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.


  1. #1 Skippy
    May 30, 2006

    I saw Armstrong speak here in Madison last month. (My account is here, if anyone is interested: 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.

  2. #2 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.

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