Pharyngula

Salon has an interview with Karen Armstrong, and I don’t know whether the interviewer just did a poor job or whether her ideas really are that sloppy and confused. She definitely has interesting ideas about religion, but while she’s dismissing simplistic ideas about gods and the afterlife on the one hand, she’s also clinging desperately and irrationally to nebulous beliefs about religion and spirituality and the art and poetry of myth. Armstrong is smart enough to see the hokum in dogma, but she’s still so strongly wedded to the idea of religion that she struggles to contrive fuzzy justifications for it.

Armstrong does say some things with which I can agree, and some might be a little surprising.

I believe that what we have is now. The religions say you can experience eternity in this life, here and now, by getting those moments of ecstasy where time ceases to be a constraint. And you do it by the exercise of the Golden Rule and by compassion. And just endless speculation about the next world is depriving you of a great experience in this one.

I don’t care what the authorities of “the religions” say, but sure, the emphasis on the here and now and what you do with this life is something even an atheist can share. In general, Armstrong dismisses concerns about the afterlife and the nature of god (in the latter case, unfortunately, there’s a hint of absolute conviction that it isn’t even a question—god exists!—and a trace of condescension—but he is so vast and complex and sophisticated that most people don’t understand it).

Religion is a search for transcendence. But transcendence isn’t necessarily sited in an external god, which can be a very unspiritual, unreligious concept. The sages were all extremely concerned with transcendence, with going beyond the self and discovering a realm, a reality, that could not be defined in words. Buddhists talk about Nirvana in very much the same terms as monotheists describe God.

I think that’s a good start. I agree, that “search for transcendence” is a very human thing, and that impulse to search for more meaning to life than eating and sleeping and reacting and serving the baser desires of our midbrains is what has led to art and science and civilization. It’s wonderful and should be encouraged.

Where we differ, though, is in the direction that search should take. She talks about “a reality”, and as elsewhere in the interview, seems to have a rather casual attitude about where it should be sought—that it is enough that people just charge off into beliefs about a Nirvana or whatever that move them beyond their selves. I say that 1) religion is a dead-end that pursues fictitious realities and lacks any mechanism of self-criticism and re-evaluation, and 2) rather than “a” reality, we should seek transcendence in the reality that surrounds us. If you really want to move beyond the self and appreciate the truths of the cosmos, you’re better off studying a blade of grass or a stone or mathematics: focusing on the mythology of ancient tribes is nothing but a turning inward, churning over internal delusions with the governor gone and the cogs stripped—this “spirituality” thing is just another word for mental masturbation.

Much of the interview revisits the usual boring theistic attacks on secularism, and it’s not clear how much of that is Armstrong’s doing or simply the clumsy direction towards which the interviewer is steering everything. There’s the usual Dawkins-bashing. Dawkins is someone who is willing to plainly say that there are no rational justifications for god-belief, and that religion is an unfortunate byway that leads mankind down reprehensible paths. Armstrong also seems willing to dismiss most religious belief…but the difference is that she then makes incredibly tangled rationalizations for the ultimate virtue of religion. I’m beginning to suspect that the reason Dawkins is a boogeyman for the religious isn’t that he doesn’t believe in any gods, it’s that he won’t pander to the babbling sophistry that props up religion. Armstrong rejects what most people consider to be religion, but hey, she uses the same incoherent gabble, completely unmoored from reality, that the religious use, so she’s not as much of a threat.

Oh, and of course the interviewer brings up those evil secularists, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. If only those three had found Jesus, their little empires would have been so much nicer.

A large part of the interview reflects an amplified version of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. While acting as an apologist for religion, Armstrong is simultaneously insisting that the religious beliefs of most Americans—that patriarchal bibliolatry we’re so familiar with here—is “infantile” and “vulgar”. Fine, I agree. However, what she is doing beyond that is peddling a highly abstract, conceptual form of religion, one that most people wouldn’t even recognize as a religion, while also arguing for the value of the fundamental religious texts. While admitting the violence and barbarity implicit in the Bible, she’s urging everyone to study them deeply. Dawkins may be the anti-christ, but I think that recognizing that millions and billions of people have been ignorant and wrong is a more sensible starting place than making more excuses that they’ve instead been following a “higher truth.”

