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

Monday, September 14, 2009

A nice quote from Karen Armstrong

I like this:

Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course — at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful.

For the full context, which I don't like so much, see here. The Wall Street Journal printed separate and independently written articles from Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins on the question, "Where does Evolution Leave God?" Each knew that the other one was writing to the same commission, but neither saw the other's article prior to publication.

Predictably, perhaps, I prefer the article by Dawkins, not only for its substantive content but also because of its typical lucidity. By contrast, I find much of what Armstrong has written unintelligible, perhaps incoherent, and (where some meaning can be discerned) misleading about the history of Christianity and of Abrahamic religion in general.

For all that, this particular quote, which contains most of the first paragraph, states the most important point in the whole discussion. My only quibble is that would have been more accurate to say something like "the diversity of life", rather than just "life", in the third sentence, since evolution is not a theory of how life first began but of how it diversified and developed the kinds of quasi-design that we see in nature.

The fourth sentence, though, is the most salient, and she phrases it well. Importantly, this is Armstrong's own view, not a view that she is attributing to someone else so she can attempt to refute it.

Dawkins himself does not make this sort of point, perhaps because he is not so much interested in whether there is a loving and providential (or "benign") God as whether there is a God at all. I think he underestimates the immense force of the point Armstrong opens with - it does not rule out any kind of God at all, but it is a devastating point for anyone wishing to defend the typical sort of religious belief in a loving and providential, yet all-good and all-powerful, deity, the sort of "benign creator" that Armstrong refers to. The facts about evolution should be sufficient to make literal belief in that kind of God an untenable position for anyone who takes them seriously. Any religious organisation that bases its claim to authority on access to the thoughts and desires of such a God cannot be taken seriously. The political implications are enormous.

I won't always be so kind towards Armstrong, and will have some more to say about this brief Wall Street Journal piece in one or more later posts. But kudos to her for her crystal clarity in stating such a crucial point about the relationship between religion and science.

Note that Armstrong defends a particular (rather mystical) brand of religion. But she does not claim that all religion is compatible with science. Nor does she mince words about the nature of the incompatibility between science and what is (though she does not concede this, of course) the main form of religion that is likely to be encountered in actual churches and mosques. This is from someone who evidently considers herself a kind of theist, even if the God she believes in is something transcendent, and apparently ineffable and impersonal, whose nature she can't put into words (since it's "indescribable"). That part is all murky - even incoherent - but I wish that all non-believers were as prepared to be as clear and frank as Armstrong manages in the opening sentences of her article.

Imagine. If Dawkins had written exactly those sentences - leaving out the "Dawkins has been right" bit, of course - he would have been castigated for them by a gaggle of accommodationist atheists. He'd be "shrill" and "strident". I guess there's still time for Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum to chide Karen Armstrong for her incivility. Quick, before her words become last week's news.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

What kind of universe would have life in it, and not pain and death?

Greywizard said...

I entirely agree, Russell, with your assessment of these opening sentences of Karen Armstrong's article. The problem is that Armstrong continues to say that this kind of "literal" belief in a god is not what religion is, or ever has been, really about. And then she adds to that that all religions, today, are really about love and compassion. This is so wide of the mark as to leave these opening sentences without any work to do.

Religious believers in general are not going to accept them, because they imply that all religious revelations are nothing of the kind, and religious figures, like Jesus and Muhammed, are really but men who achieved an extraordinary level of contemplative purity and peace, and who, for that reason, have helped to lead their followers in the way of love and compassion. So the whole thing tends to be a whitewash of the religious project, the results of which not only affirm religions as they are, but do not clearly indicate how they could change so as to become truely religious.

Armstrong, in my view, is a deeply confused woman who has learned a simple formula for success amongst the religious, who, for reasons past understanding, find in her words an affirmation of existing religious practice, and make it much less likely that they will reform themselves in ways that would actually be of benefit to the world. The institutional inertia of large religions will be sufficient to absorb all that Armstrong says about religion, and continue on their present course without significant change. She is therefore a serious threat, because she weakens the critical intelligence of the religious by diverting their attention towards pious irrelevancies.

