The “Case” of Karen Armstrong

This is a story that will not go to sleep.

As soon as I had written about the sad and strange case of Major Hasan, now fading because it seems evident we are dealing with a culturally disconnected man, disturbed by private demons, I closed Karen Armstrong’s book A Case for God vowing never to waste another dime on her cooked to publisher’s order histories.

I do not know if this is her twelfth or thirtieth book, and it does not matter. They are the work of someone who finds it impossible to think things like religion through and as a result finds it very easy to write about religion.

It is easy to pan her prose. The conservative religion journal First Things marveled recently at her “selective compassion” but was more direct about her ignorance of history and theology:

Among people who know nothing about religion and don’t care much about factual information (an unfortunately large demographic), Karen Armstrong has become something of a sensation. But for those who think that claims about religion, ethics, or history should have some grounding in reality, Armstrong is considered an embarrassment.

And the superb Hugh Fitzgerald in The New English Review said

For Karen Armstrong history does not exist. It is putty in the hands of the person who writes about history. You use it to make a point, to do good as you see it. And whatever you need to twist or omit is justified by the purity of your intentions—and Karen Armstrong always has the purest of intentions.

This positioning is aforethought, naturally. “Religion,” bigly conceived, she seems to have learned as a nun with specific Jungian inclinations, is what God gave us in the form of religiousness with the idea of him in it.

That makes any specific denomination or faith a little too cramped to accommodate the Great Idea, the fundamentally noble truth, that all religions imperfectly embody. Welcome to the World Parliament of Religions, circa 1883. It’s all about goodness, compassion, but never about religion in a specific cultural location with specific and much smaller ideas called dogmas.

She dredges up nineteenth century ideas of the centrality of God (read: golden rule) to human experience, superimposes these features on her reading of the world religions, and then finds it remarkably easy to identify the compassion gene in each of the world’s great faiths. She is quoted approvingly by all dialogists who think that those of us who see religion as being at the heart of some of the world’s intractable problems are just plain wrong.

She is annoying and convincing, appealing to every soul that twinkles in the light of naïve ignorance.

A featured essay in the November/December issue of Foreign Policy magazine gives us vintage Armstrong in an essay called “Think Again: God.” In it she creates a series of propositions and then “refutes” them not with argumentation but attitude and cliché.

It is a doubly disappointing performance because the propositions aren’t bad, though loosely strung beads of different colours, and deserve more thought and attention than Armstrong gives them.

The answers seem almost contrived to be dismissive rather than profound, written in the “Of course this isn’t true” mode of a neo-scholastic–and (more tragically) seem to have the work of the New Atheists in view.

The entire essay, without meaning to be sly, is in the style of a Dominican lecturing her class on missing the most obvious questions in their catechism.

A few trying examples will suffice:

God is Dead. No, she says, not even if Richard Dawkins and Nietzsche say he is.

Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives.

I don’t disagree with the bit about meaning. Who could? It is seductive, and who doesn’t like a little meaning with their tea?

But the undefended suggestion that God (or belief in God) supplies ample meaning for the citizens of the modern world causes me to tremble. –Because even if this is so for religious folk, what would that “meaning” consist of if not a self-referring ego-worship as Feuerbach (whom she’s apparently never read) announced a century and a half ago? Doesn’t meaning have a little to do with reflection, wisdom, education, creating human values, including constructs like God and systems of religion?

God and politics don’t mix. Don’t believe it she says: “Theologically illiterate politicians have given God a bad name.”

It is a familiar and troubling (and increasingly popular) idea that the problem that looks like religion in the world of politics and society is not religion, but bad theology. She then quotes the electioneering slogans of presidents like John Kennedy and Barack Obama–men made nervous by faith but politically clever enough never to appear to reject it–as proof that religious faith “binds people together.”

Exactly. That binding is what got us the Inquisition, the Wars of Religion, the Holocaust, 9-11 and gets hundreds of spiritually hungry and far-from-theologically-illiterate Muslims killed every year through no fault of their own by their fellow citizens in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq. Brushing these things aside as brief distractions, she strides to her next and related point.

God breeds violence and intolerance. If your pulse has raced with approval at the vintage 1971 American NRA (National Rifle Association) bumper sticker used by advocates of assault weapons to hold on to their weapons, “Guns don’t kill, people do,” you will have some sympathy for her answer, which is essentially the same: “No, humans do.” But one wonders about all those worthies, patriarchs, prophets and, yes, even nuns who heard the voice of God and did, or almost did, hideous things at his beck and call, beginning with Abraham. I suppose none of that had anything to do with religion.

