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.