If it walks like an atheist and talks like an atheist. . .

September 15, 2009 • 7:31 am

Well, there’s one thing that both atheists and the devout agree on: Karen Armstrong’s God-is-but-a-transcendence-beyond-a-symbol theology is not only unrepresentative of religion in general, but hard to distinguish from atheism.  Case in point: Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has a post at Crosswalk analyzing the recent dustup between Armstrong and Richard Dawkins.   He flat-out rejects Armstrong’s apophatic nonsense:

Along the way, Armstrong offers a superficial and theologically reckless argument that comes down to this:  Until the modern age, believers in God were not really believers in a God who was believed to exist.  Then along came Sir Issac Newton and the “modern” belief that God must exist in order to be God.  When Darwin came along to show “that there could be no proof for God’s existence,” he was doing God a favor — allowing his survival as a mere symbol.

She makes statements that amount to elegant nonsense.  Consider this:  “In the ancient world, a cosmology was not regarded as factual but was primarily therapeutic; it was recited when people needed an infusion of that mysterious power that had — somehow — brought something out of primal nothingness: at a sickbed, a coronation or during a political crisis.”  So she would have us to believe that, in centuries past, cosmology was merely therapy.  She simply makes the assertion and moves on.  Will anyone believe this nonsense?

Well,  a lot of intelligent and sophisticated theologians do!  Mohler continues:

Interestingly, it is Dawkins, presented as the unbeliever in this exchange, who understands God better than Armstrong.  In fact, Richard Dawkins the atheist rightly insists that Karen Armstrong is actually an atheist as well.  “God’s Rotweiller” sees through Armstrong’s embrace of a “God beyond God.”. . .

. . We should at least give Dawkins credit here for knowing what he rejects.  Here we meet an atheist who understands the difference between belief and unbelief.  As for those, like Armstrong, who try to tell believers that it does not matter if God exists —  Dawkins informs them that believers in God will brand them as atheists.  “They’ll be right,” Dawkins concludes.

So the exchange in The Wall Street Journal turns out to be a meeting of two atheist minds.  The difference, of course, is that one knows he is an atheist when the other presumably claims she is not.  Dawkins knows a fellow atheist when he sees one. Careful readers of The Wall Street Journal will come to the same conclusion.

Somehow I don’t think that Armstrong’s sweaty lucubrations are going to convince the religious masses that “existence” isn’t something they need in their deity.  Southern Baptists and their comrades-in-faith may be wrong about the existence of God, but they aren’t fools when it comes to theology.  They know that when the Rapture comes, both Dawkins and Armstrong will be left sitting on Earth with their thumbs up their butts.


34 thoughts on “If it walks like an atheist and talks like an atheist. . .

  1. Is Armstrong’s basically the Unitarian outlook? I really don’t know here – just a guess that it may be close. If it is, this may be a good place for this:

    “Of learned men, the clergy show the lowest development of professional ethics. Any pastor is free to cadge customers from the divines of rival sects, and to denounce the divines themselves as theological quacks.”

    — H L Mencken, Minority Report (1956), quoted from Jonathon Green, The Cassell Dictionary of Cynical Quotations

    1. Yes, I’ve hung around Unitarians a bit and Armstrong’s piece sounds familiar. I read it three times and never really found a point. It struck me as a “that depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.” kind of argument. Dawkins cuts through the BS and doesn’t yield whatever weird plane of existence Armstrong is trying to give God. Dawkins wins.

    2. Unitarian Universalists are free to believe whatever they want. It’s a non-creedal religion. They are expected to share a set of liberal values, however.

      It’s my impression that most of the older members of the local fellowship (my parents’ friends) are agnostic/atheist, but it’s not a subject that comes up very often.

    3. My understanding is that Uiniatrion Universalism is unitarian and universalist.

      Firstly, they reject this notion of a triune god – God is God, and that’s there is to it.

      Secondly, they believe that *everyone* will be saved: there’s no criteria, no picking and choosing, God doesn’t have special favourites.

      However, it’s still explicitly christian. If you don’t believe in God, then you’ll still be saved. But you aren’t a unitarian universalist – even if you attend services in churches that claim to be.

  2. I’ve often argued that atheists are far more respectful of religious belief than folks like Armstrong and the accommodationists, in that we actually take the claims made by believers seriously, as worthy of refutation. It sounds like Mohler agrees.

  3. I’ve had some thoughts about this for a while that I’ve wanted to write about. I think the problem is a combination of people feeling the need to put a simple label on everything, with the desire of many people to avoid the label “atheist”. I think the diagram I posted at the website provided makes everything more clear. People who call themselves agnostics and atheists could see that they’re in the same place, and people with pantheist type beliefs like Armstrong could see how close to atheism and how far from theism they are.

    1. You make the assumption that the book was actually written by Armstrong, and not a computerised post-modern-drivel-generator software program.

      On repeated readings, it seems to me that the latter is a far more elegant explanation of the complete absence of coherency.

    1. That’s ok, the goalposts will just be adjusted slightly: Dawkins doesn’t know enough about sophisticated theology!

  4. I’m a tad uncomfortable with the insistence (especially by Mohler) that Armstrong is an atheist. She most certainly is not, she is some sort of Deist.

    1. From the Wikipedia entry for Deism:
      “Deism is a religious and philosophical belief that a supreme being created the universe”

      for Pantheism:
      “More detailed definitions tend to emphasize the idea that God is better understood as an abstract principle representing natural law, existence, and the Universe (the sum total of all that was, is and shall be), rather than as an anthropomorphic entity.”

