Tag Archives: Karen Armstrong

Belief in Belief: Interesting Discussion

I’ve been reading and writing a lot on religion/philosophy/existence etc over the last couple days, and as a result of such, my brain is just bouncing around with arguments and thoughts. In the moments before I’m fully awake or asleep my brain auto pilots strange explanations for a God. This morning I woke up to my brain arguing atheism. I think this has to do with my inability to grasp exactly what I believe, so that when I come across a strong atheist post, I feel offended. I feel like they are calling me silly because I may or may not believe in a God.Which is odd because for the most part I think I side with atheists much more than theists. Anyways this is long and ramble-ly because I’m in the mood to write/think that way.

Anyways an question series in the Guardian on “Should we Believe in Belief?” has stirred up some interesting discussion. Highlights and comments follow:

From Karen Armstrong’s reply-  Metaphysical mistake: Confusion by Christians between belief and reason has created bad science and inept religion

“In most pre-modern cultures, there were two recognised ways of attaining truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were crucial and each had its particular sphere of competence. Logos (“reason; science”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to control our environment and function in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external realities. But logos could not assuage human grief or give people intimations that their lives had meaning. For that they turned to mythos, an early form of psychology, which dealt with the more elusive aspects of human experience.”

Karen Armstrong’s reply talks a bit about logos and mythos and how dangerous it can be to confuse the two. To me its not that science and religion have to be separated, but that they are two ways of looking at the world. One with the mind, logically figuring out what makes sense, and one with the heart, emotionally navigating this strange existence. Nor should we always separate them. But you can’t always take emotional reactions and feelings and apply a logical structure to them.

“We often assume “modern” means “superior”, and while this is true of science and technology, our religious thinking is often undeveloped. In the past, people understood it was unwise to confuse mythos with logos, but today we read the mythoi of scripture with an unparalleled literalism, and in “creation science” we have bad science and inept religion.”

This is a big beef… taking the bible as absolutely literally is just about the silliest thing ever. I’m on board 100% with atheists on this one. Not only do most people pick and choose which parts to take absolutely literally, its 2000 year old ideas. While this is a wonderful base for idea and inquiry, stagnation of thought is dangerous and silly. You wouldn’t stop the development of medicine 2000 years ago and call it good.

So this is where I’m in the middle roads. I think telling people there is NO God is rude and presumptuous. Telling them to think outside the box (or book in this case) is a good cause. But we need to be careful how we tell them. Telling them God is a delusion or not great, is not a place to start the dialogue. This sensationalizes the debate and leads to hurt feelings and closed ears. It sells books, but to the wrong people.

From Daniel Dennett’s article – The folly of pretence: We must not preserve the myth of God – it was a useful crutch, but we’ve outgrown it

“Today one of the most insistent forces arrayed in opposition to us vocal atheists is the “I’m an atheist but” crowd, who publicly deplore our “hostility”, our “rudeness” (which is actually just candour), while privately admitting that we’re right. They don’t themselves believe in God, but they certainly do believe in belief in God.”

This is funny, because just above I talked about the rudeness of telling people there is no God. I am almost exactly the person he is talking about here. And honestly its not so much what Dennett, Dawkins, Harris or even Hitchens say about God that bother’s me its the crusade of followers. While the four horsemen usually debate these things perfectly reasonably, the general public, especially on the internet, can argue these things less than diplomatically. This is also very true of the other side of the debate.

Which is why I feel the debate should be moved away from the word God. God is a very personal thing. Even within the major religions, each person’s mental idea of God different.This is a sacred space. A place to retreat to when things are shitty, and a place to rejoice in when things are good. When you call this idea space a crutch, delusional or less than great, feelings get hurt.

From Baber’s reply – The philosopher’s God: There is no cabal seeking to pull the wool over peoples’ eyes. Many philosophers believe in God, and many more think the issue is not easily solved

“Most people I know are atheists. But they’re atheists of the old kind who have no particular interest in proselytising because they do not believe that anything of importance hangs on whether or not people believe in God and because they recognise that theological claims are controversial. Unlike the New Atheists they don’t think they have discovered, or invented, something new and interesting.”

