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SNR Episode 16 - The Case for Thinking

November 30th, 2009 (07:52 pm)

**APOLOGY** - Due to network difficulties at Podbean.com, I was not able to upload this episode before the end of November as I promised I would.

In which I review Karen Armstrong's latest book, "The Case for God".
Amazon.com link:

The transcript for this episode includes end notes with references to the book.

Hello and welcome to episode 16 of the Naked Soul. I'm Heather Gout. And I don't think I need to spend any time on pleasantries or bits of news because there hasn't been a long gap between this programme and the last one. I know it might seem a bit obsessive to worry about being so late with the previous show. If you were all paying subscriptions it might make sense, but it's also true that when there is no price on your podcast and you're trying to grow your audience, it can't be a good idea to leave people hanging on and wondering.

I'm taking a week's vacation as I prepare this script, which is great because I concentrate so much better at the beginning of the day, and if I could that's when I wish I could do all my reading and writing. I particularly need concentration time now, when I've been reading a book as dense and meaty as Karen Armstrong's latest work, “The Case for God”. She makes no apologies for that; when readers complain 'that book was really hard' she says she wants to tell them, 'Of course it was. It was about God.”1 This is, I think, a reasonable point. If there is anything out there (or in here or no 'where' at all!) if there is anything that deserves to be given the name 'God' it won't be easy to understand, if it can be understood at all. Nothing humans have encountered or think they comprehend could function as a point of comparison, though heaven knows humans do try.

And the problem with modern religion, Armstrong seems to argue, is that it doesn't realise how it has reduced God to a concept that may seem easy to understand but isn't sufficient, isn't grasping the scope of what it seeks. It's a concept that is quite easy to disprove, disregard and dismiss. I think I know what she means. The other day someone said to me, “I saw something the other day that absolutely proves God doesn't exist!” And because I don't have any strong feelings one way or another, I didn't say anything to dampen their enthusiasm, but I what I was thinking was, “What doesn't exist? What is it exactly that you're so certain you've disproved, and what if that idea in your head never was God, but just your idea?” If by God you mean an anthropomorphic parent substitute who's just more powerful than a human being, well yes, a God like that would make Ming porcelain seem robust. But no thinking person who disproves the existence of that kind of God should feel they've achieved anything.

So partly this book, “The Case for God” wants to revise our ideas about God, and our assumptions about religion as it has been. Overall I am really enjoying it, but on the subject of historical religiosity my opinion goes in a different direction. I haven't got the academic qualifications to hold my point of view too firmly, though, so let's say I have suspicions. I am not convinced of a particular point which Karen Armstrong has made not only in her book but in interviews and presentations, that religion in the past was not primarily something people thought but something they did. To quote from her introduction2, “Religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart...it is no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life.” And she tries to make the point that people of earlier civilisations were able to give themselves wholly to their religious activities without having to deal with questions of factual integrity. About this I would agree, but I would be inclined to say that was only because they didn't know enough to realise there were questions to ask.

Until this last century, in all parts of the world, literacy and education were luxuries. And without education, I don't see how the average person's intellect could frame questions or arguments to support scepticism. To give oneself in open hearted trust to any activity, religious or not, is always easier if you don't know much about it, the same way it is easier to gain the cooperation of children than adults, simply because they don't have a knowledge base for distrust. And given that a non-religious viewpoint was not popularly realised until last century, I'm not sure I can agree with Karen Armstrong's claim that people used to be able to separate intellectual belief in doctrine from their commitment to a religious way of life. The majority of human beings throughout history never had an intellect they could involve in their religion or anything else. I think they did believe their doctrines, and that belief impelled their participation in the 'doing' side of religion. I really don't see how you can separate commitment to a way of life from an underlying belief that the commitment is the right one, is worthwhile, is leading you in the direction you are told it is leading. It may be simplistic belief; it may not be produced with any intellectual effort but based on emotion or familiarity, but I put forward that it is belief none the less.