Religion is hard work. It’s an art form. It’s a way of finding meaning, like art, like painting, like poetry, in a world that is violent and cruel and often seems meaningless. And art is hard work. You don’t just dash off a painting. It takes years of study. I think we expect religious knowledge to be instant. But religious knowledge comes incrementally and slowly. And religion is like any other activity. It’s like cooking or sex or science. You have good art, sex and science, and bad art, sex and science. It’s not easy to do it well.

The comparison of religion to art is an interesting one, I think. Art tries to bring new insights to how we see the world, and make people think in different ways. Art is also hard, and it takes a real talent to do it well. Religion is also difficult, at least as some idealists practice it, and similarly it tries to change how we think. However, what religion does is build up an intricate fabric of lies, and tries to distort our thinking towards accepting an unreality. That takes skill, like a good con takes skill.

I have a suggestion. If religion is like art, only dishonest, let’s get rid of religion and keep art. All that money flowing towards the Pope and James Dobson and Pat Robertson and the other hucksters of the unreal should be cut off, and redirected towards poets and painters and dancers. I think I’d like to live in a world where the arts got the rewards we now bestow on frauds; imagine your town if all the churches and temples were replaced with studios and galleries and stages, and they all had the audiences that now stuff the pews for weekly dollops of ignorance.

Comments

  1. #1 Steve LaBonne
    May 30, 2006

    If you really want to move beyond the self and appreciate the truths of the cosmos, you’re better off studying a blade of grass or a stone or mathematics: focusing on the mythology of ancient tribes is nothing but a turning inward, churning over internal delusions with the governor gone and the cogs stripped–this “spirituality” thing is just another word for mental masturbation.

    It’s a dismal failure of our educational system that so few people ever get to understand how mind-bogglingly strange, beautiful and fascinating the natural world is, and how much more rewarding a subject for contemplation than crystals, incense, or one’s navel. Of course, as also with any genuine work of art, significant intellectual exertion is needed, something to which most people sadly have a violent allergy.

  2. #2 Bronze Dog
    May 30, 2006

    I have a suggestion. If religion is like art, only dishonest, let’s get rid of religion and keep art. All that money flowing towards the Pope and James Dobson and Pat Robertson and the other hucksters of the unreal should be cut off, and redirected towards poets and painters and dancers. I think I’d like to live in a world where the arts got the rewards we now bestow on frauds; imagine your town if all the churches and temples were replaced with studios and galleries and stages, and they all had the audiences that now stuff the pews for weekly dollops of ignorance.

    That’s one way to win a cultural victory. We could produce a lot of Great Artists to produce Great Works and culture-bomb those Roman cities near our border. (Civilization 4 terminology, for those who think I’ve gone insane.)

  3. #3 PLP
    May 30, 2006

    “Transcendence” is a non-starter. It just doesn’t mean anything. Joy, happiness, satisfaction, even bliss are no less valuable for being ordinary human emotions; indeed they are valuable because they are real and thus achievable.

  4. #4 Steve LaBonne
    May 30, 2006

    Armstrong’s taking of the word “nirvana” in vain reminds me to say that the Buddha didn’t teach anything about ultimate “reality” or “transcendence”; he came, in his own words, to teach nothing else but “suffering and the end of suffering”- good mental hygiene, one might say. He would not have approved of the way that subsequent generations turned his teachings into yet another religion.

  5. #5 PaulC
    May 30, 2006

    focusing on the mythology of ancient tribes is nothing but a turning inward, churning over internal delusions with the governor gone and the cogs stripped

    The notion that this is a self-evident waste of time presupposes that modern humans are very different from “ancient tribes.” I think the reason for religion’s continued significance is its resonance with most (but not all) human brains. People behave a certain way because they want to–it makes them feel better–and it’s anti-empirical to suggest that they would really be better off behaving some other way, contrary to all evidence. Some of us would. I probably would. But I just don’t see the evidence that all these people who keep practicing a religion really would secretly like to stop but are afraid to. I also think it’s perfectly valid to study ideas about human spirituality from two thousand or more years ago, because (unlike say, chemistry or physics) there just haven’t been any great advances since then.

