How to Judge Religion


I have been mulling over Matt's question about how to criticize religion and decided I was wrong to distance myself from Ms. Armstrong, especially when I remembered that she'd offered the best summary of I'd ever encountered on how to judge religion. If I'm not as close to her thinking as I might be, it's not because I think she's wrong but because I think I'm not as wise or developed as she is, and so not able to espouse her ideas with the commitment they deserve. I really think her work--especially "A History of God"--should be required reading for anyone struggling with recovery from Mormonism. As evidence, I offer this passage from a paper I delivered on her at the 2005 Sunstone symposium. The paper was entitled "Pain, Sorrow, Suffering, Failure, Despair and Occasional Moments of Transcendence: The Wisdom and Insights of Karen Armstrong." Here's something--as in a long something, as in four single-spaced pages--from the close, in case you're interested.

Note: Although Armstrong has published more than a dozen books--most of which I've read--I cited only five in this presentation. They are, in order of publication, "Through the Narrow Gate," "Beginning the World," "A History of God," "The Battle for God" and "The Spiral Staircase."

In 1981, Armstrong published Through the Narrow Gate. It didn't earn much money, but it did gain her some attention--enough that she was invited to comment on religious topics on television. Eventually she lands a job writing the text for a six-part television documentary on Saint Paul, and it is while doing research for this project that she realizes how profoundly ignorant she is about the origins of Christianity. She comes to the conclusion that it was not Jesus Christ or any of his immediate disciples who were the inventors of Christianity, but Saint Paul--hence the name of the series, The First Christian. She also realizes that she has never thought carefully about Christianity's two "sister religions," as she calls them, Judaism and Islam.

She studies the three monotheistic religions' relationships to each other when asked to write a television series on the Crusades. Calling the story of the Crusades "a hideous chronicle of human suffering, fantacism and cruelty" (258), she notes that studying them has a primary salutary, albeit painful, effect: "it broke [her] heart" (Staircase, 258). This broken heart, is, of course, a necessary spiritual development. As she notes,

All the world faiths put suffering at the top of their agenda, because it is an inescapable fact of human life, and unless you see things as they really are, you cannot live correctly. But even more important, if we deny our own pain, it is all too easy to dismiss the suffering of others. Every single one of the major traditions--Confucianism, Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as the monotheisms--teaches a spirituality of empathy, by means of which you relate your own suffering to that of others. (Staircase, 272)

Learning how to cultivate and practice empathy is part of what makes it possible for her to write remarkably sympathetic biographies of Muhammad and the Buddha, activities in which she "had to make a constant, imaginative attempt to enter empathically into the experience of another" (Staircase, 279). Admittedly, this is a difficult thing to do. It takes self-awareness, generosity and discipline to cultivate empathy, and even more hard work to act on it rather than resorting to anger and retaliation when someone attacks us or something we love. It is also necessary if we want to make any progress as spiritual beings, and much of religion has been designed to help us do that hard work. If religion fails in that primary task, it fails supremely and definitively. One of final insights offered in The Spiral Staircase is the absolute necessity of empathy as a criterion in judging the value of religion: Armstrong states,

The religious traditions were in unanimous agreement. The one and only test of a valid religious idea, doctrinal statement, spiritual experience, or devotional practice was that it must lead directly to practical compassion. If your understanding of the divine made you kinder, more empathetic, and impelled you to express this sympathy in concrete acts of loving-kindness, this was good theology. But if your notion of God made you unkind, belligerent, cruel, or self-righteous, or if it led you to kill in God's name, it was bad theology (Staircase 293).

Armstrong notes as well that "compassion is not always a popular virtue. In my lectures I have sometimes seen members of the audience glaring at me mutinously: where is the fun of religion, if you can't disapprove of other people! There are some people, I suspect, who would be outraged if, when they finally arrived in heaven, they found everybody else there as well" (297). But she stresses that especially since 9/11, "our task now is to mend our broken world; if religion cannot do that, it is worthless. And what our world needs now is not belief, not certainty, but compassionate action and practically expressed respect for the sacred value of all human beings, even our enemies" (304).

"Religion starts with the perception that something is wrong" (History, 32), Armstrong observes, and one of the things that is wrong is that the meaning of events is often not obviously manifest; rather, meaning has to be made, which is not always an easy task. There are experiences in life that logic cannot account for, and the unseen often seems more real than the tangible and concrete. We must find ways to adequately account for our lived reality, even if that means resorting to imaginative, symbolic ideas of how the world functions and what events and objects signify.