What Armstrong does make very clear is that, for the minority of men who were educated, religion definitely was a serious matter of mind. I think this where “The Case for God” is at its brilliant best, when it traces the history of their ideas about God. And I loved every page of it, starting with the Upanishad sages through Confucius, the Greek Milesian thinkers and the rabbinic disciples of Hillel. I got so excited I skipped ahead to the end to read about the death of God secularism of the 1960s and post-modernist theology, and after that I went back to the middle to follow the unfolding of Christian thinking in all its complexity from the Dark Ages to the Enlightenment. This is the kind of book I will reread and reread, because I'll want to keep that broad picture of existential thinking fresh in my mind, the names and the social circumstances that gave us philosophy and theology and even early forms of psychology. It's a book that appeals to me, because I am a bookish person and I could wallow in the abstract too long for my own good. It's the kind of book where I stop every couple of paragraphs and just review what's been written, to be sure I am digesting the material fully. I stop to look up Wikipedia articles and dictionary definitions, just to make sure there isn't anything I misunderstand or don't understand enough. And I wish I knew someone else reading who was reading it too. This is the kind of book you want to talk about, or I do. I want to chew over certain passages and argue and verify and wonder at the ideas in it.

So now everyone knows that I'm a happy little nerd who likes reading difficult books. But, I am circumspect enough to know that when I write out my Christmas list, there will be few people I know who would appreciate this book as a gift. You see, to me the most revealing thing about living in the modern Western world, where we have given to the mass of people education and literacy and access to reams of extra-curricular knowledge, that it still seems only a minority of people voluntarily exercise their minds with abstract ideas. It's not a criticism, just an observation. Now if Karen Armstrong's view is true, and intellectual verification of doctrine should rightly be divorced from religion as a way of life, why isn't that what religion looks like, say, in the United States? If most people don't find abstract reasoning fun, why aren't they attracted to more 'doing' forms of religion, ones that are free from dogma and literal readings of scripture and conflict with other faiths?

The book seems to suggest there was an historical process which led people away from a more intuitive, heart-led devotion to forms of religion that stressed intellectual adherence to doctrine. I think, if you read the text more carefully, you can see evidence of something different. The whole of Chapter 6 is devoted to the great thinkers of early medieval Islam, Judaism and Christianity, who handled the concept of God with care. By careful thinking they realised that nothing certain could be said about God, even about his existence, and the sacred texts which made claims about God could not be read literally. They were brilliant men, but I question to what extent their, quote, “habit had become ingrained in Western Christian consciousness.”3 as Karen Armstrong suggests. The fact most of them lived during the period of the Crusades suggests to me that popular faith was driven by less uncertainty and definitely less circumspect meditations. As Armstrong herself admits, the formidable written output of Thomas Aquinas, quote “can be seen as a campaign to counter the tendency to domesticate the divine transcendence.”4 Whereas Armstrong seems to consider that tendency a departure, I wasn't convinced it had ever been absent or marginal. For the average man in the fiefdom, as for the average man in the suburbs today, the desire is to have a religion of thought, just not very much thought. And it is that badly thought out God which creates a 'doing' religion where the doing can be so destructive.

While I was reading Chapter 5, which covered the controversy over the Trinity that rocked the 3rd century Christian church, it reminded me of what happened when the church I used to attend changed its teaching on the nature of God. The previous doctrine was a bit of a hodge-podge, having been created by the founder who was an entrepreneur and not a philosopher. When the time came to teach the membership about the changes we brought in a professor of philosophy, and I remember we had series of taped sermons sent to all congregations from headquarters and long articles in the church newsletter, trying to explain all those strange Greek terms like hypostasis and ousia. Yes, I remember. I loved it; I read everything and was grateful because we didn't get much real mental exercise from church publications. Most of the membership, on the other hand, found it totally incomprehensible and deeply distressing. To learn that God didn't have a body, didn't have emotions, wasn't really male or female and therefore not really a father or a son – for most of the members this felt like patricide, patricide they were forced to witness.

Now maybe, if our church hadn't relied so heavily on words, on 'logos' as Karen Armstrong would say, it might have been better. If instead headquarters had given the members exercises for the expansion of their consciousness, so they might experience the divine and realise how unspeakable the actual God would actually have to be, the process would have been calmer. But I think the process of expanding consciousness, like rigorous thought, can be enlightening or disturbing, depending upon the person. And no exercise will work unless the subject has some agreement with the premise behind it. You can call it trust, but even trust implies an inclination toward a particular idea being correct. I cannot accept a distinction between religion as what one thinks and religion as what one does. I don't think our actions can be so easily disconnected from our thoughts. Armstrong admits that not everyone will 'do' religion well. To quote, “some people will be better at it than others, some appallingly inept, and others will miss the point entirely.”5 And I would want to insist that those who don't do well don't think well, cannot do the kind of thinking or emptying themselves of thought that Thomas Aquinas or Avicenna might have considered essential to get them beyond a cramped, biased concept of God that otherwise comes all too naturally.

So what do we do with those people, those less inclined to the academic? The New Atheists would have religion banned because of them, I'm pretty sure, and while I don't believe that's a working solution I can understand why they would suggest it. But I personally don't think “The Case For God” has a better suggestion. It would not make any difference if religious people gave themselves heart and soul to any programme of religious ritual or discipline, because the thinking that is meant to result from this is an aptitude, not a dependable reaction. And though I love “The Case for God” as a work of religious history, I think it is a book that ends up devouring itself like Kirttimukha, the mythical creature of Indian legend. On the one hand it argues that religion as something one thinks isn't so important, yet the parade of historic figures it brings forward as best teachers of this idea are consummate thinkers, and it's hard to imagine how they could have been as spiritually skilled without the equal contribution of intellect and practice. In the end I find myself sympathising with Plato, and considering whether religion, like philosophy, should be the sole domain of an elite.

And yet I know that wouldn't work either. I agree with Karen Armstrong that we have been 'Homo Religiosus' since the Paleolithic age.6 A lot of us need transcendence and meaning. The problem is that most people will settle for simple versions of the absolute, concepts that are just magnifications of the ego or extended ego, making faith tribalistic and aggressive. What can be done for them? Maybe two things. And these two things might make a podcast in themselves. First thing, to deal with the whole issue of needing, wanting. And second thing, to put greater importance on the understanding of self.

I read out those sentences, and because they only take a few seconds it makes me sound like I believe this is so easy. It's not easy. We're not really sure what the 'self' is, what its boundaries are. Psychology isn't a settled, absolute science with a single blueprint of the psyche. New findings in neurobiology are extremely interesting but fall short of making the whole experience of being human less confusing, less full of questions. There seems to be a strong, scientific movement to reduce everything about 'self' to measurable brain activity. And the way they talk about 'brain' makes me want to ask the same questions I think of when people talk about God. What, exactly, are they talking about? What constitutes the brain? And what do recent discoveries really demonstrate about us?

It's too bad this isn't a video podcost, and it's too bad that I couldn't get permission from the BBC to show their recent documentary hosted by mathematician Marcus de Sautoy, called “The Secret You”. It's been a year since we talked about the brain, which is too long given the amount of investigative work being done. Episode 17, which I plan to bring out for Christmas, will take a look at these findings, because I have questions of my own about the brain and self-consciousness which never seem to get answered no matter how many documentaries I watch. Until then, I'll say thanks for listening. For anyone preparing for the holiday season I'll say good luck! And I hope you'll join me again next time.

Notes to Accompany SNR Episode 16
All quotations are from Karen Armstrong's “The Case for God”, The Bodley Head hardcover edition, copyright 2009. Notes give the chapter, page and paragraph number.

1.paraphrase from Introduction, page 1, 1st paragraph
2.quote from Introduction, page 4, 3rd paragraph
3.paraphrase from Chapter 5, page 128, last paragraph
4.quote from Chapter 6, page 140, 3rd paragraph
5.quote from Introduction, page 4, last paragraph
6.taken from the title of Chapter 1


Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: December 24th, 2009 07:36 pm (UTC)
It'd be nice if you had (or refreshed) direct links to your podcast

If you search on podbean.com for 'naked soul' or 'spiritual not religious' you come up with 200+ hits in both cases. And, your links on the side of your livejournal page seem to go just to the main site, not to your particular entry. I haven't tried iTunes I admit.

Posted by: Heather Gout (snrpodcast)
Posted at: December 28th, 2009 09:39 am (UTC)
Re: It'd be nice if you had (or refreshed) direct links to your podcast

Yes, you're right, the link on my sight should go directly to my site on Podbean.com. I've edited that. I'd like to offer people more choice than just iTunes.

About my ranking in Podbean's search engine, that is weird. If I type 'SNR' in the search field, the podcast comes up as the only result. If I type 'Naked Soul' it comes up as result number 24. If I type 'The Naked Soul' it comes up as result number 22. Maybe you know more about search engine design, because in the last two scenarios the search seems to concentrate on the single word 'soul', rather than the phrase I type.

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