The (poor) Case for God and Lisa Miller’s apologetics.

Out, Out, Damned Atheists (Sep 11 09)

Out, Out, Damned Atheists (Sep 11 09)

Its been a loooong while since I wrote on this blog (and yes… shame on me for that). I have little to offer by way of excuse or even an explanation.  It would be dishonest to say that I did not have time (although that would be partly true). But it would be more honest to say that nothing provoked me to sort out the threads of an argument and thus explore the truth content within them.

But that provocation has arrived. Albeit unexpectedly – but arrived nonetheless!

Lisa Miller recently wrote a Newsweek column raving about a book by Karen Armstrong called “The Case for God”. Frankly, the article is so full of bullshit that it took me a couple of days to ensure that my annoyance did not get in the way of my rebuttal.

Ms. Miller is effusive about Armstrong’s high-minded arguments in support of Religion and God.  However, it seemed to me that she was more thrilled at the prospect that a high-minded and noble-sounding answer had finally arisen to subdue (if not silence) the insolent atheists who ruthlessly flog religion and God.  It is NOT the strength of Ms. Armstrong’s arguments that seems to have swooned Miller but the tone of noble gallantry. In short, style over substance! I was particularly irritated by this segment :

Armstrong shows that for most of human history, “faith” and “reason” were not mutually exclusive and that even today all kinds people believe in a God that in no way resembles the God the atheists despise.

Faith and Reason are not mutually exclusive? What kind of drivel is this?? Faith is precisely the abandonment of reason! When you believe in something without evidence and despite contrary evidence – that is *faith*. What else does it mean to say that one has faith in a magic amulet or in the claim that world was created in 6 days?

It is true that there are many religious people who are tethered to reason in almost every aspect of their life. This DOES NOT mean that reason and faith are compatible constructs. To the extent that these good folks adopt the un-substantiated  tenets of their religion, they have suspended the application of reason.  In other words, the space that faith occupies in people’s minds is the space that was created by evicting reason! Granted that the human mind is agile enough to accommodate differing outlooks – but it does so by actively exempting one set of ideas from the rigorous scrutiny of another set. This says more about the human ability to compartmentalize rather than the fundamental compatibility of reason and faith.

Miller then asserts that many (probably most) people believe in a God that does not resemble the one that atheists despise….  Could you please pass me a dollop of dim-wittedness to go with my idiotic?

Atheists DO NOT despise any god. They cannot! Mainly because they don’t believe in one!!

Could Ms. Miller (if she wanted) despise Santa Clause? How about the tooth-fairy?  Jinns anyone? Any takers for Zeus-hating? Why? Because she does not believe in their existence (I presume). The same goes for atheists!

Yes – its true that atheists express unabashed contempt for religious claims and they do so by shining a light on  the assertions that religions make about God, Heaven, Hell, morality and ethics.  Once examined, religion starts to look vapid and vacuous. And God starts to looks more and more like a capricious egotistical bully! That does not mean that atheists make him out to be one.  They are just reading from His own resume!

Karen Armstrong - The Case for God.

Karen Armstrong - The Case for God.

Ms. Miller seems to be really taken in by the soft humility of Ms. Armstrong’s approach. If you see Ms. Armstrong’s lecture at TED, you cannot help feel moved by her impassioned plea for compassion. However, the subject matter of her thesis is NOT her personal compassion – but the claim that world religions are primarily and exclusively about being compassionate!That claim is patently false!

Ms. Armstrong’s central theme in that (TED) lecture is:

  • Religion is NOT what the scripture says. Instead it is what “she” has discovered it to be (i.e. universal compassion – AKA The Golden Rule)
  • Religion has been “hijacked” by extremists and any interpretation of scripture that does not culminate in compassion is automatically the wrong one! (i.e. we must reject any analysis that does not yield a predetermined conclusion).
  • Religion is NOT about orthodoxy – but about practice – a painstaking practice of compassion.
  • Religion is NOT the biggest cause of violence but human greed and avarice is. Exhibit A: World Wars 1 & 2.  and soccer hooliganism.
  • “True” religion insists on extending our common humanist impulses to one another within the group but more importantly across religious groups.

Now for my refutation/rebuttal:

Ms. Armstrong may wish that religion were all the things that she claims but that does not make it so.

To say that Religion is not what the scripture says is  a convenient way to dismiss all incriminating evidence and only allow a shred of supportive anecdotes.  Moreover,  is it not interesting that in support of her claim that religion is not about scripture, she cherry-picks quotes from the same scripture that she instructed us not to bring into the scope of examination.

Religion engenders intolerance and sanctifies bigotry.

Religion engenders intolerance and sanctifies bigotry.

Her broader claim is that Religion has been “hijacked”.  Hijacking is a case of subverting a project from its original intent. The Bible and the Koran and other “holy books” are unambiguous about their intent and their content. Does the concept of Jihad not exist in the Koran? How about the concept of the Kafir or the Infidel? Is jew-hatred not enshrined in the Koran?  Does the Bible not pronounce homosexuality as sexual-villainy? Is hell-fire not promised for dissent from the Bible? Do Hindu texts not endorse and enforce apartheid in the form of caste-divisions?

Dressing up religion as some kind of “refinement of the soul” is itself a hijacking of the discourse. Religion offers a spurious “upliftment of the soul” provided you are willing to surrender your intellect and your personal sovereignty. To  champion only one side of the bargain is to subvert the truth – i.e. hijacking it.

