Religious scholar Karen Armstrong on how we lost the knack for religion—and why we need to get it back.
Michael Brunton | Sept/Oct 2009 issue
Modern science knows how to fix a hole in the heart. It can diagnose a hole in the ozone layer and prove the existence of black holes at the edge of the universe.
But when it comes to explaining what’s often described as the “God-shaped hole” in our lives, neither quantum physicists nor geneticists nor neuropsychologists appear to quite have the measure of it.
If anything, the rate of scientific advance in recent decades has only served to polarize religious debate. At one extreme is a resurgent atheism—epitomized by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who’ve both written best-selling books denouncing religious belief—which trusts that this hole, like every hole, will be filled in time by knowledge. At the other extreme is religious fundamentalism—epitomized by political spats over headscarves and creationism—which believes this hole is brimful of scriptural truth. For most of us in between, the hole in the soul gnaws away at our subconscious, like a hunger. And all of us, believers and non-believers alike, rush to fill the void with words.
One way or another, according to Karen Armstrong, “We talk far too much about God these days.” Which might sound a bit rich coming from the English author of almost 20 books on religion as well as two memoirs about her becoming—and then unbecoming—a Catholic nun, who has been decked with religious prizes and who regularly lectures the high and mighty of church and state around the world. What’s more, according to her new book The Case for God, the things we say when we do talk about religious faith are often “facile,” “stupid” or “primitive.” Ammunition, perhaps, for Armstrong’s critics, of whom she has had her share, ever since her breakthrough book, A History of God, in 1993.
In that and the books that followed, Armstrong has traced the tangled roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, liberally reinterpreted the lives of Muhammad, Buddha and Jesus, and dived headlong into the maelstrom of theological debate around fundamentalism, both before and after 9/11. Some have criticized her idealistic interpretation of the Koran; religious academics berate her for shortcomings of scholarly rigor; atheists dismiss her for refusing to engage in debate on their terms.
Yet Armstrong’s consistently eloquent arguments for compassion and commonality as an antidote to Islamophobia and the “clash of civilizations” have struck a chord, particularly in the U.S., where she has addressed both houses of Congress. She’s also increasingly in demand on the lecture circuit in countries like Pakistan and Egypt, and is to be found on book stalls in 40 languages around the world. Drawing together the main threads of her previous research, The Case for God is Armstrong’s most concise and practical-minded book yet: a historical survey of how rather than what we believe, where we lost the “knack” of religion and what we need to do to get it back.
“A lot of the arguments about religion going on at the moment spring from a rather inept understanding of religious truth,” says Armstrong, settling into her theme and a winged easy chair in her early-Georgian home in north London. The furnishings and decoration suggest Jane Austen may have just stepped out of the room. Like Austen, and in a polished English accent, Armstrong is sharp-witted, quick to ridicule nonsense, and a good storyteller. “Our notion changed during the early modern period when we became convinced that the only path to any kind of truth was reason. That works beautifully for science but doesn’t work so well for the humanities. Religion is really an art form and a struggle to find value and meaning amid the ghastly tragedy of human life.”
Armstrong’s The Case for God begins with the cave paintings of Lascaux in the French Dordogne, made some 17,000 years ago—seemingly religious art works in which the hunter assuages his unease at killing his prey through shamanic rituals in honor of the Animal Master. Such myths were born because, Armstrong writes, “As meaning-seeking creatures, men and women fall very easily into despair. They have created religions and works of art to help them find value in their lives, despite all the dispiriting evidence to the contrary.”
From that point on, the religious impulse took the form of creation myths like Tao and Brahman from the East, on through the gods of ancient Greece and eventually the emergence of the world’s three main monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—and their founding scriptures. But none of them, says Armstrong, were meant to be taken literally. “The cosmology of the ancient world was telling you about the nature of life here and now. Genesis is not about the origins of life. There were many other creation stories current in Israel at that time and no one was required to believe in that one.”
Reason, science and logic—what the Greeks called “logos”—were also evolving as ways of understanding the world, but always in concert, not competition, with the stories—the mythos—they relied on to deal with the mysteries of the human psyche. Pythagoras, for example, a founding father of mathematics and astronomy, sought the geometric truth of the universe from within a religious community dedicated to Apollo and the Muses. He also called himself a philosopher and expected his students to lead an ascetic and monastic kind of life, undergoing rites of purification and silence “in a search,” Armstrong writes, “for transcendence and a dedicated, practical lifestyle.”
In conversation, Armstrong spins the threads of her research with agile, unhesitating precision, leaping across centuries of scripture, philosophy and theology. She dissects the writings of Denys the Areopagite, the pseudonymous 5th-to-6th-century Christian theologian; explains the roots of Greek words like pistis (faith); pauses to unpick the purpose of Socratic dialogue or the classical atheism of Ludwig Feuerbach, the 19th-century German philosopher and proto-Marxist.
But through all the twists and turns, the notion of transcendence is the one she returns to time and again as the beating heart of all pre-modern theology. “The idea was that when we spoke about God we were speaking of something that lies beyond words,” says Armstrong. “People like Thomas Aquinas would say we can’t talk about God as a creator because we can only have in our heads the idea of a human creator and that can’t apply to God. We can’t even say that God exists because our notion of existence is too limited to apply to God. People were instructed to think about this in those terms.”
In Armstrong’s scheme of things, it was with the dawning of the Age of Reason that the problems started. As philosophers and mathematicians both, Descartes and then Newton well understood that science and religion—logos and mythos—were discrete realms in the search for universal truth. But when the foundation for modern science was laid, the conceptual nature of truth itself began to blur.
