In Defense of Unreason

A former nun propagates her case for God that is at once erudite and ill-informed, insightful and obscurantist



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report, November 9, 2009


The Jatravartids, a species of blue aliens living on the planet Viltvodle VI, believe the world was sneezed into existence by the Great Green Arkleseizure and so “live in perpetual fear of the time they call ‘The Coming of the Great White Handkerchief.’” Their priests conclude sermons with a reverential “Bless You!”

Illustration: Avi Katz, the Jerusalem Report

That’s according to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy,” the witty sci-fi classic by the late Douglas Adams. The British author never claimed that the truth of the Jatravartids’ beliefs was revealed to him transcendentally; therefore, since he cannot vouch for them empirically, we’ll just have to take their veracity on faith. Presumably, if learned Jatravartid theologians existed, they would counter derisive comments by skeptics by explaining patiently that their myths were merely allegories of a great metaphysical truth beyond our limited understanding, pertaining to the utter ineffability of God.

To support such claims, the Jatravartids can now cite a formidable supporter. Right off the bat in her new book “The Case for God,” Karen Armstrong, a prominent historian of religion and bestselling author, declares that an empirical scrutiny of religious ideas is a futile quest pursued only by misinformed, theologically unlearned critics of religion (whose ranks would include the avowedly atheistic Adams). “It is no use,” Armstrong writes, “magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood, before embarking on a religious way of life.”

Riled by the vociferous anti-religious polemics of “new atheists” like the British biologist Richard Dawkins (author of “The God Delusion”), the American neuroscientist Sam Harris (“The End of Faith”), and the essayist Christopher Hitchens (“God Is Not Great”), Armstrong, a onetime Catholic nun, rises to the defense of faith. Religious beliefs are misconstrued by atheists as profoundly ignorant statements about the world which embrace hoary old nonsense and rank superstition. In fact, she argues, such beliefs aren’t meant to be objective searches for empirical truths. Rather, they’re mythologized and ritualized depositories of universal human concerns, a guest for meaning, and a society’s mores and morals. Like art and music, religion is “an attempt to construct meaning in the face of the relentless pain and injustice of life,” Armstrong says.

In the service of this argument, Armstrong, one of the world’s most respected commentators on religion today, posits that mysticism has been a defining feature of religious practice from the time of the first prehistoric cave paintings some 30,000 years ago. She sees a sort of stupefied awe demonstrated by people throughout history in contemplation of the inexpressible, the numinous and the transcendent as a mainstay of religious faith. Through rigorous adherence to prescribed practices and rituals, religion affords believers glimpses of a hidden mystical dimension to the universe that otherwise eludes the grasp of human reason.

Accordingly, Biblical writers, Armstrong stresses, did not set out to record history faithfully, for they “were less interested in what actually happened than in the meaning of an event.” Hence the Biblical story of Creation, a fiercely contested battleground in the United States between fundamentalist Christians and evolutionists, is wholly misunderstood by both sides. In her view, the story of Eden, rather than a literal account, was simply meant as a myth about an illusory ideal of paradise lost where the mundane and the divine could holistically cohabit until they inevitably rupture owing to the shortcomings of human nature.

Yet the “shalom” of Paradise could be spiritually relived through ritual worship in Solomon’s Temple, which served as a replica of the mythical Eden, complete with guardian cherubim, stylized trees and flower blossoms carved in stone. Similarly, she argues, the myriad examples of incoherence and contradiction in Biblical narratives are the result of a conscious effort by ancient redactors to preserve rival traditions as equally valid. To point them out gleefully as critics of religion are wont to do is to miss their point. “Anybody who imagines that revealed religion requires a craven clinging to a fixed, unalterable and self-evident truth,” Armstrong cautions, “should read the rabbis. Midrash required them to ‘investigate’ and ‘go in search’ of fresh insight.”


In 1697, Thomas Aikenhead, a young medical student at the University of Edinburgh, was executed for scoffing at Christianity as such “a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense . . . that he admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them.” By the time of Aikenhead’s execution, clerical authorities had been torturing, murdering, burning or otherwise harassing doubters, freethinkers, “heretics” and other nonconformists, including Jews, for over a millennium.

You won’t hear of them in “The Case for God.” Armstrong doesn’t just downplay the annals of religious tyranny; she wholly ignores them. By reading history selectively, she produces a distorted view of it. Armstrong charts the virtuous undercurrent of religious traditions — an intellectually humble compassionate loving kindness — and makes it out to be all religions’ normative feature. She’s right to point out that religious beliefs, despite Hitchens’s assertion that “religion poisons everything,” haven’t been a universally malicious force in history.

Still, rather disingenuously, in order to portray religion as an essentially detached spiritual quest for the sublime in mundane lives, the historian declares scriptural literalism and the smug, uncompromising, self-righteous intolerance it tends to breed to be singularly modern phenomena brought on by the embattlement in which believers have found themselves in the face of widespread secularism and vocal criticisms of their beliefs. “The fundamentalist fear of annihilation [of their beliefs and way of life] is not a paranoid delusion,” Armstrong insists. All modern fundamentalism, whether it be “Moral Values” Christianity, religious ultra-Zionism, or militant Islamism, she adds, “begin[s] with what is perceived to be an attack by liberal co-religionists or a secularist regime and further assaults simply make them more extreme.”

