The zombies will sup on Karen Armstrong with a straw

Karen Armstrong has once again published a pile of meaningless twaddle in defense of religion. In this mess, she takes a series of statements about god that she says need rethinking…but as always, her “rethinking” is merely a reworking of apologetics for maintaining the status quo. It’s almost as if she thinks it is a new and brilliant idea to just keep going to church and accepting Jesus into your heart. It’s not.

Here’s her little list of truisms that she aims to puncture.

“God Is Dead.”

Armstrong says this isn’t true, and points to fundamentalist upheavals as evidence that “God has proven to be alive and well”. I think it means she doesn’t understand Nietzsche.

Nietzsche, of course, wasn’t arguing for a literal death of a deity, nor was he claiming that religion had disappeared from the world. He was making a narrower argument, that in his culture (19th century Europe), the concept of god had lost its material and moral authority. There is no central defining source of absolute truth, and we human beings have to rebuild our values around something new, other than this notion of a celestial monarch (he personally thought the new value was a “will to power”, individual ambition and aspiration).

That’s still true. Fundamentalism is in many ways a desperate reaction to that loss, that deep down even they know God is a powerless answer. That was the striking thing about the “Creation” Museum: it’s a deeply fundamentalist institution, but even there in the heart of Christian literalism, they do nothing but ape the trappings of science and strive to present a “science” to support claims that were once sufficiently endorsed by simply pointing to the Bible. God is dead; he is no longer a vital element in how human beings interact in a meaningful, productive way with the universe. Modern fundamentalism is basically a series of aftershocks as cultures struggle to deal with the fall of gods.

Somehow, though, Armstrong tries to turn her only argument that god isn’t dead — by pointing to strife in the Middle East, Iranian ayatollahs, and Jerry Falwell — into a complaint about the New Atheists. So she commits the same sin that Ken Ham does, finding God insufficient, so turning to an illusion of science and claiming justification in “human nature”.

These writers are wrong — not only about religion, but also about politics — because they are wrong about human nature. Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. So God isn’t going anywhere. And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. Whether we like it or not, God is here to stay, and it’s time we found a way to live with him in a balanced, compassionate manner.

See what I mean? God is inadequate. To defend religion, people have to borrow the authority of science, and invent misbeggoten terms like Home religiosus and make grand claims about nature and natural law. This is exactly what Nietzsche meant when he said “God is dead”! Theology is flighty and transient, we have to find truth in reality, or in Armstrong’s case, a pretense of reality.

In some ways, I’m always flattered by this argument that we need to define humans as a species by their religious beliefs, because I don’t have them…which means I get to claim that I, and my fellow atheists, are a new species. Let us go forth, my fellow Homo smartiepantsius, and take over the hominid niche.

This is, of course, complete nonsense. Human beings, whether atheist or believer, have the same cognitive apparatus that seeks to find meaning and pattern in the world. The difference between us isn’t at all biological, but simply that some of us recognize that “god” is a piss-poor answer to any meaningful question, and we’ve moved on to looking for that meaning and pattern in more productive ways.

“God and Politics Shouldn’t Mix.”

Her defense of the inclusion of religion in global politics is even weaker. She points to several examples of aggressive change in other countries — Egypt and Iran — that led to a serious backlash. True enough.

In the West, secularism has been a success, essential to the modern economy and political system, but it was achieved gradually over the course of nearly 300 years, allowing new ideas of governance time to filter down to all levels of society. But in other parts of the world, secularization has occurred far too rapidly and has been resented by large sectors of the population, who are still deeply attached to religion and find Western institutions alien.

Her argument is not a defense of religion, however: it’s an argument that social institutions are not built overnight, that many countries have tied stability and internal support very tightly to religious institutions, and rushing in and breaking them apart in the name of secularism simply because they are religious, and ignoring the material consequences of their destruction, is a bad idea. I agree!

