Karen Armstrong on God, Part One

To encourage positive dialogue between theists and atheists, I’m going to comment on some publications that should be interesting to both believers and non-believers. I’ll start with two of Karen Armstrong’s offerings:

A History of God, Gramercy Books, 1993

The Case for God, Knopf, 2009

These are very similar books. Both are substantial works of scholarship, offering rich and complex historical information about the Abrahamic religious traditions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I strongly recommend reading one or both of these books for background, savoring them slowly so as to absorb their subtlety and rich detail.

The Case for God is a more recent publication, with more emphasis on current developments including the controversy about the “new atheism.” The title implies that this book offers reasons for believing in God, but Armstrong says little about why she affirms deity or why anyone else should do so.

One of Karen Armstrong’s more controversial claims is the suggestion that Abrahamic religions have not emphasized the existence of God as a supernatural being: “In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call ‘God’ is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence….” (“Man vs. God,” WSJ.com, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203440104574405030643556324.html)

“Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians have insisted for centuries that God does not exist and that there is ‘nothing’ out there….” (The Case for God, p. xvi)

Many religious leaders are startled by this claim. For example Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, brands Armstrong as an atheist. (http://www.albertmohler.com/2009/09/14/a-tale-of-two-atheists/) And Richard Dawkins speaks of theologians who “say something like this: ‘Good heavens, of course we are not so naive or simplistic as to care whether God exists…. It doesn’t matter whether God exists in a scientific sense. What matters is whether he exists for you or for me.’”

“Well, if that’s what floats your canoe, you’ll be paddling it up a very lonely creek,” Dawkins admonishes. Most believers say God truly exists, “just as surely as the Rock of Gibraltar exists.” (Ibid.)

James Wood concurs. “Theologians and priests are always changing the game in this way. They accuse atheists of wanting to murder an overliteral God, while they themselves keep alive a rarefied God whom no one, other than them, actually believes in.” (James Wood, The New Yorker, August, 2009, p.78.)

Sigmund Freud said something similar in The Future of an Illusion: “Philosophers stretch the meaning of words until they retain scarcely anything of their original sense. They give the name of ‘God’ to some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves; having done so they can pose before all the world as deists, as believers in God, and they can even boast that they have recognized a higher, purer concept of God, notwithstanding that their God is now nothing more than an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrines.” (http://www. adolphus.nl/xcrpts/xcfreudill.html.)

Despite these complaints, many of Armstrong’s readers are delighted by her rejection of popular god-concepts. Simon Blackburn, a philosophy professor, writes that “Armstrong is not presenting a case for God in the sense most people in our idolatrous world would think of it. The ordinary man or woman in the pew or on the prayer mat probably thinks of God as a kind of large version of themselves with mysterious powers and a rather nasty temper…. as long as they think like that, ordinary folk are not truly religious, whatever they profess. (http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/non-fiction/article6619456.ece.)

In Part Two of this essay I’ll say more about Armstrong’s unorthodox concept of God.


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