Tyee Books

A Prayer for the New Atheists

Author Karen Armstrong on quitting the convent, launching the Charter for Compassion, making 'The Case for God', and more.

By Sarah Buchanan 15 Oct 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Sarah Buchanan is a Vancouver-based writer and podcaster.

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Armstrong: 'Religion has been hijacked'

The Case For God is not an attempt by Karen Armstrong to convince anyone to believe in God. You will not throw up your hands in rapture while reading, or spontaneously join a convent. In fact, if you're anything like Armstrong herself, you will abandon the convent and keep your hands firmly by your sides.

"I was terrible at praying," claims Armstrong, who gave up her life as a nun at age 25 and embarked on a tumultuous career in academia. "The last thing I ever wanted to do was to write or be involved with religion. After I left my convent I had finished with religion, frankly. And for 30 years, I kept clear of it."

Despite her determination to steer clear of religion, Armstrong argues in her new book for the existence of a highly misunderstood God; a God who has been pitted against science and extreme Western rationalism for hundreds of years, and has come out on the losing end. What most New Atheists are missing, claims Armstrong, is that this literal interpretation of scripture they so revile (which has led in part to modern-day Creationism and Intelligent Design theories), is actually quite rare, and their dismissal of religion on this basis ignores the basic foundations of most of the world's religious traditions. In one stroke, she manages to show how both religious extremists and fervent atheists are seriously missing the point.

This divide is due in part to modern Western philosophical thought, which has profoundly oversimplified our understanding of God. Before our fascination with logic and scientific proof, God, in many monotheistic traditions, was never expected to prove that he/she/it existed in the first place, and held a comfortable position in the mysterious realm of the "unknowable," which seems to have become smaller and smaller as we pretend to get smarter and smarter.

"Belief is only a very recent religious enthusiasm," claimed Armstrong in a recent speech. "In the Qur'an, religious orthodoxy is dismissed as self-indulgent guesswork about matters that nobody can be certain of one way or another, and which make people quarrelsome."

Our understanding of God, claims Armstrong, has actually regressed over time into an infantile competition between the absolute word of scripture (fundamentalism) and the absolute supremacy of science and fact (Dawkins-style atheism), when really we could all just be getting along quite nicely if we stuck to the core ideas of compassion and kindness present in most religious traditions.

In fact, Armstrong believes so firmly in these root values that she has spearheaded a worldwide "Charter for Compassion," with the help of TED, an American non-profit devoted to the spreading of new ideas in Technology, Entertainment, and Design. She met with the Dalai Lama and other world religious leaders here in Vancouver in September to discuss the Charter and attend the Vancouver Peace Summit. The charter will be launched on Nov. 12.

The Beginnings of the Charter

"When I won the TED prize, they gave me one wish for a better world," explained Armstrong, who took a break from carousing with the Dalia Lama and various Nobel laureates to speak to The Tyee. "I knew roughly what I wanted to ask, because all of my work in the history of religion takes me back to the notion of compassion. This is what all the world's faiths insist is the essence of religion. Every tradition has developed their own version of the golden rule -- don't do to others what you wouldn't like them to do to you -- which they say is the test of faith. But you'd never know it, because often when religious leaders get together, it's either doctrinal statements, condemnations, or even vicious hatred. The charter is about restoring compassion and the golden rule back to the centre of human life, and bringing it out of the periphery." You can watch Armstrong articulate her wish here.

During our conversation, here's what else Armstrong had to say...

On compassion:

"For the world's faiths, compassion is not about feeling sorry for other people. Compassio in Latin means 'to feel with' or 'to suffer with' the other -- to put yourself in the position of the other person. And you're supposed to do it not just once a day, like 'this is my good deed for the day,' but all day and every day. Eventually, this breaks down egotism, which is the cause of much of our unhappiness, hatred, and envy."

On science vs. faith:

"Science and faith have two separate jobs to do. They are not in competition, and until the late 19th century they weren't seen as being in competition. Science can diagnose your cancer; it can even cure it. But it can't help you with the dismay when you get your diagnosis, nor can it help you to die well. Religion is not here to answer our questions about how the universe came into being. That's for science. Religion, it's helping us to deal with the aspects of life for which there are no easy answers. Mortality, death, pain, suffering, the injustice of life, the arbitrariness of life; as a species we fall very easily into despair if we can't find some sort of significance in what we're doing. Religion is about answering the questions that don't get solved once and for all."

On when science ruined everything:

"Newton, Descartes and the scientific pioneers of the 17th century in the West believed they had found a proof for God. That would have made Thomas Aquinas turn in his grave! He said that you can't possibly prove God's existence. It's pointless, because our minds can only deal with finite things. Scientists still don't know what happened before the Big Bang. Previously, the great theologians had said that the natural world can tell us nothing about God -- you can't even say that God exists, because our notion of existence is too limited. But that changed with Newton. He needed God to start the whole thing off. And in a few generations, scientists found that they could dispense with that. Gradually, religion became something that you thought or believed in, rather than something practical that you did."

