Sunday, October 4, 2009

"The Case for God" Review Squared

My Mormon reader, Seth R., suggested I look at the NY Times book review for "The Case for God", by Karen Armstrong. So here are my reactions from that piece. Bear in mind, I'm commenting only on the content of that linked review; I have not read the book in question.
And the new atheists seem to have temporarily run out of ways to call believers stupid.
Really? Clearly, she hasn't seen my blog. Or Pharyngula. Or Religulous. Or the Iron Chariots Wiki. Or Edward Current and Betty Bowers. Or any number of other great sources of religion mockery. (Ooh! Let's not forget Landover Baptist and Sex in Christ!) So, already I'm disagreeing with the writer of the review. Moving on.
The time, in other words, is ripe for a book like “The Case for God,” which wraps a rebuke to the more militant sort of atheism in an engaging survey of Western religious thought. Karen Armstrong, a former nun turned prolific popular historian, wants to rescue the idea of God from its cultured despisers and its more literal-minded adherents alike
But see, that misses the activist atheist's point: God is not the only problem. Belief is a problem. Praising faith and religion as "good" is a problem. Fundamentalists may be the ones we all agree are a problem, believers and non alike, but moderate believers are a problem, too. As long as there are moderate, reasonable people who consider devotion and adherence to tradition good, children will die of medical neglect and child brides will be victimized by old men. The fundamentalists won't change until the center changes. As long as "believer" is still the default, extreme belief will flourish and thrive. My objection is not to one particular view of god. My objection is to the idea that humans should prostrate themselves before anyone or anything. It's disgusting and an insult to human dignity.

And why does the idea of God need rescuing? Don't you suppose an omnipotent deity would be able to run his own PR campaign? The review author, Ross Douthat, comments on Armstrong's view of early church fathers and their approach to religion.
These and other thinkers, she writes, understood faith primarily as a practice, rather than as a system — not as “something that people thought but something they did.” Their God was not a being to be defined or a proposition to be tested, but an ultimate reality to be approached through myth, ritual and “apophatic” theology, which practices “a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred” and emphasizes what we can’t know about the divine. And their religion was a set of skills, rather than a list of unalterable teachings — a “knack,” as the Taoists have it, for navigating the mysteries of human existence.
Well, I don't know about you, but I personally can't accept something as "ultimate reality" that there's no reason to suppose even exists! (Yeah, I know you can, Seth, but most of my audience doesn't feel the same.) So everything that follows from that faulty proposition - how one should go about honoring this ultimate reality - still doesn't apply one damn bit to an atheist. To quote Tracy Harris of the ACA in one of the best, simplest explanations for why we should doubt the existence of gods, "Things which exist manifest in reality." In other words, things that exist can be tested and we can at least begin to apply definitions. Somethings are trickier to define than others, like "life" but we can begin to narrow down what something is and what it isn't. If we can't do that, then we really aren't talking about anything meaningful or anything at all. No one worships a nebulous vague concept. The people I've known who didn't bother to define their god, also didn't worship it. They were "everything happens for a reason" types, not true believers. But they, like the moderately religious, continue acting as if believing in a failed hypothesis is virtuous, rather than idiotic. (See Douthat? I'm not even close to running out of ways to call believing in a god stupid! Maybe when I'm 90 I'll start running low, but it's not like any of the old ways have been discredited, so they'll still work fine and dandy, too). Now let's move on to the stuff that get my blood pressure up.
It’s a knack, Armstrong argues, that the Christian West has largely lost, and the rise of modern science is to blame. Not because science and religion are unalterably opposed, but because religious thinkers succumbed to a fatal case of science envy.
Hang on, let me get this straight:
  1. Science is to blame.
  2. Because religious people can't fit god and facts in their head at the same time.
  3. So science is to blame???
Can I hear a rousing cry of "Non-Sequitur!" Geeze Louise, people. "You're asking us to change our views to accommodate reality. Wah! I'm calling my daddy and he's gonna beat you up!"
Instead of providing the usual portrait of empiricism triumphing over superstition, Armstrong depicts an extended seduction in which believers were persuaded to embrace the “natural theology” of Isaac Newton and William Paley, which seemed to provide scientific warrant for a belief in a creator God.
Well, of course she's not going to do the empiricism vs. superstition approach - she's still superstitious. If she were to try that approach, with all honesty and sincerity, she'd become an atheist. Faith doesn't make sense - not because it's some profound mystery, but because you people are morons for doing something that clearly makes life worse for people and doesn't actually deliver on its promises.

Also, Isaac Newton and other creator-God deist types the book author, Armstrong, cites all lived before Charles Darwin took that famous voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. You know, before we had a better explanation, one that happened to not require the intentional actions of a thinking or sentient, much less omniscient, deity. God could have either not existed or been asleep at the wheel. Evolution by natural selection works on its own and doesn't have big supernatural anomalies (ie, worldwide flood narrowing each species' gene pool down to 1 male and 1 female) in its history.
An Aquinas or an Augustine would have been unfazed by the idea of evolution. But their modern successors had convinced themselves that religious truth was a literal, all-or-nothing affair, in which doctrines were the equivalent of scientific precepts, and sacred texts needed to coincide exactly with the natural sciences. The resulting crisis produced the confusions of our own day, in which biblical literalists labor to reconcile the words of Genesis with the existence of the dinosaurs, while atheists ridicule Scripture for its failure to resemble a science textbook.
I wish some justification for this statement on Augustine's view of natural selection was provided, but perhaps it is in the full length book (which I still may read, because I have liberal Christian family). Personally, I mock Scripture for offering pathetic advice, advocating intolerant and inhuman behavior, and for stating that bats are birds while at the same time, claiming to be the divinely inspired word of god. That's what I think (from this little review) Ms. Armstrong is really trying to do - suggest we need not look at Scripture from a literal stand point. Great.