Anonymous said...

'he would have been castigated for them by a gaggle of accommodationist atheists.'

Isn't adherance to a traditional morality a form of "accommodationalism"? If the God who gave us the 10 Commandments is false and does not exist, are not the 10 Commandments (and all other religiously proscribed moral standards) equally false?

Should we not conclude that morality is also a lie and act accordingly?

Jean Kazez said...

"for reasons past understanding"

It's not necessary to find Karen Armstrong inscrutable, because she wrote a very revealing memoir--"The Spiral Staircase." A must read, I think, for Armstrong critics and fans alike. There she details her loss of belief, but also how she retains a certain religious impulse. Her struggle with this and many other difficult life issues is fascinating and I think very sympathy-inducing. Though I find some of her ideas unconvincing, I find the person downright enthralling and delightful.

Ophelia Benson said...

"it is a devastating point for anyone wishing to defend the typical sort of religious belief in a loving and providential, yet all-good and all-powerful, deity, the sort of "benign creator" that Armstrong refers to. The facts about evolution should be sufficient to make literal belief in that kind of God an untenable position for anyone who takes them seriously."

It's interesting that Armstrong can write that (I agree) splendidly lucid and honest first paragraph and still go on to talk of god as symbol that points to an indescribably (my, what a lot of hedging) transcendent that one can intuit partly via a "compassionate lifestyle" (whatever the hell that is). God can't be benign, yet the transcendent that god points to can be intuited by a compassionate lifestyle. Why would that be?

Ophelia Benson said...

"I find much of what Armstrong has written unintelligible"

And deliberately unintelligible (she betrays the fact that she does know how to be intelligible in that first para), and that's one thing that I loathe about her apologetics. The unintelligibility is a dodge. It's unintelligible to say it's not true that God is a symbol that points to an indescribable transcendent, because how could anyone know that was wrong? And that's why it's a dodge and that's why it's unworthy. She shouldn't do that. She should either be clear about what she means, or say nothing. That of which we cannot speak lalalalalala.

Anonymous said...

God can't be benign

"Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself. — The Problem of Pain" (CS Lewis)

A universe without pain and death would be a universe without life.

Brian said...


A universe without pain and death would be a universe without life
Because an omnipotent deity couldn't have created life without pain and death and still given us free will? There's no contradiction in there being no pain, no death and libertarian free will. There is a contradiction in a benign and omnipotent deity denying us that however.

Anonymous said...

"There is a contradiction in a benign and omnipotent deity denying us that however."

Your argument is based on a fallacy: The fallacy occurs in assuming that there is such a best possible world. It seems conceivable that for every world, there is in fact a better possible world, so none is best. Some commentors tried to salvage the argument by giving a world two numbers — amount of evil and amount of good — and arguing that this world should at least be the least evil possible world. But again, there is an assumption that there is in fact a least evil possible world. However, it seems plausible (even given the theist assumptions about omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence) that for some reason no world with absolutely no evil is possible, and therefore for every world, a less evil world exists. Thus, evil only appears to be a problem if we make a fallacious inference for the existence of a best possible world.

In some hypothetical "less evil" universe some inhabitants would wonder why a kind a loving God would allow paper cuts or allow showers to spoil their picnics. OTOH, in a "more evil" universe, where Spock has a goatee and tsunamis, earthquakes and plagues are as common as rain storms, life would adjust and its inhabitants would conisider their situation to be normal.

One can always imagine a better world, no matter how good you have it. If every conceivable universe is subject to such criticism, the criticism itself becomes meaningless.

I would go further and claim that a best possible world is not even desireable. The goal is not the most perfect world, but the most free. And the universe has achieved this state. It stands delicately balanced between a lifeless, frozen, dead, unchanging wasteland of a perfect universe where freedom is not possible; and a purely chaotic and relentlessly violent universe where freedom is meaningless.

When contemplating why evil exists in a world made by a benign deity, it helps to remember that God is not a behaviorist.