Above all, these ideas must work; when they cease to work, they are eventually discarded. Armstrong points out that "Abraham and Jacob both put their faith in [the god they called] El because he worked for them: they did not sit down and prove that he existed.... People would continue to adopt a particular concept of the divine because it worked for them, not because it was scientifically or philosophically sound" (History, 17).

Although Armstrong sees herself as sympathetic to and, in some ways, celebratory of religion and God, many devout Christians would be outraged by her concept of the divine. Armstrong sees belief in an anthropomorphic god, a glorified human being made divine, however much that belief continues to work for people, as both idolatry and a mark of immature spirituality. Discussing "a personal God who does everything that a human being does: he loves, judges, punishes, sees, hears, creates and destroys as we do," Armstrong acknowledges that such a deity "reflects an important religious insight: that no supreme value can be less than human" (History, 209) However, she continues,

A personal God can become a grave liability. He can be a mere idol carved in our own image, a projection of our limited needs, fears and desires. We can assume that he loves what we love and hates what we hate, endorsing our prejudices instead of compelling us to transcend them. When he seems to fail to prevent a catastrophe or seems even to desire a tragedy, he can seem callous and cruel. A facile belief that a disaster is the will of God can make us accept things that are fundamentally unacceptable. The very fact that, as a person, God has a gender is also limiting: it means that the sexuality of half the human race is sacralized at the expense of the female and can lead to a neurotic and inadequate imbalance in human sexual mores. A personal God can be dangerous, therefore. Instead of pulling us beyond our limitations, 'he' can encourage us to remain complacently within them; 'he' can make us as cruel, callous, self-satisfied and partial as 'he' seems to be. Instead of inspiring the compassion that should characterize all advanced religion, 'he' can encourage us to judge, condemn and marginalize. It seems, therefore, that the idea of a personal God can only be a stage in our religious development. (History, 209-210).

In A History of God, Armstrong devotes 400 pages to detailing, contextualizing and explicating writings by Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians, mystics, philosophers and scholars regarding the nature of God, the numinous unseen mystery that, however elusive, remains a genuine, felt presence throughout the world. Armstrong begins her history by considering briefly what these diverse monotheists might have told her as a teenager beginning her spiritual quest:

It would have saved me a great deal of anxiety to hear--from eminent monotheists in all three faiths--that instead of waiting for God to descend from on high, I should deliberately create a sense of him for myself. Other rabbis, priests and Sufis would have taken me to task for assuming that God was--in any sense--a reality "out there"; they would have warned me not to expect to experience him as an objective fact that could be discovered by the ordinary process of rational thought. They would have told me that in an important sense God was a product of the creative imagination, like the poetry and music that I found so inspiring. A few highly respected monotheists would have told me quietly and firmly that God did not really exist--and yet that "he" was the most important reality in the world. (History xx)

Armstrong calls attention to the fact that statements like that last one are often paradoxical by intent, a way to prevent us from considering God merely another object in the universe, like a molecule, a tree, a planet, or a black hole, albeit more distant and complex and somehow responsible for the other objects. She also considers the death of God, proclaimed by Nietzsche in 1882, devoting her final chapter to the question, "Does God Have a Future?" She contemplates the "god-shaped hole" left in the universe by the "disappearance" of God--the result, she stresses, of making him into an existent being who could be killed--and what that god-shaped hole means both to atheists who are happy to live without him and former believers who mourn his present absence.

The religious approach Armstrong learns to value over certain belief in a personalized god is an open-minded curiosity about the mystery that exceeds our human understanding and pervades our world, which can be encountered through a patient, thoughtful silence. Armstrong stresses repeatedly throughout her work that "Sacred texts cannot be perused like a holy encyclopedia, for clear information about the divine" (Staircase, 285). Rather, we should treat scripture as a kind of poetry,

which read quickly or encountered in a hubbub of noise makes no sense. You have to open yourself to a poem with a quiet, receptive mind, in the same way as you might listen to a difficult piece of music.... You have to give it your full attention, wait patiently upon it, and make an empty space for it in your mind. And finally the work declares itself to you, steals deeply into the interstices of your being, line by line, note by note, phrase by phase, until it becomes part of you forever. Like the words of a poem, a religious idea, myth, or doctrine points beyond itself to truths that are elusive, that resist words and conceptualization. If you seize upon a poem and try to extort its meaning before you are ready, it remains opaque. If you bring your own personal agenda to bear upon it, the poem will close upon itself like a clam, because you have denied its unique and separate identity, its own inviolable holiness. (Staircase, 284)