    The Golden Rule (as Armstrong notes) was a significant advance as were ideas about the futility of pursuing ego-driven goals exclusively. (Obviously these are perfectly compatible with atheism, which Armstrong herself notes in the same interview). While we all have empathy, and we all have an ability to put focus outside the self to achieve a goal, it is a learned notion that we should direct these capacities consciously. If the ideas look self-evident, it’s because we have been exposed to them from early on.

    I’m not sure I agree with Armstrong about the intrinsic value of religion. She seems to attach a lot of significance to the fact that most of the world’s major religions developed at very roughly the same time. However, that might just be a side-effect of a growing civilization. It’s interesting that she avoids discussion of, say, Aztec culture, which was quite large and quite religious, but as far as I know did not make any of the leaps she associates with the “Axial age.” To a great extent, she’s drawing conclusions from a biased sample that supports them.

  6. #6 Jack Fool
    May 30, 2006

    You touch on culture now and again, PZ, but I think in the absence of real science we can deal with most culture by falling back on a few aesthetic principles (which you should be able to pick up at any state college lib arts program):

    – 10% of what’s produced this year will be forgotten next year, 10% of that will be gone in 10 years, and 10% of that will be gone in a hundred years. Under normal circumstances this holds true for all genres, forms and media. What people believe is good and what they desire to see combine into what becomes “worth preserving.” Our current culture may archive every storybook, but we won’t teach more than that 10% ever.

    – The greatest failures of Philosophy (and by extension Science) become the greatest triumphs of Art and Literature. Since beliefs can be evaluated as true or false (ie fact or fiction), but knowledge changes over time, our culture needs somewhere to store what is false, in case it is reevaluated as true later. We keep our mistakes in the fiction section. As much as I love Atomic Age science fiction, there’s few places where this is borne out more obviously.

    – As you can tell from your own examination of our common cultural idiocy, it is possible, for a few generations at a time, to trick people into confusing fact and fiction. You can even trick them into switching fictions. What is ‘Christian’ now was not what was ‘Christian’ 150 years ago, when for example, abortion wasn’t an issue in the US, and was seen as strictly an argument within the Catholic Church. Those who study Classical culture, Mythology and Folklore call the process of change Mythic Defamation. It’s best to remember when you’re looking at religious attacks on science that what’s science to us is a competing myth to them. A quick historical examination of mythic defamation will show that the tactics haven’t changed in 10000 years.

  7. #7 rrt
    May 30, 2006

    We could produce a lot of Great Artists to produce Great Works and culture-bomb those Roman cities near our border. (Civilization 4 terminology, for those who think I’ve gone insane.)

    Indeed! Yay for gaming refs! (Scratches Bronze Dog’s ears.) Ever play GalCiv? Ever build a Party Star? For others here, that’s basically a Death Star, but instead of, uh, “winning” worlds by vaporizing them, it wins them by being a sort of orbital “DisneyPlanet” that influences the world’s population to favor your empire.

    Wacky, perhaps, but loosely based in reality…

  8. #8 BlueIndependent
    May 30, 2006

    I read this article last night, and wholly expected to see it this morning here. And Voila!

    I dunno. Her article didn’t bug me in the slightest, basically due to the fact that she’s not a book-thumping religious type (the kind I cannot stand), and the fact that she came from such a rigid background, and emerged from it more enlightened as to how to pursue her life path more intelligently, and in a less judging fashion.

    Some of the questions were softballish, but overall, I think the interview was pretty good. The part about Stalin, Hitler and Mao did kind of bug me too, as it was a rather easy glossing over of a complex reality, and the obvious fact that all three were raving megalomaniacs. Hitler even tried starting his own religion, yet this wasn’t mentioned. It probably would’ve been the wrong place to elaborate on that fact, but tying Hitler to secularism is specious at best.

    If anyone wants to criticize the “religion of the state” that communism espouses, that’s fine with me, because I don’t believe that either. Applying a metaphysical status to flawed humans that govern over others (inevitably) is just like the Japanese revering their Emperor as a god, or any other such historical, monarchical system. But IMO, Hitler was far from secular, and so are the neo-Nazis and skinheads of today. What they practice is an extremely virulent and oppressive form of Christianity. Why would they identify with Hitler if he was so secular?

    But beyond that discussion, I found her charming and affable in discussion. I don’t think her answers are so delusional, based on the fact that she lives a very non-confrontational form of religion. She’s not in your face, like Jesus freaks are. She doesn’t feel the need to prove her religion to the public.