“Newton and Descartes started to try and prove that God existed in the same way as they would try and prove something in the laboratory or with their mathematics,” says Armstrong. “And when you try and mix science and religion you get bad science and bad religion. The two are doing two different things. … Science can give you a diagnosis of cancer. It can even cure your disease, but it cannot touch your grief and disappointment, nor can it help you to die well.”
Newton seeded not only the idea that God was reducible, says Armstrong, but also that understanding religion would be easy. So easy that by 1900, the German mathematician David Hilbert could confidently assert that precisely 23 problems remained to be solved in order to complete the Newtonian view of the universe. More than a century later, few of us can even comprehend those problems, let alone calculate the answers or grasp the significance of all the things we’ve learned since. Worse, as our theories about the universe grow ever more abstract, a sense of bewilderment is replacing the sense of transcendence. “It’s not easy to talk about transcendence, just as it’s not easy to play or listen to a late Beethoven quartet,” says Armstrong. “You have to practice quite hard, like you do with any art form. Religion is hard work.”
And as with great art, the realization that God defies understanding can be a source of the profoundest joy. For Einstein that sense of the existence of something impenetrable was, as he wrote in a 1930 essay, “the sower of all true art and science” and “the centre of all true religiousness.” Armstrong herself calls this experience “the stunned appreciation of an otherness”—a state she says she can occasionally glimpse in the long, silent and solitary hours of study that fuel her writing.
In her studies, Armstrong, at 64, now finds what countless hours of obligatory prayer as an unhappy Catholic nun in her teenage years had flatly failed to bring into focus. Suffering a lost vocation and physically frail, she considered her eventual departure from the convent in 1969 as a relief of sorts. But coming to terms with the world outside and the God she’d left behind triggered a profound spiritual trauma. After a diagnosis of epilepsy and disastrous spells teaching at a university, Armstrong’s convalescence proper began in 1981—it’s still underway, she says—when she poured her pain into a memoir of her convent days, Through the Narrow Gate. A second volume Beginning the World related her adjustment to the outside world, but Armstrong later recanted it because of the false heartiness she’d adopted to satisfy both her publisher and her own delusion of contentment.
In fact, Armstrong’s adjustment wasn’t going well, and a brief spell as an erudite but pungently skeptical presenter of religious TV programs in the U.K.—egged on by the producers, she claims, to say ever more outrageous things—did little to help matters. But in the course of that work, Armstrong found herself drawn back to the theological texts underpinning the monotheistic religions and to what they really mean. To do that, says Armstrong, “I had to put my clever, post-Enlightenment, Oxford-educated, aggressively logos self on the back burner, and enter into the mind of someone like Muhammad, who believed he’d been touched by God. Because if I didn’t sympathetically and compassionately feel with him, I would miss the essence of it and just write another clever riposte.”
A report by the Pew Forum, a U.S. research body on religion and public life, recently painted a startling picture of religious faith in America. About half the population appears to have changed religious affiliation at least once, while the number of believers unaffiliated with any particular faith is rising faster than those of any of religion. Yet more than half of those who grow up unaffiliated later choose to join one. Of the reasons people give for this restlessness, far more cite disenchantment with their religious institutions than a loss of faith per se.
Across Europe, in contrast, while many still identify with a religious denomination, Pew’s Global Attitudes Project report last year showed that only a fraction value religion as “very important” in their lives, compared to America, where 55 percent consider it so. In secular-minded France, only 10 percent take that view. Even in traditionally Catholic Spain, the figure is only 19 percent. Among young Europeans, religion’s importance appears to be still on the wane. That’s somewhat true in America, although 49 percent of adults under 40 value it like their parents and grandparents do, while in places like Egypt (69 percent), Turkey (88 percent) and Pakistan (95 percent), many more young people are keeping the faith.
That longing for spiritual uplift and communion, along with the sense of being let down, have no doubt driven the popularity of New Age beliefs in the U.S. and elsewhere in recent decades. It may also have contributed to the rise in eco-consciousness and the emergence of a “Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability” (LOHAS) demographic, said to include some 40 million people in the U.S., socially responsible green consumers interested in spiritually tinged practices like alternative medicine and personal development.
Armstrong for one isn’t surprised at these shifts. “We—the British and the northern Europeans—are beginning to look endearingly old-fashioned in our secularism. The rest of the world is becoming more religious.” But while God-centered religion may not own the copyright on transcendence, she warns, “None of it is of any value unless you translate it into practical compassionate action for others. In Buddhism, yoga is properly about the dismantling of egotism; if you just do these things to lose weight or to get a warm glow, that’s not religion.”
For Armstrong, it’s compassion that’s the defining virtue of religion, the Golden Rule articulated by Confucius two and a half millennia ago as “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” Practicing compassion is, she says, a form of “ethical artistry” that requires the dethroning of ego—a virtue, Armstrong believes, that’s alive and well for the majority of the faithful in all religions, but one often singularly lacking in the higher echelons of the various faiths she addresses.
Last year, that message earned Armstrong a prize from the TED Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering big ideas, allowing Armstrong to promote a Charter for Compassion that aims to get religious leaders to commit to a program of compassionate principles (see sidebar). For some religious commentators, like the U.S. rabbi Brad Hirschfield, the Charter amounts to little more than “a ‘Kumbaya’ moment” for “a world filled with hate-driven faith.” Armstrong disagrees, believing the abundant supply of compassion among religious communities the world over will win out. She does have a poor opinion of religious committees though, and admits she was nervous before the first meeting of the high-profile, multifaith, multinational body convened to draw up the Charter. Until, that is, the first speaker got up and said, “We must include a sentence saying that we, that religious people, have failed.” Everyone agreed, nodding, says Armstrong with a grin. “As soon as I heard that, I thought, ‘We’re going to be all right.’”
Michael Brunton is a writer living in London who agrees with Voltaire on the necessity of god and gardening.