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There is grandeur in this view of life…

Karen’s on the case #3

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The historical argument in The case for God1 seems fairly persuasive. What is less persuasive is the ethical argument – if there is one.

Karen Armstrong: The case for God

Karen Armstrong: The case for God

Third in a series responding to Karen Armstrong’s The case for God: What religion really means

See also Karen’s on the case #1 & #2.

At the risk of summarising to the edge of parody, Karen Armstrong seems to be saying there was a kind of extended Golden Age when mythos was mythos and no one expected it to be anything other than mythos. Religion wasn’t meant to be literally true, because in this Golden Age there was no real conception of ‘literal truth’. Before the early modern period of Descartes, Newton & Co knowledge was skill: so religion was skill in living, relating to people and facing suffering and death.

To get back to true religion we must deconstruct conceptions of God and religion modelled on a scientific paradigm of truth. Among the culprits were those around the time of the (European) Enlightenment who saw God as the creator and power supply of a law-governed, mechanical universe. The galloping success of early modern science ‘proved’ the existence of God as never before. Unfortunately later discoveries in geology radically revised our estimates of the age of the Earth; and also unearthed countless fossils which indicated that life itself had a long and patterned history. The scientific ‘proof’ of God started taking a few knocks.

It is not that evolution disproves God. But the accumulating evidence for evolution by natural selection is at least problematic for a literal creator God. One can shoot off in a number of possible directions. One is to say evolution and God are perfectly compatible. If natural selection is true, then (to quote Billy Preston) That’s the way God planned it – suffering, death, waste and all. Another is to say the suffering, death, waste and escalating arms race of natural selection are the final nail in God’s coffin.

Marduk: Mesopotamian creator god

Marduk: Mesopotamian creator god

Karen Armstrong sees both directions as fundamentally misguided. Religion is mythos, not logos, and strictly speaking has always been. If Genesis begins: In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…, this is because it records a creation myth equivalent to the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish,

chanted on the fourth day of the New Year festival in Esagila… There was a ritualised mock battle and a saturnalia that recreated the lawlessness of chaos. In archaic spirituality, a symbolic return to the formless ‘nothingness’ of the beginning was indispensable to any new creation. It was only possible to move forward if you had the courage to let go of the present, unsatisfactory state of affairs, sink back into the potent confusion of the beginning, and start again.

It is mythos storing tribal skill about living and transcendence, not logos about where the solar system came from.

The bit that’s missing for me is the downside of that Golden Age. In this period before the modern conception of scientific truth, religion as mythos was not seen as a literal account of what is in the universe and how the universe works. If that is so, then either there was an alternative logos-type truth which was about the universe, and which our pre-Enlightenment forbears were wise enough to keep distinct from religious mythos; or that alternative logos-type truth was non-existent or relatively insignificant.

The first of these does not seem to be borne out by Armstrong’s own account, as it was the explosion of scientific knowledge and the success of scientific methodology which caused something to exist and grow which was not there before, and which (in her opinion wrongly) caught religious mythos up in its wind storm. So the second appears more likely.

Armstrong is not therefore claiming that when European science took off, people suddenly lost the wisdom and discernment they previously enjoyed; but that something came along which changed the world and people’s perception of the world, and which people erroneously assumed should apply to their religion too.

What is not obvious to me is that those people were so wrong to try to apply the new scientific criteria to religion. And I think that ‘wrong’ includes ‘ethically wrong’.

It comes down to babies and bathwater. If my reading is correct, then before this scientific revolution, people did not really see where the baby stopped and the bathwater began. Then science arrived and people applied it to the baby/bathwater mixture. Eventually, for some, the mixture failed the test, so they threw it out – not realising there was a baby there which should never have been tested that way. Thanks to Karen we can now save the baby.

Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu

The question for me is: what is that baby exactly? For Karen it seems the baby could be the whole religious artefact – hymns, prayers, liturgy, symbolism, incense, the lot; but with a voice at every celebrant’s ear reminding them it is all a myth of transcendence, so they must take care to keep the baby dry.

There are some noble souls who seem able at all times to transcend the paraphernalia of their faith. Desmond Tutu is one who always comes to mind, and I am sure there are many others. I am less confident though that such balance, judgment and selflessness are widely distributed among the rank and file of the major world religions. So I am happy about the baby, but would far rather see it as an ethical baby than a religious one.



1 Karen Armstrong, The case for God: What religion really means, The Bodley Head, London, 2009.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


Written by Chris Lawrence

19 September 2009 at 11:55 pm

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