God Reads…

And knoweth the hearts and minds of all his creatures.

God at His Computer

Well, no–not what this is about. This is about the new genre in religion (not religious) non-fiction which I have decided to name, for lack of an original thought, “God Reads”–books that are affecting to make a new case for God, or to restate old ones.

Actually the genre goes back a few years: Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism (2005) was a little premature when it was published, barely a year before the atheist best-seller The God Delusion (yes, that Dawkins) appeared (September, 2006) and seemed to suggest an atheist sunrise instead. It was dutifully followed by McGrath’s less poignant The Dawkins Delusion (2007) which (nonetheless) is a far better read than its nasty title suggests.

Besides, the former Master of Wycliffe College, Oxford and the sometime Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science had slugged it out before, several times in fact–McGrath having the distinction of having trained as a scientist (which shows) and Dawkins having the good fortune, or sense, never to have trained as a theologian (which also shows.)

And so the back and forth was born, God’s defenders giving in equal measure what his detractors were at pains to inflict on his holy name. What was also born was a minor canon of celebrity atheists, variously called “New,” “Fundamentalist,” “Brights,” “Militant”–or merely Annoying depending what side of the line you were standing on and whose book you had read most recently.

I recall visiting the home of a kindly retired atheist couple in Tallahassee in 2007 where I had gone to debate the Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne on the “God Question.” On their coffee table was displayed the whole array of new atheist titles, of which they professed to have read “only a little of Dawkins.” Still, as a Victorian mother might have the Authorized Version of the Bible handy in the parlour, a new generation had arisen who had embraced new authority and were prepared to use it (or at least allude to it in the absence of actually having read it) –In other words, just like the Bible.

In reviews and popular media, Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Dan Dennett were dubbed, and basked in the glow, the “Four Horsemen” of a new age of scientific thinking–knights on a mission to debunk the claims and pretensions of religion. A few wannabes such as Victor Stenger (God, the Failed Hypothesis) made their literary votives to the cause as well; in some cases, their books were actually slightly better than the canonical ones. But essentially the ranks were closed, like the book of the gospels at only four.

The voice of the atheist is still heard in the land. But my guess is, the shine is off the apple and we were out of Eden anyway. Ideas that were considered titillating and slightly dangerous (who says atheism isn’t slightly sexy?) became less interesting when read. I doubt there will be a rejuvenation, a rebirth, of the surprising interest (in some cases bordering on rock star fervor), that greeted the Dawkins Revolution.

The shine was off the apple.

The current spate of God Reads is a bit more interesting, to take only two recent examples. Karen Armstrong’s the Case for God, already reviewed in these pages, is not only lacking in sophisticated theistic argument but also lacks a sophisticated thesis. This hat is so old it’s made of rabbit fur and just as fuzzy. She perpetuates the idea that religion is intrinsically good and that bad people make bad religion.
If only they would grow up, buy a shovel, and dig down to the goldmine of wisdom and niceness that lay at the heart of every faith. Armstrong seems to have bluffed her way through the history of religion for a long time, but in this book she shows a woeful lack of information about history, psychology, and anthropology and pushes a unified-theory-of-religious-thesis that was last fashionable in 1969, primarily in sanghas and disorderly convents.

Robert Wright’s seductively titled The Evolution of God (2009), a far better read than Armstrong and basically naturalistic in its view of religions, nonetheless develops a premise that is hard to swallow, or, to be fair, one that I have trouble understanding. As the New Yorker review enthused, “[Wright theorizes] that religious world views are becoming more open, compassionate, and synthesized. Occasionally, his prescriptions can seem obvious—for instance, that members of the different Abrahamic faiths should think of their religions as ‘having been involved, all along, in the same undertaking.’ But his core argument, that religion is getting ‘better’ with each passing aeon, is enthralling.”

Enthralling, sure. But if that is true, then the tendency of religion to become better must have something to do with either (a) people taking religious doctrine less seriously or (b) the secularization of society that makes religion less appealing and more vulnerable to common sense. That being so, how can anyone say that religion, as opposed to the species, is getting “better.”

Maybe no one is–exactly–and this is a quibble. As John Loftus observes, Wright’s God is illusory from an ontological standpoint: it is our attitudes about God that evolve and change, and a healthy critique of the past–including the sacred books and interpretations that form the story of the human past–are important relics of that development or amelioration. The process affects religion because it affects society in every other area. God evolves, not only man. My own guess is that Wright is being slightly mischievous. These “Abrahamic Faiths” aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, especially the most aggressive of them. Better therefore to convince the slowest to evolve that a compassionate state of acceptance is its future? I am highly skeptical.

Where are we with God Reads? Is anybody likely to have the last word in this contest of words?


Just now, I think, the momentum is with the Defense, the defenders of the God-hypothesis. Not in terms of argument but in terms of energy. Apologists are paying attention to names that may have been missed first time around, prior to the Dawkins Revolution. Names like Scott Atran (In Gods we Trust), Stewart Guthrie (Faces in the Clouds, a superb slightly older work that deserves reading now), Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained), Todd Tremkin (Minds and God), Barbara King (Evolving God). The pro-religion forces are reading works of cognitive science and evolutionary biology and psychology as fast as they can, and it seems to me with more at stake. You always read faster before an exam.

The God Question could not escape this lens indefinitely, and the best modern reads often begin with something like Wright’s evolutionary view rather than with the stale philosophical and theodical questions that were raised by the new atheists. Given the fact that interest in outbreaks of intellectual zeal last about as long at great awakenings in American religious history, the Dawkins phase is already looking a little quaint.

And it’s a good thing that the religious and anti-religious are reading some of the same stuff, even if they have different ends in view. When a team at the University of Montreal conducted experiments on an order of Carmelite nuns in 2005-6 (functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study to identify the neural correlates of a mystical experience), we were flabbergasted to learn that while they were subjectively in a state of union with God, “this state was associated with significant loci of activation in the right medial orbitofrontal cortex, right middle temporal cortex, right inferior and superior parietal lobules, right caudate, left medial prefrontal cortex, left anterior cingulate cortex, left inferior parietal lobule, left insula, left caudate, and left brainstem.” Can you even point to Reno on a map? I thought not.

Carmelite Ecstasy

The study (“Neural Correlates of Mystical Experience in Carmelite Nuns”: Mario Bauregard and Vincent Paquette) confidently concluded that “the results suggest that mystical experiences are mediated by several brain regions and systems.”

In other people, thoughts about more mundane kinds of union, puppy dogs and chocolate will illuminate the same regions. But the analogy that the physical basis of “mystical” experience explodes the reality of mystical experience (and take this from someone who likes chocolate) is a point that apologists for religion are right to challenge: It is argumentum ad superciliarum–a bit of logic based on a naturalistic smirk.

To the extent that the evolutionary and cognitive studies resemble this logic they have a long way to go. I offer the frankly disappointing view and research of Richard Hamer in The God Gene and the (antithetical) hodgepodge of material served up by Rause, Newberg and d’Aquili (all three medical doctors) in Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief as evidence of where science can lead the opposite armies.

But the debate about how God evolves or is biologically, genetically or mimetically engendered is not finally the same question as the question of the existence of God–no matter how much we want to make it that. And even if it were, we still won’t have settled the dispute between people like Hitchens, who think God is a very bad, indeed a poisonous idea, and people like McGrath who see it as the most sublime thought of which we mortals are capable.

Maybe Feuerbach was right: it all depends on what you eat.

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.