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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Karen Armstrong cops it from Albert Mohler

In my previous post, I referred to the recent article by Karen Armstrong in The Wall Street Journal, in which she trenchantly and convincingly attacked the traditional idea of God as a benign, all-powerful creator - the kind of loving, providential, yet all-good and all-powerful God of tradition, the benevolent Father who loves each of us and worries about the fall of every sparow (not to mention the fate of every sperm cell).

Having dismissed this notion of God, she goes on to defend God as a symbol of something else: some sort of transcendent, indescribable something-or-other that doesn't exist in the normal sense - but seems to have some kind of reality as more than a concept - and the contemplation of which (together with ritual or religious exercises) can lead us to become compassionate. It's difficult to get a fix on what this something-or-other would be like, since it is not describable or knowable, and there is some sense in which it doesn't even "exist". To me, this doesn't seem coherent. It sounds lofty, sonorous, and all that, but I can't attach any real meaning to it.

Well, maybe that just shows my cognitive limitations. However, Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, will have none of Armstrong's super-sophisticated God. On the Christian site crosswalk.com, he tears into her. To Mohler, Armstrong is just another kind of atheist.

I'm not sure if this is exactly right, since I don't know enough about a transcendent, indescribable something-or-other that has some kind of reality but (in some sense) doesn't "exist" to know whether it should qualify as a god of some sort. I don't quite see how it can, and it's all very baffling, and the question makes my head spin. Still, this much is clear: she is an atheist about the sort of deity that most actual Christians and other monotheists believe in, and I think it's clear that she has good reasons for that, very similar to my own. She, of course, goes further and claims that her understanding of God is the traditional one ... but that's an awfully long bow to draw.

Here's what Mohler has to say about it:

Along the way, Armstrong offers a superficial and theologically reckless argument that comes down to this: Until the modern age, believers in God were not really believers in a God who was believed to exist. Then along came Sir Issac Newton and the "modern" belief that God must exist in order to be God. When Darwin came along to show "that there could be no proof for God's existence," he was doing God a favor -- allowing his survival as a mere symbol.

Yes, that seems to be Armstrong's position on the historical issue: i.e., "What is the tradition of Abrahamic theism really about?" Her position on that is wildly implausible. What were all those heresy trials really about, not to mention the wars and massacres involving those who believed in the wrong kind of God?

Mohler again:

She makes statements that amount to elegant nonsense. Consider this: "In the ancient world, a cosmology was not regarded as factual but was primarily therapeutic; it was recited when people needed an infusion of that mysterious power that had -- somehow -- brought something out of primal nothingness: at a sickbed, a coronation or during a political crisis." So she would have us to believe that, in centuries past, cosmology was merely therapy. She simply makes the assertion and moves on. Will anyone believe this nonsense?

Well, yes, some super-sophisticated theologians will believe it, or something like it. Others will argue differently: we used to believe in a traditional sort of God, a benign, all-powerful creator, but now we all know better. No one believes in this God any more. Yeah, right.

I hate to say it, because I sense that I'd like Armstrong more than Mohler if I met them both in person, but it's Mohler who sets the record straight. The God that Armstrong rejects is the one that Christians (most of them) actually believe in and gain comfort from. It is, as Mohler says, Dawkins who best recognises what he rejects.

I almost feel sorry for Armstrong in all this. I don't consider religious people of her kind to be my enemies at all. What's more, she may be a force for good, on balance. However, she's attempting high-wire mental gymnastics that were always going to come to grief. Hers is not a plausible way to defend God ... which is not to deny that it might be a good thing for the world if her version of theism ousted more traditional forms. It might very well be a better world that way. In fact, I'd love to see religion mutate into something innocuous, such as Armstrong imagines it has been in the past and remains in its essence. I'm happy that something like her theological position is taken by lots of nice, genuinely moderate religious people - really I am.

But if she wants to argue for this position about the nature of God, or God-talk, she needs to establish its intellectual merits. It's not enough to argue, implausibly, that her view of the world represents the true, pre-Newtonian tradition. That won't wash. Instead, she needs to tell us more ("us" particularly includes all her religious colleagues around the world). Specifically, why should we actually believe that the transcendent, indescribable something-or-other to which God points is any more real than the traditional sort of benign, all-powerful creator that does the pointing?

It's not enough to think that hers is a nicer idea of God. Maybe it is. But why should we actually give any credence to it?

