You Call That God?

Anyone back there?

The Jatravartids, a species of blue aliens living on the planet Viltvodle VI, believe the world was sneezed into existence by the Great Green Arkleseizure. As a result, they “live in perpetual fear of the time they call ‘The Coming of the Great White Handkerchief.’” Their priests conclude sermons with a reverential “Bless You!”

Douglas Adams, who wrote about the Jatravartids in his sci-fi classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy, didn’t vouch for such ideas empirically. Presumably, learned Jatravartid theologians, should they exist, couldn’t do so either. Yet if Karen Armstrong is right, they can counter skepticism about their beliefs by insisting that they are merely allegories of a great metaphysical truth beyond our limited understanding. The Great Green Arkleseizure exists simply because the idea of it is too ineffable and profound to be wrong.

In her new book, The Case for God, the prominent British historian of religion declares empirical scrutiny of religious ideas to be a futile quest pursued only by the misinformed and theologically unlearned. “It is no use,” Armstrong writes, “magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood, before embarking on a religious way of life.”

Riled by the polemics of such New Atheists as Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (The End of Faith), and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great), Armstrong, a one-time Catholic nun and now self-described “freelance monotheist,” rises to faith’s defense. Religious beliefs are misconstrued by atheists as hoary old nonsense and rank superstition, she insists; such beliefs aren’t meant to be objective accounts for empirical truth. Rather, they’re mythologized and ritualized depositories of universal human concerns, ultimate meaning, and society’s mores and morals. Like art and music, religion is “an attempt to construct meaning in the face of the relentless pain and injustice of life,” Armstrong contends.

Her God is not a tangible reality that lends itself to our understanding, but a timeless ideal that remains ineffable to the point that we can approach Him only through the poor approximations of allegory. Mysticism, Armstrong points out, has been a defining feature of religious practice since the first prehistoric cave paintings some 30,000 years ago. She sees people’s stupefied awe throughout history in contemplation of the inexpressible, the numinous, and the transcendent as the mainstay of religious faith. Through rigorous adherence to prescribed practices and rituals, religion affords believers glimpses of a hidden mystical dimension to the universe that otherwise eludes the grasp of human experience.

The authors of various scriptures didn’t set out to record history faithfully, Armstrong stresses; they “were less interested in what actually happened than in the meaning of an event.” Hence the biblical story of creation, a fiercely contested battleground between fundamentalist Christians and evolutionists, has been misunderstood by both sides. In her view, the story of Eden was never meant to be a literal account but a symbolic myth that tells us about the rupture between human nature and the divine. The peace of that Paradise could thus be spiritually relived through ritual worship in Solomon’s Temple, which served as a replica of the mythical Eden, complete with guardian cherubim, stylized trees, and flower blossoms carved in stone.

Buy the book.

Pace Armstrong, literal belief in religious myths has been as old as religion itself. The New Atheists merely recapitulate arguments that have been bandied about by doubters and nonbelievers since antiquity. A major concern of atheistic philosophers from Democritus and Epicurus onward has been the questioning of popular beliefs. If such beliefs were not held to be literally true by those around them, why have dissenters from age to age felt a pressing need to argue otherwise?

Didn’t the Greeks, for instance, literally believe in the Olympic gods? If not, why did they prosecute vocal doubters, from the 5th century pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras onwards, for denying their existence and seeking material causes for natural phenomena? Didn’t the Aztecs literally believe in a sun god who had to be fed with human blood? If not, why the gruesome sacrifices? Didn’t early Christians literally believe that Jesus was the son of God, miraculously born of a virgin? Did those believers who martyred themselves in Roman arenas in defense of their faith knowingly go to their deaths for allegories?  Likewise, was Muslims’ belief in the Qur’an as the word of God revealed to Mohammed merely metaphorical in times past, only to be corrupted by modern fundamentalist literalism?

Portraying religion as a spiritual quest for the sublime in mundane life, Armstrong declares scriptural literalism and the smug self-righteous intolerance it often breeds to be singularly modern phenomena. They have been brought on, she says, by the embattlement of believers in the face of widespread secularism and vocal criticisms of their beliefs. “The fundamentalist fear of annihilation [of their beliefs and way of life] is not a paranoid delusion,” Armstrong writes. All modern forms of fundamentalism—whether it be Christian moralism, religious ultra-Zionism, or militant Islamism—“begin with what is perceived to be an attack by liberal co-religionists or a secularist regime and further assaults simply make them more extreme.”

In her reading of history, everything had been hunky-dory until Enlightenment secularism, with its new religion of “scientism,” raised its ugly head. Putting the faithful on the defensive, ardent secularists—whose atheism, she says, is “parasitically dependent on the form of theism it seeks to eliminate and becomes its reverse mirror image”—forced increasingly alienated believers to retreat behind their hardening ideological barricades, whence they continue to lash out at modernity and its “godless” values.

A more plausible way of looking at things, though, is to see the resurgence of religious radicalism as an attempt to resurrect the theological orthodoxies and “revealed” certainties of past centuries when religious views and modes of conduct reigned supreme and unchallenged. Osama bin Laden and his fellow Islamists never miss a chance to harp on their desire to revive a bygone Islamic caliphate. Vocal atheism has intensified in recent years largely as a backlash against the religious radicalism that threatens to impede scientific progress and roll back hard-earned freedoms and human rights. However intemperate Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens may sound in their jibes at believers, they don’t issue a fatwa on the head of anyone who disagrees with them. The extensive rights that religious minorities enjoy in the secular West, legally guaranteed and painstakingly vouchsafed, would have been hard to come by in any religious society throughout history.

Armstrong portrays “scientism” as a hopelessly reductionist and narrow-minded pursuit, which misses the larger picture of “transcendent meaning” in the world. Her prose revels in such expressions as “ultimate mystery,” “transcendent insight,” “a higher state of being,” and “a beauty that went beyond finite beings because it was being itself.” But compared to the richness and complexity of scientific knowledge today, abstract terms like these seem sophistic and impoverished.

Armstrong is right that we all seek a deeper meaning behind our lives. Yet merely glorifying our ignorance by professing awe at some “ultimate mystery” or ascribing the patent injustices of the world to “God’s will,” which no one can truly fathom anyway, doesn’t seem like a very enlightened approach. Nor is it intellectually honest; contrary to her assertions, religions do make empirical claims. Was the universe created, or is it self-created? Is there a supernatural being to whom we are morally responsible? Is there life after death? All these are questions that demand some basis in fact, not merely “allegorical” merit.

Or maybe not. It’s folly, Armstrong says, to expect religion to “provide us with information. Is there a God? How did the world come into being? But this is a modern aberration.” Let’s say she’s right. Yet if religion should not be expected to say even whether God exists, what “case” is there for Him?

Currently based in Bangkok, Tibor Krausz has written about a variety of subjects for The Christian Science Monitor, The Jerusalem Report, The Washington Post, The Sydney Morning Herald, The South China Morning Post, The Guardian Weekly, and other publications. The mysteries of life puzzle him, not least how he’s ended up in Southeast Asia. He doesn't tweet or toot, but he does have a