The incoherence of Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong earns her living by making liberal believers feel Sophisticated, for she writes books and gives lectures about The Real Nature of God. And that is A God Who is Awesome But Can’t Be Described. (Yet Armstrong manages to write and utter thousands of words about that apophatic God!) How she found this out, and how she knows she’s right in the face of the majority of the world’s believers, who see God as a bodiless human, defies reason. I’ve listened to her palaver for a long time, and not only does she get acclaim and awards for it, but credulous interviewers and journalists refuse to ask her the hard questions like, “You mean God isn’t really some kind of being who can do stuff, but merely embodies Love, Longing, and Awe?” or “How do you know all this, Dr. Armstrong?”

A reader who just heard Armstrong on National Public Radio in Minnesota (MPR) sent me a link to their interview with her, along with this note.  And believe me, I feel for this person:

I’m listening to a local MPR program (Talking Volumes) with Karen Armstrong. OMG, she completely absolves Islam for everything bad that ISIS, etc. do. Listening to her well-oiled equivocations is nauseating.
 
She cries for nuance when looking at religion and will with a single sweeping statement about a single jihadi dismiss religion as a motivation for ISIS, etc.  Infuriating. And our local Kerri Miller is kissing her ass instead of asking the hard questions she usually does.

Well, the interview isn’t on the page any more (it was live), but it was apparently a rebroadcast of an interview a week ago in which Kerri Miller talked to Armstrong at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. The MPR page has three YouTube videos of the interview, which obviously went on much longer than the ten minutes of videos. But you can get a sense of Armstrong’s “views,” such as they are, in this clip, where she talks about THE REAL NATURE OF GOD:

Note the waffling and repeated recharacterization of what God is. First she equates “God” with the pantheism of Einstein—that is, “God equals the vastness of the universe which incites wonder.” Fine, I’m down with “absolute awe” of the universe, but I don’t need anything “divine” to gawk at. Then she says, “We find the divine in one another,” so now “divine” becomes equivalent to each person’s unique characteristics, not the vastness of the cosmos. Note how she also sneaks in religious words, talking about “the sacredness of each person” and the “sanctity of the individual” (which, by the way, is supposed to prevent us from mocking their beliefs). She argues, as one Muslim cleric asserted, that each person represents a particular instantiation of God.

Armstrong manages to have her cake and eat it too by using religious terms to describe humanistic notions. That’s why the public and press love her.

But what “god” is she talking about? That’s where the interviewers never go after her, so eager are they to osculate faith and avoid alienating liberal believers. They never try to pin her down on what the hell she’s trying to say. I suspect that if they did try, she’d revert to apophatism and say that she can’t characterize God in words.

This is hopelessly contorted theobabble, and it amazes me that people not only listen to this, but seem to lap it up, and rarely criticize it. In fact, I think Armstrong’s views are dangerous, for by failing to criticize religion—or by insisting that religiously-inspired malice is not characteristic of “true” religion—she provides a flak jacket for believers, insulating all faith from criticism.

Give me a good honest fundamentalist over Armstrong any day. At least you can figure out what they’re trying to say!

151 Comments

  1. Posted November 18, 2014 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Sub

    • Nicholas
      Posted November 18, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      Sub

    • Filippo
      Posted November 18, 2014 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      sub

    • Diane G.
      Posted November 18, 2014 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

      sub

  2. Dan Fromm
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. I don’t recall authorizing the woman to speak for me.

    • Posted November 19, 2014 at 3:27 am | Permalink

      Has she “gone there” with atheists? Maybe asserting that our experiences of the ephemeral – love, right and wrong, appreciation of beauty – add up to a god-facsimile? Or that we are having god-y experiences but unable to recognize the supernatural source? I’m not curious enough to Google it, but I’d be surprised if she doesn’t characterize atheism or naturalism or scientism as just “another religion” – and if not she should do: it’s all the rage with the faitheists and the compatibalists these days! Maybe she could score some of that sweet sweet Templeton moolah.

  3. thompjs
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    I saw her on Book TV a few days ago. I could only take about 10 minutes

    • paul kramarchyk
      Posted November 18, 2014 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      Saw her on BookTV, me too. Amazed how long she can go on… and on… and on… and not say anything. I thought, this must be what hypoxia is like. But CSPAN is near sea level. Ms Armstrong is in her own orbit.

      • Sastra
        Posted November 18, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        This is a favorite quote of mine, from a book review by Troy Jollimore:

        “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.

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 18, 2014 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

          LOL!

        • Kevin
          Posted November 19, 2014 at 5:52 am | Permalink

          She embellishes dissociative identity disorder. It plagues all accomodationists. That is their sickness and it needs a cure. Unfortunately there are two cures: fundamentalism (crazy for other reasons) and atheism.

          • Posted November 19, 2014 at 7:03 am | Permalink

            Or ‘Nature’s Way.’ cf Spirt, ‘The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus’

          • Posted November 19, 2014 at 9:44 am | Permalink

            So anyone who doesn’t agree with you on this issue is crazy?

        • Filippo
          Posted November 19, 2014 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

          Apparently not, so long as she can make a buck from every succeeding book, eh?

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted November 21, 2014 at 6:39 am | Permalink

          She obviously meant that everyone else is talking far too much about God, and cutting into her market share.

  4. Luke
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    “Give me a good honest fundamentalist over Armstrong any day. At least you can figure out what they’re trying to say!”

