The Case for God: What Religion Means

At a swift glance, the title of Karen Armstrong’s new book (the subtitle is in very small print) might mislead the casual observer into thinking that she has written a case for the existence of God; that she has unearthed some “proof” unaccountably overlooked by Anselm and Aquinas, or has triumphantly restated the Argument from Design in a way that will smite the enemies of religion as surely as Yahweh’s people smote the Midianites, the Canaanites and those unfortunately named Philistines.

Armstrong has done something far cleverer and more subtle than that, however. The alter­native would have brought her on to a battlefield of her opponents’ choosing, the one on which Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have pitched their tents. Those three, she writes, “insist that fundamentalism constitutes the essence and core of all religion”. In fact, she argues, it is “a defiantly unorthodox form of faith that frequently misrepresents the tradition it is trying to defend”.

The God whom Armstrong is discussing is one whose existence cannot be proved in any way to rational satisfaction, not by the ontological arguments of Anselm and Descartes, nor by science, as Newton thought he had. In fact, even to talk of his “existence” is in itself troublesome. The point she makes from the start is that language, being necessarily limited to human comprehension, cannot fully convey anything about God. All statements about Him are therefore at best analogical – when we say He is “perfectly good”, that is only the shadow of a goodness impossible for us to grasp – and any suggestion of literalism is to fall into a gross and idolatrous anthropomorphism.

Although this may come as a surprise to the millions of Christians who entertain thoughts of God as a jovial beardie – a celestial Frank Dobson, if you will – it is familiar territory for any student of theology or philosophy of religion. Which is why Armstrong is right to describe the analysis of the Dawkinsites, who have made the god they wish to dismiss into just such a being, as “disappointingly shallow” and “based on such poor theology”. It is also why the poisoned darts of Armstrong’s critics (see Johann Hari’s review of Does God Hate Women? in the NS of 6 July) fail to pierce her arguments. They are aimed at territory she does not wish to defend.

It may seem as though stating the near-inadequacy of language is a strange point from which to begin making a case for the deity; would not such an argument be, as the philosophers say, somewhat short on “meaningful content”? But Armstrong argues that in Christianity, “until the modern period, nobody thought of confining their attention to a literal reading of the plain sense of scripture”, and notes that the more mystical and transcendent form of Islam, Sufism, was the “dominant mood” in that religion from the 12th to the 19th centuries; and she quotes how the 6th-century Babylonian Talmud instructed the Jews to regard their sacred books: “What is Torah? It is the interpretation of Torah.” Religion was something to be experienced, its books to be chanted and debated, and only through this could a glimpse of its ineffable truths be gained.

The fixing of texts first came about with the advent of printing, which elevated what was on the page above the spoken, physically felt and thus more mutable word, and then with the search for certainty associated with both the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Scientific rationalism made religion even more earthbound when the churches welcomed it, believing it could prove that creation must have been the work of a supreme agent. By allowing this to become their new foundation stone, however, they tried to harness a discipline that was to undermine them, and which over the past two centuries has displaced and discounted that part of human experience which cannot be empirically verified or quantified.

Harking back to the Greeks, Armstrong talks of how mythos, a story encapsulating a timeless, eternal dimension, has been edged out by logos, reasoned, scientific thought. Because we see the past through the prism of the present, we fail to acknowledge that the supremacy of logos over mythos is an aberration, and that for thousands of years the two coexisted quite happily; even Calvin was happy for scripture to accommodate science. In more recent times, however, we have denied the force of that “power beyond our knowledge”, as Euripides put it, surrendering instead to that “meddling intellect”, lamented by Wordsworth, which “murders to dissect”.

What we have lost in the process is the peace and joy of “unknowing”, of contemplating that which we cannot properly conceptualise. Confronted by a mystery – “something in which I find myself caught up, and whose essence is not before me in its entirety” – we instantly try to reduce it to a problem, “something met which bars my passage”. Yet some of the greatest scientists and philosophers, the gods of the new scientific rationalist fundamentalists, from David Hume to Albert Einstein, were never so reductionist. The knowledge that “what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself to us as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend in their most primitive forms . . . is at the centre of all true religiousness”, wrote Einstein. In this sense alone, he said, “I belong to the ranks of devoutly religious men.”

This “stunned appreciation of an ‘otherness’ beyond the reach of language”, for Armstrong, constitutes the heart of every religion. Their liturgies and rituals, their myths and legends that explained creation and helped mankind deal with quotidian misfortune and misery, were all constructed to aid adherents in the path towards this goal. And containing as these faiths all do some variant of the “Golden Rule” – do to others as you would have done to yourself – the steps on this path involved charity and compassion, not the intolerance of fundamentalists and their mirror image, the new God-destroyers.

