First, I tip my hat to Jerry Coyne for blogging about this superb review by Troy Jollimore of Karen Armstrong's The Case for God. Jollimore dissects Armstrong's work brilliantly, and Coyne's discussion is absolutely right.
She is entirely correct that atheistic critiques aimed at naive strict literalist readings of holy texts can take us only so far. Mocking the angry, cruel, unjust deity of the Old Testament, or reminding literalists that the world is considerably more than 4,000 [Russell: this should be 6000, but that doesn't affect the point] years old, has little force against the moderate, nonfundamentalist faithful. More powerful skeptical critiques, though, do not presuppose Scriptural literalism. They rely on the Darwinian view of how complex life evolved on this planet, or the existence of serious evil and injustice—things that are well-established and pretty much impossible reasonably to deny and, at the same time, extraordinarily difficult to reconcile with any view of God-as-designer/caretaker, or with any other traditional form of theistic belief.
He then says, in response to the idea that religion is not about belief:
Armstrong may perhaps make a plausible claim in asserting that faith, as understood by mainstream religious traditions before the advent of modernity, involved more than “mere” belief in the modern sense; but if the problem with religious life is that it encourages false, absurd, unjustified beliefs, showing that it does other things as well is not sufficient. What must be shown is that religion does not involve belief, and not merely that it involves other things in addition to belief. So long as religious worldviews differ in certain important ways from that held by the nonreligious, one can still complain that that worldview is poorly founded and, to a large degree, implausible.
Perhaps most importantly:
[Armstrong's] rejection of the theistic God, and acknowledgment that the problem of evil cannot be swept away through theodicy, might sound like music to atheists’ ears. And what could any skeptic find objectionable about revelation once we accept Maximus’ view that “[p]aradoxical as it might sound, the purpose of revelation was to tell us that we knew nothing about God”? Surely if this view were widely accepted the most serious problems with religion would simply dissipate. Would people who admitted that they “knew nothing about” God’s will support laws to prevent “unholy” same-sex marriages? Would people who saw God as “that mystery, which defies description” be moved to reject Darwinian views of evolution, contra all the available evidence?
Yes, if religion generally took a non-literalist form that involved such modest admissions of not knowing, together with an unwillingness to impose an oppressive morality via the coercive power of the state ... then I, for one, would have no problem with it. Indeed, I do have no problem with religious people who are like that (as I've said repeatedly on this blog). But that is not typical of religion in the world today. On the contrary, religious leaders typically claim epistemic and moral authority, and they do not hesitate to call on the secular arm to force their miserable, oppressive moralities on others, even non-believers.
The estimable Jerry Coyne is on a roll this week. He's been commanding in his replies to supposedly "sophisticated" theologies such as those of John Haught and Karen Armstrong. Commenting on Jollimore's piece, he says:
Where, I ask, is all the sophisticated theology that we atheists are supposed to have ignored? All the stuff I read — Eagleton, Haught, Armstrong, ad nauseum, is laughable: pathetic attempts to rationalize the existence of God in a world where he not only refuses to exhibit himself, but runs the show as if he doesn’t care.
For myself, I have only one quibble with Jollimore. There is one point where I think he is too quick to dismiss an argument from Armstrong that actually has some force. He quotes Armstrong as saying:
Nor, like Nietzsche, Sartre, or Camus, do [the new atheists] face up to the pointlessness and futility that ensue when people lack the means of creating a sense of meaning. They do not appear to consider the effect of such nihilism on people who do not have privileged lives and absorbing work.
Put this way, the argument is surely simplistic. For a start, it is not at all clear that the New Atheists are so naive. Nor is it obvious that "people who do not have privileged lives and absorbing work" are stuck with a choice between religion and nihilism and its dreadful "effect" (whatever this is - I wish Armstrong would tell us). On the contrary, many people who are not high-powered scientists or academics, or creative spirits of one kind or another, are able to live happy and meaningful lives without religion, so Armstrong is exaggerating here. Nonetheless, I think there's a legitimate point somewhere in the vicinity.
