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Never one to shy away from the big topics, Karen Armstrong here takes on the ambitious task of describing the rich and complex forms in which human religious life has manifested from prehistoric times up to the present. The content is laid out in a way that will be easily intelligible to most reasonably well-educated audiences; and in this audio version, the author herself reads the book in an eloquent and authoritative manner, making the listening experience enjoyable. The structure blends an overall historical trajectory with regular pauses for closer exposition of particular topics, and connections are highlighted across different world traditions. The result is an informative overview of the history of religious and philosophical ideas and ways of life.
As its title suggests, the book is intended to make a case, and hence to contain a line of argument; indeed, it is in large part framed as a response to the so-called "new atheism" that has been vociferously promulgated in recent years by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. But it is certainly not a book that attempts to argue for any particular metaphysical thesis, or even for the rationality of believing in God. Rather than attacking the arguments of new atheists head-on, it seeks to display the colorful and diverse nature of religious traditions, and to illustrate the extent to which religiosity is rooted in deep human impulses and saturates our cultural life and heritage. In so doing, Armstrong successfully (in my view) exposes how attenuated and impoverished is the conception of religion upon which much of the new atheist critique relies. Thus the book builds not so much a case for God, as a case for thinking twice before assuming that we know what "God" means or what a religious approach to life must consist in.
There are, inevitably, risks in this argumentative strategy. One such risk is that those who are favorable to the new atheist position will not perceive it as an argument at all. They will hear it as a mere description--albeit a fascinating and historically well-informed description--of a particular feature, or nexus of features, of human life. They will then add that this description merely reveals the panoply of irrational and outdated beliefs that many humans have been prone to hold in the past, a panoply that should be jettisoned at the earliest opportunity if we do not wish the progress of civilization to be hindered.
Armstrong's implicit response is, again, not to try to defend the beliefs in question on the grounds that they are true or rationally-held. Instead, she downplays the significance of mere belief (she often pronounces the word with a tone of disdain) and emphasizes the role of practical engagement in religious activity. From the shamanic practices of Paleolithic peoples, through the initiation rituals of the Elysian mystery cults, to the prayerful and meditative exercises of numerous contemporary religious traditions, Armstrong persistently reminds us of the centrality of doing and being as opposed to merely thinking or believing, where "believing" is taken to have the modern sense of assenting to a proposition rather than necessarily orienting one's whole life in a spiritual direction.
The fact that Armstrong has a particular theological agenda is not hard to detect. She clearly favors apophatic ways of talking about God--ways that stress the inability of humans to comprehend God's ultimately mysterious nature--to any positive descriptive approach. She claims apophasis to be the predominant orientation of theology throughout much of human history, invoking figures such as Origen, Augustine, Denis, Maimonides, Aquinas, and Eckhart in support of this claim; the tendency to regard God as playing an explanatory role in a theory of the universe is viewed as a development of the modern scientific era, from Galileo, Descartes and Newton onwards. This shift away from an acknowledgment of the mystery of God and towards an affirmation of God's knowability has, as naturalistic science progresses, left religion vulnerable to the charge of explanatory redundancy. Armstrong sees possibilities of a return to mystery--a reinstatement of the distinction between mythos and logos--in the work of certain "postmodern" thinkers such as Paul Tillich, Mark C. Taylor, Gianni Vattimo, and John Caputo, and also in the thought of Jacques Derrida. Sadly, far from strengthening the case for God, this embracing of the postmodern is liable to be perceived by hardened atheists as a desperate flight into obscurantism.
Inevitably, the book's vast historical and geographical range militates against depth of analysis. At many places, it comes across as a breezy jaunt through the history of western ideas, merely dropping names of theologians, philosophers and scientists while losing sight of Armstrong's professed aim of underscoring the practical, non-theoretical dimensions of religion. Yet amidst the encyclopedic torrent of famous men there remains a powerful argument for appreciating the vital pulse of religions in our lives--religions that not only contemplate the world but also sing, dance and imbue us with attentiveness to the suffering of others. Beyond the arrogance of fundamentalisms, whether religious or scientistic, there is the humility of unknowingness and the spirit of reverence, which this book admirably affirms.
© 2010 Mikel Burley
Mikel Burley, Department of Philosophy, University of Leeds, Leeds, LS2 9JT, UK