Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Sublunar Armstrong

Many have become familiar with the work of a religious scholar named Karen Armstrong, a former nun as well who studied at Oxford though not receiving a doctorate in her field of interest. She has written widely on the subject of the history of major religions, especially highlighting the spiritual aspects of the faiths. Most popular is probably her A History of God, but it is her most recent statements and her book, The Case of God, that sparks this post.

Armstrong has tried to save religion both from the conservatives of the faiths as well as the "New Atheists", which includes usually the figures of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, along with Vic Stenger and PZ Myers. She must claim that religion is not what it is for the vast majority of people in the United States and much of the Islamic world, where sciences such as evolution are denied, where people are abused for not conforming to scriptures--the lessening of rights for homosexuals, including death as could happen in Uganda, or death for apostasy in some Islamic corners--but that religious faith is something beyond this world. Her theology is more sophisticated than that attacked by Dawkins and company.

What does she actually believe though? Well, this is the real problem because her beliefs are rather vacuous. The spiritual is quite subjective for her, such that the reality of God or gods is not a requirement for her faith. Now, that sounds like weirded-out atheism to me, when the existence of gods is not needed for belief in God. God is a symbol of things transcendent to us, and because it is beyond our understanding we cannot say anything about God.

Well, if nothing can be said of God, then what does it mean to believe in God? Saying anything about what God is or what he/she/it wants and what happens to us because of such beings would certainly undo this stance. In reality, the position Armstrong seems to take is an attempt to make sure her theology cannot be criticized--there is nothing to critique, as there is nothing at all!

Recently, a great critique by Troy Jollimore, an associate professor of philosophy at California State, Chico, has pretty much laid her work to waste. By wanting to take away all attributed to God, including existence, but still finding the subjective nature as valid as anything else, she undercuts herself. To me, it looks as if the whole effort is a defense mechanism, trying to protect that special feeling she gets when she thinks about God. Even a meaningless word or statement can be powerful to a person, and protecting the idea, the feeling, of God is her mission. It is not about the facts of nature or deep philosophy, but the will to believe. Armstrong only has rhetoric and feels powerful, as demonstrated by a reviewer from NPR, Susan Jane Gilman, but there is no real depth.

Even religious scholars seem to scoff at her insinuations, and not simply from the conservative wing. Robert M. Price, a former evangelical, now an atheist-Christian and biblical scholar, simply cannot stand her, as he has made clear to me; and R. Joseph Hoffman, another New Testament scholar, finds her arguments as little more than cliche. Armstrong, in trying to make religion something new, seems to have dropped everything that made it worth while, all for some new-agey product.

It seems Armstrong is the religious homeopath--the less things you believe in when it comes to religion, the stronger the faith. No matter what is coherent or intelligible, for God is beyond all such things. But with such soaring rhetoric, there is nothing to latch upon, no being that is there, no essence other than shear desire. Armstrong, by her want of transendence, has left the wonders of what can be, which should be upsetting to someone of a Buddhist stance. The self-indulgent narcissism is something that will leave you in Samsara; Nirvana cannot be a state of hoped-for desire, but to be beyond such desires. That must include the desires of transcendence which cannot be articulated. Otherwise, you are stuck with the illusion of reality, that which the Buddha warned against. Armstrong has attached herself to that which is not anything at all, and that is worse than at least those that believe in things that can be seen.

Let's compare this to another Armstrong or two. There is the biking-sensation, Lance Armstrong, overcoming both the competition and mortality to become something we admire. And how could we forget the Armstrong that was truly super-lunar? With our hopes and dreams of becoming more than just a species trapped on the surface of a spinning rock, we truly went beyond this world to touch another and understand our place in it. One day we will repeat this feat on the Moon again, and later to Mars and perhaps beyond. This is growth of the spirit, in the capacity of humankind that we can see. As the plaque on the lunar surface says: We came in peace for all mankind. Not bad, minus the sexist language.

Understanding who we are through the sciences has led humanity to an amazing position. We know that we have a history of 13.7 billion years from the fires of the Big Bang to the collection of dust and gas to form the Sun and the Earth. We have a four billion year history of life on this world, and each of us living today comes from an unbroken chain of the winners of nature, those that succeeded in making it to the next generation. We know that we are composed forged matter from stellar furnaces. We are children of the stars! This is all objectively known to be true, not simply a feeling or a desire.

We need no "deepity", to use the phrase from Dan Dennett. In fact, he has given a wonderful lecture of this subject recently:

Note: Dan is the Man!

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