    Here you go. Easy to figure out.

    http://m.clarionproject.org/news/video-islamic-state-stones-young-woman-accused-adultery

    • Posted November 18, 2014 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

      Horrendous.
      I beg to differ here, Jerry. I’ll take Armstrong’s white noise anytime over a ‘good honest fundamentalist’.
      At least she’s not executing young women in a horrible way for what would not even be considered a crime in civilised societies.

      • Posted November 19, 2014 at 11:28 am | Permalink

        What I meant, of course, refers to whether or not there is clarity in saying what one believes, not whether what one believes or does is better if if you’re a fundamentalist. Of course I’d rather have the world populated by Armstrongs than by sharia-obeying Muslims.

        • Posted November 19, 2014 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

          Sorry, of course you meant that, I was just so shocked by the horror of the video I didn’t think straight. Can’t stop thinking of it, sleepless night, etc.

          That being said, even the ‘good honest fundamentalist’ in the video is confusing to me. He insists that her father forgive her, but if forgiven why proceed with the stoning? Only as an example? I think that fundamentalist (well what is he, executioner? judge? imam? ‘religious worker’?) has a peculiar notion of forgiveness, to put it mildly.
          Is it like the Inquisition: you repent, but we’re still going to burn you in order to save your soul (or is that just a myth)?

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 19, 2014 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

        In fairness (!) to fundamentalists, I think it’s quite erroneous to equate all fundamentalists with ISIS. I’m sure many fundamentalist sects don’t feel that their faith obliges them to kill people, in fact many of them seem to take the approach that they should follow their own commandments and leave the rest of the world to do its thing.

        If boggy’s post below is correct, then ISIS aren’t even very good fundamentalists. They are of course a vicious bunch of religiously-motivated thugs, even if their version of religion is sicker than most.

    • boggy
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 2:43 am | Permalink

      Worth pointing out that stoning to death is not Koranic, but Biblical, see Book of Numbers 15;32. However, amputation of hands etc is Koranic, so that’s OK isn’t it?

      • Stonyground
        Posted November 19, 2014 at 5:20 am | Permalink

        There is a rule in the Old Testament, which appears to be an example of some kind of case law, that involves hand amputation. It involves a guy being attacked and a woman dragging the assailant off him by grabbing him by the goolies.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted November 19, 2014 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

          So, who got their hands amputated? Should be the assailant, but knowing the OT’s hideously twisted view of life, I’d guess it’s at least as likely to be the woman.

    • Larry Cook
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      Oh man, that is so awful. When the first 5 or 6 stones landed the video was not blurred. Absolutely barbaric and the barbarian who seemed to be in charge felt secure that he knows god’s will and confident that he was carrying out god’s laws. The rest in a circle waiting for the chance to throw their stones. How can anyone have hope that the true believer can ever change? Sharia law is not consistent with civilization.

    • gluonspring
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

      Armstrong should do a voice-over for that video.

  5. Paul S
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    Apparently my page hadn’t refreshed and the Karen Armstrong video was showing the squirrel with the GoPro camera. I was wondering why you were insulting the squirrel.

  6. Posted November 18, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely! The most interesting and enjoyable religious conversations that I have ever had have been with… Absolute mental fundamentalists. Why? Absolutely as you say: you know what they mean and think. Chatting with slippery religious liberals, on the other hand, is impossible; the whole thing invariably descends into some kind of religious dance or a word game.

  7. Sastra
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    As Susan Jacoby once wrote “One might as well try to cut one’s way through fog with a sword as attempt to engage Karen Armstrong’s ‘case for God’ with rational discourse.” Despite her insistence that God is not “anthropomorphic” you can see all sorts of mindlike resemblances running through a divine that we can somehow see “in people.”

    Armstrong is popular among the ecumenical because she deals in depth without content. Interpret her smooth deepities one way and we have religious humanism — scraps of sacred words metaphorically referring to the true but trivial. Interpret the deepity in the false but extraordinary way and you’ve got a kind of pure and unadorned supernaturalism. She gets away with it because glittering generalities go down easy.

    Faith, faith, faith, god, god, god, sacred sacred, sacred. It’s beyond words. So let me keep talking. Don’t worry. I won’t be clear.

    • Jeff Rankin
      Posted November 18, 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      The thing that gets me: It’s her job to do this.

      I mean, people give her money to say these things.

      I’m in awe. You mean, instead of working hard and trying to communicate a difficult subject to people, I could’ve just gone around talking like this? And people would have given me money? Sigh.

      • gluonspring
        Posted November 19, 2014 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

        Nah, she’s working MUCH too hard.

        THIS guy gets paid to just look at a room full of people:

        http://bit.ly/1wZyFLA

        • GBJames
          Posted November 19, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

          Wow. That’s some powerful gaze!

          “Women who are pregnant past their third month may not attend.”

          • merilee
            Posted November 19, 2014 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

            barf…glad I’d never set eyes on that gaze before.

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 19, 2014 at 11:09 pm | Permalink

          WTH??

          Just when you think you’ve heard it all.

        • Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:49 am | Permalink

          (1) Hard time convincing myself this is not the onion

          (2) totally flabbergasted that this guy Braco distributes his special gaze on the other end of the very street of my own origin, Srebrnjak in Zagreb, where I’ve set foot just once since my father died, 20 years ago.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted November 20, 2014 at 2:13 am | Permalink

            Oh holy fuck. I just looked at that page. The guy looks like he’s just had a lobotomy. You could kick him in the goolies and still be on the end of that nobody’s-home, vaguely amiable grin. I could feel the IQ’s draining out of my mind.

