The Case For God – What Religion Really Means

Author – Karen Armstrong
Genre – Philosophy, Religion

A gem of a book from one of our leading public intellectuals. It is deep, dense and long, and only for those who have a genuine interest in this emotive subject. (A reader asked Karen why such a difficult book; she replied what else one would expect from a treatise on God!), The book is written in response to the rising atheist movement (think the anti-God polemics from Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris). Karen takes a much larger view, agrees with the critics on the dangers of religion based violence and bigotry, but cautions that equating God and religion with the recent spate of fundamentalism is equally erroneous.

From Cave Paintings to Modern Architect

She takes us back 30,000 years where Homo Sapiens first started drawing shamanic cave paintings. And goes on to show that Mythos (myths, religion) and Logos (logic, science) are both equally important for development of our culture, society and self. The latter explains the ‘how’ of things while the former delves on ultimate meaning and moral values. Much like poetry, music or silence, humans need the sense of awe and contemplation that religion offers. The scriptures, as any other fable, were not meant to be taken literally (every thinking person knows that the world existed much before the 6000 years that the Book Of Genesis says) and hence leading theologians like Calvin had no trouble accepting science and still being deeply religious. They realized that, in essence, “Religion is (just) a practical discipline that teaches us new capacities of mind and heart”. The great Hillel when asked to teach the entire Torah replied, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is just commentary.” The Hindu Upanishads also say something similar, exhorting us to focus on the teachings, not on the rituals and stories.

What Religion Really means? Have we got it all wrong?

Unfortunately, only in the past few hundred years, religion started becoming rigid and monotheism has resulted in the belligerent ‘my god better than your god’ syndrome. While this terrible stance must be rejected, this is not true religion and ironically ends up defiling the ideals it is trying to protect. This ‘on your face’ fundamentalism could also be a counter movement against science’s assault on religion: history teaches us that whenever a fundamentalist movement is cornered, it becomes defensive and bitter. As a perspective to the widespread Islamist terrorism that plagues the world today, the author chronicles how, in the beginning of the 20th century, most global muslim leaders were fond of and inspired by the West. The Grand Mufti of Egypt said around 1900, “In Paris, I saw Islam but no Muslims; in Egypt I see Muslims but no Islam”;his point being that the modernised economics of Europe had promoted justice, equity and peace that came much closer to the true spirit of the Quran than a partially developed economy like Egypt could aspire to. Alas, these same leaders were let down by decades of corruption, double standards and persecution. The West’s support of corrupt leaders like Shah of Iran or Saddam Hussein who denied basic rights to their people, CIA sponsored coups against democratically elected governments or failure to stop the persecution of Palestinians caused widespread resentment radicalizing many Islamic youth.

Religion as Research and Unknowing Facts

Lest we disagree with her hypothesis, she bolsters her arguments with research showing that many instances of fundamentalism are actually a political discourse, and while articulated in religious tones, de facto represent ethnic or nationalist issues. Were the crusades or the many sieges of Jerusalem or the mayhem in Syrian purely religious? Isn’t there a strong strategic, military motive in all these, carefully hidden under the garb of religion? It would be shallow to blame religion for these just because a handful of fundamentalists have chosen to quote very selectively from religious texts (people who quote on jihad forget that Quran also expressly forbids hurting others, saying that a single murder is a murder of humanity).

Do we need religion and God?

The author strongly and eloquently affirms the deep human need for the transcendental. Scientific rationality can educate us if we have cancer and even try to cure it. But, on its own, it will find it difficult to “assuage the terror, disappointment and sorrow that come with the diagnosis, nor will it help us die well”. Religion’s task is to help us live peacefully and joyfully with realities for which there are no easy explanations: mortality, pain, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life. Like Socrates, you don’t go to religion to learn something, but to have “a change of heart and mind”. Like Buddha, it simply reveals a new potential in human nature, “as one who is awake”.

And what of God then? It would be childish, Karen says, to talk of God as a super architect; the “ultimate reality is not a personalized God, but a transcendent mystery that could never be plumbed”. It is not a being, but simply “otherness”. It is part of us and we are part of it. It is much closer to being the “goodness inside us” than to a supernatural superpower outside us. Words such as God are just symbolic. Their essence may be as simple as the Golden Rule – “do onto others as you would like them to do to you”.

Points where book could be better

While deeply influenced by her book, there are also parts I do not necessarily agree with. The high ideals she sets for religion are noble but quite elite for majority of theists. The hoi polloi still believes in a God that physically created the world and answers prayers. Also, her compassionate elucidation of religious extremism (in the book and also in some of her interviews when asked about ISIS) is perhaps a bridge too far. A theist could also object to Karen’s definition of God which is closer to pantheism or an awe of nature (Dawkins calls it sexed up atheism). Finally, I think the book could be shorter (in most chapters, the author digresses from the core subject) with a clearer title (the current title is rather misleading, and the sub-title is in too small a font to be visible).

Must-read for anyone interested in Religion and God

You come out with a deep sense of respect for the maturity, balance and knowledge of the author. Karen practices what she preaches: she dedicated her TED talk prize to creating a Charter For Compassion, where leading lights from across the world have put together the true meaning of all religions. [I can empathize; from childhood we were taught the grand axiom of Hinduism Tat Tvam Asi (That thou art; The ultimate reality is not different from us, we are part of each other). And I get so disappointed when I see vested interests now distorting this deep meaning of religion and equating it with bigotry and narrow mindedness].

Why should you read the book: To understand the genesis of Religion and God; To answer the primordial question: What is God?; To make a strong case for the need for God even amidst all the noise against it. To understand the true meaning of religion and altruism and hopefully enrich our lives with it. Also, to learn how to write balanced views, focussing on the issues without being negative against your detractors.