Thursday, July 9, 2009

Simon Blackburn on Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong likes religion as a general proposition but is dissatisfied by all the versions she sees in the modern world. So she writes books (15 so far) extolling various ancient approaches to religion. Simon Blackburn reviews the latest (The Case for God: What Religion Really Means) in the Guardian:
This is an eloquent and interesting book, although you do not quite get what it says on the tin. Karen Armstrong takes the reader through a history of religious practice in many different cultures, arguing that in the good old days and purest forms they all come to much the same thing. They use devices of ritual, mystery, drama, dance and meditation in order to enable us better to cope with the vale of tears in which we find ourselves. Religion is therefore properly a matter of a practice, and may be compared with art or music. These are similarly difficult to create, and even to appreciate. But nobody who has managed either would doubt that something valuable has happened in the process. We come out of the art gallery or concert hall enriched and braced, elevated and tranquil, and may even fancy ourselves better people, though the change may or may not be noticed by those around us.

This is religion as it should be, and, according to Armstrong, as it once was in all the world's best traditions. However, there is a serpent in this paradise, as in others. Or rather, several serpents, but the worst is the folly of intellectualising the practice. This makes it into a matter of belief, argument, and ultimately dogma. It debases religion into a matter of belief in a certain number of propositions, so that if you can recite those sincerely you are an adept, and if you can't you fail.
Since I would enjoy church a lot more if I weren't always nervous that someone was going to jump up and shout "Unbeliever! Get thee gone!", I find what Armstrong says appealing. The problem, as Blackburn points out, is that it is very difficult to have any kind of discourse that is actually content free. In one of the books I have read, Armstrong praised early Buddhism and Confucian practice because neither made claims about the nature of God. But both do make lots of claims about other things. Buddhism makes little sense without reincarnation, for example, and Confucius assumed that we should find our ancestors worthy of veneration. Even when there is not much belief, there are words and symbols that point to beliefs. Intellectuals like Aristotle believed little if any of what they were told in the Athenian rituals they attended, but those rituals were full of statements about the gods and the history of the universe. It is for this reason, I suppose, that many of my friends like their church music sung in Latin -- it makes it easier to focus on the overall spiritual experience without getting distracted by strange statements about the Trinity or the Blood of the Lamb.

As for me, I find it impossible to believe in any religious creed I know of, and I think I would despise any religion that asserted nothing. So I listen to church music in Latin, admire cathedrals and mosques, read about ancient rites, ponder the meaning of prophetic words, and wonder at the marvel that is the universe.

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