:: Article

Silence Is Easy

By Max Dunbar.


The Case for God: What Religion Really Means, Karen Armstrong, The Bodley Head, 2009 

Of all the recent pro-faith books to hit the review pages, Karen Armstrong’s is the most original and interesting. The dinner-party truism runs that spirituality is not the same thing as organised religion. Armstrong’s view is the opposite: ‘Religion, therefore, was not primarily something that people thought but something they did.’ She reminded me of the protagonist of Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, who complains of the hippie movement that ‘they’re still convinced that religion is some sort of individual experience based on meditation, spiritual exploration and all that. They don’t understand that it’s a purely social thing about rites and rituals, ceremonies and rules.’

The book is less original in its tired and reflexive thesis that the true nature of God has been obscured by the parallel dogmas of fundamentalism and atheism. The middle path, Armstrong believes, lies in the apophatic tradition: God is ultimately unknowable, beyond the ability of humankind t0 comprehend. He is best appreciated in a chaste and reverent silence.

With this in mind Armstrong takes the reader on a freewheeling philosophical tour from 30,000 BCE to the present day. Most of it is fascinating. There are two problems. One is the indiscriminate, almost frantic desire to recruit every thinker of note to the religious cause: Socrates, Darwin, Aristotle, Shelley, Nietzsche, all are conscripted into Armstrong’s theist army. A deeper problem is that Armstrong seems to associate all transcendent and mystical activity with religious faith.

I’ll give one example. Discussing Polyani’s work on language, Armstrong claims that this ‘is not dissimilar to the Cappadocians’ insistence that the knowledge of God was acquired not merely cerebrally but by the physical participation in the liturgical tradition of the Church’. Perhaps she’s right. But she sounds like those amiable Christian groups who, after talking about football or drugs in high school assemblies, suddenly say: ‘And that’s a bit like Jesus, isn’t it?’

You come away with the impression that Armstrong can’t imagine transcendence outside of religion. ‘Music has always been inseparable from religious expression,’ she writes, ‘because, like religion at its best, music marks the ‘limits of reason’.  Her failure here is an inability to recognise that there is more to unbelief than intellect; it must be so, because pretty much everyone develops emotions and physical drives. We experience mortal transcendence through many things: falling in love, watching a sunrise, enjoyment of art and sport, orgasm, creativity, childbirth, intoxication. We’re doing just fine, thank you, and we didn’t have to sit on a pole for fifty years to appreciate the fact.

An ex-nun turned general hagiographer of all faiths, Armstrong’s scholarship is widely respected: but this respect has a dubious foundation, as Jeremy Stangroom and Ophelia Benson showed in their book Does God Hate Women? It’s when she discusses contemporary phenomena that one begins to see the join. Here is Armstrong on Hamas:

Hamas’ reprehensible killing of Israeli civilians is politically and religiously inspired and its goals are limited. Hamas is not attempting to force the entire world to submit to Islam, has no global outreach, and targets only Israelis. Any military occupation is likely to breed resistance, and when an occupation has lasted for over forty years, this resistance is likely to take a violent form.     

The para combines several omissions and deceptions. It ignores the scriptural basis for Hamas antisemitism, reinforced in the Hamas Covenant, and repeated by its public faces. It ignores the recent collapse in support for Hamas, and its oppression of Palestinians. It doesn’t address the nature of Hamas ‘resistance’: why suicide bombings? Why target civilians rather than government and military buildings? And Armstrong does the Palestinians a disservice. She implies that they are only capable of mute reaction, like plants. But then the point is not empathy and solidarity with Palestinians – or Israelis for that matter. It is a breezy disassociation of faith from crime.

In the end, it’s possible, necessary and more and more desirable to separate the human experience from the religious experience. Armstrong calls her first chapter ‘Homo Religiosus’, and Terry Pratchett, in his Science of Discworld books, has the best answer to that: not homo religiosus but pans narrans. We’re storytelling apes, and our myths can grow to devour us all. It’s to be hoped that the decline of faith leaves the way for gentler narratives about the universe and our place within it.


Max Dunbar
was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is reviews editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 24th, 2009.