Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Credo quia absurdum (2): Karen Armstrong Gets Her Comeuppance

I was beginning to despair and think that I was the only literate person who found Karen Armstrong banal, dreary, and vacuous. Well, thankfully, some intrepid bloggers came to my rescue this month. (That's one of the nice things about the internet.)

First, Shiraz Socialist complained, in the exquisitely entitled, "Karen Armstrong: liar or idiot?":
The easy ride that ex-nun and ecumenical apologist for religion, Karen Armstrong, receives in the “liberal”/”left” press (New Statesman, Graun, etc), never ceases to amaze me. Below is an exception: John Crace’s concise demolition of her book “The Case For God,” in The Graun: [the latter, for the uninitiated, is the increasingly ludicrous Guardian; JW]
The piece then goes on to reproduce the review, a few choice passages from which I will excerpt:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart make Dawkins and Hitchens burn in Hell, O Lord my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.

Much of what we say about God these days is facile. The concept of God is meant to be hard. Too often we get lost in what Greeks called logos (reason) rather than interpreting him through mythoi - those things we know to be eternally true but can't prove. Like Santa Claus. Religion is not about belief or faith; it is a skill. Self-deceit does not always come easily, so we have to work at it.

Our ancestors, who were obviously right, would have been surprised by the crude empiricism that reduces faith to fundamentalism or atheism. I have no intention of rubbishing anyone's beliefs, so help me God, but Dawkins's critique of God is unbelievably shallow. God is transcendent, clever clogs. So we obviously can't understand him. Duh!

I'm going to spend the next 250 pages on a quick trawl of comparative religion from the pre-modern to the present day. It won't help make the case for God, but it will make me look clever and keep the publishers happy, so let's hope no one notices!
. . . .

The modern drift to atheism has been balanced by an equally lamentable rise in fundamentalism. Both beliefs are compromised and misconceived. The only logical position is apophatic relativism, as stated in the Jeff Beck (1887- ) lyric, "You're everywhere and nowhere, Baby. That's where you're at."

I haven't had time to deal with the tricky issues of the after-life that some who believe in God seem to think are fairly important.

But silence is often the best policy - geddit, Hitchens? And the lesson of my historical overview is that the only tenable religious belief is one where you have the humility to constantly change your mind in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

God is the desire beyond this desire, who exists because I say so, and the negation of whose existence confirms his transcendence. Or something like that.

And if you believe this, you'll believe anything.
The next day, PZ Meyers (already gratefully cited as a source of the announcement for the science poetry contest), implicitly picking up the liar/idiot theme, trashed a book that Karen Armstrong had praised, thus in effect killing two birds with one (kidney?) stone:
The last time I got a glimpse of the wretched new book from Marilynne Robinson, the review was sufficient to dissuade me from bothering to ever read it. Now we have a positive review from Karen Armstrong, and I am now convinced that if ever I am confronted with this work, the only appropriate response would be to unzip my fly and piss on it, on the spot. Only my deeply ingrained social conditioning would hinder me. Dammit, why can't I live freely and express my primal impulses without these nagging voices in my head?

Once again, her thesis is that her own twisted version of science, which is always reductionist and ignores the forest for the hadrons, baryons, and mesons that make it up, is a curse upon civilization that destroys all beauty and aspirations. How dare we turn a critical eye upon good ol' subjective superstition? And besides, science completely ignores the mind and art and strangeness and doesn't encourage people to ever think long, long thoughts.

How's your bladder holding up?

This, of course, is entirely copacetic with Karen Armstrong's views. It isn't civilized if it isn't wallowing in the subjective and whining piteously about all those investigators of the real with their bright lights and poking fingers harshing her mellow and demanding that she say something sensible, clear, and objectively verifiable. In order to make her complaints justifiable, though, she has to lie about science. Oh, wait — perhaps I should be more charitable. She is obstinately ignorant of science, so she isn't exactly lying…she just makes fantastic nonsense up about it.
(read the rest; he even quotes her inane drivel)
I'd be the first person to admit that Dawkins (a great scientist) and Hitchens (a great essayist and provocateur) are anything but subtle and often less than sophisticated in their reasoning when they talk about religion.  They are quite capable of giving atheism a bad name.  Still, when one looks at their opponents. . .

One Michael Billington (again, in the Grauniad. See what Shiraz Socialist means?) further illustrates the point:
In the book world a fierce debate rages between polemical atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and eloquent champions of faith like Karen Armstrong. Yet, for the most part, the theatre steers clear of religion or, as with Pautz's play, sidesteps big questions. Where is the modern equivalent of Brecht's Galileo, which pits science against religion? Or of Shaw's Saint Joan, which both puts the case for its heroine's direct access to God and explains the need for her political extinction? No one can write masterpieces to order. But since we are confronted by the tensions in organised religion and the vacuum created by unalloyed materialism, isn't it time faith made a comeback as a fit subject for drama?
First of all, anyone who calls Karen Armstrong eloquent is not fit to be taken seriously (vide supra). Second, note the bias in the language: advocates of superstition are "eloquent," but their critics are merely "polemical." There are "tensions" in religion but a "vacuum" created by materialism.  What if it's the other way around—in both cases? And what about that slick elision?  Maybe "faith"—since when has religion been relegated to that narrow pen? now who's a reductionist, and an ethnocentric one, at that?—just isn't quite the compelling problem that it was in the 1920s or the 1940s. But to understand that would require a sense of history—and reality.   We do need Brecht, though his play cannot be reduced to that puerile dichotomy. It's a living and compelling work because it is also about the responsibility of science and the politics of dissent, but the Grauniad essayist wouldn't understand this. We don't necessarily need more plays about religion. If we did, presumably someone would write them.  We are surrounded by superfluity: 500 channels and nothing to watch, and hundreds of flavors of shampoo when a dozen would do.

I recently had a conversation with an acquaintance who is deeply religious.  Worrying that, ages ago, when he was young, he had perhaps allowed his personal views to intrude ever so slightly upon his duties as a teacher, he castigated himself for an ethical failure that he described in traditional theological terms as the sin of "thievery," i.e. receiving pay for his work but not fully living up to his obligations.  It was a statement infinitely more profound and religious than anything the Karen Armstrongs of the world will ever write.

So, you see, this is not about opposition to religion.  On the contrary:  Religion is sometimes too important to be left to clerics and people who natter on about "spirituality."
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