Written by Ajita Kamal
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This response profoundly misunderstands Karen Armstrong’s arguments. This isn’t a fair portrayal. As far as I understand her arguments, the criticisms presented here don’t seem to touch upon what she actually writes about.
Armstrong’s books are very scholarly. She isn’t against rationality and science. What she supports is making subtle intellectual distinctions in order to create a rational context to discuss otherwise non-rational issues. She backs her arguments with historical evidence which is the best one can do when trying to analyze the development of religion and society. And nothing she states contradicts any known scientific facts or theories.
Armstrong offers great insight into the religious mind. Her explanation of the origins of literalist fundamentalism make more sense to me than any argument I’ve come across.
Her argument is that a new way of thinking about religion arose with the Axial Age. In particular, this involved the ability to think metaphorically. But I don’t think she disagrees that it was initially (and for many centuries to come) a style of thinking limited mostly to elite theologians. It was only with the Enlightenment that the the Axial Age ideals started to take hold more clearly and science provided a new paradigm by which metaphorical thinking could be contrasted.
In response to science, the idea of religious literalism arose as entirely distinct from allegorical interpretation. It’s not that literalist thinking didn’t exist to an extent earlier, but it only became an ideology unto itself in modern times.
Armstrong isn’t an enemy of atheism. The only thing she is an enemy of is closed-mindedeness and simplistic thinking. Her criticism of the New Atheists isn’t a criticism of atheism in general. She is simply pointing out that certain arguments made by some popular atheists aren’t the best arguments to be made. Her main issue is that, by talking about religion in literalist terms, the atheist just plays into the hands of literalist fundamentalists. She wants to undermine religious literalism at it’s base. She wants to show fundamentalism for what it is by showing how it developed.
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We seem to be talking past each other or something.
”After the publishing of this response,the commenter responded by ignoring my entire rational argument in favor of more confirmation bias.”
Confirmation bias simply means that people tend to seek confirmation to their own view which is something everyone does to an extent, but it’s generally used to describe extreme examples of someone biased thinking. However, making this allegation against an opponent can just as well be used polemically to dismiss another person’s view and evidence. In this case, Kamal’s allegation of confirmation bias appears to be an example of confirmation bias.
“My statements were twisted in typical religious fashion, using the all-too-common religious dance between objective and subjective concepts in order to obscure naturalistic truth.”
Twisted? I merely pointed out Kamal’s exact words. I didn’t even take them out of context. Anyone can look at his comments and see for themselves what he wrote (assuming he hasn’t since edited out these statements).
Typical religious fashion? I presented carefully explained rational arguments supported by diverse theories and evidence. All of the references I made can be found within the mainstream intellectual tradition. Many of the ideas I was using for context are taught in universities and in some cases are based on social sciences research. If Kamal considers this “typical religious fashion”, he must interact with some very intelligent and well-read religious people. I wish he would give me their contact details because I’d love to meet such intellectually respectable believers.
“I am not interested in arguing with religious people since there are plenty of more useful things that I can occupy myself with.”
I explained to him that I’m not religious. Some atheists can’t differentiate being interested in religion and believing in religion. Anyone who has studied religious scholarship in any depth would quickly realize that many religious scholars aren’t religious believers.
“The writing of this article, contrary to what religious folk may think, has nothing to do with actually arguing against religious folk and everything to do with ridiculing Armstrong’s incoherent religious apologetics.”
He states his true intentions. He isn’t interested in actual debate no matter how intelligent. His main (and maybe only) purpose is to ridicule Armstrong because he has categorized her as a mere believer. As his perception of her opposes his atheistic ideology, she must be attacked at all costs even if it means sacrificing intellectual honesty. Polemically winning the debate by silencing one’s opponent is more important than the open puruit of truth.
“Such ridicule is well within my right, and I believe it is essential to the process of developing a strong freethought response to institutionalized superstition.”
