Monday, June 05, 2006

Religion without God

In an interview with Salon magazine, Karen Armstrong says that Western views about God are un-religious:
Now, there is the question of whether all of these were actually religions. I mean, the philosophies of the ancient Greeks -- Socrates and Plato -- were not religious at all. Buddhism is essentially a philosophy of mind. And I suppose you could see Confucianism as essentially a system of ethics.

That's a very chauvinistic Western view, if I may say so. You're saying this is what we regard as religion, and anything that doesn't measure up to that isn't. I think a Buddhist or a Confucian would be very offended to hear that he or she was not practicing a religion.

Well, explain that. What is religion?

Religion is a search for transcendence. But transcendence isn't necessarily sited in an external god, which can be a very unspiritual, unreligious concept. The sages were all extremely concerned with transcendence, with going beyond the self and discovering a realm, a reality, that could not be defined in words. Buddhists talk about nirvana in very much the same terms as monotheists describe God.

That's fascinating. So in Buddhism, which is nontheistic, the message or the experience of nirvana is the same as the Christian God?

The experience is the same. The trouble is that we define our God too closely. In my book "A History of God," I pointed out that the most eminent Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians all said you couldn't think about God as a simple personality, an external being. It was better to say that God did not exist because our notion of existence was far too limited to apply to God.

Didn't a lot of people say God is beyond language? We could only experience the glimmer of God.

That's what the Buddha said. You can't define nirvana, you can't say what it is. The Buddha also said you could craft a new kind of human being in touch with transcendence. He was once asked by a Brahman priest who passed him in contemplation and was absolutely mesmerized by this man sitting in utter serenity. He said, "Are you a god, sir? Are you an angel or a spirit?" And the Buddha said, "No, I'm awake." His disciplined lifestyle had activated parts of his humanity that ordinarily lie dormant. But anybody could do it if they trained hard enough. The Buddhists and the Confucians and the greatest monotheistic mystics did with their minds and hearts what gymnasts and dancers do with their bodies.

You're saying these ancient sages really didn't care about big metaphysical systems. They didn't care about theology.

No, none of them did. And neither did Jesus. Jesus did not spend a great deal of time discoursing about the trinity or original sin or the incarnation, which have preoccupied later Christians. He went around doing good and being compassionate. In the Quran, metaphysical speculation is regarded as self-indulgent guesswork. And it makes people, the Quran says, quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian. You can't prove these things one way or the other, so why quarrel about it? The Taoists said this kind of speculation where people pompously hold forth about their opinions was egotism. And when you're faced with the ineffable and the indescribable, they would say it's belittling to cut it down to size. Sometimes, I think the way monotheists talk about God is unreligious.

Unreligious? Like talk about a personal God?

Yes, people very often talk about him as a kind of acquaintance, whom they can second-guess. People will say God loves that, God wills that, and God despises the other. And very often, the opinions of the deity are made to coincide exactly with those of the speaker.

Yet we certainly see a personal God in various sacred texts. People aren't just making that up.

No, but the great theologians in Judaism, Christianity and Islam say you begin with the idea of a god who is personal. But God transcends personality as God transcends every other human characteristic, such as gender. If we get stuck there, this is very immature. Very often people hear about God at about the same time as they're learning about Santa Claus. And their ideas about Santa Claus mature and change in time, but their idea of God remains infantile.

This sums up my view of God as well. We know that any reality beyond our physical universe must transcend time, matter and energy as we know it. Personal-ness is a trait of beings, ourselves, that are firmly embedded in this time-space continuum and therefore cannot transcend it. As the Taoist says, the Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. So it is with the God that can be named, imagined, or depicted on the ceiling of a chapel.

And just so Peter won't feel left out, Armstrong takes aim at the rigidly athiestic as well:
I think these questions are tremendously important now because more and more people, especially those with a scientific bent, say we don't need religion anymore. Science has replaced religion. You know, religion used to explain all kinds of things about the world. But science for the most part does that now. And people who are not religious say they can be just as morally upright.

They can. I fully endorse that. I don't think you need to believe in an external god to obey the Golden Rule. In the Axial Age, when people started to concentrate too much on what they're transcending to -- that is, God -- and neglected what they're transcending from -- their greed, pompous egotism, cruelty -- then they lost the plot, religiously. That's why God is a difficult religious concept. I think God is often used by religious people to give egotism a sacred seal of divine approval, rather than to take you beyond the ego.

