All entries for Thursday 30 July 2009

July 30, 2009

Steve Fuller on Karen Armstrong

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Karen Armstrong, The Case for God: What Religion Really Means (London: The Bodley Head, 2009).

Ludwig Wittgenstein ends his gnomic classic, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, by admonishing his readers, ‘Of which one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent’. If Karen Armstrong had her way, that’s exactly how she’d have us respond to God, putting an end to all the arguments pro- and con- God’s existence that have only served to obscure our ability to grasp the divine, which is by definition – at least as far as she is concerned – beyond words. For many years and books, Armstrong, a former nun, has sharply distinguished the status of religion as logos and mythos – that is, as an account of how the world really is and how we make sense of our place in the world. According to Armstrong, religion works best when mythos has the upper hand over logos, and in this book she stresses the downright negative consequences that an overemphasis on logos can have for religion and the surrounding society. Against the backdrop of this thesis, Armstrong presents intelligent design (ID) as the latest and perhaps most monstrous spawn of logos-driven theism, resulting in bad theology and bad science – not mention bad politics.

Armstrong’s thesis is worth taking seriously not only because she is knowledgeable, thoughtful and influential -- though less so in academia than in interfaith politics. In addition, her indictment is meant to extend beyond ID and its forebears in natural theology to what Armstrong regards as the hubris behind science’s own ‘quest for certainty’, to recall the title of John Dewey’s Gifford Lectures. Armstrong turns out to be very much a fellow-traveller of the Frankfurt School and those who believe that humanity’s logos-mania has led to untold cruelty, misery and harm to other humans and nature at large. ID supporters may be disoriented to find themselves the targets of such an Anti-Enlightenment harangue but I think Armstrong has got the historical drift right. She even sees the scientism in many of the founders of the Anglo-American Protestant fundamentalism a hundred years ago. However, Armstrong portrays it all as part of one unmitigated disaster. And here I beg to differ.

I also beg to differ on an assumption that I think her liberal readers will too easily grant her – namely, that there is some common core to all ‘religions’, whether by this term we mean indigenous native beliefs or High Church Christianity. As a matter of fact, this generic idea of religion, by which we (including Armstrong) normally mean the great world-religions, is a 19th century invention, basically designed to capture the nature of social order prior to the rise of the modern nation-state. (Here is a good book on the topic.) Thus, when the discipline of sociology defined itself in terms of problems arising from ‘modernity’, it was assumed that before, say, capitalism, democracy and science, a much less differentiated social glue called ‘religion’ held people together in so-called traditional societies. Thus, the founding fathers of sociology -- Marx, Durkheim, Weber et al -- spent much of their energies figuring out how the various social functions previously filled by religion were carried out in the modern secular world.

The key point here is that ‘religion’ in the broad sense that we currently use it began as a residual category for any complex form of social life of pre-modern origin. It implied nothing about specific beliefs (even in a deity), rituals or the status of human beings in the cosmos. In this respect, ‘religion’ is the classic postmodern category that was invented to give a face to the ‘other’ of modernity. Under the circumstances, it comes as no surprise that Armstrong’s candidate for the core ‘religious’ experience is silence before the ineffability of Being, or apophasis. After all, modernity is sociologically marked by the replacement of tacit knowledge and social relations with explicit formulas and contracts. Whereas for the modern Abrahamic believer, the logos defines the common ground between God and humanity, both in the Bible and the Book of Nature, Armstrong’s deity undergoes a sort of self-alienation – and believers engage in a sort of idolatry – in the presence of the logos.

Indeed, the second, larger half of The Case for God, called ‘The Modern World’, is basically a tale of steady decline in the West’s religious authenticity as religion becomes increasingly conflated with science and other worldly – and wordy -- preoccupations. ID under its proper name appears at the very end in the final chapter, entitled ‘The Death of God?’ Here Armstrong calls for a version of Stephen Jay Gould’s segregationist line on science and religion – ‘Non-overlapping magisteria’ – as the best way to stem the rot. Despite her conspicuous silence on the recent rise of ‘radical orthodoxy’ within Anglican Christianity, my guess is that Armstrong would be comfortable with many of its signature counter-Reformationist moves, not least its rejection of ID. (For a quick study, here is my review of a BBC television show, ‘Did Darwin Kill God’ that aired this past Spring, which was done from a radical orthodox perspective. Here are two pieces in the Times Higher Education give good brief sense of the difference between my own and the radical orthodox position on the science-religion relationship.)

While it would be useful for ID supporters to read Armstrong’s book to see how their position can be demonised from the standpoint of someone who believes in a faith-neutral conception of pure religiosity, the audience that could really benefit from this book are the more boneheaded and blog-bound Darwinists who seem to think that ID is ‘anti-science’ and ‘pro-relativism’. Armstrong makes it absolutely clear that, if anything, ID is too enamoured of science (at least its worst tendencies) and too fixated on its own scriptural base in the Abrahamic faiths to appreciate religion’s ultimate basis in the ineffable. And she is right about all this: It’s a pity that she doesn’t like what she sees.

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