Review: A Case for God

464749Karen Armstrong, The Case for God: What Religion Means, Knopf, 2009.

Review by Alain de Botton

Karen Armstrong is one of the handful of wise and supremely intelligent commentators on religion who has become distressed by the tone of recent discussions of the subject. Her targets are religious fundamentalism on the one hand and militant atheism on the other: in other words, al-Qaida as well as Richard Dawkins. In plain language, and nowhere more eloquently than in this new book, Armstrong accuses both factions of misunderstanding the nature of God and, interestingly, of doing so in similar ways.

Both atheists and fundamentalists take God to be an essentially human sort of figure, a giant Father in the sky who watches over us, punishes the guilty, intervenes directly in our affairs, and is entirely comprehensible to our minds. “We regularly ask God to bless our nation, save our queen, cure our sickness, or give us a fine day for a picnic.” Fundamentalists commit, in Armstrong’s view, the grave error of presuming to know God’s mind and also of enlisting God on their side against their enemies. Unsurprisingly, militant atheists observe this reductive vision of God and in turn slam religion as a child-like description of the world that cannot compare with the subtlety and practical powers of science.

Armstrong’s new book is shaped as a response to these two distortions. She wishes to remind us of the mystery of God. Her sympathy is with the great Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians who have denied that any human attempt to put the divine into words will be accurate. We are simply too limited to be able to know God; our apprehension must hence be suffused with an awareness of our provisional and potentially faulty natures. She writes: “He is not good, divine, powerful, or intelligent in any way that we can understand. We could not even say that God ‘exists’, because our concept of existence is too limited.”

Much of Armstrong’s book is spent pointing out the deep-seated needs that religions have traditionally addressed. She begins in the caverns of Lascaux in the Dordogne and argues that the early religious rites to which the famous animal pictures belonged were connected with our ancestors’ wish to atone for the overbearing guilt that came from having to butcher other living creatures for survival. Like art, religion has been a way of containing feelings that might otherwise tear individuals and societies apart. Armstrong leans heavily on the distinction first made by the ancient Greeks between the realms of mythos and logos. Logos is “a pragmatic mode of thought that enables people to function effectively in the world”; it is what we rely on when organising society or planning a journey. However, logos has its limitations: “It cannot assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles.” For this, there is the realm of mythos or myth, to which religion and art belong. Religion offers us moments of what Armstrong calls, using another Greek term, ekstasis, a stepping outside of the norm for the sake of release and consolation.

Aside from helping us to deal with our feelings of fear, aggression, and guilt, religion is also defended by Armstrong as a source of compassion. She recounts the story of a man who once came to see the great Rabbi Hillel and asked if he might undertake a rigorous course of study of the Torah with him. Hillel waved him away: “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go learn it.” Armstrong traces the emphasis on compassion across the major religions. There are fascinating discussions here of the Buddhist state of “anatta“, or no self, a desirable condition that can be reached only through extensive meditation. It can lead us, for brief periods, to look at the world as though we were not ourselves participants in it, and therefore free us from our noxious impulses to pass judgment and to presume that we know why other people have acted the way they have.

The concluding part of Armstrong’s book traces the growth of modern atheism and attributes it largely to religions’ failure to argue for what is most compelling about them. Fatally, religions tried to defend themselves against science by arguing that they knew the truth better than the geologists, rather than presenting themselves (as one feels Armstrong would have wished) as the guardians of mystery and therapeutic maneuvers of the mind.

A melancholy tone sometimes makes itself felt in this book, as one senses the author defending religion from its own worst impulses. As a former nun, Armstrong’s perspective is unique in its combination of sympathy and lack of sentimentality towards religion’s wilder and more immature claims. She joins Richard Holloway and Charles Taylor as one of the most intelligent contemporary defenders of religion, making a case that scrupulously avoids reliance on the supernatural. As in so much of the rest of her hugely impressive body of work, Karen Armstrong invites us on a journey through religion that helps us to rescue what remains wise from so much that to many today no longer seems true.