19 comments:

Russell Blackford said...

I'm conscious, of course, that she has a whole new book on this coming out. I'll read it with as open a mind as possible, when I can find the time.

But from what she has been saying in her publicity blitz I'm not very confident that it'll be at all convincing. We'll see.

Greywizard said...

As I have said in another connexion: "Theology is hard work, as she [Karen Armstrong] says, and she has yet to do it." And so I agree with you, Russell, when you say: "But if she wants to argue for this position about the nature of God, or God-talk, she needs to establish its intellectual merits. It's not enough to argue, implausibly, that her view of the world represents the true, pre-Newtonian tradition." Precisely! Her new book, by the way, if you mean The Case for God, does not do this.

Scott Hedges said...

Russell, this is EXACTLY the same thing that Thomas Paine did in "The Age of Reason". The poor guy is locked in the prison in Paris, about to be killed and the last thing he dies is dash off a manuscript mainly trashing Jesus.

It is also the kind of thing that poor Robert Wright is trying to do in "the evolution of god" ... only he's trying to say that god has "evolved" ... for this Jerry wants his head just as Robespierre wanted Paine's ... sometimes I think that we'd be wise to leave the cornered animal an out ... even Biblys can fight when they are cornered, but a deist god is a good god, he's like the old man in the moon. Have you seen him?

Scott Hedges said...

really Russell, why don't we hear seriously about Deism anymore?

Far as I can tell, Deism is mostly responsible for the separation of church and state, the modern formulation of democracy, and we just seem to pretend that it never happened

Eamon Knight said...

However, she's attempting high-wire mental gymnastics that were always going to come to grief. Hers is not a plausible way to defend God ...

Armstrong seems to inhabit the squishy no-mans-land which I, during my progressive abandonment of faith, considered as an option, decided there was no "there" there, and hopped over into frank unbelief. After a few years of Spongish liberalism, I was tired of words that didn't mean anything, however nice they sounded.

Ophelia Benson said...

"I don't consider religious people of her kind to be my enemies at all. What's more, she may be a force for good, on balance."

I would agree with that if only she used the conditional tense more, or said 'ought' instead of 'is' more. But since she keeps insisting that her version of God is the right version and used to be the one everyone believed in...I get irritated, and can't do it.

Moses said...

According to Exodus, God lived on top of a mountain. Later he moved to new digs on top of the clouds. Next he moved to "heaven." Now, apparently, he lives in the quantum universe.

Of course, in the old days, the earth was flat and the sky was the underside of the firmament. Our planet, in fact, looked suspiciously like a covered serving platter for a holiday turkey.

Jerry Coyne said...

Russell,

Perhaps you could give us an idea of what her positive contributions have been that have made her a "force for good." And, of course, you need to weight against those her many published assertions that Islam is NOT AS BAD AS WE THINK; that it is in fact a religion of "compassion."

Russell Blackford said...

Deism was the atheism or philosophical naturalism of its time. It died out because there was no longer a reason for rationalists to posit a God (while criticising the actual religions, etc.) Most of the American Founding Fathers were, if not deists in the strict sense, at least rationalist theists with positions very close to deism.

Now that science has learned how powerful purely naturalistic theories are, it has stopped positing acts of God in its theories, and rationalists in general see little or no need for God. So deism has died out, pretty much, as a rationalist philosophy.

On the other hand, quite a few people in Western societies reject the Christian God while believing in a vague "higher power", which might be very like deism, depending on whether this is a power that interferes with the workings of the world.

Steve Zara said...

I just can't see Amstrong as a force for good. While she does her high-wire act, she is carrying truly damaging theism on her shoulders.

In what way? Because other theists point at Armstrong as an example of what "serious" rationalists should be addressing, in place of dealing with the consequences of "unsophisticated" theism of the masses.

Scott Hedges said...

Russell, I had a revelation, one of your distant relatives was transported to Australia back in the day for publishing or distributing "The Age of Reason"!!!!!

Why not open your next debate with that revelation, instant deist cred!!

I get a bit misty eyed thinking abou Tom Paine, locked in the tower at Luxemborg prison, the guillotine slicing away outside. Him scribbling the manuscript thinking that his last act would be to put down his argument for deism ... and how they howled when he did! Sniff.

Perhaps diesim can't be resurected, but at least the arguments that paine used to support it can burn within ...