            I agree, the Onion couldn’t do better.

            And if Braco’s Gaze (now available live-streamed on the Intertoobz) doesn’t do it for ya, you can listen to 10-minute recording of Braco’s Voice. (Capitals in the original).

            Are we sure it’s not a spoof like like Betty Bowers or Landover Baptist Church? Guess not…almost makes one feel charitably about nutters like Ken Ham.

            • gluonspring
              Posted November 20, 2014 at 9:29 am | Permalink

              I don’t think it’s a spoof. I first heard about him from an advertisement for one of his gazings. He had ads for appearances in New York this summer when I was there and I was tempted to go to one.

              The website says he has a Master’s degree in economics! So maybe when you look at him you shouldn’t see a lobotomy but a cunning businessman.

    • Vaal
      Posted November 18, 2014 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

      Sastra,

      I find that Armstrong and her ilk rely on, in more baroque language, a common intuition.

      That is: they continually associate “wisdom” with abstraction and generalization. It’s easy to see how this attitude seems supported because we associate “words of wisdom” with doing exactly that: having a broad enough perspective to describe a wider truth. A typical example:

      “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” —Neitzsche

      It’s very generality, deriving some universal truth, is the mark of wisdom.

      But we still have to examine any such claims. Ok, sure, that conveys something true about what *can* happen in terms of a person’s psyche or physical situation. But very often, it doesn’t. There are all sorts of particular examples where this principle is false (e.g. all sorts of people have been left weaker both physically and/or emotionally by situations that have left them alive, though suffering).

      The person who wants to be rational and understand reality to the best of her ability will want to examine any number of specific instances to see to what degree the saying is true, or in which type of situations it would in fact apply.
      But this is seen as petty work, the work of small minds, to the generalizers such as Armstrong. Stay up in the clouds, with me, I’m giving you the Big Picture. Get stuck in particulars, and you’ll lose the truth.
      (Even though the truth of the principle is supposed to derive from the truth of the particulars)

      It’s similar to the approach many Christians use to excuse God of immorality, or moral negligence. Point out to a fundamentalist that it seems outrageous for anyone to be sent to Hell, and they will abstract to a principle like “But God is as a Father to us, and don’t Parents have the right to punish their children?”

      Talk to the liberal Christian asking why God sits on his hands while so much evil occurs and should you bring up any particular instance of suffering, they will zoom out to appeal to a principle like “But shouldn’t parents allow their children independence?”

      Now they’ve zoomed out away from any troubling particular instance of suffering.

      But of course the mark of wisdom is not simply sitting up in the clouds, zoomed out to the widest possible generalizations: it comprises the ability to zoom back down to any particulars to recognize how well they fit with the principles you espouse.

      Sure we may agree there is truth in a generalization like “Parents have a right to discipline their children” but any *particular instance* of this discipline should nonetheless be consistent with other principles we hold to. That’s why we always have to be able to zoom back down through various levels to keep checking on this consistency, to any particular. It’s why we would say the principle just stated is applicable to, say, taking away “internet time” from a child who isn’t doing his homework, whereas we would NOT allow someone to invoke “the right of a parent to discipline his child” if where the “discipline” involved torturing his child with fire. It’s wise to apprehend general principles; it’s wiser to look at and understand their limitations.

      But when you talk in particulars, checking for consistency, the religious person only sees you as engaging in small-minded worrying “This is your problem, I’m trying to get you to see the Big Picture whereas you are stuck on particular details!”

      The religious person just doesn’t recognize the wisdom inherent in actually checking the reality of various particular examples to the claim of the general principle. It’s only when you are zoomed out to the principle, that they recognize you as engaging in wisdom, in wider thinking.

      And this seems to be how Armstrong’s mind works. Someone like Jerry (and many of us here) are actually interested in reality, so we want to check any general principles or claims against the *specific instances* they are supposed to cover. When we go checking and find that, well, actually, all sorts of people are saying specific things about God that don’t support Armstrong’s generalities, then we are doing the work of the petty, the small minded who can’t Think in the Big Picture, the blinkered perspective of the
      scientist in the lab coat wanting to run trials, vs much broader, and wiser, perspective of Armstrong’s philosophical understanding of religion.

      You can’t ever check their claims, because
      to the degree you focus on particulars instead of staying with Armstrong up in her abstractions, “you’re doing it wrong, my Dear Boy, missing the Real Truth, which is in the Big Picture I’m giving you.”

      • TJR
        Posted November 19, 2014 at 3:14 am | Permalink

        Indeed. Its another Motte and Bailey doctrine.

      • kevin7alexander
        Posted November 19, 2014 at 4:27 am | Permalink

        “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” —Neitzsche

        I thought that was so profound when I read it as a teenager. I started to grow up when I noticed all the moral gimps lurching around from crisis to crisis crippled by what unfortunately didn’t kill them.

        • JonLynnHarvey
          Posted November 19, 2014 at 6:38 am | Permalink

          I think that saying became popular when it was used in the opening credits of the movie “Conan the Barbarian”

        • Sastra
          Posted November 19, 2014 at 7:25 am | Permalink

          “That which does not kill you makes you stronger” can be a useful heuristic to use if you yourself are going through the type of crisis which you have some sort of control over. It’s meant then to be encouraging. After all, what it means to become “stronger” is pretty open to interpretation.