In other words, Scripture and myth are attempts to make the unseen visible, to express the ineffable and to understand the unknowable. Therefore, if we consult statements about that which exists beyond the world of facts, which must be taken on faith, and is beyond normal comprehension, and read them as if they are provable, logical statements of fact, we will be misled. Instead, when thinking about God, we should open ourselves to things that stimulate our imaginative and creative faculties. Armstrong observes,

many people in the West would be dismayed if a leading theologian suggested that God was in some profound sense a product of the imagination. Yet it should be obvious that the imagination is the chief religious faculty. It has been defined by Jean-Paul Sartre as the ability to think of what is not. Human beings are the only animals who have the capacity to envisage something that is not present or something that does not yet exist but which is merely possible. The imagination has thus been the cause of our major achievements in science and technology as well as in art and religion.... The only way we can conceive of God, who remains imperceptible to the senses and to logical proof, is by means of symbols, which it is the chief function of the imaginative mind to interpret. (History, 233)


Well, that was just great.

It's amazing that Armstrong can remain so sympathic to religion, despite what we do to each other in the name of faith or God. I may be oversimplifying a bit, but it seems to me that Harris and Armstrong see the same problem... Harris's answer is to amputate the appendage riddled by cancer (to do away with religion entirely); Armstrong's answer is to save the limb, but cut out the cancer.

Which book by Armstrong do you recommend the most?

Well, that was just great.

Is that sarcasm? Because you just don't get to talk smack about KA on my blog. I'd let you trash Austen first, and everyone should know I how I feel about Jane.

In any event, yours is not a fair characterization of Armstrong's work. For one thing, she doesn't seem religion as a limb; she seems it as a vital organ. She argues that that “human beings are spiritual animals” and have been since their earliest days. “Men and women started to worship gods as soon as they became recognizably human... not simply because they wanted to propitiate powerful forces” she writes, but in order to

[express] the wonder and mystery that seem always to have been an essential component of the human experience of this beautiful yet terrifying world.... Like any other human activity, religion can be abused, but it seems to have been something that we have always done. It was not tacked on to a primordially secular nature by manipulative kings and priests but was natural to humanity (History xix).

Furthermore, Armstrong knows more than most people about the harm human beings can do to one another in the name of religion. She spent seven years as a nun, and left the convent, as she put it, "obscurely broken," having suffered a mental breakdown in part because her epilepsy went undiagnosed, largely because it was an inconvenience to the other nuns to imagine that her faints, blackouts and bouts of weeping were anything other than hysteria.

She has suffered because of religion in ways few in the western world ever do, a fact which means that for a long time she felt nothing but a visceral revulsion when she thought of religion. If you want the story of how religion broke her, read Through the Narrow Gate; if you want the account of the revulsion, read Beginning the World (though good luck finding it--it's out of print and in many ways, deservedly so, being hurriedly written to provide a follow-up to her first book) and if you want an account of how she overcame the revulsion and became one of the most important scholars of religion in the world, read The Spiral Staircase.

If you want a discussion of the very real political dangers of fundamentalism and how those dangers are exacerbated by many secular responses to religion, read The Battle for God (which came out in 2000 and was reissued shortly after 11 September 2001 with a very insightful forward--it's a very sobering and upsetting book).

And if you want really cogently written analysis of monotheism and sound theology, read A History of God.

I started with AHoG and read Through the Narrow Gate second. Few books are as important to me as TtNG. The first time I read it, I finished the last page and started over again on page 1--twice. It blew my mind, largely because it was my story transported to 1960s Britain. OK, she was British and in a convent while I was American and shipped off to Taiwan to preach to Buddhists; she had epilepsy and I don't. But there were so many similiarities in our stories and the ways we told them, even down to the intestinal problems we suffered and a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins we both quote.

Sarcastic? Not a whiff. My "Well, that was just great" comment was a compliment meant for both Armstrong and you: Armstrong for her genius quotes, and you for your commentary and the way you weaved her quotes together. I had actually origianlly written something more complimentary, but deleted it for fear of sounding too obsequious.

I agree, "vital organ" is a stronger metaphor than "limb". Maybe we could say Harris likens religion to an appendix, ultimately useless and likely to burst some day, and Armstrong likens religion to the heart, vitally important but fragile, something to be protected. Maybe the comparison is lame... I don't know, I guess I just find each of their approaches to religion interesting to juxtapose.

When you talk about Armstrong's ability to remain optimistic about faith and religion despite her personal experiences, you are proving my point in that I found this "amazing". Again, it seems you are seeing sarcasm when none was intended.

In any case, I see parallels of these approaches to religion in Mormonism all over the Internet. Ex-Mo's who are Sam Harris types (can only criticize Mormonism) are a dime a dozen; Ex-Mo's who are Karen Armstrong types (can criticize Mormonism where criticism is justified, but can still see some inherent goodness, if not indispensible vitality) are rare indeed.

