Given that it's called a 'Manifesto' I was expecting a forward plan rather than a series of case studies. It's in a very similar style to Ben Goldacre...moreGiven that it's called a 'Manifesto' I was expecting a forward plan rather than a series of case studies. It's in a very similar style to Ben Goldacre's 'Bad Science'. I'm glad I read it, and I learned a lot of details, but I'm not sure it gave me any new insights. I suspect it will help consolidate the strength of 'geek' opinion, but I doubt it will do more than preach to the converted...unless it is widely discussed in the media. Love the cover.(less)
For those of us who have found some of Armstrong's previous books a little dry or dense to enjoy, then this book presents a briefer version of her per...moreFor those of us who have found some of Armstrong's previous books a little dry or dense to enjoy, then this book presents a briefer version of her perspective on the history of religion (mainly Christianity). She has structured this history within what has become the standard historical model within the western academy of the humanities, which leads us from a pre-modern age, through the modern period, and into the emerging post-modern era. Although Armstrong points out some of the complexities in this simplistic tripartite division of western history, I am a little uncomfortable that her central argument fits too easily into the common prejudices associated with this grand narrative. In summary, the pre-modern age is seen as noble, the modern period is under the spell of arrogant rationalism, and the post-modern era is enamored by the contradictory concept of absolute relativism. Although Armstrong can give examples to fit her thesis that the theology of a pre-modern clergy was subverted by the influence of The Enlightenment, it is far less obvious how representative these changes were of religion as understood by the general laity.
All attempts to discuss the nature of knowledge, about God or otherwise, must face the problem at the heart of philosophical skepticism: we are acquainted only with our own perceptions, and never directly with the things which are supposed to lie beyond them. How can we hope for knowledge about those things, or even be justified in asserting their existence? For the most part, Armstrong appears to take the pragmatic position that some aspect of empirical knowledge is possible. Early in the book she introduces the useful conceptual framework encapsulated by the terms `logos' and `mythos', first used by the ancient Greeks. As rational beings, we may appreciate the wonder of reason and empirical knowledge (logos), and as emotional beings we may appreciate personal meaning, narrative and the thrill of the unknowable (mythos). Finding the appropriate balance in this binary construct is the goal of those who seek to harmonize, not only science and religion, but also science and the humanities. Indeed Armstrong refers to religion as similar to art. For Armstrong, the question of why is there something rather than nothing is the ultimate unknowable that lies at the heart of religion.
As might be expected, Armstrong seems more familiar with the history of religion than with metaphysics and the philosophy of science. She doesn't really directly address the central ontological and epistemological questions which give rise to tension between religious and scientific world views. If I interpret her thesis correctly, it seems that she is defining God as unknowable ontological reality, and religion as an epistemic practice that facilitates awareness of our sense of being within this unknowable reality.
From a practical point of view, Armstrong has helped to clarify, and at least partly dissolve my distrust of some religious concepts. `Faith' seems to be a more constructive concept when viewed as `trust, loyalty, engagement and commitment' to a practical way of life, which Armstrong informs us was its original meaning, rather than blind intellectual assent, or the opposite of doubt, as it is more frequently understood today. She has successfully disentangled the concepts of commitment and idolatry, which are often linked within a vague definition of faith. Indeed, it is the unquestioning respect for blind intellectual assent and idolatrous nature of modern religious belief that the 'new atheists' (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett etc) find so dangerous. I suspect they might be far more tolerant of the kind of apophatic theology which rejects these absolutist traits and Armstrong proposes is the true heir of ancient religion.
I agree with the critique made by Armstrong and others that Dawkins has only succeeded in directing a somewhat middle-brow polemic against the idol of a personal God. But, I suspect that this is all he intended to do. Indeed Armstrong, like the new atheists, directs some of her most strident criticism against literalistic `belief'. Given the new atheists' twin acknowledgments of the importance of personal meaning and the existence of the unknowable, it also seems a little harsh to describe Dawkins and others as subscribing to scientism, unless if only in the same way as Armstrong might be accused of religionism. That is to say, as strong defenders of a cherished tradition, even if it is in need of rehabilitation.
One term that Armstrong frequently uses, but fails to define satisfactorily, is `transcendence' through religious practice. Most of us are familiar with the feeling of awe which takes us outside of our everyday selves when we contemplate the beauty of nature, art, or scientific insight, but Armstrong seems to mean something different to this. The new atheist writer, Sam Harris, has spoken positively of similar `spiritual' practice. He describes a phenomenon which might be Armstrong's `transcendence' whereby intense meditation can dissolve the apparent boundary between `self' and `other', whilst maintaining a stream of consciousness. Harris has even pointed out that a reduction in our feelings of `separateness' could help encourage compassion and improve the human condition. Surely there is much common ground here to be explored.
However, no matter how many times Armstrong tells us that some-thing or no-thing called `God' has often been conceptualized as `Being' itself, rather than `A being', in the end for me it does not seem worth the effort to retain the distracting avatar of a masculine being, as symbolic of the `Ground of all Being'. Therefore, although Armstrong has made a good stab at persuading me that a transformed, skeptical, humble, religion based on a shared compassion, and awe of nature and Being itself may still be viable, the book is far less persuasive of 'The Case for God', literal or symbolic. (less)