Thursday, July 16, 2009

The case for God -- part 1

I have now read Karen Armstrong's The Case for God: What Religion Really Means, her response to the so-called New Atheists, and, with your indulgence, will spend a few days commenting. I have already made a few remarks based on a review of the book.

As always, Armstrong's scholarship is impressive. One stands in awe of the range of materials which she has at her command. Her book is about as comprehensive a summary of the history of religious inquiry as you are likely to find. And -- she is on the side of the angels (religious naturalists will not find much to object to). What she offers may not be "what religion really means," but is it certainly what religion could mean, if only we all listened to our better selves.

But let me take gentle issue with a few things that apply to her critique of the New Atheists, which, by the way, explicitly occupies only a few late pages of the book.

First, I would question her many claims to read the minds of ancient peoples, all the way back to the artists of Lascaux. Her account is full of phrases like "most people did not realize...", "this was not the intention of...", "they were less interested in...", "they would have expected...", "if you had asked them...", and so on, all of which, it seems to me, goes beyond the textual evidence she quotes, especially since she make these claims on the part of whole peoples rather than just the authors of the texts. In every case, her suppositions of what people believed or felt are meant to support the general thesis of her book, namely, that pre-moderns understood religious stories symbolically or metaphorically, whereas post-17th-century moderns tend to take things literally.

It seems rather more likely to me that the vast majority of peoples at all times, and especially in the pre-modern era, were and are religious literalists. I know of no evidence, nor does Armstrong present any, that the great majority of pre-modern people did not take their stories of gods, angels, devils, creation, prophets, special revelations, etc. objectively. Certainly, my teachers took their Catholic dogmas literally, and I don't think that started with the rise of modernism.

The texts Armstrong quotes in support of her view are inevitably drawn from the intellectual elites whose words have come down to us. All they prove is that intellectuals have always been more skeptical of literalist religion than the less educated masses, and, of course, that remains true today. Armstrong and Dawkins are equally cases in point.

The New Atheists have no quarrel with Armstrong, who speaks of God as the Unspeakable, nor with the naturalists and skeptics of yesteryear. Their quarrel is with those who give literal credence to prescientific cosmologies, supernaturalisms, miracles, divine revelations, and the like, and this includes, I submit, most people from time immemorial to the present day, including many who call themselves "religious liberals."