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Karen Armstrong and Religion’s Truth 30 May 2006

Posted by Todd in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Secular Humanism.

An interview with Karen Armstrong appeared in this morning's Salon.com, which provoked some thinking in me about why, as much as I love reading her books, there are moments when I just am dissatisfied with her analyses. I find that even as an agnostic–in the Huxleyan sense of "no knowledge without evidence"–I do find much in religious traditions to admire and that the search for the ineffable can be quite satisfying. I'm a great fan of Armstrong and her books…but also a respectful critic of some of her thinking.

In general, I understand Armstrong's arguments about the relationship of logos and mythos, but I find that the stark divide between the two can be problematic. It's a common division that ends up functioning to excuse religion from intellectual and moral rigor. It also fundamentally misunderstands "meaning," which, in Armstrong's Platonic formula, falls under the purview of mythos. John Dewey and George Herbert Mead argued that meaning is derived from the use of an idea; that is, you know what something (an event, an object, an idea) means by the way you interact with it. Science and Religion aren't two opposing systems giving us different aspects of life; they are two different ways of coming to understand (of interacting) with things. Human beings derive knowledge through interaction, be it scientific or religion knowledge. Religion and Science are different in quality, not in kind; therefore, it is not only legitimate, but essential that we compare them and criticize their relative strengths and weaknesses. In a shrinking world of dramatic cultural pluralism where ethno-religious violence is always bubbling, we can no longer afford Plato's (or more recently Stephen J. Gould's) categorical splitting of religion from science (Gould's "separate magesteria"…blech).

Armstrong's efforts to salvage religion from secular/scientific critique often slide into apology. Justifying the Koran's (or Bible's) brutality by interpreting the passage as a call to peace collapses the complexities of religious text and practice and paralyzes our ability to evaluate them, to produce moral judgments of the usefullness of a particular belief. Armstrong argues that those who say the Koran (or Bible) are violent texts merely misunderstand them. But the fact that millions of people believe and act in their religion counter to Armstrong's "true" interpretation demonstrates that the text means different things to different people in different contexts. Again, the meaning of a religion (or a passage in a religious text) emerges from the way people interact with it and enact it in the world. Meaning is not a fixed, immovable, knowable thing like a Platonic Ideal; the right interpretation isn't a thing that if we all look hard enough we'll all come to the same conclusion, especially not in a world where a single religious tradition is straddling thousands of different cultural, social and economic contexts.

A better tack would be to take the social scientific stance that religions are vastly complex cultural systems–the major traditions are thousands of years old; they encompass millions of diverse people, histories, and languages; their texts, practices, and beliefs are internally inconsistent and contradictory; and they contain both the impetus to violence and the call to peace. This would open religion up to more nuanced and targeted critiques of the immoralities of religious meaning in practice. It would also enable the kinds of critiques that Daniel Dennett calls for in his most recent book, where we can make rational decisions about what needs to be excised from our religious traditions, what no longer "works" in the world as we experience it now, not least of which are those major aspects of Islam and Christianity (not to mention Judaism and Hinduism) which push to tight community isolation and violence to outsiders.



1. Randy - 31 May 2006

Todd–check out the Dalai Lama’s latest book, “The Universe in a Single Atom.” He would largely agree with your outlook on the relationship of science and religion. I bought Dennet’s latest book recently, but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.

2. J. Todd Ormsbee - 31 May 2006

I have really been working on it, but I haven’t managed to get over my grudge against the Dalai Lama for his homophobia up through the 1990s. I understand he has moderated his stance somewhat, at least in speaches to the western world, when he realized that so many western followers of tibetan buddhism are gay; but I just can’t seem to get past it. I’ll trust your opinion on this book and may pick it up at some point.

3. Urban Shaman - 2 June 2006

The Dalai Lama is homophobic? Really? He’s the only religious leader I din’t think was a complete waste of time. What did he say or do?

I agree about the relationship between science and religion. I thought I was the only one who saw it that way.

4. J. Todd Ormsbee - 2 June 2006

oh man, I’d have to do some hunting to find, but he had the basic buddhist idea that it’s a disease, a sickness, or an “imbalance” caused by “clinging.” Many gay followers of tibetan buddhism left for other forms; but to be fair, I understand he’s come a long way in his views on the matter in recent years. But I still have a bitter taste in my mouth about the whole thing.

5. Urban Shaman - 3 June 2006

Thanks. I suspected his religion clouded his mind. I’m not trying to bash religion with that statement I think religion is a good place to start to learn about spirituality but I think it’s a bad place to stop. Ultimately it’s too confining.

Hmm you’d think a guy who just keeps reincarnating to help others wouldn’t have such a “good/bad” view of things. By the way I like your blog so far I haven’t read all the postings yet but I definitely find it interesting.

6. arik benedek-chaviv - 29 July 2006

Do you read Hebrew>?
Becouse I will publish a “paper” on “A History of God” Karen Armstrong, and at the bottem of it there will be a link to your blog, mainly I would like you to read it.

7. J. Todd Ormsbee - 29 July 2006

Hi Arik

I wish I did read hebrew. I’d love to read what you have to say. I find much of Armstrong’s work to be solid, but I find many of her interpretations to be Apologies, especially for Islam and Muhammed, but also for Judaism and Christianity. Thanks for posting.


8. arik benedek-chaviv - 29 July 2006

I finished my post right now.
I read only this book by Armstrong and probably I will read others for she knows how to write and she has what to say.
I found her attempt to show Islam from its peacefull aspect very courageous.

9. A Free Spirit - 10 October 2009

Really interesting! Armstrong’s particular theory comes through in her introduction to A Case for God. In my view, she comes very close to reducing religion to ethics, which is something liberal Protestantism has been criticized for doing. Take, for example, “God is love.” I interpret this as teaching that love is the source or basis of existence. Even though our acts of love (and feelings!…which Armstrong also discounts relative to conduct) involve “God is love” being actualized, there is also the sense irrespective of one’s conduct that existence itself is love. I take the transcendent wisdom of the latter to be just as important as conduct in religious terms. I’ve just posted a critique (http://deligentia.wordpress.com/2009/10/10/a-case-for-god/).

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