Karen Armstrong’s Case for Religious Practice: Introduction

I recently listened to Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God not really knowing what to expect and without any preconceived ideas about it other than the vague memory that it was in part written as a response to the militant atheists such as Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, and Hitchens. I also remembered that a friend of mine, John Dehlin, had highly recommended it on one of his blogs or podcasts.

Though the book makes no case for God whatsoever, in it I was delighted to find a semi-systematic explanation of liberal theology. Better yet, it is most likely a non-literal theist view of liberal theology though, as we’ll see, this is not entirely clear due to her obfuscation of her point of view.

Those that have followed my posts or comments on M* will know that I am often frustrated with the fact that people professing liberal theology can be so achingly precise in what they dislike and disbelieve about Mormon (or really any other) faith system, yet can’t seem to state any beliefs of their own at all. I have applied the term “Rejectionist” to this mind set, meaning someone that self-defines by what they disbelieve and reject rather than by what they believe. This is a serious rational and epistemological fallacy built on the false view that problems found with an explanation is sufficient grounds on which to reject that explanation even if no better alternative is being offered. [1]

So finding a whole book that attempts to explain the (I can only assume) non-literal theist liberal theological view point seems like a rare treat to me, even if she ultimately never actually confirms that is what point of view she is really arguing for. [2]

For those not familiar with Karen Armstrong, she is a famous author of books about religions. She started her religious career as a Nun and soon found that Christianity (and at the time she thought all religion) did not work for her. She became a mild ‘new atheist’ (i.e. militant atheist) only to eventually find religious meaning in her life by writing about religion and thereby finally finding the “ecstasy and transcendence she never felt as a nun.” (from the description of her book, The Spiral Staircase.)

There is a lot to cover here, so I’m going this up into a series of posts. As is customary, I’ll start with an attempt to just summarize several key points she makes without criticism. I’ll then go over her specific rejection of literal Christian teachings. (The only religion she spends effort rejecting.)

Finally, I’ll follow up with a series with my actual thoughts and criticisms of her belief system. (I haven’t even written that part, so it may take me a while to get to it.)

One challenge that I must admit upfront with Armstrong is that she utilizes the theologically liberal tactic of indirection and obfuscation. Never does she say “this is what I believe and here is why” but instead we have to infer this from who she quotes approvingly, what she repeats (sometimes so many times I wanted to pull my hair out), and who she attacks or calls “an idol”. However, I do not believe this makes it impossible to ‘get at’ her point of view at all, even if there will always be a degree of plausible deniability available to her.

Notes

[1] …the false view that problems found with an explanation is sufficient grounds on which to reject that explanation even if no better alternative is being offered. For example, Creationists attack Evolution using all sorts of problems with evolution, but have no explanation for the fossil record of their own. What they do not realize is that science (and any form of rationality) does not abandon an explanation because it has problems. It only does so because a better explanation comes along that does a better job of explaining the observations or connects better with other theories/explanations. What creationists don’t understand is that there is no amount of criticism or problems with evolution what will dislodge evolution until they can come up with their own hard to vary / long reaching theory with equivalent explanatory power that also explains the existing data found in the fossil record as often as it does. We do not, if we are rational anyhow, drop our theories and explanations based on the existence of problems — not even serious problems. We only change them because there is a better alternative available. Young Earth Creationism is not an alternative to evolution.

 [2] …even if she ultimately never actually confirms that is what point of view she is really arguing for. Armstrong represents one more example of how a certain segment of the Theologically Liberal are not comfortable with explaining their theology except in terms of what they reject. One difference, however, is that she goes to great lengths to argue why she feels this is a valid approach based on the apophatic method. This allows me, for the first time ever, to even start to engage a Liberal Theological view point on its own terms.

17 thoughts on “Karen Armstrong’s Case for Religious Practice: Introduction

  1. I have never liked the argument, “if you don’t have something to contribute, you can’t criticize…” or something of that nature. Your footnote doesn’t support that stance either. The human mind is logical enough to know if and when it doesn’t like something but may not be creative enough to offer a solution. That doesn’t make it fallacious, it merely makes it incomplete. Now if one criticizes a theory merely because they don’t like a person or a group without having a real reason otherwise of rejecting it, then that argument is unfounded. But simply saying one is fallacious by disagreeing makes you sound…I don’t even know, but it doesn’t look like you are being open to their stance merely because of something else they have said or done.