On New Atheism vs. Fundamentalism:

"Dawkins? I find him very difficult. There's no point arguing with him," Armstrong asserts, waving her fork in the air with a weary look, which to me indicates that she has actually tried, and failed, to engage in dialogue with the prominent author of 'The God Delusion.'

"When Dawkins came along, I became aware that the conversation about God was being conducted at a very low level -- a theologically illiterate level -- even by the so-called defenders of God. So I thought I would put something else on the table, and remind people what religion used to be, and how it changed in the modern day. Until the 17th or 18th century nobody understood the first chapter of Genesis as literal, but the new atheists are assuming that they did."

On the significant absence of any female philosophers, or any females at all really, until page 200:

"Yes, you're right," says Armstrong in response to the lack of female representation in The Case For God. "It's one of the big flaws of all these religions, that they are very male institutions. Not one of them has been good to women. There's beginning to be a come-back now, but only until this century have women really had a voice politically or economically. I didn't comment on this in the book because that wasn't the issue. I've written a book about women in Christianity. I definitely consider myself a feminist -- I have to be -- I get rather bored with the feeling that I always have to talk about women because I am one."

On the potential role of religion and mythos in everyday life:

"We are still having to deal with our mortality. We are still having to deal with lack of meaning in life. We are still asking about the nature of happiness, and how best to be a human being. We are on the brink of catastrophe. All the things we got right are in meltdown -- the economy is down, our international policies are turning against us, and the environment is in catastrophe. Think now, if we are so addicted to comfort, there is going to be a large distress, because we haven't cultivated the inner resources to deal with this. And religion is about cultivating these inner resources, so that you find within yourself a realm of transcendent peace, and deal with suffering. Everyone is capable of cultivating these resources, but only if we work at it. Religion requires hard work, which is one of the themes of the book. Not just singing a couple of hymns once a week -- it requires the golden rule all day, every day. It takes practice."

On whether religion is dying out, or coming back in a new form:

"Religion is making a comeback. But not all religion is good religion, just as not all art is good art, or not all cooking is good cooking. It's quite hard to do it well. Often, I think the church is doing a good job of putting itself out of business. There are big questions that need to be addressed. Because we've got this idea that science is the best way of thinking about truth -- and it's not -- but people feel they have to believe it first, and a lot of these doctrines make no sense.

"Have we replaced religion with secular spiritual feeling? No. Real religion isn't just about having a nice feeling. You've got to take that transcendence and put it into compassionate action in the world. The Buddha said that after achieving enlightenment, the Buddha must come down from the mountain top and return to the marketplace, and there he will practice compassion for all human beings. That's basically what all religions say."

On her own religious practices:

"I can't meditate," she admits. "I was very bad at it as a young nun, and it's made me scared of it. I see my study as my prayer. I do go to some rituals, especially in the U.S. They are a religious country in a way that Britain and Canada are not. It gives me peace, helps me turn inward. We need a receptive, silent aspect to ritual, and that's difficult for us, because our society is very noisy. People are afraid of silence, and we're not very good at listening. Religion says, 'Now, be quiet.'"

Coda: Looking for a safe landing

I have to admit, before I met Karen Armstrong, I assumed she would be somehow more... monastic. As she pushed her way out of the hotel where reporters had gathered to await the arrival of the Dalai Lama, her face had less of an "I just spearheaded a worldwide Charter of Compassion and pal around with the Dalai Lama" kind of look, and more of an "I am in the middle of a very long book tour and who the %$#@ are all these reporters" kind of look. This impression was further reinforced by the lack of any real introduction between us in favour of a rant about her suitcase, which had been mistreated by the airline, resulting in a broken handle. "It cost me over a thousand pounds!" she cried, shaking her head in anger. I opted for a simple nod, having just dusted off the old ripped grey wheely luggage thing I stole from my parents last Christmas, and not really appreciating the feeling I was currently experiencing of relative poverty. Compassion, all day, every day, is indeed a lot of work.

It seems a classic case of the hard-working philosopher forgetting to take her own advice, or just not having time. When would you possibly remember to be compassionate on a ten-city book tour, with shabby reviewers trying to take you to less-than-ideal coffee shops (we ended up at The Fairmont Hotel after a few rejections), and then having the nerve to try to make small talk (we didn't)? Even so, the book makes so many valid points, that I found myself not caring if she practiced what she preached, as long as somebody out there eventually did.

The Case for God is a worthwhile read, if only for the intriguing interpretation of the early origins of monotheism, and the refreshing contextualization of many sacred texts. Calling into question the factual accuracy of these texts is not by any means revolutionary -- we can all surmise that there is a good chance that we won't be smitten by an angry God if we neglect to sacrifice lambs from our flock on a regular basis. But explaining how these thinkers lived -- their religious context, how many times that had been exiled by various other religious orders, and the general ideas leading to their works -- is a positive step in the realization that at their core, most religious texts preach compassion and peace, but interpreting them too literally can lead to intolerance and hatred.

As Armstrong points out in her recent TED talk, "We are living in a world where religion has been hijacked." Armstrong's Charter of Compassion is a valiant attempt to thwart this hijacking, turn the figurative plane around, and land it back right where it started.  [Tyee]

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