Karen Armstrong thwarts holy war

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      The title of Karen Armstrong’s latest book, The Case for God (Knopf Canada, $34.95), sounds like another entry in the debate that has erupted over such arguments for atheism as Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great. But the distinguished London-based historian of religion claims she has no interest in fanning the flames. As she explained to the Georgia Straight during a recent visit to Vancouver, she’d rather show how the clash between religious fundamentalists and their devoutly atheist opponents is a historical aberration, brought on by ideas about religion that are both ill-founded and thoroughly modern.

      Georgia Straight: You’re a historian of the Bible and of concepts of God. Some might think of this pursuit as a process of disenchantment—taking things that were previously thought sacred and beyond time and moving them inside history and removing that aura. Yet you argue that the Bible is still a deeply spiritual document.

      Karen Armstrong: Well, it is, but you’ve got to work with it. And what the book [The Case for God] goes on to say is, yes, it was a spiritual document in its time, but before the modern period, nobody ever thought of taking this literally. This is the modern disease. I mean, people are now reading the Bible with literalism that is unparalleled in the history of religion.

      KA: Yes. Religion is a practical discipline. And these doctrines, as we call them, were designed to tell us how to behave, not to tell us what to believe.

      GS: Certain skeptics are going to see this as a process of auto-suggestion, a dangerous state in which anything can be true.

      KA: But that’s not it. Try it out. I’m with the Buddha here. He used to say, “If my teaching doesn’t do it for you, leave it.””¦It’s like saying, “I don’t believe in athletics because I am not able to do the long jump or run the 100 yards in 10 seconds.” Religion is something you have to do. And it’s only when you do it that it makes sense. So to sit on the sidelines in a magisterial way, assessing whether you believe it or not, that’s a modern attitude. That’s what I’ve tried to show in the book”¦.Nobody took the first chapter of Genesis as a literal account of the origins of life, until the 17th century. You know, I’m not knocking science—science is terrific, and as someone who’s benefited from modern medicine enormously, I’m all for it. But it has nothing to tell us about religion, and religion has nothing to tell us about science. Before the modern period, everybody knew that.



      Clifford Stevens

      Nov 2, 2009 at 4:52pm

      Karen Armstrong's view that the Bible is merely a primer of personal ethics and human behavior is contradicted by the Bible itself. It is that, of course, but it is more. It is an insight into the very nature of God and of his relationship with human beings. She is right that Richard Dawkins idea of God is a caricature of the Jewish and Christian God. But she is wrong is saying that religion is concerned only about behavior. It is concerned also about worship and prayer and dependence on God, certainly not the God that Richard Dawkins attacks so strenuously, but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - and Jesus, Peter and Paul.


      Jan 29, 2010 at 5:11am

      With the exception of the literalist fundamentalists, the views that Karen Armstrong expresses are common sense to the vast majority of sensible people, regarding the relationship of religion and science. Few people have made these ideas quite so clear and lucid, however. Namely, that science is the empirical study of the physical universe, whereas religion is the subjective exploration of metaphysical realities. The conflation of these two realms of experience is absurd, and pernicious. There are many parallels, but they are fundamentally different realms of experience, one sensory, the other spiritual.
      Regarding the import of religion, Karen's historical insights are very refreshing, highlighting the attitude that vast numbers of people held prior to the relatively recent development of the "scientific mindset", which is that religion is a guide to exploring the nature of spiritual reality through experience, not belief or "faith". To advance on the spiritual path, one must participate in an inner journey of experience, not simply study the words of spiritual texts and argue or debate them in a misguided fashion, with the extreme arrogance of presumption. The substitute of belief in misunderstood texts for open minded devotion to spiritual practises has resulted in a horrendous pathology in religion, and the practical "death of god", not in the objective sense, but in the subjective sense.
      With the translation of the notion of "belief" (hypothesis), derived from the philosophy of science, into the spiritual realm, and the making of it the primary duty of religiosity, an entire era of religious intolerance, cultural imperialism, and the monstrous and cruel genocide and subjugation of millions of non-Christian, non-Muslim, and non-Jewish people found a seemingly sound rationalisation, ushering in the saddest era of religion this world has ever know.
      Perhaps with the leavening that Karen Armstrong introduces, we can speed up the awakening out of this long dark night of misplaced fundamentalism, and re-awaken into a period of genuine, sincere, experiential spirituality, thus ushering out the nightmare of misguided fanaticism with its attendant violence not just against common sense, but against our fellow man and nature.

      Clifford Stevens

      Jun 7, 2010 at 1:10pm

      Religion is not" a subjective exploration of metaphysical realities": it is the objective exploration of a First Cause of the universe, fully as objective as the explorations of empirical science. It is really an epistemologcal problem, how we know and how we can be certain of what we know. We can know for certain that God exists, but it is not the province of empirical science to do this.

      Clifford Stevens
      Boys Town, Nebraska.