Free speech is definitely everyone’s right, and it’s his right to choose whose comments he wants to post. However, if his purpose is genuinely to promote freethought, then he should support the free speech of others rather than attempting to silence disagreement. New understanding comes from the meeting of different perspectives. Freethought isn’t about any particular ideology or theory. Freethought is dependent on respect for open discussion and respect for all rational viewpoints. His opinion that my viewpoint is wrong simply doesn’t matter from the perspective of freethought. An intellectual argument deserves an intellectual response… which is what Kamal refused to do and so he loses any rational justification for calling himself a defender of freethought.
“In view of this, I have decided to not publish any further comments form religious folk. If you think you have won the debate, good for you. Please continue to feel good about yourself.”
Thank you. I do feel good about offering you opportunity to have a rational discussion, but it saddens me that you apparently have embraced pseudo-intellectualism.
“We rationalists have our hands full trying to build real moral alternatives to religion and I would rather not waste my time arguing with those who cannot let go of primitive superstitions.”
Primitive superstitions? Is that the best you can do?
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NOTE ON COMMENTS
I posted the first two comments to Ajita Kamal’s blog.
However, the second comment apparently wasn’t allowed to be posted. I can only assume that Ajita Kamal had no rational response to my dismantling of his argument. I don’t know if Ajita Kamal is an example of a pseudo-intellectual, but his actions seem to show a lack of intellectual humility and maybe honesty. After my comment was posted there and not approved, an earlier commenter returned to praise his writing. He accepted this praise, but didn’t mention my having refuted his criticisms of Karen Armstrong. Ajita Kamal is the type of ideologue of the New Atheist variety who gives atheism a bad name.
For obvious reasons, I made no attempt to post the third comment to Ajita Kamal’s blog. Kamal did finally acknowledge in his blog the existence of my comment, but he still didn’t offer any rational response.
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ABOUT KAREN ARMSTRONG
I’m no expert on Armstrong’s scholarschip, but she is someone I refer to on occasion. She is highly influential and probably can be considered to have taken up the position of authority that Joseph Campbell once held. If you don’t like or understand Campbell, then you’ll probably have the same attitude about Armstrong. Both began as Catholics and both sought a non-literal understanding of religion.
As for Armstrong, she was a nun who became an angry atheist and then later came to accept the label of “freelance monotheist“.
I usually describe myself, perhaps flippantly, as a freelance monotheist I draw sustenance from all three of the faiths of Abraham. I can’t see any one of them as having the monopoly of truth, any one of them as superior to any of the others. Each has its own particular genius and each its own particular pitfalls and Achilles heels. But recently, I’ve just written a short life [story] of the Buddha and I’ve been enthralled by what he has to say about spirituality, about the ultimate, about compassion and about the necessary loss of ego before you can encounter the divine. And all the great traditions are, in my view, saying the same thing in much the same way, despite their surface differences.
My sense is that she just means that she has the sense of something profoundly true, but she is unwilling to making any ideological claims about it. She separates her scholarship from her experience, but at the same time sees scholarship as a way of exploring possible universal aspects of human experience. From what I can tell, she isn’t trying to apologetically convince anyone of a particular position. Her own position is an attitude of openness and acceptance (which I would deem intellectual humility). She takes her role as scholar very seriously and so her attitude of openness is also an attitude of intellectual curiosity. She doesn’t seem to start with the position of having anything figured out (either theistically or atheistically), but neither is she resigned to relativism.
What is interesting about Armstrong is how differently people react to her ideas. Some religious believers agree with ideological atheists in their belief that she is the ultimate enemy (whether of “faith” or of “reason”). On the other hand, many religious believers, agnostics, atheists, and generally open-minded curious people consider her to be a proponent of freethought and religious insight. What is clear is that those who disagree with her are forced to come to terms with her very popular scholarship.
If you’re interested in further criticisms of the New Atheists, see these other posts of mine:
Here is a thoughtful criticism of the atheist response to religion:
By H. Allen Orr
The New York Review of Books
And some other interesting blogs, articles, and videos:
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