We often get labeled “militant atheists”. It’s a joke. Militant atheists would be the type who argue that we should charge in and deconvert populations at the point of a sword — we don’t (well, maybe Hitchens leans that way, a little bit). We need modern societies to evolve away from religion, and that means education, local adoption and integration of secular motives into existing institutions, and gradually shift to a rational foundation in a way that doesn’t destroy the existing, essential superstructure.

And again, God is dead. Armstrong’s argument does not rest on any theological argument, but entirely on a case that rapid change is disruptive in a material sense…and even admits that secularism works and is essential.

“God Breeds Violence and Intolerance.”

This section was useless and annoying. She again resorts to natural explanations (the cause of violence is human behavior. Duh), and relies on mischaracterizing atheism. This is an egregious lie:

In claiming that God is the source of all human cruelty, Hitchens and Dawkins ignore some of the darker facets of modern secular society, which has been spectacularly violent because our technology has enabled us to kill people on an unprecedented scale. Not surprisingly, religion has absorbed this belligerence, as became hideously clear with the September 11 atrocities.

Look at that first clause. Has either Dawkins or Hitchens, or any other prominent atheist, ever claimed that? It’s so exhausting to watch yet another apologist beating a dead strawman. Dismissed.

“God Is for the Poor and Ignorant.”

Curiously, Armstrong only addresses the first accusation — apparently, you can be rich and godly (no argument there), but she doesn’t have an argument to support the idea that you can be wise and religious. Even there, though, she’s inconsistent: look at her second point, above, where she admits that secularism has been essential to the modern Western economy. And her counterargument is to simply point at the United States and note that religion has compromised its principles to allow for market economics!

But God refuses to be outgrown, even in the United States, the richest country in the world and the most religious country in the developed world. None of the major religions is averse to business; each developed initially in a nascent market economy. The Bible and the Koran may have prohibited usury, but over the centuries Jews, Christians, and Muslims all found ways of getting around this restriction and produced thriving economies. It is one of the great ironies of religious history that Christianity, whose founder taught that it was impossible to serve both God and mammon, should have produced the cultural environment that, as Max Weber suggested in his 1905 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, was integral to modern capitalism.

The US is an outlier, a weird country that combines wealth and religiosity. Using it as an example is a very bad idea.

It is also no defense of religion to point out that when it gets in the way of practical matters, like making a profit, religion bends to get out of the way (in successful societies, at least). God dies a little, again, when you do that. What she is describing is the fact that Christianity has willingly retreated and rationalized to tolerate economic realities. This is no surprise, nor does it imply that religion is a causal agent in economic success.

All we New Atheists want is for religion to bend some more and get completely out of our way.

She does get in one more lick of the patented Armstrong Dribble™, though. This is amazing, world-class BS, in reference to how we’re going to recover from recent financial crises.

To recover from the ill effects of the last year, we may need exactly that conquest of egotism that has always been essential in the quest for the transcendence we call “God.” Religion is not simply a matter of subscribing to a set of obligatory beliefs; it is hard work, requiring a ceaseless effort to get beyond the selfishness that prevents us from achieving a more humane humanity.

I’ve always been impressed, myself, at the incredible amount of work people put into religion — it’s like watching hamsters in a wheel, running, running, running and getting absolutely nowhere. I would not accuse the devout of being lazy.

However, I do not think that working harder at magical transcendence will cure our financial woes. Could we maybe do something, you know, real? Hard work is not the exclusive domain of the religious, after all. I might argue that productive hard work and religion are mutually exclusive.

“God Is Bad for Women.”

Armstrong and I agree on something. She says yes, I say yes. Well, except for some nuances…

It is unfortunately true that none of the major world religions has been good for women. Even when a tradition began positively for women (as in Christianity and Islam), within a few generations men dragged it back to the old patriarchy. But this is changing. Women in all faiths are challenging their men on the grounds of the egalitarianism that is one of the best characteristics of all these religious traditions.

