Saturday, July 18, 2009

The case for God -- Part 3

The title of Karen Armstrong's "The Case for God" should more accurately be "The Case for Religion"; her God recedes into a cloud of unknowing, where of course it belongs. I would guess that the title was chosen by author or publisher to capitalize on the popularity of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, although Dawkins occupies only a few pages of Armstrong's book. The subtitle too is unfortunate; "What Religion Really Means" suggests a degree of dogmatic certainty that one doesn't find in the book. The book itself is exemplary -- a history of religious thought that is humane, generous, and congenial to religious naturalism.

The religious naturalist puts more stock in science than does Armstrong, not as Truth, but as reliable truth, tentative and evolving. Yes, science is based on an act of faith -- that an objective material reality exists outside of the mind that can be at least partially known. The "proof" of the pudding is in the eating: the astonishing practical success of the scientific way of knowing. For the religious naturalist, scientific knowledge of the world is the most reliable platform on which to build a life.

But science cannot tell us what sort of life to build. Logos alone cannot give meaning to a life. For that, as Armstrong suggests, we need a mythos, a program of action, a way of acting out our relationship to what we do not understand. Humans by nature seem compelled to ask questions that science cannot answer: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the source of the Mystery I intuitively feel in interaction with the world? This, in Armstrong's account, is the "real meaning" of religion.

It is no accident that religious feeling has given us some of the greatest art -- literature, architecture, painting, sculpture, music, dance -- that the world has known. Art is to mythos what science is to logos. The two are not opposed, as Armstrong sometimes seems to suggest, but complementary. In science we built a solid platform to approach the Mystery, ever higher, ever closer; in art we leap into the unknown.

The problem arises when a scientific logos or religious mythos is accorded an objectivity that it does not and cannot have. Few scientists any longer think of scientific knowledge as absolute, although Dawkins and company sometimes drift dangerously in that direction. Religious people all too often objectify what by definition is beyond objectification. It is this latter tendency that both Dawkins and Armstrong resist, in their very different ways.

(A few last thoughts tomorrow.)