James P. Carse’s book, The Religious Case Against Belief, Part Three

In the first two parts of this series on The Religious Case Against Belief (Penguin Books, 2008), I’ve considered James P. Carse’s idea of a “higher ignorance,” the humility which some people achieve when (after years of study) they realize how much more there is to learn. As Socrates, one of the most brilliant minds of his time, put it, “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance” (http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Socrates).

Although Carse sometimes expresses himself with great confidence, he invites readers to critique his work: “… the argument presented in these pages must provide the basis for its own rejection” (p. 213).

Both theists and atheists will find themselves challenged by The Religious Case Against Belief. Many theists will be disturbed by his claim that holy scriptures do not provide information about how Earth was made, why we’re here, why we so often do evil, and how we can be saved. Despite the fact that religious texts contain many thousands of words, Carse maintains that, “like poetry they say nothing. There is no point to any of them” (p. 104).

Although atheists may appreciate this rejection of Biblical literalism, Carse criticizes the “new atheists,” such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for attacking “a hasty caricature” of contemporary God-concepts” (p. 2). “Typically, the god unbelievers are rejecting is one found nowhere within the living religions” (p. 31).

Several other writers, including Karen Armstrong, have made similar comments, but I find it utterly baffling to imagine that religious texts have essentially zero factual content. Certainly many Christians emphasize factual statements about deity. Surveys show that in the U.S., a great many religious people believe in highly traditional beliefs about God. For example, about 80% of American Christians believe that Jesus will return to Earth. (See http://people-press.org/reports/pdf/287.pdf.) “A new poll from the Pew Research Center finds that roughly four in 10 Americans believe the Second Coming will happen by 2050” (Tom Krattenmaker, USA Today, August 23, 2010, p. 9A). It seems perfectly reasonable for atheists to critique the merits of these widely-accepted doctrines.

Carse also denies that churches should preach a literal belief in an afterlife, partly because he says it’s a horrible idea. Like the Christian theologian Paul Tillich, he thinks that an unending afterlife would be hell. Endless personal consciousness, Carse maintains, would drive us mad with boredom (p. 169). He also concurs with Karen Armstrong’s suggestion that ancient religions did not focus on eternal life (p. 173). But ancient stories from all over the world mention visitations from the dead. Traditional cultures have typically assumed that we do go on in some form. Thus the Bible would not have announced the afterlife as an astonishing revelation. It was taken for granted.

Although I don’t agree with everything in The Religious Case Against Belief, I recommend this compact little volume as a meditation on how little we know and how many ways we can interpret what may at first seem like clear and straightforward religious doctrines. “The higher ignorance” is, indeed, the beginning of wisdom.


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Karen Armstrong on God, Part Two

In Part One I discussed ideas from two of Karen Armstrong’s publications:

A History of God, Gramercy Books, 1993

The Case for God, Knopf, 2009

Both books discuss the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and deny that these traditions emphasize the idea that God is a supernatural being. Instead, Armstrong suggests that these religions have often maintained a respectful silence about what God is like. Today, on the other hand, “People of faith admit in theory that God is utterly transcendent, but they seem sometimes to assume that they know exactly who ‘he’ is and what he thinks, loves, and expects” (The Case for God, p. ix).

Armstrong notes that whereas Christianity has focused on doctrine, Judaism has not enforced theological orthodoxy: “Any official doctrine would limit the essential mystery of God” (A History of God, p. 74). And in Islam, “the Koran is highly suspicious of theological speculation, dismissing it as zanna, self-indulgent guesswork about things that nobody can possibly know or prove” (p. 143).

On p. 126 of A History of God Armstrong mentions an approach to theological reflection in which one first affirms what God is, including God’s existence; then denies those affirmations, saying for example that God does not exist; and then denies the denials. This conceptual discipline is intended to disintegrate our use of typical words and concepts in speaking of the Ultimate.

Armstrong definitely rejects some common teachings about deity, such as the idea that God created plants and animals. Life originated because of natural selection, and not because of divine planning:

“Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course – at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death, and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making. No wonder so many fundamentalist Christians find their faith shaken to the core” (WSJ.com, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203440104574405030643556324.html).