          Which, as you and Vaal point out, is the problem. You have to interpret case by case.

        • Larry Cook
          Posted November 19, 2014 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

          My ex-wife used to tell people that she was torturing me to make me a stronger person. She pretended she was kidding.

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 19, 2014 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

          “…all the moral gimps lurching around from crisis to crisis crippled by what unfortunately didn’t kill them.”

          You have a delightful way with words.

      • Sastra
        Posted November 19, 2014 at 7:19 am | Permalink

        Very well put. In fact, one of the most common complaints against atheists is that we don’t understand or can’t use “abstractions.”

        I’d say it’s the other way around. We recognize abstractions for what they are — a picked-out selection or generalization of some quality or idea which had its origin in specifics of experience. Abstractions are not platonic existents in some spiritual realm. The abstract is derived from the concrete, it is not itself some higher form of concrete.

        I’ve often said that 3 things kill religious faith: curiosity, clarity, and consistency. Trying to apply airy-fairy generalities or “wisdom” as you call it to reality requires all three. It’s just so much easier to keep insisting that God is Love and why is that so hard for the atheist to accept?

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 19, 2014 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

          ” We recognize abstractions for what they are —”

          — obfuscations.

          • Sastra
            Posted November 19, 2014 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

            Can’t be: “obfuscation” is an abstraction. So are “clarity” and “truth.”

            We need ideas. I think the problem with higher-level concepts comes in when someone thinks they came before what they refer to.

            • Diane G.
              Posted November 19, 2014 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

              I.e., and abstract (and wrong) crane/sky-hook concept. 😉

              • Diane G.
                Posted November 19, 2014 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

                *an*

              • Sastra
                Posted November 19, 2014 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

                Yup

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted November 21, 2014 at 6:47 am | Permalink

          “a picked-out selection or generalization of some quality or idea which had its origin in specifics of experience”
          That’s very Humean of you, Sastra. Quite rightly.

      • Posted November 19, 2014 at 7:21 am | Permalink

        Any/Every Sparrow’s Fall: Noticed by god. That’s part of ‘his’ omniscience. But the sparrows that fall from trees are dying/dead. That’s part of our empirical awareness when we notice that tiny feathered body on the ground. And most of us feel bad about the death. That’s part of our empathetic awareness.

        Note that the god-of-the-big-sky-country is said to know the former but apparently doesn’t care how it happened or that it happened.

        Yours is a very interesting post, Vaal.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted November 19, 2014 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

          When I was a very young teen (and before I realised that non-believing was perfectly okay) I used to worry a bit about that. Like, how could God keep track of every single sparrow, what was the memory capacity of this God creature? And the implication was that God remembered it all – the storage of all that information was mind-boggling.

          Of course, as soon as I concluded God didn’t exist, all that sort of thing ceased to be a problem…

    • Filippo
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

      I’d like to see Jacoby debate Armstrong.

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 19, 2014 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

        I’m not a fan of debates but if I were, that would be a good one!

      • Sastra
        Posted November 20, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

        So would I — though I doubt Armstrong would agree to a debate, since faith is above rational standards and no, she will not debate whether faith is above rational standards because love does not condemn or try to force.

  8. alexandra
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Just love “theobabble”! Will use that one. She throws out a miasma of words, wrapping them around the theo-leaning listener(s) like a spider web and immobilizing, stunning any brain cells they might have had.
    She was recently on Cspan, with S Quinn, who seemed on the same stupefying wave length.

  9. GBJames
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    sub

  10. Jeff Rankin
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    OK, so let’s break this down (the first 20 seconds anyway):

    1. We each have a personal image of god
    2. We need to look through this image
    3. Turns out this image is meant to be transparent
    4. We’re to glimpse the transcendence beyond
    5. So we can be aware of the immensity of the cosmos

    So, what do I need 1-4 for? I mean, it’s supposed to be transparent anyway right (ignoring the “how does she know this” stuff)? And incidentally if I had to name one thing where transparency is lacking (and indeed dangerous to the thing itself), that thing would be religion.

    This just feels like Deepak-type material to me. Sigh, what a way to make a living. I wonder if she believes this, or has simply found a lucrative niche?

    • Posted November 18, 2014 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      You will be paid $7.50 each time you tell someone they are a holographic expression of the entire universe that is manifesting as a continuum of probability amplitudes for space/time events, a singularization of The Singularity, a Localized Expression of the Universal Presence in the Realm of the Physical, which has also been called the Realm of the Relative, where random Capitalization occurs.

    • Posted November 18, 2014 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

      With a good telescope and perhaps an astronomy text you can go directly to 5 without bothering with the first four.

  11. Amy
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    I’m surprised that NPR broadcast a talk like that. Brainless. Fortune teller is a good profession for Karen Armstrong, and whoever need comfort and assurance, just throw your money to fortune teller.

    • colnago80
      Posted November 18, 2014 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

      Shakespeare said it best in MacBeth: It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing!

      • Nicholas
        Posted November 19, 2014 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

        I agree.

        It is a bleak reference to how meaningless and brief life is. Life is symbolised as a flickering candle. A candle is easily snuffed and our lives are just as easily ended. The imagery moves on to a stage where the human being is seen as a poor actor who worries (frets) his way through his ‘play’ (life) before dying and being heard of no more. The next metaphor says that life is like a story told by an idiot. This means that there is no meaning to our lives.