  9. #9 Jake B. Cool
    May 30, 2006

    “- 10% of what’s produced this year will be forgotten next year, 10% of that will be gone in 10 years, and 10% of that will be gone in a hundred years. Under normal circumstances this holds true for all genres, forms and media. What people believe is good and what they desire to see combine into what becomes “worth preserving.” Our current culture may archive every storybook, but we won’t teach more than that 10% ever.”

    I suspect your numbers are a little off, but more crucial is that it isn’t a monotonic function. Consider, for instance, JS Bach. Virtually every classical music listener ranks him as one of the best composers (if not the best) who ever lived, yet in the 75 years after he died, he was nearly forgotten. It was Mendelssohn’s championing of him that brought his work back out of obscurity. Without Mendelssohn, who knows what would have happened with him? Tastes change, primitivism or baroquerie can lead to the suppression of worthy work that is not aesthetically a la mode or the elevation of garbage that is, and there are the cruel accidents of history. I don’t think it wise to claim, for instance, that the reason only 10% of Sophocles’ work survives is because it’s the 10% that’s actually good.

  10. #10 Torbjörn Larsson
    May 30, 2006

    I’m peeved that they didn’t touch on her book’s rather appaling claim that “hating religion is a pathology”. Cue Wikipedia: “Hatred is not necessarily irrational or unusual.”

    I would like to hear Armstrong explain and try to motivate her claim, and the interview didn’t cover it what I can see. I hate that!

  11. #11 quork
    May 30, 2006

    All that money flowing towards the Pope and James Dobson and Pat Robertson and the other hucksters of the unreal should be cut off,…

    Careful. He-man Robertson can leg-press 2000 pounds. If a girly-man like you were to upset him, you’d be no match for him.

  12. #12 ulg
    May 30, 2006

    (Civilization 4 terminology, for those who think I’ve gone insane.)

    What about those of us who feel using the terminology of a game (however great) for real life is symptom of insanity?

    ( I’m joking; I abuse terminology from games in real life all the time …:-)

  13. #13 ulg
    May 30, 2006

    10% of what’s produced this year will be forgotten next year, 10% of that will be gone in 10 years, and 10% of that will be gone in a hundred years.

    Surely this is a typo. You must mean:

    90% of what’s produced this year will be forgotten next year, 90% of that will be gone in 10 years, and 90% of that will be gone in a hundred years.

  14. #14 Skippy
    May 30, 2006

    I saw Armstrong speak here in Madison last month. (My account is here, if anyone is interested: http://powervoyeur.blogspot.com/2006/04/new-jerusalem-amongst-satanic-mills.html) While she is a wonderful, funny speaker and I enjoy hearing the history, I found her to be intellectually dishonest and a cherry picker.

    She labeled people like Dawkins (and I count myself amongst them) as “lazy athesists” after saying that atheism used to mean merely a belief in different gods instead of denying the supernatural. She is unable to fathom a meaningful life without the carrot of transcendence.

  15. #15 Steve LaBonne
    May 30, 2006

    after saying that atheism used to mean merely a belief in different gods instead of denying the supernatural

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

  16. #16 Jack Fool
    May 30, 2006

    I suspect your numbers are a little off, but more crucial is that it isn’t a monotonic function.

    It’s not corrected for preservation of media. The old stone tablet disintegrates, there’s not much to be done.

    I don’t think it wise to claim, for instance, that the reason only 10% of Sophocles’ work survives is because it’s the 10% that’s actually good.

    Like I said, belief about what is good and desire to see (or in this case read) both feed into what is actively retained in the culture. You can’t do much about what is purposefully destroyed, but of what we physically retain, 10% is still valuable after a year, etc etc.

    By 10%/year, 10%/10years, 10%/100years, 10%/1000years, I mean as a rule of thumb you would expect that for every 10000 plays, 99.99% of them will be considered irrelevant 1000 years later.

    Again: there’s nothing we can do about lost media. We might not have preserved the best work of that time, but people fight harder to preserve both what they enjoy and what they think is of high quality. Also, you can examine others’ opinions of that work and determine what was considered best.

    Surely this is a typo. You must mean:

    90% of what’s produced this year will be forgotten next year, 90% of that will be gone in 10 years, and 90% of that will be gone in a hundred years.

