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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.
And you apparently have me mistaken for someone else. I’m far from being a religious apologist. I can’t stand apologetics and I harshly criticize anyone who uses it. I do have some interest in religion and I study religious scholarship, but I’m not an overly religious person as I usually think of myself as an agnostic. I look for insight where ever I can find it whether from religion, science, psychology or whatever. But I especially appreciate quality scholarship.
Straw-men arguments? I have no clue what you’re talking about. My basic argument was that you didn’t understand Armstrong’s ideas, and I then explained my own understanding of her work. Have you read her books? If you haven’t, then I don’t know why you have such strong opinions based on such limited info. Or if you have, you need to reinforce your argument with more specifically quoted examples.
“Of course, Armstrong doesn’t say she is against science. I never claimed this. She is completely misrepresenting it’s place in history, that’s all.”
Well, so far, you’ve mentioned science 25 times and mostly in reference to Armstrong. Going by your own words: Your argument is that she undermines and blames and ignores science, that she doesn’t care about scientfic facts, and that she is dangerously usurping science for a liberal anti-scientific agenda. If this isn’t your true opinion, then you need to edit your previous statements or else better explain what you actually meant by these words.
“I am amused at how you built your assumptions into the statement while cloaking Armstrong’s revisionism in the language of tolerance.”
All statements have assumptions built into them. My argument was fairly simple and straightforward. I wasn’t cloaking anything.
“Firstly, she is not so much making ‘intellectual distinctions’ as she is making stuff up.”
Generalized judgments and dismissals aren’t helpful. Give me precise quoted examples of her making stuff. Show in detail that your allegation is correct. Explain how her supposed “making stuff up” disproves her entire argument and undermines all of her scholarly respectability.
“Secondly, your implicit assumption that there is no other rational context to discuss such issues is wrong.”
No such assumption was implied. I’m fond of many other rational contexts. I wasn’t arguing that Armstrong has the market cornered on rational contexts. She isn’t even an author I obsessively read or even think about that much.
“There is one very powerful rational context that is always relevant- objective reality.”
I like objective reality. Are you implying that my arguments or Armstrong’s arguments deny or contradict objective reality?
“No preferential treatment of facts is necessary, thanks a lot (read up on sociobiology- really read- to get a rational context for understanding religious fundamentalism).”
I don’t understand your complaint. Preferential treatment of facts isn’t necessary, but emphasizing the importance of facts is always a nice thing. And, yes, I do read up on many fields of study. In particular, the relationship between biology and behavior is a topic I often read about.
“Literalist fundamentalism was always there.”
It seems we’re defining literalism differently. I can’t assess your definition as I don’t know what facts and theories you’re basing it on. As far as I can tell, you seem to be using a very general and vague sense of literalism. In terms of cognitive ability, however, literalistic thinking is more narrowly defined.
“Religion is the political remnant of a system of belief that told a narrative of factual events. For modern religious moderates, when it comes to everyday issues they can understand that there is such a thing as the real world and there is the emotional world, but when it comes to religion they forgo this distinction.”
It’s not that all fundamentalists dismiss this distinction. Many of them simply don’t understand it.
The definition of literalism I’m using is from a developmental perspective. On the personal level, people have the potential to learn how to make clear rational distinctions at a particular stage of development, but this depends on the person’s intelligence and their social environment. As such, development can be stalled or even permanently stunted. Plus, integrating this ability into all aspects of one’s life involves even further stages of cognitive development that are even less common. There are also theories that discern stages of development in societies. A person is only likely to develop to the extent that most others have developed in their society. Our modern understanding of literal facts didn’t exist thousands of years ago. Even when this understanding began to develop, it was a minority of the population that grasped it.
I openly admit that it’s hard to figure out the cognitive processes of ancient people. But plausible theories can be formed using historical data, anthropology, psychology and neurology. Anyways, my main point isn’t that all ancient people didn’t have some basic sense of an external reality that they perceived as being separate from their own subjectivity. I’m simply pointing out that religious literalism as we know it today has become influenced by a scientific worldview which wasn’t the case in the past.
“Please spare me the Axial age BS. It is a half-baked hypothesis that relies on amateurish post hoc reasoning. Such ideas are designed to appeal to those who have already made up their minds. In this case, it is the mind of the religious moderate who desires above all to find a way to make all the religions work together in harmony.”
You have many biased assumptions about many things. Half-baked? Amateurish post hoc reasoning? Please do explain!
Armstrong didn’t simply invent the idea of the Axial Age as it (along with similar ideas) has been discussed by many scholars. It’s common for scholars to analyze history according to ages of socio-cultural development such as tool-making, agriculture, city-states, etc. In terms of the Axial Age, there was a specific time period when many cultures were developing written language and when certain new ideas arose such as monotheism/monism and variations of the golden rule.
The term Axial Age is merely a way of labelling and describing a broad period of cultural transformation. That such a transformation happened is a matter of historical record, but the cause of it is a complex issue. Even though cultural transmission is one possibility, it’s implausible as being the sole cause as there were many separate cultures experiencing similar changes at around the same time. It is true that correlation doesn’t prove causation, but obviously something was causing massive change.
“To understand cultural patterns on such large scales one needs to take into account a lot more real variables that Armstrong can grasp.”