        Humans are just playing a part given to them by an idiot – and it all means nothing.

    • Posted November 19, 2014 at 6:50 am | Permalink

      They unfortunately have made a policy of it. They have a regular program by a similarly oily presenter, Krista Tippett, whose show used to be called “On Faith” but they changed it to “On Being” because “On Faith” was too specific.

      I suggest: “On … Whatever”

    • Filippo
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

      I myself am not as surprised as I would have been 20-25 years ago. It wears me out anymore to listen to “Morning Edition.” Where is Bob Edwards when you need him?

  12. Shatterface
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    I was going to write something clever but autocorrect changed ‘apophatic’ to ‘an spooks tic’ and I’m just going to leave it there.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 18, 2014 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      Right. No need to mess with perfection.

      • Filippo
        Posted November 19, 2014 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

        Right. Who is to argue with some programmer’s omniscience?

  13. JH
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that what Armstrong is really advocating for is “belief in belief.” If that is your underlining goal, then redefining “god” as necessary would be common sense.

    I would love to see an interviewer ask her, “If everyone on the planet gave up a ‘god belief,’ and instead took up a humanistic belief that all humans deserve empathy (don’t hit me on this trans-humanists, one step at a time), how would the world look different?”

    I’d love to see it, but I’m doubtful it will happen.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 18, 2014 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      Wouldn’t work: she’d just say that the humanistic belief that all humans deserve empathy IS God so they haven’t really given up on believing in God.

      • JH
        Posted November 18, 2014 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

        I agree that she probably would. But after she said that, it would make for the follow up question, “then, why use the word ‘god’, if with or without that concept, you still get the same results, why add an additional unnecessary hypothesis?” Again, in modern western civilization, I don’t expect the media to ever actually ask it, but it would still be nice if they did.

        • Sastra
          Posted November 19, 2014 at 7:07 am | Permalink

          Oh, God doesn’t exist — it’s far too important and significant to be thought of that way! That’s why atheism is wrong.

          Yeah, I know. But it soothes and sells.

  14. NJ
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Don’t call her “Dr Armstrong”. She failed her PhD.

    She maintains that Oxford’s decision to refuse her a doctorate was one of history’s great academic scandals. But the truth is she’s no intellectual. Her pose as a scholar is a marketing device.

    • Posted November 18, 2014 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

      Ah. I guess I’ll just classify her expertise as: “nun of the above.” …has a mystical kind of ring to it.

  15. Posted November 18, 2014 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    I’d could easily find a few kind words for various Sufi mystics, and (unlike Armstrong) I would even name them if I thought my audience was over 7 years old.

    But if I had to sum up their message I wouldn’t blabber on about God (or even Gooohhhood, as Armstrong calls him). For me Frank Zappa summed up just about everything worthwhile in spirituality:

    Do you know who you are?
    You are what you is
    You is what you am
    A cow don’t make ham
    You ain’t what you’re not
    so see what you got
    You are what you is
    And that’s all it is

    • Jeff Rankin
      Posted November 18, 2014 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oblbLHYu6uY

    • Posted November 19, 2014 at 6:53 am | Permalink

      Frank Zappa, R.I.P.

      A great American philosopher.

      Please do read his auto-bio: The Real Frank Zappa Book. It’s excellent, even if some of the political commentary is now quite dated.

      • Posted November 19, 2014 at 11:22 am | Permalink

        Yep, great book. His “anthropology of symphony orchestras” section is hilarious.

  16. Robert Gray
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    I agree that ISIS is definitely motivated by religion and Karen Armstrong white-washes that wth powerful bleach. But the parts about God being indescribable just seems to be the “absolute awe” that you’re down with. And which shows up in spiritual traditions across cultures. Reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s ideas.

    • Posted November 19, 2014 at 6:54 am | Permalink

      Yes. And why give is a silly name like “God”?

  17. kb72
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says that Karen Armstrong talks nonsense and is really an atheist.

    Nothing like a robust unreconstructed Christianity to cut through the woo.

    http://www.albertmohler.com/2009/09/14/a-tale-of-two-atheists/

    • Filippo
      Posted November 18, 2014 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

      There’s nothing like the certitude of a conservative Southern Baptist minister.

      • Posted November 19, 2014 at 6:55 am | Permalink

        Reminds me of the old (true) statement that the intelligent people are unsure; but the fools, the small-minded, are all dead-certain.

        • Filippo
          Posted November 19, 2014 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

          I heard that the other day listening online to a program about Bertrand Russell, who made a statement, or was quoting someone, to that effect.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 18, 2014 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

      Interesting.

      Note Jerry’s comment: “Give me a good honest fundamentalist over Armstrong any day. At least you can figure out what they’re trying to say!”

      This could well apply to Mohler. It’s even more ironic that Mohler says almost the exact same thing – from the other side of the fence – about Richard Dawkins vs Karen Armstrong.

      • Filippo
        Posted November 19, 2014 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

        I have made a reasonably good faith effort online to identify/specify the Reverend Mohler’s undergraduate degree. Anyone here know? I gather that, from his advanced theological degrees, and from the various topics he comments on at his website, no doubt he is qualified to competently hold forth on any topic discussed at this website.

        (Hmm, I bet it was a biochemistry/mathematics double major.)