That’s one way of looking at it. Another is to see the resurgence of religious radicalism as an attempt to resurrect the theological orthodoxies and “revealed” certainties of past centuries when religious views and modes of conduct reigned supreme and unchallenged. Osama bin Laden and his fellow Islamists never miss a chance to harp on their desire to revive a bygone Islamic caliphate. Vocal atheism has intensified in recent years largely as a backlash against religious radicalism that threatens to impede scientific progress and roll back hard-earned freedoms and human rights. However intemperate Dawkins and Hitchens may sound in their jibes at believers, there’s no danger that they will issue a fatwa on the head of anyone who disagrees with them.

In all three monotheistic religions, faith, according to Armstrong, used to be “a matter of commitment and practical living,” not one of mindless adherence to unverifiable theological propositions. In her reading of history everything had been hunky-dory until Enlightenment secularism and its new religion of “scientism” raised their ugly heads. Putting the faithful on the defensive, ardent secularists — whose atheism, she says, is “parasitically dependent on the form of theism it seeks to eliminate and becomes its reverse mirror image” — forced increasingly alienated believers to retreat behind their hardening ideological barricades, whence they continue to lash out at modernity and its “godless” values.

Perhaps it’s worth noting, however, that the extensive rights, legally guaranteed and painstakingly vouchsafed, that religious minorities enjoy in the secular West would have been unimaginable in any religious society in history. Or that more traditionally religious societies invariably end up becoming stiflingly intolerant.


The ancients, Armstrong argues, viewed knowledge as falling into two separate spheres of inquiry: logos and mythos. The former was empirical knowledge while the latter was seen as intuitive, spiritual insight. Yet in the Gospel of John, Jesus is labeled the Logos, or Word, of God, which seems to undercut her argument that religious texts were not meant to expound factual knowledge of the world. Likewise, are we to believe that, unlike nowadays, Muslim belief in the Koran as the eternal, uncreated, inviolable word of God used to be merely metaphorical?

Despite what Armstrong claims, literal belief in religious myths has been as old as religion itself. In fact, a major thrust of atheistic philosophy from Democritus and Epicurus onward has been the questioning of the received wisdom of popular myths. If such wisdom was not held to be literally true, why did myriad dissenters down the ages (routinely persecuted and executed) feel a pressing need to argue otherwise?

Here is the 1st century BCE Roman poet Lucretius in “On the Nature of Things”: “When before our eyes man’s life lay groveling, prostrate, crushed to the dust under the burden of Religion . . . a Greek [Epicurus] was the first to stand firm in defiance. Not the fables of gods, not lightning, not the menacing rumble of heaven could daunt him.” In the 4th century, a Christian mob in Alexandria lynched Hypatia, one of antiquity’s last great rationalistic philosophers. In 1277, the Catholic Condemnation of that year at the University of Paris outlawed the teachings of rationalistic views of the world that suggested that “theological discussions are based on fables.” And the witch hunts and brutal persecutions of “heretics” were yet to come.

Armstrong articulates her case with characteristic zest, yet her thesis is often so forced, ahistorical and lopsided that “The Case for God” is at once erudite and ill-informed, insightful and obscurantist. Apropos one of the first naturalistic cosmologies in history, proposed in the 6th century BCE by the Greek philosopher Anaximander, the historian writes that “Without empirical proof, this was little more than fantasy.” Yet she expects no proofs from religious cosmogonies and in fact dismisses demands for them by materialists as jejune.

She portrays science as a hopelessly reductionist and in many ways narrow-minded pursuit, which misses the larger picture of “transcendent meaning” in the world. Her book abounds in such expressions as “ultimate mystery,” “transcendent insight,” “a higher state of being,” “a beauty that went beyond finite beings because it was being itself,” all of which are too abstract to have any value outside purely speculative metaphysical discourse.

Although she might resist the label, Armstrong propagates an essentially fideist view, which holds that unregenerate reason alone cannot plumb the mysteries of existence. In his treatise on religion “The Future of an Illusion,” Sigmund Freud dismissed such an approach as a glorification of ignorance by cloaking as yet unknown facts in the mantle of some ultimate mystery which ipso facto must be God. “They give the name of ‘God’ to some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves,” Freud fulminated.

Contrary to Armstrong’s assertions, religions do make empirical claims. Whether the universe was created or is self-created; whether there is a God; whether there is a soul and life after death — all these are fundamental questions that should have some empirical basis in fact, not merely “allegorical” merit.

Or maybe not. It’s folly, Armstrong says, to expect religion to “provide us with information. Is there a God? How did the world come into being? But this is a modern aberration.” Apparently then, pre-modern people were not interested in such questions beyond mere allegories. If religion should not be expected to say even whether God exists, what “case” is there for Him?

Perhaps we should ask the Jatravartids.


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