Friday, November 6, 2009

The Case for God

In Karen Armstrong's recent book, The Case for God, she outlines how the great philosophers of the axial age (Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Rabbi Hillel - and by extension, Jesus) all came to similar great insights about the human condition. Out of this time we were given what is known as the Golden Rule, or the law of compassion - that we should "treat others as we would want to be treated," or, in another configuration, "do not do harm."

Armstrong asserts that these early versions of the world's religions were not interested in doctrine and the other most divisive aspects of religion, but in how to be good. They were reacting to the great waves of violence that were ripping the ancient world apart, trying to find a way out for mankind. She states that religion is at its worst where it draws up its standard and declares all must concede "this" or be wrong -and suffer the consequences, from shame to death to eternal hellfire (whatever it is is always bad.) She also contends that those who do so are acting in opposition to the original intent of the great sages. The point is not to be right, but to be good; not to believe correctly, but to act compassionately toward our fellow human beings.

She cites the famous quote where Rabbi Hillel (a Jewish scholar slightly before the time of Christ) was asked to cite the whole of the Torah while standing on one leg, and he replied, "Do not do unto others that which is hateful unto thee. That is the whole of the Law. The rest is commentary." This is the law of compassion that religions today should be teaching, if only they would be true to their origins.

I must confess I am a uniter at heart and I love Armstong's narrative. But is it true? I am not aware that the world has ever been particularly peaceful. In fact, from the dawn of human history, the world has been one long slaughterhouse from that day to this. I suspect that these great insights were simply logical extensions of behavior codes left over from a nomadic, tribal existence. We learned how to act reciprocally, even sometimes charitably, within our tribe. But as human civilization formed, the concept of tribe expanded beyond the 100-200 strong village-group to allied regions, then cities, then city-states, and empires, etc., and philosophies to incorporate previous enemies into the "in" group were hatched. The Golden Rule as we know it today evolved out of much more brutal codes, in fits and starts, slowly over the centuries.

But it was never pure; always the compassionate aspects of the religions came with a lot of cultural baggage that Armstrong rightly decries, but she also tries to wish it away. If the aspects of these religions that cause such trouble, such as clashes of doctrine concerning the role of the divine, the purpose of human existence, and the nature of the afterlife, are mistakenly over-valued by the great masses, where is the proof? To Armstrong, these matters are not important, and were not considered to be important by the original sages. But if that were so, why did those same sages teach anything at all about these subjects? Why lead everyone astray by allowing the chance of misinterpretation? Why not say, "all the rest of that is rubbish, concern yourselves with this alone." I suspect that Armstong herself has moved past these issues, and would like all of us to do so as well, but to say that the great religions also do so if only they are correctly understood is, I suspect, more a wish than a fact.


Vincent said...

Your review of her book (which is like the best reviews, about more than the thing it's reviewing) deserves more than this brief comment.

As I read it, your whole piece revolves around one short sentence in the middle: "But is it true?"

To me, that's not the question to ask. For Socrates, Rabbi Hillel, Jesus and the others were each being themselves, offering the only thing they could - their creative work.

Whether this accords with what Armstrong is saying, I care not. Neither do you, because you "love Armstrong's narrative". She, like the ones she writes about, is offering her creative work. And so are you. And so am I.

This search for "the truth" is a habit, the product of a leakage of scientific method from science to things which are not science.

Once of course religion claimed the hot seat (of defining the one truth). Now science does that, and further claims that the only way you can challenge science is through science. (Which is tantamount to saying you cannot challenge science. Just as in the old days Christianity - let's say the Church of Rome - claimed itself infallible and condemned other views as heresy.)

I could go on, but you have given me the urge to read her book - which demonstrates that your review has done its excellent job. Who cares if what you say is "true"? There is no test. There is no judge. There is a jury of the whole world, but no court to which they have been summoned to hear a presentation of "the evidence". The scientific world is organised differently. It rules on its own heretics, whether Erich von Daniken or the Korean Dr Hwang who claimed to clone babies.

Outside science - which is most of life - we act subjectively, our brains happily applying to every perception the condiments of metaphor and interpretation.

To use a different metaphor, we all swim in an ocean of belief, where the main facts are the surface, the shore and the sea-bottom. Or more literally, birth, death and things you bump into.

How can we say whether or not the world is peaceful, at any given time? What is the world, but the collection of a few billion world-views, most of which count for nothing to the academics, nor even to the ordinary person who forms an opinion by keeping up with discussions and the various media - because though (in my view) every world-view has equal weight, most world-views are not expressed.

Anonymous said...

By coincidence, this very day I read Karen Armstrong's responses to the top 10 questions she received from readers and viewers of the TED Blog.

I haven't read The Case for God, but I have been following Armstrong's progress off and on for many years. She's become a much better writer and polemicist as time has passed - her first books were really not very good, in my opinion.

I found the answers she gave thoughtful and considered, and moderately persuasive, although I agree with Patrick that she does give the impression that she 'wishes' the nastier aspects of religion would just go away now that we are all grown ups. I don't think there is any 'pure' history of religion that you can extract from the rest of human history, and religious ideas and practices have developed as messily as anything else in human culture, and this mess has still to be dealt with, and probably will never go away completely.

Her comments on the struggle over religious explanations of the meaning and purpose of life as set against a developing scientific approach to understanding biology, chemistry, physics etc (how the world works, as opposed to is purpose, if it has one) were quite illuminating, I thought. It makes sense that the process of separating these out would be long, slow, and contested. The rigorously scientific and rational approach doesn't (apparently) have anything to say about meaning, yet meaning seems to be the thing which human beings, whatever their level of sophistication, care more about than anything else. 'Meaning' may be a chimera, an emergent phenomenon along the lines of what Vincent said in his blog recently about the way we are influenced by 'likeness' - i.e. "this feels meaningful to me, therefore there must be a meaning to it." But chimera or no, strong feelings are attached, and I am not sure about the wisdom of just dismissing them.

I do wonder what hope there is for us all when you hear that Karen Armstrong received death threats from atheists. I can just about get my head round religious zealots feeling that god is calling them to kill some heretic or infidel, but what motivates an atheist to send death threats to someone who thinks that religion might, in some ways, be a good thing, if not taken too far or too literally.

PatricktheRogue said...

gentleeye, good point. I've just finished Frank Schaeffer's new book, Patience With God, in which he equates the so-called New Atheists (Hitchens, Dawkins, etc.) with religious fundamentalists. He decries their cocksure certainty and asks the same question - what is the need for Dawkins to proselytize for no faith? Isn't one of the benefits of embracing uncertainty the opportunity to be tolerant of others' beliefs, no matter how odd?