Evil comes in two flavors, physical evil (hurricanes, plagues, earthquakes, disease, old age, etc.) and moral evil (murder, theft, abuse, hatred, etc.). The first deals with the fact that the universe is often a painful and unjust place where the innocent suffer. The second deals with the evil committed by less than perfect humans on their fellows.

Moral evil is relatively easy to answer: God gave us free will to chose either good or evil. God did not wish to create a race of mindless, puppet automatons lacking the ability to chose. For all the evil done by man throughout history, our current situation is preferable to being a mindless slave. Those who would prefer otherwise in effect want to be slaves.

Furthermore, love isn't love unless it is freely given. For God to force us either by design or will to love Him always would result in the making love meaningless. God is not a rapist. As the Good Book says, "God is Love". The ability to chose evil (and all the resultant pain and suffering caused by men) was given to us for the sake of love. Do we pay too high a price for love? I honestly don't know. But the other alternative (quoting thought policeman O'brien in "1984") would be "God is Power". He could stop the gulags, concentration camps, etc. only by making the whole universe itself a concentration camp — with Himself as commandant.

God chose love instead of power, because a perfect world was to horrible to contemplate.

(cont.)

Anonymous said...

Physical evil is a bit trickier to address. Why do good and innocent people suffer? Why is suffering even possible? To make pain and suffering impossible, the universe would have to be perfect — and thus frozen in its own perfection since eventhe slightest change would mar that absolute state of perfection. Since any change would mar its inherent perfection, such a universe would be a dead place where change and growth. Perfection = completion = death. It would be a dead place devoid of life. If moral evil is the price we pay for freedom and love, than physical evil is the price we pay for life.

There is a story that God created a perfect universe before He made our own. Not liking the results — a place of eternal death — he cast it aside and began work on the deliberately imperfect universe we live in. The first universe still exists. It's called Hell.

But why do the innocent suffer and why do evil people prosper? Well this brings us back to free will. Even if the potential for free will existed, it wouldn't mean much if the universe had a built-in system of rewards and punishments designed to coerce behavior. So does anyone wish that God was a Tyrant, using the physical universe as a system of rewards and punishments, and humanity reduced to the level of pigeons inside of a BF Skinner box?

And so we have a world where innocent children die or are born handicapped, people through no fault of their own suffer the pains of living, and evil people often live happy lives of material contentment. It is a world where my severly handicapped brother inlaw was an R-factor baby and was born before it was easily treated. It is a world where my son has Type I diabetes. It is a world where an in-law of mine is slowly succombing to Alzheimer's dementia. It is a world where I had and survived skin cancer. It is a world where both my father and mother died of cancer.

But it beats the alternative. As I said at the start, God is not a behaviorist.

One of the many things I find baffling about Atheists is their claim to be "free" of control and superstition, unlike us poor sheep-like believers. You claim to desire freedom from control and freedom of thought above all else. Yet here God has set your mind free to chose and the universe free to be alive, without safety or security or guarantee. Neither the mind enslaved nor the universe frozen.

And yet you're not happy.

If God is not a behaviorist, the Devil most certainly is. This is apparent from the opening scene in Job where Satan bets God that Job is only good because he has been physically and materially rewarded. And that's the whole point of the story, whether we should be good no matter what or be good only if things are well. God's answer is as obvious as it is harsh. For those who would wish that God was a behaviorist, coercing them and making slaves of them, God has this to say, "Gird your loins like a man."

And stop your friggin whining. A free universe full of life is no place for pussies.

Russell Blackford said...

Anonymous, if you're going to write comments that are as long as posts, why not create your own blog? Your short comments always seem just plain silly, so I don't bother reading the long ones. But if you wrote them on your own blog someone might read them and offer you comments.

That's just a word of advice. Unless I get an inkling that the long posts contain personal attacks or something else that's offensive you can still post them. Just don't think that people will necessarily read them. Life is short.

Russell Blackford said...

Greybeard: "Armstrong, in my view, is a deeply confused woman who has learned a simple formula for success amongst the religious, who, for reasons past understanding, find in her words an affirmation of existing religious practice, and make it much less likely that they will reform themselves in ways that would actually be of benefit to the world."