As for scientists, they can explain a tremendous amount. But they can't talk about meaning so much. If your child dies, or you witness a terrible natural catastrophe such as Hurricane Katrina, you want to have a scientific explanation of it. But that's not all human beings need. We are beings who fall very easily into despair because we're meaning-seeking creatures. And if things don't add up in some way, we can become crippled by our despondency.

So would you say religion addresses those questions through the stories and myths?

Yes. In the pre-modern world, there were two ways of arriving at truth. Plato, for example, called them mythos and logos. Myth and reason or science. We've always needed both of them. It was very important in the pre-modern world to realize these two things, myth and science, were complementary. One didn't cancel the other out.

Well, what do you say to the scientists, especially the Darwinists -- Richard Dawkins would be the obvious case -- who are quite angry about religion? They say religion is the root of much evil in the world. Wars are fought and fueled by religion. And now that we're in the 21st century, they say it's time that science replace religion.

I don't think it will. In the scientific age, we've seen a massive religious revival everywhere but Europe. And some of these people -- not all, by any means -- seem to be secular fundamentalists. They have as bigoted a view of religion as some religious fundamentalists have of secularism. We have too much dogmatism at the moment. Take Richard Dawkins, for example. He did a couple of religious programs that I was fortunate enough to miss. It was a very, very one-sided view.

Well, he hates religion.

Yeah, this is not what the Buddha would call skillful. If you're consumed by hatred -- Freud was rather the same -- then this is souring your personality and clouding your vision. What you need to do is to look appraisingly and calmly on other traditions. Because when you hate religion, it's also very easy to hate the people who practice it.

Fair enough, although it is possible to hate the delusion and love the delusionist, no?
I take it you don't like the question, do you believe in God?

No, because people who ask this question often have a rather simplistic notion of what God is.

What about an afterlife?

It's a red herring as far as I'm concerned.

But you must have thought about that question. Does everything end once we die?

I don't know. I prefer to be agnostic on that matter, as do most of the world's religions. It's really only Christianity and Islam that are obsessed with afterlife in this way. It was not a concern in the Axial Age, not for any of them. I think the old scenarios of heaven and hell can be unreligious. People can perform their good deeds in the spirit of putting their installments in their retirement annuities. And there's nothing religious about that. Religion is supposed to be about the loss of the ego, not about its eternal survival.

Well, that's one view of religion. As much as I agree with much of what she says, I have to say that the last statement is a little presumptuous on her part. On what basis can one person state what religion is supposed to be about? Noone consciously invented religion to serve a specific purpose. There are no blueprints from the designer, although many forgeries abound. It's like saying what music is supposed to be about. Who's to say that its about refined and studied tastes as opposed to maudlin sentimentality?


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

So WTF is Karen Armstrong? Never heard of her.

Her view of what religion might be is, to search for the kindest word I can find, is constipated.

For most people in most places at most times, religion was just an attempt to propitiate devils or extremely distasteful gods. It did not pretend to be about morals, theology or transcendence, whatever Armstrong may mean by that.

There's a lot to hate in religion, too, and it is not a clouded vision but an unclouded one that sees that.

June 05, 2006 9:10 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

I like this quote:

"Take Richard Dawkins, for example. He did a couple of religious programs that I was fortunate enough to miss. It was a very, very one-sided view."

That sounds like one of Orrin's book reviews.

Dawkins seems to have been given the role of a handy personification of rabid, unthinking, anti-religious secularism. Admittedly, he's only got himself to blame for naively thinking that he might be quoted in some sort of context.

(PS. Duck - re your last comment. You're right, music fills many functions, including catering for sweet, maudlin souls such as yourself...)

June 06, 2006 3:05 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

Having read some of Dawkin's stuff, it's hard to see how context would have given some perspective to his bile.

I like the term "secular fundamentalist". I'll be using that one in the future.

June 06, 2006 3:07 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

No no, M Ali, just say "Dawkins", it's all one.

When entering areas of high-density evangelical Christianity, like the Deep South or Downing Street, I hold aloft a copy of 'The Blind Watchmaker' like a cross to ward off vampires, and watch the faithful cringe and slink, hissing, into the darkened corners.

June 06, 2006 3:14 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

I'm curious Brit.

Have you been to the Deep South or Downing Street?

My sister's met Tony Blair and I can't recall her saying she got a lecture on the virtues of Christianity.

June 06, 2006 3:28 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Hey, you've got to give him a chance. You don't get the God lecture free with every handshake, you know...

