Saturday, September 26, 2009

I get annoyed about a book I haven't read

I have not read Karen Armstrong’s new book, but this Newsweek review seriously got on my nerves.

From the September 29, 2009, issue of Newsweek: The latest salvo in the war between the atheists and the believers comes from the doyenne of religious intellectual history, Karen Armstrong. Her tone is one of high-minded irritation. Her argument is compelling. To oversimplify: "faith" and "reason" are not like political parties. You don't join one after having been convinced via argument of its validity.
Well, no, you don’t; the vast majority of people “join” a religion because it’s the one in which they are raised from birth, the one they get from their parents. Political party affiliation often works the same way, of course; we tend to take on the beliefs of our immediate community. But more importantly, there is a category error here: “reason” is a process, not a conclusion, while “faith” implies a belief in something one has already decided to be true. It’s an extremely common false analogy, but an important one. Think of it this way: What people want to compare when they set up this dichotomy are two ways of arriving at an answer. The comparison is false because beliefs based on faith begin with the answer and work backwards to justify that answer; to have faith in something you have to know what that thing is FIRST. Reason, however, is merely the process one goes through to work toward an as yet undetermined answer. Thus, the application of, say, the scientific method, is not something one “joins,” but it is very much a way of arriving at answers that can be taught and demonstrated as valid, and it can be applied to many more situations, while belief-without-evidence is a position we celebrate in no other circumstance that I can think of outside of religion. Sam Harris often uses the example of someone asking, “Don’t you have faith that your partner loves you? You can’t determine that scientifically, right, smartypants?” No, you can’t, but you can certainly view the evidence in the way your partner treats you, for example. It seems to me that if you have to believe in your partner’s love based only on faith, your partner may not in fact love you.
What the Greeks called logos and what they called mythos define two different aspects of the world and our experience in it: the knowable and the unknowable. You can believe in both. The bridge between them, Armstrong submits, is not the snarky badinage or righteous browbeating that has so defined faith-versus-reason debates of late, but practice. By practice she means not the occasional yoga class but genuine, difficult, repetitive practice, which over time gives the practitioner—even the reasonable practitioner—glimpses of the transcendent or the divine. Call it God.
WHY? No, really: why? Why shouldn’t I call it neurochemistry? Or black magic? Or Jim? This is a bizarre claim that I hear all the time and I can never figure out how the person making it can be serious. Just because you might point to things that feel funky in your head or that science hasn’t provided answers for yet or that seem transcendent to you, how on earth do you make the spectacular leap from there to ergo X=The God in Which I Already Conveniently Believe? So, again, I would love to know if Armstrong has stories to tell about people who discover Jesus Christ through “practice” without ever having heard of him before.
The Case for God, which comes out this month, is Armstrong's 19th book, and it rides the crest of a wave of books meant to dismantle the arguments of the atheists Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins. Armstrong is uniquely qualified to write on this subject, for having been a Roman Catholic nun, she then rejected faith. "For many years, I myself wanted nothing whatsoever to do with religion," she writes. "But my study of world religion during the last twenty years has compelled me to revise my earlier opinions…One of the things I have learned is that quarreling about religion is counterproductive and not conducive to enlightenment."
OK, ugh, I hate this so much. Questioning religious beliefs or dogma and/or their function in our society does not constitute “quarreling” or “snarky badinage” or “righteous browbeating” or meanness, and these charges, again very common, merely allow one to shift the focus and avoid addressing the actual criticisms being raised. And of course quarreling can be productive and can lead to intellectual enlightenment, if we approach it correctly and use it to hone our own beliefs in an honest way. That’s why debate has held a respected position in the exercise of intellect for so many hundreds of years.

Armstrong shows that for most of human history, "faith" and "reason" were not mutually exclusive and that even today all kinds people believe in a God that in no way resembles the God the atheists despise.

GAH. I do not “despise” anyone’s god; I do not believe such beings exist, so I could not possibly despise them.
"Jews, Christians, and Muslims all knew that revealed truth was symbolic, that
scripture could not be interpreted literally, and that sacred texts had multiple meanings, and could lead to entirely fresh insights," she writes. "Revelation was not an event that had happened once in the distant past, but was an ongoing, creative process." This critique has not been articulated often or clearly enough: the new atheists are, in effect, buying into one particular modern, Western fundamentalist notion of God in order to make God look ridiculous and knock him (or her or it) down. For them to fail to concede that what William James called "religious experience" is far more complex than what certain contemporary believers preach is extremely disingenuous.

