One of the criticisms of Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris is that they erect strawman, simplistic caricatures of religion which they them eloquently knock down. Despite being firmly in the 'new atheist' camp I have always felt that there was a grain of truth in the allegation. In particular the assertion that those with a religious faith who genuinely perform good and heroic deeds do so only because they are frightened of the big stick seems rather glib. So it is with interest that I saw the new book 'The Case For God' from the sophisticated religious scholar Karen Armstrong. I confess to so far only having read the introduction, but her views are well represented in several accessible places that I encourage you to read or listen to. These are

• A response in the Wall Street Journal by both Dawkins and Armstrong to the question ‘Where does evolution leave god’
• A discussion on the NPR show Fresh Air with the ever wonderful Terry Gross.
• An earlier discussion with Bill Moyers.
• I also read her very enjoyable memoir ‘The Spiral Staircase’ where she describes her flight from organized religion after leaving the convent.

The trouble is that Karen Armstrong’s conception of religion and god differs from that held by essentially all of modern Christianity, and as far as I know of Islam. She rejects any idea of the personal, interventionist god. Karen Armstrong claims that her view is true to the real history of religion and tat what we have now arose only after the 17th century. I not equipped to dispute that, though I find it rather a dubious conception. Terry Gross asks “What do you think religion is for?” and is answered “Religion is about helping us to deal with the sorrow that we see in life”. Richard Dawkins makes the most eloquent rebuttal in the final two paragraphs of the above quoted piece in the Wall Street Journal.

Armstrong criticizes Dawkins as being too strident – and that has also been aired by other atheists. That it his approach does not win friends. I heard Neal de Grasse Tyson (again with Terry Gross) espousing a similar line. Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris (and I do exempt Dennet from this) are not particularly subtle in their discourse and that is perfectly fine. I see the initial forays of the ‘New Atheist’ movement as somewhat akin to the initial stages of the women’s and the gay liberation struggles. Loud and proud. There is a place for nuanced discussion – I hope that can occur here, but that place is not right on the front lines.

Tags: armstrong, dawkins

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As far as Dawkins in concerned I know of many indivduals who list him as a factor in their deconversion. His style may not be for everyone; however I'm a fan of his work and tend to disagree with the notion that he's attacking a "simplistic caricatures of religion ". Truth be told, I have had many experiences with theists whose beliefs would make Dawkins' descriptions seem generous and overly-kind. I agree that there is a place for nuanced discussion, but not with every theist. Quite simply, anyone who takes seriously the notion that there were dinosaurs on the "Ark" is beyond whatever benefit rational, reasoned discourse might provide. I think that for the most part, the "New Atheist" movement is doing just fine and I'm proud to be a part of it.
Richard Dawkins is my greatest mentor. He's soft spoken but firm in his convictions. I think he's the true voice of reason even among the "Four Horsemen" and brings a sense of dignity and hope in the battle for critical thought. Mr. Dawkins takes initiative with his own time and money to promote many things (like summer camps for children) that were realms of exclusion for free thinkers. Again, using his own cash, made bus advertisements to counter balance the ignorance of religiosity. He's taken away the notion that "God rides free" by letting the religious know they can longer make outrageous claims on reality and then call for umbrage when their "feelings" are hurt due to the overwhelming evidence stacked against them. Say what you will about the man but you can't deny his courage in the face of the irrational, maniacal, illogical and inane individuals of the religious bent.
Besides, there's no reason to erect "strawmen" when the dangers of irrationality and the people willing to kill you because god tells them to are very real and a true threat to civilization as a whole.
Personally I'm rather sympathetic to believers who keep their faith private and don't impose it onto others, their children included, as long as it helps them feel better. Noone can fully understand the intricacies of the human mind, except it's obvious that not everyone can be turned into a pure rationalist. I wish every city had a library keeping all religious scriptures from all around the world, as well as apologetical and critical works and studies about all of them - including, of course, atheist rebuttals. Then let individuals decide for themselves what they want to believe (or not) when they think they're ready for it.
"I wish every city had a library keeping all religious scriptures from all around the world, as well as apologetical and critical works and studies about all of them - including, of course, atheist rebuttals. Then let individuals decide for themselves what they want to believe (or not) when they think they're ready for it."

Every city does indeed have that library, its call the "inter-net". However, selective perception and selective retention is so strong that TRUE BELIEVERS are never going to even bother to investigate any view that contradicts their cherished beliefs.
Not everyone in the world has easy access to the internet, if at all, and internet resources and content varies widely with language (I doubt a Nepalese would have an easy task trying to figure the whole thing out at the moment).

Anyway, I was considering the point from an historical perspective, and in that regard, the internet is still a very recent invention. Btw, I believe modern libraries make good use of the internet themselves.
I am not even sure what it means to assume that Armstrong is right. I am sure that this is a simplification, but she seems to be saying

- The conception that most Christians (lets just stick to them for now as the group that I have most experiences with) have of a personal, interventionist god is completely wrong. Well, no argument from me over that.
- The point of religion is to be the stories we tell to comfort ourselves in trouble and to encourage us to be better and do good things. There are many people who are comforted through tragic circumstances by their beliefs. Their beliefs are fairy tales, but they do give comfort. Is this good or not? I honestly find it hard to answer that question. It does seem tough to take away a crutch in times of trouble. The crutch may have no validity in real terms, but it is real to them.
- god is some sort of transcendental feeling that you can get. I certainly have such feelings when taking in a wondrous landscape, or listening to beautiful music, but redefining a commonly understood word to mean something else does not improve communication. Armstrong argues that this was the original understanding of god. She may, or may not be correct, but it is certainly not the understanding of the majority of theists today.
re point 2: Most people never really have to confront the abyss. In fact, they are so terrified of even the possibility of it that they blink. In that blink, "God" is born.
Agreed 100%
One thing that ivory tower theologians do not understand is that most people do not have this wishy washy idea of a deity (try reading the comments from that wall street journal article). This includes most people I have met or those in my family. Even nice moderate Christians do not stand up to the fundamentalists, if they did Dawkins et al would not have to write books. I have read all of the four horsemen and with the exception of Hitchens :) they are not strident. Religion is just not used to being criticized. The end.

Human experience is endless fascinating though, Armstrong studied the history of religion and was comforted by it. I studied it and was horrified.


The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself." Friedrich Nietzsche
"I had to sit through the 1980s with the Moral Majority , and the Pat Robertsons of the world without a single voice of reason anywhere. High time we were represented on the stage of public debate."

I remember that well, they had the field all to themselves, and the STILL could not wipe out the voice of reason.
Agreed, this wishy washy concept of God of not held by the common person.
I've always been a big fan of Armstrong's works. She's a great writer and a scholar with integrity. Her latest work, The Case for God, puts her squarely in the camp of theologians such as Paul Tillich, John Shelby Spong, and Don Cupit (among others). These theologians do not believe in the existence of a divine, personal being that exists separate from human beings' thoughts of it. Instead they espouse a "metaphorical" conception of God, but they refuse to do away with the label "God."

Yet most people do in fact believe in the existence of a separate, personal, divine being, to whom they can pray and who might answer their prayers if it sees fit. And sociological studies on God concepts bear this out. For details on that, see my article on this very topic, entitled "Was Dawkins Arguing Against a 'Straw God'?: Ontological vs. Metapho..."

--Dan

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