Savvy religion scholars have been commenting for a decade (I know I have) on how the central myth of Christianity requires us to believe that God required the violent death of his own son in order to restrain himself from another act of more general violence against the whole of sinful humanity—a repetition of the first global homicide perpetrated against Noah’s generation. Do any of the religions she can name lack a concept of judgment, sin and retribution?

Perhaps Armstrong believes we should not take such stories seriously. But then we have to ask, what is to be done with the rubbished tales of Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition? And do we then end up with a mute and indistinct God who is not violent because he has never spoken, never acted, and may not exist. Clearly Armstrong doesn’t wish to go there. That’s where the atheists are having coffee. So she goes here instead:

As a species, we survived by killing and eating other animals; we also murder our own kind. So pervasive is this violence that it leaks into most scriptures, though these aggressive passages have always been balanced and held in check by other texts that promote a compassionate ethic based on the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like them to treat you.

Without challenging whatever she may mean by “balance,” Armstrong, more fundamentally, misses the etiology of religious violence, which is the same as the etiology of religion.

The remainder of Armstrong’s propositions range over whether God is bad for science (not necessarily) or bad for women (yes, at least in those areas where she feels women must have the option of choice, as in the abortion debate).

In general, as we have come to expect, religion is a pretty good thing because Ms. Armstrong does not wish to write about unpleasant things and her readers are bored by facts.

But her responses are careless and uncongealed. She appeals to a “principle of compassion” as the underlying and ancient principle binding religions together. But as Joe Carter writes in First Things, “Where exactly is this ‘ancient principle’ to be found? Isn’t it the case that this principle is a modern invention, often used to provide a less embarrassing interpretation for religious claims that have been held for millennia?” Yes, of course.

This book and the many interviews, pitches and essays by Armstrong that follow from it are final documentation of what many of us have said for a long time: the inexhaustible Ms Armstrong, friend to all religion and true servant of what she thinks of as God, needs to write less and read more. And think about what she reads.

As Hugh Fitzgerald says in his brisk analysis of Armstrong’s twists and manipulation of history (dealing only with her first paragraph in his review), she smuggles in details as she sees fit, making Columbus a Jew (why not, no evidence to the contrary), and religion a psychic need, the real-world effects of which—especially brutality—can be justified as simply misunderstanding its essence.

She can roll history about, she can pull it apart, she can twist and turn it with the same delight exhibited by a two-year-old when a-too-solid block of Playdoh is finally softened up for use by grown-up hands. But the two-year-old is an innocent at play, and even if he leaves a momentary mess, he has done no real harm. Karen Armstrong is not innocent, and manages to do a great deal of harm, careless or premeditated harm, to history. Too many people read that she has written a few books, and assume, on the basis of nothing, that she must know what she is talking about.

I am not sure I ever thought that, but Fitzgerald’s warning is important. This is schlock: a mixture of sloppy history, poor reasoning, wishful thinking and amateur psychology.

Not a “case” for God but a case for not–ever–taking anything written by Ms Armstrong seriously.

4 thoughts on “The “Case” of Karen Armstrong

  1. lucy Ortiz (sic) lays it on a mite thick but one feels her pain, Mr. Hoffmann. THIS reader finds your argument disappointingly glib and slick, mounted on a pre-supposed logic drawn from presumed but unstated agreement to what one imagines remain always highly-arguable supporting points. In the end your discourse profoundly disappoints, lacking as it is in clearly-stated reasoning here on the page.

    Or screen.

    What are you really trying to say?

    Here is one, but just one, example of your rhetorical sins of commission. You quote a snippet from Armstrong, including this:

    “. . . humans fall very easily into despair
    if we don’t find some significance in our lives.”

    And you respond,

    “I don’t disagree with the bit about meaning. Who could?
    It is seductive, and who doesn’t like a little meaning with
    their tea?”

    Which to this reader’s ear is slyly sarcastic. It would stand as little else, but for how you continue:

    “. . . the undefended suggestion that God (or belief in God)
    supplies ample meaning for the citizens of the modern world
    causes me to tremble.”

    The proposition you impute to Armstrong, that she considers (belief in) God to supply “ample meaning” for citizens of the modern world is your construct, not Armstrong’s. It is not what Armstrong said, but what you are, gratuitously, piling onto her text. You’ve shot yourself in the foot here, my friend.

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