This review originally appeared on

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16 Responses to Review: A Case for God

  1. I enjoyed this. It is the for reasons mentioned above that I am hesitant to say, “Yes, that happened that way because Krishna wanted it for this reason.” It is true that ultimately everything happens because of Krishna. But to assume we know *why* Krishna wanted things a certain way is stepping over our own limitations and assuming to be all-knowing ourself. Krishnas reasoning is more complex and multi-faceted than I can ever fathom.

    The concluding part of Armstrong’s book traces the growth of modern atheism and attributes it largely to religions’ failure to argue for what is most compelling about them. Fatally, religions tried to defend themselves against science by arguing that they knew the truth better than the geologists, rather than presenting themselves (as one feels Armstrong would have wished) as the guardians of mystery and therapeutic maneuvers of the mind.

    In a lot of ways I think of the story of Gajendra, the elephant, in the Srimad Bhagavatam. Gajendra was undefeatable on the land. The crocodile was undefeatable on the water. But when Gajendra left the land and went into the water where the crocodile was strong, Gajendra became vulnerable to the croc.
    Science loses authority to the degree that it tries to play the role of religion. Religion loses authority to the degree it doesn’t understand its limitations and tries to ‘hate’ on everything apart from its realm. As long as both science and religion stay in their own realms and (like a Venn diagram) understand where they overlap, science and religion is synergistically strong. I think that this is what Srila Prabhupada wanted to see.

  2. I also came across a video by Alain De Bottom, the author of the above review. In 15 minutres, I feel that he gives one of the best social commentaries of modern life. I feel that he captures the modern Western mindset with humour and lightheartedness in a way that I have seen few others do.
    I would be curious to what others think of his view of modern life, since I find myself whole-heartedly agreeing with him.

  3. The Author, Karen Armstrong got TED’s 2008 prize. She makes a great case of monotheism.

    “Karen Armstrong is one of the most provocative, original thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world. Armstrong is a former Roman Catholic nun who left a British convent to pursue a degree in modern literature at Oxford. In 1982 she wrote a book about her seven years in the convent, Through the Narrow Gate, that angered and challenged Catholics worldwide; her recent book The Spiral Staircase discusses her subsequent spiritual awakening after leaving the convent, when she began to develop her iconoclastic take on the great monotheistic religions.

    She has written more than 20 books around the ideas of what Islam, Judaism and Christianity have in common, and around their effect on world events, including the magisterial A History of God and Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World. Her latest book is The Bible: A Biography. Her meditations on personal faith and religion (she calls herself a freelance monotheist) spark discussion — especially her take on fundamentalism, which she sees in a historical context, as an outgrowth of modern culture.

    In the post-9/11 world, she is a powerful voice for ecumenical understanding.”

    Karen Armstrong: Myths and the Modern World

  4. Excellent review of what sounds like an equally excellent book. It’s heartening to know that there are those out there who deeply understand religion and yet who are not sentimental about it, and as an added bonus can articulate its essence. I liked the fact that the author emphasizes the mystery of the Absolute, and I can’t help but think that if such a person were to investigate Gaudiya Vaisnavism she might find its beauty and its rigor to be compelling.

  5. Sometimes I think that such arguments, as gratifying as they are, are merely abstracting the concept of god to the point of meaninglessness. I have admittedly not read Armstrong’s book although I have read another of her books and am well versed in atheistic arguments. It seems that the way of countering particular theistic belief AND atheistic disbelief is through abstracting the subject to the point of making ‘confusion’ or ‘the numinous’ the definition of god. While this renders the subject more palatable to some, and acknowledges the bigness of the Absolute, it also has a way of rendering the subject a bit absurd and meaningless. Anyone else feel this way? or different?

    Although I always struggle with having faith in a particular deity or god in general, it is always the charm of the particular deity, Krishna or especially Gauranga that charms my mind and draws me in. Sometimes it even feels irrelevant whether they are divine or not when the emotional draw to them is so great. It is like having a lover that none of your friends think is good enough for you, but you don’t care because you love them so. I guess I am saying that in my mid thirties I am beginning to wonder about the importance of knowing the truth about god (epistemology) and am more drawn to experiencing and relating with him/her (ontology).

    • Well in the end there will never be perfect reason that retires one side or the other conclusively, and such is the nature and limitation of reason to begin with. Furthermore, if divine faith exists, it is not a result of reason. Theistic reason appeals to those who are psychologically predisposed to it as a result of sadhu sanga.