    The example of Creationism vs. Evolution is different because of the entire worldview of creationists as a whole. Their rejection is based on a worldview already established and seems more of a movement where the liberal is more individual-based.

    Liberals are in an interesting situation because they have been suppressed, in a sense, for many years within any believing community. So the nature of the liberal is not only young and learning, but also that of finding their way. Oftentimes, that entails defining what you are by knowing what you are not. I see nothing wrong with that in a growing and developing group of believers with a very broad definition attached to them.

    It just seems a little harsh and that you take it too far, that’s all.

  2. “if you don’t have something to contribute, you can’t criticize”

    This is not what I am saying, though I can see why you’d be confused.

    The fact is that bad conjectures will always be rationally superior to none at all. That is not the same as saying you can’t criticize. It just means you’re contributions are defintively limited in nature.

    “Now if one criticizes a theory merely because they don’t like a person or a group without having a real reason otherwise of rejecting it, then that argument is unfounded.”

    I doubt it’s possible to tell a good case from a bad case like this other than to come up with a a counter explanation.

    I am not against someone feeling like something is wrong with an explanation and pursuing a counter explanation. This is how we come up with counter explanations, so it’s a good thing. But until they have a full counter explanation, there is no sense yet in which they have shown a rational problem with the original explanation. They might be right, they might not. It’s all pending the (hopefully) eventual discovery of a better counter explanation. Until then, it’s impossible to determine if the criticism is valid or not. It must be fit to the rest of the data and survive criticism.

    “Liberals are in an interesting situation because they have been suppressed, in a sense, for many years within any believing community”

    “Suppress” is a strong word that seems harsh and unjustified to me. It’s hard to figure out what you even mean here. Especially since ‘liberal’ is such a broad term as per my past posts. Obviously if by ‘liberal’ we specifically mean “people teaching things at odds with the religion in question” then ‘suppression’ is misleading at best. That is, unless by ‘suppression’ you mean something like ”Catholics suppress Mormon beliefs in their Churches’ which is obviously true and not a problem in any way.

    If we mean ‘someone with some non-standard beliefs, but essentially believing’ then I do not believe there is any sort of suppression of liberals going on.

  3. dallske,

    I should probably mention this to you. I have no issues at all with ‘liberals’ — even outright non-believing ones — that are willing to show considerable doubt about their own concerns since they don’t have the answers themselves. They are just expressing ideas but are willing to consider all sides.

    I also have no problems with ones that think they have all the answers and say so and are willing to put up or shut up. They are anxious to explain what they believe because they honestly think they have it all figured out. This strikes me as fair.

    In short, my expressed concern was with a narrow band (how narrow? I have no idea.) that, as I said, is achingly precise in what they disbelieve but will not even attempt to explain what they personally believe. This is all the worse if they (as often happens) lie about their beliefs through use of clever redefining of terms. (i.e. “I believe in God” when what they really mean — but refuse to explain even when asked — is “I’m an atheist that has relabeled ‘human morals’ as ‘God'”)

    If this sort of ‘rejectionism’ isn’t your kind of ‘liberal’ then I’m NOT talking about you. You should be united with me against this narrow type and you should NOT take it as a slam on you or anyone you know.

  4. I have to say that I know a lot more nonbelievers, for want of a better term, who can say they might not be correct than I know believers who are willing to consider the possibility that they might be wrong. I believe a lot of stuff – for example, while I’m not sure I believe in God in the way that most forms of Christianity do, or in any god at all, I’m fairly convinced that something of our essential selves survives after death. And I certainly don’t believe that survival of something of ourselves after death is dependent on their being some sort of deity or supreme being. On the other hand, I could be wrong about by beliefs on all that, and the possibility of my being wrong about any or all of that does not worry me at all. On the other hand, I worry about people who are unable to conceive that they might be wrong about religious or spiritual beliefs that cannot be proven one way or the other externally to the one holding the belief.

  5. Elaine:

    “I worry about people who are unable to conceive that they might be wrong about religious or spiritual beliefs that cannot be proven one way or the other externally to the one holding the belief.”

    This is called “faith.” Nobody can prove the existence of God except the one who has felt His presence. This is an entirely internal experience, impossible to transmit to another person. You can tell another person about your knowledge of God, but you cannot “prove” to another person anything about God.

