Recently, Karen Armstrong wrote a defense of (her version of) God and religion for Foreign Policy.
So-called new atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have denounced religious belief as not only retrograde but evil; they regard themselves as the vanguard of a campaign to expunge it from human consciousness. Religion, they claim, creates divisions, strife, and warfare; it imprisons women and brainwashes children; its doctrines are primitive, unscientific, and irrational, essentially the preserve of the unsophisticated and gullible.
These writers are wrong — not only about religion, but also about politics — because they are wrong about human nature. Homo sapiens is also Homo religiosus. As soon as we became recognizably human, men and women started to create religions. We are meaning-seeking creatures. While dogs, as far as we know, do not worry about the canine condition or agonize about their mortality, humans fall very easily into despair if we don’t find some significance in our lives. Theological ideas come and go, but the quest for meaning continues. So God isn’t going anywhere. And when we treat religion as something to be derided, dismissed, or destroyed, we risk amplifying its worst faults. Whether we like it or not, God is here to stay, and it’s time we found a way to live with him in a balanced, compassionate manner.
And now, we have a (surprisingly hilarious) response from Sam Harris:
I can’t quite remember how we got it into our heads that jihad was linked to violence. (Might it have had something to do with the actual history and teachings of Islam?) And how could we have been so foolish as to connect the apparently inexhaustible supply of martyrs in the Muslim world to the Islamic doctrine of martyrdom? In my own defense, let me say that I do get spooked whenever Western Muslims advocate the murder of apostates (as 36 percent of Muslim young adults do in Britain). But I now know that these freedom-loving people just “want to see God reflected more clearly in public life.”
I will call my friend Ayaan Hirsi Ali at once and encourage her to come out of hiding: Come on out, dear. Karen says the coast is clear. As it turns out, those people who have been calling for your murder don’t understand Islam any better than we do.
When did this sarcastic side of Harris come to life? I like it!
Karen Armstrong’s response? Not as funny:
I have written at length about the desecration of religion in the crusades, inquisitions, and persecutions that have scarred human history. I have also pointed out that, driven by political humiliation and alienation, far too many Muslims have in recent years distorted the traditional Islamic view of jihad, which originally referred to the “effort” required to implement the will of God in a violent world.
But these abuses do not constitute the whole story. Religion is also about the quest for transcendence, the discipline of compassion, and the endless search for meaning; it was not designed to provide us with the same kind of explanations as science, but to help us to live creatively, serenely, and kindly with the suffering that is an inescapable part of the human condition. As such, it continues to appeal to millions of human beings across the globe. To identify religion with its worst manifestations, claim that they represent the whole, and then demolish the straw dog thus set up does not seem a rational or useful way of conducting this important debate.
No one disputes the human “search for meaning.” But when humans create superstitious stories to offer such meaning and then claim there’s any truth to them, those ideas don’t deserve respect.
Furthermore, I don’t think the vision of god that Armstrong has in mind is the type that most religious people are thinking of.
Armstrong goes on to deplore the “desecration” of religion represented by the Crusades, inquisitions, and persecutions conducted by the faithful, but asserts they are “distortions” of true faith. But who is she to tell millions of Muslims that their understanding of the Qur’an is simply wrong? What she doesn’t see is that religion by its very nature lends itself to this kind of persecution. It’s an autocracy not amenable to reason — which is a sure recipe for immorality.
It’s a struggle to search for the positive aspects of religion like Armstrong extols when we’re perpetual witnesses to the constant harm it causes.