Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Getting Beyond "God"

Karen Armstrong On "God"
In the opening pages of Karen Armstrong's A History of God we learn that she grew up in a religious Catholic family, was a nun for a decade or so, and also that she has "made a number of television programs about the early history of Christianity and the nature of religious experience".

But the sum total of all of her experience during the first forty plus years of her life (which also included post-graduate study of literature followed by teaching English at a girls' school), was that she had come to the conclusion that "God seemed an aberration, something that the human race had outgrown." [p. xix] In other words, she had finally managed to discover what any reasonably precocious teenager immediately realizes upon first encountering the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Did Armstrong at this point try to make up for lost time, perhaps by seeking out spiritual alternatives to this "God" that she now believed herself, along with the rest of the human race, to have outgrown? No. She appears to be incapable of imagining any kind of spirituality beyond the simple, binary choice: God versus no God. As dissatisfied as Armstrong was, and as much as she felt that "God" had never really "impinged" on her, she still could not imagine a religious world-view defined without reference to "him".

Armstrong demonstrates just how frighteningly effective 17 centuries of brainwashing has been on the western psyche: even when the sheep stray, most of them never stray very far. Armstrong lists some of the catechism lessons she learned as a girl, along with some other aspects of Christianity that she had come to view as "pompous and arrogant", or "incorrect", or even "a fabrication of theologians centuries after the death of Christ". But she shows not the slightest hint of ever having seriously considered even the possibility that other religions, completely unrelated to Christianity and it's "God", might have something more to offer.

Armstrong does have this much to say on non-Abrahamic religious ideas and traditions: "I have deliberately confined myself to the One God worshipped by the Jews, Christians and Muslims, though I have occasionally considered pagan, Hindu and Buddhist conceptions of ultimate reality to make a monotheistic point clearer. It seems that the idea of God is remarkably close to ideas in religions that developed quite independently. Whatever conclusions we reach about the reality of God, the history of this idea must tell us something important about the human mind and the nature of our aspiration." [p. xxii]

Armstrong displays the depth of her understanding of Pagan religiosity when she tells us (on p. 92) that "Educated pagans looked to philosophy, not religion, for enlightenment. Their saints and luminaries were such philosophers of antiquity as Plato, Pythagoras and Epictetus." This would be like saying that "educated Christians look to philosophy, not religion" because they read Augustine and Aquinas! Ancient Greco-Roman philosophers worshipped the same Goddesses and Gods, at the same Temples and other sacred places, and performed the same religious rites as their fellow Pagans. These philosophers did not abjure the Pagan religions of the societies they lived in, although they did think about religion more deeply than others, and, thank the Gods, write down these thoughts so that these could still be read during the Gods-less Dark Age of oppressive monotheism that was to come.

"Default, 'Normal', Best"
But what, you might ask, does all of this have to do with Tiger Woods? Excellent question!

Gwen Sharp noted recently in her blog (Sociological Images) that Brit Hume's spritual advice to Tiger Woods provides a very good example of how common it is for Americans to unthinkingly assume that Christianity is "the default, 'normal', and best religion for everyone" (thanks to alexandrabond at her blog Helleneste kai Grammateus for the link to Sociological Images).

Sharp's co-blogger, Lisa Wade, had also pointed out a similar religious cluelessness evinced by Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia back in October when he tried to argue that a Christian cross is a perfectly good all-purpose symbol for representing all religions!

It needs to be strongly emphasized that it isn't just the FOX News crowd who seek to present Christianity as, essentially, the only religion that matters, or at least as the normative religion (which usually ends up amounting to the same thing). An only slightly more subtle form of this kind of religious chauvinism is found in the writings of Karen Armstrong, as already discussed briefly above. Armstrong assumes (usually without ever clearly saying so or attempting to justify the assumption) that all religions are intrinsically monotheistic (or at least "remarkably close" to monotheism) and then further assumes that Christianity can serve unproblematically as the normative form of monotheism, and, thereby, for all religions whatsoever.

Armstrong's verbal slight of hand is accomplished while distracting her audience (who are every bit as uncritical and fawning as Brit Hume's) with the words "God" and "compassion", which she uses as thinly disguised stand-ins for "Jesus" and "the teachings of Jesus" respectively. Other religions (starting, naturally, with Judaism and Islam) are validated, according to Armstrong's approach, only because she insists that they all conform to her (at best only vaguely articulated) conceptions of "God" and "compassion".

Armstrong recently provided yet another example of her conflation of "God" with religion in her article Think Again: God in the pages of the November/December issue of Foreign Policy magazine. The following excerpt demonstrates this conflation nicely:
Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. So God isn’t going anywhere. And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. Whether we like it or not, God is here to stay, and it’s time we found a way to live with him in a balanced, compassionate manner.
Armstrong's relentless "God"-fixation is reflected in the way that she breaks that piece up into sections dealing with God and politics, God and violence/intolerance, God and poverty/ignorance, God and women, God and science, God and democracy. But nowhere does Armstrong bother to explain, or even clearly and explicitly articulate, her unquestioned assumption that "God" is synonymous with all things religious -- and that this has always been so going back to the very dawn of humanity! And that is why Brit Hume's world-view is infinitely preferable to Armstrong's. Hume makes assumptions, but he knows what those assumptions are and states them plainly. Armstrong is at best half-aware of what she is assuming, and never comes close to spelling it out.

