Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Case for God (Book Review)

Brain foodImage by trib via Flickr
Wow.  I just finished reading Karen Armstrong's "The Case for God".  I feel like I have completed a college course in theology and history. The Case for God covers theology, philosophy, history etc. from the beginning of recorded time up until the present.  It is a relatively quick overview of the complex and ever-changing relationships between natural sciences, theology, religion, government and social sciences throughout the millenia.  Armstrong doesn't just stick to Judeo-Christian history either covering other religions (including Islam) and how their views of G-d have changed over the course of time.

I'm not much of a history buff.  I have to admit at times I found the book to be difficult to plow through.  It's full of names and dates that I wasn't particularly interested in.  But, what I have found as I have studied a little about the history of religion and theology is that it's important to understand how things have changed over time because we have a tendency to believe that the way we look at things today is the way we have always looked at things (and is necessarily the right way to look at things). Both science and theology have undergone a great deal of evolution, with periods of sometimes quantum leaps.  And, both have alternated back and forth between thinking they know all there is to know and realizing we actually know very little. We seem to be emerging from a time in which we placed a great deal of faith in science to give us all of the answers.  However, the lack of attaining the promised Utopia, we now have even more creative and efficient ways of destroying ourselves and the planet, and scientific discoveries about just how mysterious the universe is (quantum physics) have caused many to realize that we didn't know quite as much as we thought we did and maybe science doesn't have all of the answers.  For many science had become the new religion.  That, I knew.  What I didn't realize before reading this book is we've been down that path before.  The same thing has happened (is happening) with religion.  Fundamentalists (those who think their Bible/religion/church is inerrant, literal and perfect) would have us believe they are upholding the traditions of the faith. But, the truth is this type of fundamentalism is a relatively modern phenomenon just like the rabid atheism that some are professing now.  One point in the book that really jumped out at me and will stay with me is that while it might be tempting to view fundamentalism and atheism as polar opposites, they are really two sides of the same coin and each is a reaction to the other.  Theists who think they have all of the answers and who put G-d in a box create atheists who reject that particular version of G-d.  The more the atheist attacks the theists' G-d, the more the theist feels he has to defend by making more and more declarative statements and holding tighter to them.  The more he does that, the more the atheist caricatures all religion and rejects the straw man G-d the theist has set up for him.  The truth is most of us are somewhere in the middle realizing that we cannot completely define G-d, that we do not have an ultimate and literal book of truth and that we will always fall short no matter what we say about G-d.

While I did find the book to be tedious at times, I also found it to be highly engaging and full of insights I had not had before.  I think I ended up highlighting about half of the book.  As a progressive wrestling with reconciling the god of my youth with the reality I see all around me and moving past my fundamentalist background I find myself caught in between the two "modern" extremes.  Atheist friends ask how I can remain a Christian, how I can remain a believer.  After all religion is just opium for the masses, wishful thinking.  Fundamentalists say I'm no longer a Christian because I don't "believe" anymore. What I've realized is that those who say people like me are heretics because we don't believe in their version of G-d or Christianity are wrong. It's the fundamentalists who are actually new on the scene.  Throughout Christian (and Jewish) history most people did not take the Bible literally and certainly did not think they knew all there was to know about G-d or that G-d was just a bigger, smarter version of us who lives in the sky.

Another important point I took from the book is that the theist needs the atheist.  When theists get too comfortable with their tidy theological systems and have G-d stuffed back into the proverbial box that we're always trying to fit Her in, we need the atheist to come along and challenge us with a "Not so fast.  What about...?"  Instead of looking at atheists as a threat, we should look at them as the iron that sharpens iron.  I've found this to be true in my life.  My atheist friends have kept me on my toes and actually helped me deepen my faith (while often challenging my beliefs).  I remember one guy in particular who was a devout agnostic.  He wasn't going to be swayed one way or the other.  I was on   a board swarming with atheists, fundamentalists and a few of us who were moving towards being progressive.  My friend would call all of us out.  He kept the atheists and us theist both in line.  He was a scientist and would challenge my silly, childish beliefs about G-d stripping them away one by one.  At the time, it felt like my world was falling apart.  But, looking back on it, I am truly grateful for what I learned from him.

As I read the book, I kept thinking that it was not what I was expecting.  I was expecting an argument for why I should "believe".  I was expecting a scientific, modern proof of why belief is better than non-belief.  Instead what Armstrong points out is science has its place and religion has its place.  Science is about the how things happen.  Religion is about the why. Religion was and is intended to answer the questions science cannot answer.

Overall, I do highly recommend the book.  I got it after listening to Karen on a TED talk and on a radio interview.  In just a few minutes, her insights blew me away and I just knew I had to get this book.   I am so glad I did. If you're like me, you might struggle to get through the names and dates.  But, don't worry, there's no final exam at the end.  I think the historical perspective Karen Armstrong brings to the book is very important.  I also like the fact that it's not just about Christian or any particular tradition's history but about the way mankind as a whole has viewed G-d.  The Case for God won't make unbelievers into believers (not in the traditional sense anyway).  But, I think it might help agnostics and atheists understand what at at least some of are talking about when we say we believe in G-d.  I am of the opinion that no one cannot believe in G-d, if we could agree on what we are talking about when we use the word.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]


Don said...

Great!! Another book to add to my list! lol! As a former history teacher, I know I would like this one. I purchased a couple of her books (as references) recently. NOW, I have to start reading.

By the way, I am having great difficulty starting "The Gita". I am putting it aside for now, and reading a book which argues against the "rapture" as commonly believed by Christian fundies. It just sort of drew me in!

Brian said...


I'm sure you'll love The Case for God. History has never been my thing. So, that aspect of it was a bit of a struggle for me.

The Gita is a book I would have really struggled with a few years ago. But, when I read it recently, it really resonated with me. It may be because I've been studying Buddhism for the past few years though that so much of it seemed familiar.


Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

I have Armstrong's The Battle for God, but have not read it yet. Thanks for the review.