      I think Pantheism is much closer than Deism to what she’s saying. Of course, Pantheism looks to me like a fancy way of denying being an atheist despite not believing in a supernatural creator, so I may have missed some subtle difference.

      1. Yes, and to someone like Mohler a deist is an atheist. In fact to Mohler, anyone who is not Christian is basically an “atheist”. In many ways the liberal theology that Armstrong preaches he probably finds more of a threat than actual “atheist” like Dawkins.

      2. I was sort of hoping and half expecting to get a response from either an atheist or a believer of some sort from that one. I am an “atheist”, which I summarize primarily this way: Given the available evidence, I have come to the tentative conclusion that god(s) do not exist.

        However, I do think there is a practical difference between deism and atheism. The first problem is that deism is a broad spectrum of beliefs (the god question in general I reduce to belief/belief systems – I see no reason not to). Some examples would be how one views the afterlife, since there’s no good analysis I’m aware of that includes broad surveys of deist, they are usually lumped together (rightly or wrongly in most cases), so it is held they run the spectrum of believing in the afterlife from not believing to not knowing to believing. However, it is quite clear that believing there is is the prevalent belief. Whereas an atheist may hold “they don’t know” (as in Sam Harris’ view of consciousness surviving after death – while still viewing the mind as brain), but most often hold a “non-belief in an afterlife”.

        The next is how the belief effects the view of nature. Since the departure from theism is relying primarily on gods action within nature and not maintaining an armchair posture. In the practical sense the deist is essentially an atheist since nature is left alone (so to speak in the inappropriate sense, since nature does not hold a consciousness to decide). The problem here is we end up back to talking about god as reality, beyond belief. The god as unknowable, beyond the mere comprehension of humans is a common theme throughout history and holds the paradox and contradiction of how can one know this and offering the idea of transcendence to explain (both deist and theist can hold this, though the theist is often chastised). Therefore experience becomes paramount and questions or statements concerning “evidences”, “proofs” and “knowing” hold little baring. The belief then is that transcendence, the transformative state is the essence of the belief (and to people like Armstrong and Harris, the core truth of religion). However, the belief that there is something “out-there”, ie the transcendence which is called god, can be no less real to the believer even though the god may appear redundant (since again I can only view this from belief – beyond that I see only the testing of claims to the belief in the god or the behavior of a god). The god as real in this sense does in fact add up to an extra (not redundant) view of nature (saying it is “supernatural” therefore means little to the belief system), that nature does not in fact explain “all” and can not (again claiming as theist do that humans are unable to know the god which explains again transcendence and the transformative nature).

        My problem in a practical sense with ideas of the transformative and transcendent ideals of beliefs such as deism and theism (just using the two labels, not a sweeping generalization of “believers”) and how we are effected neurologically and the role this plays in compassion and morality is I think the case is vastly overstated. I mean this beyond simply countering the complaint of “seculars can be good moral people and this is ignored”, I mean the explanations used for the argument seem limiting and the fact it can be countered (through atheist and theist alike) is important. The mere fact we can recognize compassion as we do should indicate the transcendental and hype of the transformative are most likely overplayed – we are not limited, nor need to believe in altering our states to understand the power, availability and inherentness of our ability for compassion (well beyond Tiger Woods at tennis).

  5. Of course the god that “doesn’t exist” as such is the philosophers’ god, virtually known nowhere else.

    Anyhow, “exists” is virtually a meaningless word, other than what is meant phenomenologically by that term. That is to say, it’s meaningless to say “god exists” or “god is beyond existence” except according to the normal epistemological guidelines. If god isn’t observable, in the vernacular we just say he doesn’t exist. Saying he’s “beyond existence” simply is the dodge that it appears to be.

    Glen Davidson

  6. “I’m a tad uncomfortable with the insistence (especially by Mohler) that Armstrong is an atheist. She most certainly is not, she is some sort of Deist.”

    She’s certainly not a Deist in the traditional “there is a Creator god who set things up then went away” manner. Her god, to the extent she believes in one, is mythic, symbolic, transcendent, but doesn’t deign to do such gauche things as actually exist or create stuff.

      1. Zarcus, ignore Armstrong’s style and focus on her substantive claims (which admittedly have practically no substance). Her views are definitely not Christian, or even Deist. Her “god” is some sort of vague mythical symbol — this isn’t ineffability, or apophatic theology, it is god as humanistic therapy and art.

        So, whatever Armstrong’s actual positive beliefs are, they do not include a supernatural entity that interacts with the physical world. And that makes her an atheist in my book.

      2. When I read the last blog post with Karen Armstrong’s essay, my first response included this Stephen J. Gould quote:

        “Wooly metaphor misportrayed as decisive content…”

        Or as the conservative Christian and “reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S”, Albert Mohler, called her remarks, “elegant nonsense”.

  7. Ha! That’s pretty funny stuff. The liberal type of theology that Armstrong employs drives the conservative Christian types nuts. Of course he’s only addressing the God question in the quote above, but they go even nuttier when it turns to Jesus.

  8. I liked how Mohler characterized Armstrong.

    His post is quite good. I think he is also an atheist who is stuck in his current position.

    1. I’d be VERY surprised if Mohler were a closet atheist…since he was brought into his current position at SBTS to clear out liberal theology. It was an up hill battle for him from the start.

  9. I love the duck in the picture 🙂

    Mohler should be reminded that christians are atheists too, such as, he apparently is an atheist with regard to Armstrong’s god idea just as she is an atheist regarding his god idea. And if he isn’t an atheist regarding mor[m]onism he’s wearing the wrong underwear.

    1. heheheh. Ain’t it the truth. I wonder if Karen has written anything about Christians labeling other Christians as atheists. I can’t remember if she went over that in The History of God.

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