But wait, there's more. In the endeavor to present their religion as "the default, 'normal', and best religion for everyone", liberal and conservative Christians have started receiving a great deal of assistance from what might appear to be an unlikely quarter: Atheists.

Take Richard Dawkins, for example (please). In his book The God Delusion, Dawkins baldly asserts that the world's largest polytheistic religion, Hinduism, is really just "monotheism in disquise". Dawkins declares that he cannot be bothered with the details of religions that he is not familiar with. With a wave of the hand he announces that he "shall refer to all deities, whether poly- or monotheistic, as simply 'God'". [p. 35] Dawkins doesn't stop there, though, and further explains that in his jihad against "supernaturalism in all its forms" he has chosen to "concentrate on the form most likely to be familiar with my readers ... today's three 'great' monotheistic religions." [p. 36]

Notice how nicely Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins manage to arrive at the same place. They are agreed in their desire to lump all religions together, and they are agreed that "the three 'great' monotheistic religions" serve nicely to represent all religions whatsoever. They are agreed that theirs is a debate about "God".

And so we have Richard Dawkins (and other Atheists) writing their critiques of "God" and Karen Armstrong (and other Christians) writing in defense of "God": The God Delusion (Dawkins), God Is Not Great (Chistopher Hitchens), The God Fraud (Sam Harris), The Case For God (Armstrong), God Is No Delusion (Thomas Crean), God and the New Atheism (John F. Haught), and so on.

Can anyone doubt who "wins" all such debates, before they have even commenced? It is all those who wish to portray our spiritual alternatives as the lifeless dichotomy: "do you believe in 'God', nor not??" Christianity is strengthened whenever the argument is put forth that it's conception of "God" is proper focus of all criticism or praise of religion. This strengthening is all that much greater when those who are making this argument are (supposedly) non-Christians! I say "supposedly" because those who accept the Christian view of divinity as normative are already themselves essentially Christians, whether they realize it or not -- whether they call themselves Atheists, or not.

Well, how did I get here?
When European Christians first began their conquest of the western hemisphere, those they were conquering were often described as "without ... religion or knowledge of God" (Richard Eden) or as "observing no religion" at all (Pedro Cieza de Leon), and similar observations.

The two examples just given above are both from Jonathan Z. Smith's essay Religion, Religions, Religious (which is the fifteenth chapter in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, edited by Mark C. Taylor). According to Smith, both the Protestant Reformation and the European conquest of the world forced European Christians to come up with new ways of thinking about and talking about religion(s). The words that form the title of Smith's essay have gone through a fascinating evolution over the last five centuries.

By the early 17th century, a fourfold division of humanity's religions was being proposed: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and "Idolatry", as was done by Edward Brerewood in his Enquiries touching the diversity of languages and religions through the chief parts of the world, first published in 1614. In that work Brerewood estimates that about 1/6 the human population is Christian, one fifth "Mahumetans", and the rest "Idolaters". Brerewood devotes a chapter to "The Jews dispersed in several parts of the World", but does not include Judaism in his broad estimates of the distribution of religions apparently because of the relatively smaller number of Jews. Concerning the Jews, though, Brerewood does provide the following brief description of their expulsion from much of western Europe during the 13th through 16th centuries:
The first country of Christendom whence the Jews were expelled, without hope of return, was our Country of England, whence they were banished, Anno 1290 by Kind Edward the first. Not long after they were likewise banished from France An. 1307 by Philippus Pulcher: Onely of all the Countries of France, in the jurisdiction of Avignon (the Pope's state) some are remaining. Out of Spain, An. 1492 by Ferdinand and shortly out of Portugal, An. 1497 by Emanuel. Out of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily, Anno 1539 by Charles the Fifth. In other Regions of Europe they are found, and in some of them in great numbers, as in Germany, Boheme, Polonia, Lituania, Russia, and part of Italy, specially Venice and Rome. In Greece also a great multitude, wherein two Cities (beside all them of other places) Constantinople and Thessalonica are esteemed to be about 160000 Jews.
[Enquiries, 1674 edition, p. 113]
In the essay previously mentioned, Jonathan Z. Smith describes how the fourfold division of Brerewood and others was a seamless continuation of the "dual vocabulary" developed by early Christians as a natural expression of that religion's "us versus them" approach to theology. The resulting vocabulary was firmly in place already by the 4th century AD, and this "dualistic" view of religions continued unabated right into the 19th century when:
Christianity, in some imagination of its ideal form, became the norm in which Judaism and Islam problematically share. Adopting a term from Muslim discourse, these three 'Abrahamic religions' form one set over and against an undifferentiated other [i.e. 'idolatry'].
[p. 276, emphasis added]
Smith also also alludes, in the same essay, to the way in which the parade of warring sects, each excommunicating all the others (especially whichever sect it had spawned off from) resulting from the Protestant Reformation, transformed the traditional Christian obsession with heresiology into the study of "sects" in a more objective and less judgmental sense. (This is a great irony since "heresy" originates in a Greek word that simply refers, without negative connotation at all, to a school of thought.) And the internal study of the various "sects" of Christianity led to "a pattern that holds to the present day: that the history of the major 'religions' is best organized as sectarian history, thereby reproducing the apologetic patristic heresiological model." [p. 275]


Kayleigh said...

