Thursday, 16 July 2009

Karen Armstrong: Should We Believe in Belief?

On Monday, Karen Armstrong addressed the Guardian’s question “Should we believe in belief” with the notion that:

“an accident of history that has distorted our understanding of religious truth”

That accident was the emphasis of the western European Christian tradition upon doctrine rather than practice. Most other religious traditions, apparently, put practice first:

“all good religious teaching … is basically a summons to action”

This statement is, in fact, a bias floating close to under the radar. It amounts to: “a religious approach that I don’t like (perhaps doctrinal) is a ‘distortion’ and ‘bad’ religion and therefore not eligible for consideration”.

There has been enough ‘bad religion’ of this variety for most of us to have a few examples to hand. But surely it’s not acceptable to refuse to consider it as valid religiosity. Are we to know ‘real’ religion only by its benign consequences, by whether religious apologists wish to own it or not?

I’ve read a couple of Karen Armstrong’s books and enjoyed their historical content, especially ‘A History of God’. But I think her most basic thinking falls down on three issues, and all are detectable in her reply to ‘Should we believe in belief?’:

Firstly, where one could usefully start with ‘what is religion?’ Armstrong starts with ‘what is religion for?’ and thus confuses causality on many issues, morality and compassion chief among them.

“All religions are designed to teach us how to live, joyfully, serenely, and kindly, in the midst of suffering”

she said in an interview for the same paper in 2007. I beg to differ. Loudly!

The primary quality of religion (or any other non-empirical belief, for that matter), is that it is a metaphysical model of the world. All other things must be secondary qualities. Morality and compassion are certainly not primary features of all religious practice, as burnt witches, religious terror victims and heresy defendants will attest.

This leads to the second point that, for Armstrong, religious practice trumps doctrine:

“Religious doctrines are a product of ritual and ethical observance”

But how can this possibly be? If we started with practice and evinced doctrine therefrom, why would eating a wafer in the name of Jesus Christ be better than picking lilac flowers in a clockwise direction, or hopping every morning until you see a black and white dog? Religion can be something you do, but there must be a set of a priori assumptions in order to inform your practice – a metaphysical map of the universe that instructs your deliberations. This is why religion is not intrinsically moral (although it often is co-incidentally). It isn’t unreasonable to regard practice as the principal religious activity for many, but just because the inherent assumptions or doctrine is sometimes unconscious, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Thirdly, I believe that Karen Armstrong makes the error of assuming that all people function religiously in an identical manner to the way she does. Perhaps it’s where her touching view of religion as benign comes from. I think she too often regards religion as necessarily an attempt at experience of the transcendent.

Over a century ago, William James suggested that the religious impulse in humans was informed by religious ‘geniuses’ and transmitted to we more earthbound creatures in duller, more suitable, forms. Allport and Ross (1967) proposed different religious types: ‘intrinsics’ who are more prone to personal numinous experiences and ‘extrinsics’ who, for example, see the social value in attending church. The meaning of their scale (and others like it) is vigorously disputed but the whole area highlights a fact easily observed: that different people receive different types of gratification from religion, and that these sometimes dictate the type of doctrine & observance to which they are attracted. In addition, analysis of transcendent experiences suggests that biology may have a role to play in different levels of receptivity to the transcendent experience: some people may simply not be wired that way. Where one person may experience the divine in prayer, another may find comfort in the conformity that rigorous religious practice brings to his community.

Armstrong’s proposed tension between ‘mythos’ and ‘logos’ makes an appearance too. She claims it as the source of fundamentalism, an attempt to change a tyre with an egg whisk, an inappropriate tool. But it should be remembered that the Roman Church was arguing with Copernicus about physics well before the Reformation or the Enlightenment, and has surrendered its provenance over most matters slowly and painfully. It has learnt a lesson that has yet to be learned by the eager young evangelical Protestant churches which still foolishly challenge science on its own turf. As Armstrong says:

“in ‘creation science’ we have bad science and inept religion”

Perhaps Armstrong’s insistence on the importance of religious practice derives from her own Catholic background. The Reformation, after all, was fought in substantial part upon the issue of whether your passport to heaven was dependent upon good works (the Roman approach) or predestined/based upon the acceptance of Jesus as your saviour (the Lutheran/Calvinist approach).

Newton and Descartes may have claimed it was possible to prove God's existence, as Armstrong says, but Newton also believed in alchemy which we no longer do. The beliefs of scientists are not always science. Science stands apart from a person or supernatural entity, and that is its strength.

Armstrong's insistence on religion as a force for good is touching. If only it were true.

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