Thanks for the reading tips... I'm very interested in reading Armstrong someday soon. I'll probably start with A History of God.

Hi Matt--I'm glad to know the sarcasm I thought might be lurking in your comment was entirely projected onto it, and I'm sorry if my response therefore came off as defensive.

Armstrong is indeed amazing. I sometimes say that she is who I want to be when I grow up.

And her work, as much as anything, has helped me find the grace and generosity to view my own religious past as something at times profoundly enriching instead of just damaging, and to insist I have the right to claim and honor every bit of good Mormonism has done me.

Hey, there's no email address for you, so I'm leaving this in your comments and feeling stupid about it. Just FYI. Anyway, feel FREE to leave political comments - argumentative or not - on my blog for two reasons: 1) You actually give REASONS for what you think, and 2) Your First Comment Ever wasn't a reason-free disagreement with some random point in a getting-to-know-you SURVEY.

I just read through this whole series of posts (starting with Matt's comment two posts back, and then your 'more on religion' entry, then this one) and I must say you've intrigued me greatly about Armstrong. My religious convictions are, I think, similar to yours, although I got here by a very different path (I was never seriously religious in the way that you were). I was particularly struck by something you said about Harris in the comments on an earlier thread -- how you thought that you *should* like his work, given that you agree with him, but aren't sure you do (paraphrasing from memory). I feel sort of the same way: he seems reductive and simplistic to a degree that bothers me, even though I agree with many of his conclusions. (I recently took him on on my own blog; if you're curious the post is here.)

But I've been reluctant to read Armstrong, because of some very dismissive things she said about atheism in a recent Solon interview... but maybe I should give her a try. My guess is that I'll find her like Harris: agreeable in part, disagreeable in part. But interesting enough to read.

Thanks for these posts. I recently discovered your blog and like it a lot, but the religious stuff is the most interesting for me (aside from the personal history).

By the way, that was a rather terrifying story you linked to (on your other blog, the "bored dominatrix" one) about students' lack of compassion... although as a college teacher (adjunct, grad student, nothin' to brag about but I do it) I can certainly see my students doing it too.


Hi Stephen--thanks for dropping by, and thanks also for the link to your blog. I appreciate your critique of Harris--it's pretty apt. Although I didn't read the article you're talking about--and I do read Salon--I do think Armstrong is worth your time and think as well that one reason she might come off as dismissive of atheism is the way she gets goaded in interviews--like it's just so astonishing that someone could be so positive about religion; and hey, she's a former nun so she's got to be a nutcase! (And I admit that the number of times I see that attitude is probably one reason I suspected you of sarcasm, Matt.)

I remember one interview in the NY Times magazine where the interviewer was very dismissive of and aggressive towards Armstrong, trying to get her to admit that religion wasn't really a positive force in the world, but didn't have enough sense to question her own assumptions about how the world works. At one point, the interviewer asked, "Do you really think your emphasis on compassion is good for the world, or for people? After all, we know from Freud that selfishness is the cause of all real and worthy achievements in the world."

That's right, we know from Freud. This woman is talking about how we need to question religion, but she's got her own sacred cows that are beyond scrutiny. We don't "know" anything from Freud, first of all, and secondly, the statement that follows that preamble is, to my mind, self-evidently wrong. But that was the kind of person the Times sent to interview Armstrong. And I was very disappointed with Armstrong's response--she didn't call the woman on her stupidity. I think interviews might not be her strong suit.

Anyway, there are enough places in her writing where she discusses atheism with considerable complexity--the end of "A History of God" is not at all dismissive of atheism and even discusses various atheistic religions--humanism, for instance. She knows that atheism, as either an intellectual or a moral stance, is not necessarily any more trivial than religious seeking.

Well, you've convinced me about Armstrong. Next time I'm at the library I'll check out History of God.

In case you're interested, the Salon piece I was referring to is an interview, which can be found here:

On a second look, she's clearly reacting to what the interviewer said, adopting their framing -- that Dawkins (e.g.) "hates" religion -- I'm not sure that's right, and I think that Dawkins's view is (like Harris's view) a worthwhile view to have in the mix -- even if I don't subscribe to it myself (I do its metaphysics; not all its deductions from them.) And saying that TV programs had a one-sided view in the same sentence as saying you haven't seen them doesn't come across well.

But, again, I'm convinced: she sounds worth some time. I'm a lots-of-views-are-worthwhile sort of person, and hers sounds quite interesting.

(Incidentally, that's really silly about Freud. It'd be silly about any thinker, probably, but particularly one whose scientific credentials have been so thoroughly trashed!)

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on September 21, 2006 8:55 AM.

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