Wednesday, July 08, 2009


Philosopher Simon Blackburn reviews Karen Armstrong's latest opus: The Case for God: What Religion Really Means. Armstrong is a former nun and is the author of over a dozen titles.

Apparently, Armstrong is saying that religion as it is now is faux religion. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. with all their doctrines, dogmas, cathedrals, mosques, synagogues, are bogus religions. They're rogue, adulterated, corrupted forms of the real thing. True religion is one that does not say anything about God. In fact if you can talk about God, if you start spouting off God's properties, deeds, will, etc, then what you're talking about isn't God.

Well, that's exactly the same theme in Taoism (I guess the real Taoism, not the kind being practised by the superstitious Chinese masses--mind you, some of whom are probably my kinsfolk). The Tao Te Ching says, "The Way is eternally nameless." "The ways that can be walked are not the eternal Way; The names that can be named are not the eternal name." (Tao Te Ching, Victor Mair, Bantam, 1990, p. 59,99) If you can say something about it, describe it, circumscribe it, it isn't the real McCoy. Thus you just have to approach the subject of God/Tao with silence. You cannot intellectualize it. You cannot relate to it via belief, much less dogmas and doctrines. Once you do, you've lost God, you've tried to produce, so to speak, a 3-dimensional representation of what is an infinite-dimension phenomenon, and made an idol.

This is the religious tradition of apophasis, where silence toward the subject is the principal tenet. Which makes you wonder what apophatic masters teach. I imagine Lesson 1 goes: "God is that which you cannot speak of, think of, believe in." And Lesson 2: "There is nothing else to say or think about."

I think the problem with apophasis is that its adherents are a drop in the ocean. That kind of religion is completely foreign, perhaps even inconceivable to the run of the mill believer. Most people can't possibly subscribe to such a religion. What people are looking for are derivatives from religion such as attenuation of anxieties, comfort, pat certainties, unchanging rules, black and white answers.

Religions obviously have evolved and continue to change and develop, with all the denominations and sects as living proof of the number of variants and strains, whilst other forms have died off. Moreover, claiming that the apophatic religion is the true kind of religion is just that-- another claim. The Koran claims that its Islam is the true religion. It would be silly and unthinkable indeed if any religion declared, "Oh I'm sorry, but we're not a or the true religion. So why do we keep at it? We're plain nutcases, you see." So the charge (either by Armstrong or by Blackburn) that the Four Horsemen are tilting at windmills, roughing up a strawman is hardly true. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens are engaging the extant species of religion. It seems to me that Armstrong's trying to save an endangered form, a high form of religion, if you will, but one which will never become a dominant species ever or even come close to such stature. Or she's just defending a tradition she prefers.


Breaking News: Just read John Crace's "synopsis" of The Case for God. And I thought I was being a tad harsh on Armstrong!

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