Review of Karen Armstrong’s The Case For God
Armstrong’s latest book offers a defence of religious belief against recent attacks by those she terms “the new atheists” – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, et al. These critics, she maintains, have fundamentally misunderstood what religion is, and what “God” means.
“God”, says Armstrong, is “a symbol of indescribable transcendence”, “pointing beyond itself to an ineffable reality” (307). This reality should not be thought of as a thing or person. We must not anthropomorphize God or make of him and idol, in the way the religious fundamentalists and literalists do. They too have misunderstood the meaning of the term.
Rather, says Armstrong, “God” is a symbol pointing us in the direction of something essentially unknowable, and certainly unknowable in a rational, intellectual way. Armstrong is an apophaticist, insisting that “the ultimate cannot be adequately expressed in any theoretical system, however august, because it lies beyond the reach of words and concepts”. This, Armstrong maintains, is something that “all faith systems have been at pains to show” (307)
If that is what “God” symbolizes, then what is religion? It is, says, Armstrong,
“a practical discipline, and its insights are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle.”
By engaging in certain religious practices and forms of life, we can, maintains, Armstrong, achieve “a state of unknowing that is not frustrating but a source of astonishment, awe and contentment” (306). Religious practice has traditionally helped people to “build within them a haven of peace that enabled them to live creatively with the sorrow of life.” (246). By engaging in dedicated religious practice, people can come to live “on a higher, divine or godlike plane and thus wake up their true selves.”
In treating belief in God as a scientific hypothesis that might be confirmed or refuted, the new atheists are attacking a straw man. Indeed, it seems that, on Armstrong’s view the “new atheists” are, in a sense, doubly ignorant.
First, unlike earlier critics such as “Feuerbach, Marx and Freud, the new atheists are not theologically literate.” (293) In particular, they are ignorant of the apophatic religious tradition that sophisticated – and, according to Armstrong, entirely orthodox – theologians down through the ages have embraced. (311).
Secondly, the truth of religious doctrines is a truth that we cannot even grasp without dedicated religious practice. The truths and insights of religion thus lie beyond even the comprehension of its critics. 305.
Immunizing religion against rational criticism
This characterization of God and religion might seem to render both utterly invulnerable to any kind of rational criticism or attack.
Think you have an argument against the existence of God? You crude, unsophisticated twit – you are treating belief in God as if it were a hypothesis that might be rationally assessed!
Think religion can be rejected on rational grounds? But religion, too, is not a set of hypotheses that might be subjected to rational criticsm. Indeed, by treating religion is if it were, you betray your own crude misunderstanding!
However, on closer examination, chinks in the apophatic armour begin to appear.
Noteworthy features of religious practice
As Armstrong acknowledges, religious practice takes many forms. For example, People congregate together to sing hymns, to pray and meditate. They engage in rituals, sometimes of an elaborate nature. Some flagellate themselves. Occasionally they isolate themselves, shutting out the world. Others immerse themselves in the lives of others, by, for example, trying to alleviate suffering.
An interesting feature of many of these activities is that they are activities we know can induce interesting – sometimes rather beneficial – psychological states, even outside of a religious setting. Indeed, religions seem particularly keen on activities that can induce such altered states.
Take meditation for example. It has proven effects on both our psychology and physiology, reducing stress, inducing feelings of calm and contentment. Even atheists will meditate in order to gain these psychological and physiological benefits.
Praying is often a form of meditation, of course. Sometimes prayer and other devotional activity is accompanied by repetitive swaying or rocking motions. Such movements are known to induce a sense of well-being – the so-called “joggers high” – probably by releasing chemicals into the bloodstream (animals in zoos can also sometimes be seen responding to the stress of captivity by self-medicating in this way).
Isolation can obviously have a powerful psychological effect on people, for example by making them psychological vulnerable, easily-manipulated (it is a favourite tool of interrogators, of course).
Coming together in a large group to sing can also be a very powerful intoxicating experience, as anyone who has sat on a football terrace can testify.
If you have ever entered a large cave by torchlight, you will know that it can also be a very powerful, emotional experience – the echoing sounds, the glimpses of magnificent structures, the darkness making one apprehensive and yet excited all at the same time. The echoing grandeur of many places of worship is obviously designed to have a similar psychological effect.