Really? The Crusades and the Inquisition and the Holocaust and Proposition 8 were carried out by people who saw scripture as symbolic? I know that’s such a cheap shot, but come on. Yes, some religious people have seen scripture this way, but the ones with the most power and the loudest voices do not, so let’s not be “disingenuous” here. Here’s a question: If atheists are “buying into” a “notion of God,” who is selling it? What strikes me about this screed is that it should be directed at fundamentalists, not atheists, if Armstrong is being, dare I say, ingenuous in her complaints. When atheists (or theists, for that matter) complain about religious dogma interfering with medical research and civil rights and reproductive health and science education and sex ed and any number of other areas that affect all of us, we are not reacting to something that we’ve made up because we don’t like god. I understand Armstrong’s wish to disclaim her embarrassing relatives, but sorry, you can’t, not if you want to defend this plurality in scripture you’re positing, because that means their reading of “practice” is as valid as yours. But more importantly, if scripture is an ever-changing facilitator of subjective experience as opposed to an actual signifier of determinable meaning, what bloody good is it? This is all so goofy, I’m sorry, but believers do not read “sacred” texts the way they read John Grisham novels; they think there’s something magical about them. Otherwise, how are they special? How are they worthy of existing outside the frame of rationality that we place over everything else? What makes them worthy of faith?

Most provocative is Armstrong's focus on practice—on the activities that help a person engage with God: reading, singing, chanting, meditating, praying, and so on. She has a special affinity for the mystics. The yogi, the Christian mystic, the Kabbalist, the Sufi, the poet—all these, she argues, access transcendence through disciplined work, through failure, anxiety, and the redoubling of effort. By submitting to the unknown, mystics are supposed to become more wise and more loving. At its best, then, mythos has a positive, pragmatic effect on logos.

I may have to read this book, I guess, because I would love to know what it looks like when someone “submit[s] to the unknown.” Wtf does that mean, and why should I attempt it or value it? I want the unknown to become the known. That’s why I like education! And science. And the quest to cure cancer. And the space program. MRI. Pregnancy tests. (I could go on…) She talks about “enlightenment” but then describes its pursuit as “submitting to the unknown”? Sounds like a load of pseudo-intellectual baloney to me. When Socrates acknowledged that the wisest person understands that he knows nothing, he didn’t mean to suggest that we should celebrate ignorance as a virtue. Perhaps this is the main reason that what others call “spirituality” has never worked for me; I am never, ever happy about not knowing.

"The point of religion was to live intensely and richly here and now," she writes. "Religious people are ambitious…They tried to honor the ineffable mystery they sensed in each human being and create societies that honored the stranger, the alien, the poor, and the oppressed." It doesn't always work, she adds, but it's worth a try. (Critics will charge that Armstrong's affinity for mysticism leads her naively to overlook the destructive differences among religions. Like Robert Wright, whose recent book, The Evolution of God, argues for a kind of divine morality among humans, Armstrong is more of an optimistic about religion than a pessimist.)
Again: “ineffable mystery in each human being.” Don’t know what that means. Also, though, I flat do not believe this claim. A minute ago religion was individual and personal and all about each believer’s needs. Now it’s about honoring strangers and aliens? Again, what does that look like? The Christian Bible is unapologetically tribal. Oh, wait, those words in the book don’t actually mean what they say because they’re mutable and symbolic and all. So on what does she base these statements about the purpose of religion, if we can’t even take what the religious texts say at face value? I am getting so confused.
Armstrong's argument is prescient, for it reflects the most important shifts occurring in the religious landscape. In the West, believers are refocusing their attention away from creeds and on practice—on making the activity of faith meaningful in daily life.
I don’t care what people do with their own time, obviously, but when “practice” or “activity” includes attempting to inject your religion into the public schools or into the laws of the state, I will fight you every step. It doesn’t matter too much, though, because I do not believe this is true at all, that believers are moving away from creeds. It certainly is not true where I live.
Examples of this are legion: in the Bay Area, a new school called the Gamliel Institute teaches Jews in every denomination about chevra kadisha, the ancient mitzvah of washing and shrouding a dead body. In evangelical circles, Christians are turning away from salvation talk and toward helping the sick and the poor.
Bullshit. They are not. Churches have always involved themselves in ministering to the disadvantaged, which is lovely, but there is not some big movement going on—at least not in the US—toward doing so instead of talking about salvation. Sorry, no.
Pentecostalism, the fastest--growing brand of religion in the world, stresses the gifts of the spirit: healing, and speaking in tongues. In his new book, The Future of Faith, Harvard professor Harvey Cox calls this new era "the age of the spirit": "Faith, rather than beliefs, is once again becoming [Christianity's] defining quality," he writes.
WHAT? With no beliefs, what do you have faith in? That makes no sense!
For me, the most refreshing change of all is the possibility, clearly articulated in Armstrong's book, that belief in God requires uncertainty as much as certainty. Sixteen percent of Americans recently called themselves "unaffiliated," a figure that sent religious professionals scurrying for fixes and explanations. But these Americans may just be signaling to pollsters an unwillingness to choose sides.
Miller Is Newsweek’s Religion Editor.
If a belief requires uncertainty, I’m not sure you can even call it a belief without playing very loose with that word, but what matters here is that once again she asks me to rejoice in ignorance, now called “uncertainty,” and I reject that recommendation with everything I am; the thinker, the educator, the parent all recoil from such mealy-mouthed, self-effacing resignation.


At 12:52 PM, Blogger Jen said...

Beyond brilliant!

At 10:36 AM, Blogger Muggsy said...

I hope you don't mind if I quote you in my next religious argu -- er, discussion.

At 10:52 AM, Blogger Shell said...

Of course not, Muggsy. We're all in this together, after all.


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