Friday, September 11, 2009

The Case for God: What Religion Really Means, by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is a tireless writer on religion - historical and contemporary. In this new book she expresses her exasperation with what Armstrong calls the often 'facile' modern day debate on God and religious belief.

In our own scientific, rational era, we are hamstrung when approaching religion. Our debates are tit-for-tat, unable to approach subjects like religion that demand nuanced thinking. Even amongst fundamentalists themselves, they take a literalist, scientific approach to the holy texts, reading them in a way that would be completely foreign to earlier ages.

In a way, our modern era tries to evaluate the validity of religion by testing whether it can be scientifically 'proven' to be true. If I have caught Armstrong's argument correctly, this is like trying to prove scientifically that Shakespeare is a great writer, or Aretha Franklin a great singer. It simply makes no sense.

Armstrong likes to draw this analogy between art and religion. Like literary critic Harold Bloom, she seems to read the sacred texts as great literature. (Bloom I think referred to characters in the bible as literary characters, akin to Shakespeare's Hamlet.)

We should approach religion, Armstrong says, like we do a great work of art, to try and elicit meaning and derive comfort for life's sufferings. Science may help us to successfully treat cancer, but it can't assist us in coping with the trauma and grief such a diagnosis brings us.

Armstrong closes her book with a critique of writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, and their narrow-minded atheism. She claims that the scientific rigour they claim to bring to their thinking is glaringly absent when dealing with religion.

Moreover, this narrow-minded atheism, with its sweeping condemnations, is only helping to inflame the religious debate. Rather than engaging in a nuanced conversation, these writers are indulging in heavy-handed tactics. Nor is their knowledge on the subject that deep.

As ever with Karen Armstrong's books, it is fascinating to follow the thinking and reading of this brilliant and illuminating scholar. Armstrong's erudition is awesome. I also love the way Armstrong really engages the reader, working very much as an educator. She breaks down words and meanings wonderfully into their basics. We are always provided a detailed etymology of the words used, and how their meanings have changed over time.

This is one of the main themes of the book. Studying religion is hard and takes time and commitment. It's not easy. However, the rewards for the persistent are very great.

Many readers should find this both a compelling history of various religious practices and a passionate yet calmly reasoned argument in favour of a more mature and informed religious debate. Fans of her books I don't think will be disappointed.

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