a window! And someone say something that actually _means_ something, quick, or I fear I may black out. Concrete nouns that aren’t metaphors, stat! Bullshit at these concentrations can do irreversible damage… Everyone: to the vapid cloying rhetoric emergency stations, and proceed quickly but calmly toward the exits. Get out and away from the building!

  17. MKandefer says

    And then the atheist winds up brightly informing us that he has a brand new label for argumentative atheism, and that brand new label is “strident.”

    Well, it’s a step up from “militant atheism” at least… but still wrong.

  18. jackiepaper says

    I do want to point out in Krista Tippet’s defense, that the show is no longer called Speaking of Faith, because she didn’t feel that represented nonbelievers. I think it’s called On Being now.

    .Earth/Sky is on every morning just as I take the kids to school. We love it.

  19. starskeptic says

    I’m trying to eliminate unnecessary fuzzy fluffiness from my own life…or is that fluffy fuzziness?

  20. Matt Penfold says

    Can anybody recommend (specific) better sources addressing these issues?

    For a comprehensive study of Christianity I can highly recommend Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years”.

    MacCulloch is a Professor of the History of Religion at Oxford, and whilst he is a Deacon in the Church of England is very much on the liberal side. He decided not pursue the possibility of being ordained because he opposed the CofE’s position on homosexuality. He has been critical of their opposition to same-sex marriage in the UK. So whilst he is an “insider”, he is a good enough historian and liberal enough not to allow his personal beliefs cloud his writing.

  21. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    I think it’s called On Being now.

    Your defense is for naught–I hate her now more than ever!

  22. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    I need my own content-free NPR show. “About Living,” or “Some Words, or “Me Me Me Humble Me.”

  23. jamessweet says


    I have to say, I think I have an unhealthy level of irritation when somebody engages in commentary that they seem to think is original and insightful, and it’s just the same old shit we’ve heard a thousand times. Even when they’re right it grates on me, heh…

  24. Matt Penfold says

    Sometimes I am very grateful to Radio 4. I know it has its moments when it goes all god-bothery, but those are small compared to the stuff it does well.

  25. Sastra says

    @Owlmirror #20:

    Ha! Thanks, I’d forgotten that particular ‘dialogue.’

    What’s strange is that in real life so many people who claim to seriously believe in God seem to welcome Armstrong’s vague fuzzy fluffiness with open arms. The unsettling impression I get is that theists don’t particularly care what you say about God as long as you say it while heaping lots of praise on them. Armstrong may claim to be apophatic when it comes to the divine but she’s not so apophatic that she can’t heap positive words like compassion, spiritual longing, and spiritual endeavor onto the believer, flattering them with the idea that even if their conclusions are wrong their heart is certainly in the right place.

    Those strident folks who keep harping irrationally on whether or not the beliefs are really true just aren’t getting it. Wanting it to be true settles the real question: who am I? Turns out they prefer answers which are just oozing with compassion. Valentines.

  26. says

    Yikes, no, never heard of it. Sounds even worse than that awful thing with Michael Toms…What’s it called? “All the woo we can find”? “New vibrations in transcendent spiritual quantum flipnoods”? “Can’t say what it is but know it’s there”?

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