Helping others in face-to-face situation can obviously be an immensely powerful psychological experience – often a deeply gratifying and positive experience.
Engaging in ritualistic activity often has a calming and beneficial effect, whether or not performed within a religious setting. For example, sportsmen and women often engage in rituals before competing (and can become very disturbed if for some reason the ritual cannot be performed because e.g. their lucky pants have been lost).
Religious practice typically involves at least some of, and usually, many of, these activities. Activities that we know can have a powerful psychological effect even outside of any religious setting.
If people collectively engage in such activities repeatedly, with dedication and great intensity of purpose, over long periods of time, we should, then, probably expect that to have a psychological effect – to produce some interesting, and quite possibly beneficial, psychological states. The regime is certainly likely to produce a heady and intoxicating psychological brew.
If, in addition, we tell the people engaging in these activities that what they are experiencing or becoming psychological attuned to is some sort of divine transcendence, then, given the extraordinary power of suggestion, there’s no doubt that this is what many of them will believe is happening. Indeed, for some there may well be no doubt in their mind that this is what is going on.
The experiences and insights that, as a result, would then coalesce around the label “God” will no doubt be complex and difficult to articulate.
There probably is a sense in which, for someone who has never been through such a regime, they can never understand what it is like for the subject, “from the inside” as it were. Those who have had such experiences will no doubt struggle to communicate their character in much same way that someone who has been through, say, a war or childbirth may also struggle – perhaps having to resort to poetry, or music in order to convey its unique intensity.
“It is clear that the meditation, yoga and rituals that work aesthetically on a congregation have, when practised assiduously over a lifetime, a marked effect on the personality – an effect that is another form of natural theology. There is no ‘born again’ conversion, but a slow, incremental and imperceptible transformation… The effect of these practices cannot give us concrete information about God; it is certainly not a scientific ‘proof’. But something indefinable happens to people who involve themselves in these disciplines with commitment and talent. The ‘something’ remains opaque, however, to those who do not undergo these disciplines…” (314)
Armstrong claims that what these people gradually become attuned to is the ineffable transcendence, the ultimate reality, she calls “God”.
I guess that is possible. But how likely is it, in fact?
Given what we know about human psychology, isn’t it fairly likely that people put through such an intense regime over an extended period of time are quite likely to think they have become attuned to such a reality anyway, whether or not any such reality exists, and whether or not they have had any sort of genuine insight into it?
I don’t wish to poo-poo the value of engaging in such an exercise. It may well be that those who engage in such practices may gain some valuable insights into themselves and the human condition as a result.
And certainly there may be some positive psychological effects – a lasting sense of peace and contentment – from determinedly engaging in such activities over a long period of time, effects that will undoubtedly by magnified by the accompanying thought that what one is becoming attuned to is “God”.
But that there is such a “God” and that this is what one is becoming enlightened about by such practices is surely very dubious indeed.
Sometimes people who have had “near death” experiences claim to have experienced an indescribably wonderful light at the end of a tunnel. Often they are absolutely convinced that this light is God. However, euphoria and tunnel-vision are both a well-known result of hypoxia – lack of oxygen to the brain, hypoxia being exactly what such patients are likely to be suffering from when near death. Is it possible they are experiencing God? Yes, it is possible. But it is overwhelming more likely that they are actually suffering from hypoxia, and that they have mistakenly interpreted this experience as an awareness of some external, ineffably wonderful, reality.
The mere fact that they are convinced otherwise is hardly good evidence that we are mistaken about this. Nor will it do for them to say – “But you have not had the experience, and cannot know what it was like for me – so you cannot know!” Actually, we can still be rightly confident that, whatever our subject might happen to think, their ineffably glorious experience was a product of hypoxia, not God.
Surely, given what we know about human psychology (and I think we could add a lot more here that would lend further credibility to this explanation), by far the best explanation of what people experience (or whatever word you prefer – the “transcendental insight” they achieve, or whatever) after having engaged in religious practices with dedication over long periods of time is not that they have become attuned to some external transcendent reality, but that they have succeeded in altering their own psychology by fairly well-understood mechanisms common to both the religious and non-religious spheres, and that they have then mistakenly interpreted this alteration in themselves as their becoming attuned to such a reality.
Certainly, Armstrong has given us no good reason to suppose that this isn’t what’s going on.