More sophisticated theology: Troy Jollimore on Karen Armstrong

Over at TruthDig, Troy Jollimore has a great review of Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God.  He shows that she doesn’t have much of a case, and deftly dismantles the ludicrous idea of apophatic theology, the idea that, as Jollimore puts it, “God is ineffable and that talk about God literally has no content at all.”

Jollimore is an associate professor of philosophy at Cal State Chico, and though I’ve not heard of him before, he’s produced an impressive list of reviews (see his piece on Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God), and seems to be a trenchant voice of reason in the faith/science debates.

I won’t excerpt his piece in extenso since it’s a joy to read in its entirety, but here are a few tidbits:

Ultimately it is doubtful that apophaticism can be made to work. If the concept of “God” is genuinely empty, as it needs to be if evidence and rational criticism are to be considered irrelevant to God-talk, then in a quite literal sense people who talk about God cannot say and do not know what they are talking about. (If I walk around constantly referring to “bizzers,” and rebuff any request for clarification by saying “I will not place limits on bizzers by defining them, for bizzers transcend all human attempts to come to know them,” I am simply talking nonsense.) In her more radical mode, Armstrong wants to preserve religious talk from questions of truth—in our ordinary sense of “truth”—by draining them of content. But when we lose content we do not only lose truth, we lose meaning as well. The apophatic retort to the skeptic, then, seems to reduce to: “You don’t know what you’re talking about—indeed, I don’t even know what I’m talking about. So how dare you contradict me!”

. . . But there I go, talking about religious believers again, when Armstrong has shown that religion is not a matter of belief—right? Well, as I said above, she has tried to show that, but not convincingly; and even if she could show it, it is not clear that that could somehow defend religion as actually practiced in our world. (In light of polls indicating that a large majority of Americans believe in a personal God, and that less than 40 percent of them believe in evolution, Armstrong’s claim that apophaticism represents the religious mainstream—at least in this country—is pretty hard to swallow.) Indeed there are many moments in “The Case for God” when Armstrong seems to drift away from apophaticism and into a deeply subjectivist view of religious truth, which holds that true religious beliefs are essentially private and can be obtained only through committed individual practice. Surprisingly, Armstrong does not seem to notice that this view is not only distinct from apophaticism, it is deeply opposed in spirit.

So another bit of “sophisticated” theology is shown to be intellectually vacuous.  You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that apophatic theology is a crock, but Jollimore does a great job of picking out its flaws.

Where, I ask, is all the sophisticated theology that we atheists are supposed to have ignored?  All the stuff I read — Eagleton, Haught, Armstrong, ad nauseum, is laughable: pathetic attempts to rationalize the existence of God in a world where he not only refuses to exhibit himself, but runs the show as if he doesn’t care.

23 Comments

  1. Posted December 4, 2009 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    It’s the kind of “thinking” that people laughed at when “primitive people” did it, although “sensitivity” makes the laughing less likely in such circumstances.

    Nonetheless, in different terms it continues in certain philosophies, notably in Heidegger’s “hiddenness of being.” So it’s not surprising that theologians and philosophers understand it to be a reasonable way of thinking. It just isn’t, although perhaps some of the rationalists would do better to understand that it is a very human way of thinking.

    Sometimes one wishes the reviewers would just say that it’s so much mental wanking. Do it if you like it, just don’t pretend that it’s something better than that.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  2. Posted December 4, 2009 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I should have written:

    So it’s not surprising when theologians and philosophers understand it to be a reasonable way of thinking.

    Many philosophers don’t understand it to be reasonable at all, and I hope that at least some theologians do as well.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

    • Robert
      Posted December 15, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

      The problem is that this is not sophisticated theology. Sophisticated theology is based on a rational discourse. Ie. Aquinas whether you agree with his conclusions or not took a rational approach and did indeed believe in truth. Augustine believed that truth exists etc… All of the people Armstrong claims to be influenced by would have renounced her at every turn. It is this kind of silly obfuscating that gives both philosophy and religion a bad name. I would rather have a million people criticize my faith based on the knowledge that i believe it, than have a bunch of people running around thinking that id on’t believe it in some kind of strange “intellectual” (using the term lightly) roundabout. Armstrong is neither religious nor athesit nor agnostic, she is just an idiot, who sells millions of books by preaching what is essentially a logically incoherent philosophy. if she is right, she is wrong, if there is no truth, then neither should we believe her.
      I think both the religious community AND the atheist community can unite in denouncing this pseudo-intellectual who actually failed to obtain her doctorate, and never tried to get it again. I think we know why.

