I can’t get enthused about discussing Karen Armstrong and Reza Aslan any longer. They’re both in the media spotlight because they coddle religion in an age when it’s eroding but some people desperately cling to faith; they’re both religious apologists, refusing to pin any malfeasance on faith; and they both say the same thing in interview after interview. So just let me drop a few quotes from Armstrong and move on. I’ll deal with Aslan tomorrow—if I feel up to it.
Karen Armstrong was interviewed in Salon (also known as “The Journal of Religious Osculation”), and, surprisingly, was handed a few tough questions, which she ducked.
She begins by saying that the distinction between religion and politics is a modern innovation, and continues by claiming that nothing, including suicide bombing, is solely or even largely motivated by religion (she cites discredited statistics by Robert Pape, misspelled in the article as “Robert Tate”). She argues further that humans need mythologies (i.e., religion) to give purpose and meaning to our lives:
Let’s try a different analogy: Perhaps our search for narrative and meaning is a bit like a fire. It can go out of control and burn people pretty badly. Seeing this destruction, some people say we should just put out the fire whenever we can. There are others who argue that the fire will always be there, that it has benefits, and that we need to work with it to the best of our abilities. And you’re sort of in the latter camp, yes?
I would say so … If we lack meaning, if we fail to find meaning in our lives, we could fall very easily into despair. One of the forensic psychiatrists who have interviewed about 500 people involved in the 9/11 atrocity, and those lone-wolves like the Boston Marathon people, has found that one of the principal causes for their turning to these actions was a sense of lack of meaning; a sense of meaningless and purposelessness and hopelessness in their lives. I think lack of meaning is a dangerous thing in society.
Armstrong apparently feels that religion is an essential source of meaning for modern people. And a lack of meaning, says Armstrong, plays a huge role in terrorism, for terrorists aren’t really motivated by religion, but by nihilism (WHAT?):
There’s been a very strong void in modern culture, despite our magnificent achievements. We’ve seen the nihilism of the suicide bomber, for example. A sense of going into a void.
The void clearly represents a failure to appreciate Armstrong’s notion of God as Love, Meaning, and the Ineffable Ground of Being, whereof we cannot speak.
But it seems to me that many of these terrorists clearly do embrace the “mythologies” that Armstrong sees as necessary for our world. They aren’t nihilists in any conventional sense of the word. She grudgingly admits that religion may be in the mix of terrorists’ motives, but, in the end, it’s really other stuff:
In fact, all our motivation is always mixed. As a young nun, I spent years trying to do everything purely for God, and it’s just not possible. Our self-interest and other motivations constantly flood our most idealistic efforts. So, yes, terrorism is always about power — wanting to get power, or destroy the current power-holders, or pull down the edifices of power which they feel to be oppressive or corruptive in some way.
Of course, she doesn’t consider that “power” might be “the power to impose your faith on others,” as in ISIS’s Caliphate and the actions of other Islamic extremists. She then goes on to blame Muslim terrorism completely on the West, though she neglects to discuss Muslim-on-Muslim terrorism, by far the most common form. Somehow, I suppose, she’d also pin that on colonialism. But the worst thing she says is this:
When you hear, for example, Sam Harris and Bill Maher recently arguing that there’s something inherently violent about Islam — Sam Harris said something like “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas” — when you hear something like that, how do you respond?
It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps in Europe. This is the kind of thing people were saying about Jews in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe.
This is how I got into this, not because I’m dying to apologize, as you say, for religion, or because I’m filled with love and sympathy and kindness for all beings including Muslims — no. I’m filled with a sense of dread. We pride ourselves so much on our fairness and our toleration, and yet we’ve been guilty of great wrongs. Germany was one of the most cultivated countries in Europe; it was one of the leading players in the Enlightenment, and yet we discovered that a concentration camp can exist within the same vicinity as a university.
There has always been this hard edge in modernity. John Locke, apostle of toleration, said the liberal state could under no circumstances tolerate the presence of either Catholics or Muslims. Locke also said that a master had absolute and despotical power over a slave, which included the right to kill him at any time.
That was the attitude that we British and French colonists took to the colonies, that these people didn’t have the same rights as us. I hear that same disdain in Sam Harris, and it fills me with a sense of dread and despair.