    Bruce’s point, which is frankly unassailable, is that there are major logical problems with living your life only attacking other belief systems without offering anything as an alternative. If all you do is attack other belief systems then you are a rejectionist.

  6. Bruce,
    Thank you for responding. I was more or less looking for a bit of clarity. I didn’t feel attacked personally, and I know nothing of this armstrong lady. I just wanted to be sure before reading future critques by you on her.

  7. Bruce

    It’s good to see this book get attention. I think it has immense transformative potential, particularly for those who feel literalistic belief doesn’t really grab hold of them.

    I do wonder if you’re missing some of the central points of the book though. Is Armstrong making a case for God? Well, it depends on *what* you believe God *is*. I think she goes well being making a case for religious practice. She does argue that belief in a personal, tangible, anthropomorphic God is historically anomalous and difficult for many to invest faith in, and suggests a more mystic/historically traditional route might be more suitable. So a case for the modern day God? I think she actually makes a case *against* such a being.

    Another important theme is that the word “believe” as used today, i.e. meaning “intellectual assent” to a doctrine or notion, wasn’t a big part of religion until recently. Hence, when you criticize her for failing to be pinned down on her own “beliefs”, you need to realize she rejects the whole paradigm that doctrines actually matter or that one should even attempt to assent intellectually (“believe”) in God.

  8. “Another important theme is that the word “believe” as used today, i.e. meaning “intellectual assent” to a doctrine or notion, wasn’t a big part of religion until recently.”

    Wow, that is quite a claim. Impossible to prove.

  9. “Wow, that is quite a claim. Impossible to prove.”

    Indeed; I was floored when I read it. However, Armstrong is quite confident about it and goes into some of the scholarship behind it. There is another scholar (can’t recall his name) that she cites who has written exhaustively about it. It is a revolutionary idea, and I have been trying to find out more about it.

    Part of it has to do with the fact that biblical scripture was written prior to the Enlightenment, prior to the scientific method, prior to modern-day rationality, etc. Present day concepts of “history”, “fact”, “myth”, and such were entirely different back then.

  10. I may have to look into this book. I’ve seen plenty of copies at the local used bookseller. The phrasing you used of a “semi-systematic liberal theology” makes that perfect in my library. I had been halting on it but now, I must have it.

  11. Trevor says:

    She does argue that belief in a personal, tangible, anthropomorphic God is historically anomalous and difficult for many to invest faith in, and suggests a more mystic/historically traditional route might be more suitable. So a case for the modern day God? I think she actually makes a case *against* such a being.

    Yes, that is my take on Armstrong too. She is defintively arguing against the existence of “God” as any westerner believer would think of that term.

    Another important theme is that the word “believe” as used today, i.e. meaning “intellectual assent” to a doctrine or notion, wasn’t a big part of religion until recently. Hence, when you criticize her for failing to be pinned down on her own “beliefs”, you need to realize she rejects the whole paradigm that doctrines actually matter or that one should even attempt to assent intellectually (“believe”) in God.

    Hello! Let me quote myself!

    One difference, however, is that she goes to great lengths to argue why she feels this is a valid approach based on the apophatic method

  12. Geoff says:

    Wow, that is quite a claim. Impossible to prove

    First: yes, it’s a wild claim. And I found her evidence underwhelming.

    Second: Actually, I see no reason it is or isn’t *possible* to prove or disprove except, of course, in the sense that nothing is possible to prove or disprove. Of course if we take ‘prove’ or ‘disprove’ in it’s broader sense of ‘presenting compelling evidence’ I think there is nothing wrong with assessing this claim at all. And I think it can be ‘disproven’ fairly easily. However, I think Armstrong takes the strongest possible evidence in favor of this position so we have no straw man when we work with her evidence.

    It mostly seems to be a play on words. It’s true that ‘belief’ in the Bible never refers to the Greek word of ‘intellectual assent.’ She then runs with this fact and derives things that go waaaaay beyond the evidence.

    The word ‘belief’ actually is a Greek word that means “trust, commitment, or faith.” So it is not the same as ‘intellectual assent’ but does encompass and go well beyond that notion. The early Christians and early religionists absolutely ‘intellectually assented’ to their beliefs, contrary to Armstrong’s arguments.

    However, the early Christians did not believe (as many Protestants do today) that one is saved by ‘intellectual assent’ that Jesus died for our sins. The believed one is saved by committing one’s life to that notion and becoming changed by it. Armstrong runs with this fact and we end up with the word eventually meaning almost the opposite of what it actually meant at the time.