Egalitarianism is definitely not a characteristic of these religious traditions. All build on a hierarchy, all are patriarchal, almost all religions rely on a separation of the world into “us”, the tribe, the chosen, the people of the one true god, and the “other”, the enemy, the servants of the dark ones, and you simply do not build egalitarian communities on that foundation.

“God Is the Enemy of Science.”

Armstrong’s answer here is no surprise: she says it is not, and further, guess who we can blame for any conflict? Science, of course!

The conflict with science is symptomatic of a reductive idea of God in the modern West. Ironically, it was the empirical emphasis of modern science that encouraged many to regard God and religious language as fact rather than symbol, thus forcing religion into an overly rational, dogmatic, and alien literalism.

When even the moderate, liberal, airy-fairy god-praisin’ spirituality pushers can only resolve the conflict between science and religion by pointing fingers and putting all the fault on evil Science, how can anyone wonder why many scientists find religion to be our enemy? Armstrong keeps supporting my points for me!

But further, she is again pushing a caricature of the atheist position. I don’t oppose religion because I think all of its proponents are literalists or anti-science, even; I know that most are fuzzy thinkers, like Armstrong, or pragmatic opportunists who happily use the products of science and engineering without much concern about the processes used to develop them.

I consider religion the enemy of science because it short-circuits critical thought and gives believers an escape hatch to superstition. As long as religion teaches that the answers to real world issues can be found in revelation and authority and the interpretation of holy texts, belief is inimical to scientific thinking.

“God Is Incompatible with Democracy.”

Wait, what? Who has made that argument?

Samuel Huntington foresaw a “clash of civilizations” between the free world and Islam, which, he maintained, was inherently averse to democracy. But at the beginning of the 20th century, nearly all leading Muslim intellectuals were in love with the West and wanted their countries to look just like Britain and France. What has alienated many Muslims from the democratic ideal is not their religion but Western governments’ support of autocratic rulers, such as the Iranian shahs, Saddam Hussein, and Hosni Mubarak, who have denied people basic human and democratic rights.

Huntington did argue that there were serious conflicts between different regions that were generated by religion, and specifically named Islam as a growing problem. However, I can’t quite picture him making the argument that a democracy couldn’t also be religious. Especially since he vigorously insisted that America was a Christian nation.

I also don’t see many atheists demanding that we replace the leadership of Muslim countries with dictatorships. When she talks about Iranian and Iraqi and Egyptian autocrats, she is aware that they were propped up by “the most religious country in the developed world,” right?

So once more I’m lost in the reasoning Armstrong is using here — she is using a strange claim not made by atheists of a principle not implemented by atheists to endorse the compatibility of religion and democracy, a non-conflict that most atheists wouldn’t argue over.

Bleh. What a mess of goo and vapor. I don’t doubt that Armstrong is an intelligent woman, but she’s giving us another reason why religion is bad for people and for nations: it turns good brains to mush. And that’s a condition that can only make toothless zombies happy.


  1. Anoracle says

    Thank you PZ Meyers;
    I found it very strange that Ms. Armstrong at one point says:”—As soon as we become recognizably human, men and women started to create religions”.
    (Does she realize she’s saying ‘they’ “created God”?)
    With ‘that’ statement Ms. Arstrong destroys any argument against those who know ‘her’ “God” is a fictional fairytale character, and no more real than “Mickey Mouse” or any other man made “creation”!
    Her thereafter persistance in asserting this figment of man’s imagination must be taken seriously; calls into question her sanity!

  2. Anoracle says

    Thank you PZ Meyers;
    I found it very strange that Ms. Armstrong at one point says:”—As soon as we become recognizably human, men and women started to create religions”.
    (Does she realize she’s saying ‘they’ “created God”?)
    With ‘that’ statement Ms. Armstrong destroys any argument against those who know ‘her’ “God” is a fictional fairytale character, and no more real than “Mickey Mouse” or any other man made “creation”!
    Her thereafter persistance in asserting this figment of man’s imagination must be taken seriously; calls into question her sanity!