All else, and yes that includes the many terrible things that have been done in the name of religion over the centuries, is distortion, idolatry and misinterpretation. If you accept this, and Armstrong makes a good historic and theological argument that it is so, then who among us would wish to admit this: that they had lived a life so impoverished that it contained no inkling of that wonder and transcendence she wishes us to acknowledge? Her case rests.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Conservatives have failed on home ownership. Here's how Labour can do better

Far from helping first-time buyers, the government is robbing Peter to pay Paul

Making it easier for people to own their own first home is something to be celebrated. Most families would love to have the financial stability and permanency of home ownership. But the plans announced today to build 200,000 ‘starter homes’ are too little, too late.

The dire housing situation of our Greater London constituency of Mitcham & Morden is an indicator of the crisis across the country. In our area, house prices have increased by a staggering 42 per cent over the last three years alone, while the cost of private rent has increased by 22 per cent. Meanwhile, over 8200 residents are on the housing register, families on low incomes bidding for the small number of affordable housing in the area. In sum, these issues are making our area increasingly unaffordable for buyers, private renters and those in need of social and council housing.

But under these new plans, which sweep away planning rules that require property developers to build affordable homes for rent in order to increase the building homes for first-time buyers, a game of political smoke and mirrors is being conducted. Both renters and first-time buyers are desperately in need of government help, and a policy that pits the two against one another is robbing Peter to pay Paul. We need homes both to rent and to buy.

The fact is, removing the compulsion to provide properties for affordable rent will be disastrous for the many who cannot afford to buy. Presently, over half of the UK’s affordable homes are now built as part of private sector housing developments. Now this is going to be rolled back, and local government funds are increasingly being cut while housing associations are losing incentives to build, we have to ask ourselves, who will build the affordable properties we need to rent?

On top of this, these new houses are anything but ‘affordable’. The starter homes would be sold at a discount of 20 per cent, which is not insignificant. However, the policy is a non-starter for families on typical wages across most of the country, not just in London where the situation is even worse. Analysis by Shelter has demonstrated that families working for average local earnings will be priced out of these ‘affordable’ properties in 58 per cent of local authorities by 2020. On top of this, families earning George Osborne’s new ‘National Living Wage’ will still be priced out of 98 per cent of the country.

So who is this scheme for? Clearly not typical earners. A couple in London will need to earn £76,957 in London and £50,266 in the rest of the country to benefit from this new policy, indicating that ‘starter homes’ are for the benefit of wealthy, young professionals only.

Meanwhile, the home-owning prospects of working families on middle and low incomes will be squeezed further as the ‘Starter Homes’ discounts are funded by eliminating the affordable housing obligations of private property developers, who are presently generating homes for social housing tenants and shared ownership. These more affordable rental properties will now be replaced in essence with properties that most people will never be able to afford. It is great to help high earners own their own first homes, but it is not acceptable to do so at the expense of the prospects of middle and low earners.

We desperately want to see more first-time home owners, so that working people can work towards something solid and as financially stable as possible, rather than being at the mercy of private landlords.

But this policy should be a welcome addition to the existing range of affordable housing, rather than seeking to replace them.

As the New Statesman has already noted, the announcement is bad policy, but great politics for the Conservatives. Cameron sounds as if he is radically redressing housing crisis, while actually only really making the crisis better for high earners and large property developers who will ultimately be making a larger profit.

The Conservatives are also redefining what the priorities of “affordable housing” are, for obviously political reasons, as they are convinced that homeowners are more likely to vote for them - and that renters are not. In total, we believe this is indicative of crude political manoeuvring, meaning ordinary, working people lose out, again and again.

Labour needs to be careful in its criticism of the plans. We must absolutely fight the flawed logic of a policy that strengthens the situation of those lucky enough to already have the upper hand, at the literal expense of everyone else. But we need to do so while demonstrating that we understand and intrinsically share the universal aspiration of home security and permanency.

We need to fight for our own alternative that will broaden housing aspirations, rather than limit them, and demonstrate in Labour councils nationwide how we will fight for them. We can do this by fighting for shared ownership, ‘flexi-rent’ products, and rent-to-buy models that will make home ownership a reality for people on average incomes, alongside those earning most.

For instance, Merton council have worked in partnership with the Y:Cube development, which has just completed thirty-six factory-built, pre-fabricated, affordable apartments. The development was relatively low cost, constructed off-site, and the apartments are rented out at 65 per cent of the area’s market rent, while also being compact and energy efficient, with low maintenance costs for the tenant. Excellent developments like this also offer a real social investment for investors, while providing a solid return too: in short, profitability with a strong social conscience, fulfilling the housing needs of young renters.

First-time ownership is rapidly becoming a luxury that fewer and fewer of us will ever afford. But all hard-working people deserve a shot at it, something that the new Conservative government struggle to understand.