    Yes and that was my mistake. By gone I mean out of active pop reference, not necessarily gone as in the paper’s burned.

    History can be altered, retold, people from different times may learn to appreciate different things from what was popular in the past (Robert W. Chambers was the Michael Crichton/Stephen King of his day, but 150 years later only a few remember him for the book (The King In Yellow) that influenced another marginal writer: HP Lovecraft.)

    However it is still the case that our culture only actively retains that declining 10% of past fiction. Even if all the paper’s there, or we type it all into the internet, there’s a popularity distribution over the course of cultural history that will continue to regress to that ratio.

    The problem this creates is that so little of our cultural history befits science, and so much of what we retain is tied in with the three inheritors of Abraham, that even with everyone creating science-based art around the clock it would still take hundreds or thousands of years to replace the old myths.

    We try to educate credulity and faith out of people, but it’s been around for so long I don’t expect it will go without a much longer and more drawn out fight.

    Civ 4

    Paraphrasing “There is never a meeting between men of the same trade but that it ends in a conspiracy against the public.”

  17. #17 quork
    May 30, 2006

    She labeled people like Dawkins (and I count myself amongst them) as “lazy atheists” after saying that atheism used to mean merely a belief in different gods instead of denying the supernatural.

    She’s partially right about that. Followers of the Roman pantheon used to refer to Christians as atheists because they denied all gods but their own.

    Theists are rather loose with their terminology in general. “Atheist” for many theists today pretty much translates as “bad person”. For example, Bible thumpers on the Dover, PA school board called other Christians “atheists” because they supported the teaching of evolution in science class.

  18. #18 Andrew_Wyatt
    May 30, 2006

    We could produce a lot of Great Artists to produce Great Works and culture-bomb those Roman cities near our border.

    Too bad so many of those older cultures improvements are religious in nature. I’m just glad one can eventually move beyond the fumblings of Oracles and get on with some godless Rock n’ Roll.

  19. #19 An Anonymous Coward
    May 30, 2006

    But I just don’t see the evidence that all these people who keep practicing a religion really would secretly like to stop but are afraid to.

    All? Maybe not. But I can tell you from personal experience that that’s true of at least one person who keeps practicing a religion, though maybe not “afraid” in exactly the sense you mean. In fact, I thought it was kind of an interesting coincidence that I happened to read that comment about an hour after starting my own blog about just that subject

  20. #20 Carlie
    May 30, 2006

    AC – join the club, my friend, join the club. You’re certainly not the only one. I’m lucky to have a bit of an outlet at work (tiny, though) and otherwise… well, I have a couple of dear friends who have been friends for over 20 years who became semi-closeted atheists long before I did (we all grew up in the same church!) and other than that, it’s just random comments in the post section of blogs here and there, usually anonymous. This is the only blog where I even use part of my name. It’s not “afraid”, so much as not wanting to let all those people in one’s life down…

  21. #21 An Anonymous Coward
    May 30, 2006

    It’s not “afraid”, so much as not wanting to let all those people in one’s life down…

    Yes, that’s it exactly.

    It’s kind of good to find out I’m not the only person in this situation, I suppose. I wonder just how common it really is?…

  22. #22 Scott
    May 31, 2006

    What is the purpose of life? To eat and reproduce. That is all that holds universally. When being asked that question, most people arrogantly interpret it as asking about the purpose of human life, and try to come up with some lofty ideals there, but even those mostly boil down to trying to make things more comfortable for yourself while eating and copulating. Some will convince suckers to make their own life more comfortable, perhaps by promising them something for which they need to offer no sort of warranty on (lets just call that an afterlife). I’m proud to be free from that sort of delusion.

  23. #23 Daniel Martin
    May 31, 2006

    Joseph Kony should be the comeback line for every “Stalin and Mao were atheists and BAD” remark.

    Unfortunately, people will generally just say “who?” because Mr. Kony’s people are only killing and tortuing Africans.

    Actually, the 700 Club crowd has in the past been perfectly willing to earnestly pray about different problems in Africa; I wonder why they haven’t flat-out said something along the lines of “The Lord’s Resistance Army is an abomination and Joseph Kony is a bad, bad man”. (admittedly, maybe they have and I missed it; it’s not as though I pay much attention to what drips out of Robertson’s mouth)

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