I'm actually reserving judgment on that. It's not clear to me that Armstrong is doing harm on balance. She may be doing good on balance, for all the information available to me at the moment can tell me. I need to know more about how the whole interfaith thing, what used to be called global theology, etc., actually work, and what/how much influence Armstrong really has on anybody.

I generally concur with the rest of what you say.

Greywizard said...

Russell, it's fair, indeed, to reserve judgement, if you think there will be any data to show whether or not Armstrong's approach to religion will produce good results.

My problem has nothing to do with that. It has to do with the fact that Armstrong in fact redescribes religious belief in her rather dodgy terms (as Ophelia says). She makes no effort to correct the traditional religious expression of belief. What she does is to hold that, really, what all this traditional language really means is ... - and here she adds all the stuff about transcendence, silence, love and compassion.

Her Case for God is, in fact, in my view, a giant white-washing of traditional religion. Islam really is about love, compassion and justice. In fact, she is saying, the core traditions of the great monotheisms (at least - she's very quiet about polytheism) are really about love and compassion, have always been about love and compassion, and that this, if you study the record, is what true religion has always been. Only a serious misunderstanding of what the religions mean by 'god' could lead one to think differently.

As I have said, I think she is seriously confused. I think a fair reading of The Spiral Staircase will present evidence for this confusion, which started early. As I have said in other contexts, I don't think that she has ever really left the convent, and she still retains the rather polyanna-ish religiosity of a young nun.

Unfortunately, while most religious people will not resonate to her idea of God, they already largely believe that their religions are about creating the best society - good societies of love, justice and community. I do not think that adding a never never land gloss to something that is already a harm to society, and promising to become more of a harm, is even slightly helpful. I have watched, for years, the process of the church absorbing incredibly liberal sounding theologies only to emerge looking more than ever like pre-modern Christianity.

The last book I read on global theology was many years ago, and I remember very little of it: Cantwell Smith's Towards a World Theology. As I recall I did not find it convincing at the time, and from the point of view of an insider/outsider I have seen more breakdown in relationship within religious traditions than growing unity between them. However, perhaps I am just old and my views are jaundiced. I can always be persuaded with evidence.

Greywizard said...

I apologise for the length of that post, especially in view of what you said to Anonymous.

Russell Blackford said...

I'm very happy for other people to debate Anonymous. In fact, it saves me time. If none one else did it I'd have to get more involved in the comments than I necessarily want to do. At the moment I just respond to comments that especially interest me, rather than feeling I need to get bogged down in long dialogues.

Russell Blackford said...

Beside, Greywizard, I find YOUR long posts interesting. I usually learn something from them, especially when you discuss theology etc. I actually find theology interesting if it's not just apologetics of a kind that I've read before a million times. There I do part company with Dawkins, who seems to have nothing but contempt for the whole enterprise.

But of course, I am a former Christian who was once a (very) young campus evangelical leader potentially headed for some kind of ministry, or whatever, myself. I have a very different life experience from Dawkins.

Ophelia Benson said...

"And stop your friggin whining. A free universe full of life is no place for pussies."

Or cunts. Thanks for the information.

Anonymous said...

"Thanks for the information."

Well here's som more info for you.

A zebra does not spend most of its life be eaten or even being chased by a lioness.

Very few caterpillars get stunned and infected with wasp larvae in the fashion that made Darwin so squemish. Furthermore, those that do are not suffering since they aren't feeling anything nor are they cognizant of what is happening to them.

In fact most of an organism's life is not spent in conflict or chase. Those that are being consumed in vast numbers, like plankton, are on the level of animated sack of chemical without knowledge or feeling. The world is not full of monsters.

To think otherwise is to commit the fallacy of anthropomorphizing.

As for humans, the vast majority of people are not being killed by plagues, tsunamis, violence, crime or war. At any given moment, the vast majority of us aren't even sick.

IOW, it really isn't that horrible of a world we live in. Certainly not so bad as you could question God's goodness. So my advice to you and anyone else who bases his/ or her atheism on the "cruelty" of life is the same advice God gave Job: "Gird your loins like a man".