Convince all your own people first before you make another comment about atheists. Actually, why don't all believers go do that. You guys form on consensus on who god is and what he wants and then I'll decide 1) if it exists and 2) if it's worthy of worship. Until any of it is shown to be true, this is all just a remarkably masturbatory thought exercise.

Attention Christians: You do not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
He either never lived or has long been dead. There is no reason at all to suppose he actually rose from the dead. Even if he had, there is no reason at all to suppose we can communicate with people who have died (whether he's supposedly resurrected or not, it's not like most Christians are claiming he's a real physical person you could sit down and have a chat with. Oh no, he's all invisible and otherwise indistinguishable from non-existence.)

I think Armstrong is missing that part where the Bible itself claims to be the infallible, unalterable Word of God in Heaven. It's not like people "misinterpreted it" to say that "all Scripture is god-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 15-17). Like every other Christian, Ms. Armstrong has cherry-picked the parts of the Bible she likes and focused on them, ignoring all the others. She has made her own determination of what is literal and what is metaphoric, possibly based on early church fathers and possibly based on her own brain. I don't know. Like I said, I haven't read the book, just the review. But she's certainly ignoring 2 Timothy 3:15-17. I have no doubt about that. You can't complain that other Christians are being too literal and hold as truth the statement that all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for instruction, etc.
To escape this pointless debate, Armstrong counsels atheists to recognize that theism isn’t a rival scientific theory, and that it is “no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth — or lack of it — only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action.”
It's only a pointless debate when you have no good point to make. I don't know of a single atheist who actually thinks theism is a "rival scientific theory", so you can set that straw man on fire right now. She's clearly ignoring the vast number of atheists like myself who did embark "on a religious way of life". Se's ignoring the Nate Phelps, Ayaan Hirsi Alis, Matt Dilahuntys, Julia Sweenys, and Dan Barkers of the world. And while I'm all about living an ethical life, I have to say I'm opposed to mind-numbing ritual for ritual's sake. It's certainly not a proven method for determining the truth or lack of truth of an idea. (Self-indoctrination rarely leads to truth - just to limited thinking capacity.)
Believers, meanwhile, are urged to recover the wisdom of their forebears, who understood that “revealed truth was symbolic, that Scripture could not be interpreted literally” and that “revelation was not an event that had happened once in the distant past but was an ongoing, creative process that required human ingenuity.”
And now I have my real objection: Revelation. Personal communication with god (who doesn't exist) is really just a conversation with yourself. The "leading" from god, is just what you've decided on your own to do. The problem is in thinking this (your own thought) is the will of god, and the problem is that this kind of thinking impairs your ability to make good decisions. So people with impaired thinking skills are announcing their own bad decisions as the will of god, and even the liberal non-literalist Karen Armstrongs of the world endorse this is a good thing.

Now Douthat, the review author, starts making some good points.
In reality, these Christian sages were fiercely dogmatic by any modern standard. They were not fundamentalists, reading every line of Scripture literally, and they were, as Armstrong says, “inventive, fearless and confident in their interpretation of faith.” ...Their theology was reticent in its claims about the ultimate nature of God but very specific about how God had revealed himself on earth. It’s true that Augustine, for instance, did not interpret the early books of Genesis literally. But he certainly endorsed a literal reading of Jesus’ resurrection — and he wouldn’t have been much of a Christian theologian if he hadn’t.
In other words, the early church fathers being held up as models of faith by Ms. Armstrong are picking and choosing - just like her, just like the hate-mongering Rick Warren, and just like the shyster faith healing televangelists. The church fathers (not all, just the ones she used in her book because they supported her view) just picked and chose something her own innate or nurtured liberal nature finds appealing.

I think that's why Christians end up in the particular denomination that they do (excluding Mormons, JWs, and Christian Science for this argument). I think it's just a matter of preference and what you find appealing. The only god left Ms. Armstrong can make a case for is a vague, non-literal creator (but not Creationism) god, because anything more clearly defined can be tested and Ms. Armstrong doesn't appear interested in having her faith tested. She wants to be left alone to believe, without pressure for certain social actions she disagrees with from her theist brethren, or ridicule from the atheists who see how shallow and superficial this kind of thinking really is, underneath the apologetic gloss of theology. The reviewer continues,
This explains why liberal religion tends to be parasitic on more dogmatic forms of faith, which create and sustain the practices that the liberal believer picks and chooses from, reads symbolically and reinterprets for a more enlightened age. Such spiritual dilettant­ism has its charms, but it lacks the sturdy appeal of Western monotheism, which has always offered not only myth and ritual and symbolism (the pagans had those bases covered), but also scandalously literal claims — that the Jews really are God’s chosen people; that Christ really did rise from the dead; and that however much the author of the universe may surpass our understanding, we can live in hope that he loves the world enough to save it, and us, from the annihilating power of death.
I just like his use of the words "parasitic" and "scandalously literal".
Such literalism can be taken too far, and “The Case for God” argues, convincingly, that it needs to coexist with more mythic, mystic and philosophical forms of faith. Most people, though, are not mystics and philosophers, and they are hungry for myths that are not only resonant but true. Apophatic religion may be the most rigorous way to go in search of an elusive God. But for most believers, it will remain a poor substitute for the idea that God has come in search of us.
Of course, as an antitheist atheist, I disagree with Armstrong's conclusion that the problem with faith is the kind of faith (any faith is a problem). Adding myth and mysticism and philosophy may lessen the symptoms but won't remove the underlying problems: faith is a vice and religion is a virus. And that is my review of a review sent in by a theist reader. Thanks for your contribution, Seth R. Somehow I doubt this is what you thought I'd do with it :)