"[T]those who accept the Christian view of divinity as normative are already themselves essentially Christians, whether they realize it or not -- whether they call themselves Atheists, or not."

Exactly. However, New Atheists will resent being called religious even though they are beginning to organize themselves as just another religion. It is just as toxic as Christianity, only the reasonable atheists are doing a better job at complaining about the Dawkins cult.


Armstrong is just the most obvious example of this problem. My mother, who claims to be Wiccan or Earth-Based Unitarian (depending on the day), still privileges Christianity. While I understand that not all Christians are bad people, the failure of "mainstream" Christians to decry the heinous crimes of the radical ones is just further evidence of the religion's dysfunctionality. No matter how moral "mainstream" Christians are, they still believe deep down that salvation through Jesus is for everyone, and they trust Biblical history more than archaeological evidence. *aggravated sigh*

I think she may not realize how religious Plato and the others actually were. Generally, people are told to skip over the religious parts of ancient philosophy and end up reading really boring, out-of-context excerpts that leave one baffled and frustrated. I was subjected to snippets of Plato in college. Until I read the Symposium, I thought that he was a lot more difficult to understand than he actually is.

Denis said...

Apuleus Platonicus,
>> those who accept the Christian view of divinity as normative are already themselves essentially Christians, whether they realize it or not -- whether they call themselves Atheists, or not

Exactly. This often leads to attempts by materialist Atheists to redefine the term religion, just to conceal the fact that they are arguing against a particular deity. There is a more general trend to substitute meaning of common concepts, e.g. reason, free thought.

>>Generally, people are told to skip over the religious parts of ancient philosophy and end up reading really boring, out-of-context excerpts that leave one baffled and frustrated.

Not just philosophy, but poetry too. I still have a Soviet-published volume of abridged versions of Classical Ancient poems (Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid). Guess what is abridged in there? The events on Olympus, the Gods on the battlefield, the Sybil's prophesy and similar things.

>>I was subjected to snippets of Plato in college. Until I read the Symposium, I thought that he was a lot more difficult to understand than he actually is.

You won't believe what they teach about Plato sometimes. But judging by how Plato is presented, he can be quite difficult to understand. My personal journey began with Suetonius and Plutarch. They had a world so free of modern day ideologies and so different from the decadent and immoral societies they supposedly represented.

The first book of selected translation of Plato's dialogs was one with commentaries written by a materialist atheist. The guy tried his best to demonstrated how "ridiculous" Socrates arguments were and how unconvinced he was.

So my personal position is to read the sources if possible. It's ok if commentaries are available, but it's always better to have an independently formed judgment.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

"Earth based Unitarians" would be fine, if they didn't tend to be such knee-jerk defenders of Christianity.

I think that unless a person is willing to make a clean break with Christianity and, as Jesus said, "shake the dust from your feet", then you are still psychologically shackled inside a Christian mental universe.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

I do agree that reading the original sources directly for oneself is the way to go. Unfortunately, many people are so thoroughly brainwashed by monotheizing and secularizing misrepresentations of ancient Philosophy that they are unable to see what is right in front of them if they do manage to sit down and read Plato and Homer for themselves.

I was shocked when I (only recently) learned that Gregory Vlastos, the 800 pound gorilla of 20th century Platonic studies (at least in the Anglophone world) was a deeply committed Christian (of the liberal Protestant variety).

Denis said...

>>Vlastos ... was a deeply committed Christian (of the liberal Protestant variety)

In a traditional orthodox Christian Church, those who try to combine the incompatible, Platonism with Christianity, tend to develop teachings considered heretical by those Churches. A fairly recent example is onomatodoxy, a Platonism-influenced heresy in Russian Orthodox Church.

The Russian authority on Platonism, Aleksei Losev (the English wikipedia article about him is horrible, so I don't link to it), belonged to this movement as well as mathematicians Egorov and Luzin, all persecuted by the materialist atheist regime despite their scientific contributions. There is a sympathetic article on the latter two at physorg, which surprised me, given the efforts by the New Atheists to discredit non-atheist scientists.

Whether a Platonist becomes a polytheist, or not, depends mostly on freedom of religion where he/she lives. What choice did Vlastos have in early 20th century? In many modern countries, a polytheist would face not just discrimination but a death threat. I wonder if there are any polytheists at all in Islamic countries, where even the omnipresent Christians are persecuted.

So instead I am surprised when I learn that a philosopher is actually Pagan.