    (Just a preview of some of my criticisms.)

  13. Okay a few points: to clarify my claim that ‘a bad conjecture is better than no conjecture at all” because the way I said that could be misleading to what I actually meant.

    First, ‘conjecture’ refers to a creative attempt to come up with an explanation and to generate new knowledge. It is therefore an ‘untested’ explanation.

    Second, that’s how we make progress. We creatively come up with explanations, then we test and criticize them. The good ones survive.

    Third, there is therefore absolutely never a case where a ‘bad conjecture’ is worse than ‘none at all.’ This is because “no conjecture at all” is (within the limited context of this statement) synonymous with not even trying to make progress. Bad progress can be corrected. Definitely deciding to not make progress can’t. This is why a ‘bad conjecture’ is better than ‘none’ in all cases. If you take ‘conjecture’ in any different sense that that, then I’d end up disagreeing with myself too.

    One person wrote to me and suggested that being ‘neutal’ might be better than being in favor of a bad or harmful conjecture.

    Obviously, there is nothing wrong with being ‘neutral’ on a set of options you don’t know anything about. But this is precisely the problem with claiming that a ‘neutral position’ is better than a ‘bad one.’ It mixes things all up. If one is ‘neutral’ then by definition we are considering existing explanations (or conjectures) that we don’t know to be bad or good compared to each other. If we know one of them to be bad, then we are – tautologically – not neutral.

    So this criticism is not valid because it’s impossible to ever come up in real life just like A and not A can’t both come up with real life if we are talking about the exact same propositions with the same set of assumptions.

    Also, there is nothing wrong with being ‘self-critical’ about your own beliefs/explanations/conjectures. But make no mistake, this is a fancy way of saying you are coming up with *new* beliefs/explanations/conjectures. Therefore this is not a case of having no conjecture either.

    My complaint about a certain narrow band of ‘theological liberals’ was a precise and appropriate complaint. They are ‘precise’ in what they disbelieve out of someone else’s ‘explanation’ of the world, but have no confidence at all in their own beliefs to the point of going out the way to never share their point of view but only to criticize others. This is NOT the case for all that self label as ‘theologically liberal’ (as per my past posts.)

    I can’t say why this happens for sure. There probably is no one reason. Obviously one reason might be that it’s no fun to be criticized and if you never share your personal views you can’t technically be criticized. But this is dangerous because what you are really doing is removing your conjectures/explanations from the rational process of criticism. You are therefore not going to temper your views with time by comparing them to reality. I am only morally disapproving of that specific position.

  14. Elaine says:

    I have to say that I know a lot more nonbelievers, for want of a better term, who can say they might not be correct than I know believers who are willing to consider the possibility that they might be wrong.

    Elaine, I can’t speak for your personal situation. Nor can I speak for your confirmation biases.

    What I can say is that I haven’t seen either group have an ‘advantage’ over the other in this regard. It has not been my experience at all that ‘nonbelievers’ are some how more likely to admit they might be wrong.

    One of my great issues with being on Mormon Matters was that I was (at the time) looking for a group of people that could admit to not knowing. I utterly failed to find them there amongst the ‘liberal’ thinkers.

    I finally gave up on the idea that this was a goal worth pursuing. I am now of the opinion that pursuing your beliefs to the fullest is actually the best way to live and also the best way to temper your false beliefs. The ‘believers’ I have encounted may not be willing to admit ‘Well, maybe there is no God’ based on their choice to have faith in God. But they are willing to take their beliefs, make them public (even going so far as to try to convert those that disagree with them), present them for criticism, and then evolve their beliefs to address those criticisms. The same can’t be said for some of the liberal thinkers I encountered that loved to criticize but never presented anything of their own beliefs for counter criticism.

    This was a substantial change of my original position, but I think a correct one.

    I’m fairly convinced that something of our essential selves survives after death.

    I think this becomes a matter of terminology. To me, Buddhists which do not believe in any ‘gods’ at all are still “Theistic” because ‘reality’ or ‘the universe’ takes on the very qualities that we normally think of as being “God.”

    If you believe something of your self survives after death — contrary to all the (seeming?) evidence that the dead do not rise — then I would be hard press to consider you anything but Theistic. Welcome fellow believer. :)

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