  3. Posted December 4, 2009 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    “… talk about God literally has no content at all.”

    Couldn’t agree more.

  4. newenglandbob
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Troy Jollimore’s article shows that Karen Armstrong has gone off the deep end.

    Apophaticism is mental masturbation and is a childish game. Her use of NOMA is grasping at straws as her rational mind is slipping away under water.

  5. Screechy Monkey
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Armstrong: “The modern God—conceived as a powerful creator, first cause, supernatural personality realistically understood and rationally demonstrable—is a recent phenomenon. It was born in a more optimistic time than our own and reflects the firm expectation that scientific rationality could bring the apparently inexplicable aspects of life under the control of reason.”

    Sounds like the opposite of Robert Wright’s thesis that the idea of god has “evolved.” Maybe we can sic them on each other?

  6. Posted December 4, 2009 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    I have a high regard for Troy Jollimore. See my conversation with him on the ‘Voices of Reason’ DVD:
    http://store.richarddawkins.net/products/voices-of-reason-discussions-with-richard-dawkins-episode-3
    He also wrote, in the San Francisco Chronicle one of the best and most intelligent reviews of The God Delusion: http://richarddawkins.net/articles/206
    I am not surprised at his exposé of the apophatuous Karen Armstrong.

    • llewelly
      Posted December 5, 2009 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      I am not surprised at his exposé of the apophatuous Karen Armstrong.

      “apophatuous”! I love that word.
      And your post is presently the sole link retrieved when it is googled.

  7. Posted December 4, 2009 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Snap. I did a post on this terrific piece a few hours ago.

    “Where, I ask, is all the sophisticated theology that we atheists are supposed to have ignored? All the stuff I read — Eagleton, Haught, Armstrong, ad nauseum, is laughable”

    Eagleton and Armstrong are emphatically not theologians. Eagleton is a literary critic with vast pretensions. Armstrong is often called things like ‘scholar of religion’ and perhaps describes herself that way, but her ‘scholarship’ is laughable. If one checks her very inadequate references, one finds that she’s been paraphrasing pages of pop history.

    They both like to talk a lot about ‘sophisticated’ theology, and leave the reader to get an impression that they know quite a lot about it, but they’re fer sher not theologians themselves. They’re both better at pretentious empty name-dropping than anything else.

    • MadScientist
      Posted December 4, 2009 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

      “They’re both better at pretentious empty name-dropping than anything else.”

      I suggest we call such behavior “Kwokery”, in honor of John Kwok. I don’t believe it is anything new; at the very least it is a remnant of childhood necessity. We’re all born clueless and to some degree must trust authority if we’re to survive the first few years. I don’t believe we can do without that. However, that necessity does predispose us to go on living without ever questioning authority (despite what teenagers may believe). Many people try to establish some credibility by naming people they have worked with (or perhaps seen crossing the street). In the past, at some point learning became a matter of quoting figures of authority (or perhaps it had always been that way). Imagine trying to introduce new ideas and being met with “Oh, but Archimedes would not agree with you” rather than a substantive argument; however that’s the way things were and I still see a lot of that behavior when I encounter ignoramuses (“oh no, you’ve got it wrong, so-and-so told me to do it *this* way.”)

      • Josh Slocum
        Posted December 5, 2009 at 12:11 am | Permalink

        I suggest we call such behavior “Kwokery”, in honor of John Kwok.

        Oh, yes. Can I second, third, and fourth that? Kwok is a plague unto himself, but he’s one of the most fascinating examples of Irritating Internet Personalities I’ve ever encountered.

        I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to try out a new coinage:

        Enkwokked. adj. –

        1. Having the quality of being covered to the point of obscurity with relentlessly parasitic commentary, entirely self-referential. An enkwokked Internet comment is considered useless and fit only for abandonment.

        2. Describes an online conversation rendered pointless and inert by the presence of a tenacious invasive species of Internet commenter, whose presence is usually fatal to the intellectual ecosystem and impossible to eradicate.

        By physical analogy:

        “The USS Stuyvesant High School was taken into dry dock for repairs. Shipmen found the hull to be completely enkwokked, necessitating an intensive decontamination process more thorough than that used for Zebra mussels.”