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted November 20, 2014 at 12:36 am | Permalink

          I know nothing of Mohler other than that article referred to. But I was pleased (as a Dawkins follower) that so far as I can see, Mohler neither cherry-picked nor misrepresented RD’s views. He quoted RD fairly, and I give him credit for that.

  18. trou
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    If I, as “an instantiation of the divine” declare myself to be an atheist, would I disappear in a puff of logic?

  19. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Theobabble it is.

    God equals the vastness of the universe which incites wonder.

    What “vastness” is that? If Armstrong is comparing sizes, the universe is at most infinite. Then we can see as much a wonderful size, the size of the reals, in a centimeter.

    And of course humans have constructed much vaster sizes than the universe, such as 2^c where c is the cardinal size of the universe.

    • Vaal
      Posted November 18, 2014 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, and no doubt Armstrong would be equally elastic with her application of “vastness” as well.

      I mean, for the religious people writing the Bible, there wasn’t a “vast” universe as we understand it now; the earth was covered in a dome, with little stars affixed to it. They were grossly ignorant of the vastness of the universe.

      Even today religious YECs reject the “vast” vistas of time associated with the formation of the earth and the evolution of life, in favor of relatively meager time spans like 6,000 years for the whole shebang. And in this they see the work of a God.

      But it won’t matter. The word “vast” will do whatever work Armstrong wants it to do. She’ll spread it thin to embrace whatever conviction a God-believer has about the world.

  20. Posted November 18, 2014 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    I hope it’s OK if I post a link here to a slightly scathing review of a Karen Armstrong book (In the Beginning) I wrote for the British newspaper the Independent on Sunday a few years ago: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/in-the-beginning-by-karen-armstrong-2240312.html

  21. Curt Nelson
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    When Kerri Miller interviewed Richard Dawkins she was very hard on him. She kept on attacking even after Dawkins gave good, clear answers to her questions, as if he’d been evasive.

    • Posted November 19, 2014 at 6:58 am | Permalink

      Yes, I am very disappointed in her and I intend (as a “sustaining member” of MPR) write a note to her describing my displeasure with her behavior.

    • Posted November 19, 2014 at 7:10 am | Permalink

      Here’s one interview series:

  22. Posted November 18, 2014 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    I sent this along to Dr. Coyne awhile ago but I don’t know if he ever got it. Armstrong was on the BBC’s Intelligence Squared awhile back, it was a special episode as it wasn’t a debate, and she babbled the same garbage…

    the link for those who can stomach it: https://soundcloud.com/intelligence2/karen-armstrong-on-religion-and-the-history-of-violence

    Over an hour of her twisting language, facts, history, everything to say that religion is pure and secularism is awful on how if you don’t get it you’re wrong.

  23. DrBrydon
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just got her new book from Amazon UK (not available in the US, yet). I am planning to read it over Thanksgiving.

    • Posted November 18, 2014 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

      Well I intend to give thanks over the turkey that you’ll give us a book report so I don’t have to read the damn thing.

    • Posted November 19, 2014 at 6:59 am | Permalink

      After listening to her, I resolutely refuse to give her any of my money.

  24. Steve
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    I would characterize most of what she says as “garbage in, garbage out” (apologies to a former acquaintance who “coined” the phrase as it related to data entry). It certainly seems apt when considering her musings. Another comparison might be what Dan Dennett refers to as “deepities”. Did someone else call it bafflegab? If not, it too is appropriate.

  25. Posted November 18, 2014 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    My hypothesis, and it is mine, is that Armstrong’s voiced perspective is close to being dissociative. Her ‘regard’ (expression in her eyes) shows a sense of being lost, not being quite here, and not anchored easily to reality. She’s probably been self-medicating herself with ‘theobabble’ for a loooooong time.

    • Filippo
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

      It may be a residual after-effect of her experience as a novitiate(?).

      • Diane G.
        Posted November 19, 2014 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

        Or her temporal lobe epilepsy?

        (Per Wikipedia. That isn’t intended to be a snarky comment or to say anything about others with similar conditions.)

  26. Randy Schenck
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Hitchens had a word for this — I think it was “rubbish”.

    • Posted November 19, 2014 at 7:00 am | Permalink

      Yes. And it’s perfect.

  27. Tom K
    Posted November 18, 2014 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Daniel Dennet has an even better word for it: deepities – statements that on first hearing seem profound, but which when scrutinized are just shallow platitudes.

  28. Posted November 18, 2014 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

    “Give me a good honest fundamentalist over Armstrong any day. At least you can figure out what they’re trying to say!”

    LOL. Of course discriminating between Satan and God is harder than what fundamentalists (and their best enemies) realize.

  29. boggy
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    On behalf of the British people I would like to apologise for this woman; we should leave religious crakpottery to Americans who do this sort of thing much better.

  30. antheahawdon
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    I have to give Karen Armstrong a bit of credit. Her book, The Gospel According to Woman, was one of the major influences on me becoming an atheist.

    • gluonspring
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      Her books can be a poisoned chalice for some believers. I have a friend who became an atheist after reading A History of God. The historical criticism of the Bible she skips through was eye opening for my friend. “Oh… the Bible was just cobbled together by people and not written by God…”. That was it for him.

  31. Dave
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 2:01 am | Permalink

    If each person “represents a particular instantiation of god”, then presumably god’s nature encompasses Charles Manson, Adolf Hitler, Josef Fritzl and Jack the Ripper (whoever he may have been). Or does god only “instantiate” the nice guys?