I think this is interesting for the use of calling anyone that attacks God as a New Atheist. While it stirs up thoughts, I also think it is untrue. I somewhat agree with her article in general, because she seems to be calling for atheists to not attack God as an idea. Though her article is a little all over the place.

Yes the belief in God can be a dangerous vehicle for other ideas, but its not the major problem. Chip away at the ideas themselves and leave the center of the tootsie pop for another day.

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A History of God – Clippings

Interesting snippets I underlined or marked. The entire book is interesting but these things must have stood out to me at the time. Page numbers refer to the paperback version of Karen Armstrong’s A History of God.

“One of the reasons why religion seems irrelevant today is many of us no longer have the sense that we are surrounded by the unseen.   …  When [ancient cultures] personalized the unseen forces and made them gods, associated with the wind, sun, sea and stars but possessing human characteristics, they were expressing their sense of affinity with the unseen and with the world around them” p. 4

“People would continue to adopt a particular conception of the divine because it worked for them, not because it was scientifically or philosophically sound.” p. 17

Aristotle’s  idea of God had an immense influence on later monotheists, particularly on Christians in the Western world. … He developed what amounted to a philosophical version of the old emanation accounts of creation: there was a hierarchy of existences, each one of which imparts form and change to the one below it, but unlike the old myths, in Aristotle’s theory the emanations grew weaker the further they were from their source. At the top of this hierarchy was the Unmoved Mover, which Aristotle identified with God. This God was pure being and, as such, eternal, immobile and spiritual. God was pure thought, at one and the same time thinker and thought, engaged in an eternal moment of contemplation of himself, the highest object of knowledge. … this God remains quite indifferent to the existence of the universe, since he cannot contemplate anything inferior to himself.” selected clips p. 37-38

“We must be careful not to interpret the story of Isiah’s vision too literally: it is an attempt to describe the indescribable, and Isaiah reverts instinctively to the mythological traditions of his people to give his audience some idea of what happened to him.” p. 42

“prophets like Isaiah were trying to make their countrymen look the actual events of history in the face and accept them as a terrifying dialogue with their God.” p. 44

“When they attributed their own human feelings and experiences to Yahweh, the prophets were in an important sense creating a god in their won image. Isiah, a member of the royal family, had seen Yahweh as a king. Amos had ascribed his own empathy with the suffering poor to Yahweh; Hosea saw Yahweh as a jilted husband, who still continued to feel a yearning tenderness for his wife. All religion must begin with some anthropomorphism” p.48

“We can see what this entailed in the writings of the Priestly tradition (P), which were written after the exile and inserted into the Pentateuch. This gave its own interpretation of the events described by J and E and added two new books, Numbers and Leviticus. As we might expect, P had an exalted and sophisticated view of Yahweh. He did no believe, for example, that anybody could actually see God in the way the J had suggested.” p. 62

“Sophia (knowledge) as an aspect of the unknowable God who has adapted himself to human understanding. She is God-as-he-has-revealed-himself-to-man, the human perception of God, mysteriously distinct from the full reality of God, which would always elude our understanding.” p.68

“[Philo (of Alexandria ca 30 BCE -45 BCE) made] an important distinction between God’s essence (ousia), which is entirely incomprehensible, and his activities in the world, which he called his “powers” (dynameis) or “energies” (energeiai). Basically, it was similar to the solution of P and the Wisdom writers. We can never know God as he is in himself.” p.69

“Philo insisted that we will never reach God as he is in himself: the highest truth we can apprehend is the rapturous recognition that God utterly transcends the human mind.” p.70

“As one Rabbi put it, “God does not come to man oppressively but commensurately with man’s power of receiving him.” This very important rabbinic insight meant that God could not be described in a formula as though he were the same for everybody: he was an essentially subjective experience. Each individual would experience the reality of “God” in a different way to answer the needs of his or her own particular temperament.” p.74

“…a woman was commanded to take a ritual bath after the menstrual period, to prepare herself for the holiness of what came next: sexual relations with her husband. The idea that sex could be holy in this way would be alien to Christianity, which would sometimes see sex and God as mutually incompatible.” p.77

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