Karen Armstrong’s rebuttal to the new atheists.
By Jenna Johnson
A flood of mainstream, atheist literature has flowed out into American discourse—and crested—in the past few years. Sam Harris’ The End of Faith opened the dam with a calling out of religious faith as the single most dangerous element of contemporary civilization, particularly when paired with weapons of mass destruction. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins used his position as a well-known biologist to argue against intelligent design and launched from this specific critique into a more general argument against belief in God. Christopher Hitchens followed soon thereafter with a polemic entitled God is Not Great, wherein he decried crimes performed in the name of religion. So strong was this new atheism that even a French screed was able to ride the wave to success, though its reach in the U.S. was decidedly more limited than its American counterparts (Michel Onfray’s Atheist Manifesto only sold around 11,000 copies). Taken together, well over a million and a half copies of these books were printed and purchased in the past five years. Why did they strike such a chord in American readers?
Stepping into the debate and answering this question is Karen Armstrong. A former Catholic nun as well as a former skeptic (“for many years I myself wanted nothing whatsoever to do with religion”), Armstrong enters this conversation with twenty years of religious study to her credit. She is an expert on world religions, the author of bestselling and respected works on Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and even A History of God. So we can take Armstrong’s title, The Case for God, very seriously and hear it as a profound rebuttal to the new atheists of the moment. In this title she is co-opting the language of her opposition, setting herself up as a fellow intellectual and academic, asserting that this project, even though it does not parade as a scientific approach, is nonetheless careful, deliberate, and persuasive. Armstrong builds a case through historical and philosophical inquiry, not engaging in an argument about whether or not God exists, but looking at the reasons why we might want to allow for that possibility.
Why has the new atheism taken such a hold of the American imagination in the recent past? Armstrong points to the rise of fundamentalism and the binaries that such reductive approaches invite. The new atheism is a simplistic, vehement response to a simplistic, fevered form of religion—a reaction to the inheritance and development of a form of religion that is out of step with what religion should do and be.
Religion, to Armstrong, is above all about practice—she calls it a practical skill, a practical discipline. Her approach is functionalist in that it describes what religion should do, but it also describes how we should be functioning as religious beings—the kinds of questions we should be asking, the kind of goals we should be formulating. Religion is beyond the kind of criticisms leveled at it by Harris and his gang because historically (and before the rise of our cultural enslavement to reason and science), religion is about transcendence and escape, about what lies beyond language and description, about taking humans outside of themselves into ineffable experience and the unknown. Like art, religion is meant to evoke emotion, to challenge perception, to create change and indescribable joy. But, as Armstrong shows through her chronicle of the rise of the modern God and the parallel decline of myth and wonder, our collective move toward binaries, toward faith in reason alone, has destroyed the broader understanding of God and the more permissive kind of religion that is nurturing and good. Only in casting off the “rationalized interpretation of religion” will we be able to return God to “being” rather than “a being.” Only in redefining belief again—wresting it back from fundamentalists of religious and non-religious persuasions—will we be able to free religion from the concrete descriptions and arguments of the real that have been imposed on it by modernity and monotheism.
In the wake of this recent atheist flood, it is refreshing to find Karen Armstrong’s reasoned, philosophical approach to the place of religion and God in our world. Conversation on the subject is welcome, disagreement is encouraged, but, Armstrong asks, let it be thoughtful and considered. The Case for God asks not for belief or proof, but for an expanded sense of the possible, an alteration in our perception meaning and symbol, and a broader kind of discourse than is allowed by dismissive reactions.
Jenna Johnson is a graduate student in New York University’s Religious Studies Program.