Friday, July 17, 2009

The case for God -- Part 2

In their blanket condemnation of religion, the New Atheists -- Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al. -- set up a straw God and then knock him down, suggests Armstrong. But the God of "real" religion is not the God of the fundamentalists, nor the divinity of the modern Deists, nor any other God that can be known by reason or revelation, she says, and certainly not a God who encourages crusade, jihad, pogrom or inquisition. Rather, the gist of Armstrong's history of religion is to acknowledge another tradition, an apophatic tradition, ancient and universal, that asserts God's unknowability.

Not a via positiva, but a via negativa -- God is not this, and he is not that. Armstrong characterizes the tradition as mythos vs.logos, feeling vs. belief, practice vs. discourse, love vs. doctrine. Unfortunately, her history of religion gives only nodding mention to the long record of violence, imposed orthodoxies, inquisitions, and intolerances that have so often drowned out whatever voices were raised on behalf of God's unknowability.

The apophatic tradition was popular in premodern times, says Armstrong, but in the 17th century, under the influence of science, it began to give way to more literal notions of God as a knowable supreme being. It is this latter God, she says, that the New Atheists disparage -- missing, she avers, "what religion really means."

What Armstrong does not do is show that the apophatic tradition was ever a majority view, or even a popular one. In fact, many of the people she quotes in evidence were condemned as heretics or sidelined as dissenters. So rather than successfully rebut the New Atheists, Armstrong introduces a straw tradition of her own. Yes, the apophatic tradition exists, and, yes, it has often been evoked favorably in the posts and comments of this blog, but I am not convinced it has ever been more than a minority position.

In fact, I would suggest that the apophatic tradition, in its modern guise of scientific agnosticism, is more widely accepted today than at any time in the past, and certainly religious intolerance is least prevalent today in those places most affected by the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. If the apophatic tradition expresses, as Armstrong insists, the "real" meaning of religion, then she should applaud the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment for creating a spirit of institutionalized doubt, universal education and individual freedom in which her "real" religion can prosper.

Armstrong's book does not so much refute the New Atheists as describe a meaningful alternative to the literalist creeds they discredit. In this, she makes a valuable and thoughtful contribution to the current debate.

(More to come.)