Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Karen Armstrong is a *gasp* atheist!

A Christian gets one right! Whoda thunk it? Reviewing the "debate" between Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong, Albert Mohler concludes that Armstrong is an atheist. Mohler quotes Armstrong as saying, "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." Mohler considers Armstrong's argument "superficial and theologically reckless" and "elegant nonsense." According to Mohler, "Dawkins ... understands God better than Armstrong. In fact, Richard Dawkins the atheist rightly insists that Karen Armstrong is actually an atheist as well." Mohler concurs with Dawkins that believers will lump those such as Armstrong with postmodernist and non-realist theologians and correctly brand them all as atheists.

There is a range of tastes and preferences among atheists, but so far as I know none say that literature and metaphor are socially harmful or even useless. I might not like this or that genre of literature, and I suppose there are atheists who don't personally like any literature at all, but the attitude among atheists is generally that literature, fiction, allegory, and metaphor are respectable or at least benign ways of talking about our experiences in the world. It might not be a metaphor we like, but if you want to use "god" as a literary metaphor for the wonder and mystery of the world, knock yourself out.

Believers such as Mohler and a billion others, though, are not buying this whole literary metaphor line. They take their theology seriously. God really does exist. God really does have a very specific physical and moral plan for the world, one we fail to conform to at our real peril. Armstrong is fooling herself if she believes her pseudo-theology is building any kind of bridge between believers and real atheists. There is no middle ground between those who believe that God really does exist and those who believe God really does not exist. In Mohler's eyes, Armstrong gives away the store, by entirely conceding the essential feature of the controversy to the atheists.

Mohler could very easily have seen Armstrong's line as a simple deceptive strategem. All's fair in love and war, n'est pas, and if Armstrong can bullshit the atheists into shutting up, who cares if she's mangling theology. It's not like she's making atheists' view of theology any worse. But I think even as deception Mohler sees Armstrong as going too far. There is nothing to be gained by even an insincere or deceptive surrender, and much lost by a deceptive surrender that leaves one's opponents armed.

Postmodernist and nonrealist theology damages Mohler's view of religion as much as, or perhaps even more than, outright atheism. Mohler does not care that people still use the word "God" in any old sense: he means something not just vaguely pleasing, but something specific by "God", something true. Religion, at least the kind of religion atheists are typically opposed to, is about authority. Without a real God, with a real plan, from whence do a horde of parasitic clergy derive their power and privilege? If anyone's opinion about God is as good as anyone else's, by what virtue can Mohler and his ilk demand that we submit to his opinion about God? Armstrong surrenders the very thing — religious authority — that Mohler must protect.

Armstrong not only surrenders what Mohler and that category of believers must fundamentally protect, she surrenders to the theists that which the skeptical atheists must protect: scientific truth. We have to interpret not just what someone says, but where they say it from: even if they use the same words, a person who condemed slavery, for example, would have meant something very different if he had spoken them from Washington, DC than if he had spoken them from Richmond, VA. Similarly, we have to interpret Armstrong's position in light of her alignment with the religious against the atheists. If we agree completely on the content of her remarks — religion is at best a literary metaphor — she must be opposed to us on some more subtle basis. We can conclude only that Armstrong intends some sort of aesthetic appeal is a guide to truth. We must interpret Armstrong as agreeing with atheists only that Mohler is wrong, but she must disagree as to why we conclude that Mohler is wrong: atheists say that Mohler is wrong because he's making claims about reality that are scientifically absurd; Armstrong presumably must say that Mohler is wrong because his theology is aesthetically displeasing. But atheism — at least the Gnu Atheism of people such as myself — is not about just not believing in God for any old reason, it's about embracing science, rationality, evidence and rejecting superstition, delusion, and nonsense; Mohler's God is just one casualty among many. Just as Mohler cannot sacrifice the actual existence of God, however pernicious a specific delusion, we cannot eliminate that individual delusion by sacrificing the condemnation of delusion in general.


  1. Good point, especially the bit about us embracing science et al. People who complain about us always seem to miss that point, somehow, and just focus on the tone. Good post.

  2. Larry, greetings.

    Might I leave you a link to something, both you and your readers might enjoy.

    Part one of episode one, along with a brief intro from myself, can be found at the link, the rest on Youtube. Enjoy.

    Brian Cox: Wonders of the Universe

  3. The Brian Cox link is empty, mon frer.

  4. Forgive me dear boy.

    I experienced the same problem yesterday, but have since tracked the problem down to my using a Mac keyboard on a PC. A delight to type with by the way even if one struggles on occasion for a function or two.

    Two single inverted commas produced by the Mac, doesn't equal a double from a standard keyboard. Hence link, NFG.

    Consequently, this should be the desired link.

    Warmest regards,


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