This shows two things. First, Armstrong doesn’t want any criticism of religion, for religion is inherently good as a concept, and what bad things seem to spring from it come simply from misinterpreting true religion. Criticize it at your peril, for you’re being a Nazi when you do. (How lovely of Armstrong to play the Hitler card against critics of Islam!)
Second, she can’t distinguish between criticism of religious tenets and racism or bigotry. The Nazis were manifestly not saying that Jews should be killed because their beliefs were unsupported (though their supposed role as Christ-killers was certainly in the mix), but because they were Jews, and Jews were rats who deserved extermination. Further, the Nazis weren’t saying “Judaism is the motherlode of bad ideas.” They were saying “Jews are bad and should be killed.” You don’t hear Sam Harris or Bill Maher saying that Muslims should be exterminated. They’re saying that bad ideas should be attacked. Perhaps Armstrong thinks that there are no bad ideas in religion, but then she’d be blinkered—as she is.
And here’s a lovely exchange:
. . . (Armstrong:) Fundamentalism represents a rebellion against modernity, and one of the hallmarks of modernity has been the liberation of women. There’s nothing in the Quran to justify either the veiling or the seclusion of women. The Quran gave women rights of inheritance and divorce, legal rights we didn’t have in the West until the 19th century.
That’s what I feel about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. It’s iniquitous, and it’s certainly not Quranic.
She should have a look at the hadith as well, for that’s part of Muslim tradition, and adds some iniquity. But at least she decries the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. By Gad, she’d better! However, she emphasizes that this misogyny is not based on authentic Islam. That leads the interviewer to ask a good question:
Where do you, as someone outside of a tradition, get the authority to say what is or isn’t Quranic?
I talk to imams and Muslims who are in the traditions.
What? Doesn’t she know that there is more than one tradition in Islam, and some of them are iniquitous? There is, for example the Quranic tradition that apostates deserve death. Doesn’t she know, too, that there’s more to religion than “tradition”—there is what the imams say now, how it’s based on the Qur’an, and how people follow their dictates? Her assumption that tradition is everything in determining religious dogma (which is wrong), and that any Islamic perfidy isn’t “traditional,” are just cheap ways of ignoring the bad religious dogma.
In the end, she simply admits that she’s cherry-picking scripture:
I think it’s easy to say, “Well the text isn’t binding” when you see something in there that you don’t like. But when you see something in the text that you do want to uphold, it’s tempting to go, “Oh, look, it’s in the text.”
Oh, it is. We do it with all our foundation texts — you’re always arguing about the Constitution, for example. It’s what we do. Previously, before the modern period, the Quran was never read in isolation. It was always read from the viewpoint of a long tradition of complicated, medieval exegesis which actually reined in simplistic interpretation. That doesn’t apply to these freelancers who read “Islam for Dummies”.
“It’s what we do.” That is, we can ignore the bad parts of scripture and pretend that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are based on just the good parts. And I doubt that many members of ISIS or Hamas have read “Islam for Dummies”. They have, however, read or heard the Qur’an.
Despite her constant self-promotion as an arbiter of compassion, Karen Armstrong is dangerous. She’s dangerous because her blanket of tedious verbiage hides the truth that she wants us to completely ignore the dangers of religious dogma. She thereby enables it. And it appears that for her, there is no harmful dogma that can be pinned on religion itself: it’s all about politics, oppression, or nihilism.
Well, tell that to the Catholics who prevent women from getting abortions, couples from getting divorces, and who demonize gays and inform Africans that condoms won’t prevent AIDS. Tell that to the Muslims who kill other Muslims because they think the heads of the faith should be genetic descendants of Muhammad, and who mutilate the genitals of their daughters because the imams insist it’s a sign of purity. Tell that to the Hindus and Muslims who butchered each other by the millions in 1947 even though they lived cheek by jowl and were similar in most ways except for their faith.
It’s a curious fact that people like Armstrong, Aslan, and Pape can so easily see how politics can motivate people to do bad things, but yet insist that religion cannot. I wonder what observations would really convince them that people’s religious (as well as political) beliefs can make them do harm. Can they tell us? The jihadis’ repeated insistence on religious motivation is apparently misleading, for they don’t know their own minds. Armstrong and Aslan know better.