        Only you can prevent enkwokkening.

  8. Wes
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    The opening of Jollimore’s review is pure comedy gold:

    “We are talking far too much about God these days,” writes Karen Armstrong, author of “The Battle for God,” “Visions of God,” “The Changing Face of God” and “A History of God,” at the outset of her new book, “The Case for God.” Funny, I was just thinking the same thing.

    Of course, what Armstrong really meant by her quote is, “People who disagree with me are talking far too much about God these days, and not letting me be the sole authority on the topic.”

  9. Tacroy
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Practice, [Armstrong] writes, is more important than belief …

    I totally agree with this, in fact. The way you act in practice is far more important than what you profess to believe.

    Unfortunately, the vast majority of people act as if in practice there were no God. The ones that do act as if there were a God generally end up dead or in mental institutions.

    After all, if you really truly believe there is a God Who loves you, then you would never call the police or an ambulance – who needs secular intervention when God is watching over you?

    In practice, people call for emergency medical services before they call on God. Sure, we all know where the credit goes afterwards, but it’s human hands that do all that nasty dirty work of saving lives.

  10. Posted December 4, 2009 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    That one cannot meaningfully talk about God at all has actually been an atheistic talking point for very long that aimed at showing that theism can never be rational or warranted. It was started by Immanuel Kant and his work was developed into one of the first major western instances of atheistic systems by his students (Hegel 1770-1831 and others). This kind of critique often tends to be based on that we can only comment on what we can directly experience, but since we can not (according to these philosophers) directly experience God we cannot say anything meaningful about God, the concept then becomes empty.

    So, this is most surely not an ignored atheistic subject. It was very carefully studied, and has been for a long time used by atheists for atheists.

  11. Wes
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Jesus Christ. I read through some of the comments on Jollimore’s piece. Several of the posters there are vomiting up some incredibly pompous nonsense. What kind of readership does TruthDig have?

    • MadScientist
      Posted December 4, 2009 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

      Oh, same as anywhere I guess – everyone knows that trolls only stick to bridges in the fairytales.

  12. MadScientist
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    While on the topic of religion vs science, I was very disappointed with Shermer’s response to criticism that it is silly to insist that evolution and religion can get along. Doesn’t he realize that a large camp of creationists now say that they believe in evolution – but that goddidit? Anyway, Shermer’s response seems to be to go hysterical and to offer some lame excuses and avoid any meaningful discussion. Perhaps Shermer should go to Mooney School and at least learn to appear less hysterical while avoiding intelligent conversations. I think he’s learning though – he’s got a few Mooney tactics like “Oh, but look, this nerd over here agrees with me, therefore I am right!”

  13. Dr.John R. Vokey
    Posted December 4, 2009 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    Whatever else Ms. Ophelia Benson has said in posts I haven’t read, she is right here: these are NOT the sophisticated theologians alluded to in so many laments. They are but dilettantes. That does not mean they are NOT better (argumentatively) than the sophisticated theological bench, just that they haven’t earned their stripes among that crew.

    I do not defend any of this nutbar crusade, nor would I debate any of these allegedly sophisticated theologians (I have sleep and inevitable decrepitute as higher priorities), but some do, as the current post evinces. My advice: voice the statement: “I do not debate insane people”.

    • Posted December 5, 2009 at 11:17 am | Permalink

      Whatever else Dr. John R. Vokey has said in posts or articles or books or reviews or diary entries I haven’t read, he said something here. I thought I’d get that on the record.

  14. Posted December 5, 2009 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    “Where, I ask, is all the sophisticated theology that we atheists are supposed to have ignored? ”

    That sounds like a dare!

  15. I.Strange
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 2:56 am | Permalink

    Excellent critique. Thanks for the link.

  16. Flaffer
    Posted December 5, 2009 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    I Second Dawkin’s point and raise it by saying Jollimore’s reviews are the the most intelligent i have read for all the books he reviews (and that I have read). In particular, his review of Dennet’s Breaking the Spell distilled the unease I have with the book perfectly. Bravo!

  17. Posted December 7, 2009 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    I am very interested in these “bizzers” you speak of and would like to learn more.
    Although I think you may have confused bizzers with whomblevv, which I understand to be beyond understanding.


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