God Takes the Fifth

Ronald A. Lindsay

The Case for God, by Karen Armstrong (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, ISBN 978-0-307-26918-8) 406 pp. Cloth $27.95.

Karen Armstrong vigorously advocates silence as the best means for understanding God. And in The Case for God, she uses more than three hundred pages of chatty text to prove her point.

The title of Armstrong’s book accurately describes its contents and her method. Armstrong does present a lawyer-like case for God. She offers an argument that focuses almost exclusively on evidence that supports her position, ignores inconvenient facts, relentlessly mischaracterizes the relevant history, and attempts to defeat the case against God by using that old criminal defense standby: you’ve got the wrong guy.

Here is the essence of Armstrong’s case: those atheists who criticize what they contend are the key claims of religious belief—for example, that there is an omnipotent, omniscient deity—are making a critical error because authentic religion is about ritual and conduct, not truth claims and acceptance of certain propositions. As she states, “Religion is a practical discipline, and its insights are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle.” Therefore, critics of purported theological claims, in particular, the so-called New Atheists, are largely wasting their breath. Their arguments can gain traction only against fundamentalist strains of religious faith, and the fundamentalists are, and always have been, outside the “mainstream” of religion. In other words, the atheists’ arguments do not prove anything regarding authentic religion, and God can be understood only in the context of this (mute) authentic religion. Verdict for God.

In taking the approach that the atheists’ arguments are not so much wrong as they are irrelevant, Armstrong aligns herself with John Haught, Terry Eagleton, and several other religious writers who have asserted that religion is not primarily about belief in supernatural beings but about commitment to certain practices. This approach has its advantages. One does not have to confront the atheists’ arguments directly. Instead, one nimbly dances away from Dennett’s darts and Hitchens’s hammers.

But this approach is a dodge, which is revealed by Armstrong’s lengthy discussion of religion through history (and pre-history). To bolster her position that beliefs in, and claims about, supernatural beings are not central to religion, she surveys religion as manifested in Paleolithic caves, early India, Old Testament Israel, ancient Greece and Rome, and Christianity and Islam, from their origins to the present day. In so doing, she breezily discusses two or three writers, philosophers, or theologians from each era, along with a few aspects of religious practice at the time, and maintains that these cherry-picked facts show that most religious individuals have been concerned about doing, not believing, and that they have recognized that one cannot really say much about the gods or God. According to Armstrong, the “apophatic” tradition, that is, the tradition that “the ultimate …lies beyond words and concepts,” has been central to all faith systems.

This would be news to the millions of individuals who have been persecuted or murdered because they did not accept the words and concepts endorsed by the predominant religion of their time. If you denied that Jesus is the son of God at the wrong time and place, you may have discovered that the silence valued by many believers is the silence that follows the execution of a heretic. Yes, there have been a few mystics and thinkers who have taken the position that God cannot be known and our language is too impoverished for us to say anything about God, but that has not been the view of the mass of ordinary believers, whether in ancient, medieval, or modern times. Armstrong herself is not always successful in obscuring this uncomfortable truth. After spending several pages discussing Greek mystery cults and myths and explaining how myths about the gods were not understood literally, she notes in passing that Anaxagoras ran into trouble in fifth century b.c.e. Athens when he claimed that the moon and stars were not gods but massive rocks. If religion is not about belief and myths were not taken literally, why was there such a vehement reaction to Anaxagoras?

Armstrong’s distortion of history and of the views of various theologians is perhaps best illustrated by her treatment of Augustine and Aquinas, both of whom she tries to force into her apophatic mold. The basis for this seems to be that Augustine stated that Scripture need not always be interpreted literally, while Aquinas stated that we can only have an approximate understanding of God’s nature, through analogy. But this hardly amounts to an endorsement of silence. More important, both were adamant that there were certain doctrines that Christians had to accept—upon pain of death.

As for Armstrong’s oft-repeated claim that ritual and practice, not belief, are crucial for religion, it is true that the rituals of a religion are important. However, Armstrong overlooks the fact that religious practice almost always embodies certain beliefs. Prayer may be the most universal religious practice. It is also a practice inextricably tied to certain beliefs, namely that there is a god or gods who will hear and respond to my prayers.

Despite Armstrong’s best efforts, she cannot divorce belief from religion. And if beliefs are part of religion, the content of those beliefs should be subject to critical examination. When examined, those beliefs are found to be unsupported, and the case for God collapses.

The book does have a useful bibliography.

Ronald A. Lindsay

Ronald A. Lindsay is the former president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. Currently, he is senior research fellow for CFI and adjunct professor of philosophy at Prince George’s Community College.

The Case for God, by Karen Armstrong (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, ISBN 978-0-307-26918-8) 406 pp. Cloth $27.95. Karen Armstrong vigorously advocates silence as the best means for understanding God. And in The Case for God, she uses more than three hundred pages of chatty text to prove her point. The title of Armstrong’s …

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