      • I imagine that given the limits of my reasoning in either the theistic or the atheistic direction, as I have attempted both rigorously over the last 4 years, leaves me in a place of saranagati or despair. Truly, a life without beauty is meaningless and I have yet to find a beauty more sublime than Gauranga, golden and enraptured. Now any hope for beauty besides his is so mediocre.

        But I do not want to sound like such a saranagata… it makes me angry not to be able to find anything as beautiful as him, because it leaves me in a world that appears somewhat veiled from beauty and yet simultaneously spiritually bereft. I tried to get away from him and renounced him boldly and offensively. Yet he always compels me again. I do not live in either land. I have heard this from many of my sadhaka friends, the painfulness of living in the margins between this world and the other. Gurumaharaja, you speak of the fortune of sadhu sanga quite often. But this is the torment of sadhu sanga, that once you have it you have been ruined for anything less, without being capable of fully taking advantage of the sadhu either, bound between your limitations and your aspiration. What then is the answer to this struggle?

  6. Terry Gross aired an interview with Armstrong on “Fresh Air” today. It seems as though her critique is aimed at facile “understandings” of Godhead, such as we see in many religions and that she aspires for an understanding of God beyond pretty much anything presented just about anywhere. Brahman appears to answer her need as much as anything. That’s as far as she seems to have gone so far. To go any further would require special grace. I’m not sure she has the humility that might draw such grace, but she may be moving in the right direction. She at least seems to have a curiosity that keeps her from becoming complacent in her own understanding.

    I have sometimes distributed to my students a handout I call “Essential Intellectual Traits.” (I no longer remember where I got the idea.) One of these traits is intellectual humility. I see what may be a glimmer of that in Armstrong’s quest. Either that, or she really wants to sell books.

    • To be fair, humility is impossible to understand. Many people do not find BSST and SP presentation to be very humble, though at heart they are imbued with humility. Whenever somebody makes sweeping generalizations and claims to know things absolutely, it is hard to see humility externally. But the bidding may have been done on the behalf of Krsna.

  7. I find much more intellectual humility in Huston Smith.

    • So do I. Yet he doesn’t seem to get much closer to the Krishna conception, which alone resolves the problems in reconciling, as Armstrong puts it, mythos and logos.

      Here’s how I describe intellectual humility (and, again, I don’t remember where it came from):

      Having a consciousness of the limits of one’s own knowledge, including a sensitivity to circumstances in which one’s native egocentrism is likely to function self-deceptively; sensitivity to bias, prejudice, and limitations of one’s viewpoint. Intellectual humility depends on recognizing that one should not claim more than one actually knows. It does not imply spinelessness or submissiveness. It implies a lack of intellectual pretentiousness, boastfulness, or conceit, combined with insight into the logical foundations, or lack of foundations, of one’s beliefs.

      This is something rather rarely found. Genuine humility, as we see in sadhus, as exemplified in Srila Prabhupada and Srila Sarasvati Thakura, is an aspect of sraddha, utter faith in Krishna. That’s something of an entirely different order, not comparable with anything else, even something as rare as intellectual humility.

      • That is ok, but I don’t think people who are close to Krsna conception are really that close!! I prefer talking to Huston Smith compared to many people who have that Krsna conception.

      • Krsna conception resolves it for us. It wont resolve it for everybody if we are intellectually honest.

  8. I also heard the interview on Fresh Air and have listened to Karen Armstrong speak at different times on different forums. At first, without listening carefully, I was somewhat impressed.

    Then it struck me. I was mistaking intellectual sounding pseudo spiritual mumbo jumbo for spiritual realization.

    Actually she was more advanced as a Catholic Nun bowing before the Lord in simple prayer and humility. Now her so-called advancement makes her feel she has no need to humble herself before the Supreme Being.


    As Prabhupada wrote in the purport to SB 1.8.9,”For less intelligent persons, bowing down before the authority of the Lord, as generally done in the temples, mosques or churches, is as beneficial as it is for the advanced devotees to meditate upon Him by active service.”

    Best to always remain simple and humble no matter what stage of enlightenment we may be in.

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