Is it perfect? This cancer survivor would have to agree that it is far from perfect. And thank God that it isn't.

What could be more horrible than the dead prison of a perfect world?

Ophelia Benson said...

Yeah yeah yeah, don't be a pussy, put your pants on like a man. Very inspiring.

tomh said...

Anonymous wrote:
"What could be more horrible than the dead prison of a perfect world?"

And yet, heaven is supposedly perfect. And true believers want to spend eternity there.

ChicagoMolly said...

When Karen Armstrong insists that a proper god concept (like hers) is nothing like the crude stuff that ordinary people believe in (Wright does similar hand-waving in The Evolution of God), it reminds me of my high school days in the '60s when I met my first Teenage Marxists. They were all about communism, but of course they meant real communism, not that rubbish they did in Russia. If you poked them they'd grudgingly allow that Maoist China was almost but not quite nearly real communism, but just you wait till somebody comes up with real communism and it'll be brilliant. They sounded like the US Supreme Court Justice who said he couldn't define pornography, but he'd know it if he saw it.

Brian said...

Anonymous, you assert a load of drivel. There's no fallacy in my reasoning. If a god is omnipotent, etc, he can make a world much better than this one. And much worse. After all, what is heaven? Why would anybody think heaven was worth going to instead of hell? You destroy your own arguments better than I.

As for saying that there isn't much suffering in this world. Care to quantify that? You just assert some stuff and think you've actually presented a cogent argument. I'm afraid I just read an article on Ophelia's great site that talks about how 100's of millions of women are routinely beaten, treated as chattels, and worse, and you have the gall to suggest this world isn't too bad. Maybe it's not for you, but you lack so much empathy as to seem inhuman.

Anonymous said...

And yet, heaven is supposedly perfect.

Freedom exists even in heaven. Supposedly, angels fell from there.

Hell OTOH is a perfect place, frozen and dead, a place of absolute tyranny. Yet atheists complain that God did not make the universe in this fashion.

Anonymous said...

They were all about communism, but of course they meant real communism, not that rubbish they did in Russia.

Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried. - Gilbert K. Chesterton

Anonymous said...

Yeah yeah yeah, don't be a pussy, put your pants on like a man. Very inspiring.

Well life does require a certain minimum amount of intestinal fortitude.

Besides, your fallacy is assuming that the "problem of evil" has anything to say about God's existence. At best, it can only be used to infer God's character. So if the world truely was the horror show of your imaginings all you could logically conclude about God was that He was malevolent, not that he didn't exist.

Anonymous said...

There's no fallacy in my reasoning. If a god is omnipotent, etc, he can make a world much better than this one.

Define "much better" world. How do you quantifiy it. How would the relative experiecne of its inhabitants result in the ending of the problem of evil? Its ihabitants would merely redefine evil at a different level. Conversely, the inhabitants of a more evil universe would consider ours to be paradise and would scornfully laugh at your complaints.

So let me repeat: One can always imagine a better world, no matter how good you have it. If every conceivable universe is subject to such criticism, the criticism itself becomes meaningless. Hence your fallacy. That and your fallacy of anthropomorphizing nature.

I'm afraid I just read an article on Ophelia's great site that talks about how 100's of millions of women are routinely beaten, treated as chattels, and worse, and you have the gall to suggest this world isn't too bad.

So your solution would be to impose a slavery over the human mind, rendering us into automatons incapable of evil acts? That's a cure far worse than the disease.

tomh said...

Anonymous wrote:
"Freedom exists even in heaven."

I don't get it, does that mean it's not perfect? And, if you don't mind me asking, how do you know so much about Heaven? Do you just repeat old stories that you've been told, or do you have better information? Revealed information, for instance, or some other way of knowing.

Russell Blackford said...

Someone just tried to comment here on this very old thread, of all places, about what was in effect the latest round of Elevatorgate.

Really - take it somewhere else. Until further notice, this blog is an Elevatorgate free zone as I said in my recent post on the subject.