Why do you presume what Armstrong can grasp? Do you personally know her and have you scientifically tested her cognitive abilities?
She is a religious scholar. That is what she is an expert in and so that is what she focuses on. Why would you expect a scholar of a specific field to take into account all possible variables including those outside their field? Yes, there are other areas of scholarship that are relevant. So what? That doesn’t disprove Armstrong’s contribution to her area of scholarship.
Her ideas are just another possible piece of the puzzle, but I’m all for trying to understand the whole puzzle. For that reason, I turn to such things as Integral theory in order to get a conceptual framework to put the pieces together. Even so, you can never know that you’ve completely figured it out because theories about human cultural development are impossible to scientifically prove beyond all doubt.
“For example, briefly, the ‘ability’ to think metaphorically evolved at least 70,000 years ago, but possibly up to 300,000 years ago. However, the ability to perceive our world around us evolved with the first intelligent ancestors we ever had. For intelligent biological organisms to survive, they needed to be convinced that certain things were true. Metaphor as a semantic tool is pointless when faced with a hungry lion. Literalism is the default setting.”
I’m not using literalism as referring to the perception of external reality, though there are theories that propose that early humans didn’t clearly distinguish between internal and external experience (such as Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism or Lloyd deMause’s theory of schizotypal personality). Instead, what I am focusing on here is the cognitive ability to think in terms of black and white absolutes. This is how a person cognitively processes perceptual experience rather than the process of perception itself. So, metaphor as you are using it seems to be equated with mythological thinking which according to some theories of development represents an earlier stage of development.
“It is an insult to say that these people did not believe that stuff literally.”
I’m not saying that and I don’t think that Armstrong comes to that conclusion. For example, consider Christianity. Some of the earliest theologians relied heavily on allegorical interpretations. Yes, they believed they were true but not necessarily true in a physical sense. Christianity arose at the end of the Axial Age when the distinction between allegorical truth and objective facts was becoming more common.
In a sense, even these early Christians believed their allegorical interpretations were literally true for they conceived the spiritual realm as being the highest truth. Still, they were making a distinction which is different than the earliest religions where the spiritual and physical were inseparable (and so mind and world were connected through magical thinking). Nonetheless, even this conflation doesn’t deny that they may have had some understanding of reality as external to them. If a hungry lion attacked, they would defend themselves against it. But afterwards they probably would interpret it as an animistic encounter with a spiritual being.
I don’t know if I’m communicating this in a way that you understand. I’ve been studying these kinds of ideas for years and I can’t claim to have it all figured out. It’s a very complex topic involving many different theories by many different scholars in many different fields. However, I often return to Ken Wilber’s Integral theory as it connects more of the puzzle pieces together than any other theory I’ve come across, though I don’t agree with everything he claims. It’s first and foremost a descriptive model, but to the degree it accurately explains objective facts it can be considered potentially predictive in that all individuals and all societies tend to follow certain patterns of development. According to Wilber’s use of Spiral Dynamics (which represents only one line of development), there are distinct stages.
– The earliest stages see the world in terms of animism and magical thinking, and so mythology is “literally” a part of the world.
– After the earliest stages, humans began to develop a more individual sense of consciousness meaning that that the mind was showing some independence from the environment (i.e., people could think about rather than merely react to the world). Likewise, spiritual beings also were perceived as being more clearly distinct from the world and from human individuality. The sense of something being “literally” true meant that it existed outside of mere human experience.
– The stage where “literal” thinking shows itself most clearly is when humans start emphasizing binary opposites that are polarized into absolute right and wrong, absolute true and false. Self and other become absolutely distinct.
– After this stage, experiential data and evidence take on greater value. Standards and methods are developed to ascertain what is objectively true. What is “literally” true is what is verifiable.
– This is where postmodernism and cultural relativism come in. “Literal” truth becomes just one perspective and what is considered true is whatever allows for and includes the most perspectives. As such, science and religion are perspectives and there is neither is inherently superior to the other in that there simply separate paradigms of reality. However, within multiple perspectives there is a sense that some things are universally true and I suppose that this might be taken as “literally” true in some way. This is primarily where Armstrong is arguing from, but I don’t know if this is where her thinking ends.
– Beyond all of this, further stages of development are proposed where inclusion of different perspectives is allowed while maintaining a meta-perspective to discern the value of different perspectives. These higher stages supposedly emphasize the ability to understand the different stages and different perspectives toward practical ends. Something is “literally” true to the extent that it effectively works towards some clearly defined goal. So, there would be no singular truth per se as there are many goals. These goals aren’t seen as necessarily in conflict for it would be considered most optimal to find where lesser goals can be directed towards more encompassing goals.
By the way, this isn’t mere theory. Spiral Dynamics was formulated according to research Clare Graves did, and Ken Wilber correlated it with other research and other models. My point being that Armstrong’s arguments can be placed in this larger context of diverse scholarship. Whether it’s absolutely true or not, time will tell. But for certain this does offer a plausible explanation of cultural development that clarifies the relationship between religion and science.
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“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:
Re: Man vs. God
Religion and Science: Middle Ground
Here is a thoughtful criticism of the atheist response to religion:
And some other interesting blogs, articles, and videos: