What a match-up, eh?
The Wall Street Journal asked two authors to respond to the question “Where does evolution leave god?” Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins were those two authors. I suspect that the Dawkins response is culled from his upcoming book, “The Greatest Show On Earth“, being published later this month. Since I generally agree with Dawkins’ take on Evolution, and how it affects the concept of god, I’ll comment on his response only peripherally. However, Karen Armstrong’s’ response evokes a response from me. I’m not sure I completely follow her thoughts, so I will try to do so here, and come to some conclusion at the end.
Initially I thought the title, and the two separate responses, one from a confirmed scientist/atheist and one from someone not so antagonistic towards religion, was a set-up for a dichotomy on the subject. The two independent headings to the respective essays seems to point to a difference in conclusions.
Karen Armstrong says we need God to grasp the wonder of our existence
Richard Dawkins argues that evolution leaves God with nothing to do
but I’m not so sure. She starts off agreeing with Dawkins:
Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course—at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive. The fossil record reveals a natural history of pain, death and racial extinction, so if there was a divine plan, it was cruel, callously prodigal and wasteful. Human beings were not the pinnacle of a purposeful creation; like everything else, they evolved by trial and error and God had no direct hand in their making. No wonder so many fundamentalist Christians find their faith shaken to the core.
All well and good, except for the assumption that god actually exists in the phrase “and God had no direct hand in their making”. She appears to be trying to hang on to the idea of a deistic god, one who started the process but then abandoned it.
But Darwin may have done religion—and God—a favor by revealing a flaw in modern Western faith…
Here’s where she starts to lose me. The implication here is that religion is valid, civilization has just been going about it all wrong. And she’s now going to show us the right way, with the help of Darwin. How neat and tidy! How reconciliatory!
Despite our scientific and technological brilliance, our understanding of God is often remarkably undeveloped—even primitive. In the past, many of the most influential Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers understood that what we call “God” is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence, whose existence cannot be proved but is only intuited by means of spiritual exercises and a compassionate lifestyle that enable us to cultivate new capacities of mind and heart.
OK. Now she’s abandoned reason and slipped effortlessly into the realm of theistic apologetics. What she’s saying is that our understanding of god up to this point in time is all wrong. In fact, god is so complex, and so unknowable, that we’ve been worshiping only a “symbol” of god, (the symbol itself being a creation of man) not the real thing. That last clause, about “indescribable transcendence” and a “compassionate lifestyle” and cultivating “new capacities of mind and heart” are just the kind of apologetics theists revert back to when their god is challenged. It’s what Christopher Hitchens calls “white noise”. It is totally meaningless blather designed in flowery phrasing to hide the inability of the writer to pin down her god. It’s an appeal to emotion, when the question of the existence of god is a question of fact. To her credit, she’s not arguing in favor of that type of god; she’s only pointing out the type of god many believers put their faith in – an ephemeral god.
I suspect that theists have always felt rather than known their god. Their faith feels good, but in the end they cannot rationalize it. That’s the nature a faith, and most purveyors of apologetics freely admit it. Karen Armstrong seems to be doing just that. She recites a short history of religious thought as it came up against scientific facts, and acknowledges that progressively, religion had no choice but to fall back with each advance of science, until
…finally, Darwin showed that there could be no proof for God’s existence.
She also acknowledges this faith/reason conflict historically.
Most cultures believed that there were two recognized ways of arriving at truth. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary, each with its own sphere of competence. Logos (“reason”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled us to function effectively in the world and had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. But it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggle. For that people turned to mythos, stories that made no pretensions to historical accuracy but should rather be seen as an early form of psychology; if translated into ritual or ethical action, a good myth showed you how to cope with mortality, discover an inner source of strength, and endure pain and sorrow with serenity.
First, Greek mythology is not something any modern person believes in, other than as a source of literature. Second, Armstrong acknowledges that in all day-to-day dealings with life, we are inherently rationalists, operating in the world of the logos. Only in times of crisis and stress (human grief) do we seek solace in the mythos, an “early form of psychology”. So, when confronted with realities that are hard to handle, humans’ natural reaction is to retreat to a fantasy for comfort. Eventually, given the comfort that religion actually brings to people, it stops being a fantasy, and becomes reality. Our brains have an amazing capacity of fooling ourselves in order to protect our sanity. It is common knowledge that the mind can actually erase memories of severely traumatic events in order to prevent a total psychological breakdown. So, why not this milder form of trauma therapy? Armstrong agrees.
In the ancient world, a cosmology was not regarded as factual but was primarily therapeutic; it was recited when people needed an infusion of that mysterious power that had—somehow—brought something out of primal nothingness: at a sickbed, a coronation or during a political crisis.
So where does this leave us in our quest to determine whether god actually exists?
Religion was not supposed to provide explanations that lay within the competence of reason but to help us live creatively with realities for which there are no easy solutions and find an interior haven of peace; today, however, many have opted for unsustainable certainty instead. But can we respond religiously to evolutionary theory? Can we use it to recover a more authentic notion of God?
In other words, god doesn’t exist, other than in some poetic sense in our minds. Those that insist that god exists outside of ourselves are deluding themselves, by seeking “unsustainable certainty”. It seems then that Karen Armstrong actually agrees with Dawkins, yet the danger is that in reading her essay, many will still cling to their notion that god exists, independent of their belief that he does, because she couches her agreement in the language of apologetics. In the end, however, she and Dawkins are on the same page.
Apparently, the flaw in Western religious thought – her initial premise – is the idea of a real god, one with sustainable certainty. God really doesn’t exist, in reality. Only in the hearts (a muscle, no less) and minds of the faithful.