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 2:16 am | Permalink

      Errm, nope, those four you mentioned are quite representative instantiations of the God of the Old Testament. Which raises the question, where do nice guys come from?

      • steve
        Posted November 19, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink

        Through evolution?

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted November 19, 2014 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

          Yeah, the nice guys kill off all the less ….. oh, wait…

  32. Robert Seidel
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 2:36 am | Permalink

    > First she equates “God” with the pantheism of Einstein—that is, “God equals the vastness of the universe which incites wonder.”

    Schopenhauer had something to say about this:

    “Besides, pantheism is a self-abrogating concept; because the concept of a god requires, as an essential correlate of the same, a world which is distinguished from him. If, in contrast, the world is to take his role; there simply remains an absolute world, without god; so pantheism is just a euphemism for atheism.” (Parerga und Paralipomena, Volume 1, §13)

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

      I’ve often thought, if I was to take up a religion, it’d be something like pantheism. So that quote leaves me feeling – quite complacent. 🙂

  33. kevin7alexander
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 4:21 am | Permalink

    God is indescribable. Yet she devotes volumes trying to anyway.
    Maybe it’s like when you fuss your cat. The cat looks at you as if she understands what you’re saying but it doesn’t matter, it just feels good to the cat.

  34. Bob
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    When I need the divine, I go with The Divine Miss Bette Midler.

  35. Kevin
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    THere is no coherent definition of God. She will have to move to a different topic if she wants to not be incoherent. I wonder if she reads what others have to say about her ideas.

  36. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    Armstrong lost me with her commentary on Genesis which I found utterly banal and boring.

    She went through a period after leaving the convent of hating religion, but now seems to be reconciled with it, but employing misty definitions. Weirdly, after going though a period of revulsion from Catholicism, the first religion she got warm feelings towards was Islam.

  37. Posted November 19, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    Her voice recalls that of the woman in Wallace Stevens’ ‘Sunday Morning:’ ‘. . . but in contentment I still feel/ The need of some imperishable bliss.’

    This need, I suspect, is sufficiently strong and persistent to allow many of us to speak of the transcendent as if it were real and the mundane illusory. Else why hasn’t Platonism died?

  38. Posted November 19, 2014 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    🐾

  39. Elizabeth Oakley
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    I would not worry about what Karen Armstrong thinks of God’s true nature. She is a commentator of other’s views and the overall trajectory of theological developments. She’s an ex nun and decided to go down a different path as a researcher and analyst. She’s very good at this. Her work shows in particular that fundamentalism is really non viable. There are so many issues in the historical development of scriptures and theology, that fundamentalism today is a complete non starter. My view is that any kind of religious fundamentalism owes more to the religious imagination than to the truth about how religious revelations come about. Armstrong is sophisticated in her analysis. That’s her role. I would not press her too hard on the nature of God. In truth, no-one knows. They really don’t.Even those who feel they do. The religious imagination has played a huge part in the development of religious scriptures and the search for their meaning. Afterall, the Gospel writers were good creative writers, good redactors (editing previous manuscripts, and good polemicists. No doubt about those. As regards Christian origins there is no archeological evidence for Christ’s existence, no other historical account of his life and work other than the Gospel accounts and a great deal of debate took place in the early Church about the meaning of Christ’s ministry. Let’s all be very careful. Fundamentalism should have no part to play in a true understanding of Christ’s message today.

    • Posted November 19, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      She is spreading lies about the religious motivation to violence. This has potentially bad results in future for society.

      Reason enough to excoriate her views.

  40. Cowhead
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    This is totally unrelated, but perhaps someone here can help, including the host and author. I would really love to read the book ” Speciation” by Jerry Coyne and H. Allen Orr.

    But for some weird reason it is not available as an E-book? I’m perfectly happy to pay a reasonable amount, but I am on-the-road right now, and cannot afford more than 100 dollars (for a used paperback, 400 dollars for the hard-back!) nor the weight. I’m an old molecular biologist is now aspiring to become an evolutionary biologist. But I live in Asia (at the moment). And surprise! The local university library does not have this book.

    Seriously, I can buy it for $110 or more than $400, as a used hard-cover. If I have it shipped from the US, It will take months and I will still have to pay $80 for used, including the $25 dollar shipping charge. So, does anyone want to sell or lend their copy? If lend, I promise a return in a couple of months, plus, of course, I will pay the postage. But selling is much easier.

    The destination is Japan.
    Arigatou!

    cowhead

    • Cowhead
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      To show how insanely expensive this book would be for me, I’m attaching a screen-shot of the only offer from Amazon, Japan:
      imgur.com/nB1i8ZF

      I omitted the http part, as I assume that would be blocked by the spam blocker.

  41. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Ah yes, the “the sacredness of each person”. She could have been right up to date and brought in some current events. Charlie Manson got a marriage license! He may soon get hitched with 26-year-old Afton Elaine Burton. Apparently, Ms. Burton Charlie’s sanctity, but I would have liked Karen Armstrong to spell it out for me. After all, I’m just a benighted atheist.

    • Timothy Hughbanks
      Posted November 19, 2014 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      …Ms. Burton sees Charlie’s sanctity…

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted November 19, 2014 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

        Though apparently he won’t be permitted conjugal visits, and he’ll be over 90 when (if) he ever gets out. So, since shagging is out of the question, what’s the point?