Its false to say that religion eschews orthodoxy. The problems we see in the world today are precisely conflicting orthodoxies. The orthodox Jews and the orthodox Muslims (and the orthodox Christians) believe that God in His infinite wisdom took time off from watching over the expanse of the universe  to bequeath a remote piece of arid land to one set of people (and not the other).   It is dishonest to say that these religions are striving for something transcendent. This kind of tribal pettiness is precisely what scripture declares as sacrosanct and strict adherence is the very essence of orthodoxy. Ms. Armstrong’s personal ethics and sensibilities may lift her beyond the lure of such trivialities but let us not assume that religion has made the same lofty leap.

It is true that humans are notoriously susceptible to greed and avarice. The main problem however, is that religion makes it possible to conceal such greed and transform it into some kind of  righteousness. In other words, a problem that could have been negotiable if it was driven by just naked greed, becomes intractable once it is sanctified by religious mandate. Who is going to give away East Jerusalem when your scripture commands you to lay claim to all of it? Who is going to share worshiping rights in Ayodhya when scripture and tradition declares that it is exclusive to one set of morons and not the other? You see… religion transforms a terrestrial quarrel into a celestial war.  Bravo!

Ms. ArmstroMulticultural utopiang makes an impassioned plea that “true” religion is a high-minded pursuit of self-improvement through compassion – but she fails to observe that this “true” religion is a figment of her imagination.   I would not mind if she were to state that the world would be a better place * if religions were to* truly espouse compassion toward one and all. But her claim (lamentably) is that religions *truly do* espouse compassion for one and all – and that is being just too economical with the truth.

Religion is replete with mandates that not only allow the faithful to inflict harm on the infidel  but actually demand it of the faithful. To say that religion asks us to project compassion toward others – especially those outside the fold is ABSOLUTELY FALSE. If you were to remove from the Bible and the Koran, all the parts that are hurtful, hateful, xenophobic,  homophobic, misogynistic and violent,  these “holy books” could be reduced to a pamphlet.

Upon reflection, it seems to me that Ms. Armstrong has done precisely that! She has excised the unsavory and toxic elements of religion, over-amplified the good parts, dis-allowed incriminating evidence and thus made her (spurious) Case for God!

In conclusion, I do not begrudge Ms. Armstrong’s high-mindedness – I object to the fact that her arguments engage in falsification of the record. I object to the deliberate cherry-picking of  scripture that bolster her position and the brazen exemption of a large amount that is inconvenient. In short – I object to her intellectual dishonesty!

And most of all, I resent that Ms. Miller of Newsweek overlooks these wide chasms of tautology and paints Ms. Armstrong’s thesis as some kind of a soothing balm that is a welcome antidote to the harsh scrutiny unleashed by atheists. What else can you make of an article titled “Out! Out! Damned Atheists!”? Ms. Miller is welcome to be sappy about religion. She should just not expect to be considered an intellectual or even intelligent.

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13 Responses

  1. Newsweek actually PUBLISHED this? The hell…?

  2. Whilst I agree with what was said above, I would recommend Pascal Boyer’s book “Religion Explained”where Boyer shows Natural or shamanistic religion to be the result of the free operation off the human mind, not that this makes it “true”. Boyer is an anthropologist abd derives his theories from observation of tribal peoples. The abrahamic and other theistic religions are a perversion of natural religion to support the power structures in society. Theistic religions are an agricultural disease.

    • Thanks Andrew, I’ll take a look at “Religion Explained”. However, I want to make it clear that just because there is a less pernicious “religious outlook” – it does not make it more sound.

      Jainism is gentle and kind-hearted – but it makes assumptions if not assertions that are simply baseless.

  3. That was really passionately and well-written, good stuff! Notice how the religious are slowly changing their arguments to a defensive stance? A sure sign of decline, and Amen to that.

    • Thank you Buck. That was very kind of you.

      I don’t think the religious are changing their stance at all. Karen Armstrong is not a religious fundie. She’s one of those good folks, who feel that we can all get along if we stopped pointing flaws in one another. Its an extension of this multi-culturalist tendency which considers all ideas and traditions equally valid and worthy of equal “respect”.

      Frankly, I consider this abdications of one’s intellect. And since intellect is the primary faculty that makes us human – it would be a shame to discard it.

      She’s welcome to discard it as a matter of persona choice – but I’m not making that my choice. No sir!!

  4. You might be interested in what Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom have to say about Karen Armstrong’s writings in their book “Does God Hate Women?”. According to them Karen Armstrong doesn’t cite her sources and her claims – in this particular instance about Islam – don’t stand up to scrutiny.

    (I followed the link here from Pharyngula.)

  5. Lovely piece.

    And fascism isn’t really about killing people who dissent. It’s about making the trains run on time.

  6. Excellent maulling!!

    I’ve seem Ms Armstrong on quite a few TV programmes on religion and she always comes across as being smug and self-satisfied.

    When you have to lie about and avoid major parts of what you are justifying it’s just not worth justifying it.

    Oh well.

  7. Atheists don’t despise god, that’s like saying adults despise Father Christmas.

  8. […] Miller’s editorial in Newsweek, much criticised by Bloc Raisonneur, Why Evolution is True,  Mind Droppings, Reason.Science.Metal , Think Atheist and Poohsthink – although it gets a friendlier and […]

  9. Found this listening to Ms Miller’s dribblings on the Radio National [Aus] today. Aside from her conflation of `pyschotherapy’ with `psychology’ the whole sanctimonious tone was along the lines, of `adolescents are gullible, they calm down a bit when given fairy stories, so fairy stories are good’.
    We get these desperate pleas to be accepted as relevant from time to time, but the whole program was one of the more mendacious and puerile in its cherry-picking I have ever come across.

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