Richard Dawkins, for one, has written quite movingly, in “Unweaving the Rainbow” and elsewhere, on the way an appreciation of the nature of the universe, as revealed by science, can inspire and inform a sense of wonder and meaning. There is no apparent reason to assume that skepticism must inevitably lead to nihilism. Nor, for that matter, should we assume that a religion based on an ineffable, unreachable mystery of which we know nothing, and which does not even exist in any sense of “exist” that makes sense to us, will be an effective stay against nihilism. Armstrong takes the link between religion and meaningfulness to be too obvious to be worth spelling out. In fact the link is not obvious at all; it is merely conventional - a matter of so-called common sense.
Well, I agree that the link is not obvious, and nor does it apply in every case. Nor, at its worst, need it lead to anything as extreme as nihilism. For all that, I think that we need to take care with this one. Religion can fulfil psychological needs that may be difficult to fulfil in other ways - at least for some people. Writing in another context, about "The Myth of Sisyphus" by Albert Camus, I put this quite strongly:
The dynamics of our society's cultural development often seem to involve an interplay between those who accept something like the vision expressed in "The Myth of Sisyphus" and those who find it either incomprehensible or too frightening to contemplate. However, those who accept it might ask themselves how society would need to evolve before the absurdity described by Camus could be psychologically tolerable for ordinary people with ordinary problems and commitments.
I stand by that. The full force of existential absurdity may well be difficult for many people to face. There's a risk, of course, that we might patronise these people and offer them religion as a noble lie, something I don't suggest. But we should at least consider their interests, and try to put ourselves in their shoes for a moment. Some of us may find it easy to obtain a sense of meaning simply from our human-scale involvements - from such things as loving, and being loved by, important people in our lives. It is understandable, however, if others seek comfort from a view of the world that offers intuitive meaning, unfailing consolation, and transcendent hope, the very things that are not, alas, found in any clear-sighted understanding of the human condition. Camus was right about that.
Of course, Dawkins and Jollimore are correct that science opens up wondrous vistas, but, then again, scientific explanations can easily defy, or defeat, our comprehension. Indeed, there may simply be no coherent way for beings like us to make intuitive sense of the mathematical formalisms of our deepest theories - I'm thinking here of quantum mechanics. It is one thing to be told by Camus that the universe does not suffer or yearn as we do, that it is indifferent to us and alien to our emotions. That's all too true, as far as it goes. It's another to investigate what science has to offer ... and then realise that we cannot understand the ultimate workings of the cosmos at all. On any plausible interpretation of the facts, it's mind-boggling. It leads to psychological vertigo.
Dawkins does a wonderful job of describing the amazing phenomena revealed by science, but his success at this does not prove that the scientific picture should be enough for ordinary people who seek to live meaningful lives within human societies. With great lucidity, he has expressed his delight in the true explanation of a rainbow and in the fact that, "on the time-scale of [a] trilobite" the distant past described in ancient myth and epic is "scarcely yesterday". But although this is important, it can take us only so far.
I don't see any simple or complete answer to the problem. Without such an answer, however, traditional religious views of the world will never entirely lose their hold on large numbers of ordinary people who find science insufficient for their emotional needs.
Of course, I have no respect for the false certainties offered by traditional religion, especially when religious organisations and leaders attempt to impose their views by means of secular force. Too much is at stake for us to succumb to this. The ubiquitous bullying from cardinals, preachers, imams, and god-men is completely unacceptable and must be resisted with all our intelligence and passion. But we must also work - gradually and realistically - towards a world in which religious certainties are not so relevant, and their loss is not so poignant. And we need compassion for religious people who find it hard to let go.
All that said, Jollimore does a superb job in showing how Armstrong's view of religion fails to add up. It provides neither a stable solution to the quest for meaning nor a sustainable political modus vivendi. Indeed, Jollimore points out, the subjectivist element in Armstrong's thinking could even license fanatism and mutual intolerance.
Do read the entire review; despite my one quibble, where I think somewhat more needs to be said, Jollimore is eminently sensible. His is, as Coyne is astute to notice, a valuable voice in contemporary debates about science and religion.
Edit: I see that Ophelia Benson has also blogged usefully about this - perhaps even before Jerry Coyne did.