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49 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A valuable and fascinating book, 6 Aug 2009
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This review is from: The Case for God: What religion really means (Hardcover)
A better title for this excellent book would have been "A History of God", but Karen Armstrong has already used it for an earlier work. "The Case for God" as a title gives the impression that it is a riposte to the "New Atheists" of our age, but it is only tangentially such a book. Essentially it is a history of ideas about God in (mainly) the monotheistic faiths, setting out to demonstrate that religion has always been something one practises, rather than a set of beliefs to which one subscribes. It is only since the so-called Enlightenment that a more literalistic image of God has become dominant, leading to the twin errors of fundamentalism and atheism (in its modern sense). Armstrong demonstrates that only in relatively modern times has God been seen by many as a kind of superhuman "being", like us only much more powerful, and this error has become meat and drink to the New Atheists (who are merely the other side of the fundamentalist coin).

The book is easy to read and clearly well-researched, and I found much to learn from it. For example, the famous remark in 1860 by Thomas Huxley that he would rather be descended from an ape than from Bishop Wilberforce never actually occurred; according to Armstrong, the earliest reference to it dates from 20 years later. The only error I spotted (and I wasn't looking out for them) is on page 118; the Russian icon-painter was Andrei, not Alexander, Rublev.

As a Catholic, a faith which Armstrong famously renounced, I found very little to disagree with in the book. It would have been interesting to have more about St. John of the Cross, who to my mind exemplifies how we should talk about God, and it was certainly interesting to read a summary of the views of Karl Rahner (widely regarded as the greatest 20th century Catholic theologian) which would probably seem very way-out to most ordinary Catholics.

Unlike both fundamentalists and New Atheists, Armstrong has no particular axe to grind, and as a result she has written a valuable and fascinating book.
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Showing 1-9 of 9 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 13 Aug 2009 14:26:42 BDT
Ross Gowland says:
>>the New Atheists (who are merely the other side of the fundamentalist coin).<<

Really? I must have missed the news reports of atheist fundamentalists planting bombs or smashing planes into buildings.

Posted on 20 Aug 2009 10:23:25 BDT
'the twin errors of fundamentalism and atheism' ..... what a stupid comment

In reply to an earlier post on 21 Aug 2009 11:01:11 BDT
Alan Pavelin says:
By fundamentalists, I do not mean people who commit atricities (ostensibly in the name of religion). I mean people who accept literally some sacred text, including for example the 6 day creation story. By my comment, I mean that fundamentalists and atheists feed off each other. Dawkins needs the fundamentalists as a convenient "Aunt Sally" which he can set up and knock down. He refuses to engage with proper religious belief, because he cannot. He attacks theology, without ever having studied it. The same with Hitchens, Grayling, Dennett, Harris, etc.

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Aug 2009 18:41:38 BDT
Alan Pavelin says:
So, which of the two do you consider not to be an error? Perhaps both?

In reply to an earlier post on 30 Aug 2009 22:18:40 BDT
Last edited by the author on 30 Aug 2009 22:21:07 BDT
What Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and others have tried to do is point out the wrongness of literal theistic beliefs, and the harm these beliefs cause. They have all taken care to explain that they are not against religion practised as an aid to meditation, a metaphor, a rich allegorical backdrop to one's spiritual journey and so on, but only with literal theism and its consequences. This is a reasonable position to take when you consider the frightening number of people who think - no metaphor, no allegory - that we live in a universe created by an invisible superwizard using magic. It appears you have missed that point.

In reply to an earlier post on 10 Sep 2009 20:14:04 BDT
Alan Pavelin says:
I have not missed any point. I do not believe in a "superwizard using magic", but I do believe in God as an ultimate reality, not a metaphor.

In reply to an earlier post on 6 Oct 2009 10:51:27 BDT
What you say is true of Dawkins: he has set up the fundamentalists as an "Aunt Sally", and in the God Delusion, explicitly does not address non-literalist ideas of divinity. It is not so true of Dennett. Harris more or less accepts some aspects of religion, particularly in their Buddhist form. I haven't read the others: Hitchens looked particularly missable. I would only really recommend Holbach as a really good atheist writer.

However, as an atheist, I would not accept that there are 'twin errors of fundamentalism and atheism'. Certainly you can have atheist fundamentalists: Saloth Sar (aka Pol Pot) would be one example. It is clearly wrong to say that all atheists are fundamentalist: just as much as to say all theists are fundamentalist.

The opposite of fundamentalism would be a modest, open, questioning attitude, accepting that your understanding will always be short of the truth, and only accepting anything as a fact provisionally, based on current evidence, subject to further future evidence, and open to public scrutiny. This attitude, when applied to the specific field of natural philosophy, is what we call the "scientific method": but it involves much more than simply "scientism", and has much wider application to life and society in general.

In reply to an earlier post on 7 Oct 2009 18:43:20 BDT
G Bradley says:
Hitchens is fun rather than philosophical. He just says the kind of things you want to, but don't feel as if you can in polite company. I will look into Holbach though. Thanks for the tip.

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Dec 2010 15:14:58 GMT
G. Bradley, what a great way of putting Hitchens - that did ring true for me too.
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Alan Pavelin

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