It is WAY more fun to argue the way Paine does and stay away from these "what evidence is there for a higher power" ... Hitchens uses paine's arguments all the time. Paine was saying, "of course there is a higher power" ... and none of the revealed religions know a thing about it.

He says in the book that he had hoped that the impulse to throw off monarchy would lead people to throw off revealed religions - which had the same effect in society as monarchs.

Anonymous said...

It died out because there was no longer a reason for rationalists to posit a God (while criticising the actual religions, etc.)

A reason still exists in the need for giving inherent meaning and purpose to existence. Only a Creator God making the universe for a intended purpose can give existence inherent meaning. Accidental (if fortunate) by products of the Big Bang cannot.

Meaning and purpose or concepts that science simply cannot address one way or the other. They exist outside the boundaries of scientific inquiry. So to claim that existence has no meaning (Dawkins) or is pointless (Weinberg) because science can find none strikes me as a logical fallacy. To use science to discover meaning is to use the wrong tool for the wrong job. You may as well claim that microbes don't exist because they cannot be seen by a telescope.

Mechanism is the province of science and teleos (meaning and purpose) is the domain of philosophy/religion. I therefore believe that it is wrong for those who reject mechanism (fundies) to uniformly apply teleos as an explanation for everything including mechanical events — such as claiming holy writ is proof of creationism.

An equal and opposite mistake occurs when those who reject teleos (atheists) claim that since science cannot logically discern meaning or purpose these do not exist.

Trouble arises when either invades the other's turf. So I find Gould's concept of "Non-Overlapping Magesteria" to be compelling. Sceintific Triumphalists (the atheist version of a fundy) hate NOMA but it seems to me to be a sensible demarcation. The twain should never meet since science can say nothing about teleos and religion should say nothing about mechanism except to say that the mechanical working of the universe have a higher purpose.

Anonymous said...

There is nothing new about Armstrong's view of God. See Elijah's vision in 1 Kings 19:

11 And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake.
12 And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

Armstrong is just restating Elijah's view that God isn't a "thing" at all, but is instead that "small still voice".

Ophelia Benson said...

"Only a Creator God making the universe for a intended purpose can give existence inherent meaning."

Okay - so a Creator God made the universe for the intended purpose of having billions of sentient creatures to watch as they scurry up and down. So our existence has the inherent meaning that we help to provide entertainment for the Creator God.

Hmm. Somehow I think I'd rather create my own meaning.

Anonymous said...

Okay - so a Creator God made the universe for the intended purpose of having billions of sentient creatures to watch as they scurry up and down. So our existence has the inherent meaning that we help to provide entertainment for the Creator God.

He created us to love.

Somehow I think I'd rather create my own meaning.

That's not logically possible in an inherently meaningless universe for several reasons.

Without a God, existence is but a meaningless (if fortunate) accident. Accidents by definition can have no meaning or purpose, they just happen. Only a deliberate act of Creation done with forethought and with an ultimate aim in mind can give Existence an inherent meaning or purpose. Lacking such a Creator, Existence is pointless.

Without a soul, consciousness and the Self are merely illusions incapable of the free will (which is also an illusion) or volition necessary to create meaning. Therefore it is impossible to really create meaning as even the most sophisticated of us are merely products of our brain chemistry and genetic programming.

Furthermore, all actions in an inherently meaningless existence, no matter how devoted or passionate, are themselves meaningless gestures in a cold indifferent universe.

You can claim that you can create meaning for yourself, but for reasons sited that is not logically true and is merely a species of solpsism in any case. Tell me, if you indulge in Walter Mitty fantasies of power and greatness are you in fact powerful and great?

jdhuey said...

I was having a discussion/argument with a YEC believer and he brought up the WSJ articles as proof that Dawkins is ignorant of theology. And, since Armstrong makes a 'sophisticated' case for believing in a God, then he is justified in believing in God and therefore YEC is true. You just can't argue with logic like that.

jdhuey said...

Okay - so a Creator God made the universe for the intended purpose of having billions of sentient creatures to watch...

No, no, no. The Creator made the Universe in order to make Black Holes - the Universe is a Black Hole generating machine. After all, there are (theoretically) many more Black Holes in the Universe than people. Life is just an incidental by product.

Ophelia Benson said...

"He created us to love."

How do you know?

Richard T said...

I can't really see much more substance in Karen Armstrong's argument than in J M Barrie's blackmail that, if you stop believing in fairies, Tinkerbell will disappear.