June 06, 2006 3:42 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Personal-ness is a trait of beings, ourselves, that are firmly embedded in this time-space continuum and therefore cannot transcend it.

Babies are born with personalities.
Wence does this come, if not from outside the time-space continuum ?

Personal-ness acquires a lot of baggage that is a function of operating in this time-space, but the core personality is transcendent.

June 06, 2006 10:44 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I cannot get my arms around the concept of human personality that transcends humanness.

At birth, a baby doesn't have a great deal of personality, but there's nothing to suggest that heredity and conditions in the womb are insufficient to account for it.

June 06, 2006 8:40 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

In the Quran, metaphysical speculation is regarded as self-indulgent guesswork. And it makes people, the Quran says, quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian.

So instead of self-indulgent metaphysical speculation, just kill everyone who disagrees.

I was astonished at her ability to completely elide the fundamental aspect of all universal, monotheistic, salvationist belief systems: they are murderous, and the directions for murder are stark.

Accusing Sam Harris of pulling Quran quotes in the absence of their conclusions is the height of silliness, proving either she has not read his book, or completely failed to take on board its central message: within the context of sacred texts, it is impossible to deny the divine directive behind some very horrible things.

M. Ali:

Has Dawkins made any factually incorrect assertions regarding religion?

Additionally, I think both you and Ms. Armstrong do not use the term "secular" in its primary meaning: neutrality of government with respect to religious belief.

If Dawkins is an anti-religion fundamantalist.

The Baptists who insisted upon Article VI in the US Constituion were secularists.

June 07, 2006 3:33 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Skipper, you really must share this private dictionary you use in your arguments. I've checked three online dictionaries and not of them have that as a primary meaning for secular. Nor a secondary, tertiary or any other.

So, in your view, secular just means making sure with maximim goodwill and tolerance that all of these chronically murderous faiths are allowed to flourish and are treated equally? Sort of like the mature adult referee among a lot of mean and over-energized toddlers? Or perhaps like a theory of medecine based on ensuring no lethal virus gets an advantage over any other, but all are preserved? Boy, you secular fundamentalists outdo all of them in smug self-righteousness.

M Ali

Don't you understand how these religious fundamentalists work? The fact that Blair didn't spout on about faith just shows how dangerous they are. They can look normal and even sound reasonable and rational in public, but make no mistake, at night they all close the curtains and plan genocide and theocracy. Goes with the turf.

June 07, 2006 4:17 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


This is what I get when I type "define:secularism" into Google:

Definitions of secularism on the Web:

The promotion of secular policies like the separation of church and state. Not to be confused with Secularization, which aims to be a purely objective and value-free theory of in the sociology of religion. The USA is a secular state because the Constitution forbids establishment of a religion, but it is not secularised compared with much of the rest of the Western world.

the neutrality of the State, local government and all public services in matters relating to one or more religions or to one or more creeds. In France, the secularity of the State was established in 1905 by the law of separation of Church and State.

Secularists, regardless of their religious preferences, believe that religious considerations should be excluded from civic affairs and public education (or private education that claims to be inclusive, ie Georgetown?).

1) worldly views esp., a system of belief and practices that rejects any form of religious faith. 2) the belief that religion should be strictly separated from the state or government esp., from education."

a doctrine that rejects religion and religious considerations

----Secularism means: * in philosophy, the belief that life can be best lived by applying ethics, and the universe best understood, by processes of reasoning, without reference to a god or gods or other supernatural concepts.* in society, any of a range of situations where a society less automatically assumes religious beliefs to be either widely shared or a basis for conflict in various forms, than in recent generations of the same society. ...

Near as I can tell, the most commone meaning is desire to keep government neutral with respect to religion.

June 07, 2006 9:08 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Darn. Hit the login key at the wrong moment.

My point is that religionists (particularly in the US) nearly always use "secularism" as a pejorative and, in so doing, can't even explain the nature of their own government, or the basis for parts of their constitution.

But, hey, it gives them the ability to portray the Soviet Union as "secular" when it was in fact as sectarian as anything you could hope to find.

Orwell once had something to say about politicians and their use of language -- the goal was always to inhibit clear thinking.

Just so here.

June 07, 2006 9:14 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

So, according to your definition, a Jew, Christian or Muslim who believes in the separation of church and state is a secularist?

June 07, 2006 4:55 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Babies are born with personalities.
Wence does this come, if not from outside the time-space continuum ?