Furthermore Armstrong does not think most religions emphasize immortality, and she herself is completely agnostic about this issue. She made that statement September 9, 2009 in a radio interview with Michael Krasny (http://www.kqed.org/epArchive/R909241000). Her view is that only Christianity and Islam have made the afterlife central, and even there it is often seen as some-thing like a parable rather than a definite statement of fact. She contends that religion should be about transcending our egos, not ensuring our own survival.

When Armstrong says that God is indescribable, here are three things that this might mean.

1. Something is indescribable if we can say virtually nothing about it. For instance, some think the Big Bang must have had a cause, but they haven’t a clue what that was.

2. On the other hand, “indescribable” may just mean we lack a good description. In some cases we can make many accurate statements about something, but even in combination these statements are pitifully incomplete. Suppose someone grabs an elephant’s leg in the dark and thinks it’s a tree. Even if the beast held still long enough for this leg-seizer to make 50 accurate statements about this massive limb, those statements would not add up to a good description of the elephant.

3. Finally, “indescribable” may be mere hyperbole, dramatic exaggeration for effect. After one’s first sexual encounter, one may exclaim, “Words fail me! All I can say is ‘Wow!’” – after which one scrawls pages of intimate descriptive detail in a diary.

So God could be utterly indescribable, partially describable, or “indescribable” as poetic exaggeration. I am not sure which of these fits Armstrong’s approach. If pressed I would bet on #2, but perhaps she would select #1 instead. In any case, there is a big difference between:

“We can say nothing about deity.”

And: “We can say many things about deity, but these statements are quite incomplete.”

I would hazard a guess that Karen Armstrong would affirm some things about the Ultimate, including qualities such as creativity, transcendence, and goodness. And I certainly applaud her effort to correct overly-literal theologies. Her many books have conclusively proven that spiritual teachers throughout history have considered God beyond human comprehension. That is such a refreshing contrast to those who think they know everything about deity except (perhaps) the Lord’s favorite pizza toppings.

Since she denies that the Abrahamic faiths require belief in a supernatural deity, Armstrong thinks contemporary atheist writers such as Richard Dawkins are attacking the wrong target. She charges them with having “an extremely literalist notion of God. For Dawkins, religious faith rests on the idea that ‘there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence, who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it’” (The Case for God, p. 304). (For her critique of the new atheism see pp. 301-09.) She maintains that this concept is woefully out of date.

Atheists could reply that if Armstrong is correct, even liberal congregations are chock-full of literalists. Believing that God designed and created the universe is middle-of-the-road Christianity, not extreme literalism. Although many theologians no longer think of God as a super-powerful being, Armstrong admits that contemporary theology has “rarely reached the pews.”1

One more point: In A History of God, Karen Armstrong shows that virtually all spiritual communities emphasize compassion (p. 391). She has now followed up on this theme with Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. I saw her lecturing about this book last June, and it sounds excellent.


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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.


Finding common ground among those who disagree about God

Welcome to Theists & Atheists: Communication & Common Ground. The main theme of this site will be respectful communication among those who hold various views about God – belief in God, disbelief, agnosticism, ambivalence, and/or bewilderment. I’ll also discuss variations such as Karen Armstrong’s approach – affirming God while denying that God exists. (See her book, The Case for God.)

Although I’ll mostly limit my focus to whether there is a God and what God is like, my suggestions about communication will be relevant to any difference of opinion – disagreements about religion, politics, morality, or any other emotionally loaded subject.

I’ll be keeping my own beliefs in the background, except to say that I like to learn from many faiths and philosophies. Every viewpoint has something to contribute, and nobody has a monopoly on truth.

In my next post I’ll consider guidelines for talking about religion with those who disagree with us, but I’m sure my readers already have good ideas about that. What do you see as key principles of positive communication between those who do and do not believe in God, as well as those who aren’t sure? (Given my theme of respectful communication, rants will be ignored.)

I began a similar blog last year, but did not continue because I was too busy writing a book called Bridging the God Gap. That project is complete, so now I look forward to blogging regularly, and to hearing your creative suggestions for “bridging the gap” between believers and atheists.

Roger, July 14, 2011