  42. Diane G.
    Posted November 19, 2014 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    Notoriety?

  43. rom
    Posted November 21, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    I must admit I don’t quite agree with the general tenor of the criticisms of Armstrong here.

    One of her points (in The Case of God) is what people actually believe is not important it is there actions that are important. I don’t think she meant promoting dogma here but more generally how we interact with one another.

    Secondly, from my point of view promoting a more inclusive and non literal interpretation of religious texts has got to be a step in the right direction. Preferring fundamentalists to me seems a strange position.

    • GBJames
      Posted November 21, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      Well, if what people actually believe isn’t important then we are fully correct to simply ignore what Ms. Armstrong thinks.

      As for your latter paragraph, I don’t think you’ll find anyone here who prefers fundamentalists to non-literal believers EXCEPT to the extent that the latter typically spout incoherent babble. Fundamentalists, of course, are totally wrong in their assertions about the nature of things, but at least their sentences can (usually) be parsed. This is not the case with Ms. Armstrong.

      • rom
        Posted November 21, 2014 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

        Like I said I got the gist of what Armstrong was trying to say.

        While your (and my) non belief in God (gods etc) might be interesting, how we treat one another I think is more important.

        Again I will stress she was saying that the dogmas that people of faith are not important, but it is their actions.

        • rom
          Posted November 21, 2014 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

          should read:
          the dogmas that people of faith believe …

        • GBJames
          Posted November 21, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

          That would be relevant if religious dogmas didn’t influence the behavior of believers. But, of course, it does. And no amount of Armstrongian incoherent babble will change this fact.

          • rom
            Posted November 22, 2014 at 10:07 am | Permalink

            True … but she is speaking to people with dogmas. I don’t think her message is aimed primarily at people without belief .

            So what do you think is Armstrong’s dogma?

            • GBJames
              Posted November 22, 2014 at 11:20 am | Permalink

              I think your question presumes a coherent steam of verbiage. Armstrong doesn’t provide such.

              • rom
                Posted November 22, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink

                Are you assuming dogmas have to be coherent?

              • GBJames
                Posted November 22, 2014 at 11:59 am | Permalink

                In order to be comprehensible, statements must be coherent. Armstrong’s ideas could very easily be generated by a slightly modified Sokol hoax generator. (Modified to increase the frequency of religiously-freighted terms.)

                To ask “what dogma is contained therein?” is to ask a question I can’t answer. Something like asking for the “true meaning” of something Deepak Chopra might say about quantum consciousness.

              • rom
                Posted November 22, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

                So how can I tell the difference between you not understanding Armstrong’s verbiage and it being incoherent?

              • GBJames
                Posted November 22, 2014 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

                Try to make sense of the things she says. Good luck with that.

              • kevin7alexander
                Posted November 22, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

                The English language is hugely deficient in the phrase ‘to make sense’
                It means both ‘it feels right’ and ‘it is reasonable’ where these two meanings have absolutely nothing to do with each other.

              • GBJames
                Posted November 22, 2014 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

                Sigh. I had imagined that we at least shared enough of a common language to be able to handle a phrase like “makes sense”.

                Let’s use our friend Mr. Google to help. Search for define “to make sense”.

                You’ll find something jumps right out at you:

                make sense
                phrase of sense
                1.
                be intelligible, justifiable, or practicable.

                Those words do not describe the things Ms. Armstrong says.

              • rom
                Posted November 22, 2014 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

                GB
                I have read only one of her books … The Case for God.

                I did not agree with it or the majority of her conclusions. But I did not find it incoherent.

                But her central theme of her book … be nice to people, I did not think it was that outlandish or incoherent.

              • GBJames
                Posted November 23, 2014 at 7:21 am | Permalink

                Well, I’d venture that “be nice to people” is not a coherent “case for God”.

                But I understand. You think she’s a nice lady with good intentions. And you don’t like to call nice people incoherent. That’s fine. I’m not restricted in that way.

            • rom
              Posted November 23, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink

              Whether something is coherent or not surely depends on the axioms we assume?

              Which god are you referring to and what are your axioms? I am not saying I disagree with you GB, but I think we need to be careful on insisting on coherence.

              • GBJames
                Posted November 23, 2014 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

                Rom, who’s talking about my axioms? Why do you keep asking me?

                The subject is Armstrong’s confused discussion of religion and God. Go ask her. But you can get a clue by reading the original post and watching the video clip contained there-in.

              • rom
                Posted November 23, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

                You are agreeing with Jerry’s position. Which I understand and think in of itself is OK.

                But if you are saying her position is incoherent, it does imply you have some understanding of her axioms does it not?

              • GBJames
                Posted November 23, 2014 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

                No, Rom. One doesn’t need to “understand the axioms” of a random collection of words in order to say they don’t add up to a coherent thought. At this point I suspect you are simply trolling. I’ll detach now. No progress is being made.

  44. rom
    Posted November 22, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Just a comment on “incoherent thought”.

    I don’t believe in free will. As far as I’m concerned thought is more or less synonymous with a whole bunch of chemical reactions and causes going on in my brain and nervous system in general. I draw some arbitrary boundary in there somewhere and say thought stops here.

    So my lack of belief in free will and my defence of Karen Armstrong are a result of a myriad of chemical reactions (quantum phenomena whatever) that can be described by the second law of thermodynamics, rate laws, diffusion, attraction/repulsion of charge, etc.

    Is there such a thing as an incoherent chemical reaction?


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