Personal-ness acquires a lot of baggage that is a function of operating in this time-space, but the core personality is transcendent.

I think it is pretty evident that they are fully products of this time-space continuum. Just imagine, for a moment, what your sense of being you would be like without your body. What would be left of your personality once it is stripped of the experience of feeling the passage of time from the inside of your skin? Imagine that time itself is even denied you? But you can't imagine that. Our consciousness is so wedded to this universe that ww cannot even conceive of timelessness, or reality outside of matter and energy. How do you translate such personal traits as "I like sunsets, cigars and sappy, maudlin music" to a realm without even the spacetime fabric to play or hear music as you know it?

This doesn't prove anything, it's just a thought experiment. But it gives you a hint of why noone can ever convince me that my identity will survive a trip to the great beyond.

June 07, 2006 8:24 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

M. Ali raises a question whose answer/s is/are illuminating.

The Baptists who wrote the Constitution were personally not secular, but they were politically.


The answer is that they understood that if the US ended up with any form of non-secular government, it would not be Baptist.

We can be sure of this, because up to almost the Civil War, the Baptists were the most active of all denominations in defending free speech rights.
(When I learned this, in middle age, I was shocked and at first disbelieving. Baptists no longer believe in the First Amendment and did everything they could to nullify it where I grew up.)

The relevant question is, if the Baptists had thought they could have
imposed a Baptist government in 1787, would they have voted for Art. VI?

The question answers itself.


You can tell who feels persecuted by noting which religion publishes a
journal defending free speech. In the 21st century, the Seventh-day
Adventists do. But as far as I know, the only religious journal devoted solely to free speech is Adventist.

That's got to be significant of something.

June 08, 2006 12:28 AM  
Blogger Brit said...


I'm sure you're right.

A cynic (well, Peter, but I'm doing it for him) might point out that the Duck's members of that much put-upon minority - American avowed atheists - are its most vigorous proponents of free speech, and question whether given a majority they would be so vigorous in defence of the bleatings of the Bible-bashers...

June 08, 2006 1:28 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Actually, a cynic might say more than that and begin by pointing out that Harry's and Skipper's historical takes on religion in America are complete hogwash.

This reminds me a bit of their history of medieval Christendom. On the one hand, faith ordained by an all-powerful Church commanded a single-minded, scripturally-based extermination of all Jews, while on the other, the goofballs were so incompetent they couldn't find them all and allowed the Jewish population to grow and an incredibly rich Jewish culture to sneak up and prosper in various places. (There is also the "Harry" variation--which is that the frequently-illiterate secular leaders given to feudal privelege, torture, dungeons, expansion, constant murderous war, bleeding peasants dry and ceaseless dynastic intrigue were actually proto-ACLU types with a softspot for religious pluralism.)

Likewise, we see here that the nearly 100% of American colonists who were fervent Protestants were theocrats to a man yearning to establish their faith and outlaw all others, but so wary of one another that they kept it all a big secret and established, in Skipper's words, "the world's first secular government" against all instinct. My goodness, the boobies were so distracted by intra-Protestant suspicion, they actually just sat by and let all those Catholics and Jews in!

I don't imagine there are too many copies of First Things in Harry's library, but this month's issue has a fantastic piece by Paul Johnson on how America (good and bad) was born of religion and why pluralism and religious freedom were seen as expressions of faith almost from the very beginning. It will be behind a wall until at least late summer, but don't fret, I've made a note to share it with you.

Guys, your anti-religious animus is starting to overwhelm your critical faculties and you are ressembling more and more anti-clerical French provincial lawyers of a hundred years ago who became so bitter they couldn't stop dissembling rotely on the ever-present threat from the Scarlet Woman of Rome, spiced up with sexy tales of blood-heating perversions in the local nunnery. In the interests of keeping the Daily Duck a forum for debate and not cant, may I respectfully suggest you reflect on how almost all your arguments hinge on comparing the reasonable, family-oriented, stoic, honourable, tolerant, moderate, historically senstive secularist (got anyone in mind?) with the semi-sane religious fanatic on the edges. Actually, I am beginning to suspect you respect him more than the mainstream faithful who see no conflict between their faith and freedom. Sort of like the marxist radical who found he had more respect for his Nazi opponent than for the maddening bourgeous citizen who wanted both national pride and resliency on the one hand, and democracy and freedom on the other. That's what happens when you make intellectual consistency your highest value and use your ideas to re-write history.

June 08, 2006 3:15 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


Wow. That must have knocked your blood pressure down a few points.

