Karen Armstrong and the case for God

[Modern theists] 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. (Freud, The Future of an Illusion).

In The Case for God: What religion really means, former Catholic nun Karen Armstrong reiterates a now-familiar line of defence against the new wave of atheism. This generally amounts to the complaint that atheists such as Richard Dawkins have a theologiclly-uninformed, and mistakenly literalist interpretation of religious scripture. Thus, amongst those of an educated, literary-ecclesiastical background, religion is defended by advocating a metaphorical interpretation of scripture, and an aesthetic-mytho-poetic concept of God.

Wary of the power of science to overthrow religious worldviews, as demonstrated in the Copernican and Darwninian revolutions, the modern theist ushers God into an ontological safe-zone, where he cannot be subject to refutation by empirical means. Realising, however, that even this stronghold cannot resist the barbs of logic and reason, God is blindfolded, and bundled unceremoniously into a waiting limousine, whence he is taken at breakneck speed to a supra-logical and supra-semantic realm, beyond all human understanding.

“God is, by definition, infinitely beyond human language,” writes Christopher Hart in The Sunday Times. “Yet thanks to the misapplication of science to religious faith, we remain literal-minded and spiritually immature, frightened of the silence and solitude in which the Ancient of Days, the Unnameable, might be experienced, though never understood.

“We need to think of God not as a being, but as Being. Armstrong points us towards a vast tradition in all religions in which, in essence, you can ultimately say nothing about God, since God is no thing. In Islam, all speaking or theorising about the nature of Allah is mere zannah, fanciful ­guesswork. Instead, try ‘silence, reverence and awe,’ she says; or music, ritual, the steady habit of compassion, and a graceful acceptance of mystery and ‘unknowing’…God is dead — but, Armstrong suggests, all we have lost is a mistaken and limited notion of God anyway: a big, powerful, invisible man who does stuff.”

All of which will come as a surprise to the majority of monotheistic religious believers in the world, who believe that the universe was created by God, that God answers prayers and performs miracles, and provides the means for an afterlife.

Hart’s proposition that God is not a being, but Being itself, is the familiar doctrine of pantheism, which is inconsistent with the personal nature of God enshrined in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The notion espoused by these religions that God is a transcendent, supernatural, personal being, who created the natural universe, is inconsistent with the pantheistic notion that God is an immanent, non-supernatural, non-personal being, equivalent to the natural universe. But, of course, it is precisely the existence of such irritating contradictions which explains the modern theist’s desire to push God into a supra-logical realm.

To propose that the notion of God is beyond all human understanding, language and logic, is to acknowledge that there is no coherent, comprehensible content to belief in God. Not only is belief in God belief without reason or evidence, but it is a belief without coherent content. The proponent of the modern educated defence against atheism is, in effect, admitting:

‘I have a belief, without reason or evidence, in a meaningless proposition.’

At which point, I rest my case.

Published in: on August 9, 2009 at 9:08 am  Leave a Comment