So, according to your definition, a Jew, Christian or Muslim who believes in the separation of church and state is a secularist?

It isn't my definition, but the answer is yes.

As for the history of secularism in the US, Harry and I are on firm ground. There were, and are, sufficient sects that no single sect can impose its wishes.

There were enough religious minorities, and sufficient experience with government and religious entanglements (religious tests for office were a requirement in contemporary England, for instance), to produce one of the bigger ironies of all time: a universally religious polity created a completely secular governing document.

NB: The ACLU takes a lot of stick for its "war" on religion. So far as I know, most, if not all, cases are instigated by members of religious minorities.

That makes them secularists.

June 08, 2006 4:46 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...


Whether Dawkins' (cheers Brit) assertions are factual or not is besides the point.

I could go up to somebody in a wheelchair, and say, "Hahaha, you're a cripple, hahaha."

Factually correct but somewhat deficient in other qualities.

Also when it comes to the term secular fundamentalist, I would use the term to describe those who would like to see religion completely purged from the public sphere, generally because they see it as an archaic mental disorder.

June 08, 2006 4:58 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

M Ali:




Don't forget that the Daily Duck is the offspring of BrosJudd, so its arguments should be seen in that context.

According to the lore of Judd, atheists and materialists are the root of all evil and death, enemies of America even if they've served in its military (as opposed to patriotically sitting on their ever-expanding arses in the basement), shovers down the slippery slope to slaughter, and the wellspring of genocide and Holocaust.

On the Duck you're in the position of minority, which brings out the defensive reflex in all good men.

It's hard to shake that defensiveness off, not least when you are indeed under attack.

That doesn't explain or apply to all of the Duckian criticisms of religion, but it's worth bearing in mind before you mouth-foam too fulsomely.

June 08, 2006 5:35 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...



Are you going to spend the rest of your days venting at Brosjudd?

You forget you are the extremists,(although no doubt the nicest extremists one could ever meet) in that you reject religion completely, describe it regularly as inherently murderous and want all public life grounted in objective scientific rationalism or rationally determined assessments of "what works." I've never met a modern religious person who rejected reason or even rationalism as inherently evil or wanted to teach our kids that science was a bunch of voodoo mature, properly-educated men avoided.

June 08, 2006 6:28 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

It’s Dawkins's, unless you happen to be poet of antiquity, or referring to a possession of plural Dawkinses. Eg, the Dawkins’ home.

That's according to Fowler’s Oxford Modern English Usage (not Fowlers’s) anyway, and since Fowler was good enough for Churchill, it’s good enough for me.

Who is venting here? It’s a history lesson. You can’t understand the present without knowing about the past, and you can’t understand the Duck without knowing about the Judd...

June 08, 2006 7:01 AM  
Blogger M Ali said...

D'oh. Brit is right once again.

June 08, 2006 7:36 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Yes, he is right, but what's with this "once again". It's a whole new experience for him.

June 08, 2006 8:12 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Yeah, thanks Peter.

I guess even a stopped dog has its day, if you throw enough mud.

June 08, 2006 8:18 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Peter has never met "a modern religious person who rejected reason or even rationalism as inherently evil or wanted to teach our kids that science was a bunch of voodoo mature, properly-educated men avoided."

I have. The Assemblies of God are full of them.

Perhaps 'modern' is the key word, to be interpreted not as 'man living in 2006' but 'man imbued with the humane values of 200 years of secularism that he would not have known about had he had the bad luck to live in, say, 1775.

There are millions of premoderns still with us, like neatly groomed Neanderthals in business suits, unnoticed until they open their mouths.

June 08, 2006 9:19 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

There was a documentary on British TV the other night about a place called Patrick Henry College in Virginia. (Possible venue for the Ducktoberfest?) They take the brightest kids from evangelical ‘homeschooling’ (a movement I'd never heard of before) and train them up to be America’s ‘leaders of tomorrow’. The focus is heavily on political debate and electioneering. They’re all Neo-Con Republican, naturally.

Apparently they supply more interns to Washington than any other college and clean up in national debating competitions.

Literally every subject is taught from a Biblical perspective. The ‘science’ professor teaches that fossils were buried in Noah’s flood. Real science is studied only as ‘oppositional studies.’

Nominally Christian, but really just a very rich and successful wacko cult. The kids all have that weird glazed expression you always see in documentaries about wacko cults.

They’re religious, but not ‘modern’.

June 09, 2006 2:46 AM  

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